Some books that you may not have heard of or perhaps didn’t know were good book

10866233The second part of wrapping up my year’s reading is talking about all the books that were a surprise to me: the favorites that came out of nowhere. In many cases, these books were only a surprise to me, since some of them (most of them) were actually bestsellers within their categories. But still, you probably haven’t heard of lots of them, so whatevs, I will claim credit for discovering them.

Mentor by Tom Grimes – Fantastic book. One of the best writer memoirs I’ve ever read. It’s about a writing professor who made a big splash with his debut novel and then sold a much-hyped follow-up, but who never quite lived up to his initial promise. Here he charts both the decline of his career and the progression of his friendship with the famed director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop: Frank Conroy. This book is honest and sad but also very alive. I’ve never read anything else like it.

Friendship by Emily Gould – The internet loves to hate on Emily Gould. In fact, this summer some dude published a twelve thousand word article about how terrible she is. And yes, I can sort of see how someone might be annoyed by her article about blowing through a 160k book advance or the blog post about negotiating down her credit card debt. But I thought this novel was fantastic. I stayed up all night reading it, and it made me feel emotions. It’s about two aspiring writers who live in Brooklyn and are best friends and are sort of getting to the place where they want more stability in their lives but they don’t have that stability and they’re having issues with their professions and their personal lives and those issues eventually start to damage their friendship. Great stuff. Very vivid. It’s also about people who’re a lot like me, and that’s part of what I like about it.

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor – A character study. Angel is a working-class girl in early 20th century Britain who decides, one day, that she’s going to write books. And then she does: horrible, schlocky, romance novels that horrify the literary world. And she also has a very brutish, nasty disposition and abuses everyone in her life. But I loved the book and, on some level, I also loved Angel herself. She has such an indomitable will to survive. I suppose she’s a lot like Scarlett O’Hara, but without that veil of flirtatiousness. The section where Angel falls in love is one of the subtlest and most remarkable performances in literature.

The List by Vivian Siobhan – I somehow thought that everyone in the YA world knew about this one, but I was at a lunch with a bunch of other YA writers and they hadn’t heard of it. This book is amazing. One of the two best YA novels I read this year (the other was Tim Tharp’s Spectacular Now). The book is about a school where an anonymous prankster releases an annual list of the most beautiful and ugliest girls in each grade. The novel is told from the point of view of the 8 girls named in this year’s list, and it’s a stunning performance. Eight points of view. Eight stories. Four different grades. And each voice is so distinct. I was captivated.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff – This was the year where I read a lot of really good literary memoirs. In this one, Rakoff describes her first year in New York, when she worked for JD Salinger’s literary agent. The ‘hook’ for the memoir is that Rakoff at some point started answering Salinger’s fan-mail. But that’s not what the book is about. It’s really just about being very young and still feeling entranced by the glamor of the literary life and the way that glamor contrasts with the squalid way you need to live if you’re part of that life. Everything in this book, from the agency to the character of Salinger himself, has that dualism: beautiful from one angle, but very lonely and wretched from another.

As I Crossed The Bridge of Dreams by the Sarashina woman – A memoir by an anonymous court lady in Heian Japan. Written a thousand years ago, but instantly captivating, from the very first paragraph. Also, a very interesting and calculated document. It is not a diary. It was written as a single, unitary document when the woman was nearing the end of her life. And it’s a sort of ode to the interstices of her life. To the quiet moments. To the romantic moments that never came. To the journeys she took between one place and another. To the times when she was shut up alone and all by herself. She spends maybe three sentences talking about her children and her husband, but goes on for pages upon pages about the man that she met on one rainy autumn day and how he asked her which was her favorite season.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Ofill – In very short vignettes, this chronicles a young writer’s journey into marriage, success, domesticity, motherhood, and divorce. Loved it. Each little paragraph has so much voice. And the picture that develops is so careful and nuanced.

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett – The third literary memoir on this list. Novelist Ann Patchett writes about her lifelong friendship with Sarah Lawrence and University of Iowa classmate Lucy Grealey (Lucy was, in turn, famous for writing a memoir about the facial deformity that had rendered her mostly chinless). I loved the portrait of Lucy that develops in this novel. She’s capricious and bitchy, but you also see why Patchett loved her. Also interesting to see the ups and downs of a young writer’s life. Very honest look at the schooling, at the fellowships, and at the financial aspect of the writing life.

Even when I can’t get excited about much else, I can get excited about reading

17402288I’m gonna let you guys in on a little secret: being a writer is not very eventful.

Like, seriously, nothing ever happens. I mean, I get a rejection every other day. And an acceptance every two months, maybe. And every few months there’s also some slow incremental progress on getting my novel published (hearing from my agent, sending him a revision, etc). But other than that, there’s really nothing. It’s actually kind of boring.

I suppose that you publish a novel, there are a few more events: you get requests for interviews and you give readings and you get fan-mail and you engage in Twitter feuds with other up-and-coming writers. But really, I think it’s probably still pretty uneventful.

Most jobs are not as uneventful as writing. Most jobs have meetings! And targets! And deadlines! And crunchtime on a project!

In most jobs, stuff happens every single day.

It’s definitely not that way with writing.

Sometimes when I am doing my writing, I think, “Huh, well. I guess I’m just going to, like…keep doing this. And it’s never really going to be that much different from this…”

It’s a very weird feeling. I think that’s why a lot of writers make their own excitement, by drinking alot or feuding with people or engaging in other crazy shenanigans.

Anyway, you know what is exciting?

All the books that I’ll get to read. Every time I get to the end of a book, I become so overwhelmed with the sheer sense of possibility: I could read any one of miiiiiiillions of books.

I’ve actually become very picky. I will read the openings of ten or twenty books (something that the Kindle makes very easy) before I find the one that I am in the mood for.

Recently, I finished Grahame Greene’s The Quiet American (which I guess is a spy novel? It is a very strange one, though), and began reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. Of Speculation. This is a pretty weird book. There’s sort of a story there–a love story–that’s mixed up with all these strange facts and asides, like the following:

I got a job checking facts at a science magazine. Fun facts, they called them. The connected fibers in a human brain, extended, would wrap around the Earth forty times. Horrible, I wrote in the margin, but they put it through anyway.

Random facts?! That’s all you need to tell a David Markson fan like me (although this sort of collage technique actually dates back at least the citizen chapter of Ulysses, and I’m sure that some nerd out there can find an even older example of it). Actually, I picked up this book after reading about it in the New York Review of Books, because that is just the kind of monster that I’ve become.

But anyway, the book is so short that I already get to think about what else I might read. Fun fun fun.