The Fault In Our Stars by John Green – This year, I’ve read a fair number of YA novels with contemporary settings, but this was one of the first of them. It was also the best. The novel’s triumph is its self-aware voice. The narrator is a teenager who’s suffering from cancer. And she’s a teenager who’s also read a ton of novels about teenagers who are suffering from cancer. As such, she knows exactly where and how her story is beginning to sound like the tear-stained narrative of a “cancer girl”. But, underneath the playful metatextuality, this novel is actually about a young girl who has cancer, and one who is mostly likely going to die quite young. Its playfulness allows it to avoid sentimentality and the typical easy answers, instead, it proceeds along in a jagged but very satisfying way. If you cry when you read books, there’s a not insignificant chance that this book will make you cry, but there’s more to it than that. There aren’t very many contemporary YA novels that rise above the formulas that they embrace. This one has so many of the formulas, but it also treats each page as something interesting and important. There’s a fullness in this book that you don’t find in many novels.
Escape From Camp 14 by Shin Dong-Hyuk and Blaine Harden – Alright, yes, there are two trashy nonfiction books about North Korea in this list. Didn’t I tell you that I loved NK in a way that is probably beginning to seem a bit creepy and perhaps problematic? So, in North Korea there is this huge network of prison camps in the northern mountains. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these camps. People are born in these camps and they die in these camps. You can get beaten to death pretty much whenever the guards in these camps feel like it. You gotta work all day doing horrendously dangerous stuff. You don’t get nearly enough food and the only way to survive is to suck up to the guards and inform on your friends and such. And only like ten people have ever escaped from the camps. This book is the memoir of one of those people (the memoir was narrated to Blaine Harden, a journalist, and Harden does considerable work in arranging and laying out the memoir, so I am crediting him as one of the authors). Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14 and the camp was his whole world. When he escaped, he had only the vaguest conception of geography: he knew nothing about the United States or the Korean War. He’d never even been in the rest of North Korea. The tiny town near his camp looks, to him, like a bustling metropolis. But, nonetheless, he slowly makes his way to China, then to South Korea, then to the United States. And, meanwhile, he struggles with the things he had to do to survive. If you’re anything like me, you will feel like a terrible, exploitative person for enjoying this one. But it is soooo enjoyable.
The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald) – Yes, I know, it makes me sound like a goober to say that the Odyssey was surprisingly good. But, check it, The Iliad is gooood, but it has also has numerous very boring parts: pages and pages and pages where “Hexachimeles, son of Xardes, of the mountains of Illymaches” lashes out with his spear against “Porythribes, son of Kallybdis, of the fair island of Scythinivax”. For whole chapters! And don’t even get me started on the processions and on the lines of long, black ships. I mean, all that stuff might’ve been interesting back in the day, when perhaps Porythribes was, like, your legendary great-great-granddad. But for modern people, it gets a bit much. But, there’s none of that in The Odyssey: It’s all story. And it’s fascinating to see how the story differs from our popular conception of it. Most media depictions of The Odyssey focus on the events of the sea voyage: encountering the sirens; fighting Polyphemus; captivity at the hands of the witches, Circe and Calypso. But that’s really only about 1/4th of the book. Most of the book is concerned with what happens after he comes home (hint, he kills a ton of people). And there’s also this fascinating counter-narrative, where his son sails around Greece and faces dangers and we learn how Agammemnon was killed by Clytemnestra. The book isn’t about adventures. It’s about homecomings. It’s filled with these strange homecomings that overshadow and parallel each other. All in all, it’s pretty fun times. Shorter than The Iliad too.
Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – You know, a lot of books on this list are memoirs. I understand why nonfiction sells so well. Memoir is just so satisfying. It doesn’t need to have quite as much thematic resonance. It can focus on the details of how things work. And then, at the end, you don’t necessarily need any big lesson other than, “Welp, that’s how things work.” This one is the first book by Michael Lewis (who went on to write Moneyball and The Blind Side and such). It details his four years as a bonds trader for Salomon Brothers in the 80s, during that flashy cocaine and yelling era so ably depicted by movies like Wall Street. I kind of feel like the primary reason that this book is popular is that it validates the lives of those of us who decided not to attempt to get a finance job (in my case, because I’m not willing to work 100 hours a week on anything [and that includes writing]). This book makes finance jobs seem terrible. Which is exactly what I like to believe about all high-status, high-paying professions. Is there a book out there that makes doctoring look terrible? I’d read that in a second. But aside from that, the book is a lot of fun. It also contains much technical (albeit probably out of date) detail on bond trading and the structure of financial firms. And a ton of interesting characters. This book started me on a Michael Lewis kick, and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed his books a lot. Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short are all well worth checking out.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno – Several blogs started talking about this book right as I was starting to feel a bit mopey about my writing career. After seeing Nick Mamatas’ review of it, I bought the book. It’s the memoir of a woman on the fringes of academic life. She leaves New York to follow her husband, a rare books librarian, to Akron and then to Raleigh-Durham. She does a bit of adjuncting here and there (mostly in Women’s Studies), but has no chance at getting a real appointment. She’s a writer of fictions, but her works are small-press and not terribly successful. She spends her days lying around the apartment and reading and not really doing much of anything else. And, woven through the above story, she free-associates about the women of modernist literature: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Leigh, Jane Bowles, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. She examines how their lives were shaped by their marriages and how their writing ambitions to suppressed by the cultural milieu. It’s a really fascination performance, and one that it’s difficult to describe in one paragraph. Throughout, the book reminded me most often of David Markson and the way that he can write entire books composed of one-paragraph facts about artists: the facts are carefully chosen, and they resonate in interesting subtextual ways.