If you haven’t read Part 1, I recommend reading it first because, you know, continuity, support of your friend, etc. etc. While I’m very proud that I’ve rid myself of the “CLASSICS ARE THE BEST” mindset, I still read a lot of older books. I realized recently that my love of history (which I thought had died when I gave up on getting a Political Science degree) influences what I like to read. I am interested in how an idea is dealt with in different eras and what ultimately has stayed the same. Without much further ado, here is a list of 10 books I thoroughly enjoyed reading this year.
[Editor’s Note: I will be reading a few books between now and December 31st. If I find something to add to this list, I will add it, though I will admit that a lot of these decisions were the product of a few months of reflection on these books. So don’t expect too many changes.]
The Elementary Particles (1998) by Michel Houellebecq
Over the summer I read all of Houellebecq’s novels and came to the conclusion that his best novels are the early ones (with The Map and Territory being the positive exception and Whatever being the negative exception). Nothing can really beat The Elementary Particles. It’s story makes little sense until you read the whole book, but then when you do it blossoms like a flower after a long winter. Whether it’s a retelling of The Brothers Karamazov sans Alyosha, a treatise on genetic engineering, or a nihilistic suicide note, it’s still a great, funny, and enlightening novel full of characters that will remind you of everyone you know.
My Struggle Books 1-3 (2009-2011) by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Oh Knausgaard. Due to a miscommunication that was no one’s fault I thought that I wasn’t going to get a review copy of Book 6 of My Struggle sent to me. So I decided to read other books and put off reading the first 5 volumes of Knausgaard’s epic. Well when I came back to school after spending a week or two home I found out that Book 6 had come after all. So I tried to binge read the previous volumes. I got about 50 pages into Book 4 and had to take a break. Book 1 and Book 2 are my favorites because they are just full of great, honest writing. The scene at the end of Book 2 of Gere and Karl Ove talking about life in the bar after a few beers may be one of my favorite pieces of dialogue ever written. Honest is a redundant word when talking about Knausgaard. Book 3, while not the best book, made me remember memories from my past which although I cringe at a lot of my childhood memories (really little Dan, why the Harry Potter glasses?) the remembrance of them made me feel warm inside. I have heard some negative things about Book 6 and his other books (I liked A Time For Everything, but that’s just me) but I do plan on reading them all. Something about those Norwegians and their beautiful field of snow prose is addicting.
Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories (1959) by Philip Roth
I love connections, trivia, odd relationships, mutual friends, and all that pseudo-conspiracy theory jazz. “Goodbye, Columbus”, which is set in the area around my hometown, the town I commuted through every day in high school, and the town I currently live in, made me feel at home and not just because of similarities in location. His characters all sound like my family members. I actually called my mom to read her some dialogue and say how much it sounded like this or that family member. While I am not Jewish-American (though my mom has a theory that Jews, Italians, and Greeks are all the same) I could understand the anxieties that Roth’s characters feel whether it’s overbearing mothers or rich shiksa girlfriends. When he died in the summer I decided to try to read all his books. I have since read two of his other books (Portnoy’s Complaint and The Breast) and hope to read a few more of them this Christmas break, though being home in New Jersey may be too much of an overload.
The Patrick Melrose Novels (1992-2012) by Edward St. Aubyn
Over the summer I tried writing something fictional and decided to isolate myself for a week. The whole idea was the result of watching “La Dolce Vita” and realizing like Monroe Beardsley argued that Art is something that causes an aesthetic impulse. What I ended up learning from that experience (which lasted four days) was that human beings need to interact with other people and how you think about the past is more of a debate than a single memory. But I digress. While I was spending a lot of time by myself I read St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose Novels, which had just been turned into a miniseries for Showtime, which I plan on watching over Christmas break. I had finished The Guermantes Way and decided I wanted to read another funny novel about upper class society. When I started reading Never Mind, I realized that what I wanted wasn’t going to be given to me. While Proust deals largely with his judgments of people, St. Aubyn shows you all of his characters in their social (their interactions with others) and their true (their thoughts) forms. There isn’t much of a judgment given. But as you follow Patrick and the interesting cast of characters in his milieu you begin to feel a particular emotion: mirrored pity, kinda like empathy, but with the distance that a novel gives between reality and the fictional world. You worry about and laugh at Patrick during his manic, schizophrenic outbursts and almost cry when you see him talk with a little kid. While the first two (and second half of the third) novels are much better than the final two you can’t help but think about Patrick once in a while, sometimes with a smile on your face.
Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu
I’ll keep this short like Lao Tzu would want me to. We all need to relax more and take breaks. We don’t need to do as much as people say we do. Life is chaotic in a beautiful way. As I have said elsewhere, Serendipity takes the beauty out of chaos. Here is a helpful note: read the Tao Te Ching not as a book to study but as a book to help you live simpler. I have become mildly obsessed with Eastern thought recently and this book set it off.
Sentimental Education (1869) by Gustave Flaubert
Most books I love I usually finish in one sitting or have to force myself to stop reading. Sentimental Education was a book I had found myself growing tired of every time I picked it up. But then something would grab me. A line about a street or a card game. Maybe a political opinion or a letter. The last chapter, perhaps the most interesting reflection on old age and the past ever written, should be taught in creative writing classes. Maybe the hopes I have for myself influenced how I much I loved Sentimental Education but it could also be that Flaubert’s thoughts on what it means to be in society are universal and true.
Jesus’ Son: Stories (1992) by Denis Johnson
I had read one story (“Emergency”) from this collection before in creative writing class. I remember loving it but finding it annoying when my classmates tried to assign meanings and motifs and all that abstract nonsense to it that wasn’t included in the story. After finishing Angels (which is an odd first novel, but also a great one), I went to the library and picked up Jesus’ Son: Stories mainly because of the reference to the Velvet Underground. I sat on the couch and began reading. Upon reading the first line I went into a reading coma and realized that two hours had gone by before I looked up again. What’s so great about Johnson’s writing is that he wants to tell you the story. A lot of authors such as Toshiyuki Horie in his collection The Bear and the Paving Stone seem uncomfortable with telling their stories and hold back information or use too much unimportant information to create suspense or something. But what Johnson excelled at (R.I.P.) was his excellent, unadorned understanding of how people act, preach, talk, take drugs, drink, walk, argue, and make love. Pick up a few copies of Jesus’ Son next time you go to a bookstore, you’ll want your friends to read it too.
Silence: In the Age of Noise (2017) by Erling Kagge
How many books can you say changed the way you act? While Kagge’s book does give the appearance of being a philosophy-lite/old person finger wagging treatise, it actually has some truths in it that take you outside of the world and make you look back down. Silence: In the Age of Noise has convinced me to use my phone less, limit the amount of podcasts and music I listen to, to stop multitasking, and even spend more time alone in silence. Because of this book I have been able to read more, care more about what I write, and not force myself to do anything I don’t need to do. While I have been a bit of a braggart about how much time I have now that I don’t check social media or use my phone, I only do it to hope that someone else will follow Kagge’s example and learn to value silence.
In Persuasion Nation: Stories (2006) by George Saunders
I don’t read too many funny books. It’s not necessarily my fault: it’s hard to write humorously. And most humor books by my favorite comedians (Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat and Food: A Love Story come to mind) are just transcribed versions of their acts or memoirs. In Persuasion Nation was the first book that I had to take a break from reading because I was laughing so hard. The titular story is about the antagonists or butts of the joke in advertisements deciding to revolt against the product. A corner of a snack bar wrapper becomes a pseudo-deity and a polar bear in a Cheetos commercial has an existential crisis. If you’re down in the dumps because you’ve read some of the other books on this list, I promise this book will make you think as you can’t believe how hard you’re laughing. Side note: I have read all of Saunders’ other major releases. They are all good but not as consistently good as In Persuasion Nation.)
On Being Different:What It Means to Be A Homosexual (1971) by Merle Miller
I found this book at the Goodwill in Central Square. When I saw the title on the spine I thought it was going to be some New Age, Self-Help Philosophy-lite book. But I read a bit about who Merle Miller was on the inside flap and decided to give it a go. Like most books on this list I started it and couldn’t stop it. The essay, which everyone should read at least once, is about first and foremost accepting others and being willing to question the answers that society gives you. I was shaking as a finished in and was in a daze as I walked home.
The Tao of Pooh (1982) by Benjamin Hoffman
The Guermantes Way (1920) by Marcel Proust
The Map and the Territory (2010) by Michel Houellebecq
The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Angels (1983) by Denis Johnson
Sophie’s Choice (1979) by William Styron
Lou Reed: A Life (2017) by Anthony DeCurtis
White Teeth (1999) by Zadie Smith
Schopenhauer: A Biography (2010) by Dwight E. Cartwright
Less Than Zero (1985) by Bret Easton Ellis
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) by Anne Lamott