The best thing a writer can do for his/her writing is to read. My reading list for 2010:
1. Big Machine by Victor LaValle
Book by my old MFA prof. Murakami+Junot Díaz, is how I like to describe this book. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and if you live in/near Oakland, you’ll have a lot of fun identifying the setting of the book. Even more so if you’re familiar with Mills College at all. The pace is awesome, voice masterful, and his usage of time is clever. There is a chapter in which flashback is used exceedingly well, and I’m going to study it over and over and over. One of my favorite books of the past few years.
First few lines:
“Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most you’ll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job.”
2. Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
I read this novel because it’s set in the time period as my novel-in-progress (my friend recommended I read it for that fact alone), but I was surprised by how much I LOVED and found this novel useful for reasons beyond its setting. Loved the structure of this novel, and the prose, and the characters–Colum McCann is a writer who can write characters of another race extremely well. Where Arthur Golden fails (miserably) in Memoirs of a Geisha (gong sound effect for emphasis), McCann succeeds. An amazing novel, one of my favorites of recent time.
First few lines:
“Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke–stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were.”
3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Beautiful language. Heartbreaking story (I won’t deign to spoil it for you). This book had been sitting on my shelf for years until I decided to read it after a friend urged me to read it. It was just the encouragement I needed! But here’s the rub: this book is a great example of a book that keeps a secret from its reader for longer than it should. I *hate* it when the narrator and characters in a story keep a secret from me, the reader. I get downright resentful.
I could feel the narrator, Kathy H., was keeping a secret from me–she kept telling me about the daily rituals and banal details of day to day life–and when people do that I think, “What’s going on?” This went on for nearly half the book, when suddenly she revealed her secret. I could’ve KILLED her. Kazuo Ishiguro is known for his reserved narrators, and I respect much of his work…but he just went too far (reserving a secret from the reader for that long is unforgivable) on this one.
First few lines:
“My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years. That sounds long enough, I know, but actually they want me to go on for another eight months, until the end of this year. That’ll make it almost exactly twelve years. Now I know my being a carer so long isn’t necessarily because they think I’m fantastic at what I do. There are some really good carers who’ve been told to stop after just two or three years. And I can think of one carer at least who went on for all of fourteen years despite being a complete waste of space. So I’m pleased with my work, and by and large, I have too. My donors have always tended to do much better than expected. Their recovery times have been impressive and hardly any of them have been classified as ‘agitated,’ even before fourth donation. Okay, maybe I am boasting now.”
4. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut
A friend recommended I read this–and after months of sitting on my bedside table, I picked up Vonnegut’s book. Wow. Kickass read. Bizarre and awesome and amazing and fun. It was just the kind of brain jarring, outside-of-the-box book I needed to read.
First few lines:
“Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself.
But mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them.
They could not name even one of the fifty-three portals to the soul.
Gimcrack religions were big business.
Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looking outward–pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about.”
5. Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg
I first read an excerpt from this drug-addiction memoir (a category of CNF in of itself) in New York Magazine earlier this summer. While I’ve had my fill of drug-addiction memoirs (and memoirs about nervous breakdowns, in case you care) and thus find any craving of such subject matter more than quenched, I found myself totally enthralled by the text, and in particular, Bill Clegg’s voice. Plus, the guy was a wildly successful literary agent, an insider, whose decline was marked by an addiction to crack. I wanted more. I put my waitlist for the book at the library. More than two months later (last week), the book became available to me.
The book isn’t about recovery–it’s about addiction told in a most unfiltered, unblinking narrative. There’s a craft essay on Brevity by Kerry Cohen that emphasizes the importance and necessity to “sit with your flawed, imperfect self, silence your internal judge, and allow yourself to write toward meaning.” Bill Clegg does just that, and his book is an example of how I need to write with such brutal honesty.
The other craft element I found valuable was the structure of this memoir. The book flips back and forth between the main timeline of Clegg’s addiction, and snippets of childhood, aptly written in third person. There is no overt connection between the two narratives, and yet there is connection between the shame in his childhood and the shame that drives him to self-destruction in his adulthood. The structure of this memoir is duly noted in my mind.
Also, for the record, this is the first book I’ve read since Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titans–for some reason, I haven’t been able to finish a book since Vonnegut. I have tried and tried to read other books, resulting in a stack of books on my nightstand (including but not limited to The Time Traveler’s Wife and Blindness) all with bookmarks at some halfway mark. This book? I began and finished this book in one day/night.
First few lines:
“I can’t leave and there isn’t enough.
Mark is at full tilt, barking hear-it-here-first wisdom from the edge of his black vinyl sofa. He looks like a translator for the deaf moving at triple speed–hands flapping, arms and shoulders jerking. His legs move, too, but only to fold and refold at regular intervals beneath his tall, skeletal frame. The leg crossing is the only thing about mark with any order. The rest is a riot of sudden movements and spasms–he’s a marionette at the mercy of a brutal puppeteer. His eyes, like mine, are dull black marbles.”
6. Torch by Cheryl Strayed
An amazing novel that smacks of memoir. From Cheryl Strayed, I learned about how to write pain; she captures the essence of grief in this novel. And the voice! I’d stay hundreds of pages with her.
First few lines:
“She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor–the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass–while he sat on his little stool with wheels and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.”
7. The Butcher and the Vegetarian by Tara Austen Weaver
This is a very approachable memoir about a vegetarian’s journey away from vegetables. Weaver’s voice will always make you feel at home.
8. Vida by Patricia Engel
Engel’s short story collection was the best of 2010. The writing is whip smart and pitch perfect, as is the protagonist of the collection, Sabina. Can’t wait to read Engel’s next book.
9. My Life in France by Julia Child
This is Julia Child! There is no other! This book makes me wish she were still alive.
10. Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy
Ohdearlord. This was bad. It became a movie, which while based on this book, hardly contained the book. The movie was worse than the book.