I love books that are magnificent slash life-altering and deal with politics, art, and anything having to do with bears. Bears are the best. I have twelve framed photos of them above my bed. But I've never read John Irving for some reason.
...And here is some more inspiration.
Chris Adrian's second novel has been my favorite read of 2007 so far. The beginning premise is terrific, and the characters are also very well written. The story begins with the earth having an apocalyptic flood the likes of which no one has heard of since biblical times. The only thing that survives is a Children's Hospital, which is left floating on 7 miles of water. The main character Jemma Claflin is a passive nursing student who at the time of flood is unable to decide whether or not she wants to be in the medical profession. The decision is soon made up for her, as the doctors and nurses continue their routine of healing as this hospital floats along the water, knowing that these are quite possibly the only children left on earth. The story has the magical realism of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with the religious sarcasm and relevance of the film Dogma. Although the book is very long, its prose is very natural and is an incredibly philosophical ride.
Klosterman has an amazing ability to translate his knowledge of pop iconography into a concoction of dive bar slang with high vocabulary in this humorous autopsy of American culture. Within, Klosterman analyzes everything from how John Cusack has ruined his romantic experiences to why two ostensibly similar musicians (Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel) cannot obtain similar star status in the minds of the public. This paperback version also includes short essays between each chapter that raise such thought provoking questions as "Would you rather date somebody who is attractive and intelligent, or somebody who is attractive, intelligent, and patriotic." This is a quick and easy read and although you may disagree with several of Klosterman's points of view, it is impossible to consider his questions as anything other than valid.
I have always had a difficult time describing this novel without giving away the most fascinating parts of this incredible tale. I read this book knowing virtually nothing going in, and it ended up being one of the best works of fiction i have ever read. The book is set in England in the late 1990's, but as you read on it is quickly apparent that the characters live in a world of both isolation and dystopia. The majority of the novel takes place at Hailsham academy, which at first seems like a typical private school, however, is rather apparent that there are a few obtuse characteristics about Hailsham that makes it far more surreal than an ordinary boarding school. The novel is written in such a way that you, as the reader, are constantly hoping that obvious truths are not true, and that things will ultimately pan out in a logical way. The best part about this book is perhaps the cover, which, by books end, becomes as haunting as the story itself. Make no mistake, this is an incredibly heavy book, one that will leave you thinking for days.
Timothy Egan won the National Book Award for this title. The book chronicles the history of the people and the land of the High Plains, and how the interaction between these two created the worst environmental disaster the United States had ever seen. The overcropping of the plains left them so grassless and dry that at a time when nobody needed any other worries (early 1930's) a dust storm of catastrophic proportions whipped through the plains. Egan tells the tale of the people that traveled to these communities that all rose during the roaring '20s and toppled shortly after. This book is extremely relevant now when discussing how human interaction can alter the environment.
*** November 2009 Book Club Pick ***
I'm one of those people who you would have figured has read everything Kurt Vonnegut has written, judging by the fact that I work at a bookstore and have a slightly perverted and darkly satirical outlook on life. Sadly, upon discussing a Vonnegut plot or essay, I have always had to cut the conversation short with the dagger, "I've never read Kurt Vonnegut before." This proclamation is received the same way as someone who would say they've never seen the Godfather or heard a Beatles record. After these interactions became unbearable, I decided to give in and read a frequently recommended title, Breakfast of Champions. Upon completing my first Vonnegut novel, I've got to say, I am now a member of the "Oh My God You Have to Read Kurt Vonnegut" club. In Breakfast, a science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, writes work that never gets published or receives recognition until his novel "Now it Can be Told" ends up in the hands of Dwayne Hoover, a Pontiac salesman who is slowly going insane. Dwayne's imminent insanity boils over after he completes Trout's novel, which is a story in the form of a letter from a godly figure to a man living on a planet where every other living being is a machine. Dwayne perceives the book to be a letter to him, as he comes to the conclusion that he is the only human with free will, and that everyone around him is a machine. Violence and insanity ensue. An excellent study of perception and solitude in small town America, Vonnegut's humor and message are spot on. I've never been a member of a book club, but after reading this novel, I wish I had 8 - 10 people to discuss it with. There are many characters that enter and exit the novel, and become chess pieces in Vonnegut's fictional (yet all too real) American town. The writing is frantic when it needs to be, organized at the right moments, and has fantastically sarcastic descriptions of rural outlooks and attitudes. Vonnegut's illustrations also help to provide the tone and pace of the story. Even if you've already read this book, you should read it again, come into the store, and chat with me about it. One of us will probably be a better person by the end of the conversation.
Every once in a while a terrific novel comes along that uses a remarkably accessible yet absurd setting as a vehicle to illustrate a broader point about American life. Orwell and Vonnegut are masters of this, and echoes of their satire and wit are found throughout Julia Holmes' stellar first novel, Meeks.
Without explanation of where or when, we are introduced to a civilization that lives in fear of unprovoked attacks from the "Enemy" across the river, and values marriage more highly than any other social institution. Single men are referred to simply as "Bachelors" and they cannot work until they are married. The catch, of course, is that the most desirable apparel a bachelor can own in order to attract a woman who might marry them is a good suit, something most cannot afford unless inherited or obtained through begging the community Tailor, an elderly man whose lack of pity makes the task nearly impossible.
The Bachelors all live together in a Bachelor House, a collective where they practice the skills necessary to charm women at the local park, such as owning a gun collection; practicing really, really hard to be nice; or, merely, painting and writing poetry. The men practice these talents with a passionless devotion for fear of being thrown out of the Bachelor house by the aptly named "Brothers of Mercy." Failed Bachelors are placed into civil service or, if deemed too depressed to function, are executed.
The two main characters entangled in this harsh world are Ben, a Bachelor who spends more time begging the Tailor for a new suit than he does mingling with the ladies, and Meeks, a frequently bullied police officer who is disrespected by townspeople and coworkers alike. Both characters struggle not only to travel the socially accepted path but also to resist the urge to throw a wrench in the machine, to see how life might be different.
Where Meeks really thrives is in its presentation of the American dream as nothing more than a hierarchical checklist, and how the social ramifications of having aspirations outside the status quo is analogous to being ostracized by the popular kids in high school. As soon as you finish, you'll want to start again.
*** November 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
I never, and I mean never, finish a book and feel sheer joy. Most ultra happy-feeling novels seem cheesy and manipulative in that sort of Pepsi ad way, and just being conscious of this drives me nuts and makes me not want to finish. Hold Still, however, is unlike any novel I have ever read. Caitlin and Ingrid have been best friends throughout high school, but Caitlin's life is thrown into a tailspin when Ingrid commits suicide a few months before the start of the fall semester of high school. The loss of a dear friend coupled with the kind of trauma that only high school years are capable of producing send Caitlin into an understandably deep sorrow that seemingly will not end. It is during her self-exile that Caitlin comes across Ingrid's journal, a relic intentionally hidden under her bed. Upon reading the journal entries, Caitlin learns more about Ingrid and becomes progressively more open in discussing the subject among friends, parents, and peers. Her path to recovery is not only incredibly heartwarming and real, but is a spectacular study of the roller coaster of emotions one experiences in their teen years. This book left me feeling genuinely happy and, I have to admit, made me cry.
*** March 2010 Book Club Pick ***
Although the tale of a troubled youth in the midst of New York City has been done dozens of times by fill-in-the-blank Salinger-philes, Paul Auster has managed to justify the pretentious and often stupid decisions of a young man in remarkably beautiful fashion. Moon Palace is set in New York City during the moon landing of Apollo 11, a mission Auster uses to coincide with the exploration and maturation of our hero. Marco Stanley Fogg has few family members and even less money when he moves to New York in the fall of 1965 to attend Columbia. After his first year in the dorms, he moves into a single bedroom apartment he has unconventionally furnished with the many boxes of books previously owned by his uncle Victor. A bed made out of eight boxes here, a table made out of six stacked boxes, a stool made out of two boxes there. Fogg's minimalist lifestyle becomes even more so after his uncle's death. He must cope not only with the loss of his last remaining family member but also the fact that he has virtually no money. Fogg's solution is to pay tribute to his uncle's life by reading every one of his uncle's books and then selling the copies to a secondhand bookstore. As he does, his apartment becomes sparser, but his knowledge of and love for his uncle grows. As his furniture slowly disappears, Fogg grapples with his poverty and is drawn further into his desire to exist with nothing. Analogous to Krakauer's tale of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, Moon Palace plays with the desperate and inspired attempts of a young man to create his own future.
In a genre where authors typically employ more gore and violence than plot and character, it is refreshing for a vampire novel to succeed as brilliantly as Richard Matheson's I Am Legend does without too much emphasis on things that splatter. The premise is familiar: Robert Neville is, to the best of his knowledge, the only human still alive. The rest of the populace has either become vampires or other versions of the living dead. Rather than aimlessly murder these creatures, as Neville guiltlessly does in the beginning, our protagonist ponders why he is struggling to exist at all. This leads him to other analytical queries, such as why he fears the vampires at all, why they are weakened by light, why they despise garlic, and why they require blood in order to survive. Neville's search for these answers propels the narrative out of the horror genre and into the realm of social criticism. I Am Legend is not only a paranoid tale of the undead, but also a terrific study of solitude, and how those things of which we are ignorant we ultimately fear.
*** May 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
I've recently come to the conclusion that the majority of contemporary fiction is not my cup of tea because it either embodies the perpetual hip complex that I loathe, or is so resentful of classical literature that the writing becomes whiny and aloof. That being said, the stories in Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are not only immediately enjoyable, but speak of contemporary and youthful times in a magnificently human voice. Glimpses of freedom, alcoholism, abuse, isolation, promiscuity, and experimentation are at the forefront of most of these short stories. Like most good figurative art, the stories are there for you to read, but there are many connections and emotions to be dealt with when the experience is over. Meeting the characters in Tower's stories is probably the best one-night-stand you'll have in a while, though I don't recommend reading while intoxicated.
David Wiesner has created an incredible children's book, filled with amazing illustrations. There are no words, but the art alone tells the story of a boy who, while at the beach, comes across a camera that washes to shore. Upon looking at the film, the boy realizes that the sea has far more abnormalities that anyone could have dreamed.
This book can easily be read in one day, and it will be the most important day of your life.
*** May 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
Since the vehicle for contemporary graffiti art has been abundantly large posters, blatantly political stencils or obnoxiously loud colors, the idea of impossibly tiny models strategically placed around London would seem to be not only the road less traveled, but also less practical. Slinkachu is an artist who crafts incredibly small ceramic models of people, cars, doors, ATMs and then sets them in appropriate locations across the city. The carcass of a dead bee lies next to the model of a small girl and her father, who appears to have shot the bee from the sky. A model of a vagrant lies on the street next to a few pennies four times the vagrant's size. Two figurines of children go for an exploration of sorts - inside of an empty box of Marlboros. The fact that Slinkachu's art goes unnoticed helps to serve his broader point of giving homage to moments and experiences that are overlooked or taken for granted. To make them any larger would be counterintuitive and pretentious. This is simply the most incredible street art I have ever seen.
Balram Halwai sees contemporary India in a way that is strikingly similar to the United States, namely the absurdly large gap between the wealthy and the poor. As a member of the latter, Balram has aspirations and dreams he fears will never manifest considering his current position as a chauffeur and servant of the wealthy. His circumstance is not, however, his own doing, as he analogizes the situation of his class to a chicken coop, animals that live their lives in a cage and are brainwashed into believing their survival is dependent upon the rich. As blind submission rises above the muck in a series of unethical and criminal actions, committed with the knowledge he is putting the lives of his family at risk. A tale of obedience and loyalty versus will and determination, The White Tiger will challenge your concepts of right and wrong, and make you feel guilty for laughing along the way.
There are very few books out there where I genuinely empathize with the main characters. This is normally due to the fact that most writers fail at drawing the one human emotion most of us wish could experience during difficult times: laughter. But David Benioff gives us this feeling throughout City of Thieves. Lev Beniov has been caught looting a dead German soldier and upon his capture befriends cellmate Kolya. Thier lives will be spared if they can find a dozen eggs for the colonel's daughter's wedding cake. Since 1940's Soviet infrastructure was deprived of a Safeway or AM/PM, this order takes them on a week-long hike through the frigid dysphoria of Leningrad. The absurdity of thier mission coupled with the graveness of World War II gives us a satisfying juxtaposition both poignant and thrilling.
Though everyone needs to compromise their ethics at some point in their lives, few have as much to confess as Perkins. His real life accounts of United States involvement in foreign countries helps solidify many previous ideas, yet also informs us about the shocking realities behind the American Empire. This was my favorite book of 2005, and I recommend this for anyone who wants to learn to real story behind the last 30 plus years of American globalization.
*** August 2009 Newsletter Pick ***
Losing is never easy, and it's even harder when the road to recovery is covered in hills of cocaine. Our hero, an aspiring writer, loathes his job as a fact-checker for a prominent New York publication. His predicament is put into perspective rather quickly when his runway model wife leaves him for seemingly no reason. His soul searching goes through a rollercoaster of highs and lows, ultimately leading to the nightly routine of heavy drinking, excessive spending, snorting coke in bathroom stalls, and one-night stands. The search for truth and resolve in the face of dismay is the root of our protagonist's actions, though his heavily influential friend has other ideas about how to take the pain away. Although we don't all share the same habits as the main character, McInerney's ability to describe the emotions and steps one takes through love and loss make this heartbreaking novel a must-read.