After a close look at the books I read this year and which ones really got to me I’ve realized just how important emotional resonance is for me to truly love a book. I mean I love books that make me think and stories that take me to unexpected places but it order to really get me I have to feel something.
This probably seems obvious.
But it’s almost like this: I’d much rather read a story similar to a hundred stories that I’ve already read if it can stir a dramatic series of feelings within me versus an extremely original one-of-a-kind genius type story that leaves me cold. And I’m not sure that everyone would feel that way. Some people get bored more quickly. Of course the best stories can do both. I wonder if this is something I will grow out of. If my tastes will become more sophisticated if that’s what that means.
Anyway, this year I read thirteen story collections, ten novels, nine non-fiction and two novellas.
By accident I happened to read 17 books by women and 17 by men, which is kind of cool.
Here’s a breakdown of what I read:
Brief Encounters with the Enemy: Fiction by Said Sayarafiezadeh
There were a lot of things that I liked in this book. The characters lives were very ordinary, most come from working class backgrounds, and are the same type of people that I like to write about. There is a faint but eternal type of sadness within all of his characters. It’s quietly depressing. I like that he focuses on small moments. I think I will return to this book as an example of a linked collection, if I ever get around to writing criticism like I want to. There are not specific reoccurring characters but there are reoccurring character types and the stories are linked by location, subject, gender and several thematic threads. There are also reoccurring moments in this collection—young men leaving for war admit their fears to characters who don’t know how to respond and all the same thing “go kick some ass”—these details have a haunting quality and provide enough connective tissue to create an overall effect that is similar to what you’d find in a novel. The central conflict is the same through out. So on a structural level I was fascinated by this book, though I can see how many people might find it a bit dull.
Astray by Emma Donoghue
Didn’t love this one though it was well written. Just not a big fan of historical fiction but I’m glad I read it. At the end of each story she has a few paragraphs explaining where she found the idea for the story, whether they were based off of real people or taken from a line in a news article or what. It was really fun to finish a story and see where it came from, what was real and who was real and in some cases what happened to the people after the story ended.
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
I thought I would enjoy this book a lot more than I did, I’ve heard other writers rave about it but there were a lot of times where the premise of each story was marvelous but then in the execution sometimes the promise of the premise wasn’t fully formed. The worlds that she built were wildly creative though and the subject matter of each story felt original–which is hard to do sometimes with a literary short story collection, people are always writing about the same things over and over (the loss of parent/child/spouse, infidelity, terminal illness)–so in that sense it was really strong but it didn’t stop me in my tracks and knock me out in an emotional way. Reading this and Lydia Davis made me realize just how important a book’s emotional impact is for me to really love it.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
I read this book and listened to it too and I’m so glad I did. The opening story “Victory Lap” felt a little confusing at first but there is one line uttered by a young girl that is hard to forget: “But seriously! Is life fun or scary?” The story “Sticks” is forever burned in my brain. And “Escape From Spiderhead” is the most elegant story that I read this year. It was entertaining, thought provoking and so tight. I think it’s a testament to a writer’s strength when you can go through each line of a short story and feel as though each line needed to be exactly as it is and exactly where it is. And Spiderhead is a story like that, there is nothing extra and every sentence feels unchangeable.
I Want to Show You More by Jaime Quatro
This was one of my favorite books of the year. Each one of these stories was powerful and emotionally taxing in best possible way. There was also a lot of variety in as far as the structure of the stories. This is a good example of how a story collection can become something more through just a few well-placed reoccuring characters, locations and conflicts. A little goes a long way and Quatro manipulates this fact to great effect.
Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello
This was another great collection that had a big effect on me as a writer. After reading “As You See” I almost immediately started writing cheap knock-offs of that story. Once again it was the emotion that the author was able to inspire within me that did it but besides that all the stories were extremely entertaining and fresh. I cant’ wait until her next novel comes out. Her voice is incredibly strong.
Rattling Wall Issues I & II edited by Michelle Meyering
Next year I’d really like to up my literary journal reading. I really enjoyed both of these issues. I was at the very first Rattling Wall event and it’s been really fun to watch this beautiful journal grow. I would list some of my favorites but I let a friend borrow my copies of each issue!
Stories For The Night Time and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
I read this book in one sitting, I absolutely loved it. Some of my favorites were “The House On the Cliff And The Sea” and “The Girl In The Storm.” I don’t think I could ever write surrealist stories or fables but this book made me want to read more of that type of stuff and to get away from my tendency to focus on dirty realism when picking out story collections to read. It reminded me of all the different places we can go in fiction and more importantly what super short fiction can do. How a thousand word story can have as much or more impact then a six thousand word story.
Our Kind by Kate Walbert
The first story in this collection was really hard to get through. The rest were awesome though. Some great insights into what it means to be a woman and a mother without being flowery or overly feminine, that probably sounds weird, I guess I mean that the subject matter is approached in a very direct and refined way that feels much more sophisticated than how such topics are often explored in more “chick lit-y” books.
Later at the Bar by Rebecca Barry
This was okay, I was expecting to hate it but it was alright. The bus driver story was the most impressive.
The Girl In The Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
While I can appreciate what Davis does in her short fiction, I mean she is extremely original and creative and fun to read, but there is something about the writing that leaves me cold compared to other super short story writers like say Amy Hempel. I’m glad I read it though, I will probably read more of her. She’s one of those writers that makes me want to write every time I read her work.
The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank
I couldn’t really relate to the somewhat affluent woman in this book, some of their problems felt a little melodramatic. Like the stakes weren’t that high for any of the characters. Very girly, not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just not my favorite brand of fiction.
Slaughter House-Five-Kurt Vonnegut
Good. Again, I can see it’s phenomenal merits but it’s just not really my cup of tea. I liked Cat’s Cradle way more and I’m not sure why. I will be reading more Vonnegut though, from a craft perspective there is so much to glean and learn from this master story teller, especially when it’s comes to economy and brevity and all that.
Dubliners by James Joyce
A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway
Loved. Loved. Loved.
Wait Until Spring Bandini by John Fante
There is very little plot in this book but John Fante’s voice and his characters are good enough to follow anywhere. I will be reading more of him I’m sure. It’s no Ask The Dust but it was a vey quick and enjoyable read.
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
This is a powerhouse of a book. It’s big and ambitious and fucked up and heart warming in a very twisted but fascinating way. I do think that it was way too long and I really didn’t care about the outer story compared to the inner story, but this was probably the most impressive novel I read this year. (Besides Winter’s Bone which is in a category of it’s own.)
Let Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
This was fun but it didn’t seem to hit those more serious moments that his other books have been able to.
I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself by Jen Kirkman
This was awful. I’m working on a story about a women who chooses not to have children so I thought this might be a fun light-read and maybe even useful. But the author refuses to go deep, or be vulnerable. For instance she describes in detail how she meets her husband and how happy her marriage is but skips over the divorce completely which would have been way more interesting and offer the potential for the reader to feel some sympathy for the women but instead there is none and she becomes sort of unlikable. Seems like as a memoirist she just didn’t have the balls to go to those dark places. The behind the scenes look at becoming a comic was sort of fun to read though. I guess she would be considered a humorist more than a memoirist though? Does that let her off the hook a little? I don’t know.
The Sociopath Next Door By Martha Stout
I listened to this book and it was good, I learned a lot. I’m thinking about writing a novel about a sociopath or at least someone with sociopathic tendencies so I got what I needed from this. The reader of the audio book almost ruined it though she was too dramatic.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Mastery by Robert Green
Loved this, it made me completely rethink what it means to be an artist and how to get to the places I need to go creatively. Insightful. Lots of great stories about historical figures.
The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
That Used To Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum
This one started off really strong but felt a little two prescriptive at the end. But this was probably the most eye-opening book I read this year. Feel like I have a much better understanding of where the country stands in relation to the global economy in a lot of different ways. How and why we’ve fallen behind. Thomas Friedman can pretty much do no wrong in my book.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
This was my first DFW book. I’ve read bits and pieces of him here or there but this was my first big bite into his work. I listened to this collection so I don’t know if it would feel more dense or more challenging to read if I actually read it instead of listening it but I loved it. David Lynch essay was my favorite.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Another audio book almost ruined by the reader, I thought Diane Keaton was a little too over-the-top to capture the subtle elegance of Didion’s prose. I will read more of her work in the future (like actually read it not listen to it).
The Cost of Living by Rob Roberge
Another one of my favorite books of the year. The voice is great, the central conflict feels really personal, the pacing is great and the reveal of information toward the end is really satisfying, the combination of funny/fucked-up/sadness that comes at you all at once is perfect. Overall wildly entertaining and emotional I read it faster than any book this year, just soared through it.
Winters Bone by Daniel Woodrell
I’m starting to find that I prefer smaller novels, stories with comparatively small plots focused mostly on one single character. This book is like that (so is The Cost Of Living and Wait Until Spring Bandini) it’s really a masterpiece, one of the finest books I’ve ever read. Like “The Things They Carried” good is my only way to describe it.
Richard Yates by Tao Lin
This book was excruciating to read at times but I also feel like I’ve been in the exact same type of relationship that the book follows, and there is something really charming and sweet about this story but it’s also totally fucking annoying.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
I can’t say I loved this book, once again for me to be carried away I really need that intimacy and emotional resonance and this book didn’t quite get me there (though there are definitely some vulnerable moments that we see between characters and plenty of self-loathing within the protagonist). But there were also times when this book was phenomenal, the futuristic stuff was great, the structure and shifting point of view was handled really well, the main character was funny and sad and sympathetic. Not really my cup of tea but I can see it’s many merits. Out of all the books this is the one that I seem to recall on a regular bases, I find myself hearing a tech news blurb or other trends in social media and then I think of this book. I have also seen people interact online and have thought “they’re so media…”
We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane
Another book I devoured in a day or two. I loved the episodic nature of the narration, each characters unique voice and perspective and quirks. The editorial third person was fun to read. All in all it’s a great character-driven saga that showed incredible range, Crane can channel a nine year-old boy, an unlikable millennial, a man with dementia and all her characters with such ease. It’s impossible to get bored reading this book. It was also fun to read after reading a couple of her story collections to see how she’s transitioned into writing a more traditional novel (though I really think “All This Heavenly Glory” has many novel-esque qualities).
Fly Over State
I don’t remember the plot of this book but I do remember that I liked it. It made me want to read more novellas. Wish I could say more.
Your Rightful Home
Ditto for this one.
I do not read poetry.