Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
Here’s what the Nouvella staff was reading (when we weren’t reading submissions!):
I don’t read nearly as much as I wish I did (writing a senior thesis is time consuming, who knew?) so I read most of these in erratic spurts throughout the year. Still, I think the fact that I finished them at all is a testament to their quality.
Dear Life by Alice Munro
It would have been blasphemy not to read Ms. Munro’s work this year, given her status as the 2013 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dear Life centers on the fleeting moments that irrevocably change Munro’s characters’ lives, whether they be as dramatic as a spontaneous affair, or as minor as the pursuit of a specialist doctor in an unknown town. Each of her stories builds to a meticulous climax that leaves a sort of numbing, troubled reverie.
My First Summer in the Sierras by John Muir
Long before his activist fame, John Muir was a young Scottish immigrant paid to shepherd sheep through the Sierra Nevada foothills. Muir’s lush, even anthropomorphic descriptions of California’s flora and fauna make this short work surprisingly endearing and paint a vivid picture of California in the not-so-distant past.
Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories by John Updike
This collection of short stories should be depressing, seeing how it details the failing marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Maple. Somehow, though, this simply isn’t the case. Written over the course of 20 years, “Too Far to Go” is a masterwork that tidily, and hilariously, demonstrates Updike’s powers of empathy and snide observation. Though the doom of the Maples’ marriage is foreshadowed even from the beginning of the collection, the characters’ paradoxical love for one another develops and evolves until the book’s poignant ending.
Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote
Best read in Capote’s native New Orleans with a beignet in hand, “Music for Chameleons” remains a giant in the canon of short story writings. Capote can rarely escape a review without being deemed “lyrical” – but with good reason. The author’s wit and graceful use of language keep his personality-based stories feeling as vibrant as they did more than 30 years ago.
2013 was a fabulous year for fiction, and I read several books that won’t leave me anytime soon: Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, an astonishing debut novel about three girls coming of age in the midst of ancient conflict, left me breaking out in goosebumps on overheated subway cars and pressing it onto anyone I came in contact with with missionary zeal. Another amazing debut work was NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, which I fasted for a day to read because I couldn’t put it down to make hot food. Established favorite authors also came out swinging: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah both delighted me as much as I’d hoped they would, and Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories brought a Munro-like heft back to the short story form.
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Reading this reminded me of the way I felt when I read The Bell Jar for the first time—a sort of possessive kinship that you feel (unreasonably) protective of. The novel is filled with this recklessness, a disregard that shape-shifts into loneliness, that betrays the characters in an instant. It is imaginative and expansive, and the main character, Reno, is a badass. And there are passages like this:
“Sandro said he couldn’t understand how his mother tolerated this ridiculous man in any capacity. I understood that she did tolerate him, and even why. She was lonely, and his ridiculousness was a form of vitality. It brought something to her life. In any case, men were that way, but I couldn’t tell Sandro that men were ridiculous, and since his mother was not a lesbian they were her only option.”
All That Is by James Salter. Here’s something I’ve noticed about James Salter novels: It’s very difficult to summarize most of them without making them sound very boring. It could very well be the summarizer and not the book, but when someone asked me what All That Is is about, it came out something like, “It’s about this man’s life. And love. And loss.” In the most literal sense of the phrase, I suppose James Salter leaves me a little speechless. I’d read somewhere that Richard Ford had to repeatedly put the book down after finishing a chapter and pace the room. I wish I’d known about this pacing tactic before I read it, because after certain passages, instead of pacing I would just sit there with the book resting against my chest, staring blankly at the ceiling. Pacing seems like a necessary activity for the blows Salter’s writing delivers again and again.
Enon by Paul Harding
Paul Harding’s 2009 debut novel Tinkers immediately became my favorite book when I read it a couple of years ago, so I was champing at the bit to dive into his second novel Enon when it was released this past September. While the somberness and relative darkness of Tinkers left me feeling calm and at peace, probably from the power of its spare prose alone, Enon left me feeling unsettled. The novel follows Charlie Crosby in the aftermath of the death of his 13-year-old daughter and the subsequent failure of his marriage. Observing Charlie as he sinks lower and lower and not being able to help him is painful. And while the novel ultimately decides to take it easy on the reader towards the end, it does not offer redemption. Enon was perhaps best summed up by Mr. Harding himself at a reading I had the pleasure to attend when he said – and I’m paraphrasing here – everyone thinks that tragedy and sorrow follows a predictable plotline where everything turns out fine in the end, and that’s not always the case.
Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
We’re in the business of publishing novellas so it’s only natural that one of my favorite books in recent history is a novella. Having first read Denis Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke a few years back, which was impressive but long and psychologically taxing, I was hesitant to pick up Train Dreams – albeit a much shorter book – for fear of putting myself under the same mental strain. I was happy to discover though that Train Dreams is unlike Tree of Smoke in terms of complexity. The novella dreamily, but succinctly, follows Robert Grainier throughout his mostly lonesome life in Idaho during the first half of the 20th century. The big landscapes, wilderness, wildness and simplicity of life that can be found in the American West have always spoken to me and Train Dreams taps directly into that.
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I’m hesitant to write about David Foster Wallace. His presence in the general population’s consciousness has skyrocketed over the past few years – what hasn’t already been said about him or his writing? But, alas, I’ve never read a book as long as Infinite Jest so I might as well weigh in based solely on my pride in my accomplishment. I thought Infinite Jest was a thoroughly enjoyable read that takes place primarily in two locations: a children’s tennis academy and an alcohol/drug recovery house. While page upon page of prose without a single paragraph break does not cater to my short attention span, I found the book to be highly readable as it drew me into its flow. Foster Wallace has a way of intertwining his virtuosic stream-of-consciousness episodes with emotional punches that hit you directly in the heart. Whether Infinite Jest is a literary masterpiece or not, I will leave up to others to debate, but I do know that the chapter in which the friendly tennis game of Eschaton (look it up) melts down into slapstick chaos is the funniest thing I’ve ever read.