For some time, I’ve considered tracking what I read on this blog, but have not yet gotten around to it. The following is a list of the books I have read since the beginning of this year. Books I’ve abandoned or stalled-out-on are not included. Perhaps those abandoned books will warrant their own blog post, similar to the post I made about quitting television shows, itself inspired by a GQ article urging people to quit things that deserve it.
The best “this is what I’ve been reading” recap that I’ve ever seen read is the Nick Hornby “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column, which is what first suggested to me that there might be a way to make regularly reading summaries interesting. I don’t claim that this will be on his level. This is just a half year of reading, and my thoughts on it, just in time for you to perhaps choose one of the following as your next summer read.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
This, like several of the books on this list, was the book of the month for my Men’s Book Club. Unlike the rest of the Book Club books on this list, I chose it. I chose it after seeing Birdman with a friend and his girlfriend. The connection between Birdman and this collection of short stories is the works of Raymond Carver, specifically “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which inspired, heavily, the title story of Englander’s book, as well as the play-within-a-movie within Birdman. My friend’s girlfriend is the one who recommended, after the movie ended, that our BC (Book Club) read What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, as she had recently read it for her own book club.
The first story in Englander’s collection, the titular one, is less like an original short story and more like the literary equivalent of a cover of a song. He uses Carver’s original story for inspiration on such an extreme level that it’s distracting. It makes you wonder “is it even okay to do this?” But that doesn’t make it bad. The conclusion that the four characters reach, as they sit intoxicated in the dark, is more disturbing and chilling and poignant than the place we last saw Carver’s four sad drunks.
My Struggle: Book One, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
We went from short stories to the first installment of the 4000 page autobiographical novel of a man in Norway. It’s hard to know what can be said about this one that isn’t already said, other than yes, I liked it. Yes, I would recommend it. Yes, I have started Book Two. Yes, there are six books left, the last two still untranslated, and yes, I think I’ll eventually read all of them. Yes, the title deliberately echoes Hitler’s book. No, I don’t know why it’s named that. Yes, I think it’s a weird title. Yes, I don’t like reading it in public, because of the title. Yes, it’s kinda boring at times. But a hypnotic kind of boring, a meditative, brilliant, consuming kind of boring. Yes, everyone should read it.
The Patrick Melrose Novels, by Edward St. Aubyn
Never Mind, by Edward St. Aubyn
I read this and its sequels, listed below, in a row, in the winter. They’re strange books, and I’m not sure if they are good ones. The villain of the first, whose death instigates the second, is easily one of the worst villains I’ve ever encountered in literature. It makes you wish that you knew him so you could be the person who sent him to prison. But a villain isn’t enough for a book to be a good book, and I don’t know that Never Mind stands on its own as a good book, or even as much of a novel at all. Nothing much happens in it, in terms of plot, other than some very horrible things and a very unpleasant dinner party.
Bad News, by Edward St. Aubyn
This one is better than its predecessor, I think, but here is where the author has the very, very annoying habit of switching perspective repeatedly. You think you are reading a third person limited narrative, and then suddenly he is telling you what some ancillary, irrelevant character thinks about the protagonist. It seems sloppy. It’s distracting and unnecessary, and it caused me endless frustration. Perspective is something that I value above almost anything in writing, and when it’s poorly done it can ruin a book.
Some Hope, by Edward St. Aubyn
This is the one I read most recently, and the one I barely remember. Basically, there’s thirty characters who all go to a party and nothing really happens at the party and then it ends. It’s strange that I’m being so hard on these books now, because yes, I would recommend these as well. And yes, I intend to eventually finish the entire series. I’m somewhere in the fourth novel right now, and then there’s a fifth, and I plan on reading both of them. Largely, my reason for wanting to get through all of them is that I imagine it will all come together at the end. That there might not be a plot in these individual novels, but that eventually there will be a plot when you look at the five of them together.
Nazi Literature in the Americas, by Robert Bolano
To begin with, I’ll say that Bolano’s 2666 is one of my favorite books. Top five, for sure. And perhaps that clouds my vision of his other books, but I found this to be amazing. But this is probably the first on the list that I wouldn’t recommend. It’s an Encyclopedia of imaginary Nazi writers in the Americas. It veers from imagined historical fiction to science fiction to absurd first person narratives, with tedious descriptions of furniture, vague overviews of non-existent novels, and more. If you want to read Bolano, there are better places to start, and I would say that it’s a must-read only for people who must read everything he has written, which I may be.
Drown, by Junot Diaz
Another book of short stories, this one from the magnificent writer of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which, if you hadn’t heard, was declared by one crowd as the best novel of the 2000s. It’s his first book, of three, and while it doesn’t have the same polish and brilliance as Oscar Wao, it’s absolutely worth reading if you’ve enjoyed anything else by Diaz. People often talk about whether or not an author has a strong voice, or an original one. Diaz’s voice is what has made me continually return to his works.
The Harder They Come, by TC Boyle
There is a separate blog post that I might eventually write about this one, regarding authors and their fans, but for now I will say that Boyle has been one of my favorite novelists since high school and, as always, I enjoyed this novel by him. However, like Bolano above, I’d also say that it’s not the place to start if you want to start reading Boyle. Not his best novel. A good one, but not his best. The opening chapter, however, is magnificent, and stands on its own as one of my favorite short stories I’ve read recently, when I first encountered it in Harper’s. Read that story, “No Slant to the Sun,” at the least, and then keep reading the novel from there if you feel compelled.
The Keep, by Jennifer Egan
I read this as an audiobook, mostly because I had heard good things about Jennifer Egan and wanted to know if she lived up to the hype. I did not enjoy it, but I did finish it, which says something about her ability to draw you in. The entire did, I did want to know: “and then what happened.” And we found out what happened, and it’s bizarre, and, well, the more I think about it, the more I maybe do recommend it. But like I said, I did not enjoy it. But I still think about it.
American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis
This was a re-read. Here is a book that I love, but that there are entire chapters I find to be completely unreadable. Everyone should read this book, but everyone should be prepared to skim. The violence is completely repulsive. But some of the other scenes are the best things I have read, ever, like the tedious double dates and the dinner parties and the business meetings and the obsessive descriptions of stereos and albums and clothes. Bateman channels a zeitgest that still haunts us, through the loss of the individual and a world obsessed with exhibitionism and voyeurism, elements that have only grown in society. He manages to be both known by everyone he meets but completely anonymous. It’s not clear if Patrick Bateman exists, even in the world he narrates. This is my third time reading, but I doubt it’s my last.
Articles, Short Stories, and More
As I worked on this list, I realized that a lot of my reading, most of it, perhaps the vast majority, is either the paper copies of Harper’s and The New Yorker, the digital edition of The Economist, the blog of The Paris Review, along with whatever I find through Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, etc. How does one track these things? Should one? Not here at least, but perhaps I will start paying attention to such things and that will be a blog post in the future.
The above might be nothing more than an exercise, and, undoubtedly, the most personal thing I’ve ever written on this blog. At the very least, perhaps the list above can serve as a way for a reader to find a new book. At the most, it’s an insight to my Men’s Book Club and to my own reading choices. I think it also suggests that perhaps I do more reading in the way of classics, female authors, and light reading. As for what I’m reading now, well, you can expect more posts like this in the future.