The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss (2011)
Although the book runs more than a thousand pages, I read it in two weeks, which has got to be a personal best. I even found myself taking coffee breaks at work to get in a few more minutes of reading time.1 It’s a sprawling, epic sequel to The Name of the Wind, and while Rothfuss’s influences are apparent, the book never feels derivative. It’s wholly its own creation. Like the first book, this one traffics in stories about stories, riding up and down layers of narration and flashback to show how myth and ambition reshape history as it’s happening. It’s also funnier and sharper than the first book. I feel spoiled getting to read the first two back to back, knowing they came out in 2007 and 2011, respectively, and that other fans have been waiting for years for the third and final volume in the series. I’m now happily among their number.
Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle (2014)
There’s something hypnotic in the way Darnielle weaves together his fragmented narrative. Reading the book without knowing much about it makes for a pleasing kind of disorientation, as if you’re floating in the ocean and struggling to make out the shape of something below you. The narrator’s physical disfigurement, his role in the death of a stranger, his piecemeal revelation of his internal emptiness: it all comes together in a grim but shaking way. Some of the sentences are awkward, and there are some grammatical and typographical quirks, but it’s a compelling, haunting book about guilt, shame, and suffering.
The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle (2016)
My first Boyle. A believable examination of how people would likely behave living in a bio-dome and sealed off from the world; that is to say, everybody’s kind of paranoid and bitchy and irritable, and cliques form as fast as they did in high school.
Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
I remember trying to read this in middle school, but I could never make it more than a few pages. I made it through the whole thing this time, and I enjoyed it, but it’s also a stylistically bizarre book. Herbert’s total lack of subtext, and his habit of having his characters think their deepest thoughts in bursts of melodrama, makes it feel like a cross between 1950s sci-fi and knock-off Russian literature from a century earlier.2 I’m on the fence about getting into the sequels, but this was worth the time.
Slow Horses, Mick Carron (2010)
A decent mix of secret agents and black comedy, though it feels a little overwritten and too delighted with its habit of misdirecting the reader. Whole characters come and go, and the book feels assembled from ideas instead of attached to one of them. Still, I enjoyed the way it avoided most plot cliches.
Redshirts, John Scalzi (2012)
My first Scalzi. I wanted something fun and light after a pair of grimmer books, and this delivered. I used to avoid jokier books like this, until I realized it was that kind of snobbery I wouldn’t bring to movies—that is, I wouldn’t ignore a movie simply because it was a comedy. I gave this a shot, and I’m glad I did. It’s a brisk and goofy read, but the postscripts really bring it home.
The Last One, Alexandra Oliva (2016)
I love the hook here: what if the apocalypse happened and you didn’t know it? The main character is a contestant on a Survivor-inspired reality show that sends its competitors trekking through the woods; while she’s out on her own, a disease sweeps through society and ushers in destruction and decay. She has no idea this has happened, though, so she views her journey through scattered woods and fragmented towns as a game, even thinking that a survivor she comes across is a cameraman planted by producers. The narrative cuts quickly (if sometimes melodramatically) between the woman’s first-person account of her journey and an equally tense depiction of the filming of the show’s contest and challenges, both halves building toward moments of loss or revelation. I always stayed up later than planned on nights I was reading this. Couldn’t help myself.
Leviathan Wakes, James S.A. Corey (2011)
I’d been meaning to get around to this since coming across it in the library years ago and feeling a tug of wistful nostalgia at the cover art, which evokes those grand (if mediocre) space operas of sci-fi’s 20th-century heyday. It’s a fun and engaging read, too, shifting pretty nimbly between the perspectives of two central characters whose paths eventually cross. It feels real, too, or maybe a better word would be understandable: it’s set in the near-ish future, when people have set up colonies throughout the solar system, and geopolitical issues that used to be between nations are now between planets. In other words, people are still paranoid and self-serving and uncertain of how things will play out. Those realistic touches are what helps keep the story grounded when it makes a couple of leaps halfway through into something more fantastical. I’ll likely check out the rest of the series.
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996) (reread)
Most people have a book, or movie, or song, or some other creative work that’s more special to them than the rest. (In fact, most people probably have more than one.) They’re the things that came to you at just the right time so that they didn’t just entertain you, or even move you, but actually shaped you.
Infinite Jest is one of those things for me. I bought it on a whim, daring myself with its length, toward the end of my senior year of college. I spent the summer alone in my college town, saving money for a move out west, my friends all having moved on, reading that book every night. It was sad and funny and big and weird, and it changed my perspective on everything from storytelling to relationships. TV writer/producer Michael Schur (of The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine) had this reaction to reading it, which feels exactly right: “I didn’t so much read it as I almost ate it. It kind of rescrambled my brain.”
I reread about half of it a few years ago when I was in a funk and just needed to get away, but this year I reread the whole thing. Revisiting those works that wound up shaping us is like getting in your own personal time machine: in addition to rediscovering the story, you’re reliving the memories of who you were the first time you read it. I was struck again by Wallace’s humor and empathy, but I also found myself far more tuned into the book’s structural experimentation and narrative clues. Is it because I’d already read it? Or because in the 13 years since I first read it, pop culture storytelling has begun to adopt the fragmented, anti-confluential style explored in the book? Is the structure familiar for what it is, or what it’s inspired?
It is, of course, a different thing to read a book about addiction, recovery, and mental health battles after the author has committed suicide for reasons largely informed by those things. Infinite Jest was the one true novel of Wallace’s career—his first had started out as his graduate thesis, and his last was published posthumously and incomplete—and it’s the most revealing thing he ever did. Even years later, there’s nothing else like it. It’s still my favorite book.
Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane (2017)
My first Lehane. The first half is a literary investigation into emotional abuse, and the second half is a runaway thriller. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does, and beautifully. A fantastic read.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting (2013)
In the days after I finished this, the closest I could come to describing it was “Imagine if American Psycho were well-written and interesting.” Alissa Nutting’s novel is narrated by a self-aware, sociopathic woman who becomes a middle-school teacher so she can sleep with young boys. The coldness and lack of remorse at some of the story’s darkest turns is, of course, juxtaposed with the fact that you’re reading about them to begin with, getting a prurient if sickening thrill. It’s one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in a long time in large part because of how good Nutting is at inhabiting this character, bringing the rest of them to life, and tacitly implicating the reader for their participation. It reads like a fever dream and gets lodged in your consciousness like a rock in your shoe.
Land of the Blind, Jess Walter (2003)
My first Jess Walter book was the outstanding Beautiful Ruins. There are some vaguely similar themes at work here—memory, regret, the attempt to communicate your view of the world to someone else—and I liked the story’s gentle oscillation between mystery and character study.
Underground Airlines, Ben H. Winters (2016)
A literary mystery set in a dystopic parallel world in which slavery remained legal and the Civil War ended not with surrender but with economic compromise. That’s a great hook, but Winters takes it in even more interesting directions by making the protagonist/narrator a free black man who works for the government tracking down escaped slaves. It wrestles with guilt, identity, responsibility.
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon (2009)
Oddly, this was a page-turner that I read pretty quickly even though I never quite liked it. It’s a weird experience.
Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, David Lynch (2009)
David Lynch should be on Mount Rushmore.
Against the Country, Ben Metcalf (2015)
Every sentence is masterful. It’s almost overwhelmingly good and piercing and controlled.
Virgin and Other Stories, April Ayers Lawson (2016)
I think back to reading this book, and all I can come up with are hunger metaphors: I devoured it, it sustained me, I swallowed it whole. Lawson’s stories deal with religion and emotional conflict in ways almost no other author is doing, and though they’ll probably pack an additional punch if you’ve got a background in abusive evangelicalism3 that’s not at all required.
Gwendy’s Button Box, Stephen King, Richard Chizmar (2017)
Why do I keep reading Stephen King? Habit, I guess. Nostalgia, too. And every now and then he surprises me with something honest and real, like Full Dark, No Stars. This was utterly forgettable, though, a middling short story blown out to novella length.
The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters (2012)
Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (2013)
World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters (2014)
I’m grouping these together, even though I read a couple other books between the first and second volumes. This is the best modern trilogy I’ve read in a long, long time, and I cannot recommend them enough. Interestingly, I didn’t make the connection until I was well into The Last Policeman that I was already familiar with Winters, since he also wrote Underground Airlines. When The Last Policeman was recommended to me, though, it was on the strength of its conceit: a rookie homicide detective is determined to solve his first murder, even though the world is months away from being struck and decimated by an asteroid. Post-apocalyptic fiction abounds, and the parts of those books that deal with life before their chosen armageddons are usually (and understandably) brief, but I’d never heard of such a detailed pre-apocalyptic story. That sense of worry and futility animates the actions of everyone involved. What would you do if you knew the world was ending in a few months? What if your job was to preserve law and order? What decisions would you make? How would you define justice?
The second and third books feel like one long volume, in part because the timeline grows shorter: the first book spans weeks, but by the third, the action is reduced to mere days. The first one is the most typical mystery story, but they’re all mysteries, really: in each one, the narrator is trying to solve a puzzle and help people around him, even while life is as we know it crumbles. They’re just outstanding books.
The Smack, Richard Lange (2017)
A rock-solid mystery-thriller about a con man looking for a second chance. Imagine a somewhat more maudlin Elmore Leonard, and you’re most of the way there. Great story.
Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World, Rob Sheffield (2017)
This isn’t a history of the Beatles, but rather a linked series of essays that roughly cover the band’s life while freely skipping back and forth in time, pausing for asides, and chasing interesting tangents. As a result, it’s so much more vibrant and captivating than a regular biography would be. The writing is smart, funny, and insightful (it’s some of the best critical writing I’ve read in ages), and Sheffield’s love for the band and its music is palpable.
Left By the Wayside
Sword of Destiny, Andrzej Sapkowski (1992, Polish; 2015, English)
I started reading the short stories set in the world of the Witcher after falling in love with the video game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.4 The thing I love about the stories is part of why I loved the game: the fantasy elements are treated as just another aspect of the fictional world, which mostly deals with petty or hopeful people trying to get by. I just read a few selections, though.
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson (2007)
I found this both intoxicating and slippery: the rhythms and slow pace are wonderful, and the explorations of the lives of the characters in and around the Vietnam war are fantastic, but I also started to lose a sense of momentum, or investment, or whatever you want to call the thing that makes you stick with a book through the slow parts. I’d like to dip back into this, if possible.
In alphabetical order:
Catching the Big Fish
Dreaming the Beatles
The Last Policeman series
Since We Fell
Virgin and Other Stories
The Wise Man’s Fear
I also think it helped that this was the first book I read on my new Kindle. Being able to cart around a hefty paperback in something as slim and light as a Kindle is a game-changer, and there’s something about the more frequent page turns (thanks to the formatting and type size of the screen) that seems to establish a momentum. Plus it’s just a good book.↩
It did, though, make the terrible voice-overs from David Lynch’s film version make more sense.↩
Easily a desert-island game for me, and probably in my top five of all time.↩