Reading Notes

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I worked in a bookstore in San Francisco called Green Apple, a meandering hobbit hole of a shop incongruously dropped in the middle of a neighborhood of dim sum joints and Chinese groceries. Green Apple was, and is, one of those local bookstores that make you realize that Amazon won’t win. Bezos may have a great business model, but his digital storefront offers none of the romance or synchronicity of Green Apple with its warped wood floors and dusty towers of books. Places like Green Apple are about more than purveying goods; they perform a service to the community, matching books with their rightful owners in the much the same way Ollivanders matches wizards with their wands. There isn’t a lot I miss about my twenties, but helping customers unearth just the right book at the right moment is one of them.

These days I still love making recommendations, but I dislike making them blind. Books are so personal that it’s next to impossible to intuit which one will speak to someone without knowing a little about their situation. This is one of the reasons I hate seeing people enslave themselves to Best Of lists. It goes without saying that Dwight Garner’s year-end Top 10 is full of worthy additions to the corpus. But that doesn’t mean that these books will have anything to say to you about your own life—which, in my mind, is the entire point of the enterprise. So rather than offering you a Best Of list of my own, I’ve decided to extend an invitation to readers. If you want a personalized book recommendation, you can write to me at orlivan[at]gmail.com. Tell me your top three authors and the last book you really loved. Then rank the following categories: story, characterization, literary style, visuals, quality of ideas, atmosphere. If you have a preference for modern versus classic literature, tell me that too. I’ll deliver a couple of titles to your inbox in exchange for a shout out on Twitter at #BookMatchMaker.

For everyone else, here is a shortlist of books I’ve read this year that have lingered with me long after the reading. I can’t promise that they’ll resonate with you in quite the same way, but I can assure you that all are smart, well-crafted, deeply felt books that deserve to be read.

The Great Man, Kate Christensen

Christensen has been publishing for years, but I’d somehow managed to miss her until I stumbled on a dogged-eared copy of her fourth novel, The Great Man, on my mother-in-law’s bookshelf during a recent “writing” weekend. Like many encounters with great books, it felt a little like destiny. As a reader, I pride myself on being fairly omnivorous, but if someone were to distill my favorite qualities in a novel and use them as the template for a book, it would look a lot like The Great Man.

Christensen is a brilliant observer of humanity with as much insight as she has compassion. Her unique mix of irreverence, intelligence and humanity immediately made me feel like I’d stepped into the mind of a fellow traveler. And her prose is spectacular: lucid and precise without being fussy, fluid without being lazy, evocative without ever being intrusive.

The premise of the book is deceptively simple. A well-regarded painter, Oscar Feldman, abruptly dies, leaving the women in his orbit to sort out the mess he’s left behind. But, like all really successful novels, The Great Man, is far more than the sum of its parts. The novel takes a tired convention—the story of “a great man”—and rewrites it from the perspective of the women in his life. Through the three distinct and pitch-perfect voices of Oscar’s wife, mistress and sister, we begin to see that the great man is actually a chimera, a reflection of the oft-thwarted needs and desires of his female kin. Christensen nails the quiet malevolence of female power struggles as well as she captures the symbiotic quality of close female friendships.

This is not an overtly political book, but it is deeply feminist in orientation, forcing the reader to adopt the perspective of “supporting” female characters that literature often deems beneath our notice. If this sounds like a chore, it’s not. The Great Man was an absolute pleasure from start to finish. I’m convinced that Christensen is one of our best journeyman novelists and that her talents will only blossom with time.

Tenth of December, George Saunders

Tenth of December is landing on everyone’s Best Of list this year, so I’ll keep my praise brief. This collection of stories was my first experience of George Saunders and I approached the book a little reluctantly. Saunders is such a critical darling I worried that his work would epitomize the sort anti-emotional, pared down prose style en vogue with the MFA set. I couldn’t have been more wrong. These stories are vibrant and alive: crackling with good humor and intelligence. The language was so fresh and surprising, I found myself going back over each story to try to figure out exactly how Saunders made it look so easy. I still don’t know. With these stories, Saunders performs a high wire balancing act between depth and levity, realism and surrealism, darkness and hope, that is spectacular to behold and hugely readable. These stories are just wonderful.

The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St Aubyn

An editor once asked me to choose: story or language. The answer was immediate and absolutely clear. Story. Some writers are language fetishists; I am not. I will nearly always choose a book with a compellingly human narrative over dazzling literary pyrotechnics. That said, there are a handful of writers whose literary prowess wins me over no matter what they’re writing about. Nabokov is one. Edward St Aubyn is another.

If you haven’t heard of St Aubyn, don’t be surprised. He is a British writer who is slowly gaining prominence in the US thanks to influential fans, like James Wood. This American edition of his work collects the quintet of novels devoted to Patrick Melrose and they are jaw-droppingly good. They are also unrelentingly bleak, particularly once you know that the suicidal antics of St Aubyn’s tortured, drug addled protagonist are closely based on his own life.

St Aubyn is from an old, aristocratic English family, one those clans that has been insulated from normal people for so long their eccentricity has mutated into certifiable insanity. If you are among the legions of Americans seduced by the aristocratic elegance of Downtown Abbey, this is your antidote. Even a cursory reading of St Aubyn’s journey through this treacherous world will drain you of sentimentality. So go in with girded loins, but do go in. Writing just does not get any better than this. St Aubyn is a true language savant.

The End of The Affair, Graham Greene

Every year I resolve to ignore “the list” and try to fill in the gaps in my literary education, and every year I fall short of my goal. But this year I did finally get to Graham Greene and I’m so grateful I did. I swallowed The End of the Affair whole, stealing midnight hours even with the imminent birth of my second daughter. I just couldn’t help myself.

Many of us are familiar with the premise of this book thanks to the Ralph Fiennes/Julianne Moore vehicle that came out a few years back. As the title suggests, this brief novel documents the final, agonizing spasms of a love affair between two middle-aged Brits. This subject matter could turn dismal and melodramatic in the best of hands, but Greene’s masterfully restrained depiction of Maurice Bendrix’s heartbreak is so achingly alive it practically ripples off the page. This is a book about the slow simmering disappointments that accumulate with aging; it’s about learning to embrace your own humanity; it’s about the ungovernable heart, the heights it reaches and the havoc it wreaks. It is just beautiful.

Honorable mentions:

–       Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante

–       The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

–       The Revolution of Every Day, Cari Luna

–       The Good Nurse, Charles Graeber

One final note, if you do end up buying any of these books, please try to buy them from your local bookstore. Go to Green Apple or Powells or The Strand. Barring that, go to their websites. These days more and more indie shops are set up to accommodate online orders. Paying the slight markup they charge is a vote for book lovers everywhere.

Happy Holidays!