Read Any Good Books Lately?

I eagerly open the books of fiction writers of current acclaim and sometimes find myself disappointed. These books have received awards, glowing reviews, the authors have been interviewed in places I admire, but the works themselves perplex me. They just don't get me excited either to read or to write; and inspiration to do either or both is what I expect from a book. Sometimes they downright turn me off. I don't like to dismiss books casually and I appreciate the vision, time, and impulse to write, so I decided to investigate why a book might hit me one way and not another.

Most recently, I decided that the qualities I'm looking for: a connection to why humans do what we do, refreshing language, rhythmical sentences, understated humor, a magical quality that speaks to one's subconscious mind, and a little tug at my heart or soul are not always what the awards are about. Inventiveness, cleverness, a novelty in the structure, and obvious wit (sometimes self-satisfied) catch some people's attention but not mine. Here are three writers whose works ricochet back to me, writers I keep trying to read with only partial success. Chabon and Egan, for the following examples, are Pulitzer Prize winners in fiction (2001, 2011, respectively), Lethem is a MacArthur fellow (2005).

I've tried Michael Chabon. So many people I know love his work. He is a talented writer, granted, but the books are too over-the-top for me. I lose sight of the story amongst the ornamentation of the quirks and the presence of the writer, although I was able to read much of The Yiddish Policemen's Union and enjoy it. But one 2009 article that he wrote in the New York Review of Books called, "Manhood for Amateurs: The Wilderness of Childhood" touched me and got to the core of what I'm looking for. It is about our landscapes and how children don't get to play outside and explore the world by themselves anymore and that by being deprived of this, their imagination and the possible future of art may be affected. The prose is elegant, effortless, magical, with no arrows pointing to craft. Perhaps I just prefer his personal essays and should try his book Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son.

I heard Jennifer Egan on the radio. She was a wonderful speaker: smart, thoughtful, articulate, curious, someone whose work I was eager to read. If you look up a picture of her you'll see that she is also good-looking. But the books let me down. I couldn't read past a few pages. The human interactions didn't feel right, the characters didn't speak to me. The inventiveness of A Visit from the Goon Squad is admirable. The concept is very clever. The story just doesn't interest me enough. I am surprised by her high intellectual concepts in light of how she describes her process. In an interview she says she writes fiction by hand "to bypass the thinking part of me and get to the more unconscious part, which is where all the good ideas seem to be." Consciously getting to the unconscious (I would say "subconscious") part is an extremely helpful, useful task for a writer. But I am looking for more than good ideas; I am looking for a magical connection.

Jonathan Lethem is an interesting mix. His earlier books are self-consciously about craft. He handles each sentence with polish, stringing together a perfect necklace of words per book. But then, with Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, the prose relaxes, soars: the magical quality appears. I came across an interview where he says, "A lot of people are led, understandably, to thinking of Fortress as a break to what preceded it. In my view, it's the opposite" partly because it has an "extensive commitment to mimetic tricks." Is he saying he crafted all the dreamlike qualities, that he consciously had control over all the magic? With tricks? I am dubious. I believe that a writer shapes the material, sometimes during, sometimes after, but I don't believe it can be crafted perfectly from the start without losing its liveliness. (I did read and like those two books, so perhaps it doesn't matter what he says about them.) I hunted further. Closer to the magic in a second interview, he says "And it's that game of not knowing what you're doing that, for me, is where the real energy comes from." That also sounds closer to the truth to me.

Perhaps it is that "not knowing" that I want to be part of. As a reader I don't want to be shut out of the mystery and be controlled; I want to go on the exploration with the author, be part of the process, get a chance to infer, imply, imagine, and read between the lines. And I want to trust that the author will show me something new, or help me to discover something I didn't know I knew already.

spread from A Death in the Family by James Agee

Among the Pulitzer Prize winners that I have read, these books moved me (prize date in parenthesis):
  • James Agee. A Death in the Family. An inventive, but not flashy work (see the only page, above, that visually describes a car from 1918 starting up and driving away). A book that seemed heartfelt, captured love, childhood, warm humor, family dynamics, and drew tears. (Awarded the prize in 1958, posthumously)
  • Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kittredge. Interconnected short stories set in Maine that get to the heart of the characters. (2009)
  • Annie Prouix. The Shipping News. (1994)
  • Toni Morrison. Beloved. (1988)
  • Alice Walker. The Color Purple. (1983)
  • John Cheever. The Stories of John Cheever. (1979)
  • Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird. (1961)
And some of the finalists.
  • Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1982) Haunting book. Beautiful metaphorical prose.
  • Tim O'Brien. The Things They Carried. (1991) Powerful structure. (Although I have only read excerpts.)
  • Grace Paley. The Collected Stories. (1995) Humorous, strong, and honest.
  • Louise Erdrich. (2009) Beautiful prose, powerful, riveting, brutal when she needs to be.


Really enjoyed your post!
I, too, did not fare too well with the Chabon book. May try the one you mentioned about childhood.
Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard is an interesting read, with recipes!
Susanna Kearsley, a Canadian author, has written some fiction books with great settings in time travel elements. The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden are two of her titles.
I was part of an anthology of writing to fund raise for those impacted by the Gulf Oil spill. It is called "Oil and Water and other things that don't mix."
Happy reads!
Alisa said…
Thanks, Patricia!
Always excellent to have new books to add to the reading list. More unknown adventures!
Bhavna Mehta said…
Hi Alisa

I loved Junot Diaz's 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' - i love books where they take me to another country and culture in a rich way. Diaz's language is amazing and his telling of history using fiction is wonderful.

Alisa said…
Yes! Thanks, Bhavna! His short story, "Fiesta, 1980" (in a different book) is the only thing I've read of his so far. I liked his style and storytelling very much.
Alisa said…
This may be happily endless, but I'd also like to recommend my teacher Peter Orner's books:

The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (pronounced MAH-vah-la: fiction about living and teaching in Namibia)

and his latest,
Love and Shame and Love (fiction about generations of a family growing up in the suburbs of Chicago)
Anonymous said…
I have just read an incredible political thriller ebook. I was browsing around at and found this ebook called The Cain Sanction, I read the preview and a
few chapters. It really was a page turner can’t put it down kind of book.
I didn’t know how it ends until the last sentence of the last page.. great read!!
Usually I don't read this genre but someone recommended it and WOW, loved it..

Theresa Hopkins said…
I agree with Amanda Sessions' comment. I too read The Cain Sanction by Mary McNally Ratto and loved it! It's a must read especially in an election year. Very thought provoking and a little scary. I hear she's a new author but she's off to a great start. Can't wait for the next one.