Picture me writing my novel, head down, fingers flying, type, type, type. I really don’t want to stop, but I need to alert you to three great new books. If you’ve been keeping up with these posts, you know a lot of books annoy me when I’m writing, which raises the question: Why do people keep sending me books? The UPS man came to my house TWICE today, the first time he left two galleys and the second time it was a 700 page manuscript, just dropped on my doorstep without warning. Why? I’ve made it so abundantly clear that I’m trying to write a novel and everything I read tastes like nickels.
Okay, not everything.
When I started the novel I’m working on now, my goal was to write something short, tight and intricate. I wanted a book with nimble little chapters. I’ve at this failed completely. But that’s one of the things that drew me to Kate Walbert’s terrific new novel His Favorites. If you’ve ever read a news story about sexual abuse and thought, oh, seriously, how could it have gone on for so long? Why wouldn’t she have told someone at the time? This book will answer all your questions.
Jo is like a lame impala limping along the veldt, trying to hold it together all by herself, when she’s spotted by the lion, the boarding school’s handsome English teacher that all the students call Master. She’s doomed, but the energy she spends trying to be funny and upbeat about her fate is what makes the story ring so true. Having caused trouble in her past, Jo’s determined to be no trouble at all in the future. It’s as if she’s trying to tell the reader what happened while making it clear we don’t have to worry about her. Boy, do we worry about her. This is a wildly compelling and completely believable tale that is exactly the book for our time. How does #MeToo happen? It happens like this. His Favorites was a real favorite in the back room at Parnassus. It’s our First Editions Club selection for August.
Another winner is a Early Work by Andrew Martin, a first novel I picked up after reading the terrific review in the New York Times by Molly Young. Listen to this: “Individually, Peter and Leslie have the amount of self-determination typically found in jellyfish or a dandelion tuft. But smashed together these two inert life-forms create a tumult of sexual and emotional energy. Who knew they had it in them?” Peter and Leslie, the privileged, lazy, wanna-be writers at the heart of the novel, sounded like the last people on earth I’d want to read a book about, but the review promised they were mysteriously irresistible, so I bought a copy.
If you were ever in your twenties, or are in your twenties now, or know someone who was once in their twenties, I would recommend Early Work. These kids like books. And sex. My gosh, do they read a lot of books and have a lot of sex. And they drink. And they manage to make it all feel so wild and free until they make it feel like a train wreck. It’s easy (or less hard) to make the reader care about decent people challenged by difficult circumstances, but to make the reader care about lying wastrels who do nothing? That takes real talent. I loved it.
My very favorite book of the summer, and of the year so far, is Kevin Wilson’s explosive collection of short stories, Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. Full disclosure: Kevin is one of my dearest friends. We met in 2002, not long after he graduated from Vanderbilt. He used to housesit for me when I went on book tour. I was in his wedding. I’ve loved his first three books, the short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth and his two novels The Family Fang and Perfect Little World, but this new collection caught me by surprise. It represents another level of writing entirely. The only thing I can compare it to are the stories of Denis Johnson, which is not to say they’re like Johnson’s stories, but they’re that good.
The stories in Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine are unhinged, raw, fierce and deeply imagined. When I finished the book, every story was so seared into my mind I felt like I could have recited them from memory. I kept playing the stories back, picking one as my favorite and then changing my mind. Every one could be called the best one, depending on your mood. It’s a collection without lulls or weak sisters, and while the themes of parents and children come up again and again, every take on these relationships is new and distinct. Nothing in this book blurs or looks away or lets you off the hook. So many really good short story collections wind up on the dust heap because there aren’t enough people who are interested in stories. But this isn’t a really good short story collection, this is a truly great one.
So if you’re looking for a late-summer infusion of energy, something to startle you awake, read all three of these books. They’re short, razor sharp, darkly funny and unsettling. I’m going back to work on my novel now to see if I can come up with anything half this good.
If you have a chance, come into the store and ask Bill Long-Innes to show you a picture of his new granddaughter. She’s a remarkable baby, and definitely worth the trip.
In 1985, when I was a graduate student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, my best friend Lucy and I would become obsessed by what we read. We belted out Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” for a full semester. We tried to memorize the first chapter of García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. We fell in love with many short stories. I was there to learn how to write short stories so there was a whole raft of them I obsessed over, but none were as close to me as “The Ideal Bakery” by Donald Hall. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m sitting in the airport, feeling terrible about Philip Roth’s death. I’ve been a devoted Roth reader since I was in high school, bought and read each of his books as they were published. I thrilled to them, learned from them, and loved them. The very worst Roth novel was still better than anything published in a given year. When I was 24 I got in terrible trouble in the English department where I was teaching for giving Portnoy’s Complaint to a college freshman. He loved it. His mother did not. Read the rest of this entry »
Let’s imagine that for each of us there is a basic self and an extraneous self. The basic self is simply who you are, the boiled down version of you, very simple, possibly naked. Say the basic self is represented by your fingerprints, your height, your DNA. The extraneous self is composed of all the optional parts of our personality, the things we love and hate, the things we’re attracted to, the things we try on and cast away. It’s still us, it’s just the more fluid version of us. The basic self is you in the bed. The extraneous self is the bed, the mattress, the mattress pad, the fitted sheets, the top sheet, the light summer blanket, the pillows, the pillowcases, the pajamas. You get the picture. Read the rest of this entry »
I’d worked with Liz Sullivan before. She’s an executive editor at Harper Collins, the person who handles the art books. Four years ago when I wanted to edit a collection of essays based around the photography of my friend Melissa Ann Pinney, I went to Liz. She was tough and exacting and in possession of a flawless sense of design. What we wound up with is TWO, a truly gorgeous piece of work. After we were finished, Liz and I stayed friends. These days we mostly talk about our dogs, though sometimes the conversation veers towards chocolate. Read the rest of this entry »
People like to know how writers become writers, and in my case a big piece of the credit goes to my stepfather, Mike Glasscock, who died on February 17, 2018. He was a famous surgeon and a pioneer in the field of neuro-otology. He had a big life, traveled the world, had three wives and four children. His achievements were spectacular, as were his mistakes. Mike came into my life when I was five, and even though he and my mother parted ways when I was 24, he and I stayed close until the end. Mike’s belief in me was epic. When I was a little kid, and I mean little, eight or nine, he would say, “Someday I’m going to open up a book and it’s going to say, ‘for Mike Glasscock.’” And he was right. I dedicated Commonwealth to him. The book was in large part based on him and the lives of the six children he and my mother brought together. The portrait I painted wasn’t always flattering, but Mike said he loved it. He was proud of me, and his constant encouragement and support transcended the madness of family life. Sometimes things work out. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m writing a novel. It’s going okay. I wrote a chunk of it over the summer, then had to leave it because I was traveling around giving talks. When I came back to the book after Christmas, and then again after the flu, I no longer liked what I’d written. Last summer I thought I had things figured out, but I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago I threw it all away and started again. This is the kind of thing that felt like the end of the world when I was 26, but at 54 feels like, Oh, now I’m at that part where I realize all the previously completed work is trash and must be thrown away. Okay. I remember when I realized the first 30 pages of Bel Canto were unsalvageable dreck. I sat at the kitchen table and wept. Those pages had taken eight months to write (because true dreck is composed very slowly). Someone walking into the kitchen at that moment might have thought something very bad had happened to me, and I would have had to explain that I was learning a lesson and it was hard, that’s all. Read the rest of this entry »