Let me tell you about the best books I’ve read since August.
I’ve been on a burner lately. After devouring the Harry Potter series after we moved (Harry Potter being my literary equivalent of chips and queso), I dove into the piles of unread books I hauled across the country. Some have been barely okay, some not even okay, but other have been shining jewels. I love a book that turns on all the lights.
THE LONELY CITY, Olivia Laing
I read this book on our vacation, reading the majority of it, fittingly, in New York City, the city where Laing becomes intimate with loneliness. I’m not sure how to genre this book: memoir? art criticism? treatise? social history? All of this, but something more?
Laing, drawing on her own experience with loneliness writes about the five artists whose work and lives dealt with loneliness: Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Henry Darger, Andy Warhol, and Klaus Nomi. She explores the way the art of these five men was born out of their own lonely experiences—the art Wojnarowicz created inside the confluence of hustling and the AIDS epidemic and his own abject poverty, Darger’s strange, massive works of violence, created over a lifetime of almost total isolation, the eerie greens and open spaces of Hopper’s paintings, even Nomi’s weird, ethereal music (so strange and haunting I can’t listen to it)—and connects it with the broader social and psychological experience of being lonely. It’s a book about connection. And about what happens when we don’t receive it.
I read it as I tried to read New York City, tried to make my way, psychically, emotionally, through this beautiful, brutal, indifferent and intense city. It contextualized New York, and it contextualized my own loneliness. “So much of the pain of loneliness,” she writes, “is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting? About desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness?”
BIG MAGIC, Elizabeth Gilbert
Big Magic is one of those books I almost don’t want to talk about, because how can I add to what’s already been said? Elizabeth Gilbert’s frank, playful, funny meditation on creative living is wonderful. It’s an invitation to engage with creativity for no other reason than a love of being creative.
I read it as a writer, and, of course, Gilbert wrote it as a writer, but I think anyone with a creative practice could be woken up by it. This book is about taking the results of creativity less seriously, the work of creativity more seriously, and the practice of it sacred. Like she says:
“Pure creativity is something better than necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe. It’s as if all our gods and angels gathered together, and said ‘It’s tough down there as a human being, we know. Here--have some delights.’”
In the short time since I finished this book, I’ve returned to it a hundred times as motivation to finish what may be the worst short story I’ve ever written, to restart a longer project I’ve been kicking around for two years, and to continue to submit a short story I think is possibly the best I’ve written (and has received a dozen rejections already). The mark of this book’s value: I haven’t even gotten it back onto the shelf yet.
THE ORCHARDIST, Amanda Coplin
So many of the books I read I wouldn’t recommend to many. The Orchardist, gorgeous, rich, and poignant, is one of those books. It’s a quiet, poetic novel that tells a broad story in intimate details. I think many readers would find it slow, the plot secondary to its characters and their introspective experiences of the world.
Two girls come to Talmadge’s orchard, a sprawling complex of apples and apricots planted in an isolated Washington valley in the late nineteenth century. They’re pregnant and feral, and after one sister loses her baby and the other kills herself, Talmadge is left with an infant and a young woman too restless for his orchard. This story is told over decades, and the plot spins out over Talmadge’s deep, conflicted love for both the baby who grows into a woman and the woman who grows into a lawbreaker.
I read this book for its language, this sparse, dizzying flood of poetry. Amanda Coplin realizes this removed world with an elegant precision. We see the scope of time, its weight and shape in this quiet novel. She writes, of Talmadge’s experience of train travel:
“It was the rapidity that overwhelmed him and bothered his sensibility. He had moved slowly all of his life. He was used to seeing things drawn out of themselves by temperature and light, not by harsh action. But this was something different. This was how people lived, now.”
The Orchardist surprised me, and soothed me. I devoured its grace whole.
DARK PLACES, Gillian Flynn
Thrillers disappoint me constantly. I always read a few in the fall, and I always end up being let down by most of them. Either the mystery falls apart in the final hundred pages, or it isn’t properly solved, or if it is solved, it’s only done so in some random, pedestrian accident. (OR, looking at you, Into the Water, the mystery is solved only after we understand the reasons why men use women as fatal collateral in their emotional upbringing). But this one? Better than Gone Girl (IMHO).
Libby Day is the sole survivor of a brutal, Satanic attack that took out her mother and two sisters when she was a child. At 32, she’s run out of money, the donations of sympathetic stranger finally used up. To make some cash, the makes a paid appearance at a meeting of true crime fan club meeting. What begins as a way to keep bilking the men and women obsessed with her family’s murder out of money turns into a hunt to discover who actually killed her family and trailed their blood across her walls.
I read this book in three, very full work days. Devoured it. The pacing was excellent, the characters compelling without being likeable, and while Flynn’s writing isn’t to my taste, it’s propelling. And the murder, oh this murder. It’s perfect. It’s creepy; it’s grisly; it’s violent, it’s not built on inherently sexist gender dynamics, and in the last twenty pages, when all our questions are answered, it’s goddamn satisfying.
My reading life waxes and wanes (usually in direct proportion to how much television I’m watching—wonder of wonders), but right now, I’m exhilarated at the clip I’m reading at right now. These were the best of the third quarter.
What’s on my shelf for the rest of the year? A 1999 edition of Granta (the excerpt of Jasmina Tesanovic’s diary of the Serbian Civil War was awful and astounding), likely a few other thrillers, Laura Kasischke’s In a Perfect World and I’m thinking a reread of The Age of Innocence.
Tell me what you’re reading. Tell me what I need to be reading.