November 10, 2017
I was probably the only kid in my high school who was regularly reprimanded for tuning out teachers in favor of burying my nose in books by William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, Charles Bukowski and Cormac McCarthy.
I later earned a degree in comparative literature, and spent the first leg of my career as a journalist. In other words, I’m fascinated with words, and that’s true of the other curious thinkers at Fast Horse, too — where writing/reading/strategic communications remain at the core of what we do every day.
If you’re looking for new reading material this winter, here’s a snapshot of several books I read this year, ranging from crime thrillers, to canonical horror, to an autobiography by The Boss, to some of the most lauded (and challenging) literary achievements in recent years. Hopefully there’s something here that piques your interest too.
Lincoln In the Bardo – By George Saunders
Known for his incredible (and incredibly haunting) short stories, George Saunders is among the most distinctive voices in modern literature. His highly anticipated debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, has been showered with critical praise and prestigious awards, including this year’s Man Booker Prize.
To try to describe the book feels like an injustice. It starts with the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s young son, and largely takes place in a cemetery that’s occupied by ghost-like entities who are stuck in a sort of spiritual limbo. Saunders spent countless hours researching Lincoln, and the book’s experimental style uses quotes and excerpts (some lifted from real texts, others fictitious) to weave together a patchwork narrative. (Apparently the audiobook version includes 166 different voice actors serving as individual “narrators.”)
Interspersed between those wildly disparate voices are vivid passages depicting the struggle for an unsettled soul – each piece of the innovative narrative structure ultimately coalescing, and providing a unique perspective on human grief, a president’s psyche, the supernatural and so much more.
Born to Run – By Bruce Springsteen
Perhaps more than any other figure in music, Bruce Springsteen can captivate an entire arena, while making you feel like you’ve been invited onstage to actively participate in the show, even if you’re stuck in the nosebleeds. Similarly, his autobiography is written in The Boss’ familiar voice — but just when things feel comfortably familiar, he’ll hit you with an unexpected, unvarnished personal insight, or a surprising anecdote that gives you a whole new perspective on songs you’ve heard a hundred times. I inhaled this book; if you’re interested in music and the lives of musicians, I can’t recommend it enough.
The Vegetarian – By Han Kang
Despite its brevity, this novella will seep into your subconscious and stick with you long after you’ve placed it back on the shelf. Winner of last year’s International Man Booker Prize, The Vegetarian follows the story of Yeong-hye, a South Korean housewife who has a disturbing dream and decides to stop eating meat. However, this book is not about the morality of adopting an herbivorous diet. It is broken into three parts, each told from the perspective of a different person in Yeong-hye’s life. It starts with her husband, a slug of a human who married her solely because he found her unremarkable. It then shifts to her brother-in-law, an artist obsessed with bringing to life a unique (and very graphic) vision. Then we get the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister, who witnesses Yeong-hye’s disturbing decent into mental illness.
There has been widespread debate about what this book “means.” I found it to be a complex, unrelenting and deeply disturbing reflection on the immensely important topic of human (and especially female) consent and autonomy. It’s not for everyone, but it’s that rare sort of art whose originality and challenging subject matter affects you on both a visceral and intellectual level.
Out of Sight – By Elmore Leonard
FX’s Justified, in this humble reviewer’s opinion, is one of the most underrated TV series of the past decade. So I’ve always wanted to read a novel by the man whose words inspired it. Out of Sight was an absolute blast — a romp of a crime novel, fueled by crisp, pithy dialogue reminiscent of classic noirs. The protagonist, a shotgun-wielding U.S. Marshal named Karen Sisco, forms an unlikely relationship with a bank robber who breaks out of prison. Of the books I read this year, this was far and away the most fun and entertaining. Good luck putting it down once you’ve picked it up. (Once you have finished it, check out the Steven Soderbergh film adaptation, which is a lot of fun too.)
The Other – By Thomas Tryon
I stumbled upon this book at a beautiful little shop in Nashville. Its jacket described it as a cult classic that influenced many psychological horror films that I love from the 1970s. It’s a dark period piece that follows twin 13-year-old boys, one of whom seems like a perfect angel, and the other a sadistic psychopath. It’s suspenseful as you follow their family’s slow spiral into increasingly horrific situations. It’s not scary in a “killer jumps out from behind the door”-type scary. It frequently reminded me of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, as well as the film The Bad Seed – more of a slow-burn, Rosemary’s Baby, sticks-with-you-well-after-you’ve-closed-the book-type scary.
Kafka on the Shore – By Haruki Murakami
Much like Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, Kafka on the Shore is nearly impossible to describe. Debates about the book’s true “meaning” continue to rage on. But to assume that the novel can be “solved” is to strip it of what makes it so amazing. It’s an often-surreal story that follows two main characters — a 15-year-old runaway, who seems to be trying to escape an Oedipal curse, and a simple-minded older man with a knack for talking to cats. If that sounds odd, it’s only scratching the surface — but that’s what makes Murakami’s world so magical: anything could happen at any time. I can’t help but draw correlations to Hayao Miyazaki, whose Studio Ghibli films are (in my mind) exponentially more imaginative than anything Disney has made, in part because they don’t rely on easily discernible versions of reality (good vs. evil, etc.). Murakami is hailed as a modern master, and Kafka on the Shore shows why.
The Talented Mr. Ripley – By Patricia Highsmith
Tom Ripley is one of the most influential sociopaths in literature, and this is the novel where he made his powerful debut. Patricia Highsmith’s thrilling crime novel, with Italy as its primary backdrop, would be a timeless text just based on its incredible story and sharp dialogue. But it’s Highsmith’s rich characters — and her ability to make you somehow sympathize with such dark individuals — that makes this novel so rich and engaging. (If you’ve seen the straightforward, Matt Damon-starring Hollywood adaptation, just know that the book is far darker and more compelling than that forgettable film.)
Neverwhere – By Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere is perhaps best known for helping usher in the “urban fantasy” genre. It’s a sort of surreal, noir-ish (and at times, nightmarish) novel that follows the story of an otherwise unremarkable Londoner who encounters a mysterious girl named Door, and soon finds himself thrust into “London Below,” an underworld inhabited by “rat speakers,” “floating markets,” “black friars” and an “angel” named Islington. It’s imaginative and a kind of dark fairytale for adults, which entertains while still making you think.
Jesus’ Son – By Denis Johnson
When I saw social media posts bemoaning the death of Denis Johnson this year, it was clear he had an enormous impact on many people whom I respect. So I snagged a copy of Jesus’ Son, a short-story collection, and I immediately saw why. The book takes its name from Lou Reed’s lyrics in the song “Heroin” and tells loosely related tales about the underbelly of American culture — spanning addiction (in its many forms), adultery, petty crime and other unsavory topics. (The characters would feel right at home on a Velvet Underground album.) The resulting collection is powerful and reads more like a novel than a traditional short-story collection.
’Salem’s Lot – By Stephen King
Stephen King provided source material for some of my favorite films, so I finally decided to dive into his work. I started with his second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, a highly influential vampire tale from 1975. It’s a must-read for horror fans, setting the stage for many vampire tropes that would succeed it. I’m not sure if this is a compliment or a critique, but the book basically reads like a screenplay, more focused on scene-setting and dialogue than, say, sophisticated sentence structures. But if you like a fun, spooky story, ’Salem’s Lot is among the best.
Ready Player One – By Ernest Cline
This 2011 sci-fi novel, which is about to become a Spielberg blockbuster, is probably the closest thing to a “young adult” novel I’ve ever read. It’s set in a dystopian future, in which people spend the majority of their time plugged into a massive virtual reality platform called “The Oasis.” The characters are on an epic scavenger hunt for the ultimate “Easter egg,” and the book itself is essentially one big catalogue of references to 1980’s popular culture — from early arcade games to sci-fi movies to Rush lyrics. Ready Player One is quite corny at times, but its unabashed love of “nerd” culture is ultimately endearing, and if you’re looking for an entertaining page-turner chock full of unabashed pop-culture nostalgia, it’s an engaging adventure.