by Jake Buckholz
Tomorrow, I turn 27.
According to my Audible app, I spent 18 days, 3 hours, and 4 minutes listening to audiobooks since my last birthday. I don’t know how much time I spent reading physical books, but I hope it was about 12 days, so that I can say I spent a month of my 26th year in other worlds.
I won’t pretend to be a Capital-C Critic, but I have always been a Reader (and I have the Second Place AR trophy from fifth grade to prove it). This has been the best reading year of my life, so I’d like to share it with you. Below, I have divided 50 books into seven categories and ranked them within their own categories according to my own subjective opinion.
Without further ado….
New Americana (Fiction from the USA published in the last ten years)
Literature ain’t dead. If there is anything I hope to achieve with this article, it’s for you to go out and buy a book from one of these living authors.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich (2008) There's a Kurt Vonnegut storytelling tip about starting as close to the end as possible. Well, Erdrich hasn't heard it. Although it's less than 400 pages, this story feels immense as it sprawls across decades and generations. Then again, maybe she does follow Vonnegut's advice in that the book's climax occurs on the very first page. The rest of the story could be considered fall out. Geographically, this story is the opposite of sprawling. The narrative stays pretty much planted in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota and the nearby reservation. All the action is derived from the murder of a white family in the late 1880s and the subsequent blaming and killing of a group of innocent Anishinaabe who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. What we witness is the subsequent ripples such an act of violence inevitably creates and how they continue to play out for generations.
The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018) Powers’ description of the chestnut blight that eliminated the American Chestnut, the most common tree east of the Mississippi until the turn of the 20th century, is an eulogy for natural americana equaled only by Cormac McCarthy’s on wolves. It’s a big, slow book moving in tree time and its labeling as environmental fiction will insure that far too few will read it.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016) It begins in Africa during the slave trade. Two sisters are separated: one is sent to America, the other stays behind in the gold coast (Ghana). From there, the chapters alternate between the American and African family lines, each chapter progressing a generation and culminating in modern day.
Motherhood by Sheila Heti (2018) "I like being alone. It is hard to be around other people. Alone, one feels the whole universe, and none of one’s personality.”
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Otessa Moshfegh (2018) The “it” book of 2018. I read this in two sittings. The first 80% is phenomenal. At one point I found myself wondering, Is Ottessa Moshfegh the first of the Great Millennial Novelists? And she still could be. My dissatisfaction with the last portion of the book doesn't make me think otherwise, but after such a set up, the last chapter felt rushed, tacky, and forced. Still, it didn’t stop me from buying her earlier book which I am looking forward to cracking open.
The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams (2015) I once read an interview that referred to Joy Williams as a writer’s writer’s writer. Even I know that’s ridiculous. Obviously she’s a writer’s writer’s writer’s writer.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jesmin (2015) I don’t read a lot of fantasy these days even though it was one of the things that got me into reading at an early age. It feels good to be back, especially in the hands of such a master worldbuilder.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) In which the author uses the reader's heart as a speed bag for 720 pages.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013) Loved by readers and scoffed at by the gatekeepers of literature. Pfft. It certainly isn't anything radically new, but it's not trying to be, and after a dip into obscure, experimental, Hungarian literature, this was just what I needed: strong plot, great characters, and a talented writer. An excellent case of going back to basics and nailing it.
Now We Will Be Happy by Amina Gautier (2014) The stories were fine though they didn’t stick with me in any meaningful way.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (2015) Equal number eye-opening and straight up pretentiousness.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman (2015) This could have made an incredible short story, or novella even, but as a novel, it's too little butter on too much bread.
Pen America Best Debut Short Stories 2017 edited by Yuka Igarashi (2017) After a particularly brutal week of rejections for my own stories (8 in 3 days), I came across this book at the library. Wanting to see what sort of stories were being, not only accepted, but awarded the title of "Best", i checked it out. It started strong and I immediately began to doubt my own abilities, but then it got worse, worse, and blander and blander. In the end, there were only two stories in here that i was impressed by. This right here is why I’ll never get an MFA.
Everyone knows these names (except for Krasznahorkai), but that doesn’t mean everyone has read their books.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922) Y'all know that episode of South Park where they keep trying to do something new, but The Simpsons had already done everything? That's what reading this book was like. Just about everything that I have read (or written) in the past that I thought was new or experimental has already been done by Joyce 90 years ago. There's nothing I can say about this book that hasn't already been said. It's a masterpiece (maybe THE masterpiece (if there was such a thing)). That said, it is not an easy book and large sections can be incredibly frustrating. When I started reading it, I was looking up references, reading chapters multiple times, reading along with a few blogs, generally just trying to squeeze as much as I could out of it, but when I gave in and just let myself read the book, it became a hundred times more enjoyable. He treats language like a playground; have fun.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866) Do you like feeling sick in your stomach? Read Dostoyevsky.
The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925) We are all Joseph K.
War and War by László Krasznahorkai (1999) This book swung wildly between mesmerizing and being an absolute chore, and I think that had more to do with the mood I was in when I sat down to read. It is a demanding book. The chapters are made up of single, multi-page sentences and I can't imagine how one would even begin to translate it (originally written in Hungarian). The narrator is an unhinged Hungarian archivist who has gone to New York to transcribe a manuscript he found, upload it to the internet, and then kill himself. It is not a book that is concerned about any of the typical writing devices because it is not a typical book. I didn't understand most of it.
The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (1934) For me, the magic of Schulz worked best in the shortest pieces; Nimrod, Pan, and Mr. Charles are little more than a page each, but are nothing short of masterpieces.
Under the Jaguar Sun by Italo Calvino (1986) Hate to disrespect my boy Calvino like this, but I put one of his worst books up against some stiff competition. My bad, Italo. I’ll be sure to read The Baron or something for the next round.
19th Century Britain
I’m as surprised as you are that I had enough to fill a section titled 19th Century Britain. I really must be getting old.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871) Fuck me, right? Five stars for Middlemarch, a thousand page British novel published in 1871, now I am just being pretentious. But really, I loved this book. Possibly the most fully realized cast of characters in anything I have read. Virginia Woolf calls it "one of the few English novels written for grownup people.”
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847) The Love Triangle is common enough across fiction. The Love Triangle in which one of the trio is dead is a more specialized subset, and one for which I seem to have a fondness. Joyce's The Dead and Wes Anderson's Rushmore come to mind (though, to be fair, Rushmore isn't a triangle if you include Bloom (I wonder if naming a character Bloom was a nod to Joyce?)) Admittedly, Wuthering Heights isn't a triangle, either. It is more of a triangular prism spanning two generation in which many of the axes are dead and the others are horrible, which is not to say the dead ones weren't horrible, too, when they were alive. It is a bold move to write a book with an unlikable lead character. It is far bolder to write a book without a single likable character, but Brontë does it. Perhaps that is the reason I struggled through the first half, but I am glad I pushed through because the back half and the conclusion were worth it.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847) Oh, Jane. You’re too good for this world.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895) I started this via the Obscure podcast with comedian Michael Ian Black, in which he reads “Jude the Obscure” and comments on it, but then I ended up getting hooked on the story and he was updating too slowly, so I finished it on my own. Listening to the podcast was more fun.
Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817) Honestly, I can’t remember a thing about this book. I’ve heard you’re either an Austen fan or a Brontë fan. Me, I guess I’m a Brontë boy.
If it weren’t for the inclusion of Julián Herbert, I could have titled this list Latin American Masters, but he is too green for such a title just yet. Borges, Bolaño, and Allende, however, are as big as they come.
2666 by Roberto Bolaño (2004) I have to admit that I went into this book wanting to not like it. It sounded too good to be true: "a masterpiece of the 21st century", a ridiculously ambitious thousand page book written by a romanticized author in a race against time as he knew he was dying. It’s just the kind of thing a sucker like me would fall for, so of course it ended up becoming one of my top 3 favorite reads of all time. It's slow, so meandering, in fact, that several of its five story lines never come together. There is a brutal 300 page stretch at the heart of the novel detailing a series of hundreds of women murdered in Mexico (based on real events which occurred in the 1990s in Juarez and were, largely, ignored) which may have permanently darkened my view of humanity. Most of the characters are held at arm's length and the lack of humanity can become frustrating. Would I recommend this book to people? Probably not, or at least not to just anyone. I think, even a few years ago, I would have gotten bored and put it down before I reached the hundredth page, but if you're willing to stare into the void for the length of this book, I think it's well worth the effort.
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende (1982) From Richard Powers’ The Overstory: “The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Here’s that good story: a perfect marriage of magical realism and communist propaganda.
Ficciones by Luis Jorge Borges (1944) Here I've been smoking Calvino's weedy symbolism when I could have been mainlining it with Borges.
If nothing else, it taught me the verb moondle (“Therefore, on Tlön the phrase ‘the moon rose over the sea’ would be written ‘upward beyond the constant flow there was moondling,’ or simply ‘upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.’”) and what more can one ask for?
Tomb Song by Julián Herbert (2011) A happy surprise! I grabbed this book off the public library's new arrivals shelf because I liked the cover. It was only translated into English this year. I couldn't find much about the author, but I did learn he has published more poetry than prose, and that makes sense: this book certainly reads as a novel written by a poet. I ended up reading most of it in a single sitting while I was sick in bed with a fever. (if I may, I would recommend reading this while feverish, as it compliments the writing style). The story isn't so much linear as it is a poetic swirl around a central idea: the narrator's mother who is on her deathbed, but that description hardly seems fitting. It is also a book about Mexico (“sweet nation”), growing up, masculinity, art, etc.
The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño (2003) This book contains five short stories and two essays. The essays, one on the writer's illness and the other a love letter to Latin American literature, were easily 5/5. The short stories didn't resonate with me as much, although I did like “Police Rat” a lot. As he does in the two novels of his that I have read, Bolaño explores the world as a "desert of boredom" with oases of horror and happiness scattered throughout.
Every so often, I need a break from fiction, so I read nonfiction about fiction.
The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Cambell (1949) A perfect blend of anthropology, the art of story, and psychology. At points, it felt like Campbell was breathing directly into my brain, expanding it like a balloon. Other passages felt scattered and difficult to connect, but that has to be expected when delving into the world of myth.
The Curtain by Milan Kundera (2005) Necessary reading for heady, pretentious writers of fiction.
We Say No by Eduardo Galeano (1963-1991) At this point, I am just reading everything I can get my hands on by this man. His books aren’t easy to find. This is a collection of his journalism that ranges from Pelé to the Cuban revolution that I picked up while in Seattle. Highlights: Magical Death for a Magical Life, All Bolivia in a Railroad Car, Fascism in Latin America: A Letter to a Mexican Editor, Ten Frequent Lies or Mistakes about Latin American Literature and Culture, and The Discovery of America Yet to Come.
Why I Write by George Orwell (1946) The Lion and the Unicorn, the second essay in this collection, has nothing to do with writing, but was written as the Nazis bombed London. It outlines Orwell's views on England and the war, including a practical approach for implementing democratic socialism in England. This, as well as the final essay, Politics and the English Language, which discusses, in part, how politicians manipulate language remain required reading in the Trump era.
Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino (1988) Reading Calvino for the first time last year marked a shift in my own writing, so when I came across this (advice given at the end of his life to the writers who would take over in the 21st century) I was pretty stoked. This isn't the type of book on writing that dispenses tips on grammar, characterization, plot, getting published, or anything like that. It ignores the bones of the craft and takes aim at the soul.
Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith (2009) I have always liked the idea of Zadie Smith without ever actually being able to get into her fiction, but i loved these essays. My favorites were the ones on Middlemarch, Kafka, her trip to Liberia, and David Foster Wallace. The whole "Seeing" section left me kind of flat, but even that had some highlights, like her thoughts on Date Movie (2006).
20th Century American Lit
Probably the hardest to rank
The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955) Once I received a DVD copy of Magnolia (1999) in the mail from a good friend with a note attached that read: "Never have I felt more understood by a piece of art." I watched it and enjoyed it, but didn't feel "understood" in any way. One day I would like to send this book to someone with a similar note, but I would expect them to have the same response I did to my friend's beloved film. This book is something like 960 pages long. There are upwards of fifty characters and the only way to recognize who is speaking for much of the book is by memorizing each characters’ speaking patterns, which are all distinct enough, but still! that's not an easy task when you're slogging through a thousand pages and some characters disappear for huge chunks of the book (and then return under a new name). And that’s not to mention the dense theology and endless references to obscure pagan religions. That said, this is one of the funniest, most thought-provoking, and enjoyable reads of my life. Truly, the urtext of American postmodernism.
Tracks by Louise Erdrich (1988) The deeper you get into online literary circles, the more Haruki Murakami gets shit on for being a lightweight intellectual, or a pop writer or whatever. Murakami isn’t one of my favorite writers or anything, but the people hating on him fail to see what his work is capable of. It’s not so much what is on the page as it is the spell he weaves around you, transporting you into a sort of trance, a headspace that’s unlike anywhere else. Louise Erdrich has the same ability. I read three of her books this year, and I don’t remember them in great detail, but I remember the tranquil place they sent me while I was in the act of reading, and, to me, that is even better.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977) Milkman Dead, Pilate, Guitar Baines, Two Corinthians, Sing, Hagar...the character names reflect the mastery and originality on full display for 350 pages. The story itself is rather simple: a coming of age tale following the life of Milkman Dead, but its scope is kaleidoscopal.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) “‘I have a little food’ plus 'I have none.' If from this problem the sum is 'We have a little food,' the thing is on its way, the movement has direction."
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984) Strange poetry. I found myself very jealous of the writing, dreamlike and beautiful without being flashy at all; there are no single lines that stick out. In fact, picking it apart in that way seems somehow wrong. The story switches between several members of a few different families of the Chippewa and can feel closer to a series of connected short stories than a novel. For that reason, I never hit a flow while reading it and would put it down for days at a time, but I always found it easy to get back into the world when I picked it up again.
Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992) I don't think I'm quite pretentious enough to call myself anti-plot, but I certainly don't find it to be a necessary part of every story. And in Jazz, Morrison takes what many able writers could have turned into compelling novels and disposes of it in the first paragraph, as if to say "Here's your damn plot, now let me write about what I actually want to write about!" Which is, apparently, her characters and New York City. The book moves out from the first paragraph like a spill moving in every direction away from the epicenter until it sets and forms a clear stain.
Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor (1965) The fact that this collection is seventh on this list is a testament to the six books above it because these are essential American stories. Shout out to Obadiah.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (1969) I picked this up after I heard of Le Guin's death. I enjoyed the anthropological musings on gender, the political posturing of the first half, and the alien mythology sprinkled throughout. The second half adventure part left me mostly bored, though.
In the Land of Men by Antonya Nelson (1992) I just can’t read Gen X fiction right now. I have no appetite for it.
I was unable to fit these five into any of the existing lists or think of any better combinations. I mean no disrespect by labeling them miscellaneous.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981) I binged the audiobook version in a few marathon sessions which felt like the appropriate way to consume this particular novel as it is inspired by the oral storytelling of India. India acts as the setting, but also the subject matter as Rushdie retells the story of its independence in somewhat more fantastical details and no lack of meandering. In fact, I might have felt more bogged down as Rushdie tells entire life stories of seemingly minor side characters had I been reading the physical book, feeling the full weight of its 700 pages, but listening to it I was constantly intrigued
The Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015)) by Elena Ferrante Italy’s response to Knausgård. Ferrante’s tetralogy covers growing up poor in Naples in extraordinary detail. She also sheds light of power structures within the patriarchy in ways that were, for me, enlightening and, up till now, invisible.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (2013) This book could have been really gimmicky and bad. Instead, it had me tearing up in a pizzeria as I waited for my order. The main character is You, but the You in question is a boy born poor in Rising Asia who works their way up to the top. On the surface, it's incredibly impersonal, each chapter skips at least one decade ahead, and no character names are given. Instead, there's You, Pretty Girl, Wife, Son, Mother, Father, etc, but somehow Hamid takes these seemingly skeletal characters and breaks them open.
Silence by Shūsaku Endō (1966) This read almost like a Russian novel to me. It has that same dark, slow, almost demented feel to it. However, it was written by a Japanese Catholic who studied French literature and follows the story of a Portuguese priest who comes to 17th century Japan and faces severe persecution. If all that sounds a bit dry, believe me, it's not. There are gruesome torture scenes, philosophizing on the futility of man, and musings on the absurdity of missionary work. My only qualm is that it has the perfect ending, and then goes on another two unnecessary chapters.
Inland by Gerald Murnane (1988) This dude really loves grass.