A couple of days ago I got a voice mail from Wendy-the-Buddhist. She had a terrible head cold. Her kids were sick. She needed some novel recommendations because as she said on the phone, “I’m tired of all this Zen crap.” (One of Wendy’s best qualities is that while a dedicated Zen practitioner, she also understands that taking one’s Zen too seriously belies a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles.)
So I went downstairs into my lovely hidey-hole office where the library currently resides and started looking through the fiction section (legacy of my bookseller past, my library is sorted by section, and alphabetized by author). Now, if you’ve got a bad cold, you need books with a strong narrative, the kinds of novels where you can fall into a world completely for a while, so here’s what I came up with for Wendy:
The Keep by Jennifer Egan. I’m usually allergic to both the gothic and postmodern metanarrave trickery, and so I resisted this book for a while. But I really loved Egan’s previous novel Look at Me and over at Bookslut (where they also did a good interview with Egan) they’d raved about The Keep — turns out this odd, novel-within-a-novel set in a both a prison and a weird castle-turned-hotel in some unnamed part of Mitteleurope was the best thing I read all year. I loved these characters. I loved the sentences. I loved the way everyone in the book is deeply messed up and trying really hard and yet, and yet, most important, no one is healed, or redeemed by the end of the story. Egan’s pulled off a wonderfully clever novel without clubbing us over the head with her own cleverness, she’s written a book that’s a great read, and that has characters I’m still haunted by months later. What more could one want?
The Ha-Ha by Dave King. I picked this one up off a table in the Big Corporate Bookstore in a fit of desperation. I needed something to read, and while I was suspicious — the cover had a dispiriting quote claiming that the book “is full of emotional truth” and the jacket copy described a Group Of Quirky Characters of the sort that I came to loathe in graduate school (people — the assignation of quirk is not character development). Despite my snotty approach to this one, I was delighted to be proven wrong. The book does have quirky characters, but they are genuinely quirky, not shadow-puppets with the quirk glued on. They’re real, and broken, and struggling to both break free of their brokenness and learn to live with it. And it’s kindness that eventually saves them all, hard-won kindness.
Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to mention this one to Wendy on the phone, but this was one of those books that I never wanted to end. It is so beautifully written, and the characters are up against all the really important stuff in life: kids, death, and spiritual crisis. Right up my alley. Not only can Strout write gorgeous sentences, but her unsentimental portrait of a minister who is a good man struggling mightily to survive a dark night of the soul that threatens to destroy his family, his career, and his congregation, does what the best novels do, takes us into the inner world of another person and makes that world real, and touching, and consequential.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Another book I expected not to like (perhaps there’s a lesson in this post about expectations) but which I found really touching. I got the movie from Netflix and liked it enough that I got curious about the book. Yes, it is slightly too clever for its own good, but there’s a heart underneath all the clever dialect and loggorhea — again, a book that allows you to enter it fully, and to live in it’s peculiar and specific world for a while.
I’ve made a more extensive book list over on my Amazon store site: click Book List for Wendy-the-Buddhist.