hadn't seen Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), which is impossible, but it's such a cultural touchstone that I knew what to expect. I knew the main character was a socialite called Holly Golightly. I knew she had a cat named Cat.
I will admit I was mistaken about one thing. As far as I know she does not have a friend named Tiffany.
I intended to dislike this book for two reasons. First, I am tired of the sort of female character whom everyone indulges, despite her poor behavior, because she is whimsical and pretty. Natasha from War and Peace is another one like that. I don't know if I mentioned I read War and Peace. I did, earlier this year actually.
Second, it is literary fiction. Literary fiction is a genre where characters reflect on thoughts. Ideally the characters do this reflecting in New York City. Otherwise the book is not eligible for literary awards.
Attractive young girl about town muses on life in the city and goes riding with her horses and people love her even though she kind of sucks. This is not a book I should like. This is the opposite of a book I should like.
But there's a scene where Holly and the narrator shoplift some Halloween masks and I felt like I was right there with them, running on the sidewalks with my stolen mask.
For literary style, character development, and atmosphere, Truman Capote reminds me of J. D. Salinger and Raymond Carver, who are obvious comparisons, and Madeleine L'Engle, who is not--but she wrote some novels that had nothing to do with time travel but lots to do with New York.
I enjoyed Michael C. Hall's audiobook narration. And for those of you with the same earworm, the group was Deep Blue Something and the year was 1993. It sounds like 1993, doesn't it? Like yeah, that's what life sounded like then.
I read Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.💅 I started microdosing it daily on January 1st and finished all 921 pages this morning.
I devoured Anna Karenina as a teenager, but I I was not expecting that same breeziness here (if a lengthy Russian novel about adultery can be said to be breezy). One of my college professors once told me that Tolstoy was embarrassed by the melodrama in Anna Karenina and considered the more serious War and Peace to be his masterpiece.
There is a small bit of truth to this. Let's get that out of the way. Tolstoy occasionally interrupts his narrative to, I am sorry there is no other verb for this, pontificate. He'll end a battle scene on a thrilling cliffhanger, then spend a couple of chapters talking philosophy. Tolstoy loves to criticize the historians of the Napoleonic era. He does not merely do history. He does historiography.
But leaving aside those digressions: this book is a damn soap opera.
We've got affairs, gambling, botched abortions, pistols at dawn, secret societies, heirs vying for fortunes, peacetime deaths, wartime deaths, love triangles, broken engagements, controlling fathers, and bigamy. The only thing missing is a premature burial.
I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (ISBN 978-1-78888-652-9, Sirius Publishing, part of Arcturus Publishing). If you'd rather watch the movie, there have been a ton of adaptations. I haven't seen any, but when I was getting started and still trying to keep the characters straight in my head, I kept looking up images from the BBC adaptation, and the costuming is gorgeous.
I am glad I can finally settle that question that every person must ask of themselves: Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? I am #TeamDostoevsky. While I enjoyed War and Peace immensely (the melodrama parts , at any rate), The Brothers Karamazov will never be dethroned.
Maybe, unlike me, you paid attention during the section on classical Greek literature in high school English. Perhaps you were not bored by Edith Hamilton's Mythology, a standard classroom text that takes exciting stories and neuters them with lifeless prose.
(I am working off memories from a quarter century ago, so if you would like to defend Hamilton from my slander, I am willing to listen.)
Madeline Miller is the glorious opposite of that experience. She is astonishingly good: taut prose, rich atmosphere, tight plotting, and characters who feel like real people.
The Song of Achilles is told from the perspective of Patroclus, who is banished after accidentally killing another child. He is exiled to the court of Peleus, whose son Achilles is preternaturally beautiful and athletic. This can happen when your mother is a goddess.
Patroclus and Achilles become friends and eventually lovers. If you know The Illiad, you know how this story goes. They sail to Troy to make war after Helen runs away with (or is kidnapped by?) Paris. Prophecy says the Greeks can't win the war without Achilles... but prophecy also says Achilles is fated to die there.
This is an exceptionally good book, centered around a grueling war and a queer love story that you want to succeed, even though you it will end in tragedy. And Frazer Douglas's narration of the audiobook is stellar.
A version of this post originally appeared on April 22, 2023.
A Man Called Ove--written by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish to English by Henning Koch, and narrated by J. K. Simmons--lives up to the hype.
I hesitated to try this one. Literary fiction is a hit-or-miss genre for me, skewing toward misses. Character studies can show how clever an author is, which is great for workshopping ten pages in your undergraduate fiction class, not so great for a whole novel. I do not have the patience to hear the same chord through an entire symphony.
Most of all, I was leery of the facile type of story where a cranky old person is transformed by the power of love and saves Christmas. I have never seen a Hallmark movie but I am confident I'm not their audience.
I'm delighted to announce I was wrong. For one thing it's a birthday he saves, not Christmas.
What could have been superficial sentiment becomes weighty, thanks to a somber thread. The main character, pronounced OOH-vuh, is determined to take his own life. His wife died six months ago and he just got laid off. This is not a sentence I get to type very often, but: his suicide attempts go hysterically wrong. For a book heavy with death, mourning, loneliness, and rejection, I sure did laugh a lot.
One criticism: Backman as storyteller chose to indulge in stereotypes about fat people, where he otherwise showed sensitivity and nuance. One of the secondary characters is fat, and he's always eating, always hungry. Without this fatphobia, it would have been a perfect book.
Apart from the lazy stereotyping, I was charmed by this novel. Strong plotting, wonderful characters, emotional depth, and humor that comes not just from the ridiculous situations but from the dryness of the prose.
A version of this post originally appeared on January 28, 2023.
George Saunders is in the very top echelon of my favorite writers. A literary fiction writer who leans hard into genre, he is arguably America's best contemporary short story writer, and his one novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, will stagger you. I'm getting into the yearly habit of reading him in January, to start the year out right. This year I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. It is not short stories nor a novel but... literary criticism! Of Russian literature!
I know this is going to be a hard sell, but stay with me here. The book is just astonishingly good. It's like being in the best graduate level English class, only you don't have to write papers or read Derrida. Saunders helps us dive into seven masterpieces, helping us as readers articulate why we respond to the writing, helping us as writers study the craft.
This book was such a joy. I kept making excuses to get to the audiobook--and please, if you're going to read this, consider going that route. Saunders narrates the discussion, while actors read the stories:
A version of this post originally appeared on January 21, 2023.
The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break (2000) features a protagonist who lives in the Piedmont of North Carolina. He works in the kitchen of a restaurant and lives by himself at the Lucky You mobile home court. He is handy with car repair and household fixes. He has the body of a man and the head and torso of a bull.
I can be forgiven for expecting this to be a fantasy novel, based on the first two words of the title ("The Minotaur") but I ought to have known it would be a literary fiction novel, based on the remaining four words ("Takes a Cigarette Break"). I tend to be leery of literary fantasy novels, because they tend to have a light touch with the good genre stuff. But I read till the end, hoping the Minotaur would gore somebody or get trapped in a maze. Alas.
Contemporary literary fiction is usually not my jam, particularly the slice-of-life subgenre that features the minutiae of daily existence, peppered with colorful character portraits. It's not to my tastes, but I can respect that Steven Sherrill did a fine job with it. I have no qualms recommending it, if that's your type of reading pleasure. Except:
The main character is both disabled and disfigured, and there's no real reckoning with that. His primary disability is with speech. His bovine tongue struggles with language, so his verbal communication consists mostly of grunting. His disfigurement is that he's half man, half bull. And most people he encounters just sort of... roll with it? They're pretty chill? I can accept the premise of a monster from legend frying potatoes in a diner outside Lexington, sure, but I cannot accept that human beings are open and accepting of radical physical difference. Like. Has Steven Sherrill ever met any people, at all whatsoever.
(For those of you wondering the inappropriate question, the Minotaur has an unremarkable human phallus. He is not hung like a Holstein.)
Given my inconsistent relationship with literary fantasy, you should take opinions with a grain of salt. Droves of people love this book. (Droves. Ha. Unintentional cow pun.) I encourage you to try the audiobook. Narrator Holter Graham gets the accents right, which is rare in popular media. North Carolina accents are hard. I grew up in North Carolina and can't do a convincing one. And he packs a lot of expression into the Minotaur's limited vocabulary.
When Covid first hit, I started doing book talks on social media as a way to keep in touch with people. I never got out of the habit. I don't discuss books by my clients, and if I don't like a book, I won't discuss it at all. While I will sometimes focus on craft or offer gentle critical perspectives, as a matter of professional courtesy, I don't trash writers. Unless they're dead. Then the gloves come off.