Now that Jacob Wrestling is out of my hands for a while, I’ve had a good bit of time to replenish my brain with writing by other people. When I feel my creative energy flagging, reading other writers working at the top of their respective games never fails to get me excited and ready to get back to my own work. And since I had a good bit of time on my hands in this week before I go back to teaching, I decided to squeeze in as many new books as possible. Here’s what I read over this past week:
Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton–-this book succeeded in getting me interested in things that I usually find very dull indeed: genealogy, hometown pride, and quiet life in a small town. Okay, so she threw in a little hysteria, a sea monster, and a ghost (and those were, admittedly, what sucked me in), but Groff’s prose, while it may not cover my favorite topics, rarely strays too far from the compelling. She writes convincingly in a multitude of voices, has clearly researched her background materials meticulously, and somehow manages to extract sympathy for even the most coarse characters. Some first novels make me shake my head, and others make me envious. But Groff’s first book makes me want to give her a high-five for an excellent job.
Douglass Coupland’s Generation A: A Novel–-pretty dreadful. In my defense, I didn’t buy this one. That one’s on my husband. We both liked Generation X back in the day, and I still have a little tenderness in my heart for Polaroids from The Dead and Life After God, but it’s hard to take Coupland seriously when he clearly has no idea where his plot is going. Each character is a thinly-veiled version of Coupland himself, and I grow annoyed with his tired internal monologues clouting one another on the page. So why do I read his newly phoned-in work every few years? I suppose I’m curious as to why his books keep being made. He’s a literary Stonehenge.
Nick Laird’s Glover’s Mistake–it must be hard being married to one of the best contemporary novelists working in the English Language, but it seems the inimitable Zadie Smith didn’t scare her husband off from from fiction, and for that we have reason to be glad. While I prefer Laird’s verse to his prose (I recommend his gorgeous collections To a Fault: Poems and On Purpose: Poems to your attention), I gave this novel a go. Some stock prose and classroom tricks in the opening chapters nearly put me off entirely, but I’m glad I persisted. Laird accomplishes a rare thing by the end of this book: he stares down human ugliness without flinching. In fact, he barely even blinks. The book is wrenching, but it’s not cathartic. It’s painfully embarrassing, but it’s not funny. It’s a tour of the worst betrayals the middle class can enact on others and still get a reasonable night’s sleep, but it doesn’t moralize. How Laird managed to live with such reprehensible characters for long enough to write the book I do not know, but he certainly got them right in their wrongness.
Up next, Ray of the Star by Laird Hunt, Coffee House Press’s rising star (if you’ve not read his Indiana, Indiana or The Exquisite, you’re in the literary red. Get on it immediately) and Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel.
As always, I welcome recommendations!