By Aryn Kyle. Published in 2007.
The first chapter of The God of Animals initially appeared as an award-winning short story in The Atlantic, and the residue of its earlier incarnation lingers in the pages of the novel. Good short stories distill so much into such little space—every word counts—and The God of Animals, with its tone set by that gorgeous first chapter, has that same kind of bewitching weight.
By Katherine Dunn. Published in 1989.
The story of Geek Love is grotesque—a vivid nightmare of abuse, violence, incest, and all manner of depravity—so it’s a testament to Katherine Dunn’s skill as a writer that the novel manages to overcome readers’ knee-jerk repulsion. Although the horror remains, as it should, the detached disgust melts away, making room for the wonder and thought and empathy the book also inspires. Dunn easily could have traded in shock value, but her writing is too smart and too human for anything so cheap. The bizarre premise might capture the attention, but the carefully controlled narrative, perceptively drawn characters, and evocative language are what make Geek Love so memorable and profoundly affecting.
By John Wyndham. Published in 1951.
I remember thinking, after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s widely ridiculed The Happening, that his choice to make plants the villains was a fatal flaw. Even the most sensitive allergy sufferer isn’t going to recoil in mortal terror from the image of a tree releasing pollen into the air. And carnivorous plants, as every scientifically inclined kid soon accepts with disappointment, are much more exciting in theory than practice. Plants, I believed, simply can’t be scary.
But I was wrong. Decades ago, author John Wyndham made predatory plants a key element in his post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids. (Forgive me. I’m still on a post-apocalyptic kick.) Wyndham succeeds where Shyamalan fails, I believe, because his triffids are still recognizably plants. Rather than giving them wild, goofy powers, Wyndham ratchets up familiar plant traits—poison, digestion of carrion—and hints that the triffids’ truly bizarre attribute—their ability to “walk,” however awkwardly, for limited distances—likely developed from reckless genetic modification. It’s just this side of plausible, just enough to burrow its way into the imagination.
Even more effective, though, is that triffids don’t become a serious threat until people are already rendered vulnerable. The “apocalypse” of the novel is not a single event but a series: one catastrophe paving the way for another and then another. The initial catastrophe—the meteor shower (or was it?) that blinds virtually the entire population—is perhaps the least plausible but certainly the most nightmarish: what it lacks it raw credibility it makes up for with its play on primal fears. Yet Triffids never feels exploitative. Wyndham’s writing is coolly matter-of-fact, and he excels at merely suggesting horrors, giving just enough to let the reader’s imagination run wild. The result is a weirdly reserved yet oddly effective exploration of the breakdown of human civilization—compelling, thought-provoking, and quintessentially British.
By Sarah Vowell. Published in 2008.
I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to stand in line to vote, so the day before, I picked up a copy of The Wordy Shipmates for the queue. As it turns out, my wait was only about thirty minutes, but Sarah Vowell’s short history of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a worthwhile purchase—not to mention oddly appropriate for a post-election cool-down.
Vowell is the best kind of history buff, pulling off the difficult balancing act of placing people within their historical context while holding on to her own values and judgment. In other words, she is fair but not a moral relativist. She neither whitewashes the past nor condemns everyone who wouldn’t fit in at a contemporary urban liberal cocktail party, and she has a real appreciation for the quirks and foibles that transform people from generic historical figures into distinct individuals. Now that I think about it, Vowell is a talented popular historian for the same reason she’s a talented storyteller: she recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human beings.
By Daniel Mendelsohn. Published in 2008.
When people complain that blogs are lowering the level of critical discourse, I always take it kind of personally, which is stupid for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the fact that this site is a poor excuse for a blog (too insular and infrequently updated). But even though I think it’s silly (not to mention offensive) to generalize about such a wildly diverse medium, I believe I understand what the Luddites are condemning. Lazy, glib, vicious, uninformed criticism does, in fact, proliferate on the Internet, but let’s be honest: that kind of dreck can be found everywhere. (I studied movie reviews in mid-tier newspapers as part of my master’s thesis—yes, really!—so I know of what I speak.)
The fact is that truly great criticism is a rare commodity, both online and on paper. Criticism that gives you something new to think about, criticism that both educates and entertains, criticism that inspires you to look at something familiar in a new way or to look at something new, period—that kind of writing is special, and it always has been.
Daniel Mendelsohn’s writing is definitely special. His new collection of essays, most of which were previously published in The New York Review of Books, showcases elegant and persuasive arguments, beautiful turns of phrase, and a deep understanding of his subjects. That alone would make How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken well worth reading, but what elevates the work to a higher level is Mendelsohn’s obvious passion for his subjects. He cares about contemporary interpretations of Tennessee Williams’s plays and what they might say about contemporary culture. He cares about well-meaning but misguided attempts to universalize the tragic love story of Brokeback Mountain. He cares about cinematic dramatizations of the 9/11 terrorist attack, what they conceal and what they reveal. That caring is contagious, and what’s more, it immediately belies the nasty myth that an intellectual reading must be a cold one.
Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons. Serialized in twelve issues in 1986 and 1987; published as a compilation in 1987.
Like many snooty bibliophiles, I always try to read an acclaimed book before the movie adaption comes out. Reading the branded tie-in edition would wound my pride. Reading the book immediately after the splashy debut of the movie preview pricks my vanity, too, but honestly, I’ve been meaning to read Sean’s copy of Watchmen for years. Truly.
I have to admit, however, that Watchmen was never at the top of my list. As much as I like to say that those who dismiss an entire medium or genre are intellectually lazy fools, I myself have a lingering prejudice against graphic novels. The hypocrisy and snobbery of that embarrasses me, but I do most of my reading on subway cars, and I feel uncomfortable carrying a book-length comic around with me.
The inevitable irony, of course, is that my own self-consciousness just delayed my enjoyment of a great book, for Watchmen really is as good as people say. A few years ago, Time included it on a list of the hundred best English-language novels written since 1923, and although the attempt to impose “objective” rankings on artistic work always makes me uncomfortable, the esteem in which Time’s critics held the book is not misplaced. Watchmen isn’t just “great for a graphic novel” (whatever that means); it’s great, period.
By Scott Westerfeld. Published in 2005, 2005, 2006, and 2007, respectively.
When I was about eleven years old, I decided I was far too grown up for children’s books. I refused to even set foot in the Young Adult section and instead wandered with proud determination through general fiction. I didn’t always truly get the books, but I unnerved a few middle-school teachers by declaring Larry McMurtry’s epic, violent, Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove my favorite novel, and—let’s face it—that was part of the reason I was reading it. (To be fair, though, I never would have gotten through the eight-hundred-page tome if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it.)
Anyway, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series is exactly the sort of thing I would have dismissed out of hand as a teenager but also exactly the sort of thing I would have enjoyed if I hadn’t been so vain. The writing itself is serviceable, if not particularly inspiring, but the characters are interesting, the ideas are provocative, and nothing is black-and-white. I would have appreciated that then, and I appreciate it now.
By Sarah Hall. Published in the UK in 2007. (Published in the United States in 2008 under the title Daughters of the North, but that’s a meaningless, generic title, and I’d rather not use it.)
The dramatic arc of The Carhullan Army is a fascinating one. At first it seems that author Sarah Hall is telling the story of a resistance movement—an uprising that will climax in either triumph or failure—but in fact, her focus is much sharper and more provocative. The Carhullan Army is not a story of resistance but of re-creation, a story of why and how a cowed civilian might rebuild herself as a hardened soldier.
Hall doesn’t romanticize. Her protagonist’s journey is riveting but deeply unsettling, marked by characters who don’t slip easily into categories of “good” and “bad” and who follow a course that may or may not be for the best. With such dark shades of gray on its canvas, the novel might have been horribly depressing (and some might argue that is still is) were it not so vividly, fearlessly, brutally alive.
By Barbara Kingsolver. Published in 1998.
On the back of my copy of The Poisonwood Bible is a quote from Jane Smiley’s review from the Washington Post Book World: “This awed reviewer hardly knows where to begin.” I love that line for its generosity and its humility and for the way it makes me feel better about not knowing where to begin myself.
But where can one begin with Kingsolver’s hugely ambitious novel? Spanning thirty years of tumult in the lives of a single unfortunate family, the multi-voiced narrative fearlessly tackles colonialism and patriarchy, culpability and absolution, the perversion of Christianity and the dark history of Africa, all with such artistry and urgency that I stayed up too late several nights in a row rather than set the book aside.
By Ann Patchett. Published in 2007.
Ann Patchett has the remarkable ability to simultaneously ground her work in reality and spin it into fairy tale. Her novels are both of this world and otherworldly, rich in hard, telling detail that somehow transubstantiates into something magical and fragile.
That sense of grace grows in large part from her choice to tell her suspenseful stories without using villains. An idealist (though not a blind one), she chooses to see the good in all her characters, even, famously, a band of terrorists (“one man’s terrorist…” notwithstanding). It’s an incredible tightrope act, threatening to pitch into callow schmaltz at any second, but to my mind, at least, Patchett succeeds, persuasively conveying the humanity of all her characters. The worlds of The Magician’s Assistant and The Patron Saint of Liars and especially Bel Canto are, perhaps, more beautiful than our own, but under Patchett’s spell, those worlds don’t seem so very distant.
Patchett’s newest novel, Run, fits neatly within her oeuvre. It, too, is an almost fable-like tale of good people in intriguing, artfully drawn circumstances. It doesn’t have the gorgeously magical air of Bel Canto, but with its lyrical writing and gently humanistic perspective, it still has its enchanting moments.