Thought Catalog
May 9, 2011

Lit: A Column About Good Books (May)

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What is the issue?

Each month, I’m going to recommend my favorite new books. Why should you trust my suggestions? I read a lot of books. I edit Omnivoracious, the book blog of Amazon.com, and The Bygone Bureau. But mostly, I’m extremely optimistic about the current state of books. I believe the best literature is being written right now. There’s just an overwhelming number of books out there, and hopefully, this column will help identify the ones worth reading.

The Adults by Alison Espach

Alison Espach’s The Adults is a coming-of-age story that starts in a wealthy suburb of Connecticut. Emily, the narrator, is full of adolescent angst that’s misplaced though not unjustified. But unlike the hordes of similar stories about the tragedies and ironies of growing up, Espach’s is decidedly stranger, funnier, and darker.

Emily’s first romantic interest is her next-door neighbor Mark, a relationship that is quickly warped by the suicide of Mark’s father, later revealed to be caused by the affair Emily’s father is having with Mark’s mother (did you catch all of that?). At 16 years old, Emily gets involved with her teacher, named Mr. Basketball — a relationship that’s both formative and disturbing.

But Emily never buries herself in self-pity. She’s simply waiting for the day when she has control over her life, rather than letting her life control her. I don’t love that her epiphanies are driven largely by her relationship with Mr. Basketball, but again, it’s a very human thing to compare our growth relative to others. In the second act, Mr. Basketball becomes Jonathan, and then finally Jack—a degradation of sorts, or a sign that Emily is maturing.

By the end of The Adults, Emily realizes that her pain has little to do with her surroundings. She spends a summer living with her father in Prague after college, only to find that her situation is the same and that things don’t resolve themselves with time, but with understanding. At one point, Emily says, “Adolescent confusion was a prerequisite to knowing something absolutely when I was older,” which is perhaps one of the truest things that can be said about growing up.

Read If You Like: Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

Banana Yoshimoto is one of Japan’s most celebrated writers, but her success stateside has, at best, been relegated to cult status. Maybe The Lake, her latest to be translated into English, will be the one to break her out into the mainstream. But maybe not.

The book’s narrator and her love interest, Nakajima, (which may stretch the definitions of “love” for some) engage in long discussions about their feelings, explaining exactly how they feel about short term loans UK. The result is a series of awkward exchanges that are sterile and devoid of emotion. Initially, I chalked it up to sloppy translating, but it becomes apparent that Yoshimoto’s simplicity — both in prose and narrative — speaks to a mastery of form. She is methodical in her pacing, delicate with her dialogue. The horrors from Nakajima’s past, which reveal themselves late in the book, feel inevitable but unpredictable.

Though it may come across as shallow at first, the depth of Yoshimoto’s minimalism reveals itself days after you finish reading. When I got to the last page of The Lake, I felt largely unsatisfied, but a month later, I find myself returning to the book with some regularity. Even at fewer than 150 pages, The Lake will haunt you.

Read If You Like: Haruki Murakami novels without magical realism.

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

In high school, a friend lent me a copy of Days of War, Nights of Love, a manifesto from the anarchist group CrimethInc. Even as a high school student, I remember finding the rejection of, well, everything to be idealistic and somewhat naive.

The Gospel of Anarchy is a novel based loosely around followers of these ideals. Set at the end of the ‘90s, the book follows a group of disaffected twenty-somethings as their beliefs evolve from a rejection of capitalism (ie. dumpster diving for gyros) to adopting a full anarchist-Christian doctrine (later photocopied into a zine, called the Good Zine). Justin Taylor, who penned the wonderful short story collection Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, brings the same vulnerable, aimless lives to The Gospel of Anarchy (although admittedly even at full novel length, they seem a little less fleshed out).

Taylor never comes down firmly on rejecting the dogma of his characters — though he clearly doesn’t endorse it. But like punk music, it’s less about the message and more about the feeling. Though digging through the trash for gyros and the worship of a homeless man seem like far-fetched scenarios, Taylor succeeds in writing a convincing novel about rebellious youth.

Read If You Like: Characters in Tao Lin books, sans Gmail chat.