This writing business is fraught with occupational hazards. Some nonwriters think those of us who wrestle with words and the unpredictability of computer software ought to give it up and "find a real job." Others believe writers are a breed apart deserving of something approaching awe.
The truth is, the profession tends to harbor a higher percentage of obnoxious twits who labor under the illusion that their work is of more value than, say, a plumber's. About the only thing that makes writers any different from other folks (besides the tendency to self-importance) is the work-driven necessity to read far more than is recommended for purposes of mental hygiene.
But for reasons better left unexplored, summer is the season traditionally associated with leisurely reading. In the hopes you find yourself gifted with free time, a cool breeze and enough of a break from the day-to-day grind to devote to some reading, I offer my second annual summer reading list for your pleasure and possible edification.
Much of the fiction I read this past year is a result of serendipity: Either someone recommended a title, or I literally happened across it under unlikely circumstances. That's how D.W. Buffa's works ended up on my night table.
I was rummaging through a bag of books someone was tossing when Buffa's The Judgment caught my attention. If one were inclined to "genrecast," so to speak, this novel could be considered a courtroom drama or legal thriller, but Buffa takes it further. Besides a knack for telling a great story, Buffa (I went on to read several of his books, including The Defense and Breach of Trust, among others) challenges the reader by posing intriguing questions not only about the legal system, but the very nature of justice. Readers who appreciate provocative writing as well as a good read should enjoy this San Francisco-based writer.
Amy Tan's novels have always been among my favorites, but as hard as I tried, I could not finish Saving Fish From Drowning. Though the story is narrated from an unusual perspective--a dead woman's--and the tale has an interesting premise (a group of travelers mysteriously disappears in the jungles of Myanmar), I never got into the characters. But that doesn't mean you wouldn't.
Digging to America is Anne Tyler's latest work, and as usual, she doesn't disappoint. Two families, one quintessentially American, the other Iranian struggling with assimilation, each adopt an infant from China. What makes Tyler so appealing as a writer is her talent in presenting a multilayered story with a pristine, minimalist style.
At the other end of the spectrum is Gary Shteyngart. His first novel, The Russian Debutante's Handbook, was met with orgasmic critical acclaim, and while it's a good book, it's not that good. But it is funny and ironic and touching and certainly well-written.
Absurdistan, his most recent work, is better. The writing is tighter and the story more evocative. Shteyngart's talent lies not only in conjuring a seemingly, uh, absurd story line, but leaving the impression that as outrageous a tale as it may be, it just may have some truth to it--on several levels. His mastery of the language is exquisite, and he happens to be hilariously funny.
I didn't think I was a fan of Tom Wolfe until I read I Am Charlotte Simmons. A brilliant and beautiful young woman from "the hills" earns a scholarship to an elite university, where her rural ethos runs up against a culture of selfish, privileged and self-indulgent college students. How she handles being an outsider makes for a fascinating story while the subplots provide a telling picture of contemporary college life among the children of the wealthy and powerful.
By far my favorite read this year was The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. This recommendation comes with a caveat: Since it runs more than 800 pages, if you want something you can read for a few minutes at a time or at a terminal between flights, this book won't do. Once the story line captures you, you will not want to put this book down.
Having said that, a friend of mine was able to read a chapter or two then return it to the library. You will either be captivated or find it ponderous. The novel centers on Sugar, a high-end prostitute in Victorian England, and her wealthy benefactor. It's a graphic tale about poverty and privilege that took the author more than 20 years to research and write. You've got to admire that kind of determination.
Since I do a lot of nonfiction reading as part of my writing gig, this year, I primarily stuck with reading fiction for pleasure and as a way to take a break from so much grim news. On the other hand, I recently discovered a source of uplifting news in the magazine yes! a journal of positive futures. Those in need of a booster shot of optimism will find it here.