A Year in Reading: Edan Lepucki

December 6, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 10 2 min read

coverStoner by John Williams is not about a dude who smokes blunts all day.  It’s about a man named William Stoner, and the book tells his life story in a mere 278 pages.  The prose is unadorned and crisp, and it captures the true essence of its protagonist, a man who grew up on a farm, and then studied, and went onto teach, English literature at the University of Missouri.  In other words, a person who isn’t particularly noteworthy in the broader scheme of things. This is a heartbreaking and beautiful novel, one of the best I have ever read, or will have the privilege to read, in my life.

coverAwait Your Reply by Dan Chaon deserves all the praise it’s getting–and then some.  It masterfully interweaves three storylines (all of them compelling), and its characters, lost and alienated from the world and themselves, are rendered with insight and compassion.  I won’t soon forget the image of the severed hand in the cooler, or the eerie lighthouse motel, or the magic supply shop on some forgotten Cleveland street.  This novel made me want to use exclamation points, and watch scary movies, and read Shirley Jackson, and throw my computer out the window with a paranoid shriek.  Such a fun read.

coverNothing Right by Antonya Nelson: What a wit Antonya Nelson wields, and what sharp observations!   I absolutely adored this collection of stories about fucked-up people and their bad choices, their sad aftermaths.  I loved how she compressed time, and how, with a single phrase, I understood a moment for all of its awkwardness, anxiety, hope, and honesty.  I want Ms. Nelson to come over my house, share a vat of pasta, and tell me some more stories.

A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: These two books, however different, will forever be paired in my mind.  I read them fairly close together, and in both, the prose stunned me.  I read significant portions of each out loud, lying across my couch, or sitting up in bed, or pacing from room to room.  I did this mostly because I was trying to understand Woolf and Morrison’s books better, but also because their prose is so beautiful and intricate, that it deserves to be recited as poetry.  I feel grateful to have been let inside of their worlds—that syntax, those sounds.  They made my year all the richer.

More from A Year in Reading

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. ‘Stoner’ is the only novel I’ve read from this list Edan, and I feel almost as strongly about it. I’ve never read anything quite like this and was actually a little shocked that a story about an unremarkable man, told so cleanly, his psychology described without explanation, could be so mesmerizing, It might also be on my best books list; it certainly is one I’m least likely to forget. Another novel I find equally unique (for many of the same reasons, was William Maxwell’s ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow.’ (Read this year as well.)
    My other ‘great reads’ this year would be ‘As I Lay Dying,’ ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,’ Pete Matthiessen’s masterful ‘Shadow Country,’ and the three novels in Richard Ford’s Joe Bascome trilogy, which, taken separately, are each very good, but together make a great work. (Happy to see that Everyman has reprinted them in one volume.)

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Robert. I still haven’t read the Maxwell–but you’ve convinced me that I need to. You, and about 20 other people who have sung that book’s praises in the last few years.

  3. I read Mrs. Dalloway two years ago at the recomendation of my now-wife. I had read The Waves and Orlando previously, so I knew it would be excellent but I was still blown away by the writing, especially on the sentence level. I think my favorite being one that flashes from a ‘present day’ crowd to speculitive future london, with all that is left of the inhabitants being their gold teeth fillings. I wish I had the book with me now to quote from it but alas. I feel Virginia Woolf really should be reclaimed by those who read her as a modernist and as a stylist.

  4. Antonya Nelson!!!! Edan, HUGE thank you for recommending her book, Nothing Right. Love, love and more love. A treasure previously unknown to me! I gotta go now, read her other 8 books.p.s. her people are fucked-up?

  5. I’m so glad I’ve lured you into the Antonya Nelson fan club, Jamie! I haven’t read much of her other work, beyond her stories in The New Yorker. A lot to look forward to! I love to teach her story “Female Trouble,” which is in the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction (2nd edition, I think). And, I would say that, yes, her characters are fucked-up–damaged, conflicted, traumatized, confused. In the best and most riveting and true ways, of course.

  6. Jonathan, I’ve only read Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse–the latter was much harder for me to get into, and to even comprehend at times. I can imagine re-reading Mrs D. again and again, though, as there’s always something to discover in those sentences! I want to try Orlando next.

    I am curious what you mean by “reclaiming” her–aren’t those who see Woolf as a modernist and stylist the ones who currently have claim on her work? How is she usually read these days?

  7. Mmm… Well. Perhaps this isn’t common, but in my experience, in the University, Virgina Woolf is not read as an equal with Joyce or Proust which I believe she should be, but is more often read in classes and by individuals reading her in relation to women’s studies. Obviously she belongs in that realm as well, but I feel that people who read for style consider her perhaps a tier below the aforementioned Joyce, Proust, as well as Eliot, Pound, etc.

  8. i agree that woolf is on par with joyce and should be considered through the lens of style and modernism as well as feminism and women’s studies, but i think she gets a bit of both treatments (at least in the woolf class i took in college). i would raise you one and say literature in general needs to be reclaimed from the critical theorists and identity politicians and not allowed to be divorced from style and theme. my required theory class as an english major began with theorists who told me that words don’t have meanings and authors don’t write their books and then detoured into considerations of the-holocaust-as-inescapable-theoretical-nexus-of-all-suffering before bottoming out with endless discussions of the mistreatment of animals. and what exactly did that have to do with english literature?

  9. Jonathan, sometimes I sense a certain tone when people talk about Virginia Woolf, especially readers of difficult fiction. Many people who read Joyce and the like tend to throw in Woolf as the token female author who is up to snuff. (Like she got into the club because they needed one lady in the bunch…) But I may be imagining things–I am sensitive.

    Stephen, I am one of those rare birds who immensely enjoyed both my college English classes that did close-reading of texts, and those that started with theory and told me the author was dead. Go figure…

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