For me, there are two types of reading urges: the impulse to read the mirror of your life, and impulse to forget your life by reading yourself out of it.
This year I was lucky enough to read a book that did both. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo may be a play about ghosts with an undead president, a spectre with a giant erect penis on display, and enough puns to light up the night sky, but it’s anything but slapstick. This is everything humor can and should be: the mirror, the escape, the heartbreaker and the thing that makes you shout “Ha!” on public transportation. (No one even turned around, but that’s the San Francisco BART for you.) Lincoln in the Bardo is as close to a perfect book as I can imagine. I have now read it about five times, which either says something bad about me or great about this book.
I also read two phenomenal story collections this year. Both were in the “mirror of your life” category—though often a kind of fun-house mirror. First, I re-read Katie Chase’s Man and Wife. Sometimes I lie awake thinking about these stories. They’re not just about what it means to have a female body in this world, but about female consciousness, female expectations, and female desires. And Katie does it all with a dry wit and beautiful concision that will make you wish you wrote this collection. I also read Katherine Heiny’s Single, Carefree, Mellow. Fiction is so often complimented for being unsentimental, but this collection leaps into sex, disgust, desire, and betrayal as though it were a ball pit full of M&Ms.
If you’re ready to escape your life, I highly recommend two very different novels: Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, and Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. Borne takes you into a post-apocalyptic world where the protagonist questions every step she takes—but not the existence and good will of an otherworldly, amorphous being. Totally creative, weird, funny, and suspenseful—I didn’t think one time about my looming deadlines or the contents of my child’s lunchbox. Manhattan Beach, like all of Jennifer Egan’s work, was researched and executed so beautifully that the absorption is total. Not a detail out of place to make you think you aren’t really on the dock of a ’40s shipyard with a sick sister at home and a mysteriously missing father.
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