Tenth of December – George Saunders

So I’m not entirely sure what I just read, but wow… It was good. I think. I’m pretty sure. Yeah.

What drew me to this book was the universal praise it has received. It seems that everyone from Zadie Smith to David Foster Wallace considers Saunders to be some sort of literary god. Even the New York Times (which does not speak in absolute terms very often) has called Tenth of December “the best book you’ll read this year”. My final verdict: the hype is totally deserved.

This book is first and foremost a collection of short stories, each one presenting a different vision of a failing America. Although this sounds very gloomy, this collection is surprisingly charming and the stories all have a lot of heart. In one story, a family member recollects a backyard pole dressed for all occasions; in another, Jeff faces horrifying ultimatums and the prospect of Darkenfloxx™ in some unusual drug trials. While each story is remarkably different, they are all distinctly Saundersian – wryly hilarious, dark, and satirical. None of the protagonists are particularly successful. Most of them aren’t even that likable. But they are oh so wonderfully human. I think that Saunders has this incredible ability to reveal to us what we really are in a way that makes us laugh at first, and then feel sickened.

When reading this collection, the first thing you notice is the language. It seems a little bizarre at first, but you soon get used to Saunders’ extensive use of slang, neologisms, and fake product names. To be honest, I hated it at first, but soon came to appreciate it. I think that it really allows the reader to get inside the protagonists’ heads.

Bizarre writing style aside, I was surprised by how readable this collection is. Saunders actually reminds me a lot of Zizek in the sense that you can read the words on the page very quickly, but after a few pages, you realise that you haven’t fully grasped what has been said. And so you go back and re-read the words and they still don’t fully sink in, but you become more and more convinced that Saunders is definitely not a mere mortal.

Overall, I loved this book. I think I need a little break from Saunders, but I will definitely be going back for more after I have had a little time to digest this one. Would definitely recommend for short story enthusiasts and fans of hardcore literary fiction (especially fans of Donald Barthelme and Jonathan Lethem), although if you are looking for a breezy, straightforward read, Saunders is not your guy.

Have any of you read Tenth of December (or any other Saunders books for that matter)? If so, what did you think? 

~Anna

My Top 5 Post-Election Recommendations

I don’t think that I’m alone in saying that the results of the recent US election have left me feeling pretty down. But more than anything, they have left me wanting answers. How could this have happened? Why did it happen? What can we do about it? Almost every day customers come into the bookstore and ask me to recommend something that will lift them out of their post-election depression, which has inspired me to put together this list of my top five post-election recommendations.

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Written by a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, this book is a fascinating study of class, culture, and the American dream (or rather, the loss of the American dream for many). While this book does not explain – at least not directly – why Trump won the election, it certainly is a touching and troubling meditation on the lives and experiences of those who made up his largest voter base.

2. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit

Although it was published in 2004, this book could not be more relevant at the moment. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit makes a radical case for hope as a commitment to act in a world whose future remains uncertain and unknowable. Drawing on her decades of activism and her extensive research into political, social, and environmental history, Solnit reflects on the often-neglected victories of activism and argues that the positive consequences of our actions are not always immediately seen, directly knowable, or even measurable. As usual, Solnit’s writing is beautiful, but more than that, she hits home with her hope-filled message for anyone who feels overwhelmed, discouraged, and desperate about the current state of political affairs.

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead 

While most of the books on this list are non-fiction, the power of a novel should not be underestimated. This book deals with America’s disturbing racial history and reimagines the path that slaves took to escape the Deep South as an actual railroad that runs beneath the earth. To be honest, I haven’t read this one personally, but quite a few of my coworkers attest to its brilliance. Oh, and it won the 2016 National Book Award, so there’s that.

4. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America – Nancy Isenberg

This book is a fascinating history of the class system in America, extending from colonial times to the present, and challenges all comforting myths about equality. It’s well-written, thoroughly-researched and very relevant today. Would definitely recommend reading it in conjunction with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. 

5. Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks 

Sometimes I think that the best cure for post-election depression is a little bit of perspective, which brings me to my final recommendation. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is set in 17th century England in a small, isolated village gripped by the plague (how’s that for perspective?) and tells the story of a brave young woman struggling to survive and to prevent the disintegration of her community. While it sounds pretty depressing, this book is actually incredibly uplifting and weirdly relevant to the US election.

Anyway, that’s it from me. Which post-election reads do you recommend?

~Anna

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life”. 

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to one of my friends about how strange it feels to be graduating soon and in response, she recommended that I read this book. And so I did. And I thought that while flawed, it wonderfully captured the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of my generation.

Marina Keegan graduated from Yale in May 2012 and it seemed that she had a bright future planned out. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. However, five days after her graduation, she died tragically in a car accident. Shortly after her death, her final essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a post-humous assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories and explores the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

What I liked about this collection is that Marina doesn’t try too hard to sound older. Rather, she embraces her youth and the result is wonderful – it’s raw, fresh, and authentic. I think that young writers often feel a great deal of pressure to appear older, more sophisticated, more literary. You can tell that Marina grappled with this pressure, but her voice is still distinctly original.

Of course, her writing is not perfect. I felt that she tried a little too hard to be profound at times (some of the lines were very dramatic and felt a little forced) and all the endings were sad. There’s nothing wrong with sad endings, but when every single ending in a collection of stories and essays is sad, it gets a little depressing. I also thought that some of her short stories were a little contrived, although I did enjoy most of her non-fiction, especially her opening essay.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and am sad that I will not get to see Marina develop as a writer. That said however, I think that we all have a tendency to idealise the dead. Last week, when Leonard Cohen passed away, we sold more copies of his CDs in one week than we had in the entire year of 2015. Does this mean that the quality of his music improved overnight? No. It means that people view him differently now that his is dead – their image of him has been softened somewhat around the edges. While Marina was certainly a promising writer, it is important to remember that this collection, in its current form, probably wouldn’t have existed were she still alive.

You can read Marina’s essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ here.

~Anna