Thursday, May 9, 2024

Here Are My 13 Favorite Novels Since 1989

Ah yes, I love a good book list! Who doesn't? In March of this year, The Atlantic published a list of "the great American novels." Not one to be outdone, the NY Times recently published its list of best books of the 2000s. 

As much as I love a book list, I love a good trend, too. So I made my own book list to follow the trend. Below is a list of my favorite 13 novels since 1989. Why 1989? Why 13? No particular reasons -- they're just as arbitrary as those other two lists, aren't they? (But picking 1989 did allow me to include my favorite John Irving novel, Owen Meany, so let's go with it.) 

As always, I'm not claiming these are the BEST books of the last 35 years. What I'm claiming is that these are my favorites -- the books that left the greatest impression on me and made the greatest impact on both my reading life and my LIFE-life. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James -- This novel is just brutally violent, but so incredibly magnetically readable, even with dozens of characters, the Jamaican dialect, shifting narrators, shifting loyalties among the characters, and so many other "complications," it's still easy totally immerse yourself in. My friend Mike loves this book so much he has a tattoo of the bird on the cover on his arm, if that's any indication of how good it is. 

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith -- Zadie's 2000 debut was a vibe. Everyone was reading it! I didn't get to it until August 2005, and then I wouldn't shut about it. Also, this novel hooked me on all things Zadie, and I currently sit as a proud Zadie Smith Completist. Also, Zadie is the author of one my favorite but most awkward but totally charming author-meeting-moments ever. At a signing, I was wearing a Marquette basketball T-shirt, and when I got to the front of the line, Zadie goes, "ohhhh, do you play Marquette basketball?" Me, an unathletic 5'9" white guy. I just laughed and told her no, I was only a fan. 

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen -- The year is 2001, I'd just gotten my first "real" job out of college, which allowed me to get an apartment on my own, as well. I was an absolutely insufferable pretentious 20-something, and I was still sure I was eventually destined for literary greatness. I grew an extremely regrettable goatee and started frequenting arty coffeeshops to read and sometimes write. I mention this sad anecdote because The Corrections was the book that kicked off this trend for me. Peripheral events aside, I really loved the book (and still do) and started trying to write like Franzen. Which I couldn't do and still can't and I'm not sure I want to. 

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- I read this in 2013, not too long after it initially came out, and it was one of those amazing reading experiences -- one of those we always quest after as readers -- that cracked the world wide open for me. They say reading books imbues readers with empathy, and that's what this book did for me. I didn't know what I didn't know about race before reading this.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace -- The sky is blue, water is wet, and I'm a GenX white guy who loves David Foster Wallace. 😎 I actually didn't read Infinite Jest, though, until 2008 after DFW had committed suicide, which probably made for a vastly different reading experience than if I'd read before I knew all about his battle with depression. I've been meaning for years to do a reread. Anyone want to join me?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss -- Not to get all mushy, but I read this in May 2016 when my now-wife and I had first started dating when I was feeling all the warm and fuzzies of new love. This book is an example of a reading experience that arrived at EXACTLY the right time. It's not even really a love story, but it does have some of the most profound and thought-provoking passages about love and art and what it means to live. 

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving -- This was the first novel I literally stayed up all night to read, finishing it as the winter light began peaking through the window one early January morning. I love this book intensely, and think often about how it wrestles with questions of fate and free will. Plus Irving is (or at least was) an absolutely master storyteller. 

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay -- Why did I, a person who cares not for boxing, love a novel about a South African boxer so much? I honestly still don't know. But I did. I distinctly remember reading this at a coffee shop in Milwaukee in early fall of 2004, while the baristas had Oasis's debut album on, and me getting chills because I was loving reading this so much. That's another type of reading experience that we always look forward to as readers -- a "reader's high."

The Brothers K, by David James Duncan -- Depending on what day you ask me and what mood I'm in, there's at least a 75 percent chance I'll say this is my favorite novel of all time. It's a long family saga with a healthy dose of baseball. I read this a few months after I'd moved to Chicago in 2008, and I was struggling a little bit at the time, wondering if I'd made the right choice. I had, but this novel helped me through that tough time. 

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff -- Lauren Groff is one of my top three favorite writers (probably my favorite, actually), and I always vacillate between Fates and Furies and Arcadia as my favorite of her novels. This novel is how you do a marriage story -- an inventive structure and a complete turning of expectations on their heads. 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn -- Whoa! I had no idea a thriller could be like this! This is another novel -- the book that launched a thousand copycats and a cottage industry of novels with "Girl" in the title -- that cracked my reading life wide open. I never read many so-called thrillers until this book. To me, this novel is like Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit -- it's a popular piece of art that may not rouse the passions of stuffy critics, but nevertheless, it changed the world. I still love this book without an ounce of shame, and I can say without irony that I liked it before it was cool -- having read it the day it came out in June 2012.

This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper -- This was one of the first novels I read and then reviewed at The New Dork Review of Books way back in ... wait for it ... 2009! I honestly had no idea books could be this funny. After reading this, I immediately devoured all of Tropper's backlist, and discovered how much I loved this goofy genre dubbed "dude lit."

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth -- I read the fall of my senior year in college (okay, it was my second senior year -- hey, some of us need five) while I was suffering through a break-up. I remember constantly thinking as I read this -- the second time I'd read Roth (and I've read him more than a dozen times since) -- that, you know what, my life isn't that bad. It could always be worse. I could be Swede. 

So there you have it: Thirteen books, each that literally changed my life. It sure was fun thinking about these books again, and as importantly, what I was doing and where I was in life when I read them. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

2024 is One-Third Over, Here Are My Favorite Books So Far

Four months into 2024, and I already have what will be my favorite novel the year, the novel I've already been an annoying evangelist for, and the non-fiction book I recommend with no hesitation to anyone "just looking for a good read." With new novels from Claire Lombardo, Haruki Murakami, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many other huge names scheduled for the remaining months, 2024 promises to only get better. But let's take a second and review where we are at the one-third mark. 

Three Favorite 2024 Books...So Far

3. Martyr!, by Kaveh Akhbar -- Immense. An absolutely brilliant debut novel. This story is about an Iranian immigrant searching for meaning in art, drugs, booze, love, and his past. I can't do this book justice in a few pithy sentences. It's my favorite of the year so far, and unless the next eight months produces something cataclysmically good, this will be No. 1 in December, too. 

2. There's Always This Year, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- Reading Abdurraqib is a wholly singular experience, and this is my favorite of all of his fantastic books. You don't have to know anything about LeBron or the Fab Five to enjoy this book about basketball, his life, social justice, police brutality, racism, and about a million other topics -- wherever his mind wanders. And it's so much fun to follow him. 

1. Perris, California, by Rachel Stark -- Deeply moving, deeply disturbing, and immensely readable. This is about a salt-of-the-earth family just trying to get by in a small California town, all the while dealing with past trauma. It's a really heavy read, but really accomplished. This is the 2024 book I'll spend the rest foisting upon readers. I loved it a lot! 

Three Favorite Non-2024 Books I Read in 2024...So Far

3. Appleseed, by Matt Bell -- Three separate timelines thousands of years apart converge and complement each other in this hugely imaginative cli-fi novel. 

2. Music For Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai -- One of the better short story collections I've read in a long time, Makkai really showcases the power of being concise -- how a FULL and complete and ENGAGING story can be created in just a few (or few dozen) pages. 

1. Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey -- Making art is about making choices. A life dedicated to art means making MILLIONS of choices. Not every choice will be successful. Not even MOST choices will be successful. Catherine Lacey definitely made enough successful choices though to create a truly unique piece of art with this novel. It's novel that explores the nature of art, the purpose of art, how art is made, the effects of making art, and how art is judged. This was a best book of 2023 just about everywhere, and it's worthy of all its accolades -- if, like all good art, it has its flaws, as well. Still, you likely haven't read anything quite like this. Quite a ride.

Three New Articles for Chicago Review of Books

1. How I Found My Way Back to Writing -- This essay published in January is about how I returned to writing fiction. 

2. Developing Connections in Paul Yamazaki's Reading the Room -- A review of a really special little book distilling 50 years of bookselling knowledge from one of the absolute titans of the bookselling world.

3. 5 Books by Booksellers about Bookselling -- A listicle that is pretty much exactly what the headline says. 

One Last Thing to Note:

For the first time in 15 years, I changed my Twitter handle. It's @GRZimmerman, if for some reason, you're still over on that dumpster fire train wreck hellscape that is Twitter. Here's the thing about Twitter, though: I still love it, lumps and all. If you don't stray too far from your carefully curated literary bubble, Twitter can still be fun. Find me there, if you're still there, too.