Five books that deliver life – with the boring parts edited out.
The adventures of a mostly normal life – and why they make the best kind of books.
I mean, that is what most of us are living, isn’t it? And so it seems fitting to corral a handful of books, all fiction, which draw their sense of tension, suspense, emotional depth, structure, and cultural relevance from the very plot points that make up our lives.
Now, don’t get all wonky on me; these books are not boring or trite or vacuous. And, no, you couldn’t have written them yourself. These books are fierce, terse, heart-breaking, hilarious, witty, acerbic, and smart as heck. They are what life would be like if you took out all the boring parts (roughly 67 percent), amped up the intensity, and always let conflict boil over. They are books that have the power to remind you just how beautiful and terrible life can be.
"The Feast of Love," by Charles Baxter
Charles Baxter has a book called "The Art of Subtext" that is referenced in writing classes from Harvard to Hong Kong, and when you read his novel, "The Feast of Love," you will understand why. Baxter summons up a cast of narrators, throws them each in turn onto center stage, and bids them to show us their world. From Bradley, the middle-aged owner of an espresso bar with his two ex-wives (who make appearances of their own), to Chloe and Oscar, the fiercely in love 20-something punksters. A retired philosophy professor and his wife pine for their estranged son while an author sneaks into a football stadium in the middle of the night in an attempt to combat his insomnia. "The Feast of Love" is truly an achievement of form, with characters’ lives being drawn together into a luminous tangle that you won’t soon forget.
"Motherless Brooklyn," by Jonathan Lethem
There’s nothing I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said. But I’m going to make you listen to it all over again, because for those of you who haven’t read it, you are really missing out. "Motherless Brooklyn" is what you get when you cross "A Separate Peace" with "The Big Sleep" (and by my accounting Mark Haddon, author of "A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time" owes Lethem more than just the tip of a hat). Lionel, the narrator, is an orphan diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome who falls in with a small time mobster, Frank Minna, after he matriculates from St. Vincent’s Home for Boys. But when Frank is murdered, Lionel’s world is thrown upside-down and he sets out to solve Frank’s murder and reestablish order for himself. Lionel’s is a compulsive and caustic burst of a voice and Lethem’s prose is a veritable high-wire act of linguistic precision.
"How to Breathe Underwater," by Julie Orringer
If there was ever a book to convert anti-short-story extremists, "How to Breathe Underwater" is it. Julie Orringer’s ability to flush out emotional truths is rare, and frankly, a bit disconcerting. Her stories are stark and at times painful, but manage to disguise themselves behind the camouflage of things like tenderness, beauty, and transcendence. She draws out what it means to have ties that bind, moments of insurmountable difficulty, and a beating heart, and captures the experience with photographic clarity. She is a brilliant writer, and will likely go down as one of the great chroniclers of our time.
"The Unnamed," by Joshua Ferris
OK, so maybe "The Unnamed" leans a little bit more heavily on the “mostly” component of Adventures of a Mostly Normal Life, but trust me, it earns its spot on this list. The main character of the novel is leading an entirely normal life until he develops a mysterious and unaccountable condition that causes him to have fits of uncontrollable (and unstoppable) walking. Tim Farnsworth is a well-respected litigation lawyer with a wife (whom he refers to endearingly as Banana) and a teenage daughter, who is content with his place in the world until he is seized by this mysterious condition which throws his whole life into crisis. Ferris achieves a remarkable duality: "The Unnamed" functions as both a realistic narrative – complete with medical, psychological, and familial tensions – and an allegory. I read this book six months ago and I still get goose bumps when I think about it.
"Who Will Run the Frog Hospital," by Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore’s trademark acerbic wit and perfect pitch are all over this brisk gem of a novel. Berie has gone with her husband to Paris. The couple has in recent years cultivated a quiet disdain for each other that both Berie and Moore handle with emotional distance and uproarious and heartbreaking humor. It is from this moment in time that Berie looks back on a teenage friendship she had with a young woman named Sils over the course of one summer. Though you will laugh until you embarrass yourself in public places, to quote Michio Kakutani of The New York Times, “[T]he book is, at heart, an elegy, reminiscent at times of Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited," for the passage of innocence and youth, and the fading of expectations and dreams.”
So there you have it: life – albeit a smarter, funnier, more interesting, sadder, and better-plotted version – distilled to fit between two cover boards. Don’t say I didn’t warn you/You can thank me later. Happy reading.