It’s weird right now. Check out one of these books I’ve read since the list last April and get you some normalcy, or some escape, or get weirder, if that’s what you’re into.
They’re in no particular order, except for the first one, which was my favorite of the year, probably. They’re not the only nine I’ve enjoyed, just the ones I decided to write about. I post each book I read on my Instagram if you’d like to scroll and check out any others.
I also write my own books, which I recommend for any time of year. Check ’em out at bendalessio.com.
- Parable of the Sower (1993), by Octavia E. Butler
I could make a case for the first three books on this list to be my favorite of the past year, but if I’m going with one only, it’s going to be Butler’s Parable of the Sower. A dystopia set about by climate change, corruption, corporate greed, racism, and segregation, taking place in the 2020s, with a protagonist that possesses a power which provides her with hyper-empathy, or, the ability to literally feel the pain she witnesses done unto others — I mean, if you’re not hooked already, the book isn’t for you. It’s a survivor story in the sense that individuals band together to seek greener (and safer) pastures, except that the harmful pestilence isn’t zombies or post-apocalyptic cannibals, but just the culmination of current American civilization. It’s violent and grim at times, but powerful and uplifting and beautiful at others. In the end, it’s a story about the founding of a religion, and not a religion created to govern or oppress, but to do the thing all religions should do, direct its adherents to make the world a better place.
*This is where, if I have them, I share a bracketed passage or two. However, I had moved since reading Sower and when I put together my bookshelf, it was nowhere to be found. This is devastating. So, I don’t know if I had any bracketed passages, but if you find my copy out there, please let me know.
2. The Good Lord Bird (2013), by James McBride
I’ll admit my bias right off the bat: John Brown is my hero, it’s what got me to buy the book. And yes, there is a little bit of “don’t meet your heroes” going on in McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, as Brown, at times, is portrayed as particularly nutso. But this strange crusade across antebellum America is terrifying, gut-wrenching, and laugh-out-loud funny. You get to follow Henry Shackleford, a young slave, who inadvertently ends up with John Brown’s (who Henry refers to as “The Old Man”) holy warriors, and gets a new nickname, “Onion,” and gets a new gender, female, as Brown mistakes him as a girl from the get-go and Henry never corrects him. Historical characters like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass also make appearances. The book is historical fiction — not alternate history — so we all know (I hope) what ultimately happened to John Brown and his comrades, and we get no change here. But the adventure, the shift in perspective, and the little details, true or embellished, make The Good Lord Bird such an enjoyable read.
P.S. The book has been adapted into a show on Showtime, which should be released soon.
“The Old Man was a lunatic, but he was a good, kind lunatic, and he couldn’t no more be a sane man in his transactions with his fellow white man than you and I can bark like a dog, for he didn’t speak their language. He was a Bible man. A God man. Crazy as a bedbug. Pure to the truth, which will drive any man off his rocker. But at least he knowed [sic] he was crazy. At least he knowed [sic] who he was. That’s more than I could say for myself.”
3. American Pastoral (1997), by Philip Roth
Roth’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, American Pastoral, takes one family, and in some cases, one man, and tells the story of our nation’s transition from the post-war innocence to the tumultuous 1960s with a literal bang. The characters are so well-developed and the story heartbreaking that there are times that you want to shake Seymour “Swede” Levov until he becomes a man of action, and do the same to his little shit of a daughter, Merry — but I guess for her to do the opposite, to stop all action, for the love of Christ. It does flip the script on us. The Swede, the tall, handsome, kind, successful, phenomenal once-star athlete, is the character you root for. Meanwhile, Merry, living in her parents’ shadow (her mother is a former (reluctant) Miss New Jersey) with a stutter, is one of the most irritating characters I’ve ever met, but not in the kind of way that makes you want to quit the book, but in the way you want to see where she’ll go next and if she’ll ever be brought to justice. It’s an unsettling book. Not a feel-gooder. But the ride is immensely enjoyable.
“When people raise their glasses and toast a youngster, when they say to him, “May you have health and good fortune!” the picture that they have in mind — or that they should have in mind — is of the earthy human specimen, the very image of unrestricted virility, who burst so happily into that bedroom and found there, all alone, a little magnificent beast, his young wife, stripped of all maidenly constraints and purely, blissfully his… Easily, so easily, with those large protecting hands of his he raised the hundred and three pounds of her up from the floor where she stood barefoot in her nightgown, and using all his considerable strength, he held her to him as though he were holding together, binding together, into one unshatterable entity, the wonderful new irreproachable existence of husband and father Seymour Levov, Arcady Hill Road, Old Rimrock, New Jersey, USA.”
4. 1Q84 (2009–2010), by Haruki Murakami
It’s a long book — approximately 400,000 words-long, long — but Murakami’s tome features an assassin who doles out revenge on domestic abusers, a religious cult, a tortured editor, a teen literary prodigy, a surreal parallel world, and, in the end, a love story, all of which keeps the reader engaged. It is a derisive book, garnering both immense praise and criticism, and yes, at times, it is repetitive. But I view books with 200,000+ word counts as a once (maybe twice) a year adventures, which once you finish, will leave you extremely gratified. Now may be the time for you to tackle one such book and 1Q84 would be an excellent selection.
“Taking the loaded gun, Aomame found it noticeably heavier than before. Now it had the unmistakable feel of death. This was a precision tool designed to kill people.”
“One time, as the cold wind blew and kept watch over the playground, Aomame realized she believed in God. It was a sudden discovery, like finding, with the soles of your feet, solid ground beneath the mud.”
“Life might be an absurd, even crude, chain of events, and nothing more.”
5. The Meursault Investigation (2013), by Kamel Daoud
At the other end of the spectrum, Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, is the shortest book I read this year at only approx. 35,000 words. If the name from the title sounds familiar, it is because it is taken from Albert Camus’ (approx. 36,000 word) famous novel, The Stranger. In Camus’ book, Meursault, the poster-child of disaffected youth, commits a cold-blooded murder against “an Arab” — we never learn the victim’s name. Camus and Daoud were both born and raised in Algeria (Camus of the “pied noir,” French-Europeans, Daoud an Arab) and the former’s book had always influenced the latter’s. However, Daoud gives a name to the victim — Musa — and provides him with a side to the story of the 70-year-old novel. The narrator for that story is Musa’s brother, Harun, who spills it from a bar in Oran as if the reader is joining him for a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. The title is a bit misleading, as there is no real “investigation” in the hard-boiled sense, but in the investigation of the North African nation’s soul in the aftermath of colonialism, revolution, and more revolution.
“Mama’s still alive today.” A cheeky nod to The Stranger, a book the narrator is going to compliment and criticize in the next approx. 34,996 words. Camus’ famous first line reads: “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.”
“I gathered that he was a sort of orphan who had recognized a sort of fatherless twin in the world and who had suddenly acquired the gift of brotherhood, precisely because of his solitude.”
6. The Alienist (1994), by Caleb Carr
I’m of the belief that we (as in human beings) have always craved true-crime, only now can we consume it in binge-worthy, streamable TV shows, rage-inducing documentaries, and extremely detailed podcasts. While the above The Meursault Investigation is not an investigation in the conventional sense, this one very much is. To be honest, this top-hat, black cloak, horse-and-buggy period of history (New York, 1896) still doesn’t appeal to me all that much — fast forward me 25 years and stick me in Paris or Atlantic City — but The Alienist does such a fantastic job of not bogging you down in “old-timey” language or antiquated issues of the day. In fact, it is the lack of technical investigative tools that we take so much for granted in 2020 that makes what John Moore, Dr. Kreizler, and team are able to accomplish so impressive. We are at the rudimentary levels of criminal investigation here, with the “Bertillion System” and fingerprinting (which, at the time, was not permitted in court as evidence) in their infancies. But the crimes, oh the crimes, are anything but rudimentary; it’s some real sick shit they’re dealing with. I don’t think NYC’s underbelly does the scenery justice. It’s more like NYC’s fetid, rotted, taint. Oh! And there’s Teddy Roosevelt, which is always fun.
P.S. I know there’s a show of the same name. I don’t know if it follows the book chapter for chapter or just took the title, and I don’t care, read the book.
“It is never easier to understand the mind of a bomb-wielding anarchist than when standing amid a crush of those ladies and gentlemen who have the money and temerity to style themselves ‘New York Society’.” *This may have been my favorite sentence of the year.
7. Behold the Dreamers (2016), by Imbolo Mbue
Many, many books have been written about the immigrant experience and the “American Dream,” but Behold the Dreamers offers a particular glimpse at the 2008 financial crash and how the trickle-down prosperity of the good times drowns everyone in the bad. Moreover, how Mbue portrays the lingering pall of undocumented immigration makes the reader wonder, if, in the end, it’s all worth it — a question the Jonga family seems to ask themselves about halfway through the novel. I appreciated how there wasn’t an easy “these are the good people and these are the bad people” line that the writer could’ve easily drawn concerning the immigrant family scraping by and the rich Americans whom they work for.
*I don’t have any bracketed passages for this one, but looking back, the author’s decision to include a passage from Deuteronomy 8:7–9 was a great way to begin the novel.
“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land — a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills[…] a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.”
8. American Psycho (1991), by Bret Easton Ellis
Surprised how long it took me to get to this one. It’s dense. It’s dense in its descriptions of brand-name clothing from pocket square to sock, of Whitney Houston albums, facial cleanser, bistro menus, top-shelf liquors, and business cards. It’s also thick with sex and violence, often mixed. Now look, I don’t let my parents read any of my novels, so maybe I’m not one to talk, but there were at least a handful of passages when I had to say to myself, “Okay, that’s enough of that. Let’s move on.” So be warned, there are some of the most graphic scenes you’ll ever read in here. If you can stomach them (or just skip ’em, and no, the movie is not a barometer, that shit doesn’t even scratch the surface) Ellis’ book is a must-read for its voice, its characters — many of whom are so alike they can’t tell each other apart — and its overall critique of yuppie culture. I was born in 1990, so all of my knowledge of this time period is from documentaries and art, but growing up in Northeast New Jersey, I can see some of Patrick Bateman’s colleagues being my friends’ parents after moving to the burbs to start a family. Of course, the same question as in the film is there: Is it all in his head? Read it for an answer.
“He’s rich,” I say.
“Everybody’s rich,” she says, concentrating on the TV screen.
“He’s good-looking,” I tell her.
“Everybody’s good-looking, Patrick,” she says remotely.
“He has a great body,” I say.
“Everybody has a great body now,” she says.
- I believe this conversation summarizes how the 80s viewed themselves. Prove me wrong.
“Earlier in the day after a meeting with my lawyer about some bogus rape charges, I had an anxiety attack in Dean & Deluca, which I worked off at Xclusive.”
9. Heartburn (1983), by Nora Ephron
I know I roasted the “New York Society” in The Alienist section above, but let me be clear, I love the no-nonsense, open, derisive, and self-deprecating NYC sense of humor. Nora Ephron’s first and only novel — you probably know her for writing (and sometimes directing) films such as When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail — is autobiographical, or autofiction, a term I recently learned, and can be enjoyed in only a few sittings. Like many books of this ilk, the plot — and I’m assuming motivation for writing it — center around an affair. The protagonist is Rachel, who is ultra-sympathetic as the pregnant adulteree [sic] who takes solace in cooking. She writes cookbooks for a living and the novel is interspersed with recipes and anecdotes about food. Heartburn pairs well with Everything Is Copy, the Nora Ephron documentary written and directed by her son, Jacob.
“Later on, she got too serious about food — started making egg rolls from scratch, things like that — and one night she resigned from the kitchen permanently over a lobster Cantonese that didn’t work out, and that was the beginning of the end.”
“That’s the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there’s something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.”
These are some of the other books I’ve read in the past year that I enjoyed and could’ve written about but just didn’t:
The Handmaid’s Tale, The Nix, The Telling Room, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Crime and Punishment.