More than once in the past five years of writing this blog (sidebar: five years!) have I searched my own archives for a review of a book I later realize I read pre-2010, in those lackadaisical years before I decided to commit my amateur opining to the Internet. After all, I didn’t have ST in fifth grade, when I read Dean Koontz’s Watchers for the first time and truly fell in love with fiction. Or in ninth grade, when I read 1984 for the first time, thereby cementing a lifelong love affair with dystopian novels. I didn’t have ST the first time I read David Foster Wallace, or David Sedaris, or Chuck Klosterman. I didn’t have it when I read Middlesex, or White Teeth, or Running with Scissors, or when I went on that weird Ray Bradbury bender in late 2009. For five years and roughly 250 books (sidebar: !!!) I’ve had the pleasure of cyberspace ranting in such a way that I can parachute back into a novel I read last year almost as well as one I read last month. Before that though, it’s all just a literary stew: half-memories of plots from one novel cut with the characters from another, vague recollections of life lessons learned or at least considered in the wake of angsty Greater Messages. I know I read things—I must have—and yet all but a chosen few titles have been relegated to the dustbin of reading recollection.
So like Professor Snape (RIP) bequeathing his memories to Harry Potter, I give to you here my own old favorites, to slip into your Pensieve for lazy Sundays or late nights, long bus rides or beach-side binges—or wherever else you remember reading books about which you forget everything except that you loved them.
THE NIGHT OF THE GUN
By David Carr
David Carr’s death last year was a blow to journalism—not just the community, but the institution itself. Carr was like the Bad Santa of editorial integrity, the kind of person who embodied everything about the Old Way that the New Way would be negligent to abandon. He was sharp and circumspect and direct, a font of wisdom from which journalists of every ilk sought guidance and insight.
I met David Carr but once, very briefly, and all I could stammer out after two glasses of wine was, “I love your book.” Because even though he was already then a legend, a pillar of media celebrity, he was to me firstly the author of The Night of the Gun, a memoir in which Carr—a onetime crack addict and alcoholic—combs through his life to compare his (high, drunk) memories with what actually happened IRL. Carr’s is an incriminating task, not just criminally but emotionally, and his ability to take an unflinching look at his personal failings (within the fabulous construct of comparing one’s own memory with one’s own reporting) is a testament to his legacy.
SPECIAL TOPICS IN CALAMITY PHYSICS
Sophomore novels, like sophomore albums and sophomore years, can be tough, and when Marisha Pessl’s Night Film came out in 2013, it was to generally humdrum reviews (including mine). Not because Night Film (a murder mystery meets mystery mystery) wasn’t zany and ambitious—it was—but because it followed Pessl’s debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which she began writing at 24 and which was even more zany and even more ambitious.
Succinctly, Special Topics is the story of Blue van Meer, a precocious teenager with encyclopedic knowledge and a kooky charismatic father. But it is also a 500 pages of “look at me” showmanship on Pessl’s part, a whirlwind of philosophical, literary and scientific references that demonstrate an enormous amount of creativity and research, even as they can sometimes annoy. I don’t always prefer a writer who tries too hard over one who tries to little, but in Pessl’s case, too much trying is made up for by a lot of talent.
I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE
Sloane Crosley doesn’t need any more accolades—a literary darling of sorts, she’s written multiple books, appeared on Gossip Girl and Craig Ferguson’s show and is probably having a pretty okay time of things right now. But all the same, I’d be remiss to exclude Crosley’s first book—a witty and observant collection of coming-of-age essays—from any list of titles meant to include authors who made me go, “Huh!”
Crosley has a way of capturing the banality of middle-class suburbia that feels simultaneously insightful and familiar, and there’s an ease to her writing in IWTTBC that falls off in later books—most noticeably in her first novel, The Clasp, which was fine but little else. Here though, is a girl who doesn’t yet know her imminent success, whose anecdotes feel effortless, whose self-awareness is in perfect balance. IWTTBC is a Carrie Underwood American Idol audition, a 2007 Justin Bieber YouTube video, an episode of The Real World Season 1. Crosley now is good, but Crosley then didn’t yet know how good she was; what results is both endearing and intimidating.
I SHUDDER: AND OTHER REACTIONS TO LIFE, DEATH AND NEW JERSEY
If you haven’t heard of Paul Rudnick, you have: He wrote the screenplays for In & Out, Sister Act and Addams Family Values. He’s also written a novel, a young adult novel and other plays, but for me Rudnick is best remembered as the author of I Shudder, a book of essays about which I can’t remember anything except that I loved it. So strong is my hazily sourced affinity for this collection that it’s survived nine years and a half-dozen bookshelf purges. Almost a decade after I read it, I can still see it from my couch. (This is the opposite trajectory of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, which keeps getting buried further and further in the recesses of my barely-there closet space. Those illustrations are still scary.)
Rudnick has a new book coming out next week (another YA novel, but it’s not like that’s stopped me before) so this is a perfect time to read or reread his ostensible masterpiece.
I can’t vouch for the caliber of Koontz’s writing in Watchers, or the quality of his narrative or the plausibility or execution of his central plot. I can’t speak to the sophistication of his characters or the believability of his dialogue. All I know is that 10-year-old me loved this book with all my 10-year-old heart. This book, the Backstreet Boys and Devon Sawa—my trifecta of fifth-grade adoration.
Watchers is the story of a government lab experiment gone awry; resulting from it, in one corner, an ultra-intelligent (and ultra amazing) dog with the ability to communicate with humans (sidebar: !!!) In the other, a vicious monster bent on murder and destruction. Caught in the middle are some humans, and Watchers is a story of bravery and compassion and ughhh I just want to curl up under my covers and read it with a flashlight right now. Perhaps this novel doesn’t transcend time—I’m almost afraid to reread it and find out—but either way this is the book that made me a reader. Who knows, without it I might have gotten into, like, sports.