I’ll level with you, gang, I have no idea what to write about this week, so to fill the void until next weekend when hopefully I’ll have actually thought about something and my mental bandwidth will have been allocated back to the usual things rather than the big move, here are some of my favourite books I’ve read so far this year.
Books Sam has read in 2020: a thread. Hopefully. I always start this kind of thing with the best of intentions and then by February it is forgotten. But I am nothing if not eternally optimistic, so here we go
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner - I am every college-educated white 20-something man you’ve ever read disparaging Twitter threads about. Some of it, admittedly, I can help, but other bits I can’t. I love Radiohead, and Stewart Lee, and Annie Hall - sue me. I cannot help but appreciate more those pieces of art that are, for want of a better word, “clever”. And The Topeka School is that. It is incredible to watch Lerner weave through so many turns of phrase and pieces of imagery and thematic links, and then bring them back again and again in different lighting, in new forms and new perspectives, applied to the trivial and to the most important. The same melodies reused and rearranged to become new songs altogether. And at its heart, a soon to be college-educated white 18-something man who is broken, a little bit, but doesn’t know why; an acknowledgement that he isn’t the only one; and an attempt to understand quite how we got to the point where that’s the case. One of the best books I’ve read in about 10 years.
Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory by Raphael Bob-Waksberg - I knew from the moment I heard that Bob-Waksberg was publishing a collection of short stories that this would be very much my jam. Best known as the creator of BoJack Horseman (which, for what it’s worth, is the kind of show that I’m eternally grateful for), Bob-Waksberg brings exactly the humour, melancholia, romance, and emotion to short stories as he does to an animated sitcom about a depressed horse. Longer stories are interlaced with more form-breaking pieces that exist somewhere between prose and poetry, as if floating above the surface before revealing just how heavy they are. I’ve thought a lot about these pieces and these stories since, not least Rufus, a touching story from a dog’s perspective. Because even in print, the best way to tell us how we really feel is anthropomorphism.
This Is How You Lose The Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone - I’ve been maintaining a Twitter thread of all the books I read this year (see above), and the thing that really strikes me when trying to summarise these books for that is noticing just exactly what I took from them. In This Is How You Lose The Time War, two time travellers working for rival factions leave each other letters as they foil each other’s plans, slowly but surely falling in love. Through this, the novel explores the long, slow act of coming to know someone intimately; the fear of opening yourself up, of earnestness. But it also contemplates, both implicitly and at one point explicitly, the time travelling nature of letters: they are written in the past to be read in the future, the reaction to the writing happening so far away from the writing itself.
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu - Yu is one of my favourite short story writers - his previous collection, Sorry Please Thank You, is astonishing - but I first discovered him through his debut novel How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe. Interior Chinatown, his second novel, is intriguing in how it simultaneously diverges from Yu’s usual focuses but yet is unmistakably him. Yu has always seemed fascinated by the trappings of science fiction and fantasy as a way of exploring the way we try to find our place in a world that increasingly resembles the sci-fi we used to read. Interior Chinatown doesn’t really tread that path, as a novel concerned with being an Asian man in America today, but more broadly about belonging and the roles we allow ourselves to play. But through its script-like format and a relentless need to push the medium, to refract and reflect its premise until all gimmicks really just fall away and the truth of it is laid bare, self-evident, Yu once again achieves the exceptional.
The Boy, The Mole, The Fox & The Horse by Charlie Mackesy - this is the kind of sentimental work that is easy to dismiss or be snobbish about. It can be derided as easy and cloying and vapid. But I don’t think it is, really. I think sometimes you need to hear the things that might come across that way, because sometimes “cleverness” and anthropomorphism and concept and medium just get in the way. A series of illustrations, beautifully rendered, of a boy, a mole, a fox, and (yes) a horse as they come to terms with knowing each other. I decided to buy a print of one of them - it took a while to narrow down just which one, but in the end it was the one that the moment I read it, I took a photo of it and made it my phone’s homescreen. Just because it’s a reminder that people love you. What more can a good book do?