• Valley of the Dolls

    Jacqueline Susann

    After seeing the movie version recently, I heard that the book is apparently excellent as well — in that “so bad, it’s good” sort of way, of course. I’d been struggling to get into Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and felt like I could use something a little trashier for crowded commutes on the N train. For that, it was...more

  • Ficciones

    Jorge Luis Borges

    I’ve wanted to read something by Borges for a while but I always felt intimidated by his reputation of “superhuman erudition.” Most of this book is pretty cerebral with stories that are really academic-sounding fake histories; yet as the book progresses, the stories edge into the accessible range.

    I took too long to type this up and don’t have the patience...more

  • The Boat

    Nam Le

    “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” is probably the best story in this book. Largely autobiographical, a writer in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop follows the drunken suggestion of a colleague to mine his father’s experience in Vietnam because “Ethnic literature’s hot.” His father conveniently arrives for a visit, and he feeds a new page into...more

  • Logotypes and Letterforms

    Doyald Young

    In the strongest sense, letterforms do not age but become fixed to a period of time primarily in their application. Longevity is often precluded by blatant design approaches that are banal, modish, and consequently ephemeral. Many products and graphics are designed to seize the moment and cash in on a popular idea.

    When I first browsed through this book, I...more

  • Here is New York

    E.B. White

    It was a little funny to read this slim little book directly after Play it as it Lays, as they are both wrapped so much in hot weather and it’s been colder and colder lately.

    Originally written for Holiday Magazine, the extended essay is a nostalgic look at New York City (Manhattan, mostly) from the perspective of White, who...more

  • Play It as It Lays

    Joan Didion

    There’s something soap-operatic about this terse novel detailing a vaguely successful Hollywood actress’s nervous breakdown. Avoiding histrionics, the story details all the gossipy founders of Maria Wyeth with glances to her similarly challenged friends. Despite the concise nature of Didion’s prose, she manages to paint nuanced settings, from the freeways Maria drives all day for a while just to fill...more

  • Bottomfeeder

    Taras Grescoe

    A few years ago I abandoned my vegetarianism and started adding fish to my diet. Mostly I felt like I needed variety in my protein sources, but also there are a lot of nutritional benefits to eating fish. I’ve looked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Guide many times, but have always found it difficult to consistently remember...more

  • Make it Bigger

    Paula Scher

    An attractive tight-back bound book with edge-stained pages, Make it Bigger is at its heart a survey of Scher’s work from the 70s through the 90s. Yet it feels more like a memoir or a study of process than just a portfolio of her work. I loved her discussion of discovering how to “sell down” designs at CBS Records...more

  • Collected Poems

    Paul Auster

    Reading this book on the subway was probably not the best approach, but I managed to struggle through it. Auster’s earlier poems have some overwrought tendencies, but in a way all of his poems fit together as a larger work, making this collected volume very useful. He’s attached to images of stones and whiteness and snow among other things, and...more

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

    Raymond Carver

    I’ve somehow managed to never read an entire collection of Raymond Carver’s short stories, despite being somewhat of an enthusiast of the form and having read a few of his stories in passing. This one caught my eye at the library, as I’d guess Murakami played off this title with his recent memoir. It turns out the title story...more

  • Where I Was From

    Joan Didion

    Maybe I’m just a hater this week but I couldn’t find much to latch onto in Didion’s exploration of her history with California, including her pioneering ancestors’ treks to get there. Though it’s kind of a personal history placed within a larger context, even the parts about her family read strangely impersonal. It seems like each chapter starts out interesting...more

  • Forever

    Pete Hamill

    Starting in Ireland in the 1700s, Forever follows the ordinary-boy-turned-hero Cormac on a revenge mission across the Atlantic to Manhattan, which somehow manages to result in him being granted eternal life by an African shaman — just so long as he stays on Manhattan. The rest of the book skips ahead to significant points in the island’s history to show how he...more

  • What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

    Haruki Murakami

    I really loved this memoir, though I have to say that the translation probably isn’t the best. It’s hard for me to be entirely certain since I can’t read the original in Japanese, but I’m guessing it’s no coincidence that Philip Gabriel has translated two of my less favorite Murakami novels (Kafka on the Shore and Sputnik...more

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

    Susanna Clarke

    Getting through this hefty tome of “historical fantasy” is already no small feat for the average reader. My current commute rarely offers up a seat on the subway, so for weeks I was balancing this 700+ page hardcover library book on my pole-grasping arm, often finding my wrist a bit numb for a several minutes afterwards. I’d say it was...more

  • How to Breathe Underwater

    Julie Orringer

    I wanted to like this collection more, but there was something missing or it just wasn’t the right time to read it. Maybe the stories are just a little too polished, a little too clean. Like The Mother Garden, all of these stories involve some element of sickness or grief. But unlike that one overall this book doesn’t feel...more

  • The Namesake

    Jhumpa Lahiri

    I watched the movie version of this story in the winter, thinking I’d already read the book — it was actually Lahiri’s short story collection Interpreter of Maladies that I’d read just before this one was published. I was worried I’d picture Kal Penn as Gogol the whole time and to some degree I did at the beginning. But...more

  • Waiting for the Barbarians

    J.M. Coetzee

    I took this book and Disgrace out from the library at the same time, unsure if I would read both. I still didn’t have any of my holds in when I finished, so I started this one immediately afterwards. It was interesting to read the two so close to each other. There are a lot of thematic similarities in...more

  • Disgrace

    J.M. Coetzee

    I’ve been wanting to read something by Coetzee since he won the Nobel Prize in 2003. I guess it took an open reading slot and a wander around the library to make it finally happen. This book is sparse in the way it’s told but incredibly nuanced at its heart. While the story is simply about an older professor...more

  • You Shall Know Our Velocity

    Dave Eggers

    I got this book when McSweeney’s had their big sale last year. I never read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and I never read this one even after I bought it. It happened that when I was unpacking my books, I was a week into a misguided mission to read Roland Barthes’ Image, Music, Text. I...more

  • Pale Fire

    Vladimir Nabokov

    While Lolita holds fort as Nabokov’s best known novel, Pale Fire rates vaguely higher on the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. Comprised of a 999-line poem in four cantos by a (fictional) famous American poet, John Shade, as well as a foreword and extensive commentary by his friend, Professor Charles Kinbote, at times it...more