11 Books You Should Read Right Now

Photo: Toby Hudson

The following selections come from tiny indie press and big publishers alike, and the prose styles range from functional to stylized to decidedly unorthodox. The protagonists are varied, too: a Chinese Muslim immigrant, trailer park teens, an abused Irish girl, a celebrated New York novelist, a serial killer. What these books have in common is they are not boring, and it’s likely at least one of them is the kind you would love, and gladly suggest to a friend.

Ugly Girls, by Lindsay Hunter

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You Should Read This If: You like voice-y prose, compelling plots, and/or memorable characters

Lindsay Hunter, proven purveyor of entertaining short stories featuring un-prissy, gloriously undignified characters, delivered in a prose style that is verbal, slangy, and slyly poignant, has written her first novel, and it is, happily, quite absorbing. Two young trailer park girls and head-butting best friends, Perry and Baby Girl, sneak out of their trailers, steal cars for thrills, and fall victim to a mysterious stalker, who claims to be a high school boy named “Jamey.” Hunter’s work is all about voice, and the voice of this book really draws me in. Also, the characters are what they call memorable — you feel as if you get to know them reading this book. #FP

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride

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You Should Read This If: You like James Joyce and aren’t squeamish about violent sexual content

This book has been widely praised and laureled after the author, a Liverpool-born Irish woman, struggled for nine years to find a publisher. The word on Half-Formed Thing is that it reads a bit like Joyce, which is understandable, because the language of the book lives in a fragmentary conscious mind, that of an unnamed young woman whose father abandons her, mother berates her, who struggles to communicate with her brain-damaged brother, and who survives violent sexual abuse by strangers and family alike. You may find its prose hypnotic or you may find it repetitive and annoying. To me, the book is a unique marvel, and the protagonist and author are both, in a way, heroines, prevailers. #FP

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elena Ferrante

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You Should Read This If: You like absorbing classic storytelling involving friendships and romance

The third book of the Neapolitan series of novels by pseudonymous Italian author Elena Ferrante is available, assuming you’ve already read and enjoyed the first two volumes. The series, and the mysterious Ferrante herself, are becoming an international sensation, with fans that include the great John Waters. The books are told by a narrator named Elena and mostly concern her tempestuous relationship with a childhood friend, Lila, and their changing fortunes as time passes and lovers come and go. Ferrante appears to be both a classic storyteller and a committed artist. #FP #T

Women in Clothes, Edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton

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You Should Read This If: You want to read many different women’s perspectives on what they wear and how it shapes their lives

A survey about personal style passed around among friends of the editors has evolved into a book filled with stories and thoughts about dressing and style from a diverse group of writers, activists, and artists, including Cindy Sherman, Kim Gordon, Kalpona Akter, Miranda July, and Roxane Gay. This book inverts the focus of the fashion/celebrity media, which relentlessly presents women’s outer appearances but typically not their personal histories or the thought processes behind their self-presentation. Includes interviews, essays, photos, and more. #FP #POC #LGBTQ

Preparation for the Next Life, by Atticus Lish

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You Should Read This If: You like carefully stylized prose and reading about non-bourgeois people

Here is an acclaimed debut novel published by Tyrant Books, which is run by the great Giancarlo DiTrapano and has an impressive track record of publishing not-boring books about which people actually give a shit (the press’s roster includes Marie Calloway and Scott McClanahan). Adding to the pedigree, Atticus is the son of Gordon Lish, Captain Fiction, tyrant of prose style. But Atticus has earned this book’s rave reviews with his own distinctive voice and a compelling love story involving a Chinese Muslim illegal immigrant and an Iraq War veteran. For me, the main attraction is the confident, spellbinding prose. #POC #MP

Letters from a Seducer, by Hilda Hilst

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You Should Read This If: You are down with provocative, formally challenging literature

This book, one of several by the celebrated avant-garde Brazilian author to finally be translated into English, is from a controversial tetralogy written toward the end of her life that was widely condemned as “pornographic.” Its content and form are equally challenging: the book consists of three different sections, the first of which is a series of highly sexual letters from a wealthy, amoral, depraved man named Karl to his chaste sister, Cordelia. The second part concerns a poet named Stamatius, who finds Karl’s letters and relates to them in a surprising way, which you’ll have to read the book to find out about. #FP #POC #T

Rome, by Dorothea Lasky

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You Should Read This If: You like unpretentious, personal, clever poems

Dorothea Lasky has been celebrated for a while now amongst online poets and small-press people, but more recently she has had poems in big-deal magazines and seems to be becoming ever more popular — you can check out “Porn” from this collection in the Paris Review as a good taste test for the book. Lasky often talks reflexively about the making of poems in the poems themselves, and in 2010 released a polemical chapbook called Poetry is Not a Project, which argues that writing poetry is an intuitive act moreso than part of an intellectual enterprise. I’m down with that idea, and I admire a great deal of these poems, which are approachable but also quite sly. #FP

300,000,000, by Blake Butler

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You Should Read This If: A dark, violent, weirdly-written book about an insane serial killer sounds appealing to you

Blake Butler, as co-founder of the now-defunct website HTMLGiant, has done a lot to build community amongst online-fluent authors and poets, especially the experimental writers who don’t fit in the mainstream. Butler’s consistent advocacy for dark, strange, experimental art as a critic at HTMLGiant and more recently as a columnist for Vice also bleeds into his fiction, never more so than in his recently published magnum opus, 300,000,000, which was inspired by, amongst other things, Roberto Bolano’s 2666. Butler’s book involves a serial killer named Gretch Nathaniel Gravey, who is piling up his victim’s bodies in his home, called the Black House, and a detective, E.N. Flood, who is charged with decoding Gravey’s bizarre and chilling diary entries. The way the book alternates between the diary entries and Flood’s sane analysis makes for an engaging reading experience, as long as you’re down with ceaseless carnage and Butler’s unorthodox prose style. #MP

Even Though I Don’t Miss You, by Chelsea Martin

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You Should Read This If: You like uncomfortably honest writing about contemporary relationships

This book, published by the indie press Short Flight/Long Drive Books, is a long confessional prose poem that probes the banality, bleakness, and affection of a contemporary relationship between educated, privileged, but somewhat aimless and broke young people. Some readers will identify in a very personal way with the protagonist’s confusion and constantly shifting emotions toward her boyfriend. And Martin’s deadpan sense of humor reminds me of Daria or Aubrey Plaza. #FP

10:04, by Ben Lerner

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You Should Read This If: You like intelligent, ambitious, highly autobiographical fiction

Ben Lerner’s debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, turned an already admired poet into an extremely celebrated novelist, and his follow-up, 10:04, self-reflexively examines the life of an extremely celebrated novelist trying to live up to expectations with his second novel. The meta-ness of the novel’s characters and events is not a gimmick but rather the engine of its ambition to, as Lerner puts it, “work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would-be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.” It is a novel of contemporary New York, specifically the contemporary New York big-publishing literary world, and though the book’s interest in and candor about the author’s real life experience is compelling, to me its chief virtue is its smooth, detached prose, which describes with wry precision but carries the reader urgently, uncannily along to a somewhat surprising finish. #MP

Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis

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You Should Read This If: You enjoy creative, witty, non-boring short fiction

This is the book if you’ve already read her Collected Stories and you, understandably, want even more from Lydia Davis, one of the few contemporary writers who seems destined to be remembered many decades from now. Davis has been widely praised for revitalizing and reimagining the short story until it can’t properly be called a “story” anymore — some pieces are merely one enigmatic sentence. What is also refreshing and wonderful about Davis is that she is experimental but not pretentious, and not above writing about recognizably contemporary humans doing common things people do. But her imagination, her stimulating turns of phrase, and her great sense of humor make her work consistently sui generis. #FP


Info Key

FP = Female Protagonist(s) or Author
MP = Male Protagonist(s) or Author
LGBTQ = Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and/or Queer Protagonist(s) or Author
POC = Person of Color Author or Person or People of Color as Protagonist(s)
T = Translated from a different language

Up All Night With Author Blake Butler

Blake Butler is one of the most prolific and exciting young writers to emerge in the past decade. In a few short years Butler has released a novel-in-stories Scorch Atlas, the novella Ever, the 400-page novel There is No Year, and his most recent work, Nothing. His work moves cryptically through reality, re-appropriating what we find to be real or not, holding onto grounding constants such as emotion while scrambling the details and conditions surrounding them to the surreal. Redefining our notion of the classic novel, Butler’s work leads the reader through an cryptic and unexpected reality, one where the decision of whether to snap from the dream or descend in the nightmare remains unclear.

Nothing is a personal and scientific exploration of the insomnia he’s struggled with for the majority of his life. This interview was conducted at three AM, over the course of three consecutive nights, with three questions each night. Here’s what happened while we both weren’t sleeping.

Are you awake?
I actually just woke up, fell asleep for fifteen minutes on my sofa when I was supposed to be going to a show, now too lazy to get back up, and not tired enough to actually sleep. Feel like I got pressed against a warm wall.

Your newest work, Nothing, is an almost scientifically personal exploration of your insomnia. What prompted you to explore the connection between wake and sleep, dreams, and reality in the way that you did?
I’ve always had sleep problems: between not actually being able to do it, and walking, talking, horrible nightmares, and constantly waking back up when I do. I guess you could say sleep terrain is as real to me as the middle of the day. It all kind of blurs together and never lets up for very long.

Whose opinions or which studies did you find the most interesting or relevant to your particular problem?
I was surprised by how many people had done some seriously messed up stuff while totally unconscious. People driving cars and strangling their loved ones. Getting into fights with inanimate objects or bed partners to the point of accidental murder. In a ridiculous number of cases people were able to get off for crimes they had committed in their sleep when the court essentially ruled they weren’t themselves then. It makes the thought of going to sleep next to someone else that much more interesting, not to mention all the sleeping people in all the other rooms.

What was your longest waking period?
129 hours, over the year transition from 1999 to 2000 while also sick with mono. The main thing I remember besides walking around the house talking to myself and kind of sobbing without tears was a blue head that came out of the hallway wall outside my bedroom door. I remember it didn’t say anything, but just was there watching, and then opened up its mouth. I don’t remember if it had teeth. It was all black in there. I don’t remember after that.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done while asleep? And also after having been awake for too long?
I used to wake up outside, and frequently in different rooms, wearing different clothes or naked. Once I was pretty far up the street from my house with nothing on and waking up I felt I’d died. One room in the house where I grew up every time I’ve slept in it, I’ve woke up trying to throw myself through the glass and shrieking. I don’t know what it is about that room. I don’t remember anything specifically crazy from being awake too long because usually I feel like such trash I just sit there and look at what it is in front of my face. I have invented many words in fury over not being able to just turn off, which by now is almost an alternate language. I only speak to myself and sometimes dogs.

Do you associate approaching light with shame or are you comfortable with time as a convention at this point?
I like light as a word but not as a thing. I spend most of the day sitting in the dark while I am typing. There is light coming out of the machine and time does not seem to pass until I look up and seven hours are disappeared. It doesn’t feel like I’m getting older but the dudes in the NBA are like 20, and I still seem to look at them like they are these elder machines. I probably won’t even realize I’m about to die if I don’t die some messy way and just am 80 and fallen all apart like I most fear. I try to remain comfortable with things by not thinking about them, which is why bedtime is often a terror area, because that’s when I can’t stop thinking and when I want to stop thinking the most.

Your father has dementia, and his condition pops up frequently in your writing. Do you feel that through your experiences with sleep, or a lack there of, you can relate to his state more so than if you hadn’t gone through any of this? Are there any similarities between the state of dementia and the state of insomnia?
The states feel definitely parallel to me in that you begin to lose context of your surroundings, and the values of apparitions begin to override the values of real things: the dream world and the waking world interchange. I’ve found the buried logic of dementia fascinating, how one second one thing can be true and the very next second it’s not. My dad often seems to be operating with a world laid over our world. I think the waking world is full of those, and my time being half mentally underwater in them, and awake late into the night when it is mostly silent beyond yourself, has definitely made me more sensitive to textures and colors of my surroundings that I wouldn’t have tuned to otherwise. In that way it’s both somehow pleasant and infuriating, and anyway, there is no choice.

I read somewhere that you once had a fearful concept of your parents as strangers. Did this concept influence the copy family in There is No Year?
When I wrote that novel my apartment had just gotten hit by a tornado, so I was living with my parents and surrounded by boxes full of my stuff. My dad was still in the early stages of his developing dementia, and I was writing in the first room I ever touched a girl’s body in. It was both very near and alien to be in that space at that time, kind of re-immersed in younger years with a brain full of other shit. I was also sleeping maybe three hours a night. I think all of that made being home again feel perverted, and invoked the feeling of being in the middle of something that was mine but felt like someone else, which was also the texture of my earliest dream: my mother at the end of a long hallway getting longer, trying to convince to come and take a bath. The light was so far away and I couldn’t move.

Do you experience insomnia as boredom, frustration, or something else entirely?
It’s kind of everything at once and nothing at once. You could go anywhere and it is silent but you mostly just sit there and every inch feels loud. You keep waiting to be pulled under and the longer you wait the harder it is and the more you want to take your face off or just get up and keep walking into nowhere and not stop or eat something heavier than your body or just never sleep again. And then suddenly, without you knowing, the dark clicks.

An Unconventional Reading of Blake Butler’s ‘There Is No Year’

“Decision,” yelled Justin Taylor, from where he was standing at the bar in Brooklyn’s Franklin Park. People were startled, turning to see who was reading, and where. “That night on their mattress, lying spines entwined and sleeping…” Taylor was one of many readers lined up by Harper Perennial to read from Blake Butler’s new novel, There is No Year, out April 5. But rather than read at the podium, he read from an area in the bar with banquettes and tables covered with drinks and baskets of thin fries.

The reading, held two nights ago and the first in a four-night marathon that visits a new venue each night, was a mix of readers and styles that, taken together, was as unexpected and unconventional as the book around which the event was organized. And while the reading lasted an hour, the frequent changes in readers, the variety of personalities reading, and the writing itself—other-worldly and humorous—kept the audience alert and curious.

“It’s very rare, so rare, to come across a piece of writing that’s as fresh and challenging and unlike anything else that you’ve ever read, as Blake’s writing was for me,” said Cal Morgan, Editorial Director at Harper Perennial. Blake Butler is a new phenomenon of literature in the age of the Internet. In 2008, he started HTMLGiant with Gene Morgan, a blog that serves as a high-brow-meets-low-brow club for sharp literary musings and news, and a hub of dialogue amongst writers in the online community. The site recently had a record number of unique visitors, some 40,000 within a couple of hours, and has garnered attention from more traditional publishing houses like Harper Collins, who are angling to maintain purchase in a quickly shifting publishing world. Today, writers are looking to online communities to publish and discuss their work, communities which also fostered the development of the small presses who are taking risks on unconventional writing, like that of Blake Butler.

Cal Morgan runs his own site for Harper Perennial called Fifty-Two Stories, that publishes anything from a short, unforgettable paragraph to a 35-page traditional story. And while the site mimics online literary publications by small independent presses like Everyday Genius (by Publishing Genius Press) and The Collagist (by Dzanc), it’s a gateway to success in the more traditional sense. It was through Fifty-Two Stories that Blake Butler submitted the work that was the beginning of There is No Year. Big publishers might be angling to get in on smaller, homegrown communities – impossible to foment through marketing campaigns and viral videos. “There is a sense of community, and a sense of opportunity to be heard, that’s fomenting far more great writing than there was, say twenty years ago, when I got into publishing. It’s just flat-out true.”

“We have been really interested in this generation of writers for a couple of years,” said Cal Morgan. “And the truth is, it’s less risky for us than it is for the small presses. We adore [small presses] because they’re the ones taking the risk.”