Grumpy Librarian: Let’s Go Essay-Wild!
Not Your Average Readers' Advice Column
Caitlin Goodman, aka, The Grumpy Librarian, is here to help. The rules are simple: if you’re looking for what book to read next (who isn’t), just send over two books you love, and one you… don’t. The Grumpy Librarian will do the math and provide you with the ideal next read. (To submit your books, you can email TheGrumpyLibrarian@lithub.com.)
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust (1939)
DID NOT LOVE
Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950)
Oh gosh what a terrifically high-contrast hardboiled list of novels. The best part of We Have Always Lived in the Castle is probably the title: it is so successfully portentous that even the spooky plot cannot meet the title’s bewitching promises. Noir and high horror, among their genre brethren, are pretty good with attention-grabbing phrasing (OK, with all credit due to H.P. Lovecraft maybe the word “Cthulhu” is not the greatest, but definitely pour one out for the concept of “Cthulhu”). Among the firmament of great Sherlock Holmes stories, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” would be slightly less imposing if he were instead “The Fierce Dog, Possibly from Hell.”
In an attempt to not just list an under-informed list of golden age classics, maybe you would like Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music (the GL most certainly did not like it, but YMMV). The plot, set in a dismal future California, follows from a pretty great conceit: contemporary etiquette prohibits questions, making your average private dick something of an untouchable. There are also, uh, some less great conceits: there are hyper-intelligent cynical babies, and also not-quite-hyper-intelligent cynical animals. Bonus (?): every character name is apparently scavenged from Thomas Pynchon’s draft files. But even the GL has to admit it’s a pretty great title for a book.
Recommended: Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
* * * *
Joy Castro, Island of Bones (2012)
Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
DID NOT LOVE
Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There’d Be Cake (2008)
It’s a good thing the Grumpy Librarian is a professional librarian who understands the great cosmic mysteries of classification schema because these books aren’t even fiction! Your picks aren’t shelved by author surname; yeah, this is readers’ advisory sorcery indeed. Sloane Crosley is admittedly a writer in a specific tradition (let’s call it the Calvin Trillin tradition), but the GL imagines you’re looking for more of the “searching, searing” type of essay judging by your other picks.
Anne Carson’s Nox, maybe? Definitely the high-water-mark in personal essaying is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the GL will accept no argument. But admittedly Dillard is hardly unloved on the “Creative Nonfiction 101” syllabi of the world, so maybe check out someone a little younger. Is Roxane Gay’s Hunger available for preorder yet? Order it. Or Bad Feminist if you somehow missed it. Or go essay-wild and buy both!
Recommended: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard & Hunger by Roxane Gay