Dan Camponovo edited creative writing for North by Northwestern magazine, and he has also served as writing editor for the Web.
Want something to occupy reading week free time besides reruns of Law and Order? Skip the tube and pick up a tome.
2666, by Roberto Bolaño (for the kids who seriously have nothing to do)
My brother once told me, “You only have time in your life to read one — maybe two — 1,000 page books, and most people waste ‘em on Atlas Shrugged or Infinite Jest.” While I disagree that the opportunity comes around once in a lifetime, and while I disagree that Infinite Jest would be wasting said opportunity, I took a leap of faith on Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the most epic and arguably the most “complete” reading experience I’ve ever had. The novel, which follows a string of Mexican murders, the Eastern Front in WWII and other scenes of 20th century decay, consumed the last five years of his life and the stress of which arguably led to his death in 2003. The English translation posthumously won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award in Fiction.
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower
The New York Times‘ Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani wrote that author Wells Tower emerges as “a writer with Sam Shepard’s radar for the violent, surreal convolutions of American society.” His “effortless ability to turn snapshots of misfits and malcontents into a panoramic cavalcade of American life” earned Towers’s first short story collection a spot on Kakutani’s 10 Best of 2009 list. At 37 years old, Towers’s voice is as fresh as any contemporary American author’s, and his stories trap that restless, tumbling gnaw of instability and settling we all have to look forward to in a few years. Read them all, but pay special attention to “The Brown Coast” and “Down Through The Valley.” You’ll thank me later.
Tinkers, by Paul Harding
When the Pulitzer Prize committee announced their 2010 winner as Tinkers, the 191-page debut novel from little-known author Paul Harding, I was skeptical at best. I was even more skeptical when I read the first few pages and found out the main character was a clock repairman, prepping myself for an over-indulgent beat-you-over-the-head-with-it motif of “time” and “the winds of change.” Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Tinkers, which follows a New England clock repairman telling his (and his father’s) life story on his deathbed, is perhaps the best “wintertime” book I’ve read in years. Set in the dreary New Hampshire winterscape, Harding’s descriptions are so colorful and vivid it just feels like snow, and even while reading it in the scorching Baltimore July this past summer, all I wanted was to curl up under the covers with a glass of hot chocolate and read it straight through.
The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon
Leaving Chicago this winter but don’t really want to leave Chicago? The Lazarus Project, by Northwestern’s own Aleksandar Hemon, is a contemporary detective story about an early 20th century murder by a Bosnian immigrant in Chicago’s gritty, dark history. A finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award (losing the latter to 2666), Hemon’s second novel jumps back and forth between the past and present day, fictionalizing and embellishing a not-so-typical race murder in the 1920s Chicago. The book itself blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, with weaving narratives and old photographs by one of Hemon’s childhood friends from Sarajevo.
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Remember life before the World Trade Center fell? All those years ago? Yeah, me either, really. I was 11. They say it was nice, and Colum McCann tries to capture that lost feeling in his National Book Award-winning novel. Jumping back and forth between 1974, when Philippe Petit famously tight-rope walked between the Twin Towers, and a present day New York City prostitute’s courtoom trial, Let the Great World Spin stands as a toast to the towers we lost, as they were on September 10, 2001, and as a promise that we, all of us, as New Yorkers and Americans, will rebuild and grow bigger and stronger than we ever were.
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem
Imperial Bedrooms, by Bret Easton Ellis
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Editor’s note: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 won the National Book Critics Circle Award, not the National Book Award, as was originally posted. Thanks to commenter Harold Augenbraum for pointing out the mistake.