I particularly love reading about people getting through life. This is a book like that. Paula Spencer is a recovering alcoholic and mother of four, and she is just getting by, day by day. This middle-aged Irishwoman's voice is so true—the things she thinks and says and chooses not to say—even the most unfamiliar parts of her life ache like my own tooth. And Roddy Doyle doles out the hope so sparingly that eventually you stop craving the miraculously redemptive ending. At which point you are ready for the truth.
Peter Fischli David Weiss
By Robert Fleck
For a long time I only loved stories. If something didn't have a story to it, I was bored. This meant that most visual art bored me. Then, in my mid-20s, a friend began pointing at all the things he liked to look at—babies, his neighbors, weeds growing out of cracks. Because I knew this person quite well, I could feel that each of these things told a story and it was his story. A little while later, I was standing in a museum looking at a sculpture made by the Swiss artist duo Fischli and Weiss. Suddenly I could feel the story in it, and it was my story. That's when I started getting into art.
Fears of Your Life
By Michael Bernard Loggins
Loggins is another one of my favorite artists, but a lot of his art is writing. His first book, Fears of Your Life, is a list of 183 of his fears. He is a black, developmentally disabled man, so as you begin reading, you think: Well, he has a lot to be afraid of. ("10. Fear of Deep waters." "15. Fear of Doors when they slams." "19. Fear of Toys that comes on by itself without anyone touching it.")
But as you keep reading, you stop thinking of him as fearful and start thinking that he is incredibly brave. When was the last time you identified every single one of your fears and showed them to the world?
By Knut Hamsun
Okay, if you've weathered Paula Spencer, then you're ready for Hunger, written by a Norwegian man in 1890. This narrator is also getting through life—but barely. He is starving and cold and trying to write but unable to write, from hunger and from cold. Almost nothing happens in this book, plotwise. A lot of things almost happen—he almost has money, he almost meets a woman—but the only thing that endures are his abject, obsessive, superstitious thoughts, which are modern and hilarious. In fact, rereading this book now, it occurs to me that Hunger has probably had a big influence on my own writing. Maybe too big.
Birds of America
By Lorrie Moore
I borrowed this book from my mom years ago, and maybe because of this I always imagine that the women in these stories are my mom, or my mom's sisters or her friends, or sisters' friends. They are certainly real women, with all the skepticism, dry humor, inertia, and paralysis of the women I know. It's easier, I think, to put your faith in a character that doesn't resemble you. And it's easier for me to create characters like this and then burden them with my problems. It would be much riskier to attempt what I think Lorrie Moore does—trust that you and your kind are not so unique, so hideous or amazing that the world cannot relate. The world can. I do, tremendously.