In the spirit of the magic book recommender, let me just briefly recommend five books to be read together if you’re feeling stuck in your career or mid-lifey or just wanting to vibe on the disconnect of today’s society and find yourself wondering “how did I get here, and why do I stay?”
Truth in Advertising by John Kenney (blurbs courtesy of Goodreads):
“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I have no idea what that means but I believe that in quoting him I appear far more intelligent than I am. I don’t know about second acts, but I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”
FINBAR DOLAN is lost and lonely. Except he doesn’t know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he’s a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He’s recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he’s forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.
Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It’s a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he’s made, admit that he’s falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.
Truth in Advertising is debut novelist John Kenney’s wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.
The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of David Foster Wallace’s death, but it is a deeply compelling and satisfying novel, hilarious and fearless and as original as anything Wallace ever undertook. It grapples directly with ultimate questions–questions of life’s meaning and of the value of work and society–through characters imagined with the interior force and generosity that were Wallace’s unique gifts. Along the way it suggests a new idea of heroism and commands infinite respect for one of the most daring writers of our time.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris:
For anyone who has ever worked in an office, hating everything and everyone in it, yet fell apart when it was time to leave — this book is for you. Heartbreaking, yet hysterically funny, Then We Came to the End is the definitive novel about the contemporary American workplace.
With an irresistibly casual writing style, Ferris makes readers a part of his fictional advertising agency from the moment we open the book. Through numerous impromptu conversations, colleagues come alive. We learn that Larry and Amber have had an affair, and that Amber is pregnant. We know that Chris Yop is panicking because he exchanged his office chair without permission, and that Joe Pope is universally despised because he got promoted and now everyone has to listen to him. No one likes Karen Woo because she’s always trying to seem smarter than everyone else. And the head boss, Lynn, has cancer, but she doesn’t want anyone to know. We understand that the agency is in trouble, and that the unstable Tom Mota is being laid off. We realize that anyone could be next. And we’re dying to know what’s going to happen.
By the time readers finish the book, they’ll swear that Ferris has spent time in their own offices. And they’ll thank him for capturing so knowingly what makes it so horrible, and what makes it our own.
(I’m not quite finished with this one, but so far, it is very, very good. Kind of like The Pale King meets Office Space).
Also by Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour:
Paul O’Rourke is a man made of contradictions: he loves the world, but doesn’t know how to live in it. He’s a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.
Then someone begins to impersonate Paul online, and he watches in horror as a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account are created in his name. What begins as an outrageous violation of his privacy soon becomes something more soul-frightening: the possibility that the online “Paul” might be a better version of the real thing. As Paul’s quest to learn why his identity has been stolen deepens, he is forced to confront his troubled past and his uncertain future in a life disturbingly split between the real and the virtual.
At once laugh-out-loud funny about the absurdities of the modern world, and indelibly profound about the eternal questions of the meaning of life, love and truth, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a deeply moving and constantly surprising tour de force.
(This one was very good, darker than Then We Came…, but good and true. I like the writing and the misanthropy).
Finally, and this is kind of the one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other of the five, but Dear Committee Members by Julie Shumacher is one of the most hilarious books I have read period, but particularly on the topic of bureaucracies and red tape and office politics. Written completely in letter format, it’s a quick and delightful read:
Winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor
Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His life, a tale of woe, is revealed in a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies.
I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books. At least we’re not grinding alone. The monotony unites us and gives us something to collectively laugh about.