In the Atlantic's annual fiction supplement, Joyce Carol Oates writes about the loss of her husband of 48 years and the split identity of the well-known writer: "My job at the university is to impersonate 'Joyce Carol Oates' [...] this quasi-public self [...] is scarcely visible to me, as a mirror-reflection, seen up close, is scarcely visible to the viewer."
This was my year of Nancy Mitford and Elizabeth Bowen, or the year of savage, brilliant, and vastly underrated female writers. I’m appalled to say I had never read either until this year; I tried to make up for my lost decades by reading furiously and fully, from their first books to their last. It in the end, however, it was impossible to read all that they wrote, because they were prolific, and because life was difficult this year and I ran out of steam. Well -- also, I found that both women wrote books I loved and some I frankly disliked. (This is fine! A book’s impact has as much to do with where the reader is in her life as it does with the innate qualities of the work; and if I have a bad breakup with a book, the author and I can still be pals). My favorite by Mitford was her fifth novel, The Pursuit of Love. My edition put some kind of accelerator on the feminist flames because it has “Love” in the title and the loopiest picture of a bride on the cover, and I did the automatic discounting thing we do -- even people in the business who should know better -- when faced with frilly, condescending covers of books by women. Gah. I don’t know if I hate more the idea that we have been conditioned to associate feminine with frothy, or the covers themselves, which actively dissuade a large swath of humanity from picking up such a worthy book in the first place. And, my lord, is this novel worthy. The story of an upper-class British family, particularly that of a sensitive free-spirit named Linda, was so slyly hilarious that I was smitten by the first paragraph; but it wasn’t until a few pages in, and the narrator describes her Uncle Matthew sending out the hounds on a child hunt -- in which the children of the family take the place of hares and try to outrun four slavering bloodhounds, to the horror of the neighbors -- that I knew this book would be a friend for life. Of all the gorgeous Elizabeth Bowen books I read (and here I’ll give a shout-out to To The North and The Death of the Heart), my favorite is her second, The Last September, because I think it’s her most deeply felt and affecting work. It is such a deft and humorous and ferocious novel that I marvel that Bowen was only about thirty when she wrote it. Bowen, like the book’s main character, Lois, was the child of a large Anglo-Irish estate, and the book is set at a lightly fictionalized version of the house in 1920, at the cusp of the Irish Civil War. The tremendous pressure that politics bears on the estate is seen mostly aslant; all of the family's visitors, though their days are full of dance-parties and tennis matches, are oddly brittle in their effort to ignore the tension around them. Bowen pulls off a terrific high-wire act that left me breathless — and nostalgic for a lost world that I'd only really known in Bowen's pages -- by the end. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I’ve loved a lot of books this year, relatively recent discoveries I’ve finally had time to dive into, or books I’ve re-read, like Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville, Barry Gifford’s The Roy Stories, Christa Parravani’s haunting memoir, Her. Reviewing a new biography of Stephen Crane (Paul Sorrentino’s Stephen Crane: A Life of Fire) sent me back to Crane’s poetry (“Because it is bitter/ and because it is my heart”) and prose. The Red Badge of Courage and his gorgeous stories remain immortal. The pulsing synesthesia that marked his writing emanates, controlled and rhythmic, in every graph. I’ve needed books this year, as the world and the Republic shudder and seem to devolve. Books can be visionary arcs of narration that soar beyond our time, even by penetrating the past. Alchemy and transformation are on my mind: the magic of character, the wonder of the sentence on the page, the spiritual ascendance of books that bear witness. James Agee’s A Death In The Family, with its searing gaze into the heart of identity, remains my Bible. My pantheon includes They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” William Kotzwinkle’s Swimmer in The Secret Sea, and Irene McKinney’s collected poems, Unthinkable. I love her single volumes: Vivid Companion, tightly bound as a silken correspondence, and her posthumous, Have You Had Enough Darkness Yet? Each of these books moves through death as though it were a mere worm hole in a celestial galaxy; each decodes a personal survival that made writing the work a necessity for the writer. History, personal or national, may tell us the facts, but literature tells us the story, and stories are immortal. Poetry is full of story. Louise Gluck’s Faithful And Virtuous Night is its own soaring novel; Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda imagines an adjacent constellation; “rows of ghosts come forth to sing” in Rigoberto Gonzalez’s Unpeopled Eden. Poems can break character into glittering shards and let us see it whole: Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke “sees” bigger-than-life boxer Jack Johnson; Van Jordan’s M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A imagines the life of 13-year-old MacNolia Cox, the first African American contestant in a '30s-era national spelling bee, disqualified by Southern judges with an unofficial word: “nemesis.” If character is destiny, memorize Leonard Gardner’s masterpiece, Fat City: a perfect novel about “allegiance to fate” in late-'50s Stockton, Calif. If you’re a reader who looks askance at the writer of the moment, don’t let that wariness warn you off Penelope Fitzgerald, suddenly awarded the attention we wish she’d had when she was nearly destitute, raising three children in a drafty houseboat on the Thames. She saw it all through to The Blue Flower, her own masterpiece, a book I read every year for sheer pleasure, with depthless thanks. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
In an in-depth interview for Nomadic Press, Shira Erlichman describes what it's like to make art while living with mental illness. As she puts it, “The thing that is so strange to me is that it was so wide-lensed. Everyone thinks, ‘Oh, you go crazy, like in the movies. You’re just suddenly crazy.’ But there was such a domino effect. One little thing—it’s almost like 70 dominoes lined up in one track that all lead to one conclusion.” Pair with Gila Lyons’s Millions essay on writing through illness.