I don’t know about “best,” but the funniest, saddest, most interesting, and most (oddly) inspiring book I read this year was Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. Johnson wrote seven extraordinary novels between 1962 and his suicide in 1972. Coe, a novelist himself, tells the story of Johnson’s life through 160 “fragments” from Johnson’s own writings. For all his flaws, Johnson’s energy, humor, and passion come blazing through. I loved this book.
Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed. Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s. Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William's. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity. Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book. 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.
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Rodger Jacobs, author of the book Christopher Walken and the Tuna Fish Sandwich and Other L.A. Stories, shares with us the best books he read this year.Best books I've read this year? Well, I'm still going to stand behind Michelle Huneven's Jamesland even though I had some minor quibbles with it. Next to that I would have to go with the stunning debut novel by Canadian journalist Robert Hough, The Final Confession of Mabel Stark. I can think of no other contemporary writer -- with the obvious exception of Ron Hansen with Hitler's Niece and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford -- who has mastered the historical novel in such a vibrant and highly engrossing style. It's a lengthy tome (440 pages) and by the time you have read the last page you feel that you have lived Mabel Stark's life side-by-side with this amazing yet deeply troubled woman. The book is so evocative that I still -- almost a year after having read it -- have sense memories attached to the novel, the scents attached to circus life, the wet hay during sudden storm bursts, the kerosene lamp in Mabel's railroad car. This was such a master work that I am anxious to see if Hough can follow it up or if, sadly, it's a once-in-a-lifetime book like Leonard Gardner's Fat City or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is that damn good.Thanks for that. That bit about "once-in-a-lifetime books" at the end made me think. Many a VH1 special is devoted to the musical one-hit wonder, but what about the literary variety? Who's on that list? And what do these authors have in common? Hmmm... food for thought.
Among the people I asked to contribute to this year's "Year in Reading," are readers that I admire. Garth reads a great deal more than me and can digest the voluminous input impressively (just wish he'd start blogging again!). He's also the guy responsible for the great Lawrence Weschler reading list I posted early this year. Some of his reading this year comes from that list:Top 3 Books I Read This Year:Tony Kushner - Angels in America: The Great American Drama? Kushner moves forward the form of the theater, but that's only what lures you in. What keeps you is that no living writer engages more fully with his characters. The Mike Nichols directed miniseries isn't bad, either.Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel: An unparalleled raconteur. All of his New Yorker writings are compiled in this omnibus. His style lucid, compassionate, modest, wry, and charged with the wonder of being alive.Zadie Smith - On Beauty: As many have pointed out, flawed. But she rivals Kushner in her degree of empathy for her characters while, like him, never letting them off the hook.The Best of the Rest (of Stuff I Read This Year)Walter Benjamin - Illuminations: The most sensitive and elliptical and sad of 20th century philosophers. One of Benjamin's ideas is worth a thousand of someone else's arguments.Gertrude Stein - Alice B. Toklas: Who knew I'd like Gertrude Stein? Don't believe the hype - read this book.Norman Mailer - The Executioner's Song: Again, who knew? In Cold Blood on amphetamines, this is a chilling, gripping, and strangely humble work. The second half opens up to depict the media machinery of which this book is brilliant!Patrik Ourednik - Europeana: Behind a sui generis form, itself worth the price of admission, lurks a quiet anguish at the depredations of the 20th Century.E.L. Doctorow - Ragtime: All it's said to be, and a great read to boot.Benjamin Barber - Jihad vs. McWorld: A lucid articulation of all the things you've ever suspected about late-capitalist globalism and factionalism but weren't sure how to say.Jonathan Lethem - The Disappointment Artist: The most complete thing Lethem has published. Not an enduring classic, but a totally charming read.3 DisappointmentsRick Moody - The Diviners: Bummer, man. This book has so much potential - and is definitely worth reading - but needed an editor who could say, in the end, "Something more has to happen!" Concludes not with a bang but with a whimper. But has HBO optioned the TV rights to "Werewolves of Fairfield County?"Charles Chadwick - It's All Right Now: Here, the whimper sets in after a completely fantastic first 180 pages - and continues for 400 more. You had me at hello, Chuck, and could have stopped after Part I. Again, where's the editor?Bret Easton Ellis - Lunar Park: Underrated, my ass. This book is terrible. Everything after the introduction is embarrassing. I don't know that an editor could have saved it, or why I read it. Avoid at all costs.
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When I read Endless Love by Scott Spencer, I couldn't stop talking about it. Why did it affect me so much? Because I was in a rut with love. While recovering from my own experiences, witnessing cultural demonstrations of "romantic relationships" had turned me off of sex and romance completely. For years, I chose to be alone, to find clarity, sanity, and to block out the preening idiots brainwashed into coupling up in order to fulfill some patriarchal and commercial expectation -- brunch, orgasms, weddings, whatever... But "sanity" can become very monotonous. It can turn into "nothingness" after a while. So I think I was starving for Endless Love when I picked it up. Yes, the protagonist could be construed as delusional, criminal, and crazy to those of us more at home in repression and shame. But "love" isn't a moral incentive to do nice things. Love doesn't make any sense. Fuck sense. The human heart is psychotic. This book reminded me that it's worth going a little insane from time to time. If I don't, I may have nothing to write about. If endless love was a dream, then it was a dream we all shared, even more that we all shared the dream of never dying or traveling through time, and if anything set me apart it was not my impulses but my stubbornness, my willingness to take the dream past what had been agreed upon as the reasonable limits, to declare that this dream was not a feverish trick of the mind but was an actuality at least as real as that other, thinner, more unhappy illusion we call normal life. ― Scott Spencer, Endless Love More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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.