The book that comes most immediately to mind is Andrew Holleran’s Grief, a slim, restrained, beautifully rendered novel about a gay man whose mother has just died and who relocates to Washington, DC, after having cared for her for years. Holleran does so much so well, but perhaps most striking is how compellingly he writes about solitude; many a writer has tried to do that, only to succumb to inertia and solipsism. Another writer who writes wonderfully about solitude (and just about everything else) is William Trevor (if you want brilliant, heartbreaking solitude, take a look at Trevor’s short story “After Rain”), and his new book of stories, Cheating at Canasta, is terrific. So is Donald Antrim’s memoir The Afterlife, which, speaking of grief, is about his mother’s death, but also about many other things, including the purchase of a mattress. I loved Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, the best of the 9/11 novels I read this year. This novel, too, is about grief (are we sensing a theme here?) – political and cultural grief, of course, but also about family grief: the novel is a domestic drama about a marriage in trouble, with 9/11 as the backdrop.
Last year I asked a bunch of people, “what was the best book you read all year?” And throughout the month of December I posted the responses. Well, I’m doing it again this year and it looks to be even bigger and better. This time around, we’ll be hearing from authors, bloggers and readers. Our first batch of books comes from the impeccable language blog Language Hat, an essential read if you have an interest in languages, linguistics and words, or even if you think you have an interest in those things. Given his expertise, I asked that he include reference books in his picks.The New Oxford American Dictionary is a delight to look at and to use. I especially appreciate the “core sense” system, which means that the first definitions given “represent typical, central uses of the word in question in modern standard English,” far more useful than Merriam-Webster’s historical ordering (which often leaves the unwary user thinking some obsolete sense is the basic meaning). It’s an encyclopedic dictionary, meaning proper nouns are included along with all the other words; as they say, “names such as Shakespeare and Mississippi are as much part of the language as words such as drama or river.” It tries to “break down the barriers to understanding specialist vocabulary,” providing comprehensible explanations as the main definition and including technical information as subentries. And of course it draws on the extensive Oxford data collections. More at Language Hat.Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language has its problems (mainly stemming from an ill-advised attempt to cram a technical hypothesis about the origins of the Semitic verbal system into a book for the general reader), but it’s written with style and humor, and it was a real pleasure to read a book on historical linguistics by somebody who knows what he’s talking about. If enough people read this book, I won’t have to work so hard to introduce the basic facts of language change. More at Language Hat.Maria Benet’s Mapmaker of Absences mixes formal pleasure with lived emotion and exact perception; I’ve found myself returning to it often during some difficult times this past year. I prefer poetry that lets tradition inform the emotions and needs of the present, and I’m glad I can still find books that give me that pleasure. More at Language Hat.
Unfortunately for me, I spent more time this year writing and editing than I did reading. But I did have two rewarding reading-related projects.
First, I wanted to indulge in the stakes-free popular literature. So I read all the George R.R. Martin books. Mmm hmm. They are honestly pretty great, like chocolate milkshakes, although I started Kindle-highlighting references to rape at a certain point around book three — I think that one’s the rapiest? — and it really gets ya down. What is the deal? He thinks about rape more than Andrea Dworkin! I really didn’t agree, in the end, with Daniel Mendelsohn’s fascinating essay on the topic of Game of Thrones. I mean, open that link up, and apple-F “Brienne,” and apple-F “rape,” and… nothing??? You can’t get to “remarkable feminist epic” without passing those stations of the sexist cross.
There’s also a question about the series overall that’s the “show your work” problem, as in, I don’t really care about the efforts of the math problem you had to do, I mostly want to see the solution to the math problem. In this case that means: Are we still reading prologue? Have we just read several thousand pages that actually don’t matter? Maaaybe.
In this vein I also read the James Franco book Actors Anonymous and the very silly Dave Eggers book, The Circle. That would make a really good cartoon television show maybe. With a laughtrack. What a silly book! I read it so fast, I basically couldn’t stop. Milkshake!
My other project was… Catching Up With The Kids. This is a thing you have to do consciously as you start to get older, particularly if you don’t teach. So, I read a Tao Lin book! (Taipei, obviously.) I read/engaged with the works of Amanda Hugginkiss Steve Roggenbuck and “Marie Calloway.” I am currently reading the manuscript of the forthcoming book by the proprietor of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, who is or is not named David Shapiro, and it is pretty terrific so far. I like this vein of writing, though not as much as the other young people do. I have already read the New Narrative writers and Dennis Cooper and all that flat affectless 90s jazz and though all the youngs are certainly bringing something new to the table, I don’t think it’s particularly innovative to go all in for this mode. Also, narcissism as an art form is eminently boring. I am ready for something more than people writing I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I.
Anyway I am starting to re-read Rebecca Brown’s The Terrible Girls, which has just been reissued! It’s already the best book I’ve read all year. Every emo youngster should read this, it is where their contemporary literature came from! Every time someone clicks on Thought Catalog, a Rebecca Brown reader should auto-download!
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