I suspect there might be something inherently unfair in asking about best books any year that J.M. Coetzee has a new novel out. He is truly sui generis and seems to operate at a level that the rest of us can only sort of admire from afar. After the interesting misstep that was Slow Man, he’s returned with the extraordinary Diary of a Bad Year. The book consists of three narratives that share each page: At the top of the page are, in a nod to Nabokov, the protagonist’s “Strong Opinions” – essays on subjects ranging from political life in Australia to al-Qaida. In the second thread, the protagonist “JC”, who bears a striking resemblance to the author, describes his obsession with his beautiful young amanuensis. And the third voice tells that same story from her point of view. The result is an alternating comic and tragic aria for three voices that asks questions no less fundamental than what is it we require of our writers and novels? A painter friend once told me that any serious painter needed to contend with Picasso and Pollock. Anyone who cares for literature must do the same with J.M. Coetzee.
In November 2009, my wife gave birth to our first child. At the time, I was working on a book which I was planning on handing in three months hence. I didn’t actually finish until the following October, and for most of that time I was writing for between twelve and fourteen hours a day. It was not fun for anyone. I can count the combined number of restaurants my wife and I ate at and movies we saw in 2010 on one hand — but I filled three pocket-sized notebooks keeping track of the books I read. Most of those were mysteries, with authors from the UK (Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, P.D. James) and Scandinavia (Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser) especially well represented. It was two American writers — and their very American main characters — that I’ll remember the most:
The Parker novels of Richard Stark. Fifteen years ago, I got turned on to Parker after a thread-pulling expedition led me from Jim Thompson’s nihilistic noir to the 1990 film adaptation of The Grifters to screenwriter/novelist Donald Westlake to Westlake’s pseudonym Richard Stark to Stark’s Slayground, a dimestore shiv of a book about what happens when corrupt cops tip off the mob about a car accident in which an incompetent wheelman flips a getaway car next to an amusement park called Fun Island. (Hint: Master thief/antihero extraordinaire Parker survives; lots of other people die.) Then, earlier this year, I chanced upon Darwyn Cooke’s The Hunter, a brilliantly disturbing graphic novelization of Parker’s debut. Four weeks later, the combination of a Kindle and my deadline-induced insomnia had led to my tearing through another ten books in the Parker canon.
Stephen King once said reading the Parker novels was like getting a PhD in crime. John Banville called Parker “the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky.” For me, he was the most enjoyable way to spend those dozens of nights when I was too tired to write and too anxious to sleep.
The Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. In October, I was telling a friend about my recent Parker obsession when he asked me if I was a Rex Stout fan. On the surface, his question made no sense: Parker is lean, instinctive, dangerous, alluring; Wolfe is obese, erudite, possibly alcoholic and obsessed with orchids. Parker has no real home and at one point had reconstructive plastic surgery to disguise himself; Wolfe almost never leaves his Manhattan brownstone and delights in outsmarting cops. Parker is a stone-cold killer; Wolfe is a genius detective. They’re both awesome. My friend told me to start with Fer-de-Lance, Stout’s first Wolfe book. I took his advice, if only because I had no other idea about how to start a series that includes something like 80 novels and novellas.
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
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Year in Reading series. It was great to see which books got people excited this year. I hope to do it again next year, so keep track of what you read and keep me in mind come December. Here are this year’s contributions:Authors:Kirby GannMarcy DermanskyMichelle RichmondBloggers:Language HatPete LitGolden Rule JonesConversational ReadingEmerging WritersReaders:GarthEdanAndrewD. HowardPatrick
Mark Sarvas’s debut novel Harry, Revised, compared by the Chicago Tribune to Updike and Roth, has been sold in more than a dozen countries. He is also the host of internationally renowned litblog The Elegant Variation, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Threepenny Review and elsewhere.Well, my favorite book of this year – of quite a few years – is Joseph O’Neill’s magisterial Netherland but it’s been deservedly praised everywhere, so I will save my word count for a less well-publicized book. And a non-fiction title, to boot. Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal was my surprise of 2008, a slender but dense cri de coeur from Yale University Press. It hit my radar around the same time that Sarah Palin hit ours, and I could think of no more stirring rebuttal to the proud ignorance she represents than Riemen’s heartfelt pitch for the grand old values of Western Civ. The author, founder of the Nexus Institute, a European humanist think-tank, populates his crash course in the great thinkers with the likes of Socrates and Thomas Mann, and I can think of no better book for the President-elect’s bedside table. Nobility of Spirit argues (among other things) that the pursuit of High Thought will always – must always – trump the pursuit of Fleeting Gain. (And as we move uncertainly through a historic meltdown of our financial infrastructure, we see just how fleeting it can be.) In the end, Riemen argues, high ideals (embodied by art) are as essential as food and shelter. The examined self never seemed so timely. (And, as a bonus title, I finally got around to Ed Hirsch’s glorious How To Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry, a book that makes me want to grab my Norton anthology and read every poem out loud. To be passionate about literature is unfashionable in too many quarters these days; Hirsch is an essential corrective.)More from A Year in Reading 2008
At the beginning of the year, I made a resolution that I hoped would help me to curtail my online reading habits, which I felt were getting out of control. It wasn’t necessarily that I was spending too much time online, it was more that I felt like the Internet was leading me around by the nose. I would go online with the intent of reading a particular writer or article and my attention would be dragged into various micro-feuds — micro because they existed only within a particular community, feuds because there was a level of passion that gave everything an operatic edge. The drama was fascinating and not without value, but it was also exhausting. More importantly, I never ended up reading what I wanted to read.
I considered banning certain websites, but decided that approach was too broad. Instead, I resolved to stop reading criticism and blog posts that were written in reaction to someone else’s criticism. The only criticism I would read would be pieces that were directly tied to a primary source, such as a book, film, museum exhibition, television show, etc. No more re-caps, round-ups, or lists. Likewise, I would avoid op-ed pieces and news analysis. I was sick of having to hack through two or three layers of commentary and interpretation before I got to the actual thing or event or person that existed in the world.
I wasn’t sure if this new reading diet would actually help with my distraction problem, so I was kind of embarrassed to discover, in the first weeks, that over half of what I typically clicked on fell into this category. I started to read more things on paper because it was easier than navigating the short-term headlines.
As it turns out, paging through a magazine is a lot more relaxing than going from thing to thing online, and it’s also a pretty effective way to find new things to read. One writer I discovered on paper is the critic Tim Parks. I’m sure I’ve read Parks’s criticism before this year, but there is reading criticism and reading a critic, and Parks became someone I had to follow after I read his review of Peter Matthiesen’s In Paradise in The New York Review of Books. Something about this review struck me as deeply felt, but also very clear and easy, the distillation of many hours of thought. I started to look out for Parks’s reviews and I also began to follow his posts on the NYRB blog.
Ironically, Parks’s blog posts became more important to me than his print reviews. I reread many of them while working on this post, because Parks is very interested in the question of how and what we read in the age of the Internet, when there are oh-so-many interesting things to read. More broadly, Parks is curious about the way that globalization and the number of online outlets are affecting how fiction is written and constructed, and what pressures this new, global audience and delivery system are putting on literary writing in general and the novel in particular. This is a question he touches upon in many of his blog posts but faces head-on in “Reading: The Struggle,” an essay about just how hard it is to find time to read books. Parks is old enough to remember a time when his workday was interrupted just once, by the mailman — an event he neurotically anticipated, but was nevertheless able to put out of his mind after the mail’s arrival. While Parks doesn’t lament the advent of email, he notes that we are living in a time when “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.” And, at the same time, he observes we are living in an era when readers seem to relish long, densely plotted books, fantasy trilogies, and a return to the kind of episodic, repetitive storytelling many reviewers favorably liken to 19-century authors like George Eliot and Charles Dickens. But contemporary novels, Parks argues, are quite different from their forebears: “There is a battering ram quality to the contemporary novel, an insistence and repetition that perhaps permits the reader to hang in despite the frequent interruptions to which most ordinary readers leave themselves open.”
When I read that, I thought, yes, that is exactly how I feel when faced with the prospect of reading The Goldfinch or The Luminaries, novels that I have been told are wonderfully entertaining and intelligent, but which are so long, and so virtuosic, that I can’t help feeling cowed by them. Suspend your disbelief! they seem to say. Do it now!
It’s also how I feel, a little, about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, which Parks includes on his list of exceptionally long contemporary novels. I loved reading Knausgaard, but looking back on the experience I feel as if the books were somewhat manic, as if a crazy old friend came to visit for two weeks, got drunk every night and talked nonstop about himself, and then left. My friend Maura read the books at the same time and we sent each another Knausgaard-length texts, trying to figure out why we were so fascinated by this overly long, repetitive, and sometimes quite inelegantly constructed narrative. Maura felt it was written in reaction to the blogosphere, as if Knausgaard was racing against the never-ending outpouring of confession, information, and analysis. I felt it was written in reaction to parenthood, to the feeling of really stupid things shaping your time and therefore your work, things like laundry and shopping lists and yes, online chatter.
The opposite of a battering ram novel is what Parks describes as “the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity.” He predicts that in the Internet and smartphone age, this type of novel “will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.”
When I read that, I immediately thought of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which mines many of the same themes as Knausgaard, but does so in short, carefully pruned paragraphs, sometimes consisting of just one sentence. You get the sense, as with Knausgaard, that Offill was pressed for time when she wrote it, but instead of furiously filling up as many pages as possible, she just tried to write down one or two good sentences on index cards. Both approaches, strangely, were riveting in the same way — I couldn’t put down Offill’s book any more easily than Knausgaard’s. And both books were the ones that I returned to the most, throughout the year, in thought and in conversation.
This post was supposed to be on the short side, and I’ve already past 1,000 words. Obviously, my writing style leans toward Knausgaard. I’m also aware that this post is exactly the kind of writing I tried all year to avoid: Here I am, piling onto another writer’s already excellent criticism and observations. Please relish my hypocrisies. The truth is that I did not keep up my peculiar info-fast for the entire year. I blame Ann Friedman, whose weekly email newsletter pulled me back into the fray, pointing me to all the articles, blog posts, and debates that I might be interested in following. (She recommends books, too.) The best thing about her newsletter is that it arrives on Friday afternoons, so in theory, I could just skip a lot of my aimless browsing during the week and wait for Ann to point the way. I think I did that maybe twice this year — and one of those weeks I was on vacation. So now you know what next year’s New Year’s Resolution will be.
Last year, I ended my year in reading with a nod to the book I read most often to my son, so I’ll attempt to begin a tradition and share this year’s book: The Cat In The Hat by Dr. Suess. Have you read this book lately? It’s perfect. I can honestly say I never tire of reading it out loud — and I read it a potentially tiring number of times. The rhymes are simple and addictive and will make you love the English language. If I were a writing teacher, I would assign it to my students. One sentence in particular stuck with me, it’s kind of the perfect slogan for how to deal with the huge variety of material on the internet, or maybe just the animated GIFS: “It is fun to have fun / but you have to know how.”
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.