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.
Though as I kid I’d read The Long Winter, I was really more familiar with the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder via the long-running NBC television series, which recast her work as a warm paean to family togetherness during the cocaine-dusted, wife-swapping 1970s (and a show now appropriately preserved in the golden amber of the Hallmark Channel). Bolstered by the anti-sentimentalism of art school, I’d somehow fallen in line with this received opinion, dismissing her work as innocent and sanitized, of no real value except as a way of passing one’s time in a false nostalgia for a Good Old Days that probably never existed. But during a recent snowstorm here in Oak Park, Illinois, vaguely remembering a detail of Wilder’s Long Winter – how the snow drifted so high that she could watch the feet of passersby from her attic window – I started rereading the 1940 book with my daughter Clara, just to pass the time during our own little blizzard.
Well, was I proved wrong. Really wrong. Not only by the book’s utter lack of sentimentality, but by the surprisingly lean, stark, and even occasionally self-deceiving personalities Wilder brings to life through her clear memory and clean prose. Warmth and love were indeed present, but they were a warmth and love that felt absolutely genuine, forged of clinging, human suffering, and tempered to a ring of authenticity by the details of close-quartered familiarity its characters endured. Sacrifice, self-denial and desperation blow through the book’s pages, and the frozen panic suffered by the Ingalls family during that 1880-81 South Dakota winter ended up feeling almost as immediate as the snowstorm framed by the windows of our 98% Energy-Star-rated-furnace-heated house, my daughter taking refuge under a blanket in a hinged ottoman as shelter from the real-er snow of Wilder’s words.
Once both storms had subsided, Clara and I started the nine-book Little House series from the beginning and set out on a tour of literary discovery that surprised and amazed me, from the grisly sweet early memories (the “pig-bladder” episode that every kid reader remembers) to her middle years following her possibly deluded father all over the midwest in search of a reliable land claim, to her onerous marriage and house-keeping with Almanzo Wilder. Looking back on the books as a single work, Wilder not only creates an almost sculptural sense of time’s passage – what it feels like to go from childhood to adulthood – but also seems to adapt her writing to the task, beginning with simpler words cradling simpler, childish images and ending with more detailed, complex, uncomfortable and disjointed chapters, the bone-lean accounting of her marriage in a semi-unfinished follow-up of her First Four Years with Almanzo in which their crops repeatedly fail, their house burns and a bereft neighbor asks Laura to make a gift of her only child acting as a bitter chaser to the whole.
Apparently I’m not alone in this rediscovery, as her work has inspired an explosion of post-NBC Ingalls Wilder-loving websites and memoirs, myriad fictionalized follow-up book series extending other characters’ lives (and I will nose-holdingly overlook the whole itchy connection of her daughter Rose Wilder to the Libertarian party though I won’t overlook recent scholarship which reveals her semi-fictionalized writing as a collaboration between her fact-flat mind and Rose’s more rounded powers of literary empathy) to her just this year being inducted, as a real literary writer, into the Library of America. Such a plaudit is justified. She breathes on the page as a clear-aired voice who speaks not only to children, but to the children that wii-playing/guitar-polishing/adventure-movie-watching America claims we can remain regardless of our age. In short, Laura Ingalls Wilder tells us, and tells us quite beautifully and bluntly, to grow up.
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.