Two books come to mind. One is Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, probably the book I have thought about, talked about, and quoted from the most this year. It concerns, among other things, a guy whose trauma-induced brain damage prevents him from recognizing his own sister. Powers manages to dramatize humanely and poignantly how the postmodern notion of the self as a series of fictions, which might appear to be quite anti-scientific, is actually supported by recent neurological research into the nature of consciousness. The other book is a collection of poems called All You Have to Do Is Ask, by Meredith Walters, which I discovered a few weeks ago, and many poems of which I have already returned to more than several times. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects (death, airplanes, soldiers, art, starfish, ecological depredation, love), elegant in their forms, exhilarating in their leaps from thought to thought, often funny, and in any given line one senses a mind on an urgent quest to discover what it believes and knows.
Publishing a book feels a little like a birthday. It lasts for longer than a day, but it’s wonderful and exciting and weird like a birthday is. (Am I the only one who spends her entire birthday thinking, Today is my birthday! Today? Today! Birthday? Birthday!). This year was just that for me, wonderful, exciting, and weird, especially the summer, when it seemed all I did was travel, talk to strangers about my book, and sleep in hotel rooms (which always made me think of “Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams: “– And the immaculate white bed.”)
Before my summer publication madness, before I did my reading in airplanes and various Panera locations and cheesy hotel bars, I had one particular experience with a book that filled my soul with fizz and made me feel alive in that way that only reading a great book can. I was at Ucross, the beautiful writing retreat in Wyoming, and between writing and weeping about writing, I sank into a green marshmallow-of-a-couch and began The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
Edith Wharton! Edith Wharton! Edith! Wharton!
I read and liked The Age of Innocence years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the love I would feel for this novel. Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart, simultaneously oblivious and wise, is one of the most compelling and complicated characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I pity and admire the way Miss Bart wields the power of her own beauty: she exploits her own magnetism, and it’s her own magnetism, or her confidence in that magnetism, that ruins her. Lily just wants to be free to live a grand, unfettered life, but she is a single woman in late 19th-century New York and her opportunities are limited (credit wendy here). She’s also a self-absorbed and entitled bitch. God, I love her. I also love Wharton’s assured and wise prose:
Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation to her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. But even had the two been in closer contact, it was impossible to think of Mrs. Peniston’s mind as offering shelter or comprehension to such misery as Lily’s. As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.
See what I mean? Say it with me now: Edith! Wharton!
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.
Stephen Dodson is a freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.As usual, my reading this year has focused on language and Russian history and culture, and I have books to recommend in each area.The best language book I read during the year is Mikael Parkvall’s brand-new Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages. Parkvall is a Swedish linguist, so this is not one of the usual pop language books full of “fun facts” that aren’t actually facts. He says in the foreword, “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists – here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” Opening it at random, I find a section on using linguistics to catch the Unabomber, one on odd phrase-book examples (“I was stabbed with a spear”; “At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?”), and one on linguistics in films (“Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, 1941: A lexicographer [Gary Cooper], realizing that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated, visits a nightclub in order to update it…”); there are also, of course, basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and “Language myths.” It’s the best combination of fun and education I’ve seen in a long time.Other language books I can recommend are Nicholas Ostler’s “biography of Latin,” Ad Infinitum (I’m now reading his earlier history of language, Empires of the Word, and enjoying it greatly), and George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, a classic history of American place names recently reprinted by New York Review Books (if the author’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he also wrote the science fiction novel Earth Abides, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951).On the Russian front, I loved Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. In her introduction, she says: “this study poses two central questions: What kinds of writing correspond to specific places in Petersburg or to particular aspects of imperial-era Petersburg life? How does writing constitute imperial Petersburg, both before and after the imperial period? … My project aims at an archeological reconstruction of a complex discursive formation – the full textual articulation of imperial St. Petersburg as a cultural object.” Yes, I know, that sounds off-puttingly academical, but she mostly confines the jargon to the introduction, and the book is full of fascinating tidbits about the city and the writers who have tried to describe and interpret it, and not only the famous ones; she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. To give an example of the kind of thing you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, in Chapter Four she investigates “a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s,” quoting Pushkin’s diary (“In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about”) and a letter from Petr Viazemskii (“in one of the clerk’s rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling…”), ending with the casual mention in Gogol’s famous story “The Nose”: “And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh.” Who knew that wasn’t just another wild invention of Gogol’s? If that kind of thing interests you, you’ll enjoy the book.I was also bowled over by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. Sure, it’s important to read the Great Works, but you can’t really understand a country and its culture unless you’ve spent some time with the less exalted material most people devour. There’s an eighteenth-century knightly tale that begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” (Zilagon conquers Canada and marries the daughter of the king of Mexico.) There are (among many other things) half-admiring accounts of famous criminals, bedroom farces, examples of war correspondence, prison songs, and a bizarre “novel of the occult” by V. I. Kryzhanovskaia (“The following excerpt picks up in the year 2284, with characters introduced in the first books: Supramati, who began life as British Dr. Ralph Morgan but was enticed by the original Prince Supramati, born in Egypt around 300 B.C., to exchange drops of blood so that the doctor would now live for eternity…”) that displays, as the editors point out, good old-fashioned Russian nationalism projected into the far future (“As for Tsargrad [i.e., Constantinople], it’s now the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful states in the world, standing at the head of the great All-Slavic Union”). This stuff entertained tsarist Russia and it will entertain you!Finally, for bragging rights I must mention that I finally finished Proust this year (in English, I’m afraid), and am now reading War and Peace in Russian. Let me tell you, this guy Tolstoy is a good writer!More from A Year in Reading 2008
I asked Michelle Richmond to share with us the best books she read this year. Michelle is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress and Dream of the Blue Room. She also keeps a blog, Sans Serif. She put together a really great post for us.The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson – “Kind readers,” this novel begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.” And so I began this book, again, for probably the fifth or sixth time. Like Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, The Death of a Beekeeper is a book I return to every couple of years when I am in need of something quiet and beautiful. The protagonist is one Lars Lennart Westin, who once taught at “the local elementary school in Ennora on the northern shore of the lake.” By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is dead, but during the writing of the three notebooks that comprise the novel, he is very much alive. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Blue Notebook is a commonplace book of sorts, containing “newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin’s readings, and his own stories;” the Damaged Notebook contains telephone numbers and brief notes about the progression of Westin’s cancer.The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate lives of bees, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, and the mysterious workings of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran are detailed in equal and exquisite measure. I admire the gentle precision of Gustafsson’s prose, the author’s eye for odd and interesting trivia, the novel’s meditative nature. This is a book of ephemera that cannot be easily categorized, a book of lists. For example, page 106 features a “Table of art forms according to their level of difficulty.” Art form number one (the least difficult) is eroticism; at the other end of the spectrum is artillery (number 28). The art of the novel (number 8) is, according to our protagonist, less difficult than squash, weight lifting, high trapeze, bicycle acrobatics, and the building of fountains, but slightly more difficult than surfing and significantly more difficult than poetry, which weighs in at a humble 3.Also on my list for the year: Here is Where We Meet by John Berger; A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvic Vaculik; Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet; Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz; Total Fears by Bohumil Hrabal; and Summertime Waltz by Nina Payne and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), which I’ve been reading to my son Oscar.As always, some of my most rewarding reading experiences have been stories and essays found unexpectedly in magazines big and small, most notably a gorgeous exploration of the secret lives of New Orleans’s hardy termites, published in Harper’s pre-Katrina. (The essay by Duncan Murrell warned of the devastating effects of the termite infestation on the city’s historic buildings. Interestingly, the flooding may have saved the city from the worst the termites had to offer).Which brings us back, sort of, to The Moviegoer, that most perfect of books: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”Thanks Michelle!