The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
Roy Kesey’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in more than sixty magazines, including McSweeney’s, The Georgia Review and The Iowa Review, and in several anthologies including The Future Dictionary of America, New Sudden Fiction, The Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology and Best American Short Stories. He’s the author of a novella called Nothing in the World and a collection of short stories called All Over.I’ve been reading a lot of history and historiography lately, and a lot of the books are magnificent, but the coolest by some stretch was Carlo Ginzburg’s History, Rhetoric and Proof. Does that, from its title, sound like a fun book? Perhaps not so much. But it is joyously smart and fast and important. Ginzburg makes you feel like your brain is as big as his is, which is a very nice feeling indeed.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Francois Monti runs a litblog in French – mainly about American literature – called Tabula Rasa. If I could read French, I would probably read the blog, but I can’t, so I’m happily making due with Francois’ contribution – in English – to our Year in Reading series:I should first point to the fairly obvious: among the books I most liked in 2006, you will find Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I won’t elaborate further on these books; they are already all over the literary blogs.There has been much less discussion of Roberto Bolano Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Dectives), which is pretty understandable: the book was published in Spanish in 1998 and is yet to be translated into English [Max: it’s coming in April 2007]. However, this year saw the publication of the French translation, my mother tongue. Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him. He was undoubtedly a unique South-American writer; dare I say the best of his generation?If we’re talking older books, I’ve read and liked many in 2006, but none as much as The Tunnel. The contrast between the odious main character and the beauty of the prose, the music of William H. Gass’ writing, make for a deeply disturbing, fascinating, and ultimately rewarding experience.Thanks Francois!
Brian Morton’s novels include Starting Out in the Evening and Breakable You.A few things I loved this year:Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. Her humor can remind you of Ring Lardner; her fondness for Southern grotesques can remind you of Flannery O’Connor; and her mordant reflections on the difficulty of love can remind you of Proust – but really, there was nobody like her, ever. More than fifty years old, this short novel is the liveliest thing I’ve read in years. If the world of MFA programs moved O’Connor off the pedestal and replaced her with McCullers, it would be a good thing for the future of American literature.It might seem superfluous to add another word of praise for Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, except that it’s impossible to praise her enough for how well she listens. Who else, for example, pays such close attention to the way we never, ever finish our sentences? “‘Man, why you gotta be all…I just ahks a question, that’s all, and you gotta be all…’ Here Levi provided an inconclusive mime that gave no idea of the missing word.”Fade to Blonde, by Max Phillips, is a brilliant homage to (and parody of) the noir tradition. Raymond Chandler said something to the effect that his Philip Marlowe novels were primarily experiments with language; you could say something similar about Fade To Blonde. I’ve never met Philips, but, having heard a rumor that he’s not writing anymore, I want to address him directly: You are a fantastic writer, man! Keep going!More from A Year in Reading 2007
I wish I knew why the U.S. Army never tried to weaponize old photos. When you look at the government’s history, which includes such episodes as the gay bomb, it’s difficult not to conclude they’ve researched nigh-on everything, to the point where you could justify a grim variant of Rule 34. If it exists, in other words, the Army has attempted to kill with it. Yet, as far as I know, our top military minds never tried to kill people with embarrassment. I guess even the cruelest officer has a flicker of basic decency.
I read a lot this year, enough so that I’m not embarrassed about it, but I didn’t read all that many books in total, which seems like a bit of a paradox. How can I call myself a reader if I read so few books in that time? The answer, I think, lies in a photo, taken when I was 15. I’m contorting my face in a dimly-lit hall in my high school. My style, generally speaking, is that of Kurt Cobain, not because I’m some kind of super fan but because I’m sad and oblivious. I have unkempt, greasy hair, my shirt is ugly and baggy, and the cargo pants I’m wearing are somewhere near 80 percent pocket. I make it clear with every gesture my patron saint is Luc of Ennui. In my arms, a pile of books, so fat my elbow is a right angle. If you look at my friends, you’ll see they have around the same number of books in their arms, yet somehow I’m the only one who’s struggling not to fall over. Look closer and you see the culprit — one book in my pile is a doorstop.
When I was a freshman, that book was Ulysses. When I was a sophomore, Gravity’s Rainbow. At some point in ninth grade, I decided huge books were key to being smart and attractive, a thought so wrong I could write my own huge book meticulously debunking it. I was That Guy, more so than I could possibly know, and I hope I satisfy your schadenfreude when I say I barely understood what I read. I plowed through these massive tomes and got maybe two pages of meaning. What I did get, however, was a taste for the rhythm of huge books, which can be summed up as: you’ll be here for months, perhaps even years, so you might as well get comfortable, like a tenant.
All this explains why, around the the time Can’t and Won’t came out, I felt the stirrings of a deadly, ancient urge, the warblings of my sullen Inner Teen. “Hi there, douchebag,” said the teen, his posture terrible. “Why not read ALL the stories written by Lydia Davis?”
“Okay,” I said. “Please learn to shave and use deodorant.”
I bought a copy of Collected Stories that day. Altogether, it took me four months to read, which begs a simple question: was it worth it?
Please. Is it worth it to give money to charity and feed stray puppies in the street? Is it worth it to exercise and strive to live true to your values? To ask me if it’s worth it to read Lydia Davis is a bit like asking me if it’s worth it to learn new languages. Both activities are self-evidently nourishing, and no one needs guidance to see that.
For 30 years, since Break It Down was published, Lydia Davis has been churning out a singular, high-quality product, taking seemingly no detours into other, lesser breeds of stories. If Can’t and Won’t is any indication, she’ll be keeping it up for a long time. Early works like “French Lesson No. 1” are just as inventive and sly as things like the more recent “Idea for a Sign.” There is, I think, no “bad” Lydia Davis, in much the same way there is no bad Scottish tweed, or no bad bottles of new Jameson whiskey. Her stories reliably function as literary submersibles, dropping readers canyon-deep in a bracingly smart frame of mind.
The problem with reading huge books is it’s hard to start a new one after you finish. By then, it feels like a sort of betrayal, a break in a hallowed routine. That’s why I chose something broadly similar in the form of New American Stories. I’d read a few already, among them “Home” by George Saunders, but the contents (ably picked by Ben Marcus) supplied me with a whole new roster of writers to mainline. Chief among them were Rebecca Curtis, Said Sayrafiezadeh, and Rebecca Glaser, but I was perhaps most floored by Maureen McHugh, whose story in the book is best described as futuristic Chinese noir. The warp-speed “Going for a Beer” shows Robert Coover is still going strong, and “The Arms and Legs of the Lake” gave me a grounding in Mary Gaitskill. And, of course, there’s the 78-word-long “Men,” a Lydia Davis story that appears in Can’t and Won’t.
I therefore spent the bulk of my reading time on two pretty hefty collections. One was 0.1 percent Lydia Davis while the other was 100 percent. Did I have a good year? I don’t know. Do you like Jameson?
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Peter Ho Davies is the director of graduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan. He is the author of two short story collections, The Ugliest House in the World and Equal Love, and a novel, The Welsh GirlOn the Vanishing of Large Creatures by Susan Hutton: Susan Hutton’s remarkable debut was the most simply pleasurable book of poems I read this year (and among the best I’ve read for many years). Hutton’s touch is light – the poems are often casually, playfully erudite – but tender; she cherishes her subjects. Quietly feeling, poem after poem creeps up on you only to sweep you away.More from A Year in Reading 2007