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.
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In her poetry collection The Pedestrians, Rachel Zucker writes of a woman who is reading a novel about another woman: “The voice gets into her head” and “her thoughts have become inflected and unfamiliar.” That’s the extraordinary intimacy of reading, the penetration of one consciousness by another. “This is now the only way she leaves her city,” writes Zucker. The opportunity to think with another mind is also my preferred mode of travel. I like where I go, for instance, when I read David Trinidad’s Peyton Place, which is composed of one haiku for every episode of the soap opera. When my thinking is inflected by his wit, television is transformed into poetry and bad hair and tight slacks become the stuff of art. And I like where I go when I read Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming essay The Argonauts – I like it so much that I keep reading it again and again so that I can keep going there. Nelson offers a philosophical stance, an ethical posture, an attitude toward life that is joyous to inhabit. When I leave her meditations on family-making and queerness, I feel buoyed in my own efforts toward family-making and radical difference. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
There were many books I admired this year, books I read and reread and recommended. Salvage the Bones is every bit as good as they say it is. And there were groundbreaking narrative nonfiction books about India: Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned, Arundhati Roy’s Walking with the Comrades, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (out in Feb. 2012) are works of profound witness, kinship, artistic achievement, and moral necessity. But only one book left me breathless. I didn’t read -- I succumbed -- to The Journals of John Cheever. I picked it up one evening after the guests had gone, after the ashtrays had been emptied and the dog walked. I was lightly drunk and working on getting more seriously drunk (the Cheevering hour?); I idly opened the book -- and let it have its way with me all weekend in the spare room. It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate -- even embrace -- your corruption. These journals, posthumously edited by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, are a 40-year chronicle of wanting health but plotting, ardently, self-destruction. Of struggling with alcoholism and bisexuality. Of wanting very much to love one’s wife and only one's wife -- but falling gratefully into the arms of any stranger who will have you. Of the soul as irredeemably “venereal, forlorn, and uprooted.” Cheever had a brain and body so responsive -- “touchy like a triggered rattrap” -- everything he sees turns him on, makes him cry, turns him rhapsodic. Desire stains everything. And it isn’t airy, “Chopinesque longing,” no -- it’s itchy and inconvenient, “as coarse and real as the hair on my belly,” he writes. "In the public urinal I am solicited by the man on my right. I do not dare turn my head. But I wonder what he looks like. No better or no worse, I guess than the rest of us in such throes.” I love this Cheever, so lust-worn, fatigued, wise. The Cheever who observes, “I prayed for some degree of sexual continence, although the very nature of sexuality is incontinence.” But I love him more when he’s cross, crass, and ornery. When he’s querulous and moaning for “a more muscular vocabulary,” his face on a postage stamp, a more reliable erection. When he carps about his contemporaries (Calvino: “cute,” Nabokov: “all those sugared violets”). But Cheever the ecstatic, who merges with the mountain air and streams, who finds in writing and sex a bridge between the sacred and the profane and is as spontaneous and easy as a child -- he is indispensable. “Today gloomy and humid. I walk the dogs in a heavy rain. Water lilies grow at the edge of the pond. I want to pick some and take them home to Mary. I decide that this is foolish. I am a substantial man of fifty-eight, and I will walk past the lilies in a dignified manner. Having made this decision, I strip off my clothes, dive into the pond and pick a lily. I will be dignified tomorrow.” The days are short and few. Stay up late with John Cheever. Contemplate your corruption with cheer. Be dignified tomorrow. Remember: “The morning light is gold as money and pours in the eastern windows. But it is the shadow that is exciting.” More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
But while people like Dorothy Vaughn were now working side by side with whites doing the same work, they would still have to face the discriminatory walk through labyrinthine corridors until they found the washroom with the sign COLORED GIRLS.
In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan: Did you ever think this: I don’t know how I made it this far in my life without having read this book? If you’re familiar with Richard Brautigan’s bizarro, late-sixties masterpiece Trout Fishing in America or Sombrero Fallout, or even if you’re not, reading this book is like realizing there is an entire room somewhere in your house that you never had the chance to visit before, a world of talking tigers, junk heaps, and underwater coffins. Unlike the work of so many well-regarded, contemporary writers whose memoir or journalistic style seems like a literary stand-in for reality television, Richard Brautigan’s intricate, poetic fantasia is an invitation to use your imagination, and somewhere, turning the pages, you have the sense you’ve stepped into someone else’s dream. This novella, first published in 1968, takes place at a commune in a post-apocalyptic world where commune members harvest the sugar from watermelons to build everything from homes to coffins. Each day the sun seems to be a different color which produces different color watermelons. The story follows the unnamed narrator and his relationship with two women, his ex-lover Margaret, who’s grown tired of the commune and begins investigating an enormous trash heap piled high with objects collected from the fallen, outside world, and Pauline, another commune member who he’s begun falling in love with. At the center of this book is a question about the possibility of human happiness that is at once quiet and devastating, but what really resonates is the subtle, dream logic of Brautigan’s minimalist, incandescent writing. The narrator, at one point in the book, describes how his parents were killed by talking tigers while he was doing his math homework at the table one day. The tigers look up from mauling his mother and father and say, “We’re not going to hurt you. We don’t hurt children,” and then offer to help him finish his homework. What this book is then is not just an opportunity to observe what is possible in our own imagination, but in the realm of storytelling. More from A Year in Reading