I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
Putting together a new syllabus reminds me of making mix tapes back in high school, something I really liked to do. I devoted a lot of thought to them, and their purpose was always a proselytizing one: to turn the recipient into a kindred spirit, or at least a fellow traveler. I hoped that if I came up with the right selections and placed them in the right order then the listener would find herself spellbound by songs that in another context might sound simply weird or loud or dated or spooky — and ultimately she would be changed by these songs, as I had been, and together we would see the world in a different light.
A syllabus offers me a lot of the same hope and pleasure that a mix tape once did, and this year all of my hopes were met, and more. The focus of this particular syllabus was experimental fictobiography (a clumsy term for a fluid form), and I wanted to include works that I not only loved but that also demonstrated a variety of methods for telling the story of a “real” person’s life: collage, verse, photographs, fragments, rebuses, found texts, etc.
The reading list looked like this:
Kathryn Davis: Versailles
Donald Barthelme: “Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning” and “Cortés and Montezuma” from Sixty Stories
Anne Carson: “The Glass Essay” from Glass, Irony, and God
Michael Ondaatje: Coming Through Slaughter
Anna Joy Springer: “Kathy Acker’s Mystickle Snail and Bone Pedagogy” from Encyclopedia Vol 1 A-E
W. G. Sebald: The Emigrants
Todd Haynes: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story
Jonathan Coe: Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson
John Haskell: I am not Jackson Pollock
And I don’t know exactly why, but this turned out to be the best mix tape I ever made. Somehow the possibilities suggested by these texts gave rise to the most surprising and beautiful work I’ve seen in a writing class. Students were writing about subjects ranging from Helen Keller and John Hinckley, Jr. and Messalina to Amie Huguenard (girlfriend of Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell) and Alisha Klass (gonzo porn star) and Bando Tamasaburo (kabuki actor), and doing so with supreme confidence and insight and adventurousness. Never before has one of my syllabi (or my mix tapes) brought forth this sort of thrilling response. It made for a year of elated reading.
Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed. Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s.
Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William’s. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity.
Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book.
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