I read Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer — and left it in Illinois for my mother when I was visiting. She suffers from serious dementia, but expressed excitement about this book and wanted to read it. It’s set in 17th-century Poland — during the aftermath of a catastrophic massacre of the Jews. Messiahs and Devils abound in this book amid the 17th century music Singer has miraculously composed. My mother was born in a similar place in this vicinity. My mother told me her mother died of fear. They were all terribly mad.
Helen Dewitt’s novel, The Last Samurai was published in 2000 by Talk Miramax Books in the US and in many other countries. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2006 to work on a novel using information design to represent mathematical ways of thinking about chance. She collaborated recently with the Australian journalist, Ilya Gridneff, on Your Name Here, a novel about a) the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist or b) the impossibility of writing a novel with an American writer who thinks it’s about the impossibility of writing a novel with an Australian journalist. An extract has appeared in n+1.This was unexpectedly hard to answer; casting my mind back over my reading in 2008, books were not what first sprang to mind. I realised suddenly: it’s not that I’d read no good books, but for me 2008 was the year of the blog, the year I discovered various bloggers whose writing was so addictive I have, well, moved into an apartment with no Internet access for five months so I can get some work done. The guiltiest parties were three blogs on language (Language Log, Languagehat.com and Bremer Sprachblog) and Mithridates’ Nighthauling. (xkcd.com, while also a favourite, does not interfere with work in the same way.) Rafe Donahue’s Fundamental Statistical Concepts in Presenting Data: Principles for Constructing Better Graphics – a 102-page PDF handout available on his website – held me transfixed, laughing out loud, for hours, on yet another day which had been optimistically allocated to work.Two books reminded me of what can be accomplished using the resources of the printed page: Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence and Claude Abromont’s Guide de la théorie de la Musique (Fayard, 2001). Beautiful Evidence, the most recent of Tufte’s pioneering books on information design, discusses the cognitive defects of Powerpoint in characteristically tendentious style; introduces Tufte’s latest invention, sparklines (small, information-intense word-sized graphics), and shows what can be done with them; and, like all Tufte’s work, makes the reader wonder why all books don’t look like this. (A: He publishes them himself.) The Guide de la théorie de la Musique includes chapters on silence, on nuances, on the history of ornamentation, on jazz, an overview of post-tonal music (and, of course, much much more); the exceptionally intelligent use of graphic design enables the reader to take in at a glance the relationship between intervals, the relationship between the keys, in short the many aspects of music which require intellectual apprehension. One turns to a random page and exclaims: But this is fabulous!Two books on political science reminded me of how essential a book is for getting to grips with sustained argument, if one is the sort of reader who underlines, writes in the margin, sticks tabs on pages and constantly flips back and forth (and no, highlighting a PDF is not remotely the same): John Zaller’s The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion and Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.Zaller argues that we need a new model of what public opinion actually is; given that most people (or most Americans, at any rate) pay little attention to politics, what exactly is the “opinion” that is elicited in surveys and the like? And what is the relationship between changes in the political views of the political elite (those who follow politics and are well-informed) and the views of those with little political engagement? Most people, Zaller argues, don’t have fixed, preformed opinions on a wide range of specific issues that that can be looked up like documents in a filing cabinet; they often form views when asked for them, drawing on whatever considerations happen to be uppermost in their mind at the time… The model has profound implications not just for politics but for our view of the self. A book, in short, which leads one to do violence to the notional word count of the round-up and still be conscious of doing gross injustice to its power, importance, and originality.In Red State Blue State Gelman, or rather, Gelman, Park, Shor, Bafumi and Cortina, look at various myths relating to the ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states and offer a wealth of statistics to show the more complex reality. Is it really true, for instance, that the rich vote on economic issues, the poor on ‘cultural (God, gun control and so on)? Is there a split between working class ‘red America’ and rich ‘blue America’? According to RSBS, church attendance predicts Republican voting much better among rich than poor; within any state, more rich people vote Republican, while there is a significant difference between rich voters in ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states… PUP has permitted Gelman & colleagues 8 pages of colour plates to display properly the remarkable difference in ‘winners’ when states are classed by rich voters only, middle-income only and poor voters only, as well as an enlightening map showing counties as red, blue or purple. This was, naturally, gripping reading in the run-up to the presidential election; a number of posts on Gelman’s blog offer analysis of more recent results in terms of the area of inquiry set out by this remarkable book.And finally… Reminiscent of the Ficciones of Borges and Calvino’s Cosmicomics, Bernardo Moraes’ Minimundo offers a succession of brief takes on a world where the narrator plays Playstation with God, outwits zombies, is offered three wishes by the Demon of Coca Cola. Minimundo is currently available only in extremely witty Portuguese, but anyone familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan or Romanian could probably understand enough to see why this is a wonderful book. Hillary Raphael’s I Love Lord Buddha, the story of an American girl who founds the Japanese terrorist cult Neo-Geisha, had a savage deadpan humour which stayed with me months after I put it down.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The twin peaks of my reading this year was a pair outstanding novels written by colleagues of mine here at The Millions. Edan Lepucki’s debut, California, reached #3 on The New York Times bestseller list, while Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Both books thoroughly deserve their critical and commercial success, and for all their many differences of tone and approach, their DNA shares a prominent strand: both novels are set in a dystopian near future, after civilization has collapsed and people are forced to scratch and improvise their way to lives with some semblance of security and meaning. The books’ shared tones and time frames led me to write an essay about the timeless – and timely – allure of the near future for writers working in our anxious times.
Too late to include in that essay, is another dystopian near-future novel I just finished reading by another “literary” novelist, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. (I think the word literary needs to be placed between quotation marks in this context because it’s a contrivance, though in this case a useful contrivance: it notes that realists like Lee — and Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, and Cormac McCarthy — have been venturing into speculative new terrain that was once the preserve of genre writers.) Full Sea posits a nuanced dystopia: pollution and economic collapse have caused mass migrations of Chinese people into abandoned American cities, and a three-tiered society evolves. On the top are the wealthy, living in gated communities; in the middle are the working-class residents of strictly regulated cities like B-Mor, formerly Baltimore; and on the bottom are the poor people living in the brutal rural “counties.” The novel gets draggy and ponderous in spots, but its great strength is the first-person plural narration by the “we” of B-Mor, a hive mind that gives the novel creepy, mythic overtones.
While in Detroit on a book tour this summer, I bumped into a writer named Dan Epstein who was in town promoting his two irresistible books about baseball during that most benighted of decades, the 1970s — Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
Before encountering Epstein and his books, I had dismissed the ’70s as a stylistic Sargasso when almost everything went to hell — cars, pop music, the economy, hairstyles, fashions and, yes, baseball, which was suddenly being played on AstroTurf fields in cookie-cutter stadiums by whiskery guys wearing Technicolor polyester uniforms. (Movies, curiously, were immune from the scourge, enjoying a fleeting golden age during the decade). Epstein, as I discovered, actually revels in the decade’s cheesiness, and he does so without the killing smirk of irony. And, he reminded me, it wasn’t all cheese: it was when he fell in love with punk rock, soul, funk, and blaxploitation flicks. For the first time, as he writes, the real world invaded a professional sport: “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution — all of these things left their mark upon ’70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.” Indeed, Epstein’s books helped me see that before the 1970s, professional athletes were cocooned in the myth that they were wholesome superheroes; since then they’ve become cocooned in something even less interesting: money.
Speaking of Detroit, one of the best books I read this year was a scintillating new collection of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, essays, and fictionalized observations called A Detroit Anthology. Delightfully free of finger-pointing, cheap nostalgia, or breathless boosterism, the book makes the point that only through an understanding of this troubled city’s history can one hope to understand its current woes and its possible ways forward. The collection’s editor, Anna Clark, has succeeded sublimely in her goal of capturing “the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters.”
This will also go down as the year I read my first — and last — James Patterson novel, Pop Goes the Weasel. As Flannery O’Connor’s character Nelson Head says after his disastrous first trip from his home in the piney woods of Georgia to the big city of Atlanta: “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”
This will also go down as the year when I, a person who doesn’t like to rush into things, became the last person in America to read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 smash, Gone Girl. How good was it? It was so good I have absolutely zero desire to spoil the experience by going to see the movie version, even though Flynn wrote the screenplay. Sometimes, a book is enough.
And finally, two pieces of long-form journalism stood out this year. Thanks to The Daily Beast, I discovered the great Gay Talese’s 1970 Esquire magazine article about the Manson Family’s desert hideout at the Spahn Ranch. Though nearly half a century old, the writing in “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range” remains fresh and vibrant — a reminder just how radical it was for Talese to use the novelist’s tools in his journalism, and just what a brilliant reporter he was, and is. At age 82, he’s still working the beat.
Every year I re-read one of my favorite pieces of journalism, Marshall Frady’s 1971 Life magazine article, “The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford.” Ford’s best-known novel, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, told the story of the titular black undertaker in a small Southern town in the 1960s, who has the temerity to name a white cop as a co-defendant in his divorce suit. The cop performs the inevitable execution of Jones, and the local white community comes together to protect and absolve him. Frady’s article lays out the horrific story of how Ford’s life came to imitate his art. The liberal undertones of Ford’s novel won him few friends among his white neighbors in Humboldt, Tenn., so there was a pronounced shiver of schadenfreude when Ford was charged with killing a black man who was trespassing on his property. Frady’s article dissects Ford’s tortured campaign to win back the favor of the white community, in order to win absolution and avoid prison. The article rises to the level of art through insights like this:
Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford belonged, more or less, to the Dionysian disposition, a nature tending toward the unruly and ecstatic…Ford worked out of an older understanding of man — that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable, and its condition an inalterable mixture of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion. Ford himself once remarked, ‘I’ve been invited to sessions before to discuss biracial committees and all those other causes, yeah. But I’ve never gone. I’d just rather not hear them mewl and whine.’
Journalism by the likes of Frady and Talese is getting harder and harder to find. As I was reminded again this year, digging it out is always worth the effort.
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This August, not long before Labor Day, my wife and I packed the kids into the back of a rented car and left behind the garbage-smelling streets of New York for the comparative balm of Maine. For the second year running, we’d booked ourselves into a little bungalow about as far east as you can go before you drive into the ocean. This modest slice of paradise doesn’t come cheap; a week’s sublet costs only slightly less than our monthly rent. To my mind, though, it’s worth it — not least because the house’s sun porch is my favorite place to read in the entire world. There, with the kids napping upstairs and the porch’s old glass rippling the heavy-limbed spruces outside and the bees bumbling around in the hydrangeas and the occasional truck droning past on the two-lane, I can actually feel time passing. Moreover, I can choose to lavish a couple unbroken hours of it on a book, in a way life in the 21st-century metropolis (with small children!) renders vanishingly improbable.
It’s no surprise, then, that many of my best reading experiences of the last year were concentrated in that single week. Early on, I read for the first time Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and found in the wry lushness of its prose a perfect literary analogue for the sensory assault of high summer in a new place. In fact, the divide between the life of the senses and the life of the mind is one of the many barriers Woolf’s intrepid hero/ine surmounts, “For it must be remembered that… [the Elizabethans] had none of our modern shame of book learning…no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality’ are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality.” I then devoured, in the course of two naptimes, Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. Unlike its predecessors, Mating and Mortals, this novel has some glaring defects, and reviewers, by turns baffled and hostile, went straight for the invidious comparison. Yet what struck me was the through-line of Rush’s sensibility. The supreme pleasures of all of his work (the characters, the loving irony, the human comedy) are present here, in spades, and that made Subtle Bodies feel like a gift. And just before returning to New York, I read, in a state of admiration bordering on envy, the brilliant first third of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.
Probably the single most perfect book I encountered in 2013, though, appeared under completely different circumstances — that is, in February, back in the city, amid the ice. Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives didn’t just reward my attention; it commanded it. To pick up the book was to be summoned away from the diced-up jumble of my own unfinished errands and brought into the presence of Anna and Melanctha and Lena. Reading Stein is like being brainwashed, but in a positive sense. It cleanses the windows of perception. It is Maine on the page.
In fact, much of what moved me most in 2013 drew in one way or another on the Modernist legacy of “deep time,” a countervailing force to the jump-cut, the click-through, the sample rate. I came to the reissue of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, for example, expecting a kind of cool PoMo minimalism. Instead, I discovered a crypto-maximalist whose sentences, surfing along on volumes of unexpressed pain, are as perfect in their way as Woolf’s. Péter Nádas’s putatively maximalist Parallel Stories, meanwhile, offered the most miniaturist reckoning of behavioral psychology this side of…well, of Gertrude Stein. The erotic excesses everyone complains about — e.g, the 300-page sex scene — are in fact the opposite of erotic; they’re a kind of clinical accounting of the physical side of human history, the flesh that has a mind of its own. “Unsubtle Bodies,” would have been a good title. But in the end, I respected the hell out of Parallel Stories, and ended up despite myself — despite, perhaps, even Nádas — caring deeply about its characters. And then there was Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Where his first three novels to appear in English were dark, his latest, Seiobo There Below, is bright. Where they were terrestrial, it is astral. But in one important respect, it’s just like them: it’s a masterpiece.
I know I tend to go on about the Hungarians, but this seemed to be a ridiculously rich year for American fiction, too. Fall, in particular, was a murderer’s row of big books; I could talk here about Lethem, about Tartt, about Pynchon, about David Gilbert, about Caleb Crain, about James McBride’s surprise National Book Award, but I’d like to put in a good word for a couple of books that came out in the early part of the year, and were perhaps overlooked. The first is William H. Gass’s Middle C. Not only hasn’t Gass lost a step at age 88; he’s gained a register. One of Middle C’s deep motifs involves an “Inhumanity Museum,” but the surface here is warmer and funnier and more approachable than anything Gass has written since Omensetter’s Luck.
Fewer readers will have heard of Jonathan Callahan, whose first book, The Consummation of Dirk, was published in April by Starcherone Press. It’s a multifariously ambitious story collection on the model of David Foster Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair. The glaring debts to Wallace and Krasznahorkai and Thomas Bernhard can be a liability, but in the longer stories here, including “A Gift” and “Cymbalta” and “Bob,” and in the closing trio, Callahan uses the pressure of influence to form shapes entirely his own.
On the poetry side, I adored Bernadette Mayer’s rousing and funny collection, The Helens of Troy, New York. Meyer uses various quasi-Oulipian formal constraints to turn interviews with the titular Helens — yes, every woman named Helen living in Troy, New York — into poems. Both Helens and Troy emerge richer for the transformation. And while Patti Smith’s Just Kids isn’t technically verse, it makes good on every claim for Smith as one of the few true rock n’ roll poets. (The late Lou Reed was another.) Not only is Just Kids an unmissable story; it attains the same purity of expression as Horses.
Usually, rock writing is a kind of guilty pleasure. Unforgettable Fire, Glory Days… I feel absolutely no guilt, though, in recommending the English journalist Nick Kent’s collection of rock profiles, The Dark Stuff. It’s John Jeremiah Sullivan good. Gay Talese good. Sometimes it’s even Joseph Mitchell good.
I made it through a couple of other great works of narrative journalism this year, as well. William Finnegan, in addition to being one of my favorite New Yorker writers, has got to be one of the best reporters on earth, and his Cold New World, published in 1998, is like a Clinton-era companion to George Packer’s The Unwinding. In it, Finnegan spends months with teenagers in four far-flung American communities, uncovering the frictions of the new economy long before it blew up in our faces. Robert Kolker’s The Lost Girls, which came out this summer, similarly examines the effect of those frictions on young women drawn into prostitution — specifically, five young women who would end up murdered by a serial killer out on Long Island. Kolker doesn’t turn phrases with the acuity of Kent or Finnegan, but his patient unfolding of his story gives the reader room to become outraged.
As usual, I find myself running on well beyond “Year in Reading” length. But in my defense: I hardly reviewed anything this year! This is my one chance to enthuse! And though I’ve talked about William Gass, and William Finnegan, what about William Styron’s The Long March, or William T. Vollmann’s Fathers & Crows? This is not to mention The Luminaries, which is currently sitting half-read on my nightstand, alongside The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Bridge Over the Neroch and Teju Cole. My wife says it’s starting to look like a hoarder lives here. How am I ever going to finish all this stuff? But I remain optimistic, against all the evidence, that life might offer a little more time to read in 2014. And if not, I suppose we’ll always have Maine.
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Dan Kois edits Vulture, New York magazine’s arts and culture blog.Like many people who work in publishing, feed off of publishing, or report on publishing, I’m constantly reading months or even years ahead. So my 2007 reading experience was unlike that of many of your correspondents; rarely could I find time to dip into the past. When I did, it was to re-read works that had given me great pleasure: the funny and sad novels of Tom Drury, for a profile I still swear to God I will eventually write; Harry Potter and His Dark Materials, in preparation for the final volume of the former and the film of the latter. I read comics systematically and comprehensively this year for the first time, and loved dozens and dozens of them, sometimes feeling like a reading cheater in my ability to rip through an entire satisfying story in an hour or less. But the best book I read all this year is a book that isn’t even coming out until next year: Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, a thriller set in the darkest days of Stalinist Russia, one of the finest intersections of historical setting and propulsive plot I’ve read in a long time. It’s a book that transcends the serial killer genre and becomes a difficult, complicated work of art in its own right.More from A Year in Reading 2007