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.
When I was a teenager and I slept in my teenager's bedroom in the basement of my parents' house, I used to keep my stereo on all the time. Every moment that I was in that bedroom there was music playing. I kept it on while read at night, and then I left it on while I was asleep. I liked my music so much that I would have rather listened to it all night than go to sleep. My compromise was to try to do both at the same time. The lasting effect of this, aside from my residual insomnia problems, is that I have intense musical connections with many of the books I read in high school. This has given rise to some odd but unbreakable pairings, like whenever I happen to see a copy of Lloyd C. Douglas' classic of historical fiction The Robe, I get songs from Bob Marley's Legend stuck in my head. I can use these odd musical, literary pairings like an archeologist to dredge up memories from years ago. Likewise, I can look back over the books I read this last year and extract the various experiences that are wrapped up with each one. When 2003 began I set a goal to read 75 books over the next twelve months. I didn't even come close. Unless I have left one or two off the list, and I may have, I read 29 books last year. I have many excuses for this, but the one I like the most is that I read a few books this year that I enjoyed so much that I couldn't help but to savor them, to ingest them nibble by nibble as I pushed aside my silly goal of gluttonous literary consumption. What I'm saying is, it was a good year, so lets get started.Annals of the Former World by John McPhee: This monster of a book is McPhee's paeon to the geology of the United States. As always McPhee is readable, but the ambition of this book (which is really five books in one) is what won him the Pulitzer when it came out. Sometime in the summer or fall of 2002 I read McPhee's book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, because it happened to be sitting on the bench next to me on my break at the bookstore. Once I started reading it I was hooked, and I've been a big fan of McPhee's ever since. This one is big (almost 700 pages) and it took me a while to read. I was also moving at the time to the house where I live now with fruit trees and a balcony and a guy who sells tamales out of the back of his car on our street every day. As far as I can tell, though, there are no exposed rock faces nearby and therefore no opportunities for amateur geology, though the book did manage to get me very interested in the subject.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I have long bemoaned the huge gaps in my library. There are many classics that I have never read. As I recall, I was particularly struck by this notion early in 2003 and one Sunday night shift at the book store, afroth with my desire to get some of those classics out of the way, I dove into Gatsby. I read half the book that night on my breaks and the other half when I got home, staying up late to finish the last few pages. I hadn't read a whole book in a day in a long time, and that felt good. When you digest a book as a single unit like that, you are able to look at differently. It's like the difference between falling in love in one night and falling for someone over a period of weeks or months. I enjoyed the book, of course, though it is referred to so often, in so many settings, that it felt like I had already read it. Still, it was great to finally see what all the fuss is about.Gilligan's Wake by Tom Carson: It was a very happy coincidence that I happened to read Gatsby right before I read this book because one of the sections of this book is an extended riff on the Daisy character. Gilligan's Wake is a truly bizarre post-modern confection the created a minor splash at the beginning of 2003. It's outlandish premise is to describe the lives of each of the characters of Gilligan's Island before they went on their fateful three hour tour. The result is a vibrant pastiche of twentieth century history and popular culture, for, you see, the Skipper and Ginger and all the rest happened to lead very complex lives that intersected with the lives of some very important people. Having said that, this book isn't a farce or a parody or anything like that, and in fact the language can be quite brutal. It might be best to describe the book as Pynchon soaked in TV culture. It's an interesting read that I never would have come across had it not been for the fact that many of the folks at the book store read it when it came out.Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski: When I read Kapuscinski's book The Soccer War a couple of years ago, I did so under the assumption that it was his best book. Maybe I was told this by a book store clerk somewhere, or I based it on Amazon rankings and reviews. It's a very good book, kind of mind-blowing for me, really, since I had never read anything like it. I was very excited about discovering the work of this globe-trotting Polish journalist, but I assumed that his other books might be slightly lesser works. So, naturally, I was thrilled when I discovered that Imperium, his book about the Soviet Union and its fractured remnants, was a fantastic book, full of Kapuscinski's usual personal insights and vision. This book propelled me on to a Soviet kick that would lead me to read several books on the subject before the year was out.The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor: For some reason, the review of this book in the New York Times put me in a real frenzy to read it. I think because it reminded me of Atonement by Ian McEwan, a book from 2002 that I really loved. Although I have read and enjoyed many of Trevor's short stories, I just couldn't get into this book. It was too even. There is a dramatic event at the center of this story but it is too buried by the passage of time to be a driving force.On Writing by Stephen King: I've always been a defender of Stephen King. As he will readily admit, he has written some clunkers for a buck, but his best books are really fantastic. I have also always enjoyed his writing about himself. This book is part memoir, part writing handbook, and part pep talk, and it is very readable. King avoids all the double talk that many writers will shell out when they write about writing. King manages to tell us that, just like anything else, writing is best when you have fun doing it, and if you're having a lot of fun, it's probably good enough to be publishedThe Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis: This was the great discovery of the year for me, a book that I spent a lot of time on and a book that I never wanted to finish. I spent nearly two months reading this one, and Mutis' book is so vivid with adventure and characters, it felt like I was living a double life. It all started with a review of the book by John Updike in the New Yorker early last year. I read the first few paragraphs and something clicked. I knew I had to read this book, and as soon as I started I knew it would be fantastic. Soon, I had convinced several coworkers to read it and we recommended it to many others. Over the course of the year my bookstore alone sold hundreds of copies, and friends of friends of friends were asking me if I had ever read this incredible book about a mysterious fellow named Maqroll. In March I happened to meet a hero of mine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and we talked briefly about Maqroll. Lately, my thoughts have turned to reading it again, and I'm thinking that sometime soon I will add it to my reading queue so that I can read it again soon, and I think I will probably keep it on the queue so that I can read it again every year or two. It's just that good.American Studies by Louis Menand: After reading Menand's Pulitzer prizewinner The Metaphysical Club, I added Menand to my list of favorite writers, so I was excited to read his follow up, a collection of essays with subjects ranging from T. S. Eliot to Larry Flynt. Menand is truly a master of the form, but I yearned for another book-length work that would allow him to really strut his stuff.Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards: I picked up this hardcover on a bookfinding expedition and had a good time reading through it. It's chock full of pill popping divorcees and heavily cloaked anti-Nixon screeds. Joking aside, there are actually some truly remarkable stories in this book as I describe in this post from May 13th.Nine Innings by Daniel Okrent: I've always been a baseball fan, but it seems like I spent much of 2003 in a baseball frenzy. Recognizing this, my friend Patrick recommended this book to me and I really enjoyed it. Okrent spent months researching and preparing to write an entire book about a single game. The result is a detailed picture of the individual intricacies that combine to create one ballgame.That's all for now. Parts 2 and 3 to come.
Whew... Ok, I feel much better now. Well rested and ready to continue:Feeding a Yen by Calvin Trillin: It's not that I love all food writers or that I necessarily am enamored by all writing about food. I've just noticed these past few years that there are particular characteristics shared by a lot of food writers that attract me to them as writers. They are very knowledgeable but also self-effacing. They tend to be intrepid travelers with acquaintances on most continents who will gladly direct them to the finest cuisine in the area, and often times these writers, in order to fuel their pens, will receive the finest that these far-flung kitchens have to offer. Ideally, the reader will get an insider's view of a place, one that he will not be able to necessarily be able to replicate, but that he might strive for. An example, when I was in Barcelona this summer, stoked by the writing of Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten and Jonathan Gold, I was probably most intrigued by the food of the place, a regional cuisine that isn't duplicated elsewhere. Though I might not end up at a four star spot nor be able to decipher the recipe for the grilled sardines or paella that I just ate, I can nonetheless follow in these writers' footsteps as I strive to learn about a place by looking for and at its food. And most of all I can follow in Trillin's footsteps as I seek out deliciousness in all its forms. There's something wonderful about devoting yourself to seeking out the joy comes from a good meal.The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten: Steingarten shares with Trillin a love for food, but beyond that they couldn't be more different. Trillin is folksy and innocent, while Steingarten is a brash, but hilarious, know-it-all who spends as much time writing about himself as he does about food. He puffs himself up and then lets out the air. Most often this occurs over the course of one of his kitchen experiments where he attempts to make the perfect french fry or the perfect fried chicken during which he makes an unholy mess, comes to no conclusion (which is all the more funny considering the certitude with which he undertook the venture), and fun is had by all. The Man Who Ate Everything, his first collection, is good, though a bit wearying by the end. I've read bits of It Must've Been Something I Ate, and it seems to be even better, since by this time he has really mastered his style.Yours, and Mine: Novella and Stories by Judith Rascoe and.....Last Courtesies and Other Stories by Ella Leffland: I was inspired by a couple of things to read these two books. First, I had the opportunity last summer to meet Edwin Frank, the editor of the NYRB press. We talked a lot about The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, of course, but we also talked about how he finds titles to bring back into print. Many are books that he has long been aware of, that he has watched go out of print, and then he has stepped in and reissued them, but there are other titles that he has found by trolling the sidewalk book tables in Manhattan looking for hidden gems, a name that sounds familiar or a title that sounds intriguing. At the time, I had recently finished the collection Prize Stories of the Seventies: From the O. Henry Awards, and I though that it might be interesting to track down the long out of print books by a couple of the writers whose stories I had enjoyed, but whose names were unfamiliar. Though the books themselves were quite good, I really enjoyed reading these as an exploration of the trajectory of the American short story. There is a sorrowful decadence to these stories, a feeling that the world might be unraveling before our eyes. Leffland and Rascoe certainly deserve their places in the O. Henry collection, and it's a shame that they cannot be more widely read today.The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen: In August, over the course of this post and this one there was a discussion here at The Millions about who currently holds the title of best young writer, and who, among those under 50, will still be read voraciously a generation or two from now. Many names were batted around, but the one book that everyone agreed upon was The Corrections. Due to my perhaps unfounded dislike of Franzen, I hadn't yet read the book, but inspired by the discussion, I immediately went out and read the book, was pretty dazzled by it, and wrote this post about it. I hope that The Millions can be host to more great discussions like this one in 2004.Well, it looks like there will be a part four. I promise I'll finish soon. Maybe even this afternoon!
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem's back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I've never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I'm really glad she did that because I'm always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I've already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter's book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I'll be reading Dexter's National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett's foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman's pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman... Like him or not, I'm afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here's what I had to say about this book after I read it: "The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman's personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman's absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip."Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you've been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I'll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the "transaction" at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you'll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don't want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
When I posted the CS Monitor "best of" list the other day, I mentioned how it seemed that this year there weren't many young, exciting writers grabbing headlines from the established old guard. Dan Wickett, proprietor of The Emerging Writers Network left a comment recommending several young writers who deserve to be on some of these "best of" lists. He also sent me an email with even more titles. They seem like a good bunch of books to explore, so I thought I'd reprint them here:Dog on the Cross by Aaron Gwyn - excellent short story collection from Algonquin. He's currently finishing up debut novel about a tattoo removal artist.Another Perfect Catastrophe - Brad Barkley - another excellent short story collection, his second to go with two novels.The Book of Ralph (excerpt) - John McNally - a very good novel. When Mitch Albom was choosing a book for The Today Show book club, he announced this was a close second (He chose Andrew Sean Greer's novel).Under Cottonwoods (excerpt) by Stephen Grace - an excellent debut novel put out by Lyons Press.Poe & Fanny (FAQs) by John May - another Algonquin effort - May's debut about the year that Poe wrote "The Raven." Excellent.D.B. (excerpt) by Elwood Reid - his third novel, but he's still under 40 years old.Prisoners of War (excerpt) by Steve Yarbrough. An author who should be considered one of the old guard - he writes rings around most of them. His other two novels and three short story collections were excellent but this was really top notch.Plain Heathen Mischief (excerpt) by Martin Clark. This southern judge pens his second exciting literary thriller of sorts.American Desert by Percival Everett. With only his 15th novel (to go with two short story collections and the other novel he co-wrote and published this year and a children's storybook) Everett finally seems to be garnering both critical notice, and getting more than one copy of his latest book to be carried by the Detroit area Borders and Barnes and Nobles.Welcome to the Fallen Paradise by Dayne Sherman. Published towards the end of the year by MacAdam/Cage. His debut - reminiscent of the novels of Tom Franklin or William Gay.About Grace (excerpt) by Anthony Doerr. The debut novel by the author of The Shell Collector, which won about every literary award it was up for two years ago and is still spawning O'Henry Award winners.The Green Age Of Asher Witherow by M. Allen Cunningham. This 26 year old's debut began its life as the number one choice of Booksense 76. Not bad. It was deserved.Animal Crackers (excerpt) by Hannah Tinti - This short story collection by the editor of One Story won well deserved rave reviews in many, many papers. She's also sold her debut novel to be published some time in the next year or so.Non-Fiction:Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. The advance news on this was so high that they ran out of galleys. It's received nothing but rave reviews since. As well as Flynn writes poetry, this memoir might just top it.
Some time during the month of December, squeezed in between the eggnog and the marathon sessions at malls swollen with frantic shoppers, I hope everyone has a moment or two to reflect on the last year. And as you are reflecting, I hope you set aside another, smaller moment to think about some of the great books you've read in the past year. I've asked several readers of The Millions to do some reflecting, and the results have begun to pour in. Over the next days and weeks, I'll be sprinkling these reflections throughout The Millions for your enjoyment. Pay close attention because some of these folks may become regular contributors to The Millions in the coming months. If you want to join in the fun, email me and tell me what the best book you read this year was. Today, we'll start things off with a couple of Canadians. Andrew Saikali (a new contributor here at The Millions).Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski - the first book I read by him and the book that single-handedly changed the way I think of non-fiction books. A collection of journalistic notes and descriptions of historical photos, assembled in such an extraordinary way that the reader gets a complete and provocative impression of the atmosphere and revolutionary mind-set leading up to the fall of the Shah.Also weighing in is Roy Santin, another reader from north of the border.My pick of the year is Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (excerpt), shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2003- it's very juicy, verging on nasty gossip, coming across as a very light insignificant thing that was tossed out, but actually is a very deep and thoughtful meditation on contemporary society both in our personal communities of family and friends and wider social trends. It's also an interesting meditation on communication, intention and conflicting interests. It's a lot of fun, with significant intimations on important issues.Stay tuned for more reflections coming soon.
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There are some books that just demand to be reread. For Emre, who I'm hoping will become a regular contributor to The Millions, the book he reread this year is also the best book he read this year.I never read a book twice until The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. When I finished reading the outlandish escapades of Maqroll in early November of '03, I knew that I would read the book at least two more times. The seven novellas that Alvaro Mutis wrote over the past twenty years are now collected in one 700 page volume, which relates the wanderings of one Maqroll the Gaviero (the lookout). The stories of Mutis' inconspicuous protagonist are presented by different narrators and in a random chronological order. The cleverly placed references in each novella help the reader discern the order of events, which unfortunately does little to dispel the mystery surrounding Maqroll and leaves the reader aching to know more about him. Mutis consoles the reader, albeit a little, each time a new character crosses paths with Maqroll. Presenting each person very skillfully and in great depth, Mutis ultimately paints a picture in which lifelong adventurers, crooks, lovers, sailors, miners, farmers, truckers, and dreamers cross paths by way of the most unimaginable, yet very possible, events. The Adventures and Misadventures is not just a modern day Don Quixote, as some termed it, but more a lyrical novel, a great ode to beautiful friendships, novel personas, and true emotions - joy and agony alike. It has been only one month since I finished reading The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll for the second time and I am already itching to read it again, this time in the chronological order that I discerned. It is a great novel that leaves the reader asking for more. The good thing is, you can go right back to page one. Enjoy.I should note here that I often cite Maqroll as the best book I have ever read (I, too, intend to reread it some time soon). If you care about fiction, I implore you to become acquainted with the Gaviero. You won't regret it.
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Brian from Los Angeles, one of the most prolific readers I have ever known, sent along his to favorites for 2004 (as we continue The Millions End of Year Extravaganza)Non-Fiction: The Fall Of Baghdad (excerpt) -- It is to our great benefit that Jon Lee Anderson was one of the very few journalists to remain in Baghdad throughout (and after) the attack. Anderson remains (mostly) apolitical, to record, with ferocious accuracy and color, what he saw, heard, smelt and felt throughout those turbulent weeks. All those self-important and partisan-hack talking heads and politicians who profess to know what's best for iraq and america are infants next to Anderson. Fiction: Elizabeth Costello (excerpt) - J.M. Coetzee is primarily known for one of his weaker books (Disgrace") as opposed to one of his masterpieces (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K) -- Elizabeth Costello falls somewhere in between. And, Coetzee knows this, even seems to integrate this into the book itself. Elizabeth Costello perfectly captures, through a series of an old woman's digressions and lectures, the confusion inherent in existence. Proceeding through life with the knowledge that all information has a flip side, that every belief has a counter-belief, that everything one does is both super-charged with meaning and also meaningless, one must... proceed. As does Elizabeth Costello (and Coetzee). A book that intentionally wallows in human fallibility, confusion, flawed logic, and shortcomings, but elevated way beyond most 'perfect works' -- Coetzee is one of our best contemporary prose stylists, novelists, and essayists.--and a shout-out to the new centennial edition Graham Greenes with cooler covers than the Penguin editions and introductions by the likes of Coetzee, Christopher Hitchens, etc... The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair must be read by all! Look for more great end of year reviews as the Extravaganza continues.