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.
It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same.
In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner.
Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver –– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture…”)
This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists.
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Patrick Brown, one of my old bookstore compatriots, is now living in Iowa, a circumstance that affords him a lot of reading time. Here are his favorite reads of the year:Non-Fiction (and Best overall for the year): Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Vol. 2 by Robert Caro. This biography, which is one part Western, one part Shakespearean political tragedy ala Richard III, is among the best books I’ve ever read. In 1948 Lyndon Johnson ran a do-or-die campaign for the US Senate against the most popular man in Texas political history — former governor and all-around-bad-ass Coke Stevenson. It really must be read to be believed.Rounding out the top five non-fiction books are (in order): Master of the Senate (part 3 of the LBJ series), Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son by John Jeremiah Sullivan (a dreamy, meandering ode to horse culture and fatherhood), The Path to Power (part 1 of the LBJ series), and Vermeer in Bosnia by Lawrence Weschler.Best Fiction I’ve read this year: Morte D’Urban by JF Powers. While not as off-beat or quite as funny as Powers’s other novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Morte D’Urban succeeds in being an entertaining and tender novel about a priest who’s ambition to take over his dying religious order’s leadership lands him in rural Minnesota. Like Wheat That Springeth Green, the book is a conversion tale of sorts. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away.The rest of the top fiction 5: Any Human Heart by William Boyd, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, and You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon. I haven’t been reading enough new fiction. Shame on me.I’ve embarked upon my annual holiday excursion to the East Coast. Sporadic posting is likely but all possible effort will be made to keep The Millions rolling along.