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.
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A cursory glance at my 2006 reading list and I'm one scream away from seeking therapy. I'm all over the map, really. I couldn't even begin to explain the path that led me from Jonathan Coe's epic comic/psycho-drama/mystery The Winshaw Legacy (aka What A Carve Up!) to Jonathan Lethem's hallucinatory sci-fi Amnesia Moon, to Kenneth J. Harvey's tough, stylistically ground-breaking Inside, told from the point of view of a just-released convict, freshly cleared on DNA evidence - not guilty (but far from innocent).Along the way, Philip Roth's American Pastoral made me rethink modern history, Graham Greene's The Power and The Glory introduced me to a whiskey priest in Mexico's past, and William Boyd's An Ice Cream War took me back further still, to World War I as it affected the lives of colonists in what are now Tanzania and Kenya.All great, but what lingers the most:Re-reading J.P. Donleavy's A Fairy Tale of New York which Andrew Saikali (that would be me) previously described as the story of "an educated rascal with an appetite for life, intertwined with social satire."And especially stumbling upon Gustave Flaubert's Flaubert In Egypt, his actual journey, at age 27, along the Nile, told through journal entries and letters home that are passionate and ribald, frustrated and clear-eyed. To quote, um, myself (in a previous post), "Flaubert In Egypt pulls together these various strands and stands at once as 19th century Egyptian travelogue, youthful memoir, geopolitical Middle Eastern history, and literary artifact - the nexus of Flaubert the youthful romantic and Flaubert the keen-eyed realist."
My Dream Book: I feel the only proper way to start this Year in Reading is by telling you that last night I dreamt about meeting Curtis Sittenfeld. As I recall, we were both in a small group conversing politely, but not directly to one another, and at one point I threw caution to the wind, grabbed her by the elbow, and said, “I just have to tell you that I loooooved Eligible,” and then enumerated the reasons for a few minutes. I did meet Curtis Sittenfeld about 10 years ago, and told her one of my top tier anecdotes, which she seemed to enjoy. I also professed my love of Eligible on Twitter earlier this year, which she acknowledged, so perhaps I feel we have a certain connection -- a connection my subconscious spun into a dream. Even so, I read Eligible in February, so why I was dreaming about it and its author nine months later is a mystery. Allow me to reiterate, however, in the cold light of day, that I did love Eligible, Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. My favorite thing about it is how she modernized the stakes. It’s easy to read the original, or watch the BBC version, and find it all quite charming. Your sister danced too flirtatiously at a local dance? How terribly cute. Your estate might be entailed away? How quaintly sad. You’re not married at 20? Quelle horreur. Sittenfeld translates these conflicts into a modern-day setting so that the Bennetts’ trials, embarrassments, and love lives are legitimately worrisome (until everything works out). See you in my dreams, Curtis! Best One-Day Reading Experience: I put off watching the least season of Justified for over a year, because I knew how despondent I’d be once it was over, which was exactly what happened. To ease the blow, I bought a copy of Fire in the Hole, a book of short stories by Elmore Leonard, the titular story of which is the basis for the series. On a Sunday afternoon I poured myself a glass of whisky, sat down, and read the book cover to cover. It was perfect. See you in my dreams, Boyd Crowder! Favorite Sentence of the Year: Bilgewater by Jane Gardam is a coming-of-age story about a smart, awkward teenage girl in 1970s England, although in the way of most awkward girl novels, it turns out plenty of people are in love with her. She finds herself in an amorous situation with one of them, and notes: “I was quite enchanted with myself. I had always thought I had very strong views on sexual morality. I found I had nothing of the kind.” Book I Loved Despite Not Being Able to Tell You What Happened: Long Division by Kiese Laymon happened to me. It’s very funny, there’s time travel, a book-within-a-book, young love, and an excellent young protagonist/narrator with an excellent grandmother. I was glued to every page, and am not confident I know how it ended. Please read it and contact me. While you’re at it, read Kiese Laymon’s essay about Outkast. It was in the 2015 music issue of the Oxford American. It was also anthologized in The Fire This Time. It's ostensibly about music, but it's about -- wait for it -- so much else. You’ll recognize the grandmother. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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Recently (this fall—autumn being more tangible to me than the integer “year”) I have read, and been amazed by Golden Gulag, by Ruth Wilson Gilmore, which a friend in the collective Endnotes (whose new issue was just published) recommended to me. This book provides a detailed structural account, and analysis, of how, and why, the prison system in California has grown so massive, and so “modern.” And come to think of it I also read Angela Davis’s dagger of a book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which does in 128 pages what Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow does in several hundred, but to be Davis’s reader and have that effect produced you probably need to either have already read Alexander’s excellent and very important book, or to be already a yes in response to Ms. Davis’s eponymous question, or both. Now that we’re creeping into the thick medium of a certain terrible reality, I also read Inside this Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, and was thunder-struck by it, page by page and cumulatively. I went from there to Loic Wacquant’s Punishing the Poor and Prisons of Poverty. And then to Saint Genet, Jean-Paul Sartre’s beautiful “biography” of Genet (more biographies should be poetic-philosophical treatises that foreclose morality in favor of essence). Around that same time I “read at” Victor Hugo’s autobiographical/diaristic Things Seen, in which Hugo gives us his own lived encounters with History and World-Historical Individuals, as Hegel would call them, in moments like this one: “They executed the king with their hats on, and it was without taking his hat off that Sanson, seizing by the hair the executed head of Louis XVI, showed it to the people, and for a few moments let the blood from it stream onto the scaffold.” Moving on from that encounter with the “real,” I was eager for the long-awaited October release of Frederic Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism. In fact I remember even kind of revving up for it by producing my own semiotic square for Michel Houllebecq’s The Map and the Territory, as I read that novel in late summer (the four sides being Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, The House of Prostitution, the House of Euthanasia). Anyhow, Jameson’s new work was foreshadowed by Perry Anderson’s article in the LRB in 2011, interrogating the “postmodern revival” of the historical novel. Lukács, who perhaps invented this literary category, pointed toward realism as the only legitimate novelistic mode into which to summon “History.” In that, all novels become historical novels when and if the present can be sufficiently apprehended as history by their authors. Jameson’s book, dense and meandering as it is, seems to offer multiple crucial antinomies. His conclusions are too complicated to get into here, but Cloud Atlas figures prominently among them, a book that greatly interests Jameson for its formal inventiveness, its pastiche of periods and styles, and for the fact that when all is said and done, despite its relativizing panache, it seems to transform history and ideas into meaning, and in particular, to have something to say about enslavement and emancipation. Thusly, the joyousness of art and the slaughterhouse of humankind both shine through. And Jameson seems to have enjoyed the movie version, too. (Which I myself have not yet seen, but . . . there is always next year.) More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.
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When I moved to L.A. in August, my books were not with me. They didn't arrive for another six weeks. While I was staying in Los Feliz for a month, I went to a bookstore in Atwater Village called Alias. I bought one obscure Russian novel, Sergei Dovlatov's The Suitcase, and a book published in 1949 about cinematography, John Alton's Painting with Light. The Suitcase is about someone who is only allowed to emigrate with two suitcases. He ends up bringing just one suitcase because he doesn't seem to need more. The chapters are then structured around each item he's brought with him. I came to L.A. with two suitcases, and a friend suggested I buy this book and use it as a template for my memoir, which I am having a hell of a time writing. The items I brought with me -- an Ugly Doll that reminds me of my sons, one LP by Lou Johnson (produced by Allen Toussaint), a piece of DJ gear -- do say something about me, but the conceit didn't work for describing the lifetime I had back in New York. In Painting With Light, Alton describes physical tricks that produce visual effects. I can't imagine anybody now would bother doing something involving boxes and curtains if they could do it digitally. There is a dislocation in reading about a medium that is still with us, but sort of not. I guess the equivalent for writers would be a book about how best to use a manual typewriter: tricks for sticky keys and how to store Wite-Out. (I bought an electric typewriter about five years ago. I used it only once and found it incredibly embarrassing -- it was so loud. I sold it when I arrived in L.A.) Everything else I read recently was something I printed out and left by my bed. I have a PDF of Ottessa Moshfegh's story collection Homesick for Another World, which comes out in January of 2017. It's sort of douchey to talk about something that isn't out, except you can easily find about two-thirds of the book online, in the places that first ran the stories: The Paris Review, Vice, Granta. Her name is very Googleable. It was strange getting into bed (literally) with characters who were doing unpleasant things, like buying drugs from homeless people who look like zombies or dealing with some terrible actor boyfriend addicted to meth, but I didn't ever dream about these people or get stuck with their problems. Moshfegh's sentences are so clean and they don't come in the order you expect. The rhythm of the stories became soothing, and I cycled through this one pile of paper several times. In the same stack was a story called "The Preoccupants," by a writer from Canada I love, Paige Cooper. This one is in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a findable thing. Her stories often pit bodies against natural stuff that probably makes more sense in Canada -- mountains, predatory birds, floods -- but this one is about a couple who fly? rocket? to an unnamed planet. Their only company is each other, and two other couples who apparently work for the same company? country? planet? Everybody has to worry about bodily fluids and there are no mirrors. Many things are never entirely identified or explained. It made me very happy to have a bed with traditional sheets that is not floating. The last thing I printed made me feel like a murderer. It is a digitized edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Theory of Colours. I downloaded a scan of the original, which is beautiful, and apparently some OCR word salad version. After every few paragraphs, these words appear: Digitized by Google Then some other weird technical language will pop up a few sentences later. It's awful. I can't believe I printed out hundreds of these pages. Even using them as scrap paper feels criminal. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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.