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.
Hamilton Leithauser is lead singer of The Walkmen. The New York-based band released A Hundred Miles Off and Pussycats in 2006 and has a new album on the way in Spring 2008.Set in modern London, where all is dark and dirty, and those characters that haven't abandoned all morals are simply too stupid to fend for themselves, Martin Amis' London Fields is consistently funny and enjoyable. The Keith character, a low-life, dart-playing criminal, is a real highlight - he spends the majority of the book waxing dart philosophy or loud-mouthing around his home-away-from-home pub The Black Cross about women and booze. From the first page you learn there will be a murder, and the whole setting is so saturated with an apocalyptic vibe that you know that ain't the worst that's gonna happen. But Amis maintains humor and lightness through even the darkest moments, which prevents any doomsday preaching from ever getting too heavy. I loved this thing.I couldn't put down John Fowles' The Magus for the first thirty or forty twists and turns. The story follows Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who leaves his more complex life (girlfriend, family...) behind in England for what seems a mind-clearing existence as a teacher on a remote Greek island. But once on the island Nicholas meets a reclusive millionaire who in turn introduces him to a bunch of increasingly strange characters and increasingly strange situations. The evolving vibe is tremendous - from the tranquil beginning to the truly bizarre ending - and this is definitely the book's strength. Eventually the number of twists proves a little too much and you start thinking that maybe martians or Bruce Willis might show up or something. My recommendation would be to read it until you start thinking things are getting a little too weird for you.After putting that one down, you might want to pick up The French Lieutenant's Woman, which was by far Fowles' most widely-acclaimed work. He says at the beginning he wrote it as a modern Dickensian novel, and I guess that's a pretty good description. It's a classic English period piece with tons of delightful forbidden love and betrayals, but written with a distinctly 20th-century voice. As in The Magus, Fowles saves some major surprises for the end, but as there were simply less of them here, I thought the overall effect was better, and I would most definitely recommend this one.More from A Year in Reading 2007
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When I read Endless Love by Scott Spencer, I couldn't stop talking about it. Why did it affect me so much? Because I was in a rut with love. While recovering from my own experiences, witnessing cultural demonstrations of "romantic relationships" had turned me off of sex and romance completely. For years, I chose to be alone, to find clarity, sanity, and to block out the preening idiots brainwashed into coupling up in order to fulfill some patriarchal and commercial expectation -- brunch, orgasms, weddings, whatever... But "sanity" can become very monotonous. It can turn into "nothingness" after a while. So I think I was starving for Endless Love when I picked it up. Yes, the protagonist could be construed as delusional, criminal, and crazy to those of us more at home in repression and shame. But "love" isn't a moral incentive to do nice things. Love doesn't make any sense. Fuck sense. The human heart is psychotic. This book reminded me that it's worth going a little insane from time to time. If I don't, I may have nothing to write about. If endless love was a dream, then it was a dream we all shared, even more that we all shared the dream of never dying or traveling through time, and if anything set me apart it was not my impulses but my stubbornness, my willingness to take the dream past what had been agreed upon as the reasonable limits, to declare that this dream was not a feverish trick of the mind but was an actuality at least as real as that other, thinner, more unhappy illusion we call normal life. ― Scott Spencer, Endless Love 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.
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As a half-Japanese kid growing up in the Northeast, I masqueraded quite successfully as another disenfranchised suburban Caucasian dude, angry more at being nowhere special than for any definable reason. But two historical phrases instilled unease: “Pearl Harbor” and “The Bataan Death March.” The former’s nasty ethnic stereotypes of the Japanese character—sneaky, cowardly, backstabbing—made me wary of my mother and half of my family, all of whom seemed otherwise sane and trustworthy to me. And the latter left me cold: How could such mindless barbarity even happen? One of these days, I used to think, I’ll be unmasked—as one of them. Historical anecdotes have very significant drawbacks, of course. In the name of brevity and clarity, they reduce ambiguous human symphonies to palatable and memorable riffs. But with hindsight and the power of narrative, writers have the power to unlock and conduct mystery back to life. Michael and Elizabeth M. Norman, in Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath, revive the rich choral horror of what seems banal at first: a sixty-six day march of American and Filipino POWS to prison camps in the Philippines, and eventually, Japan, beginning in 1942. By tracing the story of one very much alive American survivor, the now-artist Ben Steele, whose illustrations enhance the book’s capacious stories, and by interviewing American, Filipino and Japanese participants, the Normans beautifully tell a story about a nightmarish event. The Allied POWs were abandoned early on by President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, largely because the US was preoccupied by the war in Europe and willing to overlook the fates of 76,000 of their own; and the Japanese soldiers, emboldened by a military dictatorship and brutalized into madness by their commanders, successfully dehumanized their booty. The POWs were no different from the prisoners at Abu Ghraib: Spoils for the despoiling. Tears in the Darkness and pal Jake Adelstein’s Tokyo Vice, about the inner workings of the Japanese mafia and its collusive relationships with the FBI, serve as adequate bookends to my reading year: two books about the dangers of masquerading as anyone but yourself. More from A Year in Reading
Most Revelatory Second Pass In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal -- usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read. Best Serendipitous Literary Connection There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment -- one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother -- one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy. Best Read of the Year I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us. Most Life-Changing I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake. Most Conflicting Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section -- the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point -- really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend -- like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future. Most Aggravating Historical Legend President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.
I asked Michelle Richmond to share with us the best books she read this year. Michelle is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress and Dream of the Blue Room. She also keeps a blog, Sans Serif. She put together a really great post for us.The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson - "Kind readers," this novel begins. "Strange readers. We begin again." And so I began this book, again, for probably the fifth or sixth time. Like Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, The Death of a Beekeeper is a book I return to every couple of years when I am in need of something quiet and beautiful. The protagonist is one Lars Lennart Westin, who once taught at "the local elementary school in Ennora on the northern shore of the lake." By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is dead, but during the writing of the three notebooks that comprise the novel, he is very much alive. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Blue Notebook is a commonplace book of sorts, containing "newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin's readings, and his own stories;" the Damaged Notebook contains telephone numbers and brief notes about the progression of Westin's cancer.The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate lives of bees, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, and the mysterious workings of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran are detailed in equal and exquisite measure. I admire the gentle precision of Gustafsson's prose, the author's eye for odd and interesting trivia, the novel's meditative nature. This is a book of ephemera that cannot be easily categorized, a book of lists. For example, page 106 features a "Table of art forms according to their level of difficulty." Art form number one (the least difficult) is eroticism; at the other end of the spectrum is artillery (number 28). The art of the novel (number 8) is, according to our protagonist, less difficult than squash, weight lifting, high trapeze, bicycle acrobatics, and the building of fountains, but slightly more difficult than surfing and significantly more difficult than poetry, which weighs in at a humble 3.Also on my list for the year: Here is Where We Meet by John Berger; A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvic Vaculik; Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet; Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz; Total Fears by Bohumil Hrabal; and Summertime Waltz by Nina Payne and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), which I've been reading to my son Oscar.As always, some of my most rewarding reading experiences have been stories and essays found unexpectedly in magazines big and small, most notably a gorgeous exploration of the secret lives of New Orleans's hardy termites, published in Harper's pre-Katrina. (The essay by Duncan Murrell warned of the devastating effects of the termite infestation on the city's historic buildings. Interestingly, the flooding may have saved the city from the worst the termites had to offer).Which brings us back, sort of, to The Moviegoer, that most perfect of books: "To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair."Thanks Michelle!
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