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.
Ed put in another year unchallenged as the litblog world’s preeminent gadfly, offering blanket coverage of all things literary with impressive depth and ample humor. His Bat Segundo show was equally impressive, offering dozens of interviews with top authors this year. I still need to catch up, but Ed has found the time to contribute to our ongoing series:I am withholding my top ten list until the turn of the year, not because I don’t find you sexy or stunning, Mr. Magee, and certainly not because I don’t possess a taxonomic mind set. Rather, I object to associating one’s literary compulsions with the dreaded consumerist impulses of the Xmas season. So that list will have to wait until we’ve all been thoroughly gorged with goose and egg nog and a few carolers have contracted laryngitis due to their relentless and cloying largesse.Thankfully, sir, you have been kind enough to confine your question to one peremptory and all-encompassing one, an absolute value that I am all too happy to answer. And I can say, without a doubt, that Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker is the finest book I had the honor of reading this year. I did not ride the National Book Award bandwagon on this one. I knew this tome was the Great Book early on, well before the NBA longlist was launched. I was enchanted, lost, and entirely inveigled by Powers’ deceptively simple premise: a man gets involved in an accident, suffers a rare condition called Capgras’ syndrome, and cannot recognize the sister who has sacrificed her job and the many threads of her life to care for him. This sounds like a ridiculously melodramatic premise. But it is Powers’ adept narrative skill that makes this scenario fundamentally real and a fundamentally poetic tapestry revealing post-9/11 transformations within America.The book, as Margaret Atwood has suggested, demands to be read twice. This book is the full realization of Powers as social novelist, an experiment he attempted before with Gain, albeit with some didacticism attached. But almost a decade wiser, Powers has given us a daring Rorschach Test that any person who cares about literature is indebted to pick up and get lost in.Thanks Ed!
This year a group of friends and I started a book club because we wanted to talk about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. It so happened that we also love karaoke, so we became a karaoke book club: we talk about writing and desire and friendship and then we go and sing our hearts out. This pairing works beautifully and maybe it’s because we want to be in a moment, like Ferrante Fever. I’ve been thinking about how much immersion matters, how I’m reading for what books can make me feel, especially a particular collusion of sadness and rage, sparked by longing. This takes many forms: rawness, interiority, yelling, even silence. It has to do with characters working against histories and structures that often seem impossible to break.
Elena Ferrante’s Elena and Lila are trying to figure out their own selves, at times creative and wild, within harsh patriarchal and provincial structures.
Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes gives us a part of American history that’s often overlooked: the Asian-American experience through the building of the transcontinental railroad, early Hollywood, and more. The rage here, like the prose, is transcendent.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History pushes against the tide of forgetting, against the smoothing over of the past, against moving on. Death and Satan argue over a man’s soul and every page is a reckoning.
Brit Bennett’s The Mothers is gorgeous, suffused with sorrow and the weight of obligation and time, as it considers what might and will happen to a young ambitious woman.
And with all of this rage and sorrow and longing, there is laughter in these books. Maybe it’s what we need to do right now as part of taking care of ourselves: we listen, learn, rave, and cry, and then we laugh (which is to sing) because we have to, somehow, get through what we’re going through.
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Languagehat is a freelance editor in Hadley, Massachusetts.This year I have two pairs of books to recommend, one pair on language and one on history.The subject I blog about, of course, is language, and this year I’ve read two books I can strongly recommend to anyone, The first is almost a decade old: Language Myths, by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill. The format is simple and brilliant: have a bunch of linguists take a bunch of popular myths about language and deconstruct them, explaining why linguists look at the issue differently and what the facts of the matter are. Some of the myths discussed are “the meanings of words should not be allowed to vary or change,” “some languages are just not good enough,” “women talk too much,” “some languages are harder than others,” “some languages have no grammar,” “double negatives are illogical,” and “Aborigines speak a primitive language.” Obviously some sections are better written than others, but anyone who reads the whole book will have not a grounding in linguistic science but something more important for the average citizen: a basic grasp of how linguists think about language, and an understanding of why the silly ideas that irritate linguists so much are silly.The second book came out just this year: Michael Erard’s Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean. Erard got a master’s degree in linguistics before going into journalism, and it shows; he’s one of the few reporters who consistently gets it right. He writes knowledgeably and with verve, packing in fascinating bits of information on each page; for instance, in talking about the “Freudian slip” he provides a detailed dissection of one of Freud’s most famous examples, the case of the young man who tried to quote a line from The Aeneid but left out a word – for Freud, an extremely significant slip that stemmed from the man’s fear that his lover was pregnant. Erard cites other researchers who point out that it can be analyzed as a perfectly normal speech error, and that if you take the Freudian attitude you could provide “insightful” interpretations no matter which word was left out. In Chapter 5 he gives “A Brief History of ‘Um’,” explaining that he started by assuming that the condemnation of “filler words” went all the way back to the ancients but found that it didn’t really begin until the 19th century (Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “Don’t strew the pathway with those dreadful urs” in 1846) and didn’t become popular until the 20th. He talks about Reverend Spooner (he who toasted Queen Victoria by asking for “three cheers for our queer old dean” and greeted a group of farmers as “noble tons of soil”), Thomas Edison (a recording of one of his public exhibitions of the phonograph is full of “uh”s), linguist Victoria Fromkin and her insistence on the importance of slips of the tongue, and all manner of other tidbits. If you’re looking for a present for someone who loves language, I can’t think of a more enjoyable one.The other topic is Russian history, which has been obsessing me for a few years now. Having worked my way through World War One and the Revolution, I’ve gotten up to the Civil War, and two books I’ve recently read, taken together, provide a nicely stereoscopic view of that terrible period. The first is Vladimir N. Brovkin’s Behind the Front Lines of the Civil War: Political Parties and Social Movements in Russia, 1918-1922. I bought it a few years ago, but held off reading it until I had a basic overall picture (which I got from W. Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory), because Brovkin goes into considerable detail. Other histories of the period tell you about armies sweeping back and forth over much of Russia, giving you a good sense of the destruction that was wrought but leaving you wondering why exactly it was happening and what it was like for the people caught in the middle. These are Brovkin’s questions, and his focus on the changing political climate in the cities and provinces, resulting from and contributing to the often viciously counterproductive policies of the occupying regimes, Communist and anti-Communist, gives convincing answers and provides a framework that helps the reader understand the war as something other than one damn massacre after another.Like any historian, of course, Brovkin is trying to give an overall picture, no matter how many details he provides; furthermore, he looks primarily at the regions overrun by competing armies, pretty much ignoring life in Petrograd (which of course remained in Communist hands). This gap was filled for me by a remarkable memoir I happened on in a bookstore, having never seen a reference to it: E.M. Almedingen’s Tomorrow Will Come, originally published in 1941 and reissued in 1968. Miss Almedingen, who became a children’s book author after she moved to England in 1922, spent the period of revolution and war in Petrograd, increasingly preoccupied with simple survival and ignorant, like almost everyone, of what was going on outside their immediate neighborhood. One striking result of this is that she doesn’t even mention the October Revolution; she skips directly from the revolution of February 1917 (after which “never again in Russia was I to see water running from a tap in any house I lived in”) to the spring and summer of 1918 and rumors of the peace of Brest-Litovsk. Her account of being driven from one shelter to another, increasingly shabby and tenuous, of the deaths of people she loved, of appalling cruelty from some strangers and courageous aid from others, is riveting. Her family is odder than most (her father was a famous professor who deserted the family when she was a child, her mother considered herself an Englishwoman and wanted her daughter to go to Oxford, her aunt lived in Paris and considered herself French) and as a result she takes an oddly outsider view of what was happening, but that in itself makes it easier for an outsider to see it through her eyes, and her infallible eye for the telling detail and vivid memories of childhood experiences (like the annual Lenten fair on the Horse Guards Boulevard) make it an unforgettable read.More from A Year in Reading 2007