Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is a supreme literary stunt: a short “novel” composed only of questions, each of which seems to implicate the reader in a narrative conspiracy as serious and absurd as his or her own life. Ultimately, Powell’s little book can be seen word-machine designed to induce unprecedented states of interior monologue, or narrative drug.
I love books that devastate me and this year I read several of them.
Matthew Desmond’s Evicted showed me a whole other level of poverty in America. I won’t soon forget the author’s description of a family moving in and out of homeless shelters. It was heartbreaking.
Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl is about a disaster the name of which was familiar to me, but about which I knew virtually nothing. The level of deception and incompetence that worsened an already horrible situation is unbelievable.
David Ebershoff’s The Rose City, published 15 years ago, is a short story collection about young gay men coming to terms with themselves. In my favorite story in the collection, “The Dress,” a young boy who loves to hide and wear dresses gets stuck in a dress and ultimately needs his father’s help to get out of the dress. It is a sad moment for both father and son as the father learns a new side to his son and the son recognizes his father’s pain even though it’s clear his father loves him.
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, which I just started reading, was one of the first books I bought this year and I plan to make it the last devastating book I read this year.
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This was a year of short stories, of picking up a book around midnight, when common sense dictated I should have been asleep, and refusing to set it down until two or three, at which point there was basically no hope of salvaging the following morning. This year was too hectic for grand scopes and labyrinthine plots. If I was lucky, those few evening hours in which I got to read wiped out the detritus of the workday, replacing them with voices and characters that scattered at the sound of my phone’s alarm. For a while I’ve thought that short stories, more so than other forms, are perfectly suited to adult life, if only because they accomodate the low-level amnesia of the stressed. The chronically busy person reads Alice Munro, say, and gets her brief hit of human frailty, which she then takes with her to the post office, or the doctor, or dinners packed with relatives.
I needed dependably good work, in other words, which is why, back in May, I picked up the latest Rivka Galchen book, American Innovations, on the morning it came out. (On Kindle, mind. I haven’t camped out for anything since I was young enough to hoard Transformers.) In 2010, just before the end of my post-college underemployment, The New Yorker released its 20 under 40 list, which included several authors I was already a little bit obsessed with. I read through the entire collection in the space of a week, envying the skills on display in the entries by Karen Russell and Wells Tower, among others. But it wasn’t until I got to “The Entire Northern Side was Covered with Fire,” Galchen’s perfect tale of a pregnant writer whose husband has left her, that I felt too dazed to go through with my schedule of planned errands and tasks. Written in the looping, contradictory sentences of a very smart person in shock, the story is tragic and wry, unveiling the deceptions of the narrator’s husband through a series of confessions by her friend. When I was finished, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of this writer, who understood with a rare clarity how the mind tries to reckon with turmoil.
That piece, with slight modifications, appears in American Innovations, as do several other examples of first-class work. A remarkable thing about the collection is how well it captures the messiness at the heart of civilized life. In “The Region of Unlikeness,” a woman who befriends two odd, pretentious strangers comes to realize, after hearing one of them detail his eccentric view of space-time, that one or perhaps both of her new friends are painfully, incurably disturbed. In “Wild Berry Blue,” a woman meets a gyro shop worker who looks exactly like her dead father, inspiring reflections on “the vast distances between nuclei and electrons.” In all the book’s stories, the mysteries of science and philosophy, of meticulously organized attempts to find order in a baffling universe, are kin with garden-variety moments of unreality. They incite a sense that bewilderment is the sanest reaction to the world.
Of course, I read other things, too. These included Flying to America, a posthumous collection of characteristically wacked-out Donald Barthelme stories, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which can function as a bible for a certain kind of person. (I am that kind of person.) And I also read more stories by Barry Hannah, the freewheeling, half-drunk uncle I always wish I’d had. But none of these books, great though they were, occupied me in quite the way that American Innovations did. As one of the book’s characters puts it, “there’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”
That island is where I live. That island is where all of us live. Let’s not kid ourselves about how far out we can see.
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Junot Díaz’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Best American Short Stories. His highly-anticipated first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was published this year. His debut story collection Drown was also a national bestsellerMy favorite books of the year? The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye, which is about the craziest whiteman’s journey into the heart of Africa you’ll ever read…and that’s saying a lot since they’re all pretty crazy; and The Arrival by Shaun Tan – no one has written (or drawn) a better book about immigration, about the hope and fear and love that drives it – no one. In a period where a nation of immigrants has decided that immigration is evil, Tan’s is the kind of book that reminds us that nothing could be farther from the truth.More from A Year in Reading 2007
This year, Corey Vilhauer, a blogger from South Dakota, joined us on twelve occasions to present his book of the month. I viewed his regular installments as letters from the reading trenches, from a reader who’s willing to try anything as he expands his horizons to new genres and eras of writing. You’ll be seeing the 2007 CVBoMC starting in January. (to see last year’s entries, you can start in December and work back)I wasn’t asked, but I’m barging in on the Millions Best Books of 2006 section of the party and yelling loudly about what I like. Because it’s brash, and brazen, and lots of other words that start with “B.”Actually, as is the pattern with the Vilhauer library, I only read two or three books that were released in 2006. Two of them – David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green (which made my top 10) and The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (honorable mention) – were actually quite worth it.However, my two favorite books this year are as follows:John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) – Never before has the plight of the dispossessed seemed so important. With The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl epic, the Okies get the center stage they deserved, one that holds the injustices and bad luck that followed them around up to the light for the entire world to examine. And while one might think that these stories have lost their weight, that modern culture has cut Steinbeck’s novel off at the knees, it’s simply not the case. The Grapes of Wrath is just as important today as it was in the 40s. In fact, you can’t deny the similarities between the Dust Bowl’s mass exodus and New Orleans’ migration of displaced people. Bad luck, injustice – it’s all pretty much parallel.McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13, edited by Chris Ware (2004) – I somehow missed the comic phenomenon when I was younger. But, after receiving McSweeney’s #13 in the mail (“the Comic Issue”, with a wonderful cover penned by Special Editor Chris Ware) the fire was rekindled slightly. This book is beautifully bound, with hundreds of full color prints, articles from some of the most well known authors and graphic artists, and simply packed to the gills with today’s important comic creators. If you want to get into modern comics and graphic novels, get this first. You won’t be disappointed.Of course, there were more books – I’ve got an entire top 10 (and more, including honorable mentions) at Black Marks on Wood Pulp. It’s the year end edition of “What I’ve Been Reading.” So if you don’t mind mindless plugging, go ahead and visit.Thanks Corey!