All three of these books, from the past year, are similar only in that each wrestles with daily existence in ways that have startled me, made me rethink everything I had done up to that moment, and made me reevaluate how I want to move forward. Reading each of these books is an active, rather than a passive, experience. In each I have found moments—several moments—where something I’ve never seen conjured in language before somehow rises up, before my eyes. How each writer—a poet turned essayist (Biss), a poet channeling Ginsberg with long, rangy meditations (Zucker), and a novelist arriving at his first memoir (Elliott)—arrived at these moments is both mysterious and seemingly simple—each picked up a thread of thought (racism, motherhood, murder), an image (telephone poles, zapruder films, adderall), and followed them, or, rather, allowed themselves to be led, into an unknown place. Each of these books is thrilling, in their plainspokeness and in their brilliance.
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India is, well, a fascinating portrait of the “New India”: a country being transformed (at least superficially) by a gigantic influx of investment and the rise of a small but very visible wealthy class. My favorite chapter tells the riveting tale of a self-made business guru with a goofy smile, a million-pound Bentley, and a string of private business schools that may or may not amount to a pyramid scheme.
Philip Connors’ Fire Season describes his decade of summers spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Forest — five months a year of off-the-grid living in a 7-by-7-foot tower, far from the modern world. Solitude and fire management would make dull fodder for a lesser writer, but Connors’ memoir reinvigorates the whole concept of nature writing; it’s deeply thoughtful, deeply poetic, and quietly angry at what we’re doing to our world, without the sentimental bullshit.
And one more: Sheila Heti’s novel-from-life, How Should a Person Be?, was published in Canada in 2010, but won’t be out in the US until next June. Watch for it – it’s great.
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Eli Gottlieb’s The Boy Who Went Away won the prestigious Rome Prize and the 1998 McKitterick Prize from the British Society of Authors. It also received extraordinary notices and was a New York Times Notable book. Eli Gottlieb’s latest novel, Now You See Him, will be published on January 22, 2008. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.Once every few years, usually when I’m beginning a new book, I reread one or two of Saul Bellow’s novels to prime the pump. This year it was Humboldt’s Gift, the last great work in the high Belovian style. It’s a book which has always spoken to my “inner prompter” to use Bellow’s own phrase for the mysterious faculty within us that allows us, as writers, to “speak”. The novel, appropriately enough, was dictated and then transcribed, a process which accounts for the rather jaunty sprawl of its construction. It’s a big, loose, episodic thing, guyed entirely by the high-wire act of its prose, which has the innovation – surely that of a late style – of running adjectives together in way that leaves a painterly blur in the reader’s mind. So Lake Michigan has “limp silk fresh lilac drowning water,” and a woman is “roused, florid, fragrant, large”.The book is based on Bellow’s close friendship with Delmore Schwartz, the fizzled literary comet of the 1940s, who wrote a perfect book of poems at age 24, lost his mind not long thereafter, and eventually died in a Times Square flophouse hotel, convinced that his wife had left him for Nelson Rockefeller. Schwartz’s longtime shrink was a friend of our family, and I once found myself sitting in the home of the shrink’s widow, looking at the written results of Schwartz’s Rohrschach tests. They stated he was manic depressive, implied a repressed homosexuality, adverted to a probable alcohol problem, and concluded with a chilling definition of the poetic temperament. “It is probable,” read the diagnosis, “that the mania has infected his higher reason.” Ouch.More from A Year in Reading 2007