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.
I had the pleasure of being a National Book Awards judge this year, and I'm proud to have helped choose our winner, Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin), and finalists Mary Jo Campbell (American Salvage), Daniyal Mueenuddin (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders), Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite), and Marcel Theroux (Far North) For this list, though, I'm returning to the comparatively tiny amount of reading I did this year BEFORE beginning to read the NBA submissions in May. I've been on an epic poetry kick inspired by Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, which is of course superb. Still, the work I got most thoroughly lost in was Lord George Gordon Byron's Don Juan. Many editions are abridged, but there's no reason not to take in the whole rollicking extravaganza: 17 cantos and counting... the work was unfinished when Byron died and ends mid-canto. Cut corners and you'll risk missing the pirate scene, or Don Juan's affair with Catherine the Great of Russia, or the part when he's sold as a slave and then disguised as a member of a Sultan's harem, or the shipwreck, or the ghost scene, or the battle... You get the picture; this mock epic is so crammed with adventure and wildness and great poetry that it will make your head spin. But none of that is the best part. The real achievement of Don Juan is the voice, unprecedented for its time: loose, casual, and utterly modern--full of asides about Byron's daily life, his writing struggles, not to mention a lot of bitchy remarks about his peers, Coleridge especially. It's an artifact so imbued with the essence of its maker that you can practically smell his sweat on its pages. And I call that a good thing. More from A Year in Reading
This has been a good year for me, reading-wise. Which means it's a hard year for me to pick a single favorite book, or even two. But if I was forced to narrow it down to only two, I'd pick: Welcome to Night Vale: A Novel, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Honestly? I think this book would be worth it just for its use of language. But there's more to it than that. The story is also clever, strange, sweet, twisted, and whimsical. There is a sense of play that's rare in novels. The setting of Night Vale is dangerous and dark, but the playfulness of the storytelling keeps things from being gritty and oppressive. Imagine if Garrison Keillor wrote a H.P. Lovecraft story in the style of Tom Stoppard. Can you imagine that? No. Me neither. Not really. That's not actually what this book is like, but it gives you a hint of a glimmer of what to expect when you pick this up. And seriously, if you love language, you really owe it to yourself to pick it up. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, by Jenny Lawson. You would think that a book about crippling anxiety and depression wouldn't be particularly funny. The best you could reasonably hope for would be something uplifting and brave and hopeful, where the person talks about their struggles to overcome blah blah blah. No. This is a book by Jenny Lawson, who is, according to most traditional metrics, broken in 18 different ways. And it's the funniest, truest, sweetest thing I've read in...well...maybe in forever. This book made me laugh in a restaurant, it made me cry on an airplane. It made me feel like maybe I'm not a total human trainwreck. Because I'm broken in a couple of profound ways too. But after reading this, I don't feel nearly so bad about it. 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 our planet has rotated once again around the sun in a nearly perfect circle, I will now highlight several books from this year’s reading that move in more eccentric orbits. Each proves that Ambrose Bierce’s withering definition of eccentricity -- “a method of distinction so cheap that fools employ it to accentuate their incapacity” -- has its limitations. 1. I picked up Edith Sitwell’s The English Eccentrics from a tucked-away shelf in a used bookstore, which struck me as fitting given that the book’s mission is to reanimate long-buried “mummies lying under the ruins of time.” This nonpareil work opens with a tableau of “The Battlebridge Dust and Cinder-Heap,” a mountain of debris that was removed in 1850 to make way for London’s King Cross Station. Sitwell conceives of the pile as a heap of stories and memories speaking to us through the muttering dust: We may seek in our dust-heap for some rigid, and even splendid, attitude of Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life. This attitude, rigidity, protest, or explanation, has been called eccentricity by those whose bones are too pliant. That is, Sitwell’s eccentricity is less a deviation than a heightened state of the human, a protest against submitting to any greater, inhuman system: “Any criticism of the world’s arrangement, if expressed by only one gesture, and that of sufficient contortion, becomes eccentricity.” Attuned to the “articulations rising from the dust,” Sitwell passes these tales of past eccentrics on to us: ornamental hermits, bearded men paid to reside in the grottos of country estates; Celestina Collins, a miserly woman who dined nightly with her favorite rooster and a humungous rat (until she kills the latter while breaking up a fight over their respective rations); the “amphibious” Lord Rokeby, known for the pathological “frequency of [his] ablutions;” Jemmy Hirst, a retired tanner who conducted his beloved hunts on the back of a “bull of ample proportions and uncertain temper” and preferred “a crowd of vivacious and sagacious pigs” to hound dogs; and the “loving and gay saint,” naturalist Charles Waterton, a rider of crocodiles who “was seized by a strong wish to have his big toe sucked by the Vampire Bat, just once, so that he could say that this adventure had befallen him.” There is a note of elegy in each of her portraits, regardless of whether they chronicle a life of ebullience or despair: ...although the dusty world is too deafened by the sound of the machines that it has made for the trapping and murdering of time to listen to those sounds that are clear as the song of angels. 2. I also greatly enjoyed Simon Winders’s Danubia, a wonderful book written by a man finely attuned to the oddness of history. It tracks the course not of the river Danube, but of the Habsburg line, the “catastrophically inbred and unlucky family” that finally lost power when the Austrian-Hungarian Empire collapsed in the First World War. Remarkable about them is how very unremarkable they were: To us the Habsburg rulers -- many quite mediocre or merely dutiful -- can seem as specialized and helpless as koala bears and their claims to grandeur and the highest place in Europe an obvious try-on. There are exceptions of course, such as Maximilian I, an “unusual Habsburg in being both a convincing man of action and an intellectual.” And there are other strange birds literally and figuratively on display: notably Rudolph II, a collector of exotica, including a dodo and a cassowary. He was obsessed with “glyptics, the art of carving on precious stone;” patronized the fruit-crazed painter Arimboldo, the “Milanese oddball,” and allowed a lion and tiger to roam his castle at will, occasionally mauling or killing terrified servants. But generally, the book can’t therefore rely on the personalities of its subjects to generate interest. After Leopold II dies in 1792, Winder gives a typically candid assessment of what’s to come in the remainder of his book: “His successors were a narrow dullard, a simpleton, a narrow dullard and a non-entity, and those four get us to 1918.” What makes the parade of dullards interesting is the Winder’s own eccentricity. While Danubia is not a personal history per se, it is a work of history in which personality shines through. For instance, in explaining his preference for the “sheer, wild ungovernability” of the Danube over the Mediterranean and environs, Winder recounts an anxiety-ridden trip to Italy: I felt trapped in the sort of novel in which a young curate sits on his own in his hotel room, leafing through his fine edition of Robert Browning, while his beautiful wife hands out with dockside minotaurs, feeling their deltoids. Throughout, Winder demonstrates an unalloyed, boyish enthusiasm for his subject. When he visits a small museum of in the Czech town of Cheb, he is “hardly able to control [his] excitement,” futilely attempting to focus on the ground floor exhibits before bounding up the stairs to see the main attraction: the bedchamber in which Albrecht von Wallenstein, a Bohemian warlord during the 30 Years War, was assassinated. The book always comes back to the Hapsburgs but never passes up a diverting detour. On the fate of hippos loosed from zoos during various conflicts, Winder contemplates composing a “parallel history of Central Europe seen through the endurance of one brave African artiodactyl family.” Another fascinating aside delves into the satirical implications of a Guinea-Pig village wherein the furry inhabitants inhabit a scaled representation of a Hungarian town. (He calls it a “genuinely frightening, brilliant piece of work.”) In a tome that spans half a millennium, Winder knows when to drop the doctrinal disputes and battles over succession to focus on history’s long-neglected subjects: scurrying rodents. 3. While we’re on the subject of autocrats, there’s Frances Fitzgibbons, the indomitable heroine of Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse, an immensely entertaining New York Review of Books reissue I finally got around to reading. Fitzgibbons, a mild-mannered, widowed loan officer in her mid-40s, undergoes a transformation in which she rediscovers her “gift for persuasive speech” and experiences a “sudden quickening of her libido.” She beds a “resplendent young drum major” from the high school marching band, then rapidly seizes control of the bank where she has worked for years, the oldest in the small New England town. Frances accomplishes this coup through chutzpah, media savvy, sexual magnetism, swift firings, brute force, and outrageous assertions that are nonetheless immediately accepted as truth. One could read the novel as a portrait of female empowerment -- a demented Lean In -- or as a statement about the amorality of capitalism set during a national financial crisis: “Sentiment has its place in bed, not on the dotted line of a home mortgage.” But Ride a Cockhorse is more accurately about the seductive lure of fascism, both the “pure egoistic excitement” enjoyed by those in power and the comically abject desire to submit to them. “Chief” Fitzgibbons is a “brooding tyrant” with a cobbled-together, and priceless, retinue of toadies that include a secretary-turned-enforcer, a hair-dresser, and Frances’s smitten, Peeping Tom son-in-law. As she ascends to power, Fitzgibbons, who in the novel’s first scene admires the “martial beauty” of a passing parade, begins to dress more and more like a New England version of Il Duce. Though we can’t help but cheer her on as she runs criminally roughshod over the “gutless” executives in her way, we also recognize the truth about her best expressed in an anonymous bit of bathroom graffiti: “Frankie Fitz is a fascist pig.” 4. Because concluding the year with a bathroom stall scene seems depressing, I’ll briefly mention Ari Goldman’s The Late Starters Orchestra, an uplifting chronicle of a journalist’s “middle-aged musical obsession” with the cello. As opposed to other shopworn works in the same genre, Goldman’s strikes the perfect balance of unselfconscious devotion (he proudly joins in his son’s youth orchestra), nuttiness (his used cello has a bullet hole in the front), and spirituality. Goldman ultimately performs a Bach minuet and “Mimkomcha,” a Shlomo Carlebach melody inspired by Hebrew prayer. Though the setting is only a small birthday, he makes us believe that he has reached his own “musical promised land.” 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.
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Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. They released their fourth record You & Me this fall. He lives in Manhattan.A few books that I really enjoyed this year were:Roger's Version by John Updike. The novel follows a weathered, sour divinity professor (Roger) who surprises even himself with some over-compensating good will toward two youngsters who energetically barge in on his life. He gets in pretty deep, and even stomachs an affair between the young squirt (Dale) and his own wife. Roger's monotonous social life (cocktail parties, fantasizing about neighbors' happiness) is funny the whole time. This was a fantastic book.The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht. It's so hard to write about why I like these poems. It's just incredible how much he can cover in so little space, and how effortless it all seems when everything has such a formal structure. I would also recommend his Flight Among the Tombs and The Venetian Vespers.American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I was surprised at how much I didn't like Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, but I figured I should give him another shot so I picked up American Pastoral and enjoyed it. The main action centers around a guy named Swede - a high school sports superhero who eventually married Miss New Jersey and ran a very successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. The first half of the book paints them as an entirely boring family, but after Swede's daughter sets off a bomb in a nearby convenience store things take a nasty turn for the family. The narrator then dissects the family's history to uncover what may not have been such a boring story.The Comedians by Graham Greene. Three men meet aboard a ship to Haiti. They're all traveling for different reasons and you definitely begin to wonder immediately who's telling the truth about anything. After they arrive, they're all assaulted by Papa Doc's corrupt and violent regime, and each man's character and intentions reveal themselves. This was one hell of a story. I loved it.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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I can't choose between the two best books I've read all year, but they're both by J.M. Coetzee -- Disgrace and Summertime. They are equally riveting, uncompromising, heartbreaking, painfully intelligent, fully achieved portraits of human loneliness of a specific kind: that of the principled, bookish, socially awkward, essentially passive male. The books are also about South Africa, or rather, the book's protagonists are inextricably bound up in, defined and limited and shaped by, that country's climate -- political, social, historical, meteorological. Any outrage Coetzee evokes with his various portrayals of the treatments of animals, of blacks, of women, is achieved without raising the decibel level of his voice above the mildly conversational. Therein lies much of his narrative power, his power to entertain and to shock: he isn't cerebral or inaccessible, which seems to be a prevailing impression of him. He's just unusually restrained, and his occasional swellings are generally in the direction of mordant humor, which is in its way as daring and risky as anything he says or writes about. Disgrace is a novel, Summertime a fictionalized memoir, but both transcend genre labels -- they feel sui generis, having emerged as wholly necessary, full-blown things. Coetzee has received death threats and a Nobel Prize -- there is no question in my mind that he wholly deserved the latter, and as for the former, his work is so seemingly quiet, its surface as still as glass, in its essence without apparent controversy or intentional provocation, any official or unofficial desire to squelch this radiantly clear, steady, sane voice must be due to its ability to expose by example its opposite qualities wherever they exist and thereby to awaken a sense of virulent threat in those who possess them. But Coetzee's only weapons seem to be laser-focused subtlety and fiercely intelligent clarity -- he is a great writer, and these are great books. More from A Year in Reading
Each year I read more books than I can possibly review -- here are 5 of the finest and most memorable of that bunch. They are worth your money, your time, and your attention. Charles of the Desert: A Life in Verse by William Woolfitt. A book of poems that fictionalizes the life of Trappist monk Charles de Foucauld. Beautiful verse, full of pieces like “The Pangs of Wanting:” “I deliver my body to the church, / though I cannot imagine what penance might relieve / these pangs of wanting.” Later: “I take first communion...My tongue licks up the bread: a whisper / of paper on my teeth...His torn body in my stomach, / his blood in my spit, I almost vomit; I almost sing.” More collections about God like this one would be very welcomed. The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is the type of writer who makes me want to slow down, sit down, and calm down. A taste of Robinson’s Calvinism with a side of subordinate clauses does good for my Catholic sense (which is superstitious and supernatural). She makes me think. And realize my inadequacies: “We can never know what it is we only think we know, or what we know truly, intuitively, and cannot prove. Our circumstance is itself a very profound mystery.” The Multitude by Hannah Faith Notess. For fans of the mystical and mysterious. A little Emily Dickinson, some Denise Levertov, and a touch of Anne Sexton. Loved poems like “Philippians:” “I used to forget my Greek New Testament on purpose, / so the future seminarians would share with me. / They smelled like sweat and prayer / and oatmeal cookies, and trying too hard / to get God to love them.” A gifted poet delivers lines like these: “How many times / has the thing I wanted stayed hidden from me, / obscured by my longing?” The People of the Broken Neck by Silas Dent Zobal. A searing debut novel: terse sentences juxtaposed with ambiguous, surreal descriptions of violence and the after-effects of trauma. The story of Iraq veteran Dominick Clarke Sawyer, a former Army Ranger whose “deep mysterious ache of love for [his children] hurt like something huge he’d swallowed.” Hallucinating and harried, he is being hunted by an FBI agent -- first in central Pennsylvania, and then on the road. A literary thriller somewhere between Phil Klay and Dennis Lehane. Bringing Back the Bones: New and Selected Poems by Gary Fincke. My mentor at Susquehanna University, but someone whose work I would have flocked toward anyway. Poems like “The Sorrows” capture atmospheric moments of lament: Sunday afternoons, women stay in the kitchen where they “sighed and rustled” while listing their sorrows and respective cures -- worlds away from the men in the “lamp-lit living room,” who listened still, “nodding at the nostrums offered by the tongues / of the unseen / As if the sorrows were soothed by the lost dialect / of the soul / Which whispered to the enormous ache of the imminent." A handful of these poems break me, including “Specificity,” an elegy for the poet Len Roberts, that ends after a memorial service: I sit with my wife who orders a glass of Chambord for a small, expensive pleasure in a well-decorated room, the possibility of happiness surprising us in the way hummingbirds do, stuck in the air, just now, outside this window, attracted to the joy of sweetness despite the clear foreshadowing of their tiny, sprinting hearts. 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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Arthur Phillips is the bestselling author of The Egyptologist and Prague, which was a New York Times Notable Book and winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. His most recent novel, Angelica, comes out in paperback in February.I admit to having bought a book for its cover. For years I had seen the four spines of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time lined up on bookstore shelves and admired them, wished the spines - which together form a Poussin painting - were up on my own. And so I bought the first book, dove in for no reason except coveting the covering, without having any idea what I was about to read.I emerged from the fourth volume six months later, having read nothing but Powell in the intervening time, and having completed one of the great reading experiences of my life, truly distraught that it was over.Pretentious claim, for which I apologize, but here it is: a few years earlier, I read the whole damn In Search of Lost Time (or whatever you want to call it), and the payoff at its end, after all the toil and pleasure, is no more powerful than a similar payoff at the end of Powell. You finish both with the sensation of having spent a long lifetime at the side of the narrator. You have the same feeling of nostalgia, profundity, passing years, lives led and finished, the power of a master of letters guiding you to the illusion of lived experience.That said, Powell is also funny, really funny, which is a claim I do not think can be made for Proust without straining something - credulity or a groin muscle.More from A Year in Reading 2007
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