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.
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
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The joke is that you know you’re in Real America™ when the IHOPs turn into Waffle Houses. The truth is that you know you’re in Real America™ when everybody’s so dadgum nice that they leave their doors unlocked. Real America™ is where food is fried and guns can be bought on layaway. It’s where opening a bar tab means setting $20 on the counter and drinking ‘til it’s gone. I’ve been to Real America™; my family lives there. Growing up, we’d visit them in Perry County -- and make no mistake: the county is more important than the state in Real America™ -- to drive ATVs around an ancient farm house next to a lake, or a river, or some big body of water rife with bullfrogs. You learn early in Real America™ that the best way to catch one of those suckers is to shine a flashlight in its eyes, paralyzing it, while your youngest cousin snatches its slimy toadskin from behind. The thing you have to remember about Real America™ is that it’s different from the rest of America. The other thing you have to remember is that for all its charms, Real America™ has secrets, too. Those houses with their doors unlocked? Their owners keep shotguns to be safe. That farmhouse you’ve visited since you were a kid? Its previous owner hanged himself in the garage. The bullfrog you caught with your cousins? You put it into Tupperware last night, and you knew you were supposed to poke holes in the top for air, but you didn’t because something inside you wanted to see it die. The food is fried because it's cooked with love, and love is a synonym for lard, and lard will kill you. Real America™ is where you get your first kiss, but also your first black eye. It’s where your uncle sets off fireworks each year on the Fourth of July until your family stops inviting him because of something the aunts won’t talk about. This in mind, I nominate Scott McClanahan as the Poet Laureate of Real America™. He knows all this and more about Real America™ because he was raised in the crucible of a West Virginian holler. For him, Real America™ is less about folk songs, pick-up trucks, and girls in sundresses than it is about pulmonary trauma, Medicaid fraud, and Duke’s mayonnaise. This is not to say that his version of the place is without its chivalry, though: McClanahan’s version of communal giving is a group of trapped coal miners all pledging to conserve oxygen for the youngest laborer, each vowing to die because that guy stands a chance. As such, McClanahan is the author of two of the most affecting books I’ve read all year: Crapalachia and Hill William. A mostly-true memoir on the one hand, and a mostly-nonfictional novel on the other, these two works have stuck to my sides for months. I've dreamed about them. I've chewed on them like the cartilage knuckle on a fried chicken wing. Both works inhabit a universe based on the rural towns and mountains where McClanahan grew up. Some facts have been changed, but the gist remains faithful. (When you’re talking about Real America™, after all, emotions are truths and facts are distractions.) Together, the books complement one another in such a way that they present the most unified, singular, and altogether honest account of life in these parts of the country as you’ll ever find. Less concerned with sentimentalizing than with truth-telling, McClanahan peels back the hardened scabs on Appalachian life to reveal the supple, sensitive wounds beneath. In McClanahan's own words: "I never look at a painting and ask, 'Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?' It's just a painting." Now, to be honest with myself is to admit that there is no way I can convey the effect of these books without giving too much away -- a practice I hate in book reviews -- and so in lieu of summary or sustained criticism, I’d like to instead present a brief road map for you to interpret on your own, as well as a few selected passages so the books can speak in their own words. My first direction is that Crapalachia is the funnier of the two. While there’s ample death and mourning in its pages, it feels lighter than Hill William. It contains passages like this one: “The next night was radio preacher night. That only meant one thing. My Uncle Nathan [who had cerebral palsy] was going to drink beer. He just kept groaning and pointing at the beer and then pointing at his feeding tube. What was the use of drinking beer when you could immediately pour a six-pack in your stomach tube and have it shoot into your bloodstream that much quicker? I poured the beer in and then I poured another. I cracked another and another. Then I did the rest. He smiled and then burped. It smelled like a beer burp.” My second piece of advice is that Hill William answers a question nobody has ever asked: what would happen if William Blake binge-watched Hoarders and then wrote Deliverance? How's this for an Appalachian dream vision? “So I walked to the top of the mountain and I looked up towards the clouds. The sky was streaked with purple and pink. I kept looking and then I saw something. I saw hundreds of dirty angels in the sky. They were flying angels but they had devil horns. They were all swooping down at me and screaming and swirling and telling me in their country voices what I had to do. They were telling me to go see [a] Batman [impersonator at the mall] and everything would be okay. I needed to go see Batman and my world would be healed and made wonderful.” What I want you to understand about McClanahan’s writing is how, with such spare prose, he’ll fool you into subdued comfort just before gutting you. It’s honest. It’s funny, but it’ll wreck you. Consider these lines from Crapalachia: “After dinner I took a nap and I dreamed a dream about the future and in this future I was dreaming a dream about the past. But in my dreams I’m always back at Ruby’s house, and back at Ruby’s table. It’s always Sunday again and we’re all just sitting around the table like we always did. Nathan’s on one side and I’m on the other and my grandma’s on the left. And just like always she’s fixed chicken and gravy and we’re all so hungry and passing the plates -- the biscuits, the mayonnaise salad, the cucumbers in vinegar, and I think to myself, even now, that this will be what the final moments of oxygen escaping from my brain will be like. It’ll be like a Sunday so long ago with all of the dead stuffing themselves full of food cooked with lard, and gravy that will once again clog their arteries and kill their hearts. It will be the feast of death and it will taste so delicious.” This writing is remarkable because it's local but also universal. If you’ve ever been to Real America™, it’ll fill you with nostalgia, and also dread. If you haven't been, these books will give you a tour. There’s a reason the best ghost stories take place in the woods. Real America™ is haunted, and Scott McClanahan can show you how. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.