I read some exceptional new books this year, including Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and especially the latest iteration of Mark Twain’s autobiography, and I discovered the amazing John Jeremiah Sullivan thanks to Lorin Stein’s debut issue of The Paris Review. I’ve discussed most of these books at more length, at my website, NPR, Salon, and elsewhere. Mostly, though, I’ve been focused on (for real this time) finishing up my own novel.
When I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. Not only do I want to be awestruck, I want to be driven to write better — as well as I possibly can — and I want to feel that the book I’m reading, however superior to my own work, shows me how I might do that. I want it to lead by example.
By now I have no idea how many times I’ve read and re-read Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a wry, sly, and piercingly insightful book about a group of elderly friends who start receiving anonymous crank calls telling them to “remember you must die.” I’m reluctant to describe the plot that way, though it is in fact in some loose sense the plot, because it makes the novel sound gimmicky and dully experimental, when in fact it is neither of those things. The characters are fleshy, fully alive on the page; the dialogue is true and deadly, and very, very funny; and the story is sexy and propulsive: past and present dalliances and double-crossings are always threatening to be revealed.
“The fact that Spark is so unbelievably and witchily entertaining,” her editor Barbara Epler recently argued, “has kept her from her full share of glory as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. Humor has never been the long suit of most critics.”
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