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
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. 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
When I was in college, I joined, very briefly, a writing group. It wasn’t the worst decision I made as a student, but it was up there, in between, perhaps, taking a calculus exam while profoundly stoned (I failed, for which I blamed the drugs, until I took the same test sober the next semester, and somehow failed even worse) and trying to make conversation with a police officer while on LSD. (I am now noticing a theme with my poor college decisions. Don’t do drugs, kids. Or if you do, don’t ask cops how they’re doing. They’re not doing well.) Anyway, the writing group had no clearly defined mission or meeting place, which meant we always ended up in a bar. At the few meetings I went to, the only constant members were a tall pretentious graduate student who dressed entirely in purple, and a slightly shorter, slightly less pretentious senior who wore reading glasses that, I remain convinced, were unnecessary. I called them Prince and Reading Glasses, respectively, though not creatively. They both hated poetry. I liked poetry. I carried books by Leonard Cohen and W.S. Merwin around with me everywhere. I smoked French cigarettes, too. Prince and Reading Glasses didn’t like me, which is understandable. I bummed Prince a smoke one time. He thanked me, and in the next breath, told me I should be reading Marcel Proust, which he said with a weird pronunciation that seemed to be in the same subdivision as French, though not the exact neighborhood. “You know why you like poetry?” he said. “It’s because you have to borrow other people’s pain.” Then he went and tried to hit on a Russian girl, which, again, is understandable. One of the books I was obsessed with back then was Galway Kinnell's Selected Poems. Kinnell had been recommended to me by my best friend, Stephanie Saldaña, now a writer living in east Jersualem. I had read it maybe once a month then. I read it again this year, after Kinnell's death in October. The version I have is out of print, although there's an expanded edition, A New Selected Poems, which I should get, but, having been burned by change at least a million times in the past few years, I'm uncomfortable with it. Pain, I'm fine with, borrowed or otherwise. But not new pain, and not, for the most part, new joy. Anyway, Kinnell was something like a connoisseur of loss, both actual and anticipated. And he anticipated his own, often. Here he is in "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight," a poem he wrote for his daughter, Maud: "Yes, / you cling because / I, like you, only sooner / than you, will go down / the path of vanished alphabets, / the roadlessness / to the other side of the darkness..." This was a season of loss, but good luck finding a season without it. In September, my friend and professor D.G. Myers died. A month after that, so did our cat, Dangermouse. Three weeks after that, so did our other cat, Starla. (If it seems disrespectful to note their passings this way, as if they were equivalent, I would point out that David was a huge cat fan who was also allergic to sentimentality. Also, I promised him I wouldn't stop making fun of him after he died, which was a weird thing to promise an ailing man, but he made me, and it's bad luck and rude besides to ignore the wishes of a dying man.) Do I love Kinnell because I'm addicted to borrowing the pain of others? I don't think so, though maybe that's because I've never understood what the hell Prince was talking about anyway. He could have a point. Most of the poetry I loved then was about sickness and death; I was too young to understand what any of that really felt like. God knows I'm not now. When I heard about David's death from a mutual friend, I thought immediately of another one of Kinnell's poems, "Spindrift," which concludes: "Nobody likes to die / But an old man / Can know / A kind of gratefulness / Toward time that kills him, / Everything he loved was made of it." I think maybe rather than borrowing pain, I was trying to outsmart it. Maybe I thought I could do a dry run through loss. If so, it didn't work. Galway Kinnell seemed to embrace and taunt loss with every other poem. And I think I get it now in a way I didn't when I was a teenager. I honestly don't know how to explain it. In his poem "Goodbye," Kinnell wrote, "It is written in our hearts, the emptiness is all. / That is how we learned, the embrace is all." Sometimes things that you love disappear, and sometimes they stick around. I guess it seems fair. It makes sense when I read Galway Kinnell's poems, anyway, and that's kind of enough. You'll think you see your friend somewhere on a random street corner, one second before you realize that's impossible, and you'll still turn around when you hear a phantom meow, one second before you think, Oh, right. Of course not. And once in a while you'll remember the people around you, the family and friends who refuse to be embarrassed by you despite a contradictory preponderance of evidence, the dogs staring you down as you write something because they're convinced you're going to give them leftover chicken (and they're right), the books you love and the people who love them, some of whom you also love, and things seem okay. Sometimes for a moment. But sometimes much longer. That was my year. It wasn't as bad as it sounds, except when it was. 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? 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This year brought forth another crop of terrific books about the D, as we Detroiters refer to our beloved, beleaguered hometown. Here are four of the year’s very best: The Turner House by Angela Flournoy When the debut novel The Turner House was published last summer, I wrote a foam-at-the-mouth review because I was smitten by Angela Flournoy’s assured portrait of a sprawling Detroit family’s struggle to deal with their rotting home-place on the city’s rotting east side. The titular house was the family’s “mascot” and “coat of arms,” but as the 2008 recession bears down, it’s empty and worth about one-tenth of what’s owed on it. Through this ingenious lens, Flournoy examines the inner lives of Francis and Viola Flournoy, up from Arkansas, and their rumbustious brood of 13 children –-- and, in the bargain, she explores such big topics as the Great Migration and Detroit’s racial divide, as well as the small dramas that take place inside the city’s casinos, pawn shops, and living rooms. It’s a bewitching blend of the grand and the intimate. I was delighted when The Turner House was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award for fiction. Though the novel didn’t win, the nomination surely enlarged its pool of readers who, like me, are waiting impatiently to see what the gifted Angela Flournoy comes up with next. Scrapper by Matt Bell Matt Bell’s second novel, Scrapper, gets its hands dirty wrestling with Detroit’s abundant wreckage, both material and human. It does this by taking us into the dark and dangerous world of a freelance metal scrapper named Kelly, who works the city’s gutted core, known here as “the zone.” There, one day, he makes a horrific discovery: a naked 12-year-old boy handcuffed to a bed in the sound-proofed basement of an abandoned house. The shock of this discovery complicates Kelly’s life, sends the novel soaring, and breaks the reader’s heart. Working the high wire without a net, Matt Bell has dared to take us into a netherworld rarely visited in even the best books about Detroit. Once in a Great City by David Maraniss David Maraniss, a Detroit native, prolific author, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, came out this year with a joyride of a non-fiction book called Once In a Great City: A Detroit Story. Rather than trying to dissect the many sources of his hometown’s misery, Maraniss goes in the opposite direction: he gives us a Technicolor snapshot of the city at its giddy peak, from late 1962 to early 1964, when the long decline was set in motion but most Detroiters were too busy making money and having fun to notice. The book gives us a compelling cast of characters, from the famous to the obscure, including Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, Henry Ford II, Berry Gordy, Walter Reuther, an infamous prostitute, a beat cop, and a kid playing hooky. As Maraniss writes in his introduction: It was a time of uncommon possibility and freedom when Detroit created wondrous and lasting things. But life can be luminescent when it is most vulnerable. There was a precarious balance during those crucial months between composition and decomposition, what the world gained and what a great city lost. Even then, some part of Detroit was dying, and that is where the story begins. How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass by Aaron Foley Last but not least -- and just in time for Christmas -- the Cleveland-based independent press Belt Publishing has come out with that rarest oxymoron: a smart how-to book. This one’s author, Aaron Foley, is a Detroit native and current resident who seems to know everything about the city -- its history, language, food, fashions, architecture, music, politics, news media, neighborhoods, literature, social customs, and racial minefields -- and he has a knack for imparting his vast knowledge in humorous, insightful, helpful prose. The kicker on the cover was enough to make me love the book before I read the first page. Detroit, it announces, is not the new Brooklyn! Having done six years in Brooklyn, my first thought was: Hallelujah. How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass could not have existed even a few years ago, because it was inspired by and is addressed to the very recent influx of transplants, many of them young and white and creative, who have been drawn to Detroit by the prevailing narrative that the place is cheap, supportive, wide-open, and on the rebound. Foley opens the book with a list of rules for new arrivals, including this cold-eyed satirical stinger: The fifth rule applies to all you transplants from New York City and other places that are really expensive: please do not consider moving to Detroit part of a deep, soul-touching experience that will wash clean the sins of your past and renew your spiritual energy to live in your new purpose. This ain’t fucking Eat, Pray, Love, OK? You likely moved here because you either wanted to further your career or you got priced out of where you were. As this quote illustrates, Foley’s mission is both to inform and to amuse, and he does a knockout job of both. Among the many subjects he tackles are how to drive in Detroit, how to be white in Detroit, how to be black in Detroit, how to make peace with the suburbs, how to do business in Detroit, and how to renovate a Detroit house without being a jackass. He remarks that only new arrivals wear the popular DETROIT -vs- EVERYBODY T-shirts, which carried a personal sting because I grew up in Detroit, in both the city and the suburbs, and I’m wearing one of the T-shirts as I write these words. (It was a gift from a nephew who recently visited the city -- honest!) Frankly, I like the us-against-the-world sentiment. To each his own, I say. At the heart of this book is Foley’s position as a native Detroiter -- that is, as someone who is stubbornly proud of his troubled hometown, and weary of the clichés and half-baked myths that continue to cling to the place like the smoke gushing from the stacks at Ford’s River Rouge factory. As he wrote in last year’s superb A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark, Foley is tired of Detroit being “the butt of jokes and the target of pity.” So his noble mission in this new book is to wipe away the jokes and the pity, the clichés and myths, so people can start to see Detroit for what it truly is. The picture Foley paints isn’t always pretty, but it’s always real. All readers -- native Detroiters and new arrivals, citizens of America and residents of outer Mongolia -- should thank him for telling it like it is. Isn’t that what all books are supposed to do? 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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