I didn’t read as much as I would’ve liked this year, but that’s every year, isn’t it? And it’s probably also all of us. I don’t think any similarly book-obsessed person has ever told me that they are really happy with how much reading they’ve been able to get done this year and wouldn’t have wanted to read even one more book. We’re all writing and have day jobs and lives outside of books, and a flood of new releases washes over us every month. It’s usually possible to find some time to read, but never enough. Books accumulate in my apartment much faster than I can read them.
I tried, though. The last piece I published on The Millions was back in August and then I sold a novel, so I decided to take a brief hiatus from this site to concentrate on edits. I finished the first round of edits slightly ahead of schedule but didn’t mention this to my Millions editor (shh!) because what an incredible thing, I thought, to have found an extra month in which to get some reading done. I read compulsively for a week or two, trying to make a dent in the mountain of books that had been accumulating for months on the floor of my office.
But the one flaw in my brilliant plan was a rapidly approaching course of French lessons, which, I realized, would probably be somewhat less painful with a little preparation, so my reading time was eclipsed by studying, and then the next round of editorial notes came in and that, as they say, was that. Back to square one, which is to say back to my usual state of reading mostly on the subway to and from my day job and sometimes in a stolen hour just before bed.
Last month I read a wonderful novel called Scissors, by Stéphane Michaka, published in the United States this year. It is an unfortunate peculiarity of international publishing that while every year countless writers who work in English are translated into French, the reverse is comparatively rare. Scissors is among the few. Michaka’s novel concerns the fraught and ambivalent relationship between a writer very much like Raymond Carver and an editor very much like Gordon Lish, told in a series of first-person fragments from the perspective of the writer, the editor, and the writer’s successive wives, with the occasional Carveresque short story — the fictional writer’s output — embedded in the text.
Michaka is a vastly talented stylist, moving with ease between the distinct voices of several characters and presenting us with short stories that are perfectly plausible as having been written by Carver. And yet Scissors is extraordinary not only for its technical fireworks, but for the humanity and compassion with which Michaka presents his flawed and fascinating characters, in their struggles with alcoholism, with one another, with their work, with themselves. He writes with a light touch, but never trivializes. The book is tender without ever slipping into sentimentality.
This past summer I was greatly struck by My Autobiography, by Charlie Chaplin. A common criticism of the work is that it’s actually two books, with one being much more compelling than the other: there’s a riveting account of Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood in London — young Charlie and his brother Sydney spent their early years in and out of workhouses while their mother struggled with mental illness — followed by a parade of 20th-century celebrities. There’s some merit to this complaint, but to my eye at least, the first half of the book is more than strong enough to carry the second, and I found the second half fascinating in and of itself, both as a social survey of Chaplin’s era and as a portrait of a shy and often uncertain man caught in the grip of a previously unimaginable fame. Even Chaplin’s name-dropping often carries a poignant note:
I remember meeting the beautiful Josie Collins, the English musical comedy star, who suddenly came upon me walking along Fifth Avenue. ‘Oh,’ she said sympathetically, ‘what are you doing all alone?’ I felt I had been apprehended in some petty crime. I smiled and said that I was just on my way to have lunch with some friends; but I would like to have told her the truth — that I was lonely and would have loved to have taken her to lunch — only my shyness prevented it.
Earlier in the year I read Eric Barnes’s latest novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, and have been thinking about it ever since. I reviewed it at length, so won’t go into it too much here, except to say that it stands as proof that some of the best books in this country are being published by the smallest presses, and that his account of a coming of age in working-class Tacoma is absolutely haunting and rings perfectly true.
Renata Adler’s Speedboat has been around since the late ‘70s, but when I read it this summer I had the sense of reading something completely new, that feeling of encountering something that had never been done before, or that had at least never been done nearly this well. The narrator of Speedboat is a young reporter, Jen Fain, and the book unfolds as a series of fragments: conversations, random musings (on the meanings of words, on catchphrases, on the ways in which we understand and fail to understand one another) and character studies, accounts of parties and gatherings, vignettes. The style is loose to the point of seeming randomness, the narrator often most notable by her absence, and yet by the end there’s an unexpected sense of cohesion, and of having somehow drawn closer to the narrator’s soul than would have been possible by more conventional means. I found this novel exhilarating.
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