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Re-reading is a great way to check in on who I have become. I’ll pick up a book I remember adoring a quarter of a century ago to find myself either irritated by stylistic indulgence I once found so deep or enraptured by complex sentences I once struggled to parse. This year’s re-reading was more an affirmation that my predilections lie on a continuum. I spent a few weeks back in the world of Denis Johnson and found myself especially re-loving Angels and his smart, canny essays in the collection Seek. Carson McCullers’s hard, heartbreaking, cuttingly precise The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye were sneaky roundhouse punches once more. They flattened me. And then there was the double-take: I picked up the re-issue of Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that I remembered only as a titillating morality tale and a cultural catch phrase that embodied the retrograde idea that date rape is the woman’s fault. But reading it this time, I discovered a chillingly astute portrait of a sharp-edged, confused young woman wrestling with her libidinal yearnings in the wake of the sexual revolution. Goodbar is lurid to be sure, but it gets under the skin of its protagonist as well as any novel I admire and it unsettled me because of its nervy emotional accuracy, and precisely because of its queasy sexual politics. It makes readers question their knee-jerk impulse to distance themselves from the protagonist’s wreckage by blaming her. Somehow I missed all that when I was a sex obsessed fifteen year old trolling for the dirty parts. 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.
First published in 1942, The Little Locksmith, by Katherine Butler Hathaway, is a book of great charm and grace. I don’t think I’ve read a book as intensely charming since, as a teenager, sunning myself on the deck of my ranch house, I read Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger. Charm, that most illusive of literary qualities only affects me when it is undercut by deep sorrow. It’s hard to imagine a story that begins as grimly as Hathaways. In 1895, a doctor straps five-year-old Katherine to a board so she won’t become a hunchback. The story moves through her struggle to find a meaningful life despite her bodily limitations. She is honest about her frustrated sexual desire and her longing for a house of her own. Hathaway writes with precision and spiritual dignity, giving advice that jumps off the page and directly into the heart. “It is only by following your deepest instinct that you can lead a rich life, and if you let fear of consequences prevent you from following your deepest instincts, then your life will be safe, expedient and thin.” 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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What might have been a piece of niche self-pity - the boo-hoo travails of another belletristic, still-young Brooklynite - turns out to be a remarkably clear-eyed search for the deeper and more distant causes of a bad patch that extended itself much too far.
I was going to write about Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey on foot through the very real Cévennes Mountains of France; instead I found myself in a dark and fabulous Danish forest. Stevenson is one of the writers I thought I’d left behind forever, choosing to overlook the fact that as a girl I’d been madly in love with Alan Breck, hero of Kidnapped. But because the route Stevenson traveled crisscrosses Le Chemin -- the French part of the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that I walked on last summer with my friends Steve and Sabrina -- they sent me a copy of Travels with a Donkey for my birthday (which also used to be the same as Stevenson’s until he “gave it away” to a little girl whose birthday, to her chagrin, fell on February 29.) Too circuitous, you say? But that’s my point. Stevenson’s book is a pure pleasure to read -- a surprise to me though I shouldn’t have been surprised -- the light touch of his prose, so vivid, conjuring my own very recent memories of the landscape. It was only while rereading the book, though, coming upon his description of the landscape of the Velay, that I knew where I’d been headed all along. Although there were still a few strands of gold far off to the east on the hills and the black fir-woods, all was cold and gray about our onward path. An infinity of little country by-roads led hither and thither among the fields. It was the most pointless labyrinth. I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills... “The roads always ended by turning away from it” -- a perfect description of the Alice in Wonderland-like experience of hiking a trail when you don’t know where it’s going to take you. We’d even been warned that a man or woman would appear as we were about to begin our ascent of a punishingly steep hill, and, in the guise of suggesting a shortcut, give us misdirections -- this was part of the culture of Le Chemin, simultaneously perverse and mystical, two qualities I associate with another writer, one whose work I know I’d never dream of leaving behind forever. When you first enter “The Monkey,” that most delectable of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, you are given information that appears as reliable as what you’d expect to find on a trail map. “In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.” So, perversely, begins a tale that immediately sprouts “an infinity of by-roads:” the disappearance of the prioress’s monkey into the forests surrounding the convent; the almost simultaneous appearance in her salon of her handsome young nephew; the prioress’s plan to marry him to the neighbor’s strapping daughter, Athena Hopballehus, in order to save him from his “Greek” tendencies; the inescapable presence of the forest, its trees with “their roots deep in the earth, their crowns moving in the dark;” the nephew’s memory of a lighted candle in a looking glass on Walpurgis Night revealing the naked bodies of two comely maidens; the Prioress’s “gentle melancholy” as she nibbles the cloves in her pudding that have come -- like her monkey -- all the way from Zanzibar. So Isak Dinesen sends you on your way to wherever you are going to end up, though who knows where that might be. Better yet, once you finally arrive where you’ve been headed all along, you can’t exactly say how you got there. And when (not if, for there is never any if about the desire to re-enter one of Dinesen’s shrewd and soulful tales) you decide to follow the path one more time, you will find that you are tracking an entirely new course through the story, as if it contains, indeed, so many possible roads through it they are truly beyond measure. 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.
Among the most engaging new books I've perused in recent months are C.K. Williams's Selected Later Poems -- beautifully intricate, contentious, strikingly ardent poems by one of our great contemporary poets; The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, edited by Bill Henderson -- a treasure trove of contemporary American writing, fiction, poetry, non-fiction that should be required reading for new and emerging writers; 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories -- a wonderfully idiosyncratic collection assembled by Lorrie Moore containing little-known stories by classic writers and with an emphasis upon the very new; and Tracy Daugherty's meticulously researched, warmly sympathetic biography of Joan Didion, The Last Love Song. 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.