The god of reading, a manipulative daemon who imposes a pattern on the seemingly random succession of books we get through each year, works in mysterious ways. This year’s unifying theme for me was “teeth,” or maybe it just seemed that way because, thanks entirely to my wife, I finally got on a dental insurance plan.
My reading daemon first directed me to Lucia Berlin’s selected stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, which contains a tooth extraction scene as memorable as the one from Marathon Man. Berlin won me over from the opening tale, in which the narrator, whose “first cigarette was lit by a prince,” now finds herself washing diapers in a seedy New York laundromat alongside an old woman:
She said that if I didn’t see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays.
Similarly grim humor appears throughout the wonderful collection, along with a lot of dirt, grit, booze, romance, and glimpses of beauty in everything from macadam roads (“When fresh it looks like caviar, sounds like broken glass, like someone chewing ice”) to the “wonderful” X-rays of jockeys, whose “skeletons looks like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs.”
In one of the most memorable, gruesome stories, “Doctor H.A. Moynihan,” a girl accompanies her grandfather, a drunken bigot who happens to be the best dentist in Texas, to his office on a Sunday afternoon. There he tells her to pull out all his teeth so he can put in a set of his handmade dentures: his “masterpiece.” This she does, cramming tea bags in his mouth to stop the bleeding and making her grandfather looks like a “scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations.” That image captures the peculiar charm of the story, which is at once horrifying and perversely joyous.
I was also steered by my reading daemon to Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, the “dental autobiography” of a charlatan auctioneer who has devised an “allegoric method” to hawk his wares. That is, he literally and figuratively lies through his teeth. He invents a provenance for 10 teeth, claiming each belonged to a different illustrious writer (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Petrarch, Michel de Montaigne, etc.) and describing each as if it were a work of art: “Note the curve; it is like a wing in ascent.” The “novel-essay” has some grating moments, and its afterword, in which Luiselli explains why her project is “a reverse Duchampian procedure,” shuts off the heady flow of nitrous oxide. But the auction scene stays with me as a marvel of erudition and whimsy.
Another dental comedy, this one with broader humor, came my way from Folded Word Press: Garrett Socol’s Tooth Decay. The coffee-abstaining protagonists — white teeth come at a cost — work in a thriving dental practice in a small town in Wisconsin. The sexual tension between the married dentist, Calvin, and his toothsome hygienist boils over one day after she sees him in all his white-coated glory:
Eyes ablaze, forehead damp with sweat, the face of a Greek god on the chiseled body of an American dentist, Calvin ripped the bad tooth out of June’s mouth with raw, barbaric animal energy.
When Calvin’s wife finds out about the affair, she rather pathetically asks if his mistress’s teeth are “white as a fresh blanket of snow.” A man of honor despite his infidelity, he cannot but confirm his wife’s worst fears. Blackmail, betrayal, murder, and a villainous office manager darken the tongue-in-cheek comedy, demonstrating that oral hygiene is no defense against moral rot.
Finally — and just to spite Bill Morris — I read several literary biographies this year. One of these was Robert Crawford’s Young Eliot. This volume, which concludes in 1922 with T.S. Eliot opening the newly printed American edition of The Waste Land, chronicles the youth of a poet who always felt himself old. But why did my reading daemon compel me to devour this particular biography as opposed to the other doorstoppers I routinely return to the library unfinished? Surely it couldn’t just be because Eliot’s oft-ailing first wife, Vivien, was “ever fearful of dentists” and needed extensive, painful work: “I scream the whole time!” she writes in a letter.
No, I didn’t find the answer until Crawford’s excellent study made me revisit The Waste Land, where I came across this bit of pub chatter about dentures:
When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get yourself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but as Socol puts it in Tooth Decay, “…don’t you love the way the word coincidental contains the word dental?” As I said earlier, the god of reading works in mysterious ways.
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The end of another year (and decade) offers many amusements and diversions, chief among them the inevitable, retrospective lists. We made our own attempt in September, with our Best of the Millennium (So Far) series, which proved to be an instructive and contentious exercise. Among the chief arguments leveled against such “best of” lists is the way they posit an illusory pinnacle of achievement and quality. By means of a grand consensus, the list smooths over natural and exciting variations in individual taste. But true discoveries are often made not by finding out what everybody liked, but by getting from one trusted fellow reader a recommendation that strikes a nerve or piques an interest.
It’s also true that the reader who reflects on a year will find a thread of reading experiences to parallel the real-life ones…and particularly sublime moments alone (even in a crowd, alone) when a book has taken the reader out of her world and into its own. This experience transcends the cold qualitative accounting that names one book better than another.
And so amid all the lists (even our own), to round out the year, we offer a new installment of our annual “Year in Reading” series – an anti-list, as it were. Acknowledging that few readers, if any, read exclusively newly published books, we’ve asked our regular contributors and distinguished guests to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these considerations, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help your year in reading in 2010 be a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2009 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions
Julie Klam, author of Please Excuse My Daughter
Phillip Lopate, author of Notes on Sontag
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Mark Sarvas, author of Harry, Revised, proprietor of The Elegant Variation.
Diane Williams, author of It Was Like My Trying to Have a Tender-Hearted Nature, editor of NOON
Jonathan Lethem, author of Chronic City
David Gutowski, proprietor of Largehearted Boy
Jesse Ball, author of The Way Through Doors
Deb Olin Unferth, author of Vacation
Edan Lepucki of The Millions
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End
William H. Gass, author of The Tunnel
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine
Dana Goodyear, author of Honey & Junk, New Yorker staff writer
Rosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There
Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
David Shields, author of Reality Hunger
Stephen Elliott, editor of The Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries
Brady Udall, author of The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
Rick Moody, author of The Black Veil
Kate Christensen, author of The Great Man
Marco Roth, a founding editor of N+1
Maud Newton, proprietor of maudnewton.com
Patrick Brown of The Millions
Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen
Scott Esposito editor of The Quarterly Conversation and of Conversational Reading
Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Joe Meno, author of The Great Perhaps
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night In Montreal
Jennifer Egan, author of The Invisible Circus
Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Samantha Peale, author of The American Painter Emma Dial
Lan Samantha Chang, author of Inheritance
David L. Ulin, book editor of the Los Angeles Times
Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
Jon Raymond, author of The Half-Life
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Ms. Hempel Chronicles
Ken Chen, author of Juvenilia
Mark Haskell Smith, author of Moist
Brad Watson, author of Last Days of the Dog-Men
John Williams, editor of The Second Pass
Carolyn Kellogg, of Jacket Copy and www.carolynkellogg.com
Anne K. Yoder, of The Millions
Tim W. Brown, author of American Renaissance
Traver Kauffman, of Rake’s Progress
Jeff Martin, author of My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize
Ed Park, author of Personal Days
Cristina Henríquez, author of The World in Half
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
Motoyuki Shibata, author of American Narcissus
Robert Lopez, author of Kamby Bolongo Mean River
Masatsugu Ono, author of Graves Buried in Water
Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica
Dan Kois, author of Facing Future
Michael Fusco, of Michael Fusco Design
I’m a huge Charlie Rose fan. I DVR his show and watch it in the evenings while I eat chocolate pudding. I love Rose’s interview style — engaged but relaxed; the hint of North Carolina accent, and the fact that when the camera pans back too far, I can see his New Balance sneakers. There’s something about that dark set that comforts me. No fake skyline, no news crawl along the bottom of the screen. Just a black backdrop and two glasses of water on the big oak table. Last March, Rose interviewed author David Payne, whose new memoir, Barfoot to Avalon, had just been released. I’d never heard of David Payne. But I leaned forward when Rose mentioned that David Payne was known for his long, meandering sentences. I love a lyrical, beautifully crafted sentence that takes me on a journey, and by the time Payne finished reading the opening pages of chapter one, the scene where he and his younger brother pack up Payne’s Vermont house and load the last of his possessions into the rented U-Haul so Payne can drive to North Carolina to salvage his marriage, I’d set down my chocolate pudding and found the book on Amazon. They were out of stock. The next morning, I headed to my local bookstore to see if they had any copies. No luck, the clerk said. They’d sold out. He offered to order a copy, but it was backordered from the publisher and wouldn’t be in for a week. I had to have that book. So, I downloaded the audio version and listened for the entire six-hour drive to Los Angeles the next day and for the entire six-hour drive back. I didn’t stop food. I didn’t stop to pee. I just stared through the windshield and gripped the steering wheel, carried along the twisting path of Payne’s wrenching narrative of alcoholism and generations of family dysfunction. Payne is indeed the master of the long sentence, but also of the extended metaphor, time and space. By the time I got back to San Francisco, my dashboard light was blinking. I had less than a mile’s worth of gas left in my tank. When my hard cover arrived, I sat down with a cup of tea and started at page one. I already knew the story, but now I needed to absorb it. That’s how good this book is.
I’m a sucker for Annie Proulx. Have been since The Shipping News. I once trekked downtown through a thunderstorm to hear her speak, and couldn’t stop my hand from quivering when I asked her to sign my book. Her latest novel, Barkskins, is a masterpiece, but hasn’t, in my opinion, received the attention it deserves. Weighing in at a whopping 713 pages, it’s a delicious doorstop of a historical novel, perfect for long winter nights. Spanning 300 years, it chronicles the lives of two penniless Frenchman, who arrive in 17th-century Canada, known then as New France, and their descendants, and their travels across North America, Europe, China, and New Zealand. Like Proulx, I’m a huge believer in bond between character and place. Place is character and character is place. The two go hand in hand. The first paragraph of Barkskins reads, “In the twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kebec and Trois-Rivieres and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement…Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur…Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impressions of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimitable wilderness.” What else do you need to know?
I spent a lot of 2016 feeling outraged. Too many black bodies killed. Too much intolerance and fear, too many acquittals, too little justice. Three books helped me maintain my sanity as I struggled to make sense of these strange and discouraging times. First up, Robin Coste Lewis’s award-winning book of poetry Voyage of the Sable Venus. Readers should be prepared to be crushed by the sheer accumulation of images of the black female figure as Lewis chronicles their appearance in centuries of Western art. Slowly, the narrative takes shape and we’re left to both ponder what it means to be a black and female, celebrated and objectified. Next, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book of such brutality and clarity that when I finished, for 20 minutes, all I could do was stare out the window. Whitehead draws chilling parallels between the antebellum South and modern American life as he chronicles Cora’s escape from her Georgia plantation to the north. No surprise it won the National Book Award. When I finished Underground Railroad, I picked up Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Where Whitehead examines slavery from a historical vantage point, Winters imagines how slavery might work today. The novel’s conceit is that the Civil War was never fought. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office and slavery has been contained to four Southern states known as “The Hard Four,” Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and a unified Carolina. No spoilers here. All I’ll say is read the first chapter and see how you feel. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
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The book that has left the greatest impression on me in 2010 is not, surprisingly, a novel. It’s Tony Judt’s heartbreaking collection, The Memory Chalet. Judt died, far too young, in August from ALS. Imprisoned in a failing body, his mind turned to memories of his youth in Europe, and he wrote a series of unbearably moving essays, the majority of which were published in The New York Review of Books during the last months of his life. Judt poignantly bids farewell not just to his own life, but to a way of life that leaves us all markedly poorer for its loss. An impassioned, independent, alert thinker full of healthy skepticism and wry humor, Judt was the result of particular kind of European education, and we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.
Other memorable books this year: Saul Bellow’s Letters is everything you have heard and more, an essential text for any writer, aspiring or published. I was directed to James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime, a marvelous, haunting rendering of an erotic affair in France (sex, Paris, what’s not to like?), and now I am feverishly reading all the Salter I can get my hands on. And I returned to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer this year as the core text for my UCLA novel students, and was amazed at how much I’d missed when I’d first read it years ago. It’s very much a novel of ideas, and it works brilliantly, distilled through the unforgettable voice of Binx Bolling.
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