Charles D'Ambrosio is the the author of The Point and Other Stories; Orphans, a collection of essays; and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award. He recently received a Lannan Fellowship.One of the best books I read this year won't be published until next year but I think it's insanely great so here goes: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields. It's a kind of chrestomathy that seems to come from one author but in fact is a compendium of quoted passages from writers, rockers, poets and whatnot, all of it traversing the disputed terrain of the real. It's got a cranky, manifesto feel, its generous, serious, ridiculous, subtle, its ambitious but with a nonchalant throw-away feel like a Lou Reed lyric, its parts are so tightly strung together that you can't pick a single thread without involving yourself in the whole shivering web. Anybody who writes or thinks or breathes is already living inside the questions raised by Reality Hunger. This book will drive me nuts for years. I think it's destined to become a classic.Along those lines, my friend Chris Offutt recommended that I read Jonathan Ames' graphic novel, entitled The Alcoholic. It features a main character named Jonathan A., but after reading the Shields book my mind's too blown to offer a solid opinion on the autobiographical content, nor do I feel entirely convinced that I should care anymore. The book moved me, perhaps in part because of its inherent simplicity: the black-and-white drawings in those little boxes and the tiny speech bubbles forced the narrative into a directness that was disarming and stabbed right into me. That Jonathan A. is a fucked up guy, but I came away from the book wanting to be a better human being, by renewing my sympathy for all people, starting with my own fucked up self.Continuing along the line of problem selves, I just read Slash's memoir, which, according the cover, "redefines sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll." Memoir is a fairly hifalutin word for the stupefying heroin binge recounted in the book, which doesn't so much redefine sexdrugsrocknroll as attempt to push the limits of it in a world already without limits. The drug stuff gets old - there's only so wasted you can get, so that element turns repetitious - but when he's talking about playing guitar or writing songs or being in a band the whole thing comes to life. It's like suddenly this immoral, pathological, cruel, cold, blind, very limited, supremely indifferent person is replaced by a really intelligent, sensitive, ambitious, subtle, singularly focused, deeply soulful guy with gravitas and integrity. Clearly people achieve things partly because they have a greatness in them but part of that greatness owes something to their severe limitations. Slash cared only about his band. It was a replacement universe. And inside that universe, he was a human being. Outside - a fucking animal!And finally, last but no way least, there's Nam Le's book of stories, The Boat, which plays brilliantly along the edges of something that appears to have concerned me all year, the creation of a new self, the difficulty of identity, the hard task of making reality real. I won't bend that great book to my own small thematic purposes but couldn't let this year go by without nodding to it. On its own terms, which are spun out sentence by sentence, The Boat is a terrific collection of stories.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Auther Charles D'Ambrosio has written two collections of short stories, The Point and, this year, The Dead Fish Museum. He also has a collection of essays, Orphans. D'Ambrosio's stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and other notable magazines. The best book D'Ambrosio read this year was the autobiography of a jazz musician. "Maybe this copping out," D'Ambrosio says,but the book I've loved the most this year is Art Pepper's autobiography, Straight Life, which was revised and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1994. I know next to nothing about jazz, haven't listened to a lick of Art Pepper, but a smart guy in a bar in Portland told me I had to pick up the book - we were drinking - and it is, as drunkenly promised, really good. It makes me wish I were an aficionado. Art Pepper lived through all kinds of hell, which may be standard stuff for jazz greats, I don't know, but what makes Straight Life an excellent read isn't the sexual compulsion, the heroin, the crime, the brutal life in San Quentin - all juicy reading, for sure - but the intimacy, the way you get inside the dreamy logic of being Art Pepper. With a reality like that, who needs dreams, I guess, but Pepper's story is, from beginning to end, so sad and soulful it's like he never happened on our frequency - and this book (along with the music, which I plan to hunt down) is the vibrant record of the peculiar sound he existed in.Thanks Charles!