1. Earlier this year, my friend Dave Tompkins emailed me with “a random Nabokov-related question.” (How did he know that that is my favorite kind of question?) There was a passage he was trying to find, “from either a Nabokov short story, or possibly Lolita,” concerning telephone poles. “He's on a train, or in a car, and notices the succession of telephone poles he passes, seemingly being repeatedly knocked back -- or down -- by the window frame,” Dave wrote. “Does this ring a bell?” I remembered the image, something we’ve all witnessed, but that only Nabokov thought to hammer — beautifully, emphatically — into prose. I couldn’t recall where it appeared. Pnin? Sebastian Knight? (Lots of train travel in both.) Dave wrote again the next day: “So i sat in Book Court and scanned Lolita for an hour. No telephone poles there! Must be in the [short stories]. I'll keep at it.” A little later, Speak, Memory swam into my mind, and I emailed Dave the good news that our quarry had been located. (It turns out they are telegraph poles.) I liked that Dave would remember that image, enough to want to track it down. And I loved when, months later, I started reading Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, and found this patch on p. 36. Tall, innocent Oppen Porter is leaving his hometown after the death of his father and heading by bus to the titular city, where he will live under the care of his aunt. I missed my bicycle already, bicycle travel was the perfect speed, traveling at this speed was pointless, you missed everything. But then I figured that if I was going to be a man of the world, I should learn to appreciate other modes of transport, I should give the bus a fair shake, and so I opened my eyes and I opened my mind and I saw something I never would have noticed on a bicycle unless I was going very, very fast down a very long hill. Because of the speed of the bus and how I was exerting no effort, the telephone wires on the side of the road, sagging between poles, went up and down with the same rhythm as my heartbeat. 2. Crushes: Joe Meno's Office Girl, Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl; Don Lee’s The Collective (an alternate universe in which the main characters are all Asian American artists); Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother? and Anouk Ricard's Anna & Froga; Sarah Manguso's The Guardians (memoir) and Jane Yeh's The Ninjas (poetry). New credo is line from Yeh's "Sherlock Holmes on the Trail of the Abominable Snowman": "O tempura, O monkeys." 3. I was afraid to even open John Connolly and Declan Burke’s Books to Die For: The World’s Greatest Mystery Writers on the World’s Greatest Mystery Novels, because don’t I have enough to read already? But there was an essay from Bill Pronzini, which I had to read — Pronzini was one of the earliest champions of Harry Stephen Keeler. I’m glad I took his recommendation and downloaded Elliott Chaze's Black Wings Has My Angel (1953), a dose of pure noir, packed with humor and jolts and darkly elegant writing. Two scenes are seared into my memory — but this is a spoiler-free space. Please read and we’ll compare notes. 4. Two stories by David Gordon, "We Happy Few" (Five Chapters) and "Man-Boob Summer" (Paris Review) — pure pleasure. 5. Online: Mary-Kim Arnold's Tumblr (formerly known as We Pitched a Tent at Night), is a lyric essay unfolding in real time. Title of the year: "Finishing Bluets in a Strip Mall Gym in Livonia, NY." And I loved Rob Horning's gonzo dissection (in The New Inquiry) of a transcendentally abysmal Van Morrison album cover. Horning writes: "It’s like [Morrison] is daring his audience to listen to it. The message seems to be: 'See how indifferent I am to the surface things of this world? I put out my music with this on the cover. That’s how far I have moved beyond petty commercial posturing. Fuck you, here’s a rainbow.' ” 6. Devin McKinney's The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda and Dylan Hicks's Boarded Windows. (I suppose I think of them in the same breath because their names begin with the same letter and they are both soft-spoken Midwesterners.) I didn’t think I cared as much about Fonda as I do about the Beatles (the subject of McKinney’s previous book, Magic Circles), but McKinney made me pay attention. This is biography as poetical, political essay. Boarded Windows is a self-assured debut that comes with a sort-of soundtrack, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene, which you should listen to right now. "Thank You For Your Postcard" is a perfect short story, constrained by what can fit on a 3x5 piece of decorated cardboard: "Later on the soles of our shoes/Were white with Tuileries dust/Thank you for your postcard/I read it on the bus." More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.
If you're interested in the history of the music industry, or have wondered idly how the song that's stuck in your head got to be there, you should read David Suisman's detailed and entertaining Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music (Harvard). Every page held a new discovery for me, from the competitive world of song pluggers (piano-and-crooner teams hired to perform songs in advance of the sheet music publication, often to "spontaneous" applause from plants in the audience), to the rise of the player-piano (in 1900, it would have been regarded as more potentially culture-transforming than phonographs), to the reason tenors surpassed sopranos in popularity (their voices better masked deficiencies in early recording), to Irving Berlin's nine rules—some seemingly contradictory—to writing a hit song. The chapter on Black Swan Records alone, which from 1921 to 1923 attempted to combine racial uplift with a viable business model, is worth the price of admission. Selling Sounds is a profound and fascinating book, not just for academics but for anyone with ears. As a chaser, I recommend Geeta Dayal's Another Green World, another excellent entry in the 33 1/3 series. It's as much a philosophy book as a "Behind the Music" breakdown, and an invitation to think creatively about creativity. You can't open the paper today—sorry, click open your favorite news source—without running into an article pondering China's shifting relationship with the U.S., often against a backdrop of sharp cultural differences. Mark Nowak's Coal Mountain Elementary finds the common denominator in accounts of coal-mining disasters—one in Sago, West Virginia, the others in China. None of the words here are Nowak's. Instead, he juxtaposes excerpts of Chinese newspaper reports with testimony transcripts (and elementary-school curricula) on the American side. The only original material consists of color photos by himself and Ian Teh, but Coal Mountain Elementary is altogether original, a words-and-image fusion that's at once simple and rarely seen—something with the energy of a link-rich website and the beautiful, horrible inevitability of a book. More from A Year in Reading
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days. He is a founding editor of The Believer and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.Reviewing two very good rock and roll novels - Martin Millar's Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me and John Darnielle's Master of Reality - I finally cracked open Lewis Shiner's Glimpses (1993), an amazing, sustained performance, which I savored over the course of a month or two - the chapter as nightcap. In contrast, I basically inhaled the University of Chicago Press's three republished Parker books by Richard Stark. They came in the mail one day; I opened up The Outfit, just to see what it was like (I was very busy and had no time for pleasure reading), and read into the wee hours. A few chapters in, I realized I'd started with the second book in the series, but it didn't matter. There was simply no stopping me. After it was over, I read The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face. Now I'm just waiting for spring and the next batch of reissues.More from A Year in Reading 2008