I’m writing this in November, which is the month when I go through the notebook where I keep track of all the books I read, study the titles with a little star next to them, and try to remember which of these struck me the most. The three that remain most vividly in memory from this past year are a book about the shipping industry, a surrealist novel from a small press, and a work of speculative fiction about the Second American Civil War, the premise of which seemed horribly topical when I read it back in September and hasn't become less troubling since. 1. The Shipping Industry The British journalist Rose George's Ninety Percent of Everything has one of those wildly unwieldy subtitles that haunt the non-fiction section -- Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry that Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, Food on Your Plate -- but unwieldy or not, the subtitle does sum up the situation fairly nearly, and it’s an elegantly written and deeply researched book. George goes to sea aboard a container ship, the Maersk Kendal, and in so doing steps into a world mostly closed to outsiders. Standing on the dock at Felixstowe in the U.K., looking up at the towering hull of the ship, she reflects on the oddly invisible nature of the industry relative to its importance: These ships and boxes belong to a business that feeds, clothes, warms, and supplies us. They have fueled if not created globalization. They are the reason behind your cheap T-shirt and reasonably priced television. But who looks behind a television now and sees the ship that brought it? Who cares about the men who steered your breakfast cereal through winter storms? How ironic that the more ships have grown in size and consequence, the less space they take up in our imagination. “Are you reading that for research?” a couple of people asked, when they saw me reading it. “Yes,” I said, which wasn’t untrue, but also easier than explaining that I've always been interested in the shipping industry, which is probably not terribly uncommon among people who grew up by the ocean and hold childhood memories of grey horizons with container ships passing, floating citadels crossing unimaginable distances. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotel rooms over these past couple years, and the one I liked best was in St. John’s, Newfoundland, because the view was of the docks across the street, where another Maersk ship was being loaded when I went to bed. The ship was gone by morning. 2. A Surrealist Novel From a Small Press The only thing I don’t like about Christopher Boucher's work is that it’s almost impossible to do it justice when I’m trying to explain it to people. (I praised his first novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, at some length back in 2011. It was about a man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle.) His second novel, Golden Delicious, is in more or less the same surrealist vein and infused with the same strange brilliance, but this time it’s a kind of meta-novel, which is to say that the characters know they're in a novel. Their novel’s Reader is a character, with whom the protagonist goes on bicycle rides. The protagonist doesn't have a name, but he does have a pet sentence. If you ride your bike to the edge of town, you’ll reach the margins, which are sometimes a little sketchy. The language in Boucher’s novel isn’t just alive; it gets into fights. (“Shortly after that, two clauses got in a fight in the margin across the street. This would happen every once in a while -- you’d hear the wild, high squeal and pitter-patter of language chasing language through trees.”) Sentences sometimes skitter away, as in: “Just then a small sentence scampered across the page. My Mom lunged at it, picked it up by the scruff of its vowel and tossed it into the margin.” The whole thing’s a bit convoluted, peculiar, often very funny, and also deeply, improbably moving, because here, as in Boucher’s debut novel, the entire high-wire act is in service to a deadly serious story about belonging, and about the agonies and joys of being in a family. 3. A Novel That Isn’t Out Yet It is arguably slightly obnoxious to recommend novels that aren’t out yet, but the book that I found the most haunting this year doesn't actually come out until April. Omar El Akkad is a Canadian journalist who’s covered topics ranging from terrorism to the gradual disappearance of Louisiana beneath the water. His debut novel, American War, opens with the outbreak of the Second American Civil War in 2074. Sarat Chestnut is six years old when the war begins, and El Akkad follows her through her years in a displaced persons camp and into the war's aftermath. The war’s ostensible trigger is the South’s refusal to stop using banned fossil fuels, but it seems clear that this is essentially a pretext; the problem was never really oil, the problem was that two incompatible cultures have emerged in one country and the Red and Blue states have found themselves on a collision course. (Seems improbable, I know, but stay with me here.) The premise is harrowing, the prose is stark and beautiful, the plotting is impeccable, and there's something utterly heartbreaking in El Akkad's subtle rendition of the ways in which war shapes the human soul. 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1. I read Stacey D’Erasmo's Wonderland in a hotel room in Saint Paul. This was a couple of months back, 13 months into a book tour that seemed by then like it might not ever end. (Not a complaint -- I love my job, and am immensely grateful for it -- but perhaps we can all agree that being away from home and loved ones for long periods can wear on a person, and leave it at that.) By the time I reached Saint Paul, I’d been feeling badly for awhile about how few books I was reading. Even the most grueling days usually contained a small amount of downtime. There were days where I spent an awful lot of time just sitting there in airplane seats and waiting around in airports and idling alone in hotel rooms, all places that should theoretically lend themselves to getting some reading done. Then I had an irritating couple of days on Twitter, which sparked the somewhat obvious realization that if I took a week off from Twitter I’d have more time in which to read, so I logged off in the Saint Paul hotel room and haven’t been back since. I wouldn’t have said that I’d been spending much time on Twitter, but in its absence, there seemed suddenly to be an immense amount of space around me. I picked up two novels at the bookstore down the street and read them in two days. Wonderland was one of them. It's an exceptionally well-written novel. The plot concerns an aging musician on what may or may not turn out to be her last tour. “What made you want to write about actors?” people kept asking me that month, in audience Q&As. “Well,” I kept saying, “I’m interested in film and theatre, and I wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art, the costs and the joys of that...” and then I read Wonderland and saw that D’Erasmo wanted to write about what it means to devote your life to your art too, but she kept that the focus of the entire novel, and it makes for a razor-sharp, unsparing book. She captures both the joys and the terror, the grind and the exaltation. Others: I read Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life on a brief interlude between tours. It moved me in a way I hadn’t been moved by a book in a while. There was a sense of having encountered a rare masterpiece, also a sense of having been burnt to the ground. I expect it will live on my shelves forever, but I don’t think I could bear to read it again. Earlier in the year, on airplanes and in other hotel rooms, I read Atticus Lish's Preparation for the Next Life. It’s a love story set in a marginal New York City, involving an undocumented immigrant and an ex-soldier with PTSD. It’s harrowing, extremely violent, and extraordinary. What all three of these novels have in common is that they remind me of nothing else I've ever read. 2. Sometimes you encounter the perfect book for a given moment, and so I felt when I picked up Mark Vanhoenacker's Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. When he isn't writing, Vanhoenacker flies 747s in and out of London. I’d come across his work in the form of a gorgeous essay about flight that ran in The New York Times, and was delighted to realize that the essay was an excerpt from a longer work. Part of why I picked up the book was that I used to love flying, and by autumn of this year I dreaded it, and I wanted very much to love it again. I’ve never been a nervous flyer -- I feel far safer on airplanes than I’ve ever felt in a car -- but the thing with airplanes is that there are too many other people on them, extended business travel is exhausting, being herded like a sheep is exhausting too, and, well, let's be honest here, exhaustion can spark a certain low-level misanthropy when one’s crammed in with others at close quarters. When I was lucky enough to get a window seat I still found unspeakable beauty in the sight of the world from 30,000 feet, but by October, which is to say sometime around my 100th event for Station Eleven, the inevitable small tics and inconsequential bad habits of others were becoming all but unbearable to me: the woman sitting across the aisle, loudly smacking her lips while she ate a cookie and then slurpily licking each of her fingers in turn, for example; the guy in the row in front of me who apparently never learned how to blow his nose and thus found it necessary to sniffle every three seconds, for five hours, at a decibel level too high to drown out with my headphones; the business travelers competing to see who could tell the most boring flight stories. (“So then by the time we get to Atlanta, the heat’s not working at all and it’s 50 degrees on the plane.”) Etc. I turned up the music and tried to disappear. But Skyfaring is a love letter to flight, to a profession, and reading it was a balm. Vanhoenacker slips easily between poetic meditation into the nature of travel and technical explanations of the mechanisms of the 747, and I found all of it fascinating. It is a delight to encounter someone so unabashedly enamored of the romance of his profession. On a flight bound for southern Africa, he gives a position report to the controller: 'Roger,' says the controller. 'Next report the equator.' I feel a shiver of surprise; I still can’t quite believe it’s part of my job to announce that we’ve crossed into the skies of the other half of the world. I try to imagine the old days of the ocean liners, when crossing the equator, the first of our grand marks on the sphere, was still understood as momentous, how on deck, sparkling glasses would be raised. The book's meditative pacing isn't dissimilar to the rhythms of flight itself, to the way landscapes gradually unspool far below. There's tremendous pleasure in coming across the explanations for aspects of flight I’d never quite understood - the gorgeous phenomenon I've seen a couple of times on long flights over the Pacific, for instance, where a strip of night hangs suspended on the horizon between sections of daylight -- and equally fascinating to catch a glimpse into the closed world of the cockpit. It was easier, after reading it, to forget my exhaustion and the small annoyances of the world and lose myself again in the beauty of the flight. 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.
1. Lars Iyer's Wittgenstein Jr. is the only book I read twice this year. It took me much longer than usual to write the review, because I was afraid I wasn't doing the book justice. It is an absolutely exquisite, elegant novel, with a cadence and rhythm all its own. 2. I picked up the galley of Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things with low expectations, because it was just one of those random books that arrive on my doorstep every day and aliens and interstellar travel aren't usually my thing, and found one of the best books I've ever read. It’s about a Christian missionary on an alien planet, and it’s a love story, and the last line destroyed me. Some months later in London I was signing stacks of books in the basement of the wonderful Goldsboro Books, which specializes in signed first editions, when the proprietor wandered downstairs with the Goldsboro edition of The Book of Strange New Things, an exquisite object in white and gold. I am generally immune to the charms of signed first editions, but I ordered it when I returned to New York. A few weeks later, an editor in New York sent me a finished copy of the American version, and now the two hardcovers sit next to one another on my bookshelves, and usually I am ruthless about preserving bookshelf space, but it is impossible to dispose of either edition. 3. Elena Mauli Shapiro's second novel, In The Red, was left out in the rain by a UPS delivery guy. By the time it reached me it had turned into a swollen, rain-warped thing. I brought it indoors and let it dry for a few days before I read it. Shapiro’s novel is spectacular. It's a dark story about a bright young woman’s descent into a criminal underworld, realism interlaced with fairy tales. The protagonist is the kind of woman who we’re used to seeing as arm candy in gangster films, the kind of woman whose main jobs are to be beautiful and to not notice what’s going on around them. The book is an expert meditation on money, morality, and belonging, and I found it mesmerizing. I tried to champion it on tour. That was the book I named when people asked what I’d read recently that I’d recommend, unless they asked about books that have science fictional overtones, in which case I went with the Michel Faber. 4. The book I loved most this year was J.M. Ledgard's Submergence. Without reservation, I would call Ledgard’s novel a masterpiece. It opens in Somalia, 2012, with a British spy imprisoned by jihadists in a windowless room. Far away, on a distant northern sea, a biomathematician is preparing to descend by submersible to the ocean floor; her area of expertise is the Hadal zone, which encompasses the very deepest parts of the ocean. The imprisoned man and the biomathematician met some months earlier, and are in love; they are hopelessly far apart, but their thoughts return to one another as they go about their days. When you consider that the Hadal zone exists in trenches and was named for Hades, unexpected parallels between their situations begin to emerge. It’s a book about, well, submergence; a man sealed into a prison from which he might not emerge, a woman descending into the inhospitable dark. 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.
1. Lars Iyer's first three novels -- Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus -- formed a loose trilogy, although each stood on its own. The books concerned a years-long conversation between a fictional writer and lecturer in philosophy, Lars, and W., his friend, tormentor, and colleague. They longed for nothing more than a truly original thought, or at least for a guide: someone who might either help them to think or, failing that, someone who might at least let them watch while thinking occurred on the premises. Leaders came and went: Do you remember how he spoke?, [W.] says of our first leader. His seriousness? He wasn't swayed by us. Our idiocy was annulled. Just for a moment, we were quiet. Just for a moment, idiocy was interrupted and we were calmed. It was marvelous, W. said. In Iyer's new novel, Wittgenstein Jr., the cast is different -- the characters this time around are a class of Cambridge philosophy students, who mostly move in a first-person-plural herd, and their young professor, upon whom they bestow the nickname Wittgenstein on the first day of class -- but many of the concerns are the same. The longing for an original thought, for profundity, for intellectual flight. The tension between a) the aforementioned longing and b) a certain undergraduate tendency to fill the pages of the philosophy notebook with drawings of penises, which is to say the tension between whom you wish you were and whom you actually are. Thought as transcendence. The commercialization of higher education. The friction between the desire to think -- to really think -- and the baffled philosophy student’s self-loathing desire for someone else to do the thinking for them. But in the new novel, a leader has finally appeared. The professor lectures before a class that drops from 45 in the first week to 23 in the second, from there to 18, and finally to a tenacious but utterly baffled 12: None of us understands the problems he is wrestling with, we agree. None of us can follow his method -- what is he looking for? Not all of us care, of course. Mulberry is drawing cocks in his notebook. Guthrie wears sunglasses over closed eyes. Benwell groans audibly when Wittgenstein asks him a question. No one’s sure whose idea it was to call him Wittgenstein, but it seems somehow fitting. He is a maddening teacher. No one quite follows what he's trying to convey. But he seems, in some essential way, like the real thing. 2. Wittgenstein Jr. begins in the first-person plural, and it takes some time for the narrator, Peters, to emerge from the crowd. Once he does, the book shifts gradually from we to I, from a crowd of students to Peters alone. He emerges as a fully-realized character only toward the end. This unusual structure could be seen as a mirror of the transition from adolescence into adulthood, but it also serves to echo one of the book's major concerns, which is the way sustained dedication to a rigorous discipline can separate a person from the rest of the world. From one of Wittgenstein's early classes: He tells us about the vistas of logic. About logic’s austerity. Logic makes you lose the world, he says. Logic drives you away from the world, into the eternal ice and snow. How to survive alone away from the world, in the land of ice and snow? Is there a way to live out there without being eaten alive? I'm reminded of a moment in Marilynne Robinson's magnificent Gilead when the narrator, a minister, reflects on this order of thought: I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation...and I've scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life. 3. But Wittgenstein doesn't want to remain in the desolation, or to retreat from it; he wants to travel through it, to pass the limits of his understanding, beyond logic itself, to think himself to the end of philosophy and step out into a clean and altered world on the other side: What will he say when the last words of philosophy are spoken?, Wittgenstein wonders. What will he say, when the spell of philosophy has been broken? He’ll say nothing, he says. He’ll open his eyes. He’ll look up at the sky. He’ll laugh. The year at Cambridge passes; Wittgenstein's students drink themselves into oblivion at house parties and pass out on lawns and worry about the future, fall in and out of love and OD on exotic combinations of banned substances, act out scenes from Shakespeare and go for walks with Wittgenstein and try to understand what he's talking about. As the months pass, Wittgenstein’s lectures grow darker. There are classes where he hardly speaks at all, and when he does, he's often alarming: “There is a cost to thought, he says. He’ll pay with himself. He’ll sacrifice himself.” Where the book falters slightly, in my opinion, is in its narrative tension. The Spurious trilogy was largely plotless, and was none the worse for it: plot was very much not the point. Here, the outlines of a plot appear, when Wittgenstein’s students begin to fear that he’s suicidal and move toward trying to save him. But this tension fades out, and other threads assume prominence; later it seems that this wasn't so much a fully realized plot as a gesture toward plotting. But this is a minor qualm, and the novel is stunning. Wittgenstein Jr. is Iyer's strongest book to date. He has again managed to write a book that’s funny, unexpected, and profound, and his prose is suffused with a calm beauty. The book functions beautifully both as a story about a haunted young professor -- a leader of the kind who appears once in one’s intellectual life and then is remembered forever after -- and a portrait of the last few frantic minutes before adulthood.
1. Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle: My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me. “What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me. I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.” They’re speaking lines from "The Stranger," a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society. The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy's being carried along in his father's strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development. In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen. Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale. The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home. The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft. This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen. 2. Who will you become? It's an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in "Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery: At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in. A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn't been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked. Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding. By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson's remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.
1. First, a brief background on the Song of Songs. I didn’t come across it till I was 26, when I received a copy of the Tanakh as a wedding gift. I read it on the plane en route to our honeymoon the morning after the wedding, trying not to dwell on the heavy-handedness of giving the Tanakh as a wedding gift when one half of the couple in question is Jewish and the other is not and neither are religious. Somewhere over the Atlantic I flipped ahead, tired and a little bored, until I came upon the Song of Songs and its beauty pierced my atheistic heart. The Song of Songs is a love poem, mysterious and incandescent, wedged between the books of Job and Ruth. It’s a biblical oddity: alone among the books of the Tanakh, it makes no mention of God. It involves two lovers in exquisite harmony. They address one another, sing one another’s praises, long for one another when they’re apart. There’s an inexplicable sense of momentum about it; perhaps it’s not too much to suggest that it sings. It’s possible that you’ve seen quotes from it here and there, whether or not you’ve read the text. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: words written in calligraphy on countless Jewish marriage contracts. Later, a variation: I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me. Such themes and variations abound. If you have an interest in gorgeous and mysterious text, you might find it worth reading, whether or not you harbor any particular religious sentiment. Whether or not the Song of Songs itself harbors any particular religious sentiment has been a matter of some debate. “If the Torah had not been given,” Rabbi Akiva said, in the second century A.D., “the Song of Songs would have sufficed to guide the world.” Akiva read the Song of Songs as allegory, the lovers standing in for Akiva’s god and Akiva’s god’s people. But the lovers in the Song are plainly lovers, and the obvious eroticism of several verses lends a certain awkwardness to allegorical interpretation. One modern -- and by no means uncontested -- interpretation is that the Song is a collection of wedding songs. The interpretation I like best is that it isn’t allegorical, that it is indeed a song of two lovers, but that because it is concerned with love it is holy. But whatever else the Song of Songs is, I find it to be a sublime piece of work. “For it is not a melody that resounds abroad,” St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote in the 12th century, in one of his 86 sermons on the Song of Songs, “but the very music of the heart, not a trilling on the lips but an inward pulsing of delight, a harmony not of voices but of wills.” He also viewed it as allegorical -- hence the 86 sermons -- but this still rings true to me, both regarding the Song of Songs specifically and as a description of the closed and private world of a romantic relationship, that discrete territory with its own language, customs, and history where one lives with one’s beloved: “It is a tune you will not hear in the streets,” he writes, “these notes do not sound where crowds assemble; only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings—the lover and the beloved.” 2. In the late 1930s, a Canadian poet named Elizabeth Smart chanced upon a volume of poetry in a bookstore. She was in her 20s, born into a wealthy family in Ottawa, educated expensively in Canada and then London, and had been traveling the world as a secretary to an older woman. In Better Books on Charing Cross Road in London, she lifted a volume of poetry from the shelf and the direction of her life was forever altered. The poet was George Barker. She fell in love with him through his work, and decided to marry him. George Barker was married to someone else, but Smart seems not to have viewed this as an impediment. She eventually managed to track him down through Lawrence Durrell, they struck up a correspondence, and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, widely viewed as a masterpiece of poetic prose, is a novelization of the affair that followed. “I want the one I want,” she wrote. “He is the one I picked out from the world.” In 1940, she used her clothing allowance to fly George Barker and his wife to California, where by that time she was living in a writer’s colony in Big Sur, and here Grand Central Station begins, with Smart waiting for her soon-to-be-lover’s arrival: “I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.” The moments of greatest tension lie in these early pages, when the affair hasn’t yet begun; when she waits, wracked with guilt, in the cottage next door to George Barker and his wife. “I do not beckon to the Beginning,” she writes, “whose advent will surely strew our world with blood.” And, of course, it does. In 1941, she was stowed away in Pender Harbor, British Columbia, lonely and pregnant with the first of her and George’s four children. (“Forty days in the wilderness and not one holy vision.”) Her family tried to keep them apart, at once point exerting their influence to have George turned away at the Canadian border for “moral turpitude,” but he was the one she’d picked out from the world: she obtained employment as a file clerk at the British Embassy in Washington, and then followed Barker to England two years later. He visited her often in London, she became pregnant again and again, but they never married. “Her love for him was based on a literary obsession that started when she was young,” their son Christopher Barker wrote in The Guardian some years ago, “and was to remain her overriding passion all her life.” The affair seems to have unfolded with a catastrophic inevitability. From Grand Central Station: “Jupiter has been with Leda, I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan wars. All legend will be broken, but who will escape alive?” Here, a troubling note of subservience. In Greek mythology, Leda was seduced -- or was raped -- by a swan, and gave birth to Helen of Troy. Her legend is based entirely on copulation and parenthood. Jupiter, on the other hand, was the king of the gods. 3. By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is a staggering accomplishment, an exquisite and often ecstatic work. In one of the book’s most famous passages, Smart and Barker have been arrested in Arizona -- apparently for having fallen afoul of morality laws -- and her interview with a police officer is interlaced with lines from the Song of Songs: But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed. What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.) How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.) Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my love, behold thou art fair: thou hast dove’s eyes.) In the same bed? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also our bed is green.) Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste.) When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love.) But this is only the most obvious manifestation, the moment when the Song of Songs is allowed to rise to the surface; elsewhere it shimmers just beneath the prose. From the Song of Songs: "Who is she who comes up from the desert, leaning upon her beloved?" "I am suddenly so rich," Smart writes, of the affair's early days, "and I have done nothing to deserve it, to be so overloaded. All after such a desert." Later: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved.” The Song of Songs: “Like an apple tree among trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the youths...Sustain me with raisin cakes, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love.” 4. Faint with love, or otherwise compromised by it. In his piece in The Guardian, Christopher Barker paints a portrait of a woman caught in an obsession, unable or unwilling to see her lover’s faults. He describes his father as an intemperate, occasionally violent, and self-obsessed man, who treated the women in his life abominably -- and there were many: George Barker fathered 15 children. Elizabeth Smart's second prose poetry memoir, 1978's The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals, is a restrained, far more sober work than Grand Central. It isn't hopeless, but ecstasy has been replaced by resignation: "I am old enough to know that nothing I want will ever happen. I might get a faded facsimile." “She knew from the start,” Christopher Barker writes, “that the price of her love for her man would be high. It was, and more, but she clung desperately to the memory of the passion of those first moments of meeting, when ‘the muscles of my will held the terror for the moment I most desired.’ She would never renege on that and, tough though it was, to that moment she always remained true.” In Christopher Barker's telling, she was subservient to the literary men in her life; when writers and painters visited the family home in Paddington in the 1960s, the woman whose book had been hailed as a masterpiece of prose poetry "would race around as the general factotum and handmaiden, playing hostess to make sure that the great and serious minds of the men present were taken care of." George Barker is a troubling figure, but so is Elizabeth Smart. When she picked up the volume of poetry that day in the bookstore on Charing Cross Road, was she somehow unable to differentiate between the man and his work? More to the point, why did this woman -- well-traveled, talented, intelligent, with a wealthy family behind her -- align herself so completely with a man who treated her so poorly? But then, other people’s relationships are always mysterious. A relationship is a closed world, and it's impossible to see clearly into the interior from the outside. St. Bernard of Clairvaux: Only the singer hears it and the one to whom he sings. Only the external details are clearly visible: once there was a young and passionate poet who fell in love with a married man, and the affair inspired a magnificent work. “Although I may never have understood her love for him,” Christopher Barker wrote of his parents, “I would always defend her inalienable right to her own self-sacrifice.”
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. 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.
1. Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud. 2. In her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes: ...she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet. But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion. In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone. It probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing. Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum. 3. Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler's prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren't quiet. The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I've recently read and admired: 1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary. 2. Open City by Teju Cole A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life. 3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life. 4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her. 5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson's depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful. 6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.” Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr
1. I didn’t meet Josephine Rowe at Adelaide Writers Week, but we were there together. I arrived in the city some days early, by request, because I feared the jetlag would be much worse than it was. It wasn’t terrible. I didn’t stay up all night and sleep away entire mornings, the way I do when I go to Europe. I just felt like I was dreaming. I walked down to the festival every morning. It was held in a park not far from my hotel; two stages shaded by trees and elaborately rigged awnings, a tent for food and coffee, a bookstore tent. I drifted between events, drank coffee under trees, listened to writers talk, thumbed through novels in the bookstore, was mesmerized by parrots. Rowe was on a panel of three poets, on one of those first days when I was still in a daze. All of the poets were good, but Rowe’s work stood out. She read a poem called "Vanellinae" about ex-army men at a repatriation clinic. It’s possible that jetlag and the disorientation of finding myself on the far side of the world made me especially susceptible to beauty in that moment, but I found it stunning. I kept thinking of her work afterward. A flock of parrots flew over the stage, green feathers flashing in sunlight. When I’d arrived in Adelaide, I’d gone out in search of Australian classic literature and found paperback editions of Ruth Park's The Harp in the South and Joan Lindsay's Picnic at Hanging Rock, slim enough to fit in my carry-on luggage, and I’d decided I wouldn’t buy any more books after that. Books are expensive in Australia. I was on a tight budget. I picked up Rowe’s two available books in the bookstore tent a few times and seriously considered them, but -- this isn’t exactly a popular opinion in the circles I run in, but here it is -- it’s always seemed to me that buying books when you can’t afford them is essentially a shopping addiction in the guise of bibliophilia, so I returned to North America without them. Where months later, on slightly more solid financial ground, I found that I very much wanted to read them, ordered them at some expense, and wished I’d done the sensible thing and just bought them in Adelaide when they were right there in front of me and didn’t come with shipping charges. 2. Rowe self-published two volumes of poems some years ago, but in recent years her focus seems to have turned to short, often fragmentary pieces that slide between short fiction and prose poetry. The first of her two collections of stories, How A Moth Becomes A Boat, has one or two weak spots but carries an undeniable force. Many of the pieces in the collection are utterly exquisite. There's a certain mystery about them; given the brevity of the form, context is often light or entirely absent. In “Stay,” one of the lights of the collection, an unnamed person lingers for a week or two in some industrial corner of Far North Queensland, waiting in someone else’s house for long days in the tropical heat: You’ll listen to the telephones ringing out over the loudspeakers of the factories and Joe’s Storage from across the highway and, grinding your first cigarette of the day into his stainless steel sink, you will not understand why the sound of the freight trains breaks your fucking heart. It’s a moment in a life. In the absence of context, only the things that are truly important remain. The reader will never know who the nameless smoker was, or what they were doing there, but it doesn't matter; all that matters is that they were there, and that freight trains broke their fucking heart, and that someone wanted them to stay but they didn't. Tarcutta Wake followed two years later, in 2012. It's a spectacular collection. A few of the stories are longer and more conventionally story-like, in the beginning/middle/end sense; others are a paragraph long. Themes of displacement and alienation and aftermath continue to pervade the work. There is mystery and wistfulness. In “In the mornings we would sometimes hear him singing,” one of the most gorgeous works in the collection, the only facts that can be established with any certainty are that once some people lived in a dilapidated apartment building, and later they were evicted, and often they heard a man singing, and memories remain: All of us were in between, rising or falling; we wouldn’t know which way till afterwards. There was so much to look forward to. There was so much to be sorry about. For that time we lived in the midst of each other’s static, the murmurings of radios and televisions that came through walls, muffled conversations that rose from the floor or floated down through the ceiling. There were no true secrets. The story is about three pages long. Its effect, to me at least, is deeply moving. “We are a migrant country,” the Australian author Brenda Niall said, in her panel at Adelaide Writer’s Week, “and the deep Australian question is, where is home?" I don’t have a deep enough experience of Australia to confirm or refute this sentiment, but I wrote it down because it resonated. I found myself thinking of it as I read Tarcutta Wake. I don’t mean to suggest that Rowe’s writing is quintessentially Australian; I wouldn’t know what that means. But when I read her stories of drifting, of heartbreak and aftermath and travel and displacement, it seems to me that where is home? is the underlying question. For some of us, there's no clear answer to that question. In our work, we can only continue to ask, and, in Rowe's work, the asking is both graceful and profound.
New York City, 1924: the Volstead Act has spawned a thriving bootlegging industry, jazz throbs from secret speakeasies, the hemlines are scandalous, and girls are bobbing their hair. The world has changed so rapidly that even some of the young are disoriented. Rose, Suzanne Rindell's narrator, is a straitlaced young woman who was raised by nuns. She views the excesses of the jazz age from afar and with some suspicion. Rose understands that some people have the luxury of risking the wild freedoms of this new era, and others don’t. She has an orphan’s understanding of the precariousness of her place in the world. She follows the rules. In early adulthood, she’s built a respectable life for herself: she’s employed as a typist at a police station in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where she sits in on confessions and types up reports, and goes home in the evenings to a boarding house. She is extraordinarily competent in her work -- 160 WPM on a manual typewriter? Okay, fine, it’s fiction -- and cautious in her day-to-day life. The other typist is Odalie. When she appears for a job interview at the station, she exerts a magnetic pull on the others; Rose is mesmerized, as is the sergeant, the lieutenant detective, and everyone else. “There was an excitement in the air around her,” Rindell writes, “an excitement that might include you in some way, as though you were her secret collaborator.” Rose is wary of “modern girls” like Odalie, with their bob haircuts and their casual entitlement, their way of moving through the city as if the city existed for their amusement. The Other Typist is a chronicle of a woman’s unraveling, but it’s also a subtle examination of economic privilege. The rapidly loosening mores of that time looked like freedom, but the level of risk that comes with freedom is never, of course, the same for everyone. Everyone who frequented the speakeasies of 1920s New York was taking a risk, but some had a net to catch them if they fell, and others didn’t. Rose’s impression that the new era isn’t for people like her doesn’t seem unwarranted. But for all of Rose’s love of the rules, she has a certain weakness. She introduces herself as an orphan, but technically she isn’t, or at least she wasn’t when she was dropped off at the orphanage as an infant. Rose wasn’t orphaned, she was abandoned by her family, and Rindell expertly suggests the subtle vulnerability that lingers in her as a result. Odalie is a con artist, but in order for a con to work, the dupe has to want to believe. When Odalie turns the full force of her charms on Rose and eventually invites Rose to move in with her, Rose is flattered and grateful enough to ignore her doubts. By the time Rose discovers Odalie’s true business and what she’s doing working at the police station, it’s too late. She is enmeshed, for precisely the same reason that no one thought to ask why a woman of such obvious means as Odalie required employment as a typist in the first place: “I can only say we are all susceptible to blind spots when exposed to the right dazzling flash.” Given the era, it’s impossible to avoid comparisons between Odalie and Jay Gatsby. Odalie is magnetic, charming, mysteriously wealthy, and engaged in shady business practices. There’s even a climactic party on Long Island. But if anything, Odalie is Gatsby’s mirror image; the trick of Fitzgerald’s character was that while Gatsby was obviously a fraud -- James Gatz of North Dakota -- he was in some essential sense a better and truer man than the careless and frivolous and perfectly respectable people who used their own names and their own unembellished backstories as they flitted through his life. Odalie is much darker. It isn’t that her charm and beauty and mysterious wealth conceals any malice; in order to feel malice, a person has to care. There's a certain amount of unnecessary exposition in the first half of the book, and the novel is hampered at times by a weakness for excessive foreshadowing; in the early chapters especially, there are a great many of those “but little did I know what would come next” asides that do little to move a story forward and that can even suggest a certain -- in this case entirely unwarranted -- insecurity on the part of the writer. But Rindell is a fine writer, and she’s written a suspenseful and well-executed novel. The Other Typist is an elegant debut.