A Year in Reading: John Williams (The Second Pass)

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This year I finally read Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer, which a friend had been recommending for years as tailor-made for me. The friend was right. I also read Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, which I enjoyed nearly as much, and several pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, a new collection of his work. In short, I became a big Dyer fan in 2011.

I normally devour Michael Lewis’ books as soon as they’re published, but for some reason I didn’t get around to The Big Short until it was in paperback. While you’re reading it, you feel you understand collateralized debt obligations, which is no mean trick.

John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission reads far more smoothly than its inelegant title. It recounts two movements to confront and transcend mortality — the psychic researchers of the 19th century (William James and Henri Bergson among them) and the “God-building” Bolsheviks of Russia who pursued the end of death for man, among other utopian goals. These two main sections are fairly narrow historical slices of the overlap between science and spirit in intellectual life, but Gray builds upon them to write a sweeping, impassioned conclusion that argues against the fetishizing of science’s solutions and for a humble, even inspiring acceptance of death’s finality.

Simon Reynolds’ Retromania brings a lot of intelligence and cultural breadth to bear on a thesis I only partially agree with about the stale dominance of established musical genres. I interviewed him about it here.

But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.

The other, The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, follows the friendship of the two famous southern writers, who first met in their early teens. Many years of Percy’s letters weren’t saved, so the first 130 pages or so only feature Foote’s side of the conversation. He comes across as funny and spirited, but so arrogant early on — and the type who tries to hide it under jokes about arrogance, just making it worse — that you wonder how Percy withstood it. To his credit, Foote later in life reached the same conclusion. Reading over their letters, he says, “I was amazed to observe how didactic I was over the years — I don’t see how you managed the grace to put up with it all that time.” Percy is widely considered the better fiction writer, but got a much later jump than Foote, who adopted the tone of mentor throughout their correspondence. What lingers most clearly in the end is not shop talk (though there’s plenty of that) or even the evolution of a friendship (ditto), but Foote’s voice. Mostly commanding, sometimes conciliatory, his outsize enthusiasms and dictates dominate the book even after Percy’s letters start appearing. He urged Percy time and again to read Proust, Plato, Dante, and many others. (“Don’t underrate Shelley. He’s a kind of a sort of a shithead in an ideological way, but he sure as hell burned with a gemlike flame.”) He cautioned his friend to avoid seeing fiction as pamphleteering — to keep neat and orderly prescriptions out of his stories. And he talked incessantly about his own projects, including an ambitious novel called Two Gates to the City that he worked on periodically for more than 30 years, never completing.

I’m about halfway through James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a single volume history of the Civil War, at the moment. It’s safe to say it will also end up being one of the best things I read this year, and I’m lining up a few other books about that period in history. Foote’s massive trilogy about the war is his best-known work, and I imagine at least the first installment of it will be on my reading schedule in 2012.

More from A Year in Reading 2011

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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A Year in Reading: John Williams

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It was mostly a year of some pleasant foothills in my reading life, and just one great peak. Best of the foothills first:

I recently finished The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr, which tells the parallel stories of Joseph Vacher, a serial killer in late-19th-century France, and Alexandre Lacassagne, a criminologist at the same time and (roughly) place. Their lives didn’t intersect quite as neatly as you might expect, but Starr’s telling is both gripping and smart.

Nearly 10 years ago, I read and fell for The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall, so I was eager to read his follow-up, The Lonely Polygamist. It didn’t disappoint. Udall is an unabashedly old-fashioned storyteller in the mold of John Irving, and he makes the wise decision to tell the story of a family with one husband, four wives, and 28 children by focusing on three characters: Golden, the title character; Trish, the fourth and most reluctant, independent, and lonely wife; and Rusty, a 12-year-old boy whose adolescent troubles are drowned out by the family’s din.

I continued a recent Nabokov kick with The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, which I greatly enjoyed, and I read my first novel by Thomas Bernhard, The Loser, which made me want to read more.

The great peak was Father and Son by Edmund Gosse, published in 1907. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever read. Edmund was the son of Philip Gosse, a naturalist and fervent Christian who resisted the ideas of Darwin. Edmund’s memoir — which I learned about in A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral, about the various ways in which Victorians lost their faith — tells of his upbringing and his eventual rejection of his father’s beliefs. In many ways, it’s a simple story, but the telling, both funny and profound, is brilliant. By the middle of the book, I was bracketing about every other paragraph. I’m sure I’ll read it again in its entirety someday. 

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: John Williams (The Second Pass)

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Two of the best books from recent years that I got around to reading in 2009 were The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie and The Master by Colm Tóibín. Elie’s book, a group portrait of four Catholic American writers at mid-century (Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy) is old-fashioned in the best ways. It unfolds slowly, but its insights are deep, unshowy, and finally poignant. By the time its subjects reach the ends of their lives, you feel you know, as well as one can, their souls. Tóibín’s fictional account of the life of Henry James is similar in the cumulative power of its effects, and it also inspired me to read a few novels by the Master himself. Though I remain a bigger fan of his brother William (a maniacal fan, really), The Bostonians and The American were highlights of my year’s reading.

But my favorite read in 2009 happened to be published in 2009: Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, as confident and well crafted a collection as I’ve read in a long time. Starring semi-rural characters down on their luck in places from Illinois to the outskirts of Nashville, these eight stories contain both humor and compassion about people and an appreciation for nature that is never heavy-handed. In “Phantom Pain,” one of the best stories, residents panic at unconfirmed reports of a wild animal loose in their town — everyone except for Jack Wells, an older taxidermist who thinks he’s been around too long to believe it. Peelle’s prose is never less than assured, and it’s brilliant frequently enough to make this short book both a delight and a promise of things to come.

More from A Year in Reading

#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson


Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is a small miracle, a novel in the form of a letter from the Reverend John Ames, 76 and dying, to his 7-year-old son. There are strands of plot in the book — flashbacks involving Ames’ abolitionist grandfather; the explanation of how Ames met his young wife and became a father so late in life; and the story of his friendship with his neighbor Reverend Robert Boughton. But Robinson is really interested in extended rumination, charting Ames’ thoughts about mercy, mortality, forgiveness, grace and doubt in great detail. The pace of these thoughts requires an initial patience from the reader that is amply rewarded. The book’s modest, carefully planed language and its concern with primary human needs make it timeless, but it’s hard not to also marvel at and appreciate the way it functions as a timely corrective. While the proudly ignorant hardcore religious right and arrogant preachers like Richard Dawkins shout past each other, Robinson addresses faith in a way that is both spiritually generous and intellectually serious. Here is religion not as a political cudgel or a claim for moral superiority but as a thoughtful balm for an attentive individual soul.

An audio excerpt from Gilead.
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