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. 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.
One book blew me away this year: Lucia Berlin's A Manual For Cleaning Women. But I had a lot of dead Englishmen to revel with first. It must have been sitting through two inferior takes on Wolf Hall this spring that set me off: an awful production on Broadway; a far better but still tedious rendering on PBS. That sent me back to the books, flipping through to find the passages with my most feverish underlines, taking note of how masterfully Hilary Mantel brought the same scenes to life, with imagery, interior dialogue and delicious prose. I reread long stretches of both books in the series -- can't wait for the third. I literally couldn't wait. I found myself gobbling up books connected to that era, or connected to the connections. Peter Ackroyd's Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors was illuminating, but frustrating -- especially for his penchant for lathering praise on the most dickish of kings. I was far more satisfied with Dan Jones's The Plantagenets. I've OD'd on the period a bit for now, but when I return to the histories, it will be to his series. Foundation was best at its prehistoric and pre-Norman passages, which finally removed a festering burr from my intellect. If the Saxons were the dominant half of Anglo-Saxons, how did the Angles get custody of the name? It's always perplexed me. The short answer: proximity to their conquerors. The Angles controlled much of the east coast, so it was their kingdoms the Danes wiped out when they crossed the North Sea. So the island was AngleLand (or something like that) to the Danes. They didn't rename the place when they discovered even more Saxons much further in. (The Jutes got left out completely, along with lots of lesser tribes.) It was also Foundation that led me to Beowulf, at the same time I was discovering how much J.R.R. Tolkien had riffed on it from the prologue of The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. That was enough to entice me to a bookstore to thumb through the supposed literary abomination I had escaped in high school. "Never take a class that forces you to read Beowulf," an older friend had sagely advised on his first trip home from college. I'm reconsidering everything I ever learned from him. Of course he was too young to enjoy the melodious Seamus Heaney translation. What a delight that turned out to be! Sure it got repetitive, and heavy-handed, but that was half the joy of it -- the window into the psyche of 8th- to 11th-century English aristocracy: the ideas they cherished, how they sought to (over) communicate them, and what they considered a great yarn. It was also eye-opening to discover how liberally Tolkien helped himself to the material. Shelob, in particular, was concocted by imaginations 1,000 years earlier, and I felt rumblings of Middle Earth nearly every page. Yet Tolkien made it all his own. Well done, J.R.R. My first attempt at Anglo-Saxon also made it apparent how absurd the alternate label of Old English is. I planned to approach Beowulf the way I do William Shakespeare: attempt to cold read chunks of the original on the left, jumping over to explanations -- or translation -- when I got really frustrated. Not happening. The "Old English" on the left was not just old or archaic, it was a completely different language. Not a recognizable word, anywhere. All of which I should have understood already perhaps from the Plantagenet histories, or high school, but there's nothing like confronting the actual text to see how far we've come in 1,000 years. And then I dove into the Henrys. I intend to get to all of them, but jumped ahead to start with Henry IV, Part 1. Good call. I can't wait to start stealing from this! Shakespeare at the top of his form, in language, plot, and character. In spite of Falstaff. God, do I hate that guy. Never funny, always heavy-handed (a holdover from Beowulf?). Ugh. There's a lot of the dufus in there, but the bursts surrounding him are brilliant enough to wipe out most of him from my memory. Part 1 was so intoxicating, I plunged right into Part 2. Despite the naming convention, they are completely separate, self-contained plays. In fact, they're more or less the same play: a complete rehash, replaying the same plot, ideas, and (mostly) cast -- including His Vileness, Falstaff. With none of the inspiration or vitality. Half-hearted remake masquerading as sequel. So this is where Hollywood got it. And then I got my hands on A Manual for Cleaning Women. Wow. No kings or dukes or ladies in waiting losing their heads or fighting for the crown. No grand sweeping anything. And no boisterous narrator, showing off, nor boring MFA stories, full of pretty sentences about nothing. These characters remind me of Denis Johnson. They could fit snugly into Jesus' Son, though Lucia Berlin wrote most of these stories earlier. Lucia gives us gripping tales about switchboard operators, cleaning ladies, and shy little Protestant girls trying to fit in at Catholic school. In the mission school in "El Tim," the children tremble their morning prayers, the Latina girls flirting quietly, like muted birds, the boys cocking their plumed heads, decked out in brilliant yellows and turquoise, with V-neck sweaters and no shirts, exposing the crucifixes gleaming against their smooth brown chests. Berlin can sure set a scene. And bring it alive with boys trying hard to be hoods, "flipping a switchblade into a desk, blushing when it flipped and fell." Lucia Berlin was my mentor. She's suddenly a sensation, but died 11 years ago, a virtual unknown. I'd read most of these stories, so I planned to skim a little and dip back into my favorites. I'm not much of a re-reader -- I bore easily. But I'm transfixed, again, even deeper this time. I wasn't a good enough writer to fully appreciate them the first pass. Half of what I do I learned from these stories, but I see now how much more there is to mine. I read them mostly to enjoy. So much to savor. The flitting nuns and thuggish pachuco crucifixes in "El Tim" felt so vivid, but were all set-up for the emergence of the title character, who takes down Sister Lourdes, looking down at her with "his eyelashes creating jagged shadows down his gaunt cheeks. His black hair was long and straight. He smoothed it back with long slender fingers, quick, like a bird." The girls were awed. "The pretty young girls who whispered in the restroom not of dates or love but of marriage and abortion. They were tensed, watching him, flushed and alive." How I feel every time I crack open this book. 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? 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I read every book I can find most years, because I have little children who are in bed by 7 p.m., and because I live in a small town in Florida with not a whole lot to do, and because I usually find mingling with other humans to be absolutely terrifying. But this year I had one of my reading black holes in the spring, when I just couldn't sit still long enough to make it through weighty books. It's an ugly lapse when reading is basically your job. It all got worse this fall when I was on the road and usually too tired to do more than eat cold french fries and glower at my fellow travelers, so what made it into the brainpan was shorter, sharper work, not the elephants and juggernauts of the year. That said, a number of books thrilled me. Here are my 10 favorite books that I read in 2015. I loved Terrance Hayes's poetry collection How to Be Drawn, as well as Karen Solie's collection The Road in Is Not the Same Road Out. My favorite novel was the fourth Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novel, The Story of the Lost Child, but what I really mean is that the fourth book itself is very good, but the entirety of the project is phenomenal, meaty, brain-breaking. These story collections slayed me: Lucia Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women, Joy Williams's The Visiting Privilege, and Colin Barrett's Young Skins. And I loved four beauts to be published in the U.S. next year, the novels High Dive by Jonathan Lee, The Vegetarian by the South Korean writer Han Kang, and Sudden Death by the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue, and a beautiful graphic novel by my friend Tom Hart called Rosalie Lightning, which is pure pain made beautiful by art and attention. 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.
This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books and authors as well: Beatlebone by Kevin Barry (You Can’t Lie in Fiction: An Interview with Kevin Barry, You Must Read Kevin Barry, A Year in Reading: Kevin Barry) Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Hinge of History: Nine Books for the Post-Ferguson Era) City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg (The Opening Lines of Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, I’ve Rarely Felt So Free: The Millions Interviews Garth Risk Hallberg, Garth at The Millions) The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector (A Horribly Marvelous and Delicate Abyss: The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector) Delicious Foods by James Hannaham (A Happy Sort of Pessimism: The Millions Interviews James Hannaham) Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Exclusive First Look: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, The Most Joyous Part: The Millions Interviews Lauren Groff) The First Bad Man by Miranda July (A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July) The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma (The Audacity of Prose, Clickworthy Headlines about The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma) The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown) Honeydew by Edith Pearlman (Loneliness, Interrupted: Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew, Overnight Sensation? Edith Pearlman on Fame and the Importance of Short Fiction) How to Be Both by Ali Smith (Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish, ‘I Wouldn’tve Had a Biography at All’: The Millions Interviews Hanya Yanagihara) Loving Day by Mat Johnson (A Blacker Shade of Pale: On Mat Johnson’s Loving Day) A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (The Book Report: Episode 30) The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (A Heightened State of Emotion: The Millions Interviews Mary Gaitskill) The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (The Crime of Life: On Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation) Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish (Two Lives: On Hanya Yanagihara and Atticus Lish) Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Flamed but Not Forgotten: On Jonathan Franzen’s Purity) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Sellout by Paul Beatty (The Inanity of American Plutocracy: On Paul Beatty’s The Sellout) The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante (Elena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the Minotaur, Outside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena Ferrante) The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (Tricks and Lies: On Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth) The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (The Writer I Was: Six Authors Look Back on Their First Novels) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Dynamite Detroit Debut: On Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, The Tortoise, Not the Hare: The Millions Interviews Angela Flournoy)
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike go old-school and discuss two new books they love. Discussed in this episode: A Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno, Indiana, horses, farmers, making America great again, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, blue collar workers, laundromats, hospitals, Donald Trump. Not discussed in this episode: A definitive ranking of all John Mellencamp's songs, from best ("Pink Houses") to worst ("R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A."). It's a sore subject with Janet and Mike. It's led to a lot of fights, and frankly, they'd rather not revisit it. I mean, don't even get them started on "Human Wheels."
Callie Collins sits down with Emily Bell, the editor of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Originals, in the latest issue of Midnight Breakfast. Bell also published Lucia Berlin’s recent story collection A Manual for Cleaning Women. Bell states: “The voices I publish, they’re not trying to please their readers.”
“It’s likely Lucia would have felt more comfortable watching a bull be gored in a Mexico City arena or huddling among winos on a corner in Oakland than she ever felt at her first place on posh Mapleton Hill.” Elizabeth Geoghegan for The Paris Review on Lucia Berlin, whose A Manual For Cleaning Women is out now.
Out this week: Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh; A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin; The Incarnations by Susan Barker; The Automobile Club of Egypt by Alaa Al Aswany; Darkness the Color of Snow by Thomas Cobb; The Investigation by J.M. Lee; and Browsings by the Washington Post critic Michael Dirda. For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great Second-Half 2015 Book Preview.
"I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top, like cream, sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be—their work talked about, quoted, taught, performed, filmed, set to music, anthologized. Perhaps, with the present collection, Lucia Berlin will begin to gain the attention she deserves." An excerpt from Lydia Davis's foreword to Berlin's A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories is now online.