Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Did Dickens invent Christmas? It’s sometimes said he did, recreating the holiday as we know it out of the neglect that had been imposed on it by Puritanism, Utilitarianism, and the Scrooge-like forces of the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens himself would hardly have said he invented the traditions he celebrated: the mission of his Ghost of Christmas Present, after all, is to show the spirit and customs of the holiday are authentic and alive among the people, not just humbug. But A Christmas Carol did appear alongside the arrival in Victorian England of some of the modern traditions of the holiday. It was published in 1843, the same year the first commercial Christmas cards were printed in England, and two years after Prince Albert brought the German custom of the Christmas tree with him to England after his marriage to Queen Victoria.
Christmas was undoubtedly Dickens’s favorite holiday, and he made it a tradition of his own. A Christmas Carol was the first of his five almost-annual Christmas books (he regretted skipping a year in 1847 while working on Dombey and Son; he was “very loath to lose the money,” he said. “And still more so to leave any gap at Christmas firesides which I ought to fill”), and then for eighteen more years he published Christmas editions of his magazines Household Words and All the Year Round. And the popular and exhausting activity that nearly took over the last decades of his career, his public reading of his own works, began with his Christmas stories. For years they remained his favorite texts to perform, whether it was December or not.
One of the Christmas traditions Dickens most wanted to celebrate is one mostly forgotten now: storytelling. The early Christmas numbers of Household Words were imagined as stories told around the fireplace, often ghost stories like A Christmas Carol. It’s an easily forgotten detail that the classic American ghost tale, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, is also told around the Christmas hearth. James begins his tale with the mention of a story told among friends “round the fire,” about which we learn little except that it was “gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be,” and that it involved a child. Three nights later that story inspires another, even stranger and more unsettling and involving not one child but two, a ratcheting of dread that gave James the title for his tale.
Telling ghost stories around the hearth might have declined since Dickens’s and James’s times, but it’s striking how important the voice of the storyteller remains in more recent Christmas traditions: Dylan Thomas, nostalgic for the winters of his childhood in “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”; Jean Shepherd, nostalgic for the Red Ryder air rifles of his own childhood in In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, later adapted, with Shepherd’s own narration, into the cable TV staple A Christmas Story; and David Sedaris, nostalgic for absolutely nothing from his years as an underpaid elf in the “SantaLand Diaries,” the NPR monologue that launched his storytelling career.
Gather round the fire with these December tales:
Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (1845)
In a Christmas tale of sparkling simplicity, a small brother and sister, heading home from grandmother’s house on Christmas Eve across a mountain pass, find their familiar path made strange and spend a wakeful night in an ice cave on a glacier as the Northern Lights–which the girl takes as a visit from the Holy Child–flood the dark skies above them.
The Chemical History of a Candle by Michael Faraday (1861)
Dickens was not the only Victorian with a taste for public speaking: Faraday created the still-ongoing series of Christmastime scientific lectures for young people at the Royal Institution, the best known of which remains his own, a classic of scientific explanation for readers of any age.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
If you were one of the March girls, you’d read the copies of The Pilgrim’s Progress you found under your pillow on Christmas morning, but we’ll excuse you if you prefer to read about the Marches themselves instead.
Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara (1934)
Julian English’s three-day spiral to a lonely end, burning every bridge he can in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, from the day before Christmas to the day after, is inexplicable, inevitable, and compelling, the inexplicability of his self-destruction only adding to his isolation.
“The Birds” by Daphne du Maurier (1952)
Hitchcock transplanted the unsettling idea of mass avian malevolence in du Maurier’s story from the blustery December coast of England to the Technicolor brightness of California, but the original, told with the terse modesty of postwar austerity, still carries a greater horror.
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
Holden’s not supposed to be back from Pencey Prep for Christmas vacation until Wednesday, but since he’s been kicked out anyway, he figures he might as well head to the city early and take it easy in some inexpensive hotel before going home all rested up and feeling swell.
Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill (1963)
The “twenty years of unhappiness” recounted in Athill’s memoir, after her fiancé wrote to say he was marrying someone else just before being killed in the war, ended on her forty-first birthday with the news she had won the Observer’s Christmas story competition (the same prize that launched Muriel Spark’s career seven years before).
Tape for the Turn of the Year by A. R. Ammons (1965)
The long poem was a form made for Ammons, with its space to wander around, contradict himself, and turn equally to matters quotidian and cosmic, as he does in this lovely experiment that, in a sort of serious joke on Kerouac, he composed on a single piece of adding machine tape from December 1963 to early January 1964.
Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie (1976)
Want to extend The Catcher in the Rye’s feeling of unrequited holiday ennui well into your twenties? Spend the days before New Year’s with Charles, impatient, blunt, and love-struck over a married woman whom he kept giving Salinger books until she couldn’t bear it anymore.
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth (1979)
The brash and eventful fictional life of Nathan Zuckerman, which Roth extended in another eight books, starts quietly in this short novel (one of Roth’s best), with his abashed arrival on a December afternoon at the country retreat of his idol, the reclusive novelist E. I. Lonoff.
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean (1998)
Head south with the snowbirds to the humid swamps of Florida as Orlean investigates the December theft of over two hundred orchids from state swampland and becomes fascinated by its strangely charismatic primary perpetrator, John Laroche.
Stalingrad by Antony Beevor (1999)
Or perhaps your December isn’t cold enough. Beevor’s authoritative account of the siege of Stalingrad, the wintry graveyard of Hitler’s plans to conquer Russia, captures the nearly incomprehensible human drama that changed the course of the war at a cost of a million lives.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)
Didion’s year of grief, recorded in this clear-eyed memoir, began with her husband’s sudden death on December 30, 2003, and ended on the last day of 2004, the first day, as she realized to her sorrow, that he hadn’t seen the year before.
Last Day at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan (2007)
Manny DeLeon will be all right—he has a transfer to a nearby Olive Garden set up—but in his last shift as manager of a Connecticut Red Lobster, shutting down for good with a blizzard on the way, he becomes a sort of saint of the corporate service economy in O’Nan’s modest marvel of a novel.
December by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter (2012)
Two German artists reinvent the calendar book, with Richter’s photographs of snowy, implacable winter and Kluge’s enigmatic anecdotes from Decembers past, drawing from 21,999 b.c. to 2009 a.d. but circling back obsessively to the two empires, Nazi and Soviet, that met at Stalingrad.
This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.
Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.
And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
November is the anti-April: gray and dreary, the beginning of the end of things rather than their rebirth. It’s the month you hunker down — if you don’t give up entirely. When Ishmael leaves Manhattan for New Bedford and the sea in Moby-Dick, it may be December on the calendar, but he’s driven to flee to the openness of oceans by “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” And where else could Dickens’s Bleak House begin but, bleakly, in “implacable November,” with dogs and horses mired in mud, pedestrians “jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper” (not unlike Ishmael “deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off”), and of course, the Dickens fog:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats.
Shall I go on? Jane Eyre begins on a “drear November day,” with a “pale blank of mist and cloud” and “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.” And it’s on a “dreary night in November,” as “rain pattered dismally against the panes,” that Victor Frankenstein, blindly engrossed in his profane labors as the seasons have passed by outside, first sees the spark of life in the watery eyes of his creation. Is it any wonder that Meg in Little Women thinks that “November is the most disagreeable month in the whole year”?
Not everyone agrees that it’s disagreeable. In his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold, who finds value in each of the seasons, calls November “the month for the axe” because, in Wisconsin at least, it’s “warm enough to grind an axe without freezing, but cold enough to fell a tree in comfort.” With the hardwoods having lost their leaves, he can see the year’s growth for the first time: “Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any, needs felling for the good of the land.” The season’s first starkness, in other words, brings clarity to the work of the conservationist, whose labors in managing his forest are done with axe not pen, “humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of his land.”
But really, why go out in the fog and drear at all? Stay inside and read.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
What is romance without obstacles, which are planted in Elizabeth Bennet’s path most enjoyably at November’s Netherfield ball, including an unwanted proposal from Mr. Collins and a further contempt for the perfidious Mr. Darcy.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
The horrified, fascinated romance between creator and created begins with an electric spark in the gloom of November and ends on the September ice of the Arctic, with the monster, having outlived the man who called him into being, heading out to perish in the darkness.
Woman in the Nineteenth Century by Margaret Fuller (1845)
In November 1839, 25 women assembled in a Boston apartment for the first “Conversation,” a salon hosted by Margaret Fuller, a formidable intellect still in her 20s. She’d later be accused, after her early death, of having been a talker rather than a doer, but her friend Thoreau praised this major work for that very quality: it reads as if she were “talking with pen in hand.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853)
Not quite as muddy and befogged as the November afternoon on which it begins — nor as interminable as the legal case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which its story is enmeshed — Bleak House is actually one of Dickens’s sharpest and best-constructed tales.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
The restless desire of Hardy’s doomed characters, especially the bewitching “Queen of the Night,” Eustacia Vye, is fanned, at the novel’s beginning and its tragic end, by the pagan flames of November 5th’s Bonfire Night.
Quicksand by Nella Larsen (1928)
It’s on a rainy November day in New York that Helga Crane, after a life on the move from the South to Chicago to Harlem to Denmark and back to Harlem again, steps into a storefront church and — either lost or saved, she doesn’t know — makes a choice that mires her into a life from which there’s no escape.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (1945)
Fed up with November? Why not celebrate it the way, according to Pippi, they do in Argentina, where Christmas vacation begins on November 11, ten days after the end of summer vacation?
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
The descent toward death of the alcoholic consul, Geoffrey Firmin, takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead in 1938, the same day Lowry later liked to say he had his first taste of mescal.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
“Mr. Ewell,” asks the prosecutor, “would you tell us in your own words what happened on the evening of November twenty-first, please?” Those disputed events are what the jury — “twelve reasonable men in everyday life” — is presumed by law to be able to determine, with the guidance of the prosecutor and the defense attorney, Atticus Finch.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese (1966)
A few fall months spent in the orbit of Mr. Sinatra, but none in conversation with the man himself, were enough for Talese to put together this revolutionary, and still fresh, celebrity profile — and profile of celebrity — for Esquire.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins (1970)
Eddie Coyle was caught driving a truck through New Hampshire with about 200 cases of Canadian Club that didn’t belong to him, and now he has a court date set for January. So he spends the fall trying to make a deal — trying to make a number of deals, in fact — in Higgins’s debut, which Elmore Leonard has, correctly, called “the best crime novel ever written.”
The Death of Jim Loney by James Welch (1979)
The fall is indeed bleak in the Montana of Welch’s second novel, in which Loney, a young man with a white father and an Indian mother — both lost to him — stumbles toward his fate like Ivan Ilych, unsure of what it means to live.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody (1994)
Thanksgiving and family dysfunction go together like turkey and gravy, but Moody deftly sidesteps the usual holiday plot in his Watergate-era tale of suburbanites unmoored by affluence and moral rot by setting his domestic implosion on the day and night after Thanksgiving, as an early-winter storm seals Connecticut in ice.
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988) and American Tabloid by James Ellroy (1995)
The Dallas motorcade was a magnet for plotters in 1963, and it has been ever since, especially in these two modern masterpieces in which too many people want the president dead for it not to happen.
A Century of November by W.D. Wetherell (2004)
November 1918 may have meant the end of the Great War, but for Charles Marden, who lost his wife to the flu and his son to the trenches, it means a pilgrimage, driven by unspoken despair, from his orchard on Vancouver Island to the muddy field in Belgium where his son died, an expanse still blanketed with barbed wire and mustard-gas mist that seem to carry another hundred years’ worth of war in them.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Despite being tucked away three-quarters into the calendar, September is the start of many things: school, fall, football, the biggest publishing season, the return to work after the end of summer. It’s also the beginning of months whose awkwardly Latinate names rhyme with little except themselves. Some poets, understandably, have neglected them: in all his works, for instance, Shakespeare makes no mention of September, October, or November (he refers to March, April, and May dozens of times). But in a title “September” can stand squarely; it’s weightier and more declarative than the short and flighty names of the summer and spring months. There’s “September, 1819,” for instance, in which Wordsworth found spring and summer “unfaded, yet prepared to fade.” Transposing two digits in her title a century later in “September, 1918,” Amy Lowell caught the familiar beauties of early fall—including an afternoon that’s “the colour of water falling through sunlight”—but she stored them away without tasting them, like a harvest of berries. With the world war not yet over, she was too busy balancing herself “upon a broken world” to enjoy them yet.
The best-known September poem also was born in a broken world, at the beginning of the next world war. In the days after Germany invaded Poland, at the “end of a low dishonest decade,” W. H. Auden wrote “September 1, 1939,” in which an “unmentionable odour of death…offends the September night” even far from the fighting in his newly adopted home of New York City. Auden spent the rest of his life disowning the poem and its popularity, or at least “loathing” the “trash” of its hopeful line “We must love one another or die,” which he quickly came to see as self-congratulatory (in one later version he substituted “We must love one another and die”). But that line, among others, is what has brought people back to the poem in later Septembers. Lyndon Johnson paraphrased it, ending his apocalyptic “Daisy” ad (which aired just once, on September 7, 1964) with the words “We must either love each other, or we must die.” And the entire poem began circulating again in mass media and in forwarded e-mails in September 2001, when its visions of “blind skyscrapers” and death in September, along with its final call for an “affirming flame,” felt suddenly, movingly contemporary.
I don’t know about you, but this September the world seems broken too. Let’s read one another nevertheless.
Diary of Samuel Pepys (1660-69; 1825)
Part of the pleasure of the British naval administrator’s journals is their witty and open portrait of the everydayness of life, but they are deservedly famous as well for their dramatic peaks, including the great fire that engulfed London in the early days of September 1666, in which pigeons, Pepys noticed, hovered by their burning homes for so long their wings were singed.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) and The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher (1906) by Beatrix Potter
Potter’s tales for children began with two illustrated letters she sent to the sons of a friend on September 4 and 5, 1893: the first the story of a mischievous bunny and the second, written the next day so the younger brother wouldn’t feel left out, of a frog who dines on “roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce.”
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905)
September is early in the New York social season, but for Lily Bart it’s already getting a little late. She still has her beauty, but she’s twenty-nine and has no money of her own, and the decisions she makes—and doesn’t make—in the first month of Wharton’s great novel will set her course for its remainder.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
“I may say,” Alice B. Toklas was made to say in this book by Gertrude Stein, “that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken”: Pablo Picasso, Alfred North Whitehead, and Stein herself, “a golden brown presence” in a “warm brown corduroy suit,” whom Toklas met in September 1907 after arriving in Paris from San Francisco.
Act One by Moss Hart (1959)
One of the most dazzlingly entertaining of all backstage memoirs comes to its climactic curtain at the September opening night of Once in a Lifetime, the collaboration between Broadway veteran George S. Kaufman and the young Hart, who is transformed in that moment from a poor, stage-struck nobody into a hit playwright.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
“JANIE GETS STRANGER EVERY YEAR. MISS WHITEHEAD’S FEET LOOK LARGER THIS YEAR.” Return to school with Harriet M. Welsch, self-appointed sixth-grade spy and future writer, who reckoned with the slippery ethics of observing and reporting long before Janet Malcolm wrote The Journalist and the Murderer.
Stoner by John Williams (1965)
The “campus novel” is almost always a comedy, but Stoner, long overlooked but now becoming a classic, is a campus tragedy, and not less of one because of the petty academic quarrels, which in other hands might be turned into farce, that drive its hero’s inexorable disappointment.
Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer (1968)
There had been few glimpses into the mind of an offensive lineman (in fact, few suspected lineman had minds) before Kramer, the all-pro right guard of the Green Bay Packers, published this diary of the 1967 season, in which he quoted Shakespeare without shame, analyzed the motivational genius of his coach, Vince Lombardi, and observed the NFL growing from a part-time job into the beginnings of the entertainment leviathan it has since become.
Levels of the Game by John McPhee (1969)
A few years after launching his career by profiling Bill Bradley at Princeton, McPhee painted a double portrait of two American tennis stars via their U.S. Open semifinal match at Forest Hills, Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, opposites on the court and off: black and white, liberal and conservative, artistic and businesslike, free-swinging and stiff, cool and anxious.
Deliverance by James Dickey (1970)
It’s a little weekend trip for four men from the suburbs into the nearby wilderness, canoeing down a Georgia river about to be dammed. If everything goes right, they’ll get back in time for the second half of the Sunday football game on TV. In the meantime, they might get in touch with something real.
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)
All is gray: the garden, the lake beyond, “spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible farther shore.” It’s late September, well into the off-season, with reduced rates for the few visitors to the Hotel du Lac, where Edith, a romance novelist with a romance problem of her own, escapes for a “mild form of sanctuary.” We’re in Switzerland, but we’re also in Brookner country, home of isolation, disappointment, and quiet determination.
White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985)
Every September the station wagons—they’d now be minivans—arrive on campus, disgorging tanned kids and dorm supplies in a ritual that begins the school year at DeLillo’s generic midwestern college, where education has become untethered from any meaning beyond a nervous self-consciousness.
The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm (1990)
The central document in Malcolm’s ruthless vivisection of the seductions and betrayals of journalism is a September letter in which reporter Joe McGinniss wrote to his subject, the just-convicted murderer Jeffrey MacDonald–long after McGinniss was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt–“It’s a hell of a thing–spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up. But not for long, Jeffrey–not for long.”
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (1992)
It’s not only in the U.S. that the end of summer means the start of football season, and for 11-year-old Nick Hornby, made vulnerable by divorce, a new home, and a new school, his first professional soccer match, at Arsenal’s home ground in September 1968, began the glorious and inexplicable tyranny that Arsenal football has held over his life ever since.
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shuh-Lien Bynum (2008)
Every September Ms. Hempel turns to write on the blackboard, “First Assignment,” and soon, as in each of her other fall semesters, the American colonists will rebel and their revolution will be won. Not much older than the middle-school kids she’s instructing in history, and not much more sure of what she’s becoming, Bynum’s raw young teacher is open to experience and, most thrillingly, unprotected from it.
Building Stories by Chris Ware (2012)
There are many layers of time and space diagrammed in the fourteen books and pamphlets contained in Ware’s big box of comics about a small Chicago apartment building, but one pamphlet narrows his tales to a single September day, a quiet Saturday the seems so morosely typical that it spins the building’s inhabitants into despair until, for one of them at least, it becomes an anniversary to remember.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
July is the month of revolutions, so much so that in France’s upheaval even the month itself was swept away. The French Revolution that began with the liberation of the Bastille on July 14 tried to reinvent many traditions from the ground up — the metric system lasted longer than most — and the calendar was among them: under the new regime 1792 was declared Year I, with 12 newly defined months of three ten-day weeks each. (Since that only adds up to 360, the five or six days left over became national holidays, les jours complémentaires, at the end of the year.) The poet Fabre d’Églantine was given the task of choosing names for the new months, among them the two that overlapped the traditional span of July: Messidor, from “harvest,” and Thermidor, from “heat” (British wags were said to have suggested “Wheaty” and “Heaty” as local equivalents). Each day of the year received an individual name too, inspired by plants, animals, and tools: In Year II, for example, luckless Fabre d’Églantine was executed for corruption by his own revolution on Laitue (Lettuce), the 16th day of Germinal. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine.
By comparison, America’s revolution hardly altered its calendar, except for the new Fourth of July celebration (which didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1870). For fiction that evokes the American Independence Day, you can turn to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s nearly forgotten epic, Raintree County, which uses the single day of July 4, 1892, to look back on a century of American history, while George Pelecanos’s King Suckerman crackles to a final showdown at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington D.C., and Frank Bascombe, in Richard Ford’s Independence Day (a Pulitzer winner like Raintree County), attempts a father-son reconciliation with a July Fourth weekend visit to those shrines to American male bonding, the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the heat and upheaval of July:
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)
Anybody can have a revolution: the real achievement of the American experiment was building a system of government that could last, as argued for in these crucial essays on democracy and the balance of powers.
Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (1873)
In July 1806, the scholar James Mill challenged a fellow new father to “a fair race with you in the education of a son.” It’s hard to imagine Mill didn’t win: his son, John Stuart Mill, was reading Greek at three and was a formidable classicist by 12. His memoir of his precocious childhood remains a legend of Victorian education.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
No Antarctic tourist would choose the height of the southern winter for a visit, but that’s when emperor penguins nest, so Cherry-Garrard and two companions set out on a foolhardy scientific expedition across the Ross Ice Shelf in the darkness of the Antarctic July, a “Winter Journey” that became the centerpiece of Cherry-Garrard’s classic account of the otherwise doomed Scott Expedition.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty (1941)
Why? Because they all ganged up on her: Mama slapped her face and Papa-Daddy called her a hussy and even Uncle Rondo threw a package of firecrackers into her bedroom at 6:30 in the morning, all because Stella-Rondo came home on the Fourth of July and turned them all against her, that’s why.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)
Before there was John Frankenheimer’s film in 1962, there was Condon’s original Cold War fantasia — the direct source of most of the movie’s deliciously bizarre dialogue and convoluted paranoia — which begins with an Army patrol that goes missing in Korea in July before being saved by their sergeant, Raymond Shaw, the finest, bravest, most admirable person they’ve ever known.
The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald (1973)
The fifth of Fitzgerald’s eight Great Brain books is perhaps the finest and most dramatic in the superb series for kids set in turn-of-the-century Utah, with a story of a rigged Fourth of July tug-of-war between the Mormons and the Gentiles and a rare comeuppance for Tom, the charming, swindling Great Brain himself.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
“It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.” There’s no danger of spoiling the ending of Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel of Gettysburg by giving away its final words, but knowing the battle’s outcome makes the drama no less appealing.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990)
Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure — dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in — follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (2002)
What better way to celebrate Canada Day and Bastille Day (and Independence Day, too, for that matter) than with the stories of Montreal’s great expatriate writer, who left empty-handed for Paris with a plan to make herself a writer of fiction before she was 30 and found an American audience for her stories in The New Yorker for six decades afterwards.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005)
It’s July 11 and everything is in place: the glum pianist playing Rachmaninoff, the liver lady frying liver in a pan, the motorcycle enthusiast clanging in the courtyard, and the staff ready behind the scenes for the first re-enactment in McCarthy’s relentlessly provocative (and diabolically approachable) experiment in fiction, in which a suddenly wealthy man’s attempt to recreate his own fleeting past exposes the limits and seductions of memory and the tyranny of unlimited power.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006)
Brian Clough’s unlikely decision in 1974 to manage Leeds United, the club that had once been his bitterest rival, began a spectacularly disastrous 44-day summer reign that Peace transformed, with his propulsive and obsessive style, into what many have called the greatest novel on English football.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman (2007)
“This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Hardly. For teenage Elio, the intrusion of a young American academic into his family’s Italian summer sets off a summer’s passion whose intensity upends his life and still sears his memory in Aciman’s elegant story of remembered, inelegant desire.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
Five years are all it’s taken for the marriage of Amy and Nick, a once-high-flying media couple, to curdle, and Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary, July 5, sets off this twisted autopsy of a marriage gone violently wrong.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
May is blooming and fertile, spring in its full flower. Unlike the storms of March and the “uncertain glory” of April, Shakespeare’s May, with its “darling buds,” is always sweet, and ever the month for love. Traditionally — before the international labor movement claimed May 1st in honor of the Haymarket riot — May Days in England were holidays of love too, white-gowned fertility celebrations. It’s on a May Day that Thomas Hardy, always attuned to ancient rites, introduces Tess Durbeyfield, whose “bouncing handsome womanliness” among her fellow country girls still reveals flashes of the child she recently was.
May has long been the month for mothers as well as maidens, even before Anna Jarvis chose the second Sunday in May in 1908 for Mother’s Day to honor the death of her own mom. The mother of them all, the Virgin Mary, was celebrated for centuries as the Queen of May, and in “The May Magnificat” Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us that “May is Mary’s month,” and asks why. “All things rising,” he answers, “all things sizing / Mary sees, sympathizing / with that world of good, / Nature’s motherhood.”
The many meanings of a simple word like “May” can get to be too much, though. When the mother in The Furies, Janet Hobhouse’s fictional memoir of a life caught up in isolated family dependence, chooses Memorial Day to end her own life, her daughter mournfully riffs on May in an overdetermined frenzy: “month of mothers, month of Mary, month of heroes, the beginning of heat and abandonment, of the rich leaving the poor to the cities, May as in Maybe Maybe not, as in yes, finally you may, as in Mayday, the call for help and the sound of the bailout, and also, now that I think of it, as in her middle name, Maida.”
Here is a selection of recommended May reading, including love, friendship, underground adventure, and a very bad prom:
Memoirs by Lord Byron (unpublished)
You might wish to read Byron’s Memoirs (who wouldn’t?), but you can’t, thanks to a decision made by six men in the drawing room of the publisher John Murray in May 1824, a month after their dangerous friend had died of fever in Greece. Fearing the effect of its publication on “Lord Byron’s honor & fame” (and perhaps on their own reputations), they instead fed the pages of the manuscript, unread, into the fire.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)
She may have met a March Hare that was mad as a hatter, but it was in the month of May — the birthday month of Alice Liddell, Charles Dodgson’s model for his heroine — that Alice followed a rabbit with a watch in his waistcoat pocket down a hole and began her adventures underground.
In January he had written to her, “I love your verses with all my heart, Miss Barrett,” but it wasn’t until May 20 (from 3:00 to 4:30 pm) that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett met in person for the first time, in her invalid’s bedroom in the house of her domineering father. They eloped the following year.
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)
What better cure for end-of-term blues than the campus novel that launched the whole genre (along with Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, published the same year)? You may never want to go back to class at all, especially if you’re lecturing, miserably, on medieval history at a provincial English university.
“The Whitsun Weddings” by Philip Larkin (1964)
Amis based Lucky Jim on, and dedicated it to, his good friend Larkin, who made his own mark on postwar British culture with this ambivalent ode to the hopeful mass pairing-up of springtime, three years before the Kinks captured the same lonely-in-the-city melancholy in “Waterloo Sunset.”
“The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” by Hunter S. Thompson (1970)
A son of Louisville returned home for the ninety-sixth running of the local horse race in the company of the bearded British illustrator Ralph Steadman and emerged with his first piece of journalism that earned the adjective “gonzo.”
Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel (1970)
The lesson of “Spring,” the opening tale in Lobel’s thrillingly calm series for early readers, is, apparently, that there is honor in deception, as Frog fools hibernating Toad into joining him on a fine April day by tearing an extra page off the calendar to prove it is, in fact, May.
Carrie by Stephen King (1974)
“Remember, it’s YOUR prom; make it one to remember always!” With over 400 dead in the town and the school gymnasium a charred and blood-soaked ruin, it’s not likely that anyone — assuming they survived it — will forget the climactic late May event of King’s debut.
Lulu in Hollywood by Louise Brooks (1982)
An early May visit to the Eastman film archives in Rochester and then to the nearby apartment of the forgotten elderly woman who had starred so thrillingly in the silent films he screened there led first to Kenneth Tynan’s classic New Yorker profile of Louise Brooks, “The Girl in the Black Helmet” and then, following her rediscovery, to the publication of this collection of Brooks’s own sharp-witted memoirs and film criticism.
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
All within the month of May 1948, Hortense Roberts and Gilbert Joseph meet, become engaged, and are wed, and Gilbert sets off from Jamaica for the larger island of Great Britain, to be followed six months later by Hortense, who had funded both their journeys in an immigrants’ alliance that’s as much a business partnership as a marriage in Levy’s subtle, sympathetic novel.
Reborn: Journals & Notebooks, 1947-1963 by Susan Sontag (2008)
“I AM REBORN IN THE TIME RETOLD IN THIS NOTEBOOK,” sixteen-year-old Sontag scribbled on the inside cover of her journal for May 1949, marking a moment when she was colossally precocious — rereading Mann, Hopkins, and Dante — and falling in love for the first time, with a young woman in San Francisco.
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
In late May 1943, just a few days after Memorial Day, Second Lieutenant Louis Zamperini, former Olympian runner and holder of the NCAA mile record, crashed in the Pacific with two fellow airmen, beginning a record forty-seven days drifting on a raft, which proved to be just the beginning of his ordeal.
Image via Leland Francisco/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
“Oh, March, come right upstairs with me,” beckoned Emily Dickinson. “I have so much to tell.” She liked March: it brings, she wrote, a light like no other time of the year, a color “that science cannot overtake / But human nature feels.” But she also knew the dangers of the life that March’s thaw awakens: when the “snows come hurrying in from the hills” they can flood the banks of that “Brook in your heart” that “nobody knows.”
We don’t know quite what to do with March. We’re excited and frightened by its power and variability. Do we really think that the lion it comes in as can lie down with the lamb it becomes? It seems appropriate that halfway between the month’s two ends, where the lion and lamb meet, are the ides of March, full of Shakespeare’s storms and portents. Julius Caesar, set in middle March, even contains one of each of the month’s mascots: a “surly” lion, strolling unnaturally through Rome, and Brutus, who describes himself as a “lamb / That carries anger as the flint bears fire.”
Oddly, the best-known novels with “March” in their titles have nothing to do with the month: Middlemarch, though it sounds like a synonym for the day of Caesar’s death, refers to a town, not a time. (It’s really a fall book more than anything.) And in 2006, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to Geraldine Brooks’s March, about the March girls’ absent father in Little Women, while one of the finalists it beat out, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, already the winner of the NBCC and PEN/Faulkner prizes, is the story of Sherman’s sweep through the South, which took place in the fall, not the spring of 1864.
Here is a selection of recommended reading for a moody month:
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (1599)
There may be no literary character more famously forewarned than this would-be emperor, who, in his own play, is spoken of far more than he speaks himself and dies halfway through the action, on March 15.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)
In the early morning of March 20, a “puny, seven months’ child” named Catherine is born; later that morning her sickly mother, Catherine, dies, and her true love, Heathcliff, dashes his savage brow against a tree in fury and sorrow. Sixteen years later, young Cathy celebrates her birthday with a ramble on the moors, where she meets that same Heathcliff and Brontë’s tightly wound drama turns inward once again.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
On a Friday in March at the stroke of midnight, the widow Copperfield bears a son into “a world not at all excited about his arrival,” thereby beginning — with “all that David Copperfield kind of crap” — Dickens’s favorite of his novels, and his most personal.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
Celebrate the Southern Hemisphere’s autumnal equinox with Captain Nemo, who unfurls a black flag bearing a golden N and claims the Antarctic continent in his name before resuming the undersea peregrinations that are his fate: “Disappear, O radiant orb! Retire beneath this open sea, and let six months of night spread their shadows over my new domains!”
“A Scandal in Bohemia” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1891)
The first Sherlock Holmes story published in The Strand contains perhaps the most memorable day in Holmes’s career, a certain March 21 in which the detective finds himself outwitted by a diminutive opera singer and would-be blackmailer named Irene Adler, or, rather, as she becomes during the day, Mrs. Irene Norton, or, as Holmes begins to refer to her, “the woman.”
The Long Ships by Frans Bengtsson (1941-45)
With the first stirrings of spring, set sail from Scandia in search of plunder with Red Orm and his restless Vikings on their yearly raids in Bengtsson’s epic, based on the Icelandic sagas but fully modern in its detached good humor.
Rabbit, Run by John Updike (1960)
Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels grew, a book at a time, into an unplanned epic with each book tied to a season. The first one begins, appropriately, in spring, with Rabbit still young enough to feel the aches of age for the first time.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961)
Binx Bolling’s story is set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, which comes late that year, in March, but Binx does his best to avoid the hoo-ha, distracting himself instead by driving along the Gulf Coast with his secretaries and going to the movies, whose “peculiar reality” contrasts with the potent sense of unreality he’s burdened with.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume (1970)
Margaret Ann Simon’s twelfth birthday, on March 8, starts out perfect but ends up rotten. Sixth grade (or at least books about sixth grade) would never be the same.
Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed (1976)
The novel’s final page claims it was finished a minute after midnight on Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, and it is certainly a book made for Carnival, upending history while never forgetting it in a gleefully anachronistic plot that puts Lincoln and Stowe alongside fugitive slave and poet Raven Quickskill and grant-funded “ethnic dancer” Princess Quaw Quaw Tralaralara.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)
To the classic March fictional birthdays above add that of six-year-old Ludo Newman, the precocious hero of DeWitt’s brilliant debut, an intellectual and emotional adventure worthy of comparison with Ludo and his mom’s favorite Kurosawa film, The Seven Samurai.
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman (2007)
“The Bethany girls. Easter weekend. 1975.” Two sisters, one fifteen and one nearly twelve, took the bus to Security Square Mall in suburban Baltimore and never came back. Until thirty years later, when one returns in a twisty and character-rich mystery that holds a solution few of its survivors thought they’d live to see.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (2007)
The Kingsolver family chose to begin their “food sabbatical” — a year of living only on what they grew, or close to it — in late March, with the arrival of the first Virginia asparagus. By the following March they were looking forward to reclaiming a few imported luxuries in their diet but were otherwise well fed and gratifyingly educated by the acre that had sustained them.
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What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.