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A Year in Reading: Matt Ruff

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Matt Ruff is the author of Fool on the Hill, the award-winning Set This House in Order, and, most recently, Bad Monkeys.This year, while millions of Harry Potter fans celebrated and mourned the end of their favorite series, a much smaller but no less devoted group of readers marked another literary milestone: the publication of the last book in John Crowley’s Aegypt Cycle.We’d been waiting a long time. The first book, originally called Aegypt and later rechristened The Solitudes, was published in 1987. I was just 22 years old then, fresh out of college and awaiting publication of my own first novel. I was already a fan of Crowley’s work, in particular his fantasy Little, Big, and I picked up The Solitudes eagerly when it appeared, having no idea what I was getting myself into.The book’s protagonist is Pierce Moffett, a history teacher whose studies of the Renaissance have led him to theorize that the world “once worked in a different way than it does now; it had a different history and a different future. Its very flesh and bones, the physical laws that governed it, were other than the ones we know.” Although this theory is intended as a metaphor for the way pre-Renaissance belief in magic and religion was supplanted by post-Renaissance acceptance of reason and science, Pierce begins to suspect that it might be more than just a metaphor, that it might “actually literally really be so” that the world sometimes changes its nature – and that another change is due.The Solitudes is divided into three sections, each titled, for reasons explained in the story, with a Latin verb corresponding to one of the first three houses of the zodiac. The scheme suggested that it was only book one of a quartet, although the text, in a classic Crowley touch, cast doubt on this assumption. Late in the novel, there’s a scene in which Pierce Moffett’s old mentor Frank Walker Barr lectures his students on the difference between modern fiction and classic folktales. In modern fiction, Barr says, we expect logical progression, a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. Folktales operate instead on a principle of thematic repetition, the same elements recurring over and over again, like the seasons, “until a kind of certainty arises, a satisfaction that the story has been told often enough to seem at last to have been really told.” There are also “some interesting half-way kind of works… which set up for themselves a titanic plot, an almost mathematical symmetry of structure, and never finish it; never need to finish it, because they are at heart works of the older kind…” Barr offers The Faerie Queene as an example of one of these “half-way kind of works,” but it sounds as though he might also be describing the book that he himself is a character in.It was like a bonus mystery: was The Solitudes a standalone novel, or was there more? Fans were left to wonder until 1994, when the sequel, Love & Sleep, finally appeared.Love & Sleep set Pierce Moffett on a quest to find the one thing that had survived the last change of the world (Boney Rasmussen, Pierce’s patron, is hoping that the one thing might be the philosopher’s stone, which grants immortality). It set readers on a quest, too: to make it to the end, now that we knew we hadn’t reached it yet, and see how the story turned out.As I say, it was a long wait. Book number three, Daemonomania, didn’t show up until the year 2000. By then the first two volumes of the series were out of print, and Crowley’s publisher made the perverse decision not to reissue them. Since this wasn’t the sort of story you could come in on the middle of, that pretty much doomed Daemonomania to commercial failure, and put the publication of the fourth and final installment in doubt.For six more years, devotees of Aegypt traded rumors and speculation on the Internet: Was Crowley still working on the book? Was he finished yet? How was his health, by the way? The man was getting older, and we were too, and the philosopher’s stone had not yet been found.At last Crowley himself made the announcement on his blog: the book, Endless Things, would be published by Small Beer Press. It arrived in stores last April, and even before I read it I knew that, for me, this was the book of 2007.Having read it, I can say that it was definitely worth the wait. To say more than that is difficult; I’m still a bit dismayed to not have it to look forward to anymore, and I also know that, as good a book as Endless Things is, no one who needs my recommendation to read it will experience it in anything like the way I did – not without a time machine and a whole lot of patience.But at least you can read it, along with the rest of the series. Overlook Press has begun reprinting the entire Aegypt Cycle in trade paperback. The Solitudes is already out, and Love & Sleep is due this month. If it’s not the same story for you that it was for me – and it won’t be, for the world is different than it once was – it’s still a great story. Do yourself a favor and check it out.More from A Year in Reading 2007

A Year in Reading 2007

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This time of year there is a media stampede for lists. They are seemingly suddenly everywhere, sprouting like an odd breed of December weed. In a competition to write the first draft of our cultural history, all of our “bests” are assigned, duly praised once more, and then archived as the slate is cleared for another year. That fresh feeling you get on January 1, that is the false notion that you no longer have to think about all those things that happened a year ago, that you can start building your new lists for the new year.But books, unlike most forms of media, are consumed in a different way. The tyranny of the new does not hold as much sway with these oldest of old media. New books are not forced upon us quite so strenuously as are new music and new movies. The reading choices available to us are almost too broad to fathom. And so we pick here and there from the shelves, reading a book from centuries ago and then one that came out ten years ago. The “10 Best Books of 2007” seems so small next to that.But with so many millions of books to choose from, where can we go to find what to read?If somebody hasn’t already coined this phrase, I’ll go ahead and take credit for it: A lucky reader is one surrounded by many other readers. And what better way to end a long year than to sit (virtually) with a few dozen trusted fellow readers to hear about the very best book (or books) they read all year, regardless of publication date.And so we at The Millions are very pleased to bring you our 2007 Year in Reading, in which we offer just that. For the month of December, enjoy hearing about what a number of notable readers read (and loved) this year. We hope you’ve all had a great Year in Reading and that 2008 will offer more of the same.The 2007 Year in Reading contributors are listed below. As we post their contributions, their names will turn into links, so you can bookmark this page to follow the series from here, or you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day. Stay tuned because additional names may be added to the list below.Languagehat of LanguagehatSarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic MindJoshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the EndBen Ehrenreich, author of The SuitorsLydia Millet, author of Oh Pure and Radiant HeartArthur Phillips, author of Prague and The EgyptologistPorochista Khakpour author of Sons and Other Flammable ObjectsHamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The WalkmenMatthew Sharpe, author of JamestownAmanda Eyre Ward, author of Forgive Me and How to be LostLauren Groff, author of The Monsters of TempletonJoshua Henkin, author of MatrimonyBuzz Poole, managing editor at Mark Batty PublisherBen Dolnick, author of ZoologyElizabeth Crane, author of When the Messenger Is Hot and All This Heavenly GloryMeghan O’Rourke, author of Halflife, literary editor SlateAndrew Saikali of The MillionsEdan Lepucki of The MillionsDavid Gutowski of largehearted boyMark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, author of Harry, RevisedCarolyn Kellogg of Pinky’s PaperhausPeter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh GirlZachary Lazar, author of SwayMatt Ruff, author of Bad MonkeysAlex Rose, author of The Musical IllusionistJames Hynes, author of The Lecturer’s Tale and Kings of Infinite SpaceMartha Southgate, author of Third Girl From The LeftJunot Díaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoRudolph Delson, author of Maynard and JennicaRosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning NewsBonny Wolf author of Talking With My Mouth Full and NPR correspondentBret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus ChristiJoshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Between, GeorgiaElif Batuman, n+1 and New Yorker contributorRichard Lange, author of Dead BoysSara Ivry, editor at NextbookScott Esposito of Conversational ReadingEd Champion of Return of the ReluctantDavid Leavitt, author of The Indian ClerkRoy Kesey, author of All OverLiz Moore, author of The Words of Every SongYannick Murphy, author of Signed, Mata Hari and Here They ComeSam Sacks, editor at Open LettersTed Heller, author of Slab RatBookdwarf of BookdwarfJess Row, author of The Train to Lo WuMarshall N. Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and TyrantsBrian Morton author of Breakable YouEli Gottlieb, author of Now You See HimDan Kois, editor of Vulture, New York magazine’s arts and culture blog.Robert Englund, actorGarth Risk Hallberg, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions

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