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A Year in Reading: Mike Isaac

Most of my 2019 has been spent in a blur of hating words—my own. Editing a 140,000-word transcript that would eventually become a book forced me to confront daily misspellings, grammatical blunders, fact-checks, writing tics. It was enough to make me hate the act of writing more than I usually do.

The book hit shelves in September, so most of 2019 was spent getting it ready for publishing. It was a work of nonfiction in line with my day job at The New York Times; an insider story about a tech company’s culture gone awry at Uber. But since I spent most of my waking hours this year focusing on a story rooted in the real world, I prefer using my downtime getting as far away from it as possible. Reading for pleasure instead of work almost always consisted of fiction.

I picked up The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories at the beginning of the year, in part because, honestly, I liked the cover design. But I also find reading short stories manageable, especially when I’m in the middle of a big project. To approach the end of a stressful day and be able to finish a 30-page story in one sitting feels damn good, like something akin to meeting the end of a section in a 500-plus page novel, but tidier. Normally I worry about missing the aesthetics of a native language in a translated work, but Jay Rubin’s translation abated that fear. I’m a sucker for magical realism; Murakami’s introduction set the tone.

My crippling reliance on Amazon for the most innocuous items led me down a comment-reading hole in February. As it turns out, people have very strong views on toilet plungers and sugar-free gummi bears.

I finally picked up Friday Black—another short story collection—after seeing Tommy Orange’s rave review of it. Orange was right. The book whet my appetite for looking at the worst possible versions of the future that aren’t as far-fetched as one would think. (I’m a huge fan of George Saunders, so Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s work was right up my alley.)

I stopped at Powell’s in Portland while touring for my book and saw a copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad on sale, a book I meant to read years ago but never got around to. I devoured it in two or three plane rides, an excellent cast of characters blended with rock music, angst, and the existentialism that comes with getting older. I’m mad at myself I hadn’t read it sooner.

I have this latent guilt when I read contemporary releases, which I will fully admit makes little sense. There’s a never-ending flood of books being released by talented people, but something inside my brain feels like I can’t allow myself to read new books when there are so many “classics” I’ve yet to read. How can I pick up something from 2019 when I haven’t read the best of 1819? It’s like a permanent backlog of shitty self-nagging; I don’t recommend it.

To deal with that, I try to throw at least one classic in the mix every month. I try to read Melville once a year, because I am the type of person who likes Melville. (I remember someone once saying “Never date guys who love Moby Dick,” a tidbit of self-consciousness I’ve never forgotten.) I picked up Pnin earlier this year; Nabokov is nothing if not controversial, but his mastery of voice and style keeps me coming back to him. I have a Willa Cather on my nightstand (My Antonia), and reread Wharton’s wintry Ethan Frome over the summer.

Some people read one book at a time before moving on to the next, but I’ve found reading a mix of books, genres, and mediums simultaneously is strangely soothing. Short stories, novels, a bit of poetry—it keeps the mind fresh, and I don’t feel stalled when I’m moving through something that is longer than 250 pages.

So after something like Atwood’s new book, I’ll go back and read All You Need Is Kill, an old manga that was the basis for the (underrated!) film Edge of Tomorrow. I’ve got a pile of Venom and Spider-Man anthologies I’m picking through—Maximum Carnage is one of them, focused on a fun psychopathic character. I’m also picking through the old Preacher comics; years ago, I bought the entire bound series of nine or so books off of some guy on Craigslist for a song. Totally worth it.

There’s this piece of advice I once received that I’ve never forgotten: “Life is too short and there are too many good books out there to keep reading books you aren’t enjoying.” Internalizing that felt liberating, and helped me put a few books down this year. (The first time I stopped reading a book in the middle of it was when I realized I didn’t like Jack Kerouac, and sold my copy of On the Road after about 100 pages.) I love Kazuo Ishiguro and read Remains of the Day, Nocturnes, and Never Let Me Go (again) this year, but decided about 150 pages in that The Unconsoled was just a little too out there for my taste.

I dutifully read Sally Rooney’s Normal People and enjoyed it, then moved to One Hundred Years of Solitude and couldn’t get into it, stopping halfway through. Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Boys was predictably great.

Of course, I still read nonfiction. It helps me make my own work feel and sound better, even if it doesn’t always give me that serotonin hit that fiction affords. I read business classics while writing my own book: The Soul of a New Machine, Barbarians at the Gate, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Den of Thieves. They reminded me how beautiful, elegant writing can be just as present in nonfiction as it is in other mediums.

I’ve had the amazing opportunity to see friends and mentors write wonderful books that have come out to much acclaim. Namwali Serpell, whom I was a research assistant for during my undergrad years as an English major, wrote the great Zambian novel with The Old Drift. Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror was, of course, as lovely as everyone knew it would be. I’m in the middle of Anna Wiener’s galley of Uncanny Valley, a memoir of her time spent in Silicon Valley.

I’m trying to branch out a bit more into science fiction, something I’m seeing flourish right now by authors of all walks. I have Jeff VanderMeer and Octavia Butler in the queue, and keep meaning to get into Tana French. Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing is burning a hole in my bookshelf; that’ll be up soon.

Perhaps I’ll make a dent in all of those in 2020—and hopefully not feel too guilty that they weren’t written at least a hundred years ago.

A Year in Reading: Garth Risk Hallberg

The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.

I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.

As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.

While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.

Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s  unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.

The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.

Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.

As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.

In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)

As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”

Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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