Beatlebone

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A Year in Reading: 2017

Over the last 13 years, the Year in Reading has collected the book recommendations and musings of some of the most brilliant readers and writers working today.  Looking at the series over time it becomes an instrument of measurement, not only for tracking the way the site itself has grown and evolved, but for recording the big books of the moment, or the books of yesteryear that readers never tire of discovering anew. It can also capture--in a glancing, kaleidoscopic way--the general mood of the professional reading public.  The 2016 Year in Reading was in some respects pretty grim, as contributors tried to reconcile reading, at its heart an intensely private, personal passion, with the requirements of being human in a world where bad things persist in happening. This year I'd like to focus on the good things. The Year in Reading is my favorite thing we do at this site, and I'm so grateful for the writers who gave generously of their time to participate. I'm grateful for the dedicated readers who navigate here every morning and give the site a reason to live, and for the supporters who are helping us secure the future. This is our 14th year, and 14 years is an eon in Internet Time.  The Millions won't survive the heat death of the universe, but it has already stuck around longer than at least some bad things will. A lot of our 2017 Year in Reading contributors were anxious and tired and read less than they would have liked. The good news is that they still did a lot of excellent, engaged reading. The good news is that there are more exquisite and important things to read than you'll ever read in your lifetime. The good news is that books are still the vehicles for inquiry, revelation, devastation, and joy that they have always been. The names of our 2017 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as entries are published (starting with our traditional opener from Languagehat’s Stephen Dodson later this morning). Bookmark this post, load up the main pagesubscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry — we’ll run three or four per day. And if you look forward to the Year in Reading every year, please consider supporting the site and ensuring this December tradition continues for years to come. -Lydia Kiesling Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage. Eugene Lim, author of Dear Cyborgs. Edan Lepucki, contributing editor and author of Woman No. 17. Sonya Chung, contributing editor and author of The Loved Ones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer and author of Station Eleven. Nick Ripatrazone, contributing editor and author of Ember Days. Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor and author of City on Fire. Janet Potter, staff writer. Louise Erdrich, author of LaRose. Ahmed Saadawi, author of Frankenstein in Baghdad. Jesmyn Ward, author of Sing, Unburied, Sing. Jeff VanderMeer, author of Borne. Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Book of Joan. Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You. Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties. Kevin Young, author of Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Yoko Tawada, author of Memoirs of a Polar Bear. Danzy Senna, author of New People. Jenny Zhang is a poet and writer. Matthew Klam, author of Who Is Rich. Paul Yoon, author of The Mountain. Julie Buntin, author of Marlena. Brandon Taylor, associate editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and staff writer at Literary Hub. Hannah Gersen, staff writer and author of Home Field. Matt Seidel, staff writer. Zoë Ruiz, staff writer. Clare Cameron, staff writer and author of The Last Neanderthal. Il’ja Rákoš, staff writer. Ismail Muhammad, staff writer. Thomas Beckwith, staff writer. Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop, Won't Stop. Robin Sloan, author of Sourdough. Juan Villoro, author of The Reef. Chiwan Choi, author of The Yellow House. Scaachi Koul, author of One Day We'll All Be Dead And None Of This Will Matter. Gabe Habash, author of Stephen Florida. Ayobami Adebayo, author of Stay with Me. Kaveh Akbar, author of Calling a Wolf a Wolf. Kima Jones, founder of Jack Jones Literary Arts. Vanessa Hua, author of A River of Stars. Hamilton Leithauser, rock star. R.O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries. Rakesh Satyal, author of No One Can Pronounce My Name. Kristen Radtke, author of Imagine Wanting Only This. Nick Moran, staff writer. Lydia Kiesling, site editor and author of The Golden State. Anne Yoder, staff writer. Michael Bourne, staff writer. Tess Malone, associate editor. Bill Morris, staff writer and author of Motor City Burning. Kaulie Lewis, staff writer. Myriam Gurba, author of Mean. Patrick Nathan, author of Some Hell. Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing. Michael David Lukas, author of The Last Watchman of Old Cairo. Jamel Brinkley, author of A Lucky Man. Shanthi Sekaran, author of Lucky Boy. Kara Levy, fiction writer. Patty Yumi Cottrell, author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace. Heather Scott Partington, NBCC emerging critic. Paul Goldberg, author of The Yid. Simeon Marsalis, author of A Lie is To Grin. Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone. Laura Turner, writer. Sarah Smarsh, journalist. Kyle Chayka, writer. A Year in Reading: Outro Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]

A Year in Reading: Mark O’Connell

Writing these Year in Reading round-ups has become a sort of annual audit of personal failures. Looking back over the ones I’ve done in the past, a theme of temporal exasperation has gradually risen to the surface. The older I get, the less time I have for reading (or, for that matter, anything else). This is exasperating partly because I happen to like reading, all things being equal -- I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t -- but mostly because reading is a non-negotiable aspect of my job as a writer, and of my life as a human being. My understanding is that if I don’t read enough, some vague but inexorable process of atrophy will begin to take hold. (I’m just figuring this out as I go along here, but is it possible that my anxiety about reading is in fact hopelessly bound up with my anxiety about death? I’ll take a wild leap here and suggest that it is, in much the same way as absolutely everything else is too.) But it’s not just a matter of reading, of course, it’s a matter of reading the right things; and this leads to a certain deep-seated restlessness when it comes to reading, an abiding suspicion that, no matter what book I’m reading, there’s always some other book I might be better off spending my increasingly limited time with. So when I look back over my year in reading, I find myself surveying a melancholy vista of half-finished books, of books bought but never started, of books read two thirds of the way through before being abandoned -- always, of course, with the earnest intention of returning -- for some other book, whose presence momentarily exerted a much more urgent pressure on my attention, only to then meet its own similar fate of abandonment. This grievous state of affairs is painful to contemplate for two reasons: It causes me to suspect myself of intellectual shallowness -- a symptom, I sometimes think, of an even graver lack of moral seriousness -- and it arises, paradoxically, out of an unshakable sense of the existential importance of reading as an activity. Which is to say that my reading habits, chaotic and undisciplined as they are, are guided by an abiding conviction that every book I read has the potential to change my life. (This doesn’t happen very often, nor I suppose would I want it to, but it’s the potential that matters, that keeps me reading -- and abandoning.) Hearteningly, it seems that I did manage to finish some books in 2016. Looking back through my year, and doing a quick cross-check of books purchased versus books read, I’m reminded that I read a large amount of Annie Dillard. I read her newly published retrospective greatest hits collection, The Abundance, and then went back and reread stuff I’d read by her before, like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life and For the Time Being. I also read, for the first time, Holy the Firm, a work of hallucinatory spiritual brilliance that I don’t claim to necessarily understand -- I think maybe only Dillard and the God she’s writing to, and about, fully understand that book -- but which I nonetheless found thrilling and disturbing and moving. Without even trying, she came closer than 14 years of religious schooling ever did to converting me to Christianity -- at least to her own wild, pantheistic, blasphemous, querulously questioning version of same. The writer she reminds me most of here, ironically, is Friedrich Nietzsche, in that she’s a performing a philosophy of fundamental things in the manner of a wild seer, in a prose of almost dangerous beauty. If ever a writer was capable of changing my life, it’s Dillard. “Every day is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time,” she writes. And in the moment of reading, I believe, and am changed. I went quite deep this year with Rachel Cusk. I read A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother and Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation -- two memoirs, published 11 years apart, that form a kind of diptych on the subject of parenthood and divorce, and are filled with painful, uncompromising wisdom on both. I also read her two recent novels Outline and Transit (the latter of which will be published in the U.S. early next year), both of which take a strange and radical approach to what tends to get called “autofiction.” She's inverting the equation of the autobiographical novel, in a way -- both these novels are composed of a series of encounters with strangers and friends and acquaintances, whose lives she writes about, and thereby somehow creates a kind of vicarious (outline) portrait of herself, or her fictional persona. The whole project is intriguing, and quietly radical, and Cusk is one of the most consistently fascinating of contemporary writers. Speaking of autobiographical writing, 2016 was also the year I discovered Vivian Gornick. I read her recent book The Odd Woman and the City, a beautiful meditation on being single -- and, crucially, female -- late in life, and being a writer, and living in Manhattan; and I read her 1987 memoir Fierce Attachments, about growing up on the same seldom-written about island, and walking around it in middle age with her elderly mother. I followed that up with The Situation and the Story, a book of very personal writing about personal writing. Just to give the bare facts of my particular story here, my situation is as follows: I’m now a committed Gornickian, and my life is once more, in at least this small respect, changed. I got really into Lewis Mumford over the last year or so -- a writer I’d never really encountered until I picked up his book Technics and Civilization. Published in 1934, it’s a historical study of the force technology has exerted, since the middle ages, over the development of human life, and an extraordinarily prescient polemic about the threats of ecological catastrophe and mechanized, automated warfare. It’s a fascinating, illuminating book, and Mumford is especially brilliant on how the logic of power proceeds from, as well as moves toward, the mechanization of human life. The era of techno-capitalism, in Mumford’s view, began long before the first modern machines were invented, because the first machines were human bodies. "Before inventors created engines to take the place of men," he writes, the leaders of men had drilled and regimented multitudes of human beings: they had discovered how to reduce men to machines. The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the Roman galley, each man chained to his seat and unable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx -- these were all machine phenomena. Whatever limits the actions of human beings to their bare mechanical elements belongs to the physiology, if not the mechanics, of the machine age. An amazing book, both very much of its time, and also completely ahead of it. The most fascinating character I encountered in any book this year was a person named John Lennon, the protagonist of Kevin Barry’s strange and beautiful novel Beatlebone. Although this person is one of the most exhaustively written about figures of the 20th century, Barry remakes Lennon not so much from the ground up as from the inside out. Beatlebone’s Lennon is a haunted and bewildered person, not far shy of 40 -- or of his nearing assassination, which hovers around the book like a malediction -- who sets out for his own private island off the west coast of Ireland, in order to take stock of his life and his current creative impasse. It is a sad and funny and captivating book, filled with melancholy wisdom, delivered in Barry’s elegant and profanely poetic prose. As Lennon’s hard-bastard existentialist chauffeur puts it to him: “We have no hope. We haven’t a prayer against any of it. So throw back the shoulders...Keep the eyes straight and sober-looking in the sockets of your head. Look out at the world hard and face the fucker down.” One unexpected consequence of reading the novel was that it caused me to listen -- really for the first time in any kind of serious way -- to the music of The Beatles. It turns out they’re actually quite good! So now I’m a Beatles fan, a thing it hadn’t previously occurred to me I might become. And here I am: life changed, yet again. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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