A few years ago, I read Dave Cullen’s gripping and horrifying masterpiece Columbine over the course of a few weeks, which is a lifetime for a quick reader like me. With Columbine, which is deeply researched and devastatingly detailed, Cullen seemed to have written the book on school shootings. Yet he’s continued to report on mass shootings for the nearly two decades since—sometimes to the detriment of his own mental health.
On Valentine’s Day 2018, Parkland became (in a lot of ways) Columbine’s other half. The two tragedies broke through the media cacophony for different reasons. Where Columbine was shock and confusion, Parkland was understanding and action. The aftermath of Parkland was unlike any other mass shooting this country has ever seen. Just a few hours after the most devastating moment of their lives, the Parkland kids gave the nation their voice, tears, and a call to action. Thankfully Cullen was there, with his keen eye and sharp writing, to lend them another megaphone.
Cullen’s newest book, Parkland: Birth of a Movement, is out this month—just two days before the one-year anniversary of the shooting. Reported, written, and edited in less than a year, Parkland is a very different book than Columbine—and rightfully so.
Last weekend, Cullen and I spoke for a few hours over the phone about the Parkland teens, how Columbine ushered in the “horrible school shooter era,” the shifting cultural and political climate, and his next project (a book about gay soldiers that he’s been working on and off for nearly two decades). Our interview has been condensed, with far too much wonderful material left on the cutting room floor.
1. Comparisons to Columbine
The Millions: Obviously people are going to compare this book to your previous book Columbine, which I always say is a masterclass on school shooting reporting. But Parkland is very different in terms of subject and scope. What made you want to write this kind of book versus a Columbine-esque book?
Dave Cullen: I never wanted to do a Columbine book again…I had already done that. It’s kind of a selfish and unselfish part. The selfish part is that I couldn’t handle that.
I never thought I would do this again…[Parkland] feels like a possible way out…But my hunch, my best guess and hope, is that these will be the bookends—neither the first nor the last—Columbine was the one that really ratcheted up and set the rest of this in motion, and [Parkland is] the beginning of the end and the way out.
So with Columbine, since it’s the one that set it in motion and took the survivors by shock, that seemed like the appropriate story to tell: both why this happened and what’s going on with these killers, and what it did to a community and how they overcame it. That seemed like a relevant story to me, both of those two different stories. And this time: If this is the way out or a way out…then I want to do their story of the way out, the exit strategy. This is a different time, different situation, different need, and if this is the way out: Why would I do another book on the causes?
There have been hundreds of mass shootings since Columbine…and we don’t need another book…What’s unique about Parkland is it’s these kids who did something and took America by storm and led this uprising. America was so ready and desperate for something—we didn’t expect it to be these kids—but we were desperate for a way out, and they arose and let us out. And that’s amazing and that’s what grabbed me, and I think America. That’s the story I wanted to tell.
2. The Parkland Difference
TM: I think some of the [Columbine] expectations speak to what you’re outlining in the book: Parkland deserved a different kind of book. They created a different kind of narrative.
DC: Exactly, and these kids flipped the script. I say in there too: We have this ongoing problem. There are three big problems and potential ways out of this disaster. People say mental health but I would put it much more narrowly as teen depression. Treating and identifying teen depression early before it becomes a problem. Two is guns obviously. Three is the media giving the stage to the people who want to create this spectacle.
So they picked one, or we’d fritter our message or fragment it. Nobody has had success on any of these and if we try to do all of them, we’re going to be one more failed group. They decided very, very quickly on guns…They may have solved the media one, too, inadvertently.
Timing is everything and these kids—it was such a perfect storm of things—but the luck of their timing was perfect in a couple different ways. First, the country was so angry partly because of the Trump situation and really ready for something. There’s something called the “Resistance” but that didn’t have an agenda or a positive purpose…The country was waiting for someone to lead us on something.
3. The Changing Tides
DC: Being the mass murder guy, unfortunately I have a keen awareness of a lot of these things by doing the shows and answering these questions and getting emails.
I would say about the first 17 years after Columbine, and there was no exact moment, but the first question of every interview was always “Why they did it?” “Why did they do it?” was the burning question. I don’t get that as a primary question anymore starting two to three years ago. …The media was actually starting to pay less attention and the phenomena of “no notoriety” was catching on and showing them less and using the name less.
We were losing interest and still doing it because we didn’t have anything to take its place. And then suddenly the kids came in at just the right moment and so okay here’s something to take its place and they did.
I’ve been asking other people who have been interviewing me and so far no one can even name the killer…We really won that battle without intending to. He’s invisible.
TM: I don’t think I’ve read anything about him since that initial week or even seen a photo of him.
DC: I know, right? I did see photos of him early on but it didn’t stick. He’s just a nobody. I think they really solved that problem. David Hogg, I believe, became the first person who became more interesting than the person who attacked him—more interesting and more famous and he did that within 24 hours. And two days later, Emma González was much more famous than David.
The media doesn’t have to go back to its old ways. We have a better story. The kids created a better story for us. They slammed the door, not all the way shut, but slammed it. Some other perpetrators will force their way through it but I think it’s closing. I think we’re on our way out.
TM: Let’s hope so. So what’s next for you? I assume you’re back to the gay soldiers book.
I am and I can’t wait to get back to that…I am really excited. This is such a different kind of story. It’s the kind of stuff I like doing. It’s like really in-depth character work. I didn’t know how to say this without sounding pompous or full of myself but I don’t know of any journalistic enterprise where someone spent 20 years with their subject.
I want [the book] to be two things: America’s role in the Middle East—misadventures, I would say—for almost 30 years, and the gay rights struggle. …The main story I’m focusing on is gays in the military and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. What I try to do…is telling the larger story through the small. There’s the bigger picture going on with this vast change in American attitudes toward gays and gradual acceptance. …I’m trying to tell two uber stories through…two specific guys.
Tom McAllister’s third book, How to Be Safe, begins with Anna Crawford being accused of a school shooting she did not commit. The news reports, “Former Teacher Had Motive.” Law enforcement interrogates her. When they realize she is innocent, she is left to process the anger and grief that comes from having worked at a school where one student chose to kill 19 people and wound 45 more and from living in a country that can’t seem to do anything about it.
McAllister’s debut novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook, about a man who takes a cross-country road trip after his wife passes away unexpectedly, came out in 2017. Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister’s memoir about his father’s death and his Philadelphia football fandom, came out in 2010. Alongside writing, he is an associate professor at Temple University, an editor for the literary magazine Barrelhouse, and a co-host of the literary podcast Book Fight. (Read his recent essay for The Millions on how to survive the publishing process.)
We spoke by phone about the process of writing How to Be Safe, how he felt about its reception, his work as an editor and a podcaster, and more.
Tom McAllister: I started on the original notes started after I was reading in horror the news about the Sandy Hook shooting. I always tell my students they should be writing about their obsessions and the things that are preoccupying them. And sometimes I don’t take my own advice, and in this case I said, “Oh yeah, you need to do this. This is a thing you’re constantly talking about and reading about and thinking as someone who’s teaching at a college.” I didn’t actually start working on the book meaningfully until about a year later once I finally solved some narrative problems and geared myself up to do it.
TM: What were you working on over that year? What was the research process like?
McAllister: There are some fiction writers who are really great researchers and conduct database and library research, and they do really thorough stuff, and a lot of my research is very Wikipedia level. I read a few books—like I read Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is a really incredible book. I read One of Us by Åsne Seierstad about the mass murder in Norway by Anders Breivik.
But then a lot of it was not so much research as it was trying to figure out what I wanted the book to be. I had the really vague idea of writing about a school shooting, which is not a plot or characters or anything. It’s nothing, right? It’s just a premise. And so a lot of that time was actually trying to figure out who my point-of-view character was going to be. Originally I thought the plot would be a thriller sort of thing, where we build up to the shooting at the school and we’re in the head of the shooter most of the time. And instead I ended up going the exact opposite way, where the shooting happens basically off the page in the prologue and then we follow the aftermath.
TM: How did that big shift in focus for the book happen? The prologue is from the shooter’s perspective and then the shooting happens and we move on from that.
McAllister: The prologue, in a slightly different form, was originally just written as a short story that got published in the online journal Sundog Lit. And those were the first words that I produced related to this project. I liked the tone of it a lot. But then I didn’t think I could sustain interest, my own personal interest in the shooter’s story over the length of a book. And then I tried to write from the perspective of lots of different people in this town. Teachers and some neighbors and so on. And I had started character sketches basically of who these people are and trying to map out their relationships. And I got really bored by a lot of them, too. And it wasn’t until I started writing Anna, the current point-of-view character, that I was actually excited to get back to work on it.
TM: What do you think it was about Anna’s character that made her more appealing to you as a writer?
McAllister: I think there are probably two things. One is the voice. The thing that draws me in, more than any other characteristic of a book that I’m reading, is a compelling voice. This is one where I had fun writing it. Anna is pretty dark and cynical, but I thought that other people might have fun reading it. I really enjoy getting into the head of a character that is kind of a mess and being stuck in their worldview. I also like the idea of having someone who is a little bit separated from the shooter, so that she can be defined by characteristics besides the fact that she’s related to the shooter.
I thought about writing from the shooter’s mom and staying in her head. I feel like there’s a bunch of different waves of trauma. There’s obviously the victims and the victims’ families. There’s the family of the person who commits the crime, which is…They have to deal with a lot. But then there’s all these other people who have to deal with not only the fear but also a survivor’s guilt thing, where they know that it’s completely random chance that they weren’t killed. And so like the idea of having someone who was maybe two degrees away from this kid who knew him and had interacted with him but really had nothing to do with him except that they happened to be in the same town.
TM: Would you consider this to be a political novel?
McAllister: On one hand, I get that it is a political novel because it touches on some really charged hot-button political topics. On the other hand, I was really hoping when I was working on it to avoid writing something that would turn out to seem like propaganda. I was trying to avoid it just being an anti-gun pamphlet and trying to keep it compelling as a story. But I think however one may define it, it probably has to be categorized broadly as a political novel because it’s really engaging in some pretty massive social issues.
TM: I’m interested in how you came to address those social issues in the book. How did you build out the book’s political world from the original anti-gun idea? Did it come from Anna’s character?
McAllister: That was the key to me unlocking this and making this actually a book. I was worried it was going to be too one-dimensional. And the more I wrote about Anna and the more I thought about who she was, I saw her as sharing some characteristics with a lot of women I know. She’s in her late 30s and she spent a lot of her life trying to politely follow the rules and not make waves. And she’s reached her breaking point, and she’s sick of apologizing and sick of being nice and sick of protecting the feelings of the men around her.
Part of the influence was just my wife and my peers and my friends. We’re all getting older, and a lot of the women I know are reaching that point where they’re like, “OK, I’m 40 years old and I’m tired of doing this.” It’s also definitely influenced by social media and being exposed to not just women writers but also accomplished women who have used that platform to express these ideas. I feel like I’ve read a lot of books by women and about those kinds of issues with sexism. But to see women expressing those points of view and discussing their experiences on a day-to-day basis was really influential.
TM: The way that the politicians in the book try to answer the question of how to keep their constituents safe was fascinating and also depressing. Someone proposes that teachers should be armed and that there should also be a cavalry of trained armed kids. My first thought was, “That’s crazy,” but it’s also not all that far off from stuff that’s actually been proposed. When you were writing that, did you think the ideas were dystopic, or were you trying to write something nearer to reality? Or both?
McAllister: It’s kind of a mixture. There are drones and the sentry robots set out on the road. That was me trying to be ridiculous. And then some of the other ones are almost word-for-word on some of the stuff people have said in the standard playbook after the shootings. After the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember people were saying, “Well, if the teachers had been armed…” I feel like sometimes taking the exact things that we say in one context and just putting them in a new context shows you how absurd they are. There’s a bit early on where something is said about how we should make the children bulletproof. And I thought, you know, this is pretty absurd. And nobody’s proposed that exactly yet, but it didn’t take long for them to start selling Kevlar backpacks and trying to market bulletproof vests to children. And it seems crazy to me that we just have to accept that the bullets will be there and need to find some way to help children dodge them better.
TM: Another significant piece of the world in How to Be Safe is that the sun over the town has disappeared. It’s an odd element of the story because at first it seems metaphorical, but then they start putting in lights and it becomes very literal. What were you trying to accomplish with that?
McAllister: I’m shocked that has come up so little. It’s in the first line of the book after the prologue. I liked the sound of that first line and then I said, “Well, let’s experiment and see what happens.” The more I worked on it, the more I liked the idea of presenting it in a way where the reader isn’t really sure whether to take it literally or not.
Over the past several years, I have come to really enjoy reading poetry, fiction, whatever, that has these kinds of magical elements that it doesn’t bother to explain. The first example I think of is Etgar Keret, who has a lot of these great stories. There’s a story called “Bottle” where a magician goes into a bar and says, “I bet I can put you inside this bottle.” And then he does. And then a guy spends most of the story living inside a bottle, and it’s never explained. So I thought, “Let’s see if I can pull that off myself.”
TM: So the last book-related question I have is also just a general background question. What’s your relationship with guns? Did you grow up with them or have you never interacted with them or somewhere in between?
McAllister: So my wife has three conditions that she says would result in immediate divorce. One is if I start smoking. Two is if I were to buy a snake. And three is if I were to buy a gun. I think she’s not 100 percent serious about that, but she might be. I knew some people who were police officers, so we had family members and friends who had guns. I had some acquaintances who would go hunting with their dads on the opening day of deer season and that kind of thing.
TM: On top of editing at Barrelhouse, writing, and teaching, you also host a podcast called Book Fight with another Barrelhouse editor, Mike Ingram. When you have guests on the show, you always ask them three questions at the end of your “lightning round.” If you’re all right with me stealing your intellectual property, I’m going to ask you those questions.
McAllister: Oh, man. You’ve really turned the tables on me.
TM: First: who is one author, living or dead, that you would like to fight?
McAllister: I don’t want to be like everyone else on the show and just say Jonathan Franzen, who actually doesn’t make me that mad. You know, I would fight Joseph Conrad. Because I realize I’m supposed to like his books, but I’m so mad about all the time I spent reading them in high school and not liking them. And he writes too much about boats. I don’t think boats are interesting. That’s my piece.
TM: That’s as good a piece as any. What is the book or who is the author you have most often pretended to have read?
McAllister: That’s probably still Moby Dick. I’ve got a thing where I’m really interested in whales, and I’ve read all these other books on whales and people just assume—and I let them continue to assume—that I’m very familiar with Moby Dick.
TM: And even though this is not a lightning round like it is called on your show, the last question is: Please share some thoughts about lightning.
McAllister: Just the other day, my wife and I were babysitting my 5-year-old niece and her younger brother, and we were talking about lightning. She was talking about how terrifying it is because lightning can destroy your house. And on one hand, we wanted to reassure her. But on the other hand, she’s not wrong. Of course, we did. We said, “No, no, it’s fine. Has it ever destroyed your house before?” I mean, we just put out some 5-year-old logic. We used to have a giant tree in front of our house. Every time there was a thunderstorm, I was sure it was going to collapse on the house. It was torn down and now we have a 5-foot tree that I am desperately trying to keep alive. Anyway: lightning. Scary.
For years I have been unsuccessfully recommending true crime books to friends. The second you tell someone you’ve just read a mind-blowing book about Jeffrey Dahmer that they simply must read, they start to back away from you. The first rule of reading true crime, evidently, is that you don’t talk about reading true crime.
And yet I’m clearly not the only one reading (or watching) it. Books by Ann Rule and Harold Schechter are perennial bestsellers; the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer have led to a resurgence in true crime popularity, with more people reading it than ever before.
The question is, why?
Does true crime permit people to “ventilate their sadistic impulses…in a socially acceptable way”? Or does it serve as a “kind of guidebook for women, offering useful tips for staying safe”? Or do these stories prompt us to “take a long, hard look at the contexts in which such atrocities arise” and “how we as a society deal with them”?
None of those reasons resonate with me, although that last one comes closer than many. So why do I read (and in some cases, re-read) these narratives that describe such horrifying things, things that scare me and break my heart? Why can’t I look away?
Some of the first true crime books I read were the ones everyone reads: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the narrative of the 1959 murders of a Kansas farm family, is respectable enough to be on many high school reading lists. Likewise, Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, about the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and several others, perpetrated by Charles Manson and members of his “family,” has sold many millions of copies. More recent classics like David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, also don’t require digging to find. Simon’s journalistic account of a Baltimore homicide department and the cases they worked became the basis for the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street (and arguably paved the way for The Wire); Kolker’s investigation into the lives of the women killed by the (as yet uncaught) Long Island Serial Killer was named on many “best of” book lists of 2013.
But I have also read a lot of true crime that doesn’t make the bestseller lists. There was Stacy Horn’s surprisingly gentle The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad, about murder cases solved (or not) years after they were given up as unsolvable. Although largely a police procedural, Horn’s book is also notable for the details given about the victims: teen Christine Diefenbach was on her way to buy milk and a magazine; drug dealers Linda Leon and Esteban Martinez were killed while their three young children listened in the next room. There was also Jeanine Cummins’s A Rip in Heaven: A Memoir of Murder and Its Aftermath, an excruciating blend of family memoir and crime. When Cummins’s two cousins and her brother went to see an abandoned area bridge that doubled as a teen hangout spot, they were assaulted by a group of men who raped the women and finished by pushing all three of their victims into the Mississippi River to drown. Surviving and crawling to safety, Tom Cummins then underwent a second ordeal when the local police targeted him as the killer of his cousins. Although I don’t really read true crime to learn how to protect myself, I did take away at least one lesson from that book: Lawyer up.
A Rip in Heaven was the first true crime book that I tried to recommend to friends. I’m sure no one took me up on it, and I can’t blame them; re-reading the book now, my stomach is in knots for the victims because I know what’s coming. But I didn’t learn my lesson: when I read John Backderf’s graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer, about his high school acquaintanceship with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, I wanted everyone to read it. In that book I learned that Jeffrey Dahmer, on a high school field trip to Washington D.C., got himself and a couple of friends invited into vice-president Walter Mondale’s office. All of a sudden it was clearer how Dahmer, in subsequent years, proved to be adept at talking himself out of sticky situations with police officers. How do you not recommend the book from which you learn that? Overall Backderf painted a picture of such a struggling and disturbed young man that, in his preface, he had to tell his readers to “pity him [Dahmer], but don’t empathize with him.”
Empathizing with anyone in true crime narratives is tricky business. Of course you empathize with the victims, although you hope you are never among their ranks. What is even more horrifying is when you recognize something in the experiences of the killers. It has been years since I read Jean Hatzfeld’s oral history of the Rwandan genocide, Machete Season, in which he interviewed Hutus who had been charged with multiple murders of their Tutsi neighbors, and yet I will never forget the chill I got when I read this line: “Killing was less wearisome than farming.” I grew up on a farm, where we worked all the time, and then bad weather would come along and ruin all your work anyway. God help me…just a little bit…I got what the murderer was saying.
This autumn, for the first time, I read Dave Cullen’s multiple-award-winning narrative Columbine, about the 1999 school shootings in Littleton, Colo.. At the time I hadn’t paid much attention to the shootings—you live in a culture that loves guns, you’re going to have school shootings, I figured—but it gives me pause now to read about the events and the psyches of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the shooters, and to read about how involved both their sets of parents were in their lives. I say “involved,” although it is impossible to know, really, how close either boy was to his parents. If you read enough true crime you start to question even basic vocabulary. What does it mean to be involved? Or close? Or a psychopath?
Because I have little boys, the subjects of boys and depression and anger are now all subjects that are on my radar. As such, I followed up Columbine with Sue Klebold’s (mother of Dylan) memoir A Mother’s Reckoning. The day I picked it up from the library I had both my boys with me, and we headed back to the kids’ nonfiction section so they could browse, and I could stand nearby looking over books for myself. As I paged through the Klebold memoir, my concentration was interrupted by half-shouts from the kids’ computer area: “Shoot them!! Come on, kill ‘em kill ‘em kill ‘em, God, you’re a terrible shot, move over and let me do it.” About four tweeny little boys were playing what must have been some multi-player shoot-‘em-up game. What were the odds, I wondered, that I would be listening to these nice little suburban boys chant variations of the words “shoot” and “kill,” while I paged through a book written by the heartbroken mother of a murderer?
It struck me that day that there is no use pretending that violence is something that only happens to the Other, perpetrated by the Other. We are surrounded by it on all sides, even when we try to construct our safe enclaves. Violence is a great exploiter. All it requires is bad luck, a foolish miscalculation, human weakness, or some combination of those factors to make its presence felt. Although monstrous deeds are front and center in these true crime narratives, they are not really about monsters. These are stories about humans: we are messy, we are imperfect; sometimes it is easy to succumb to anger and hatred; sometimes we are the victims, at other times, the perpetrators.
But if there is no use hiding from violence, equally there is no denying the presence of its flip side: compassion. And there is also compassion in true crime narratives: in the doggedness of the cops and investigators who are employed by society to try and solve cases; in the dedication of the legal system workers who prepare for trials for weeks, months, years; not least in the fortitude of authors who research and write these stories to bring them out into the open. All of those people work to restore dignity to those whose dignity, along with their safety or their mental equilibrium or their lives, was taken away from them.
True crime is not easy to read. It is even harder to talk about, and it’s almost impossible to recommend to other readers (without sounding a bit like a prurient psychopath yourself). But if 2017 taught us only one thing, I would hope it is that before you can start to try and solve problems, you have to admit problems exist. We have to tell the stories, and we also have to listen.
That is why I read true crime.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ash Photoholic.
Now in its second glorious decade, the Year in Reading has become a Millions tradition, featuring contributions from a roster of emerging and marquee authors, staff writers, and friends of the site. It’s an effort that yields hundreds of books for to-be-read piles, as well as some of the best writing we run all year.
After 13 years of solo striving, this was the first year that site editor C. Max Magee finally called for reinforcements; we happily stepped into the breach (now that we’ve seen the amount of work that goes into this, we’re a little frightened of him). It has been a thrill to look for exciting voices, to send emails like carrier pigeons off into the universe and hope they’ll come back bearing book recommendations from Stephen King (maybe next year). If you follow the literary world, you’d think that everyone is reading Elena Ferrante 24/7. And while lots of people are (you’ll see), Year in Reading is also our annual chance to peek behind the curtain at people’s singular reading lives—who went down a comics wormhole, or read multiple Freddie Mercury biographies, or discovered August Wilson for the first time. And not only what they read, but how they felt about what they read–how the reading shaped the year.
There are a huge number of books represented in the series this year, many fantastic lists, and many extraordinary meditations on reading and life. We think you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed putting them together. As in prior years, the names of our 2015 contributors will be unveiled throughout the month as their entries are published. Bookmark this post, load up the main page, subscribe to our RSS feed, or follow us on Facebook or Twitter to make sure you don’t miss an entry.
– Your Year in Reading Editors, Lydia Kiesling & Janet Potter
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ottessa Moshfegh, author of Eileen.
Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life.
Angela Flournoy, author of The Turner House.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Nell Zink, author of Mislaid.
Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus.
Chris Kraus, author of Summer of Hate.
Katrina Dodson, translator of The Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector.
Joyce Carol Oates, author of The Accursed, among many other books.
Saeed Jones, author of Prelude to Bruise.
The Book Report, everyone’s favorite literary show.
Bijan Stephen, associate editor at the New Republic.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions, author of City on Fire.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions and creator of the Modern Library Revue.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions and author of Station Eleven.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media and previews editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen.
Greg Hrbek, author of Not on Fire, but Burning.
Terry McMillan, author of Waiting to Exhale.
Sasha Frere-Jones, writer and musician.
Matthew Salesses, author of The Hundred-Year Flood.
Meaghan O’Connell, author of And Now We Have Everything.
Cristina Henríquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart.
Vinson T. Cunningham, contributing writer for The New Yorker.
J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence.
Nadifa Mohamed, author of The Orchard of Lost Souls.
Manjula Martin, editor of SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.
Lauren Groff, author of Fates and Furies.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Olivia Laing, author of The Lonely City.
Rahawa Haile, author of short stories and essays.
Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty.
Justin Taylor, author of Flings.
Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.
Jaquira Díaz, editor of 15 Views of Miami .
Dave Cullen, author of Columbine.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Claire Cameron, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Bear.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of We Will Listen for You.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer.
Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper.
Lincoln Michel, author of Upright Beasts.
Rebecca Carroll, author of Saving the Race.
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God.
Patrick Rothfuss, author of The Name of the Wind.
Katie Coyle, author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World.
Sady Doyle, a writer in New York.
Patricia Engel, author of Vida.
Manuel Muñoz, author of What You See in the Dark.
Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders.
Hamilton Leithauser, a singer/songwriter in New York City.
Catie Disabato, author of The Ghost Network.
Parul Sehgal, senior editor at The New York Times Book Review.
Margaret Eby, author of South Toward Home.
Tahmima Anam, author of A Golden Age.
Sandra Cisneros, author of Have You Seen Marie?.
Brian Etling, intern for The Millions.
Nick Moran, special projects editor for The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Bruna Dantas Lobato, intern for The Millions.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City Burning.
Summer Brennan, author of The Oyster War.
Kerry Howley, author of Thrown.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, author of Lighting the Shadow.
Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Lauren Holmes, author of Barbara the Slut and Other People.
Kate Harding, author of Asking for It.
Year in Reading Outro.
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Let’s say there’s a father in your life. Maybe you’re married to him. Maybe you’re his child. Maybe he’s just a buddy of yours. Last year, on Father’s Day, you bought him a tie in his favorite colors. The year before that, it was a calfskin wallet, which you’ve noticed he still hasn’t used. This year, with Father’s Day just a week and a half away, you’re leaning toward buying him a bookstore gift card because he likes to read, but you don’t know what book to get him.
Resist this impulse. For a lot of busy dads, a store card is less a gift than a chore, one that can be skipped. (Don’t believe me? Take a peek in his sock drawer, upper right hand corner, just behind that unused calfskin wallet: Yep, a small stack of unused gift cards.) More importantly, a gift is a way of telling someone that you value them, that you know them a little better than they realized, and few things do this better than a well-chosen book.
Below are book suggestions for 11 different kinds of dads who read. These suggestions assume that the fathers you’re shopping for have read most of the more popular books about the topics that interest them and may be looking for something new. Most of the books on this list are in paperback and should cost less than $20.
1. Big Game Book Hunter Dad
A certain kind of man views his bookshelves the way a leopard sees bleached bones on the veldt — as evidence of past kills, the larger the better. Hence, the popularity of the Doorstop Novel, the 500-, 600-, 700-page social novel or family saga. Every year publishers lavish splashy advances on the latest epic that might appeal to that most elusive of literary beasts, the middle-aged male fiction reader. A few years ago, that book was Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. Last year it was Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which, not so coincidentally, has just been released in paperback in time for Father’s Day.
Both are solid novels, and brag-worthy kills for the Big Game Book Hunter in your life, but for sheer ambition neither can touch Phillipp Meyer’s cowboys-and-Indians epic, The Son. Meyer’s nearly 600-page Western contains three overlapping narratives, but the most gripping is that of family patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by a Comanche raiding party in 1849 and raised as the chief’s adopted son before returning to white society. A particularly fearless reader-hunter will want to pair Meyer’s tale of the settling of Texas with Canadian writer Joseph Boyden’s equally audacious novel The Orenda, a fictional retelling of the bloody clash between French missionaries and local Huron and Iroquois tribes in 17th-century Canada.
2. Literary Fiction Dad
He’s read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. He’s braved the languors of the Las Vegas chapters of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. He’s read Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides. Why not branch out, see a little more of the world? In recent years, American readers have been treated to a bumper crop of first-rate literary fiction by immigrants from around the globe. If the Literary Fiction Dad in your life is open to reading women, he may want to try Americanah by Nigerian-American writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, or The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, an American of Bengali heritage. Among male writers, Nam Le, a Vietnamese-born writer raised in Australia and educated in the U.S., wrote a gripping collection of stories, The Boat, in 2008, and Chinese-American author Ha Jin, has turned out a steady stream of novels and story collections, perhaps the best of which is War Trash, set in a POW camp during the Korean War.
But the Big Kahuna of American diaspora literature is Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has a legitimate claim to the title of best American novel of the new millennium. By turns hilarious, tender, and harrowing, Oscar Wao follows an overweight, Dominican-born sci-fi nerd in his search for love and the secret to survival in his cursed homeland. Diaz’s plot and characters are riveting, but the real pleasure of Oscar Wao is Diaz’s narrative voice, which combines slangy, high-velocity prose with penetrating insight into the political black hole that is the Dominican Republic.
3. Big Bad Noir Daddy
Here’s a pro tip: To find a smart, well-written crime novel by a guy for guys, search the roster of writers for David Simon’s cable series The Wire. George Pelecanos, who was a writer on all five seasons, has somehow also found time to crank out 20 crime novels in roughly as many years, most of them set in and around Washington D.C., and focusing, with bracing honesty, on the sorry state of race relations in our nation’s capital. The Cut, from 2011, is as good a place to start as any. Another of Simon’s writers, Dennis Lehane, based out of Boston, runs hot and cold, but his 1998 novel Gone, Baby, Gone is a nicely twisted bit of noir, and 2001’s Mystic River would qualify as a work of literary fiction if a child didn’t die in the early pages.
But the top thoroughbred in Simon’s stable, and arguably the finest American crime novelist at work today, is Richard Price. His books are structured as police procedurals and feature his famously razor-sharp dialogue, but Price is at heart an old-school social novelist in the mold of Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. His novels grab you by the ears and drag you into the hidden corners of modern America populated by immigrants, the poor, and those who prey on them. His latest, The Whites, written under the pen name Harry Brandt, offers a riveting look inside the minds of New York City police detectives who live their professional lives chest-deep in depravity and injustice. Price’s 1992 drug-dealer novel Clockers, later made into a Spike Lee joint, is another must-read.
4. Politically Incorrect Dad
He’s inappropriate. He can’t control his appetites. He sweats a lot. His sense of humor is, well, different. But underneath all the layers of gruff and odd, beats a well-meaning heart. Meet Milo Burke, unlikely hero of Sam Lipsyte’s 2010 novel The Ask.
Milo is a husband, a father of a young child, and a seething mass of misdirected grievance. “I’m not just any old hater,” he says early on. “I’m a hater’s hater.” In the opening pages, Milo loses his job wrangling donations for a third-tier university in New York City after he insults the talent-free daughter of one of the college’s wealthy donors, but is offered a chance at redemption if he can reel in a sizable gift from a rich college friend, who has, mysteriously, asked to work with Milo. Lipsyte specializes in the humor of white-male resentment, and when he misses he misses big, but The Ask is a tour de force of verbal pyrotechnics and shibboleth-skewering social insight.
5. World War II Buff Dad
Big fat books about honorable wars are to grown men with mortgages what Call of Duty video games are to 10-year-old boys: mind-travel devices granting sedentary, suburban beings vicarious access to a world of danger and heroism. As with video game franchises, the options for quality reads about the Second World War are quite nearly boundless. For a broad overview, there’s Max Hastings’s Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, but World War II was so huge and so complicated that it can be wise to take it in pieces, using, say, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers as a window onto the American war effort in Europe or Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken to gain a finer-grained understanding of the Pacific Theater.
A middle-ground approach that can satisfy the Big Game Hunter impulse while also offering a sharply observed portrait of the conflict that helped create the modern American military is Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy, which focuses on the American war effort in Europe. The three-volume set, An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and Guns at Last Light, span a collective 2,349 pages, making it a prime trophy for anyone’s shelves. But Atkinson shifts so effortlessly from the panoramic to the close-up, giving the reader a day-by-day, sometimes minute-by-minute, account of what it felt and sounded and smelled like to be an American soldier at battle with the Axis powers, that trophy-hunting readers will be compelled to eat what they kill.
6. Civil War Buff Dad
Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy is practically a novella compared to Shelby Foote’s three-volume The Civil War: A Narrative, which clocks in at a mammoth 2,968 pages. Everything in Civil War historiography is big. James McPherson’s single-volume history, Battle Cry of Freedom, consumes 952 pages. Ken Burns’s TV documentary The Civil War spans more than 10 hours of airtime. And that’s not even touching on the vast shelf of biographies of Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee or the rich scholarship on individual battles or lesser-known generals and leaders.
This is Big Game Hunter territory, and if the dad in your life is new to nerding out on Civil War minutiae, you may want to shell out for the first volume of Foote’s epic, Fort Sumter to Perryville, a comparatively slim 856 pages. But if you are looking for new perspectives on the era, check out T.J. Stiles’s Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War. As its subtitle suggests, Stiles’s biography frames the legendary bank robber not as a Robin Hood of the Wild West, but as a disaffected Confederate Army veteran bent on reviving the Lost Cause by any means necessary. Stiles writes well and is a scrupulous scholar, but he is also a gifted storyteller who reaches beyond cardboard outlaw stereotypes to bring the James boys to life on the page.
7. Business Maven Dad
If the dad in your life goes in for business books, you can’t go wrong with Michael Lewis. Like his fellow bestseller-list regular Malcolm Gladwell, Lewis is perhaps too faithful to the journalist’s dictum to never let the facts get in the way of a good story, but he is a superb shoe-leather reporter and over the years Lewis’s eye for the big-picture truth has been unerring. His best book is probably The Big Short, about the 2008 financial collapse, but his 2014 book, Flash Boys, about computer-directed high-frequency trading, is also excellent.
But anyone who reads business books will already have a shelf full of Michael Lewis. If you want a different take on American business, look for Beth Macy’s Factory Man, about John Bassett III, heir to a once-powerful North Carolina furniture-making company, who took on cheap imports from China and won. One longs for Lewis’s tale-spinning prowess in some of Macy’s background chapters that drag under the weight of her too-earnest reporting, but Bassett, the would-be furniture baron, is a colorful figure, and Macy’s core message, that a smart, driven factory owner willing to take some risks can beat offshore manufacturers at their own game, more than makes up for the book’s flabbier passages.
8. True Crime Dad
Perhaps no section of the bookstore is more heavily stocked with schlock than the one devoted to true crime. For every classic like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Dave Cullen’s meticulously reported Columbine, there are dozens of sensationalist gore-fests written by the likes of Ann Rule and R.J. Parker. Good true-crime writing should do more than pile up the bodies. It should use crime to shed light on an underside of a society, teaching us the unspoken rules of the world we live in by telling the stories of those who break those rules in the most aberrant ways.
Few recent books do this as well, or as hauntingly, as Robert Kolker’s Lost Girls, about the murders of five prostitutes buried in shallow graves along Long Island’s South Shore. Lost Girls is an unsettling read because the murders remain unsolved, but Kolker provides a fascinating look into the shadowy world of Internet escorts. Unlike prostitutes of an earlier era, modern sex workers can connect with their johns online, eliminating the need for pimps or brothels. This means the women can keep more of their earnings and are freed from what is often an abusive and controlling relationship, but as Lost Girls illustrates, this freedom costs them the physical protection of a pimp, making them especially vulnerable to violence.
9. Sports Nut Dad
As with true crime, the sports book genre breeds schlock. How many books on how to straighten out a golf shot can one man read? A good sports book, like a good true-crime book, should go beyond the details of its subject to make a larger point about society or about athletic excellence. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, about the subculture of high school football in Texas, does this. So does Andre Agassi’s surprisingly engrossing autobiography Open, about the trials of a man who succeeds at a sport he has come to hate.
To one degree or another, all sports books try to answer the question of what makes a great athlete tick, but in The Sports Gene, David Epstein takes this question literally, using science to explore mysteries like why Kenyans win so many marathons and what it takes to hit a major-league fastball. The book’s message that there is no one path to athletic success may trouble the sleep of those Little League dads dreaming of turning their eight-year-olds into future Hall of Famers, but Epstein’s intelligent use of sports science, and his willingness to embrace ambiguity, makes for absorbing reading.
10. Vinyl Collector Dad
The return of vinyl records has emboldened a generation of Boomer and Gen X dads to haul their high school LPs out of the garage and give them pride of place in the living room. But they need something to read while they’re listening to all those dinged-up copies of Kind of Blue and Exile on Main St. Launched in 2003 and now published by Bloomsbury, 33 1/3 is a series of more than 100 short books about classic albums, ranging from Tom Waits’s Swordfishtrombones (No. 53, by David Smay) to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (No. 73, by Joe Bonomo). Each book in the series is by a different author, mostly music critics and musicians, with the occasional novelist like Jonathan Lethem (No. 86, the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music) thrown into the mix.
Some books in the series put the focus on the music while others take a more biographical or social-historical approach. One of the titles, No. 28 by John Niven, on The Band’s Music from Big Pink, is written in the form of a novella, telling the true story of how Bob Dylan’s one-time backup band created its iconic 1968 album from the perspective of a fictional observer. Overall, the series skews heavily toward Music White People Like, though acts like Public Enemy (No. 71, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten) and J Dilla (No. 93, Donuts, by Jordan Ferguson) do occasionally appear.
11. Aspiring Writer Dad
If you want to take the how-to route with your Aspiring Writer Dad, your best bet is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. While Lamott’s reflexive (and, to these ears, highly calculated) hippy-dippy whimsy can grate, she is a gifted teacher and her chapter on writing shitty first drafts is justifiably legendary.
But giving an aspiring writer Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is like buying a pocket dictionary for a college-bound high school graduate: It’s a cliché, and he’s probably got six copies at home, anyway. If the aspiring writer in your life is, like most aspiring writers, already up to his ears in well-intended advice, switch gears and give him Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, a gossipy insider’s history of how the sausage gets made in New York publishing. In this dishy corporate biography of the publishing firm Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has published everyone from T.S. Eliot and Roberto Bolaño to 1950s diet guru Gayelord Hauser, Kachka serves up enough sex and intrigue to keep the lay reader turning pages, but the book is fundamentally the story of how one headstrong publisher and a handful of talented editors struggled to maintain an independent publishing vision in a rapidly consolidating industry.
Image Credit: The Athenaeum.
I read so many great books this year, from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which hijacked my life for two weeks with its absorbing story of an orphan, his grief, and that stolen painting, to Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (reviewed here), which I still sigh over lovingly each time I pass it on the bookshelf.
However, two books stood above the rest in 2013, one a novel and the other a work of nonfiction…
It doesn’t matter that I attended public school (L.A. Unified in the house!) whereas Matthew Specktor went to one of the best private schools in Southern California. Or that his dad is a legendary Hollywood agent, while mine works below the line as a location manager. Or that he was a boy in L.A., probably burning bugs with a microscope, or whatever boys do, and I was a girl, filming fashion shows with my sisters in the living room, getting my ears pierced on Melrose. None of these piddling distinctions mattered when I read Specktor’s brilliant and ambitious novel, American Dream Machine, which waxes poetic about the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset (R.I.P.!) and Damiano’s, the cave-like pizzeria on Fairfax, and which comes out swinging with descriptions like this one: “And eventually the whole hill flattened out into that ash-colored plane, that grand and gray infinity that is Los Angeles from above: God’s palm, checkered with twinkling lights and crossed with hot wind.” My city, its ash-colored plane! There it is! Specktor’s gorgeous book, about the flawed, chauvinist, talented film agent Beau Rosenwald, as tender as he is damaged, made me feel like my native city had been properly seen. It made me feel like a piece of fiction had finally and properly seen me. And if you’ve never even been to Los Angeles? No matter. Specktor’s prose alone is enough to lure you in: it’s sharply observed and nimble, like a more mischievous cousin of John Cheever, and his characters are wonderfully and deeply complicated, wounded and secretive. American Dream Machine is narrated by Beau’s illegitimate son, Nate, and the sprawling first person omniscience (first person omniscience!) is what I keep coming back to, months later, to puzzle over and admire. How did Specktor do it? He’s a magician, I tell you.
If I see you at a holiday party this December, I will corner you at the punch bowl and talk your ear off about Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon, which resonated with me not only as a mother and as a daughter, but as a human being on this big messy planet of human beings. It’s page-turning nonfiction in the tradition of Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and Columbine by Dave Cullen, a genre I love but don’t read enough of. Solomon spent years researching this book, and he interviewed many, many parents with children who are different from them; the book includes chapters about the deaf, the autistic, the schizophrenic, geniuses, and so on. Solomon depicts these communities with respect and compassion, and he consistently raises meaningful questions about tolerance and empathy. Solomon’s book pushed me to investigate my own notions of normalcy, and I came away grateful to my own parents, for letting me become who I needed to become. This book is a masterpiece! And, hey, here, let me ladle you some punch, that’s a nice sweater, etc.
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I can no longer remember the precise distinction between the uncertainty principle and the observer principle, but one way or another, I’ve started to detect a feedback loop involving the Year in Reading series and the reading life it purports to document. When I dashed off my first entry, in 2005 (can that be right?), it was purely in the spirit of a report. But by 2012, even in January, February, and March, I found myself picking up a given book and asking: Is this a contender for the series? Is there any chance this is going to be the best thing I read this year? And if not, back onto the shelves it went.
As a consequence, of the 50-odd books I finished this year, at least half ended up being terrific. And the arbitrary cap I set for myself annually (Okay, I’m going to stick to writing about eight books. Fine, a dozen. Fifteen.) has proven harder than ever to enforce. I haven’t bothered to count the number of titles below, because, frankly, I just don’t want to know how far over my own limit I am. Let me just say, by way of apology, that this was a really, really good year in reading.
Probably my favorite thing I read was part one of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle — which bodes well, because five more volumes are on their way into English. Knausgaard’s been described as a Nordic Proust, and that more or less captures the book’s scope and its candid thefts from the author’s own life. It’s not a perfect comparison, of course; the suburban Norway where Knausgaard came of age in the ’80s can’t touch the Faubourg St.-Germain for social complexity, nor is Knausgaard’s prose — even in Don Bartlett’s lucid translation — as refined as Proust’s. But both authors, in vivisecting their own consciousness, alter the reader’s. A key word in My Struggle is “presence,” and after reading a few pages of Knausgaard’s descriptions of snow and soap, corpses and copses, you look up and find your own world pressing its presence urgently upon you, a messenger with an envelope you’ll never quite manage to unseal.
But then, it’s hard to give the laurels to Knausgaard, because this was also the year I read László Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance and Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart. I’d started the former several times over the years, only to put it down again. (I blame the absence of paragraph breaks.) But I finished it this summer over four long nights, preparing to interview the author, and found it to be one of the great novels of the last quarter-century — like a MittelEuropean Moby-Dick. Near to the Wild Heart, meanwhile, is a Portuguese Mrs. Dalloway, as written by Peter Handke. I’m still not exactly sure what all happens to Lispector’s semi-feral heroine, but the writing is just exquisite. It kills me that Lispector was in her early 20s when she wrote this…and that it took me so long to discover her. She’s one of those writers who changes dramatically from book to book, but I look forward to reading everything of hers I can get my hands on. If you want to give her a try, start with this Modernist masterpiece.
Speaking of Modernist masterpieces…the Microscripts of Robert Walser are now out in paperback. I’m crazy about Walser’s early novel Jakob von Gunten, but have struggled with his short stories (many of which would today be called “short shorts”). All those quicksilver shifts of tone and intellect, compressed into the small space of a paragraph or two; all those discrete paragraphs, jam-packed together in a 4 x 8 inch book like roommates in a railroad apartment. The gorgeous new edition of the Microscripts, by contrast, surrounds each text with white space, and pairs it with a facsimile of its original, which somehow gives Walser’s sentences room to breathe…and to beguile. I was similarly entranced by Andrey Bely’s 1916 opus Petersburg back in the winter. I always read something Russian when it’s snowing, and I picked this up thinking to polish it off in a couple of weeks. Instead, it took me a couple of months. Bely’s symbolist prose, in many respects, is probably untranslatable, and his atmospherics are so relentless that the plot keeps disappearing behind them. But somehow, that comes to seem like the book’s whole point: to distill and bottle the phantasmagoric atmosphere of its titular city.
Another classic I loved this year was William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Critics tend to treat this one as a disreputable entry in the Yoknapatawpha oeuvre…a liquored-up uncle trying to crash a party already full of liquored-up uncles. But one of the book’s supreme pleasures is seeing Faulkner turn his mature method (and he never wrote better than he did in 1929, ’30, ’31) to the kind of luridly pulpy material that would later surround him in Hollywood. Temple Drake, the kidnapped and forcibly debauched coed at the heart of the novel, is no one’s idea of a feminist icon. But she’s a flesh-and-blood character, and when she quakes in terror, we do, too.
…And is it too early to start filing Roberto Bolaño under “classics?” The well of posthumous Bolaño fiction has finally, I gather, run dry, and I expected to resent late trickles like The Secret of Evil. Instead, I found myself totally delighted, as ever, by this writer’s sui generis sensibility. A 15-page synopsis of a zombie movie, or of a dream about a zombie movie? Yes, please — provided Bolaño’s doing the dreaming.
This was a good year for new fiction, too. I was really taken with Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, not least because it’s about damn time somebody wrote a novel about the Iraq War. Kevin Powers and David Abrams would soon join Fountain on the G.W.O.T. bookshelf. Unlike them, though, Fountain has never served in the armed forces and so it’s an act of ethical daring for him to imagine himself into the head of Specialist Billy Lynn, the book’s hero. Equally ballsy, I think, is the book’s formal dare: with one exception, it’s written in a relentlessly forward-moving present tense. I usually find this sort of thing to be a cop-out, as if the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a form other than Transcribed Screenplay, but Fountain treats realtime as a challenge, rather than an excuse. And he pulls it off. In short, he’s one of our best and bravest writers.
So is Zadie Smith. Critics seemed to chafe at the avant-garde ambitions of her new novel, NW. But I’m not sure those ambitions would have registered as such, had her essay, “Two Paths for the Novel,” much ballyhooed in 2008, not seemed to presage an avant-garde turn. It’s equally easy to make the case for NW as a novel of psychological realism. Its formal experimentation is light, easy to follow, and really pretty old-school (see: Mallarmé, Joyce). More unsettling, and more sneakily experimental, is the book’s approach to character. Smith’s protagonists, Leah, Natalie, and Felix, are incomplete, metamorphic, works in progress (as is their author). And it freaks them out. The book’s temperament, then, is anxious, pained, repressed – an obverse to the ebullience of White Teeth. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a step forward.
I also got around to some older contemporary lit this year. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead had been on my list since our Best of the Millennium project, and I now understand why so many people voted for it. The explicitly religious subject matter — the novel comprises the letters of an elderly priest — may put some readers off, but Robinson’s eloquent embrace of faith doesn’t banish doubt and mystery; it foregrounds them. Or as her narrator puts it:
I have wandered to the limits of my understanding any number of times, out into that desolation, that Horeb, that Kansas, and I’ve scared myself, too, a good many times, leaving all landmarks behind me, or so it seemed. And it has been among the true pleasures of my life.
Salvation is nowhere to be found in Slow Fade, Rudolph Wurlitzer’s early-80s novel of the movie business. Neither, come to think of it, is pleasure…unless it’s the pleasure of Wurlitzer’s bone-clean prose. But Slow Fade struck me nonetheless as a great introduction to this neglected writer. And speaking of neglected: what ever happened to Mark Costello? Okay, fine, there are at least two Mark Costellos; I mean the one who was David Foster Wallace’s college roommate. His secret service sendup, Big If, was nominated for a National Book Award in 2002, and though it isn’t exactly a complete novel — it’s missing an ending, and rarely even descends into scene– Costello’s one of the funniest and brightest turners of phrase this side of…well, this side of Wallace. His long riff on the novel’s eponymous video game is like an existentialist parable rewritten by George Saunders, and is on its own worth the price of admission. I want a new Costello novel, and I want it now.
But real art takes as long as it takes, and half the time we’re not ready to recognize it when it comes. That’s one of the lessons of the best work of nonfiction I read this year, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, a biography of the artist Robert Irwin. I’ve read a lot of Weschler, but this book, his first, may be his best. And whether your particular field of endeavor is painting or writing or delivering the mail, Irwin’s story will teach you to see it in a new way. On the journalism side, I was also vastly impressed by Dave Cullen’s Columbine, notwithstanding his misinformed blurb for the Anthony Shadid book (“If Marquez [sic] had explored nonfiction…” Um…). Here, the attraction’s not so much the writing but the reporting, the way Cullen extends journalistic objectivity to both victims and killers. The back half of the book feels like a long, vivid nightmare, but one returns to sanity with the same feeling Weschler and Irwin keep urging on us: the wonder that there is anything at all.
I’d also recommend Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel, about Henry James. Like Janet Malcolm’s little books on Chekhov and Gertrude Stein, it’s an approachable blend of biography, criticism, and travelogue. Its charms will be less considerable, and its insights less penetrating, to anyone who hasn’t read Portrait of a Lady, to which Gorra’s book is keyed. But for readers looking to spend more time with the Master, or just to see what the fuss is about, Gorra’s book is the equivalent of a good undergraduate seminar. And you know who else is a good critic? Jonathan Lethem. While his novels get much of the attention, Lethem’s been steadily carving out a niche for himself as a polymorphous culture freak. His 2011 collection The Ecstasy of Influence doesn’t spare us his squibs and blog posts (and commentary on those squibs and blog posts), and for that reason I was prepared to hate it. Weirdly, though, it works, adding up to a warts-and-all portrait of the artist. And if you like your essays more polished, check out the long James Brown profile two-thirds of the way through.
Finally, a confession: I did something crazy this year. I blew half of a freelancing check on the complete, seven-volume edition of William T. Vollmann’s 3,000 page essay on violence, Rising Up and Rising Down. (What can I say? It was either that or diapers for my children.) I remain deeply conflicted about my fascination with Vollmann. I know there’s an obvious case to be made that he’s not a good writer. I also think he might be a great one. To my surprise, given its length, RURD is one of his more carefully crafted books. In its learned monomania, it reminds me of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. To a contemporary audience, its style of argumentation may feel bizarre; I keep thinking of an archaeologist sitting at a table, sweeping a pile of sand from one hand to the other, waiting for artifacts to emerge in the middle. But when Vollmann arrives, after many divagations, at a point, you don’t feel like you understand; you feel like you’ve lived it. (For this reason, I cannot imagine the 700-page abridged version making any sense at all.) And if Violence seems like too broad a subject, consider this: it’s a head-fake. The essay’s really about Everything.
Or so it seems to me at present; I’m only two volumes in. RURD is destined, probably, to join The Book of Disquiet and The Arcades Project and The Making of Americans as one of those books I read and read and never finish. But I’m grateful to the weird pressure of A Year in Reading for giving me the impetus to start.
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As an editor I’ll always champion publishing in hardcover, but I confess as a reader I prefer to crack open a paperback. So in 2010 I caught up with two extraordinary works of nonfiction that were hits last year: Nick Reding’s Methland and Dave Cullen’s Columbine. These are books that feel like the best documentaries: intimate, raw, alive. Plus, their authors achieve that ineffable combination of reporter and writer with ease and grace.
I also spent much of 2010 reading Primo Levi. There are three full biographies, but I liked Ian Thomson’s Primo Levi: A Life best: a book as full of life as its subject. I continue to find that The Periodic Table bears re-reading as often as possible, for a reminder of Levi’s curiosity and and his humor. I was also struck reading Levi’s The Monkey’s Wrench for the first time: a wonderfully strange book, a novel I suppose, narrated largely through the stories of a ribald Piedmontese construction worker who is somehow both wise and clueless. Finally, I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books aloud to our little boy, and I can’t say enough about the deep (and often near wordless) pleasures of Donald Crews’ books, especially Freight Train and Parade, and Tim Egan’s sublime Dodsworth series, featuring a deadpan duck and the best straight-man in literature, Dodsworth.
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