Time again for another installment of one of our newer features, The Millions Top Ten. Check out the original introduction for an explanation of how it works. The new list:ThisMonthLastMonth TitleOn List1.1.Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences2 months2.2.26663 months3.-The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in The New Yorker1 month4.-Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste1 month5.4.Olive Kitteridge2 months6.3.The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao3 months7. (tie)-Knockemstiff1 month7. (tie)7.The Dud Avocado3 months9.8. (tie)A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again3 months10.5.Infinte Jest3 monthsWe have three debuts on our list this month.The Rejection Collection is a book edited by New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee that, as its title suggests, collects cartoons that didn’t quite make it into the New Yorker. And it’s not that these cartoons weren’t good enough to get in, it’s that they were just a little “off,” too weird or even off-color to grace the magazine’s hallowed pages. We wrote about the book when it came out in 2006, and we also wrote about its sequel, The Rejection Collection Vol. 2: The Cream of the Crap when it appeared in 2007.Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste is another quirky addition to the top 10. It’s a part of the 33 1/3 series of books about songs. Carl Wilson’s entry, about a Celine Dion song, was singled out by Dan Kois in his Year in Reading post in December. Reading the book, Kois said, “was to be both inspired and filled with despair.”Finally, we also add Donald Ray Pollack’s collection Knockemstiff, newly out in paperback. Knockemstiff was another Year in Reading selection. Kyle Minor described the book as “Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read.” And he compared it to Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son.Meanwhile, sentence diagramming tome Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog remains at the top thanks to the enduring quality of Garth’s recent post parsing President Obama’s sentences.Dropping from the list are Susan Sontag’s Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963, Paul Beatty’s The White Boy Shuffle, and J.K. Rowling’s work of Potter lore The Tales of Beedle the Bard.See Also: Last month’s list.
Kyle Minor is the author of In the Devil’s Territory, a collection of short stories. His recent work appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Surreal South, and Random House’s Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers anthology.Five books that knocked the top of my head off in 2008:1. Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock – Eighteen wild and wooly stories from southern Ohio, in which a lifetime’s experience is distilled to nine or twelve pages of the most thrilling sentences I’ve ever read. If you liked Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Barry Hannah’s Airships, or Mark Richard’s Charity, Knockemstiff is the book for you.2. The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard, by Erin McGraw – The elegance here is Flaubertian, the prose flawless, and the story (loosely based upon the true story of McGraw’s disappeared-then-reappeared grandmother) is every bit as thrilling as anything Stephen King will serve up this year.3. Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth – The best comic novel from the best comic novelist in America.4. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth – The best serious novel from the best serious novelist in America.5. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by Scott Berg – A biography of Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who held the hands of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, as they made their way together from obscurity toward literary permanence. I can’t imagine this book thrilled any reader in 1978, the year of its release, any more than it thrilled me thirty years later.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The intrusion of the university into the life of the writer “is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature,” Keith Gessen wrote in last year’s N+1 symposium on American literature. Though Gessen’s rhetoric may have been strategically hyperbolic, the facts bore him out. For better or for worse, the M.F.A. workshop has changed our conception of literary art from that of a calling to that of a profession – one with its own “skill sets,” human resources apparatus, and even (it seems at times) its own dress code.This isn’t entirely a bad thing (as both Gessen and I are in a position to know). Among other things, a graduate creative writing program provides a brief oasis of financial and social security in the hard country that is the writing life. (O, to return to the days when one could proclaim to an interlocutor, “I’m in grad school,” rather than mumbling, “I’m a writer…”) But the workshop is, as its best pedagogical theorists know, hostile to the new. At its worst, it is a machine for converting freshness into formula.Which helps to explain the durability, among students of writing, of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. For a decade and a half, this slim collection has passed from hand to hand among M.F.A. students like samizdat. Johnson’s stories are not reducible to formal principles. His plots are odd and ungainly. His sentences and dialogue, flirting with the poetic, violate the canons of understatement. Like the sentences of D.H. Lawrence, they seem to depend on the supernatural for inspiration. They may not always find it, but they are alive to the possibilities of language. My favorite Johnson story, for example, begins, “Sometimes I went during my lunch break into a big nursery across the street, a glass building full of plants and wet earth and feeling of cool dead sex.”Reading Johnson’s latest, longest, and, in my limited purview, finest novel, Tree of Smoke, I kept thinking of Jesus’ Son’s reinvention of the short story. Now, in 2007, in wartime, we find Johnson straining against the teachable conventions of the novel, in a way that does honor to the form. Though there are passages and even pages through which I itched to run my workshopper’s pencil, I would trade a dozen finely calibrated domestic comedies for a single chapter of Tree of Smoke.This is a war novel in which the war never quite arrives. Instead, the tangled plot wraps itself around a handful of intelligence operatives, relief workers, and low-level grunts who hover around the peripheries of our decade-long quagmire in Vietnam. As some commentators have noted, the novel pays homage to the conventions of Vietnam literature and film, but it’s the departure from the tropes of innocence and experience that matters. Here, as in Johnson’s stories, the characters seem to have lost their innocence at birth. Their souls are stained with something like original sin.The central figure is William “Skip” Sands, who in 1965, when the novel opens, has joined the family business – the CIA. His uncle is a vivid, Ahabian character known as “The Colonel.” In the course of the novel, The Colonel will become obsessed with an elaborate psy-ops plot to feed phony intelligence to the North Vietnamese. Meanwhile, the Agency will become obsessed with bringing down The Colonel. Amid the proliferating intrigues, then, the main plot will boil down to classical terms: a conflict in Skip’s loyalties, the family vs. the state.Along the way, we meet the tormented Kathy, who provides aid to children injured in the war; the Houston brothers, enlisted men whose experiences in Vietnam may be said to be representative; and two Vietnamese ensnared in the Colonel’s conspiracy. In lesser hands, any of these characters might have decayed into types, but Johnson invests each with a deep interiority, letting his or her mind wander at cross-purposes to the narrative. Here, for example, is Nguyen Hao, the reluctant co-conspirator, waking in the morning:”Sloth kept him in bed awhile. Restlessness drove him downstairs to the tiny court behind his kitchen, where the sun made more mist. Under its warmth everything gave off ghosts. They woke from the bricks, rose with a deep reluctance, disappeared. Hao spread his white handkerchief on the stone bench, seated himself carefully, and tried to find some quiet in his mind.”Johnson who lately has been writing plays, tends to let his dialogue run on for pages, stilted, staccato bits meant to indict the poverty of speech, to leaven the mood, and to build tension. But his real genius is for description. In a single, unassuming detail – that white handkerchief – the character of Nguyen Hao comes alive, not an Orientalist’s prop, but a flesh-and-blood character, who might be our neighbor. Johnson works similar wonders with Skip Sands’ moustache.At 600 pages, the novel is clearly up to something bigger than a mere collection of characters. With its phony intelligence and its wartime hell built on the benevolent intentions of individuals like Skip, Tree of Smoke is an attempt to write about the present through the prism of the past. But Johnson’s refusal to surrender completely to thematic and political imperatives – his remarkable ability to let his material breathe – rescues the novel from didacticism.At times, I was reminded of a parable by Kafka, another writer who flirts with, but never gives in to, allegory. In it, a dying emperor “has sent a message to you, the humble subject.” His messenger sets out on his journey, but beyond the emporer’s bed is a chamber, and beyond the chamber door is another chamber, and beyond that an outer palace, and then more chambers and palaces “and so on for thousands of years… Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man.”War, in Tree of Smoke, is like that message. It exists, murderously, but just over the horizons. Explosions echo in the distance, flicker in the sky, waft the odor of charred flesh toward us, but we are trapped just outside it, at human scale, wrestling with the angels of our nature. In this way, the novel speaks eloquently to our condition here in the U.S, circa 2007. It’s the kind of eloquence they don’t teach you in school. I guess you have to earn it.[an excerpt from Tree of Smoke]
I used to be a monogamist. I honored that voice in my head that intoned “Thou shalt read just one book at a time” (it was the voice of my high school English teacher, Ms. Denize.) But something happened to me this summer – some unnoticed change took place – and now here I am reading no less than six books at once. Like juggling multiple girlfriends, it’s no easy task: I’m like a squirrel storing up nuts. I wonder if I might be preparing for a long winter of making love to War and Peace or something.In any case, here is the list of the books that currently lie unfinished at my bedside, in no particular order, along with some thoughts on each.Preston Falls by David Gates: My fellow Millionaire, Garth, introduced me to this book and its author. Who is this Gates? Apparently he’s a culture writer for Newsweek, a writing professor at Bennington, and a Pulitzer nominee for his first novel, Jernigan, back in 1991. Never has midlife crisis been so funny, or so extreme, as it is in Preston Falls. Gates goes deep between the ears of his two main characters, Willis and Jean, mining their thoughts for the plentiful deposits of self-defeatism, marital angst, parenting missteps, etc., that reside there. Like Willis’s ’74 Dodge pickup, his “hillbilly shitheap par excellence,” which he bought to show solidarity with the locals in their vacation town of Preston Falls (though they will always know he’s a poser), the wheels are coming off this cozy suburban family. It’s a car crash in slow motion but I can hardly turn away.Old School by Tobias Wolff: What can we say about Tobias Wolff? He’s like a wealthy benefactor, keeping us content with his avuncular offerings of solid prose. Set on the idyllic close of a New England prep school, Old School tracks the main character, an aspiring writer, through the evolution of his literary consciousness. In somewhat fantastic fashion, great writers visit the school in rapid succession. Robert Frost is followed, interestingly, by Ayn Rand, and the proclamations that issue from their mouths act as a sort of blueprint for writing, Frost in the affirmative, “‘Form is everything. Without it you’ve got nothing but a stub-toe cry… You may have a grievance but you do not have grief, and grievances are for petitions, not poetry,'” Rand in the negative, “‘What you find in Hemingway is everything that is wrong with the so-called literature of this country. Weak premises. Weak defeated people.'” The narrator, formerly entranced by The Fountainhead, is shocked by the revelation of Rand’s naked misanthropy. Supposedly Hemingway, the boy’s hero, is on the way…Nick’s Trip by George P. Pelecanos: I had just moved and was lovingly establishing my modest library on its new shelves. I picked up this book, which I read years ago and which inspired me to consume the entire Pelecanos collection like a binging crime-noir junkie, and dove right in. With respect to Walter Mosely and Elmore Leonard, George P. is tops in my book. I’m from D.C., where his books take place, and thus biased. But for more evidence of Pelecanos’s prowess, travel up I-95 a short ways to Baltimore, where the HBO series The Wire is set. Pelecanos acts as writer and producer for the show, which Salon.com recently pitted against The Sopranos for the title of greatest T.V. show of all time.1776 by David McCullough: I thought a bit of non-fiction might go well with this smorgasbord. McCullough’s work is considered one of the finest and most accessible accounts of the Revolutionary War (and it did garner the author a Pulitzer). Patriots are cool, Lobster Backs suck, and George Washington? Fuhgeddaboudit; he’s the man. Currently I am reading about the Battle of Brooklyn, which constituted the first costly loss for the Continental Army, and is of particular interest to me because I live in Brooklyn and thus tread daily on the same ground as those soldiers. I wonder who wins in the end. Guess I’ll have to keep reading.Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: Johnson’s new novel, Tree of Smoke, is getting major play right now, and so it was fortuitous that a friend lent me this little book, which is a collection of short stories, because I had never read him. Johnson’s approach is as subtle as a shotgun blast. The writing is spare, the language stark, the stories possessed of a simple, dark beauty. An admirer of Hubert Selby, Jr. and Leonard Michaels, I guess I’m predisposed to liking Denis Johnson too. The first story, “Car Crash,” is exceptional.Three Years by Anton Chekhov: I picked up The Complete Short Novels of Chekhov because I had never read him and often heard him described as the greatest writer of short fiction. Ever. I was drawn to this particular story, Three Years because of themes relating to love and happiness, or the lack thereof, but have so far found it to be less impressive than I expected. I appreciate Chekhov’s writing, the facility with words, the pacing of phrase and meticulous form, but something about the writing seems a bit clinical (Chekhov was, after all, a physician). Not stilted, but perhaps a bit dear:He again clutched the parasol to his breast and said softly, unexpectedly for himself, not recognizing his own voice: “If you would consent to be my wife, I’d give anything. I’d give anything… There’s no price, no sacrifice I wouldn’t go to.”She gave a start and looked at him in surprise and fear.”What are you saying!” she said, turning pale. “It’s impossible, I assure you. Forgive me.”Then quickly, with the same rustling of her dress, she went further up and disappeared through the door.This should be an emotional scene, but it struck me as a little bit hollow, and I’m hoping that the work of this titan of modern literature grows on me.So there you have it, quite a gathering of authors. It occurs to me that I need to round out this group with a female writer or two. Maybe Emily will lend me her copy of the new Harry Potter…
It was a slow year for me as a reader. I’m not sure if it’s because I moved cross-country again, or because I was getting married, or because there were so many pictures of celebrities exposing themselves on the Internet, but I just didn’t get around to reading very many books. I had trouble starting new books, quit several books midstream, which is something I rarely do, and felt bored by the majority of what I read.That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few standouts in the field. Robert Baer’s terrific CIA memoir See No Evil, the first book I read this year, was excellent, in spite of having several key passages blacked out by CIA censors. My main man Somerset Maugham came through again with The Moon and Six Pence, his examination of the choices and sacrifices a man must make to become an artist. And Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, was good enough to make me wonder why I hadn’t read it back when I was living in Iowa City (Also, the edition I bought, which is the only one I’ve seen, fits in my pocket, literally. Isn’t that great? Shouldn’t more books fit in our pockets?).The best book I read in 2006 was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan examines three different modes of food production and distribution. His critique of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on corn (which he points out is present in nearly everything in the supermarket, including beef, gossip magazines, even the walls of the market itself), is damning if not all that original (many of the points are made in Fast Food Nation), but the rest of the book, which examines organic farming, self-sustaining grass farming, and modern hunter-gathers, is truly eye-opening. He takes Whole Foods to task for their somewhat misleading labeling, spends a week working on a grass farm in Virginia, and cooks a meal entirely from foods that he hunted, gathered, and grew himself. What’s great about Pollan’s writing is his ability to take pages of statistics and endless lists of ingredients and turn them into something that is not only fun to read, but fun to discuss. I can’t remember reading a book that gave me more cocktail party ammunition that the The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While this review on Slate points out some of the flaws in Pollan’s approach, I still highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in what they eat, and how they’ve come to eat it.Some non-book related best and worsts of the year:Best Movie: Brick (IMDb) It actually came out in 2005, but in 2005 I lived in Iowa, and movies don’t get to Iowa very quickly, so I didn’t see it until 2006. It won’t win any awards, which is surely a mark of its greatness.Worst Movie: Rumor Has It (IMDb) edging out Loverboy (IMDb). Both of these movies left me wondering not only how they got made, but how I was duped into seeing them.Worst Trends: Baseball general managers giving ludicrous contracts to borderline ballplayers. Juan Pierre? Gary Matthews Jr.? I’d be worth more money to a baseball team than either of these two out machines.