Reading Mark Twain is like walking in the mountains. You can only hike one trail at a time, so you must choose the vista you want to favor. Letters from the Earth, a short anthology of essays first published in 1962, is Twain as mid-century liberals chose to see him, a blazingly indignant social critic concerned with the rise of American imperialism or what he termed in the column’s hallmark essay, “To The Person Sitting in Darkness,” “the blessings-of-civilization” game of dominion through development. Together with pieces about lynching, the Belgian Congo, the art of lying, and other abominations, the book helped reposition the folksy humorist as a baleful proto-radical, aligning him with the spirit of the age. There is a Twain for every mood and moment, and this is a Twain whose time has come again, wintry, stern, and sublimely disappointed.
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James Hynes is the author of three novels, The Wild Colonial Boy, The Lecturer’s Tale, and Kings of Infinite Space, and a book of novellas, Publish and Perish. He’s a Michigander, but he’s lived in Austin, Texas, since 1995. Hynes adds, “I have a new novel that is, if I’d only get my ass in gear, a month or two away from being finished.”James Hynes’ Top Three… No, Top Four Books of 2007Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht. I’ve been an atheist since the age of 15, when I read Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian and Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, but since then I’ve never really bothered to examine why I believe what I believe (or don’t believe, as the case may be). So, with atheism in the air recently, I read Ms. Hecht’s wonderful popular history of skepticism, from the Greeks to the present. It’s elegant, witty, and very light on its feet, with none of the arrogance, self-righteousness, or snarkiness of the New Atheists (Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). I learned a lot, and now, thanks to Ms. Hecht, I have purchased a small library of classics of skepticism (by Epicurus, Cicero, Spinoza, Thomas Paine, and David Hume) that I’m working through, books I should have read as a philosophy major years ago, but didn’t.Rabbit at Rest by John Updike. When I was a young, stupid, unpublished writer, I used to diss Updike for being all style and no substance – sure the sentences were lovely, but his books weren’t about anything important, the way, say, Gravity’s Rainbow was. But since my father died a few years ago and I turned fifty, suddenly it turns out Updike’s novels, the Rabbit books in particular, are about everything. I started a couple of years ago by rereading Rabbit Run, and I finished the fourth and final book just a couple of weeks ago. Updike’s pointillist rendering of an ordinary and not even especially likable ordinary guy is both unsentimental and humane, and it manages, somehow, miraculously, to make everyday life into something epic.Dance Night by Dawn Powell. I decided to try Powell because my friend Kate Christensen (author of The Epicure’s Lament and The Great Man) has always spoken highly of her. I even had Katie’s permission not to like the book. But, as it turns out, I loved it. I gather that Powell’s best known books are about bohemian life in mid-century New York, but this one is a vivid and clear-eyed rendering of some intricately intertwined lives in a small, working-class town in Ohio in the early 20th century. Apart from a few touches, this book feels surprisingly contemporary. It’s expertly and surprisingly plotted, and, like the Updike book, it somehow manages to be mercilessly honest and tender all at once. It’s like a boiled-down Dreiser novel, only much, much better written than Dreiser.No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. After I finished the first hundred pages of this, I e-mailed my friend John Marks (author of The Wall and Fangland), who had raved to me about this, and asked him what all the fuss was. It’s just a Jim Thompson novel, I said, weary sheriff versus heartless psychopath out in arid West Texas, only with a higher literary gloss than Thompson’s work. John was gracious, as always – he’s a Texan himself – but I sensed that he thought I’d missed the point on this one. Which, it turns out, I had. I finished the book – just last night, as a matter of fact – and it turns out to have more in common with Dostoevsky than with Jim Thompson, if Dostoevsky wrote lightning-paced, violent thrillers that get adapted for the screen by the Coen brothers. As a thriller, it’s first rate, but what makes it a great novel are the first person sections by Sheriff Bell, whose faith in goodness is shaken to the core by the events of the novel and who speaks in pitch-perfect Texan. I’m still not sure it’s as good as Blood Meridian (my favorite McCarthy novel), but, as we say in Texas, it’ll do till the real thing gets here.More from A Year in Reading 2007