This series was first conceived in 2004 as a way to get a fledgling website about books through a busy holiday season. Realizing I had spent much of that year with my nose in books that were two, 20 or 200 years old, I was wary of attempting to compile a list of the year’s best books that could have any hope of feeling legitimate. It also occurred to me that a “best of” list would not have been true to the reading I did that year.
Instead, I asked some friends to write about the best books they read that year and was struck when each one seemed to offer up not just an accounting of books read, but glimpses into transporting and revelatory experiences. For the reader, being caught in the sweep of a book may be one of a year’s best memories. It always feels like we’ve hit the jackpot when we can offer up dozens of these great memories and experiences, one after another, to close out the year.
And so now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, please enjoy these riches from some of our favorite writers and thinkers.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2015 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2014 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Anthony Doerr, author of All the Light We Cannot See.
Haley Mlotek,editor of The Hairpin.
Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water.
Karen Joy Fowler, author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.
Isaac Fitzgerald, editor of BuzzFeed Books and co-founder of Pen & Ink.
Emily Gould, co-owner of Emily Books, author of Friendship.
Blake Butler, author of 300,000,000.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander.
John Darnielle, vocalist for the band the Mountain Goats and author of Wolf in White Van.
Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams.
Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves.
Eula Biss, author of On Immunity.
Garth Risk Hallberg, contributing editor for The Millions and author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Laura van den Berg, author of the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth.
Hamilton Leithauser, frontman for The Walkmen.
Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Ripatrazone, staff writer for The Millions, author of Good People.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Ben Lerner, author of 10:04.
Jane Smiley, author of A Thousand Acres.
Phil Klay, author of Redeployment.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of Station Eleven.
Tana French, author of Broken Harbor.
Yelena Akhtiorskaya, author of Panic in a Suitcase.
Philipp Meyer, author of The Son.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of California.
Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite.
Maureen Corrigan, author of So We Read On.
Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects.
Tiphanie Yanique, author of Land of Love and Drowning.
David Bezmozgis, author of Natasha: And Other Stories.
Lindsay Hunter, author of Ugly Girls.
Dinaw Mengestu, author of All Our Names.
Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman.
Rabih Alameddine, author of An Unnecessary Woman.
Walter Kirn, author of Blood Will Out.
Michael Schaub, staff writer for The Millions.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Kaulie Lewis, intern for The Millions.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Rebecca Makkai, author of The Hundred-Year House.
Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men.
Hannah Pittard, author of Reunion.
Michelle Huneven, author of Blame
Lydia Millet, author of Mermaids in Paradise.
Michele Filgate, essayist, critic, and freelance writer.
Carolyn Kellogg writes about books and publishing for the Los Angeles Times.
Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers.
Ron Rash, author of Serena.
Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair.
Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days and owner of Phinney Books in Seattle.
Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans.
Scott Cheshire, author of High as the Horses’ Bridles.
Caitlin Doughty, author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.
Julia Fierro, author of Cutting Teeth.
Bill Morris, author of Motor City Burning.
William Giraldi, author of Busy Monsters.
Rachel Cantor, author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario.
Jean Hanff Korelitz, author of You Should Have Known.
Tess Malone, associate editor for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, writer and project assistant for The Millions.
Matt Seidel, staff writer for The Millions.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Michael Robbins, author of The Second Sex.
Charles Finch, author of The Last Enchantments.
A Year in Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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The hero of David Bezmozgis’s first book, Natasha (2004), a slim collection of short stories, was a young Latvian Jewish immigrant growing up in 1980s Toronto. Bezmozgis’s precise prose, inflected with a twice-removed shtetl comedy, played in the same keys as Malamud and Babel, though his subject was born well into the rock and roll era. Some could read his book as part of the hipster canon, but it maintained in style and substance an Old World sensibility. His new book, a humane, honest first novel, The Free World, starts a couple of years before the opening pages of Natasha, to tell a more expansive tale from one of the more recent and less commemorated Jewish migrations. In 1978, three generations of the Krasansky family leave Riga to find themselves in Rome, which serves here as a kind of hot, stifling refugee purgatory. They scramble to make life bearable while searching for passage to a new home somewhere in the West. Their own recent pasts in the Soviet state are hardly past. Samuil, the patriarch, is a die-hard communist who has left the Party in disgrace. His son Alec is a sexually-frustrated child of the Khrushchev thaw.
Bezmozgis’s own family migrated from Riga to Toronto when he was six. He’s 38 now and still lives in Toronto, with his wife and two young daughters. We met at the Fair Grounds Coffee Shop in Iowa City on May 2, where he was representing Canada on a PEN World Voices Festival Tour. It was the second time we had spoken – I had interviewed him about Natasha in 2006 – though the first time we met in person. The following is a pared-down version of our conversation.
The Millions: In reading your portraits of Riga in the ’70s and Rome in the ’70s, I felt I was reading portraits painted in similar colors. Maybe it’s because we always imagine things very internally. We may be here in Iowa City but your voice may not be all that different when you describe your time here from when you describe your time in Riga, Italy or Toronto.
David Bezmozgis I think, more than that, it’s a tonal thing. Which is to say that the tone of life for Alec, let’s say, or Karl, [his brother] and [his wife] Polina…weren’t that dark or depressing [in Riga]. They were young…It was the most Westernized part of the Soviet Union. They went to coffee houses. They could go to the theater. And that was actually part of what I hoped to convey in the book, which is that certain preconceptions about how drab and gray the Soviet Union was in the ’70s aren’t exactly true. Particularly for people who were young and educated, life wasn’t that dismal. And I think by the time they get to Rome, they’re still the same people.
TM: Samuil’s past is so unrelentingly grim to me, from the 1920s to World War II. But there is a kind of humanity that is always pulling you through. He and his family are caught between Stalin and Hitler, and there’s really no place where they can go.
DB: Right, but they don’t consider themselves caught between Stalin and Hitler.
TM: But that’s part of the terror of the moment. They don’t realize what’s involved with Stalin, which leads Samuil to betray his cousin. He’s part of a system that he doesn’t quite recognize as being pretty awful.
DB: True, but…for somebody like Samuil, Stalin is salvation. And even though there is that betrayal of his cousin, it’s not so much Stalin, it’s communism. Stalin didn’t force him to do it. It’s this revolutionary idea [that goes] back to Lenin. He’s caught between the tsar. He’s caught between capitalism. Even before Hitler, before fascism, these are proletariats. These are words that we don’t use anymore…He finds that he suffers from the system, the capitalist system.
TM: But isn’t he forced into a constant rationalization?
DB: I think that it’s only rationalization if you don’t believe in it. When you talk about people who truly believe in God, and they encounter atheists, they don’t think of God from the perspective of the atheists. They think of God from their perspective. So I think that for Samuil, it’s not like he has in his mind some dissident mentality that he’s constantly arguing with. He has a different mentality, that every now and then he feels incursions into, but I think, for him, he’s not quite as conflicted as you and I would think he should be.
TM: So he’s constantly worshipping a god that he doesn’t realize has failed that everyone around him realizes has.
DB: Not everyone, but a lot. He still believes it is the better alternative. He truly believes it…
He believes he deserved to be kicked out of the party. Had he disciplined his children better, had he been a better father to them, in the true ideological sense, they wouldn’t have betrayed him. He feels himself to be implicated.
TM: So, to extend the metaphor, he becomes the Christian who must believe he is going to hell, otherwise his entire system of belief falls down upon him.
DB: Right, as with any orthodox believer. You don’t pick and choose from your religion. You understand that these are the tenets of the faith. And you don’t pick and choose what is convenient to you.
TM: So he’s a Dostoevskyan character, except he isn’t wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of God. He’s wrestling with a fundamentalist conception of communist ideology.
DB: I suppose. I wasn’t thinking in those terms. I was thinking in real terms of what I knew people of that generation to be like…I found a book, mostly transcripts, of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee Trial, Stalin’s trial, the secret trial. There was this man named Solomon Lozovsky. He said, This is illegal what you’re doing to me. You have proven nothing. I am a good communist. Despite what you’re saying, you are the ones who are the criminals here. You are the ones who are distorting communism. I am the one who stands for the communist ideal. And if I am mistaken, kill me. If I am not mistaken, after you’ve killed me, rehabilitate me.
He cares about his legacy in ideological terms. He would accept death as a revolutionary. The way he approaches it is that death is not a problem for the individual. He’s part of a larger, historical and political force. If you’re going to kill me as an individual, kill me if I’m wrong. But if you discover later that you’re mistaken, you have to rehabilitate me.
TM: People forget that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn actually has a sense of humor. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through Cancer Ward. There’s a touch of humor that pokes through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as well. The characters are in this awful, bleak, cannibalistic atmosphere and they’re telling jokes about it. Alec and his brother Karl’s generation reminded me more of the characters in Milan Kundera’s The Joke. That’s a book filled with low-key humor. So were you thinking of this humor tradition of writers from communist countries when you sat down to write this book. I ask this because when we talked five years ago, you spoke of a tradition of Jewish humor that you were drinking from when you wrote the stories in Natasha. I was curious if you were looking at this other tradition when you were writing The Free World.
DB: I think, first of all, I’m the same writer. So writers have sensibilities and points-of-view. And I think I’m the writer that I am because of where I come from. So I’d be surprised if the tone of any of my work was ever greatly different than Natasha or anything else. It’s a worldview. It’s a way of looking at the world. And as far as being part of a tradition, of bringing Jewish humor into the work, it’s there because it reflects the experience of the people I know. And it’s there because that’s the nature of Soviet life and Soviet Jewish life. So it ends up in the book, inevitably.
I think the parts of Solzhenitsyn that are funny aren’t there because he artificially introduced them. They’re there because he’s trying to authentically replicate what life was like. And I’m trying to do the same.
As far as Kundera and that generation of people, like Alec and Karl, who came of age in the Khrushchev thaw, this communism thing is a joke by then. You couldn’t take it seriously, unless you were some kind of robot. And so if you can’t take it seriously, but you’re forced to live under it, you have no choice but to deride it, to make fun of it. Because they’re not stupid. So what are they supposed to do? They can’t leave. They can’t protest. So you live. You wink here. You nudge there. You make a joke there. Because it’s bizarre.
You know there’s humor in the Samuil [flashback scenes which cover the pogroms, the inter-war period and World War II], between him and his brother. Because it’s true. Jews are funny. Because they’ve been forced to be funny. Because when you’re powerless and you can’t change anything and you’re not stupid, you have to make light of it in order to go on.
TM: So it’s a coincidence that you have taken on a tone similar to these other writers?
DB: It’s a coincidence, I guess. It has something to do with each individual sensibility. Kundera is not the same writer as Solzhenitsyn. Some people are funnier than others. So it has something to do with my own sensibility, my own peculiar humor, which is different than other writers’ humor. You can think of other Soviet writers and you can think of other post-Soviet writers. Gary Shteyngart writes differently. So it has something to do with how you’re wired. But it also has something to do with the world you’re writing about.
TM: There’s an anxiety a lot of writers feel about writing about the Holocaust. “What right do I have to say anything about the Holocaust?” Or “What right do I have to say anything about Stalinism?” I interviewed Cynthia Ozick years ago and despite the fact that she is the author of The Shawl she didn’t feel anyone who was not a survivor should use the Holocaust in a work of fiction. Because there is still so much that has been recorded that we still haven’t read yet. And, her argument went, we should be sitting down and reading these records or any kind of testimony that exists. That’s what we should be spending our time doing, not trying to weave stories or entertainments out of the history of the Holocaust. This was her claim. Did you have any of those anxieties or concerns when you sat down to write The Free World?
DB: Only to the extent that when there was actual violence, and there isn’t a lot of firsthand violence in the book. There is one incident when Samuil’s father and grandfather are killed. If you’re not a firsthand witness to these things then to write a firsthand account of how it happens…I think I would say I share Cynthia Ozick’s concerns about that. That’s why there isn’t a lot of violence in the book. But there’s a lot of the events that lead up to those moments and the events that follow on the heels of those moments. So [I do the scene] when Samuil and his brother want their mother to leave to evacuate Riga. But I certainly don’t do the scene which they can’t see of how their mother, their aunt, their uncle [and] their cousins are murdered by the Nazis because they’re gone by then.
[I]t’s true what Cynthia Ozick says about the Holocaust. What North Americans know of as the Holocaust is what happened in Poland and parts West. They have a far more vague understanding – if any understanding at all – of what happened east of Poland. So in that respect, I didn’t feel I was participating in some kind of redundancy. But rather, that I was rendering for primarily a Western audience stuff that is not that well known from the Soviet Union, though certainly better known now after the collapse of the Soviet state, as it was quite hidden even during the Soviet period.
TM: You are essentially saying that you are writing about the events that lead up to the fact, and then the experience, the memory, the trauma of what passed. I have my traumas. You have your traumas. Everyone has his traumas. But most of us do not have an experience on the level of the Holocaust. So when you try to get inside the head of Samuil – the way the synapses of his mind move between the past and the present – do you, as a novelist, find yourself grafting your own experience of what it’s like when bad memories from 30 years ago hit you at a completely different time and place in a strange way?
DB: Inevitably. You can’t think but with your own mind. But because I did so much research and read the autobiographies and the testimonials and the court transcripts of people of that generation, I also understood the difference to some degree of how those people thought when they crossed certain experiences. And so it was a combination of, yes, there is something universal about experiencing trauma. Then there’s also something contextual ideologically. You’re socialized in a certain way. You’re politicized in a way. You think differently. So it was a combination of those two things. So a reader would be able to identify mostly how Samuil feels, how he experiences loss, and even happiness. And also at the same time I think [he would] be struck by the places where his mentality diverges from what you and I would consider as typical or conventional ways of thinking and processing these things. There’s a revolutionary mentality which we don’t have, because most people in North America aren’t wedded to a revolutionary ideal. They’re wedded to their family or themselves.
TM: Did you grow to love Latvia more as you wrote this book?
DB: I don’t think I grew to love Latvia more.
TM: Did you develop any kind of affection for it?
DB: I developed a deeper sense of melancholy about what history had wrought. My family’s roots go back multiple generations. I guess the feeling is that I regret what happened to Latvia. I regret where the country is now. I regret that there’s effectively very little Jewish communal life there. And it just seems sad to me…
My grandfather spoke Yiddish and he lived in a certain type of Latvia where he was raised in a traditional Jewish way. My parents no longer spoke Yiddish though they understood it. They spoke Russian. And their culture was Soviet culture. And here I am now where my language is English. And my experience is a Western capitalist experience. And I think it’s sad. I think it’s unnatural when I look at Americans who have been living here for 150 years, 200 years.
We’re in Iowa now. “My great-grandmother’s house was here in Iowa. I have continued to live in this house or somewhere nearby. If you want to read great-grandma’s letters, well they’re written in the same language you speak now.” Culturally, the frame of reference is basically the same. You believe in the same god she believed in. But it’s not my case. The language my grandfather expressed himself most intimately in is a language I don’t speak. The language my parents expressed themselves most intimately in is a language my children won’t speak. So when you look back over generations it’s this alienation from generation to generation to generation. For my daughters – I have two of them now – my grandparents will seem so alien to them, which is so sad to me. And even my parents will seem alien to them, which is equally sad to me.
Emigration is not unlike love: its true course never did run smooth. You envision the free world filled with beauty and wonder, and then you see it, the West, and it is lovely, yes, tantalizing, but also cruel, withholding, a stern, ingrate mistress, possessed of a stony heart, an unyielding temperament. Even near, this free world is ever out of reach, just beyond your grasp. In this way, The Free World, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, which depicts the late-Seventies’ exodus of Soviet Jews and their first forays into the world of the title, is first and foremost a story of unrequited, even doomed love, a testament to a passion at once thrilling and damning and impossible to fulfill.
Bezmozgis has already proved himself a poet of the immigrant experience, ever attuned to its star-crossed-lovers dimension. In Natasha, his much-acclaimed (and deservedly so) collection of stories, he charted the disappointments attendant on realizing the dream of escape beyond the Iron Curtain, acutely observed the crushing weight of freedom. Now, in this new novel, he hones in on the first exposure to the West and the moment it ceases to captivate and its hold on the immigrant’s imagination begins to chafe. The problem, as far as his narrators live it anyway, is that freedom—political freedom, social freedom, personal freedom—does not actually free you from yourself. The escape is always mostly geographical and maddeningly superficial. Oh, sure, the surface is nice, the perks are good: one character in The Free World, watching porn for the first time, suddenly “grasp[s] the full extent of Soviet deprivation.” “If Russian men were surly, belligerent alcoholics,” he realizes, “it was because, in place of natural, healthy forms of relaxation, they were given newspaper accounts of hero-worker dairy maids receiving medals for milk production.” So the Free World is not without its enticements.
But these enticements have a price, and it is this price that fascinates Bezmozgis. In this, he is, of course, hardly alone among chroniclers of the immigrant experience, and The Free World is not inconsistent with the storied tradition of the immigrant novel. But Bezmozgis does offer an interesting departure in shifting the focus: his concern is with neither departure nor arrival but the in-between space, the often prolonged sojourn some Soviet immigrants were forced to take in Italy, which served as a way-station between their former homes and their yet-to-be-settled-on new ones. (Largely because the destination on their exit visa was Israel, though few wanted to go there—a country, pre-peace-treaty-with-Egypt, ever on the verge of war—a number of the emigrants wound up in Italy, awaiting permission to enter the US, Canada, or Australia, sometimes for many months at a time.) The Free World devotes itself to examining this in-between, mining the tension and anxiety inherent to limbo. Our entrance point to this particular circle is the Krasnansky family: Samuil and Emma, their son Alec and his wife Polina, and another son, Karl, along with his wife Rosa and their two young boys, and The Free World is divided among three perspectives—Alec, Polina, and Samuil’s.
The Krasnanskys have left Riga, Latvia, with vastly different motivations, expectations, and goals; they disagree about where they should go and about how to get there, and these disagreements quickly solidify, under the pressures of their uncertain existence, into resentments, and each Krasnansky responds by becoming more and more him- or herself. Samuil, an ideologically committed Communist, who resents his restlessly ambitious sons for deciding to try their luck in the West and making it impossible for him to remain in Riga, takes to working on his memoirs, retreating into his past in order to hold on to the dignity the immigration agencies seem determined to take away. Karl, always a wheeler and dealer, becomes involved in an auto-shop of questionable legality. Alec, with a tendency towards shiftlessness and a penchant for womanizing, finds himself working at an agency for his fellow immigrants, helpless to stave off the temptation of women, while his wife Polina feels herself increasingly alienated from her husbands’ family, to which she has always been an outsider. The Kransnanskys may be free of Soviet authority, Bezmozgis seems to be saying, but they are not free of each other. They are not free of the terrible burdens of the family and the self and the histories that keep them ever tethered to identities they long to discard.
This might make the novel sound far more ponderous than it is. The Free World is often a funny book, its observations finely drawn and frequently amusing, its vision of the characters clear-eyed but generous. It is also a sincere book, less antic and perhaps more insightful than the work of Gary Shteyngart, a fellow chronicler of the Soviet-immigrant-in-the-West and co-inductee of the “20 Under 40” New Yorker list. With this novel, Bezmozgis makes clear that the beauty of the stories collected in Natasha was no fluke and that his talent is immense. In The Free World, he offers up something at once familiar and fresh, at once comforting and discomfiting. There is finally no such thing as the free world, and this makes us suffer, but our literature is all the finer for it.
I read so much great fiction this year – David Bezmogis’s story collection Natasha, Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork, Chris Binchy’s Five Days Apart – but the book of the year for me was without doubt The Rehearsal, by the preternaturally gifted New Zealand author Eleanor Catton. She apparently wrote it when she was twenty, which suggests a childhood spent reading Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. It centers on an affair between a teacher and pupil, and the drama-academy setting allows all kinds of opportunities for narrative games, which Catton takes full advantage of. At the same time, the characters are intensely real, and the cruelties, joys and disappointments of growing older are handled with striking empathy and intelligence. Perverse, erotic, complex, funny, experimental, and written with the confidence and courage of a true artist.
I’d been interested in the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze for a long time, but I found Anti-Oedipus, written with Felix Guattari, hard going. A friend recommended that an earlier work might be a better way of getting a handle on him. Nietzsche and Philosophy is regarded as one of Deleuze’s most approachable and also his best books, especially by people who regard Guattari as a bad influence (in Deleuze and Guattari: The Movie, Guattari would be the louche hippie who introduces the brilliant but unquestionably nerdy Deleuze to paisley shirts, sitar music, the argument that if you stop washing your hair it eventually “starts cleaning itself”). First published in 1962, it transformed thinking about Nietzsche, who prior to that had been dismissed as at best a fragmentary mystic, at worst a slavering anti-Semite.
While accessible compared to Deleuze’s other work, I suspected it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, so before attempting it I checked out a few of Nietzsche’s own books. I had read or at least carried around a couple of these as a teenager but forgotten most of them, and was astonished on revisiting him to discover just how radical a thinker he is. With a linguistic elan that as a former student I can confirm is exceedingly rare in philosophy books, he attacks every form of received opinion of his day. Religion, morality, science, the pursuit of truth, the concept of the self, German nationalism, British cooking – it’s striking just how ahead of his time he was. What’s even more astonishing is how potent many of the regressive, repressive forces he identifies remain today. Religion, for instance, he regarded as too benighted to survive far beyond the end of the nineteenth century. (For the record, he’s as scathing about anti-Semitism as he is about every other form of human stupidity and “baseness.”)
Nietzsche compared the thinker to an arrow, which when it falls can be picked up by another thinker and fired somewhere else. Deleuze’s project is to show that Nietzsche’s aphoristic thought is in fact one coherent philosopy, and that while he’s often regarded as a purely critical and therefore negative thinker, his work is ultimately about affirmation and creation. “Philosophy” literally means “friend of wisdom,” but as Deleuze says, a true friend doesn’t simply agree with everything you say; instead she challenges you, pushes you, in order to help you get the best of yourself. Nietzsche wanted people to think for themselves, to take control of their own destinies, and most importantly of all, to love life.
Some of the ontological stuff (the becoming of being, the affirmation of affirmation) can be tricky, but at the heart of the book is a breathtaking exposition and development of Nietzsche’s concepts of resentment and bad faith – the tropes of thinking that encourage us, respectively, to blame others for our own situation, or to blame ourselves for our situation as opposed to doing anything about it. We’re encouraged, by religion, by science, to focus our attention, efforts and hopes, on worlds that don’t exist – the afterworld, the future, ourselves but with ten million dollars – and to regard our own situation, and life itself, as inherently fallen, toxic, evil. This is pretty sweet for us, because we get to do nothing and also to feel good about it. But this world, our own lives, are all that we know, and rejecting them is not, in the end, of much succour. Instead, Nietzsche wants us to think, to feel, to laugh, to go to the limit of our potential. Creating for ourselves, letting ourselves be affected by other people are what he considers to be the true meaning of power – not amassing empty wealth signifiers and tyrannising waiting staff in expensive restaurants. Deleuze’s book not only illustrates this brilliantly but is itself genuinely inspiring: that rarest of things, a philosophy book that wakes you up.
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Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
My year in reading involved a couple dozen or so books, most of which I wrote about here, but it also involved, to a large extent, my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. I spent three or four out of every seven days this year reading that magazine. So, for my “Year in Reading” post, I thought I’d revisit all the time I spent reading the New Yorker this year, and in particular, the fiction. It turns out that nearly every one of the 52 stories that the New Yorker published this year is available online. I thought it might be fun to briefly revisit each story. It ended up taking quite a while, but it was rewarding to go back through all the stories. What you’ll find below is more an exercise in listing and linking than any real attempt at summary, but hopefully some folks will enjoy having links to all of this year’s stories on one page. I also wanted to highlight a couple of blogs that did a great job of reacting to New Yorker fiction this year – you’ll find many links to them below – Both “Grendel” at Earthgoat and “SD Byrd” at Short Story Craft put together quality critiques of these stories. Now, without further ado, on to the fiction:January 3, “I am a Novelist” (not available online) by Ryu Murakami: This story by the other Murakami is about a famous novelist who is being impersonated by a man who frequents a “club” of the type often described in Japanese stories. The impostor runs up a huge bar tab and gets one of the hostesses pregnant. Murakami is best-known for his novel, Coin Locker Babies. Links: I Read a Short Story TodayJanuary 10, “Reading Lessons” by Edwidge Danticat: A Haitian immigrant elementary school teacher, a resident of Miami’s Little Haiti, is asked by her boss – and lover, “Principal Boyfriend” – to tutor the illiterate mothers of two of her students. In 2004, Danticat received much praise for her novel, The Dew Breaker and this year she put out a young adult novel called Anacaona, Golden Flower.January 17, “The Juniper Tree” by Lorrie Moore: I really had to jog my memory to remember this one. It starts out with a woman who puts off visiting her dying friend Robin in the hospital. She plans to go in the morning but Robin has already died. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is Moore’s most recent collection. Links: Tingle Alley, Elegant VariationJanuary 24 & 31,”Ice” by Thomas McGuane: This story was more memorable. A young protagonist with a paper route is intimidated by a drum major. To overcome his fears he skates toward Canada on frozen Lake Erie as far as he dares. Presumably, this story will appear in McGuane’s upcoming collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: I Read A Short Story TodayFebruary 7, “The Roads of Home” by John Updike: The middle-aged absentee owner of his family’s Pennsylvania farm, David Kern returns to his childhood home after a long absence, feeling guilty and a little disoriented. A standard Updike story. Updike has a new book coming out this year called Terrorist. Links: This story has inspired a field trip sponsored by The Alton Chronicles – AKA The John Updike Reality Project.February 14 & 21, “Up North” by Charles D’Ambrosio: City guy visits the inlaws for Thanksgiving at their hunting lodge. He goes hunting with the family men and finds out about some skeletons in the closet. I remember liking this story. I’m guessing this story will appear in D’Ambrosio’s new collection, The Dead Fish Museum.February 28,”The Conductor” by Aleksandar Hemon: The narrator and Dedo, two Bosnian poets, are reunited in America after the war. This memorable story contrasts the hardness of their Bosnian experience with their new lives on the American academic circuit. Touching and funny. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: 3quarksdailyMarch 7, “The Gorge” by Umberto Eco: Italian boy and anarchist help Cassocks escape from Germans in war-torn Italy. Pretty straight-forward for a story by Eco, it turns out this piece was culled from his then-forthcoming novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Links: Conversational Reading, A Roguish Chrestomathy, Unhappy with the New Yorker’s editing: The LaboratoriumMarch 14, “Della” by Anne Enright: I’d completely forgotten this story. It made no impression at all, but upon rereading I see that it’s a sad story about two old folks living next door to each other, one worrying the other is dead, and beneath its somber surface, there’s a little humor to it. Enright’s most recent book is The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch.March 21, “Men of Ireland” by William Trevor: I’ve never been a big fan of Trevor, his stories are a little too gray for my taste, but it can’t be denied that he’s a great storyteller. In this one a destitute man accuses his childhood priest of long ago improprieties. Though we can’t know the truth for sure, somehow, in this telling, both seem guilty. Trevor’s most recent collection is A Bit on the Side. Links: James Tata.March 28, “A Secret Station” by David Gates: A classic New Yorker story: An old man ruminates on his wasted life – multiple marriages and infidelities, dabbling in prescription drugs to dull the pain. But Gates paints the characters well and this is a good read. Gates is best known for his novel Preston Falls. Links: shes-krafty.com.April 4, “Solace” by Donald Antrim: I’ve always enjoyed Antrim’s stories. This one is sort of a romantic comedy about two disfunctional people who, due to difficult housing arrangements, must conduct their relationship only in borrowed apartments. Antrim’s memoir, The Afterlife, pieces of which have appeared in the New Yorker, will be published in May.April 11, “Mallam Sile” by Mohammed Naseehu Ali: Another good story, especially if you like exotic locales. This one is about the original 40-year-old virgin, a tea seller in Ghana. It is included in Ali’s recent collection, The Prophet of Zongo Street. Links: James Tata.April 18, “The Orlov-Sokolovs” by Ludmila Ulitskaya: I’ve had the impression for a while now that the New Yorker publishes a lot of stories by Russians, but perhaps it just seems this way because they loom so large on the page. This story is about a young couple that falls prey to Soviet bureaucracy. The story appears in Ulitskaya’s collection Sonechka.April 25, the only issue of the year with no fiction. Instead, a remembrance of Saul Bellow by Philip Roth.May 2, “Where I’m Likely to Find It” by Haruki Murakami: The first of three Murakami stories that appeared in the New Yorker (Yes, he does get in there a lot.) In this one, we have a typically-Murakami detached narrator who investigates missing people, but, this being Murakami, it’s not a typical mystery story. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat.May 9, “Along the Highways” by Nick Arvin: A sad fellow named Graham follows his brother’s widow and some guy named Doug as they drive out of Detroit for a weekend getaway. Graham does this out of jealousy and a misplaced protective instinct. It does not end well for him. Arvin’s debut novel, Articles of War, came out in 2005. Links: Earthgoat.May 16, “The Room” by William Trevor: The second of three Trevor stories in the New Yorker this year (Yes, he gets in there a lot, too.) Another gray story, but, of course, well-crafted. It’s about a woman who covered for her murderer husband and is now admitting everything to her the man she’s cheating on the murderer with. It sounds more thriller-like than it is. Links: Earthgoat.May 23, “Two’s Company” by Jonathan Franzen: Franzen goes Hollywood in this tight little story about a screenwriting couple that battles over a script that celebrates monogamy. There’s no Franzen fiction in the pipeline that I’m aware of, so if you haven’t read it already, ignore the hype and read The Corrections. It’s that good. Links: James Tata.May 30, “The Russian Riviera” by David Bezmozgis: This is a great story. One that I still remember well more than six months after I read it. There’s something about boxers. It seems they’re always getting suckered when all they want is a shot at the big time, like in a favorite movie of mine, On the Waterfront. Bezmozgis received much praise for his debut collection, Natasha. Links: Earthgoat.June 6 “A Mouthful of Cut Glass” by Tessa Hadley: Normally, I dislike Hadley’s stories, but this one stands out as better than the others I’ve read. It’s about being young and in love and the tendency that those so afflicted have to romanticize their partners. No false notes in this story. Hadley’s most recent book is Everything Will Be All Right. Links: Simply Wait, Earthgoat.June 13 & 20. Then came the Debut Fiction issue in which three stories appeared, “An Ex-Mas Feast” by Uwem Akpan, “The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing and “Haunting Olivia” by Karen Russell. I discussed the issue here. My favorite was the Akpan for its exotic setting. I was also impressed to learn that Russell was just 23. Of the three, only Tussing has a book on the way, The Best People in the World.June 27, “The Blow” by J.M. Coetzee (not available online): This novel excerpt (from Slow Man) is about an elderly amputee who, after at first resenting his caretaker, allows himself to be fatherly to her son. Good, but too long. I wish the New Yorker would do away with these novel excerpts. They’re not really short stories. Links: Conversational Reading, Earthgoat.July 4, “Ashes” by Cristina Henriquez: This story is set in Panama City and it’s about a young woman whose mother dies. Her family is already in tatters so it’s up to her to try to keep everything together. Henriquez’s debut collection, Come Together, Fall Apart comes out this year. Links: Simply Wait.July 11 & 18, “Long-Distance Client” by Allegra Goodman: This, I think, was my favorite story in the New Yorker this year. In it, Mel, the oldest employee at a tech start-up, bewildered by his coworkers, finds himself misaligned and in severe pain. He goes to an odd sort of chiropractor, Bobby, who, when not giving Mel the runaround, is able to straighten him out. But Bobby claims to have a client that he treats over the phone, and the truth behind Bobby’s claim becomes the quirky question at the heart of this story. Goodman has a new novel coming out soon, Intuition. Links: Earthgoat.July 25, “Awaiting Orders” by Tobias Wolff: The masterful Wolff puts together a brief story that deftly circles the topic of gays in the military. It’s funny that now that we’re at war, the once popular gays in the military controversy is old, old news, and, somehow, without being obvious, Wolff manages to highlight that irony. Wolff’s most recent book is Old School. Links: Earthgoat.August 1, “Commcomm” by George Saunders: There’s no one writing like George Saunders. “Commcomm” is too weird to briefly summarize, but in typical Saunders fashion, he places us in an alternate and oddly terrifying universe where people talk like zombies yet somehow remind us of people we interact with every day. “Commcomm” includes an element I’d never seen before in a Saunders story: ghosts. Saunders’ new collection, In Persuasion Nation will come out this summer. Links: standBy Bert (featuring an appearance by Saunders in the comments), Earthgoat.August 8 & 15, “Gomez Palacio” by Roberto Bolano (Not available online): A somewhat oblique story, this one is about a young man teaching in Gomez Palacio. Both he and the director of the school are poets and they’re a little odd. They go for a long drive together. That’s about all that happens. A new book by Bolano is coming out this year: The Last Evenings on Earth. Links: Earthgoat.August 22, “Thicker Than Water” by Gina Ochsner: This story is about a Latvian girl who lives across the street from a family of Jews. Latvia being what it is I suppose, her parents are suspicious of these people, but she is fascinated by them. In the end, there is an ill-fated chess tournament. Ochsner’s most recent book is People I Wanted to Be. Links: Earthgoat. August 29, “The View from Castle Rock” by Alice Munro: An unusual setting for a Munroe story – a ship heading for Canada in 1818. I like Munroe’s stories generally and this one is no exception, though the drama at the center of this long story – a young man who meets a well off father and daughter who tantalizingly offer to lift him from his poorer circumstances so that he must choose between his family and the promise of a better life – it’s a bit trite. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: literarylover, mike.whybark.com, Earthgoat.September 5, “Club Des Amis” by Tony D’Souza: Mr. Wu, who lies at the center of this story, is a Chinese man in Africa. The narrator is a Western aid worker, and he relates how Wu’s son “went native” and died in the bush and now Wu is trying to be a distant benefactor to the son his son had with a native woman. I’m a fan of exotic locales, so I liked this one. This story appears to be an excerpt from D’Souza’s forthcoming novel, Whiteman.September 12, “Coping Stones” by Ann Beattie: A very good story that asks how well do we really know the people we think we know. A widower, Dr. Cahill, rents a house on his property to a young man, Matt, who he treats as a son, but one day the authorities come looking for Matt. Beattie’s most recent collection of stories is Follies.September 19, “Cowboy” by Thomas McGuane: This story is about An old cowboy who hires a young cowboy to work with him. Both exist under the watchful eye of the old cowboy’s sister, who eventually dies. I think this story is about friendship, really, one that grows slowly over many years. This story will appear in McGuane’s collection, Gallatin Canyon. Links: Literarylover.September 26, “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” by Haruki Murakami: What if you knew in advance that you would only love three women (or men) in your life? Would you worry, with each new person you met, whether he or she was one of three. This is Junpei’s problem and it makes relationships pretty tough for him. Links: shake it off.October 3, “Companion” by Sana Krasikov: I enjoyed this story. Ilona, thrice divorced we quickly learn, is living with Earl, a man much her senior, not because she is “with” him but because she is in financial straits and he has offered her a room. This makes pursuing her love life difficult and all of her friends somewhat snidely assume Ilona and Earl are together. Earl’s family meanwhile is quite suspicious of her. I like the desperation in this story. A sample description: “The air was stale with the yeasty scent of bread.”October 10, “Early Music” by Jeffrey Eugenides: Another story of desperation. Rodney just wants to play “early music” on his clavichord, but he and his wife Rebecca are in serious debt. She is trying to make ends meet with her ridiculous invention, Mice ‘n’ Warm. His precious clavichord on the verge of being repossessed, Rodney watches his life’s dream slipping away. Eugenides’ most recent book is Middlesex.October 17, “Path Lights” by Tom Drury: A bottle falls out of the sky – no, it’s not The Gods Must Be Crazy – and almost hits Bobby. He becomes obsessed with this bottle, Blind Street Ale, and eventually tracks down the bottle-thrower, but it’s awkward. This story may be an excerpt from Drury’s forthcoming novel, Driftless Area. Links: Short Story Craft.October 24, “Summer Crossing” by Truman Capote (not available online): This is an excerpt from a long-lost, recently found Capote novel. The story is well-crafted, if a bit formulaic. Rich girl gets mixed up with tough guy who she thinks she can “save.” You can tell that Capote wrote this when he was young – he was only 19 – but still, his talent is evident. Links: Earthgoat.October 31, “The Children” by William Trevor: Another Trevor story, the final one of the year, and he uses the same palate we’re used to, the scrubby Irish countryside. Young Connie and her father Robert suffer the death of a mother and wife and when he decides to marry the mother of Connie’s friend, we think all might be well, but as Robert new wife Theresa discovers, “nothing was as tidy as she’d imagined.”November 7, “God of War” by Marisa Silver: A daring choice of main character, the troubled child Ares, is at the heart of this story. Set near the desolate Salton Sea, this story covers Ares’ relationship with his brother Malcolm, whose inability to speak Ares may have caused, thus dooming them both. Silver’s most recent book is No Direction Home. Links: Wuff.November 14, “The Best Year of My Life” by Paul Theroux: A young man and woman are in love but nonetheless, she is pregnant with his baby. To escape scrutiny (the story is set in an earlier time), they hide out in Puerto Rico, where they are miserable, but somehow find the experience heartening. If there’s anything I enjoy as much as stories with exotic locales, it’s stories in which the protagonists travel. Theroux’s most recent book is Blinding Light. Links: Short Story CraftNovember 21, “The Year of Spaghetti” by Haruki Murakami: One of the weakest stories to appear in the New Yorker this year. Murakami brings us a guy who eats a lot of spaghetti, then a girl calls looking for an old friend of his, the narrator demurs and returns to cooking spaghetti. That’s about the extent of it. Murakami has a book coming out this year called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Links: Earthgoat, Short Story Craft.November 28, “Love and Obstacles” by Aleksandar Hemon: I loved this story; exotic locale,traveling, etc. An adolescent Croatian (I think) narrator is sent by his family to buy a freezer in Slovenia. Desperate for adventure, he treats this errand as though he were a wandering poet, but he turns out to be more bumbling than anything else. Funny and poignant. Hemon’s written a novel, Nowhere Man, and a collection of stories, The Question of Bruno. Links: Short Story Craft, The Glory of Carniola.December 5, “Wenlock Edge” by Alice Munro: This was one of my favorite stories of the year. It starts out very predictably before taking a deliciously strange turn. I won’t ruin it for you, but basically our narrator gets thrown in with an oddball roommate in college, and this roommate lures her into some odd situations. Munro’s most recent collection is Runaway. Links: Short Story Craft.December 12, “La Conchita” by T.C. Boyle: Boyle, a California resident, loves to make use of his home state’s frequent natural disasters in his fiction. In this story, we’re dealing with mudslides, which impede the route of the narrator who is delivering a kidney for transplantation. He is on a journey to save a life but he stops on the way to try to save another. Boyle has a book coming out this year called Talk Talk.December 19, “Twenty Grand” by Rebecca Curtis: A pretty good story. A harried young mother is forced to give away an old coin – a family heirloom – at a toll booth, only later discovering the coin’s real value. The story is told from the perspective of the young daughter. Links: Short Story CraftDecember 26 & January 2, The year ended with the International Fiction Issue. It contains five stories. In lieu of descriptions, I’ll rank them in order of my favorite to least favorite and provide links when available. “Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolano, “The Albanian Writers’ Union as Mirrored by a Woman” by Ismail Kadare, “Beauty is a Fate Better Than Death” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, “Pregnancy Diary” by Yoko Ogawa, “The Word” by Vladimir Nabokov. Links: Literary Saloon.If you want to keep up with the fiction next year, you can always subscribe.