Of Human Bondage (Modern Library Classics)

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Books Are Garbage

Books are sacred objects. Books are garbage. Between, the books with badly bent covers on the parsons tables of Midas Muffler and orthopedists’ waiting rooms. Books bought by the yard to complement the colors in the redecorated den. The tumbled remainders of remainders on the dollar store shelf, Geoff Dyer next to Christian fiction. The gorgeously designed new releases presented on the tabletops of independent bookstores as if they were hand-painted confections in a vitrine at Teuscher. Then there is the final stop, where some books are no longer figurative garbage. They are actual trash. I no longer go to church, since here in the Catskills we have the dump. Ours is the purest iteration of the cathedral: on a windswept rise under a ceiling of sky, the enclosing mountains the choir waiting silently to begin. Beneath the metal eaves of a soaring peaked roof, mortal leavings gather. The dump’s offering plate is a discarded sideboard on which parishioners jettison belongings someone else might yet find useful. Old plates. Used mugs. Videotapes (Sylvester Stallone in his salad days, Jane Fonda in very small workout wear, cartoon features once prized by children). Stuffed animals. Inscrutable decorations for such holidays as the Festooning of the Kitchen with Inspirational Adages on Little Faux Chalkboards. Books. Boxes and boxes of books, soaking up the ambient humidity and anything that might have spilled on its way to interment in the great roll-off sepulchers that swallow couches, wheels that will never roll again, and black plastic bags in their hundreds. Books that are no longer wanted, because—Long-ago read? Owners moved, downsizing, died? Gifts from now-despised givers? Here is where a book reaches the bottom of the narrative ladder that, as in Black Beauty, describes life’s trajectory ever downward, unless, at the end sudden redemption plucks the unfortunate from final doom. I root through piles of superannuated World Book Encyclopedias and Ultimate Grill cookbooks and find what I am looking for but did not know I was. More than occasionally slightly mildewed, but that’s not always a disqualifier. These are the definition of a gift. They stir the rescuer’s impulse; they recall past happy lives spent in narrow aisles of the Strand, sitting on the floor at the old used-textbook annex of the Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, book barns and yard sales and stoop sales. Not that I’ve never offloaded books myself. A library fair finally received the collection of philosophy and Middle English works I realized, after boxing and unboxing them through the course of several moves, would never be cracked again. I don’t like to get rid of books, though I do—they tell a personal history, I imagine with obvious false hope, my grandchildren will one day be fascinated to trace. Never at the dump, though. I use the dump for retrieval only. Today the gems do not hide. They are in their open box. Today’s trash is the complete Emily Dickinson in hardcover, with dust jacket. Today’s detritus is an unread Penguin Classics Don Quixote. Today’s undesirable is Of Human Bondage in a Modern Library edition. The sight of a virgin Penguin is alluring enough. But it’s the running torchbearer on the cover of a Modern Library that rouses an atavistic urge sharp as hunger. The Modern Library editions my parents collected when they were in college were the backdrop against which the cinema of life unreeled. Of course I would collect them myself as soon as I was on my own. I was the reader envisioned by Boni & Liveright in 1917 when they conceived the Modern Library imprint: eager to attain culture in the form of immortal literature, but short-pocketed. I begin reading that night. Philip, the misplaced orphan, who is like a book and also like Maugham himself, finds lost volumes on a shelf. Philip’s severe guardian bought books reflexively but did not read much: “he forgot the odd lots he had bought at one time and another because they were cheap.” And so, among the dry dust of pedagogy, Philip finds some real “old-fashioned novels.” As he read, he forgot “the life about him” and “formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.” How had I missed Maugham before? What you had forgotten, the dump remembers. It addresses all manner of grave omissions and gaps. That is what I want to believe, and at my place of worship I believe anything I wish. Whatever led these books to have been discarded sometime close to my Friday 11 a.m. visit? I don’t know. Happenstance is a meaningless miracle with no origin. The dump and what you find there, or don’t, is just one of those things. I open the cover and see this was a book meant for the long haul, for possession and the permanent shelf. The original owner had affixed a bookplate. These delightful claims on the posterity of one’s books have fallen into disuse. Because the idea of building a library—a lasting monument to character—has itself fallen into disuse in days when it is a moral superiority to get rid of the “unuseful.” The plate is an atmospheric woodcut depicting two figures (or perhaps the same one in a time-lapse portrayal of hope), one defeated and one who has risen to gesture aspiringly at the night sky. Ad Astra reads its legend—To the Stars. In another two weeks my own garbage has piled up warningly, predictable as few things are anymore. The lids on the recycling bins are askew, plastic and tin looking to make their escape. So I load the truck again. I don’t permit myself to look at the old sideboard until I’ve finished my final task: a walk down the hill to the scrap metal mountain, there to toss with a clang the Christmas tree holder that’s outlived its usefulness. Then I head back up and into the nave, eye searching for the telltale heap of cardboard boxes that signals ripe pickings. No such luck. There is only one small box on the ground; I fear an old Thermos or, worse, pot holders. Instead—and this I swear, for only a sociopath lies in church—there are only two books. I am suddenly struck, or struck back to the moment where you get born again. As if one begat the other, the two are stacked, bound together by the design of serendipity. What I see is a message. What I see is The Anatomy of Revolution arising from The Nature of Prejudice. I have been an atheist for decades, but I have also long bent to collect pennies from the dirt, believing them portents of luck. The dump embraces both aspects of an inexplicable persistence. It is a place of generosity. It is an oracle. Today I think I was right about the church part. Maybe only god can help us now. But first, I look well at what is found by chance at the same time it is put right in my hands. Image Credit: Maxpixel.

The Millions Conversation: Mark O’Connell on Viral Celebrity, Internet Weirdness, and the Phenomenon of the Epic Fail

Last month, The Millions entered the e-book publishing business with Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Staff writer Mark O'Connell has hitherto produced delightful work on, among other things, an obscure video game enthusiast named Martin Amis and "the Proust of pencil sharpeners." In Epic Fail, he traces the origins of viral fame to a pre-Internet age, squiring the reader effortlessly from Shakespeare to the Insane Clown Posse.  Mark was kind enough to correspond with me for a Millions Conversation about his new book and early life as a middle school film critic. Lydia: You and I are colleagues who have never met but maintain an infrequent friendly chatting over the Twitter and the emails. It's enough distance that I didn't know this project was in the works until C. Max Magee's general announcement to the group, but close enough that upon hearing the news I felt the special kind of chuffed you only feel over a friend's achievement.  Epic Fail has the distinction of bringing The Millions into a new phase of its existence, as a purveyor of e-books, which is already very exciting. And then I read Epic Fail and felt even more chuffed.  I really enjoyed it. So now that I've buttered you up, I want to ask you about how this endeavor came about.  Was this something you were working as a Millions or other piece that took on a life of its own?  How long have you been thinking about the project? Our own Garth Risk Hallberg was your editor, I believe.  When did he come on board? Mark: Actually, I have to think quite hard to formulate a coherent answer to the straightforward question of how it came about. Max got in touch early last year, February or March I think, to say that he'd been talking to Byliner about partnering on an e-book series, and to ask whether I had any ideas I thought might work for such a piece. I'd read something somewhere about this Irish schoolteacher called Amanda McKittrick Ros, who'd become widely known around the turn of the 20th century as the worst novelist of all time. I was fascinated not so much by the novels themselves – which are truly atrocious, obviously, but mostly just incredibly dull to read – as by the ironic way they were celebrated by this cultural elite in London and Oxford - C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley and all those guys. I thought this was really interesting in itself, but also felt that it was a kind of fame or notoriety that we tend to think of as more or less uniquely contemporary. So I thought maybe this eccentric old Irish schoolteacher and amateur novelist might provide sort of a sneaky back door into a discussion of Internet culture, and of the whole ostensibly contemporary phenomenon of the Epic Fail. I'd been thinking about Ros as a possible topic for quite a while, but then this thing, because of the scope and length that the e-book allowed for, forced me to actually try and connect her to some wider and more contemporary cultural currents. Garth came on board very early on - at the outline stage, in fact. He was really instrumental in helping to broaden it out conceptually in the beginning; and then, when it came to writing the thing, in sharpening actual arguments, and sort of forcing me to come out into the open and say things in a very unequivocal way. Like yourself, I come from an academic background, where things like concision and having a solid "takeaway" are, or are supposed to be, paramount; but I think, constitutionally, I'm the type of writer who only figures out what I'm trying to say – or if indeed I have anything to say at all – by blindly writing my way into it. I'm not naturally a bottom-line type of person who goes in with an argument in mind, is what I think I might be saying here (see?), but Garth really stepped in and sort of forced me to be that when I needed to be. Lydia: That was what I found most enlightening about the essay -- in terms of information I did not have before -- that these literary lights of the early twentieth century went into ironic ecstasies over Amanda McKittrick Ros, held readings, formed clubs. I knew that they were elitist dicks (not a value statement) but it's funny to think that they did something so, I guess, unproductive and time-wastey, as read these awful, awful novels, like looking at lots of YouTube videos (shouldn't C.S. Lewis have been communing with the Lord?). But then, that's one takeaway of Epic Fail -- the thing with Ros and all the Worst Thing Evers to have followed, is that they either rise into some ethereal, sublime level of badness, or are so unheimlich in their nearness to regular mediocrity (or a combination of both), that it makes them special. (I loved, incidentally, your point about the virulent, absurd badness that actually infects the entirety of literature and art -- let's come back to that.) I see now there are two untrue things about my first sentence above, the first being that this was the best new information I gleaned from this piece. Because that was actually the song "Miracles," and also the song "Friday," which I had in fact made it this far without ever hearing in its entirety. I had sort of willfully not clicked on it, because I kept seeing it everywhere and I guess that was my way of keeping my own ironic distance. So, um, thank you for those things. You do realize you kind of wrote a hypertext book, because you can't read it and not go digging for, er, miracles, on the internet? And, truly, the most enlightening thing was learning about Mark O'Connell's rap phase. Although you're a tease -- first you talk about washing the lemon juice from your face (buy the book, get the reference) and lifting the veil from your readers' eyes, then you talk about the Irish rap scene, and I was in a fever of anticipation that the next thing coming was the revelation that you had done your own Worst Thing Ever, and that it was a rap, and that possibly there were bootleg tapes about. But it turns out that the secret shame -- which was a transcendent bit of prose, incidentally -- is actually that you once did something really dickish yourself to an aspiring rapper. A different kind of worst thing ever. In the beginning of the piece, your compare Cecilia Jimenez, the perpetrator of the Ecce Homo Christ fresco fiasco, to your grandmother, and you invoke the term "mortify" in the Catholic sense. Another Catholic word occurred to me when I got to this last bit of the book: penance. Sorry in advance for sounding like Geraldo, but had this been eating away  Was your ebook, dare I say, an exorcism? Mark: I can't believe you'd never actually heard "Friday." That is hugely impressive to me. Although I can see how you'd want to avoid that stuff, or just never end up actually giving it the time of day. I don't think I've watched more than a few seconds of Gangnam Style, actually (although that's a whole other cultural ball of wax, obviously). That's interesting what you said about it being a kind of hypertext ebook. I don't think it really occurred to me when I was writing it, which seems completely idiotic now. But then after I finished it, I wrote this essay about unboxing videos for The Dublin Review, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, pointed out that having it on ink and paper actually made a lot of sense, because if it was online, the temptation for the reader -- even if the text itself wasn't full of links -- would be to just keep going away from the actual text to watch the videos being discussed. I wound up putting in a perhaps overly-cute footnote asking readers to just bear with me and watch the videos after finishing the essay, rather than whipping out their iPhones there and then. And then a couple of my friends who read Epic Fail said exactly what you've just said: that they kept having to put it down to go online and watch the stuff I was writing about. I suppose that would be even more pronounced if you happen to be reading it on an iPad, where you're just swiping away the text to check out some awful YouTube video. Maybe a major flaw of the book, in that sense, is that it keeps suggesting things to the reader that are more entertaining than itself. That's another thing that never occurred to me at all -- that a reader might think that the revelation at the end would be that I myself was a Worst Thing Ever. (Although of course I've done embarrassing stuff. Just probably nothing that would be entertaining for anyone who didn't know me.) But it's an interesting question, about the idea of penance. It's a concept I don't really understand. I didn't have a Catholic upbringing, so maybe it's a difficult thing to get your head around if it hasn't been part of your psycho-cultural make-up. Personally, I didn't feel any kind of relief from writing about the dickishness you mention. It actually just made me feel really awful about it all over again. In that sense, it's probably the opposite of penance; my writing about it actually exacerbated my guilt about it. I mean, obviously we're not exactly talking about an Augustinian level of moral self-disburdening here, but I do think that that's the sort of niggling, more or less banal guilt that a lot of people walk around with, and that makes them wince when they think about it. Some really shabby thing they did when they were a teenager, or whatever. But to answer your question about whether the book was an exorcism, the answer, I suppose, would be definitely not. Or at least it would be a spectacularly ineffective exorcism, seeing as I felt more possessed by it after writing about it than before. I just felt it would have been dishonest and sort of morally shifty not to talk about myself, and my own personal complicity in this culture of ridicule, in terms of the context I was writing in. Although I'm not convinced there's not something morally shifty about it anyway. Writing is a morally shifty thing to be doing, a lot of the time. What would Geraldo say to that? Lydia: Well, I didn't imagine you sitting at your carrel in a hair shirt. But I think the thrust of the book does invite everyone to put on at least a moderately hairy shirt and do a bit of reflection. I confess when I did watch "Friday," and thought uncharitable thoughts, I was brought a bit low by the gallantry, or I guess basic human decency, you extend to Ms. Black. And while I had hitherto missed the "Friday" phenomenon, I had seen, and laughed the proverbial tits off while seeing, monkey Jesus. I found your comparison of Cecilia Jimenez to your own grandmother, your touching description of the latter as "a constitutionally private, reserved, and serious person," and your remark that "if something like this were to happen to her, I'm afraid it might literally kill her," sobering. The dicks of the early twentieth century argued, probably on the way home from their Amanda McKittrick Ros fan club meetings, about whether art could be good without a moral component. And I'm stodgy and I feel that's the case, so what I perceived as a slight bit of moralizing on your part made the piece resonate with me. But since you have a sense of humor, (number-one most desirable quality in a writer), you don't try to act as though these things aren't hilariously bad. You just provide a friendly reminder that the road of the Worst Thing Ever in the technological age is one hundred percent of the time going to lead to a YouTube comment saying "I hope you die/get raped/etc." I was probably projecting about the rap stuff. In my experience the only thing that approaches the shame of shabby teenage things done is the shame of ludicrous teenage things written. And when I think about "Friday" and then some of the horrible things I wrote in high school or college, I offer a prayer or thanks to the monkey Jesus that I did not have to bear that particular cross at a time in my development when I would have been constitutionally disinclined to survive sustained mockery. Having managed to turn your interview into my personal feelings time, let's go back to Epic Fail. You mentioned Gangnam Style, and I thought of that phenomenon while reading. The same way that truly terrible efforts can, as you write, infect the whole of art with their badness, good writing invites the mind to romp. Epic Fail caused me to spend a Saturday afternoon sort of furiously taxonomizing, trying to sort through the spiritual differential of something like the film The Room, or something that seems well-produced and self-consciously zany (and thus, I think, unexciting) like Gangnam Style, or terrible Eurovision-style songs, or Susan Boyle, or the (brilliant) show Arrested Development. It sounds like faint praise to call something "tidy," but I really admire how you (with Garth's careful shepherding, it sounds like) avoided getting bogged down in trying to explain the whole landscape of viral fame, and list all the sort of subspecies and things that are not x but are y and so on. Your examples seemed really exemplary, and the whole effort was very clean. That said, it's such a vast field of inquiry, with many tributaries (I think I have like 200 metaphors in here so far). Do you feel finished thinking about it? You said in your last response that you feel more possessed by the subject than before. Would you consider a long-long-form on this topic? Mark: Can I just start by saying that the phrase "laugh the proverbial tits off" is itself a phrase that makes me laugh the proverbial tits off? But, to swiftly resume an attitude of moral seriousness – before no doubt just as swiftly relinquishing it – your point about things you did as a kid in high school is an important one, I think. Because part of what's so fascinating and troubling about this stuff is the almost complete randomness of it. You get the sense that this kind of viral celebrity could befall almost anyone. (Which is maybe, actually, another way of thinking about what the term "viral" actually means in that formulation.) We've all done stuff to some extent that could make us a source of amusement to a large number of people. I was just thinking the other day of this notebook I used to keep when I was about eleven or so, where I used to write in little reviews of films I'd watched on video. My sister found it in a drawer a few years back, and it had these hilariously po-faced reviews of movies where I'd give star ratings and list cast members and stuff like that. But the combination of wrongness and priggishness was kind of fantastic. Like there was a review of Glengarry Glen Ross (and I'm laughing just thinking about this) where I took grave umbrage at the unnecessary level of swearing in the film – "the characters seem to use f-words instead of punctuation" – and gave it 2 stars, memorably dismissing it as "a waste of an all-star cast." And then you turn the page and there's a five star review of Sister Act 2 that is just enraptured with the whole thing. I mean, if I was an 11 year-old kid nowadays, that would probably be a Tumblr or something, and those reviews could have wound up being a source of amusement to a lot of people outside my family, which would be a whole other story. Like that lady who reviewed an Olive Garden for her local paper last year and briefly became the Internet's woman of the hour. It's just very weird how randomly that stuff can happen. She seemed fine with it; she ultimately seemed not to give a rat's ass, but not all octogenarians would be so cool about something like that happening. I kind of love that woman actually. Her whole reaction was basically "What the hell is wrong with you people? Get back to work." Yes, I know what you mean about that taxonomizing urge. (If it weren't too aggressively meta, the whole human species might have been taxonomized as Homo Taxonomiens.) It was definitely a temptation for me, but I don't think it would have been all that helpful for the reader. Although I do talk at one point about the difference between "organic" or "free-range" epic fails and genetically engineered weirdness like Tim and Eric and that sort of stuff. I don't know that I'd want to write a whole book on it, because I feel like I'd like to move on to something else, but you never know. I do seem to be preoccupied by Internet weirdness. That unboxing video essay consumed me for a long time - and to be honest the essay became a sort of cover story for indulging that compulsion - and I've just finished writing a thing about ASMR videos for Slate. You're welcome. But who isn't fascinated by that stuff, really? (The answer to that rhetorical question is actually, no doubt, lots of normal people.) Lydia:  The juxtaposition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sister Act 2 in the notebook of Mark O'Connell, aged 11, the toughest critic on the block, is such pure comedy that I think the writers of Arrested Development would really struggle to find something as home-grown and delightful (local, organic, free-range fails, if you will).  All the better because this was probably just before (or concurrent with) the moment when, according to your book, you yourself became hip to the joys of "entertaining ineptitude" and found nothing funnier than the vast distance between ambition and execution. Which brings me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a part of your book that I found really fascinating.  Brutally paraphrasing, Science has proven that the more of an idiot you are, the greater your confidence that you aren't an idiot. It occurs to me that in a sense being a kid is one sustained exercise in Dunning-Krugerism. In fact, arguably to be a proper kid you need those moments of total unselfconscious and total commitment -- it's hateful to think of a child having to posit his or her movie reviews or, ahem, paeans to exotic cats and cars, in some ironic, self-conscious frame. Once you get to middle and high school and college, where there are strange and multifarious forces at work -- your teachers try to nurture your better instincts and squelch your worse ones, while you and your peers spend much of your time trying feel one another up whilst putting one another down -- slowly you learn to think about your output (artistic or otherwise) in a different way. In terms or raw artistic ability, the wheat and the chaff alike have to go through this process of maturation. But your A. M. Ros, your Tommy Wiseau (of The Room), somehow come through it all with a really majestic, unshakable belief in their own ability that certainly exceeds that of people who really make great art. (When I read Epic Fail I was in the middle of re-reading Of Human Bondage -- have you read it? -- which has a whole section on artistic toils. Everything synced together beautifully at the moment when Philip the protagonist asks a professional painter to look over his work and give an opinion: "Don't you know if you have talent?" the painter asks, and Philip says, "All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.") Okay, so you don't want to write a book about YouTube comments.  I will forgive you. But according to your bio in Epic Fail you have a book on the horizon -- about John Banville? Please to explain. Mark: I have read it, but it was years ago. Actually, it was one of the first bits of "proper/serious" literature I ever really connected with - as in it wasn't about dragons or aliens or what have you. I don't remember all that much about it, but I do remember the business with the club foot, and that Mildred girl being a total bitch. (Am I somehow wrong in remembering it this way?) (Ed.: No.) I do remember being really impressed with myself for finishing it, though. I should probably read it again, through not-15-year-old eyes. I almost certainly didn't get it at all. But yeah, the Dunning-Krueger effect is a good one, isn't it? The ironic thing about it, of course, is how primed for misuse it seems to be. The last people who would ever see it applying to themselves are probably the people most affected by it. It's a usefully scientific-seeming way of explaining why other people are such idiots. Why "The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity", as Yeats put (it in a context so different as to make even bringing it up here wildly inappropriate). I do think most writers - most people, really - could probably do with a touch of the William McGonagall or Amanda McKittrick Ros or Tommy Wiseau unshakable self-belief. If you could somehow combine that with actual talent, you could do a very brisk artistic trade. That's possibly some kind of formula for genius: major talent combined with the self-belief that's more often associated with talentlessness. I do have a book on Banville on the horizon. Last I heard it's due to come out in July or thereabouts. It's based on my PhD thesis, which I finished a couple of years ago now. It looks at Banville's novels from the point of view of various psychoanalytic understandings of what narcissism means. It sounds quite narrow, but narcissism is so variously and broadly interpreted by theorists from Freud onwards that it's actually become almost like a kind of synonym for psychoanalysis itself. Even though it contains no quips about Trapped in the Closet, it will nonetheless be tremendous fun to read, I assure you. Lydia: Well, two things are clear. Number one, I must pray for "major talent combined with the self-belief that's more often associated with talentlessness." Number two, I must read John Banville. Mark, I can't thank you enough for chatting with me about yourself and your wonderful book. Any parting thoughts or, better yet, YouTube videos? Mark: It's unacceptable that you haven't read Banville. That needs to be redressed straight away. Unfortunately none of his books are set in Turkey, but there are parts of The Book of Evidence and Shroud that are set in a kind of warped version of San Francisco, if that's any good to you. Thanks for the back-and-forth, Lydia. It was a lot of fun. Like a proper old-fashioned epistolary set-up. Plus this whole thing has been a textbook example of vertical integration, when you think about it. Lydia: I hate that I just had to google vertical integration, but am also grateful to now know what that means. Ye olde one-stoppe shoppe, that's us.

Wedding Wind: A Commonplace Book of Unsuitable Readings

A Word on Weddings Like many people whose marriage impends, I have been initiated into the strange, febrile world of weddings -- a world whose population is varied and ever-changing, a time-lapse version of the actual world. The wedding world is headquartered at sites like The Knot or Weddingbee, where the affianced and the "waiting" (for someone to put a ring on it) alike convene to commune in questionable spelling and reverent platitudes of surpassing banality: "marrying my best friend," and "it's not the wedding, it's the marriage," uttered in the course of a discussion about five-dollar chair covers. Making fun of The Knot or Weddingbee is like shooting fish in a barrel, and most of the womens' interest blogs of the sort I favor have taken aim. But Jezebel cannot tell me anything about tipping the caterer, while Weddingbee bristles with opinions on the subject. Moreover, long after I harvested the helpful hints I needed from Weddingbee, I return frequently to view the forums, which I have found absorbing to an almost debilitating degree. It began with the unkind voyeuristic impulse behind something like The Hairpin's Today's Top Ten Wedding Bee Discussion Board Thread Titles. The Internet, more than travel, more than almost any other thing, gives you a glimpse of how other people live and what they care about. And with weddings being a widespread but mostly un-ideological phenomenon, a wedding website attracts a real slice of life. On Weddingbee there are the expected Marxian differences, as well as significant regional and hemispheric variations. In spite of this, these boards are a friendly place. Women are frequently reminded by the world at large that they are catty and shrewish, but I am often struck by the fierce generosity demonstrated by groups of women unknown to one another (also by the speed with which a group of female strangers will turn to topics of contraception under the right circumstances). As in any community, some members are just assholes. But someone asks if she is too fat to see daylight, and everyone tells her no, no, no. Someone loses her job a week before her wedding, and the hive gathers round her in an online embrace. Disdain for these sites is often of a parcel with another phenomenon the wedding-haver encounters -- a sort of race-to-the-bottom humblebrag about the minimal expense of the interlocutor's wedding, sometimes phrased so that the implication is that the success of a marriage is inversely proportionate to the cost of the shindig. "Had it in the backyard," they say, and the Lord rained down gratis BBQ and compostable cutlery to reward their lack of pretension. Then there is Caitlin Flanagan, who characteristically manages to be right about a lot of things while sucking the joy right out of the world, reminding us that weddings are a colossal, farcical, tasteless, and needless expense representing a hollowed-out institution -- just another example of our sick culture. Everyone has their own line for what constitutes folly. I am not without my own strain of Flanaganism. But one thing I really like about weddings is that though they are a folly, they are to the best of my knowledge a relatively universal folly (and one of the few driven by some ostensibly joyful and optimistic instinct). Even in less libertine cultures than my own, they often represent a union in which not a shred of virginity, financial health, or, sometimes, likelihood of enduring love remains. Even so, we are going to get spruced up, create a festive atmosphere of one sort or another, and take photographs. In a thousand languages, people spend money, fight about the guest list, and try not to get any unsightly hives on the big day. Then, they try to stay married. We are unlikely to make ourselves less stupid than we collectively are, so we should have parties. My own experience of wedding planning has been a very traditional cocktail shared with my beloved, composed of anxiety, guilt, and joyful anticipation. Like many people, I made a lot of lists of things and fretted too much about some things and not enough about others. I did things that were called "wedding planning" which were actually just mindless Internet trawling, looking at pictures of things that have no bearing on my life, and patting myself on the back for at least not being as x as the people who say y on Weddingbee. What the wedding sites made clear to me about weddings generally and ours in particular is that they are inevitably one iteration of a thousand other weddings -- a melange of logistical and aesthetic decisions dictated by social forces largely imperceptible to you. You find that choices you believed you had arrived at quite on your own are some current staple of Pinterest, totally characteristic of your particular station in life. My demographic, evidently, is very fond of the "rustic" and the "vintage." And while I have grown to shudder at these terms (one wedding theme I read about: "vintage books"), part of it is the pain of realizing that you are part of a vast, rushing current, and your tastes are not your own. I eventually resigned myself to rusticity and sameness, but one place where I thought I could assert my personality (without leaving my fiance totally by the wayside, or course), was the wedding reading. I was confident that Weddingbee could tell me nothing that I did not already know about a pithy piece of writing. How Literature Failed Me in my Hour of Need It is now customary in many weddings to write one's own vows, tailored to fit the bride and groom's individual quirks. Faced with this prospect, some dour inner Protestant stirred and grumbled. I could not picture us telling the assembled that we enjoy fattening food, Breaking Bad, and architectural boat tours. That when I mop the floor, I like to get drunk and listen to Groove Armada. When you sneeze, you sneeze five times. That I promise to always like the Redskins even when they are dismal. No, I am partial to "death do us part." And brevity, ironically. Thus the reading became the one place in the ceremony for a little customization and flair. My beloved also likes books, but I am bossier, and I took the reigns on this project. And since I find literature sufficient for expressing most of what there is to express about human life, the bar for this particular passage was very high. As a bookish person, it felt like cheating to be searching for beautiful passages from the Internet. I preferred for it to happen more organically (so precious, so mistaken). I read books all the time, I thought to myself; surely I should have some interior commonplace book chock-full of beauty and inspiration to consult. But the only two poems I can recite in their entirety -- Philip Larkin's "High Windows" and "This be the Verse" -- are so far from wedding-worthy it's hard to imagine anything worse: "When I see a couple of kids/ And guess he's fucking her and she's/ Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,/ I know this is paradise." (Or "They fuck you up, your mum and dad," obviously.) I love "The Whitsun Weddings," which is technically a poem about weddings. But while, contra Christopher Hitchens, I think its last line is romantic, the romance is that of life, not of individual human relationships: "A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/ Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain." "Broadcast" is love poem, but a more sneering and cringing love poem there never was: "...Then begins/ A snivel on the violins:/ I think of your face among all those faces,/ Beautiful and devout before/ Cascades of monumental slithering." Most unsuitable for a wedding. And anyhow, Larkin -- more on him later. My favorite poem is probably T.S. Eliot's "Preludes," the last lines of which reveal the haunting ordered chaos of the universe, but hardly warm the cockles: "The worlds revolve like ancient women/ gathering fuel in vacant lots." In a book shop pawing through the poetry, I sensed this was a theme, in poetry in general, and especially in the poetry I like. Tomas Tranströmer seemed promising for a minute in "The Couple," if a touch erotic: "The movements of love have settled, and they sleep/but their most secret thoughts meet as when/ two colours meet and flow into each other/ on the wet paper of a schoolboy’s painting." But that ending: "They stand packed and waiting very near,/ a mob of people with blank faces." It leaves an impression of a lonely echo in a hallway, a little like "Preludes." Googling had seemed like cheating, but I started to Google, and found, predictably, that I was hardly the first person to have had this problem. Book snobs abound. I went to the library and took out several anthologies, including a book of readings specifically for weddings. There are things I have seen before -- sonnets, for example -- but I like free verse. There were many things I hadn't seen. Margaret Atwood has a poem about marriage called "Habitation," evidently used in some weddings. I liked it, stupidly, because it mentions eating popcorn, which happens to be something that my beloved and I do together on a shockingly regular basis. But it seemed a little fraught for a wedding. The last line, "We are learning to make fire," hangs at the bottom of the page, lonely as early man: I pictured us shivering in our damp cave. I liked an excerpt from Toni Morrison's "Jazz" -- "It's nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers" -- but that's so private, and then the poem invokes an off-stage "chippie" and "stud." I checked out Love Letters of Great Men, but the problem, aside from the sort of ethical weirdness of reading someone's mail, is that great men tended to write romantic letters to a number of different women, which is not really on-message for our marriage (this was not in the collection, but I remember Malcolm Lowry once wrote one of his wives that he wanted to use her toothbrush instead of his own). I looked to the eminently quotable Flaubert in the pages of Julian Barnes' wonderful Flaubert's Parrot. Here's a good one: “You ask for love, you complain that I don't send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that's what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I'm like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female.” Rumi figures in anthologies of love poetry. I like Rumi, but for a wedding I feel that the Sufis are off-limits. As far as I know, which is not very much, the beloved of whom they speak is likely to be God, or the young man who brings you your wine. Context matters. Also, my favorite line from Rumi is fiercely individualistic: "I drip out of a spout drop by drop -- But like the deluge I crush myriad palaces." (Rappers have nothing on Rumi). I toyed with finding something in Turkish -- but it seemed to me that this was a moment for my mother tongue. And my knowledge is limited, and my favorite Turkish poetry is in any case a line written by the twelfth century poet Yunus Emre, too defiant for a wedding unless it was one disapproved of by all relatives: "What should the ignorant know of us?/ Greetings to the ones who know." Context matters, and that's really what takes Philip Larkin out of the question: he loved Monica Jones so much he helped Kingsley Amis turn her into one of literature's great hysterics, a caricature of a pain-in-the-ass female (Lucky Jim's Margaret Peel). When I think about literature I don't typically dwell on the private life of the author, because it's a slippery slope. But I found when looking for a wedding reading that I became more interested in whether the writer him or herself had been married and gave at least the appearance of contentment. On love, Emily Dickinson basically sums it up: "That Love is all there is/ Is all we know of Love;/ It is enough, the freight should be/ Proportioned to the groove." But love and marriage are not the same thing. Most unkindly, I wondered what the virginal shut-in would know of the long intimacy, the vaunted tedium of marriage. Bizarrely, I veered into some exclusionary policy regarding Auden and Forster, whose circumscribed personal lives were in the broad sense casualties of a bigoted and ignorant society. Nabokov was promising; he is known to have loved Vera, and wrote her poems. But the 1974 poem "To Vera" is just that, a poem to Vera, and seemed to have nothing to do with us. "How I Love You" is Nabokovian in a way that confounds a ceremonial reading: "...gnats:/ hanging up in an evening sunbeam, / their swarmlet ceaselessly jiggles..." There is the religious angle -- a friends' wedding featured Isaiah 43:1-7, which I believe is a particularly badass selection from the Old Testament: "When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned." But novels are my sacred texts, and we are in any case rather unclear in our feelings about the Lord. His brief invocation in Robert Louis Stevenson's cheerful "Wedding Prayer" is enough: "Lord, behold our family here assembled" (which one could also read: "Oh Lord, they're all here.") Poetry letting me down, I turned to the novels that I love. No passage suggested itself to me -- unless you have a very certain kind of mind, you can't survey the text of every book you've ever read all at the same time. And if it's not cricket to go looking for a previously unencountered reading that somehow has meaning to you, it's equally uncricket to read everything with an eye to appropriating some piece of it for your marriage ceremony. But I began to see that's how I should have been reading for the entirety of the preceding year. What had I read most recently? We Need to Talk About Kevin, for chrissakes, and a book about rabies. I reread Goodbye to All That, which Graves closes with "...marriage wore thin. New characters appeared on the stage. Nancy and I said unforgivable things to each other. We parted on May 6th, 1929. She, of course, insisted on keeping the children. And I went abroad, resolved never to make England my home again..." My fiance had most recently read Travels With Charlie, and suggested I look there.  But Travels With Charlie is about a man and a poodle, and the poodle goes "ffft." I began to comb through my favorite novels, but from the outset it was clear that most would never do. There's Burmese Days or Of Human Bondage, where goodish men are driven mad by worthless women, with differing outcomes. A Suitable Boy is a spectacularly romantic novel, weddings all over, but it portends falling in love with the man you can marry, in lieu of the one that you can't. The Tin Drum, full of obscenity. Wodehouse, too facetious. The aforementioned Lucky Jim closes with a romance, but it is a revenge story, against all Welches and Margarets, rather than a love story about the well-formed Christine. Iris Murdoch's novels are full of bizarre marriages and strange perversity. (The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, anyone?) Till We Have Faces, jealous sibling love and spinsters. I opened Possession, even Swann's Way -- they presented unyielding blocks of text.  The closest I came was from A Dance to the Music of Time, and in fact explained why I was having so much trouble: A future marriage, or a past one, may be investigated and explained in terms of writing by one of its parties, but it is doubtful whether an existing marriage can ever be described directly in the first person and convey a sense of reality. Even those writers who suggest some of the substance of married life best, stylise heavily, losing the subtlety of the relationship at the price of a few accurately recorded, but isolated, aspects...Its forms are at once so varied, yet so constant, providing a kaleidoscope, the colours of which are always changing, always the same. The moods of a love affair, the contradictions of friendship, the jealousy of business partners, the fellow feeling of opposed commanders in total war, these are all in their way to be charted. Marriage, partaking of such -- and a thousand more -- dual antagonisms and participations, finally defies definition. It defies definition, and yet I wanted something romantic, weighty but not melancholy, in English, about marriage. It was finally Louis C. K. who drove it all home, how hard this is to do: ...Or you’ll meet the perfect person who you love infinitely and you even argue well and you grow together and you have children and then you get old together and then SHE’S GONNA DIE. That’s the BEST CASE SCENARIO, is that you’re gonna lose your best friend and then just walk home from D’Agostino’s with heavy bags every day and wait for your turn to be nothing also. That is indeed the best case scenario, the lost best friend, that friend so abstract on the Weddingbee message boards, so real in practice. I listened to Donald Hall reading about the death of Jane Kenyon on This American Life and bawled my eyes out. In the end, I stood again in a book shop, rifling through every poetry book they had. (In the course of the hunt I was descended upon by the proprietor, and because the last thing I wanted was someone's advice on the matter, remained mute on the subject of the wedding and was thus compelled to read two suggested Bill Hickok poems while he stood watchfully at a remove.) Finally, I picked something, a poem by Billy Collins from his collection Nine Horses.  I picked something, but what I thought was even better in that collection was something else, "Bermuda," which is basically a poetic version of the Louis bit. A husband and wife lie together on a beach: "and the two of us so calm/ it seems that this is not our only life,/ just one in a series, charms on a bracelet,/ as if every day we were not running/ like the solitary runners on the beach/ toward a darkness without shape/ or waves, crosses or clouds,/as if one of us is not likely to get there first/ leaving the other behind,/ castaway on an island..." It turns out that it was hard for me to find a good wedding reading because I'm a gloomy old bastard. There, it would seem, is the rub. But I wasn't going to put this foreboding stuff into the wedding ceremony. No, with several days remaining until the wedding I picked Collins's "Litany" ("You are the bread and the knife,/ the crystal goblet and the wine"), which I thought was lovely and romantic and yet also conveyed the promised prosaic qualities of long relationships. It's funny, but not too much. I find the long dashes of the last lines poignant: "You will always be the bread and the knife,/ not to mention the crystal goblet and -- somehow --/ the wine."  There is an element of the sacramental which appeals to me, something that begins to approach the reverence I feel for my own beloved. After all this, after the fretting and gnashing of teeth and weeping over sad poems and vases in empty rooms, I learned I could have found my reading on the Internet. It's on a list of wedding readings compiled by Publisher's Weekly, for one. I could even have found it on Weddingbee, where some fiercely unique soul, someone just like me, recommended it in a thread five years ago, lauded as a "a quirky expression of love, perfect for an English major who likes playing with metaphors." But I don't care, I've got my love to keep me warm. Image via camerakarrie/flickr

The Books We Come Back To

The Guardian recently posted a collection of short pieces by different authors on the books they reread, and what they gain from the practice. There even seems to be a sort of tradition among writers and serious readers, related to these perennial rereadings. Faulkner read Don Quixote once a year, “the way some people read the Bible,” and isn’t there a place in the Bascombe books where Frank invokes the old idea that all Americans everywhere ought to make an annual reading of The Great Gatsby? Perhaps Gatsby isn’t your choice for yearly touchstone fiction (although it is mine, and Mark Sarvas’ (see below), and was, in fact, the most commonly mentioned “rereadable” in that Guardian piece). Regardless, and no matter which one you favor, it shows adulthood and devotedness, I think, to try and get back to a book you love, every four seasons or so. That’s why I asked a few people about the books they reread, and why. Adam Ross, author of Mr. Peanut and Ladies and Gentlemen, spent a decade reading The Odyssey once a year. Matt Bell, editor of The Collagist and author of How They Were Found and the forthcoming Cataclysm Baby, makes a yearly reading of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, which he first read at age 21. He says that, while almost every other book he revered back then has receded into the background of his personal canon, Jesus’ Son has gone the opposite way, and gained in its power to move him. The aforementioned Mark Sarvas (whose blog, The Elegant Variation, you should definitely check out,) reads The Great Gatsby once a year -- in fact, for 18 years, it’s been the first book he reads every January, and he always tries to do it in a single sitting. Changes in his own life have tracked these readings: he’s read it as a single man in his 30s, “very Nick Carraway-like;” he’s read it as a husband and a divorcee; he’s read it from the perspective of a writer and, more recently, as a teacher of writers. And, lately, reading it as a father, he’s found himself appalled at the way Daisy Buchanan treats her small daughter (although, frankly, there are very few characters in Gatsby whom Daisy’s treatment of couldn’t be described as appalling). After well over 30 readings, Mark’s never bored, never tempted to skim or skip, and the scene where Gatsby tosses his shirts on the bed always chokes him up. He also points out that a book not worth rereading is probably not worth reading in the first place. Hard to argue with that. Speaking of “inveterate rereading,” The Millions’s own Lydia Kiesling has a slightly different approach to her touchstones. She has an ever-changing list of books she makes it a point to reread every one to three years. Currently, the list includes The Sea, The Sea, The Chronicles of Narnia, Till We Have Faces, Cloud Atlas, Of Human Bondage, The Berlin Stories, The Blind Assassin, Burmese Days, Possession, Lucky Jim, The Corrections, The Stand, and A Suitable Boy. She rereads these books in part because they’re “witty even when they are sad,” and because they manage to deposit her in another world with minimal effort on her part, which is as perfect a definition of great fiction writing as any I’ve ever heard. Speaking of Stephen King’s The Stand, my wife, Jennifer Boyle, makes it a point to reread that one once a decade. Considering the book’s monstrosity -- both in size and subject matter -- every 10 years sounds just about right. Eric Shonkwiler, former regional editor for The Los Angeles Review of Books, reads Ernest Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream once a year. He likes the way it transports him to the Gulf, and for all the “standard Hem charms” we know and love. (Can we all agree to start using “Hem” as the favored adjective for anything Papa-related?) Finally, Emily M. Keeler, The New Inquiry book editor and LitBeat editor for The Millions, reads Zadie Smith’s White Teeth once a year, usually in September. She discovered the book in the autumn of 2003, when she was a 16-year old high school student. Her favorites back then were all dead white guys (Orwell, Steinbeck, Hem, Maugham, Waugh) and she was in a used bookstore, jonesing for more Hem, when White Teeth’s colorful spine sparked her interest. It was the most exhilarating book she’d ever read at that point, and she goes back to it every fall, “in an effort to remember that feeling of discovery,” the moment when she became aware that “literature lives both back in time and forward through it.” So which books do you all reread yearly, or biannually, or quadrennially, or decennially, and why? We’d love to hear about them in the comments section. Please share. Image Credit: Flickr/Sapphireblue.

The Alternative, The Underground, The Oh-Yes-That-One List of Favorite Books of 2011

While sending out calls for contributors, one writer responded to my email with the observation that these lists “seem to be the new fashion.” True. In the past few weeks, on Twitter and Facebook and wherever else I went to play hooky, these lists -- 100 Notable Books, 10 Best Novels of 2011, 5 Cookbooks Our Editors Loved, etcetera -- were lying in wait, or rather, Tumblr-ing all over the place. Of course, as an eternal sucker for the dangled promise of a good book, I had to read this one, to see what was on offer, and that one, to get it out of the way, and oh yes that one, because . . . just because. I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m just establishing that I have read a lot of these lists, in only the past few weeks, and shared them myself on Facebook and Twitter, usually at times when I should have been working; and now, since I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing the same books on list after list after list, lists drawn up by respected, respectable folks in the same circles of influence, I have reached out to a band of fresh voices (some new, some established, some you know, some you will soon) and compiled the alternative, the underground, the “oh-yes-that-one” list of favorite books of 2011. Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun: When Precious Williams was three months old, her neglectful, affluent Nigerian mother placed her with elderly, white foster parents in a racist, working-class neighborhood in West Sussex, England. Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams tells this wrenching story. I kept reading for the clean, wry, angry prose. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is a brilliant example of how poetry can resurrect history and memory. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philip excavates the court transcript from the resulting legal case -- the only account of the massacre -- and fractures it into cries, moans, and chants cascading down the page. I was tempted to recommend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, since it came out in 2011. It does a lovely job capturing Kenya on the verge of independence, but read side by side, Wizard of the Crow demands attention. A sprawling, corrosive satire about a corrupt African despot, filled with so-called magical realism, African-style. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen. Rwanda-based Belgian expat Stassen employs beautifully drawn and colored panels to tell the tragic story of Deogratias, a Hutu boy attracted to two Tutsi sisters on the eve of the genocide. After the atrocities Deogratias becomes a dog, who narrates the tale. Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou is, despite its misogynistic tendencies in parts, a brilliant book. A biting satire about desperate conditions and characters who hang out at a slum bar called Credit Gone West, it should make you cry, but you can’t help but laugh bitterly. Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City: If a novel is a pint, short stories are like shooters: they don’t last long, but the good ones hit you hard and linger in your chest after. I loved African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala, a wonderful collection of township stories loosely inspired by Can Themba’s Sofiatown classic “The Suit.” In novels, Patrick DeWitt’s wry western, The Sisters Brothers, was fantastic, but I think my favorite book of the year was Patrick Ness’ beautiful and wrenching A Monster Calls, a fable about death and what stories mean in the world. Margaret Busby, chair of the fiction judges for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: White Egrets by Derek Walcott is a superb collection of poetry. Using beautiful cadences and evocative, sometimes startling images, Walcott explores bereavement and grief and being at a stage of life where the contemplation of one’s own death is inevitable. How to Escape a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique is a very accomplished collection that delivers thought-provoking themes, nuanced and vibrant writing, an impressive emotional range and a good grasp of the oral as well as the literary. Also I would mention Migritude by Shailja Patel. Patel’s encounters with the diaspora of her cultural identities -- as a South-Asian woman brought up in Kenya, an Indian student in England, a woman of color in the USA -- give this book a vibrant poignancy. “Art is a migrant,” she says, “it travels from the vision of the artist to the eye, ear, mind and heart of the listener.” Nana Ayebia Clarke, founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact. Set in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing: a Freetown hospital to which a British psychologist has come to work as a specialist in stress disorder. The story that unfolds is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit. Jude Dibia, author of Blackbird: There are a few novels of note written by black authors that I read this year, and one that comes readily to mind is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. This was a story that was as beautiful as it was tragic and revelatory. It told the tale of two childhood friends living in a country marred by military coups. Striking in this novel is the portrayal of friendship and family as well as the exploration of cult-driven violence in Nigerian universities. Simidele Dosekun, author of Beem Explores Africa: My favorite read this year was The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Aminatta Forna. Set in Freetown, Sierra Leone before and after the war, it tells of intersecting lives and loves thwarted by politics. I read it suspended in an ether of foreboding about where one man’s obsession with another’s wife would lead, and could not have anticipated its turns. As for children’s books, I have lost count of the copies of Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerades that I have given out as presents. It is a colorful and chirpy book that kids will love. Dayo Forster, author of Reading the Ceiling: It is worth slogging past the first few pages of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, to get to a brilliantly captured early memory -- a skirmish outside his mother’s salon about the precise placement of rubbish bins. Other poignant moments abound -- as a student in South Africa, a resident of a poor urban area in Nairobi, adventures as an agricultural extension worker, a family gathering in Uganda. With the personal come some deep revelations about contemporary Kenya. Read it. Petina Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly: I did not read many new books this year as I spent most of my time reading dead authors. Of the new novels that I did read, I most enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who writes once every decade, it seems, and is always worth the wait. I also loved Open City by Teju Cole, which I reviewed for the Observer. I was completely overwhelmed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, both of which I read for the first time this year, and have since reread several times. I hope, one day, or maybe one decade, to write a novel like Middlemarch. Maggie Gee, author of My Animal Life: I re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s fascinating fictionalized family history, the new, expanded Lara, tracing the roots of this mixed race British writer back through the centuries to Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland -- comedy and tragedy, all in light-footed, dancing verse. In Selma Dabbagh’s new Out of It, the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza are brought vividly to life -- gripping, angry, funny, political. Somewhere Else, Even Here by A.J. Ashworth is a stunningly original first collection of short stories. Ivor Hartmann, co-editor of the African Roar anthologies: Blackbird by Jude Dibia is a deeply revealing contemporary look at the human condition, yet compassionate throughout, well paced, and not without its lighter moments for balance. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, spans 61 years of his short stories and shows a clear progression of one of the kings of Sci-Fi. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa is a vast, powerful, and masterful work, which focused on Paul Gauguin (and his grandmother). Ikhide R. Ikheloa, book reviewer and blogger: I read several books whenever I was not travelling the world inside my iPad, by far the best book the world has never written. Of traditional books, I enjoyed the following: Blackbird by Jude Dibia, Open City (Random House, 2011) by Teju Cole, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina, and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. These four books bring readers face-to-face with the sum of our varied experiences -- and locate everyone in a shared humanity, and with dignity. They may not be perfect books, but you are never quite the same after the reading experience. Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys: American Gods (William Morrow; 10 Anv ed., 2011) by Neil Gaiman is a novel of hope, of home, and of exile. It superbly interweaves Gaiman’s version of Americana with the plight of “old world” gods, many of them recognizable only by the subtlest of hints. We watch as these old gods do battle with humanity’s new gods: television, the internet, Medicare, and a superbly rendered personification of the sitcom. Read this book, and see the awkward boundaries between literary and genre fiction blur and disappear. Tade Ipadeola, poet and president of PEN Nigeria: An Infinite Longing for Love by Lisa Combrinck. The voluptuous verse in this stunning book of poetry is a triumph of talent and a validation of the poetic tradition pioneered by Dennis Brutus. I strongly recommend this book for sheer brilliance, and for how it succors the human condition. Desert by J.M.G Le Clézio emerges essentially intact from translation into English, and it weaves a fascinating take of the oldest inhabitants of the Sahara. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong tackles endemic corruption in Africa and the global response -- a powerful book. David Kaiza, essayist: The Guardian voted The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the top 100 books of the past century. I don’t care much for these listings, but there is a lot of truth to that choice. Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian, and his insight into the 200 years that re-shaped man’s world (and, as he says, changed a 10,000-year rhythm of human society) is transformational. In 2011, I read 10 of his books, including the priceless Bandits which put Hollywood’s Western genre in perspective and, among others, made me appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James as much as I understood Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. There must be something to a historian who makes you take animation seriously. Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird: This year I finally managed to read and fall in love with The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which had been sitting on my shelf since last year. It draws on the little-known true incident of a ship of European Jews forced into temporary exile in Mauritius close to the end of the Second World War and weaves around it a simple, compelling story of friendship between two boys -- one a Jewish boy in captivity, the other an Indian-origin Mauritian who has already known incredible trauma at a young age. The friendship ends in tragedy, but in the short space of its flowering and the lives that follow, Nathacha Appanah manages to explore the nature of human connection, love, and endurance, and the place of serendipity in ordering lives. A great read. My plea to my fellow Africans would be to pay more attention to writing from the more peripheral countries like Mauritius and the Lusophone countries; there is some great work coming out of the continent from all fronts. Given my fascination with language, especially sparsely-documented African languages and the stories they can tell us, I have been enjoying Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is a fascinating re-examination of the assumptions language scholars have made for years. Drawing on examples from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, he argues that contrary to popular lore, languages don’t limit what we can imagine but they do affect the details we focus on -- for example, a language like French compels you to state the gender if you say you are meeting a friend, whereas English does not. Brilliantly written and accessible, I’d recommend it for anyone who has ever considered thinking of languages in terms of superior and inferior. Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Her argument was the presumed complicity of Jews themselves in Hitler’s holocaust, which necessarily created considerable controversy. Eichmann was a loyal Nazi who ensured the deaths of many before fleeing to Argentina. He was kidnapped by Israel and put on trial, but the figure he cut seemed to the author to reveal the ultimate bureaucrat pleased with his unswerving loyalty to duly constituted authority, hence the famous “banality of evil” phrase she coined. Arendt also notes that throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, only Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria resisted rounding up their Jewish populations as unacceptable. Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: I couldn’t put down Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and wondered what took me so long discover it. The story follows a young man who returns to his village near the Nile in Sudan after years studying aboard. There is startling honesty in these pages, as well as prose so breathtakingly lyrical it makes ugly truths palatable. With a new introduction by writer Laila Lalami, even if you’ve read it once, it could be time to pick it up again. What more can I add to the rave reviews that have come out about the memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina? I found myself holding my breath in some parts, laughing in others, feeling my heart break for him as he tries to find his way in a confusing world. Wainaina’s gaze on his continent, his country, his family and friends, on himself is unflinching without being cruel. The writing is exhilarating. It explodes off the page with an energy that kept me firmly rooted in the world of his imagination and the memories of his childhood. By the end, I felt as if a new language had opened up, a way of understanding literature and identity and what it means to be from this magnificent continent of Africa in the midst of globalization. It’s been hard to consider the Arab Spring without thinking about the African immigrants who were trapped in the violence. The Italian graphic novel Etenesh by Paolo Castaldi tells of one Ethiopian woman’s harrowing journey from Addis Ababa to Libya and then on to Europe. At the mercy of human traffickers, numbed by hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert, Etenesh watches many die along the way, victims of cruelties she’ll never forget. Thousands continue to make the same trek today -- struggling to survive against all odds. Her story is a call to remember those still lost in what has become another middle passage. Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death: Habibi by Craig Thompson is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It is a graphic novel that combines several art forms at once. There is lush Arabic calligraphy that meshes with unflinching narrative that bleeds into religious folklore that remembers vivid imagery. Every page is detailed art. The main characters are an African man and an Arab woman, and both are slaves. Also, the story is simultaneously modern and ancient and this is reflected in the setting. There are harems, eunuchs, skyscrapers, pollution. I can gush on and on about this book and still not do it justice. Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter: The Help by Kathryn Stockett struck all the right chords. The plot was compelling, the characters were sympathetic, and the theme of race relations is ever topical. If you’re looking for a gritty, strictly historical portrait of life as a black maid in segregated Mississippi, perhaps this book is not for you. But if you want to be entertained, then grab The Help. Shailja Patel, author of Migritude: In this tenth anniversary year of 9/11, the hauntingly lovely Minaret by Leila Aboulela is the “9/11 novel” I recommend, for its compelling story that confounds all expectations. Hilary Mantel’s epic Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, had me riveted for a full four days. It shows how a novel can be a breathtaking ride through history, politics, and economics. Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts by P. Sainath should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the missionary enterprise of “development.” Laura Pegram, founding editor of Kweli Journal: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is “the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date.” The reader is finally allowed to know the man and his music, as well as the folks who shaped him. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe. In this novel, the reader comes to know sisters with “half-peeled scabs over old wounds” who use sex to survive in Antwerp. Winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney is a stunning work of graceful remembrance. Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Nineveh: Edited by Helon Habila, The Granta Book of the African Short Story is a satisfyingly chunky volume of 29 stories by some of the continent’s most dynamic writers, both new and established. The always excellent Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection, The Loss Library, about unfinished/unfinishable writing, offers a series of brilliant meditations on the act of writing -- or failing to write. And recently I’ve been rereading Return of the moon: Versions from the /Xam by the poet Stephen Watson, who tragically passed away earlier this year. I love these haunting interpretations of stories and testimonies from the vanished world of /Xam-speaking hunter-gatherers. Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter: Some years ago, the Chinese essayist, Liao Yiwu published The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with men and women whose aspirations, downfalls, and reversals of fortune would not be out of place in the fictions of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Hrabal. The Corpse Walker is a masterpiece, reconstructing and distilling the stories of individuals -- an Abbott, a Composer, a Tiananmen Father, among so many others -- whose lives, together, create a textured and unforgettable history of contemporary China. Liao’s empathy and humour, and his great, listening soul, have created literature of the highest calibre. My other loved books from this year are the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s story collection The Foxes Come at Night, a visionary and beautiful work, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street: Contemporary Chinese Women Writers II has got to be one of my favorite books of the year. I recently picked it up in a delightful bookshop in London. When I was growing up in Enugu, I was lucky to live very close to three bookshops, and I would often go in to browse, and sometimes buy books. It was in one of those bookstores that I discovered a dusty copy of Chinese Literature -- and I flipped through and became thoroughly enchanted. I bought the copy and had my father take out a subscription for me. For the next few years the journal was delivered to our home, and I almost always enjoyed all the stories but my favorite was a jewel by Bi Shumin titled “Broken Transformers.” I never forgot that story and was thrilled to discover it (along with five other fantastic short stories) in this anthology. Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry: Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing is a great novel that curiously remains unsung. Originally published in 1986, and reissued in 2011 with an exultant foreword by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, Search Sweet Country is a sweeping take on Ghana in the years of dire straits. As eloquent as anything you will ever read anywhere, the novel is filled with neologisms and peopled with unforgettable characters. B. Kojo Laing is sui generis. Zukiswa Wanner, author of Men of the South: On a continent where dictators are dying as new ones are born, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote remains for me one of the best political satires Africa has yet produced. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a rib-cracking book highlighting a situation that everyone with an email account has become accustomed to, 419 scam letters. The beauty and the hilarity of this book stems from the fact that it is written -- and written well -- from the perspective of a scammer. Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower: Season of Rains: Africa in the World by Stephen Ellis. It’s rare for a book to make you think about the same old subjects in fresh ways. The tell-tale sign, with me, is the yellow highlighting I feel obliged to inflict upon its pages. My copy of Ellis’ book is a mass of yellow. It’s a short and accessibly-written tome, but packs a weighty punch. Ellis tackles our preconceptions about the continent, chewing up and spitting out matters of state and questions of aid, development, culture, spirituality, Africa's past history and likely future. The cover photo and title both failed to impress me but who cares, given the content?

Confluence of Pleasures: On Reading and Tuna Fish

1. Dry Spell I'm going through a period where I'm not reading very many novels.  I really hate this. To me, every period of reading stagnation is the beginning of the slippery slope, which will lead you to one day parrot the refrain your bookish, childhood self heard from all the adults in view: "I miss reading," and "I used to read a lot, too." Telling a young bookworm that reading is something people might stop doing is like telling people who just fell in love that a day will come when they won't want to have sex all the time.  No one is trying to hear this. Many of the books I have read are indexed by place and time. Usually there is nothing particularly meaningful about the occasion, and the memory is populated by mundane details--this book goes with a bus in that city; that one under the hostess stand at that restaurant; the other belongs in a purse I used to have, and wish I had still. But there is a flash point where the book you are reading is exactly the book you should and want to be reading at that moment, and the combination renders the occasion of your reading so intensely pleasurable that you remember it for years as a halcyon day in your life. In a dry spell, I find myself fantasizing about these greatest hits of my reading past, fetishizing afternoons on couches lost to time. These are not the kind of memories with a facile cinematic chronology--it's impossible to create a montage of a girl supine for eight hours with Of Human Bondage.  And while you can think long about a particular book--its plot or its meaning--there is no narrative to an epic reading of a book as there is with other life moments (He said x, and then he kissed me; the phone rang, they rescued Timmy from the well.) Reading memories are intensely boring to describe to someone else in any detail.  Reading memories are cat memories--a sunbeam, a warm spot, a heaven-sent breeze, distant voices. Often, there are snacks. 2. Food I was moved  by Leah Carroll's poignant essay about the foods in which she takes comfort.  I am a creature of habit, and I form periods of intense attachment to foods, just as I do with books.  For me, many comfort foods are profoundly connected to my reading memories; books, like food, provide rich and varied nourishment, often greater than the sum of their ingredients.  Taken in conjunction, books and food are a potent, comprehensive, and very private source of happiness.  Proust's madeleine would feel more real to me had Proust, upon discovering the power of the cookie, obtained a huge box and eaten them while reading all seven Chronicles of Narnia. On a summer Saturday, probably 2004, I mixed tuna fish in my mother's style--with plain yogurt, a touch of mayonnaise, green onion, black pepper, and lemon--and spread it on melba toast crackers.  I poured a coca-cola over ice.  I took the plate to the couch, lay down, and read Lolita all the way through.  And verily it was one of the most pleasant days of my life. I remember a tuna fish sandwich and The Blind Assassin, sprawled on the same couch, on the same kind of summer afternoon.  Tuna fish is writ large in my reading life, but only prepared in this precise way (with yogurt; the bread can be different, and sometimes I put mustard).  When I need to manufacture happiness, I make tuna fish. The fall I read 2666 coincided with my rediscovery of a very plain spaghetti I remembered eating every day one summer in my childhood--a spaghetti with butter, salt, and a mild cheese.  Unsurprisingly, given its flavor profile and ingredients, I was crazy for this dish with a kind of fevered passion, which is just how I felt about 2666.  The day I cranked through most of volume 2 was a day I did two things that are almost impossible:  I read with a blinding hangover and I read while eating spaghetti.  I think I made the spaghetti twice that day, so abandoned was I to hangover and booklust. Like 2666, part of the appeal of the spaghetti was how delicious it was, and its impossibility as a permanent and frequent fixture in my snack rotation. I was wild for the book, and the spaghetti, but you cannot read 2666 every day, and butter spaghetti must be used infrequently, lest it lose its great effect, and you develop a pallor. It was not my first spaghetti madness.  One lonely high school summer spent in a new country, I plundered my parents' pantry of commissary-bought cans and dry goods.  I invented a version of canned clam sauce, heavy on white wine, and ate it every afternoon while reading the assembled works of A.S. Byatt.  Possession tastes like canned clams and coca cola with a splash of wine; it sounds like the beetle that tapped faintly from behind the living room wall. In 2005 I read The Sea, The Sea, and my encounter with Charles Arrowby's homely yet intensely provocative food interests coincided with (or influenced, possibly) a period during which I ate cabbage and carrot salad every single day for several months.  (Fear not, gentle readers, I ate other things too.) An Arrowby meal, for the uninitiated: . . . spaghetti with a little butter and dried basil . . . Then spring cabbage cooked slowly with dill.  Boiled onions served with bran, herbs, soya oil, and tomatoes, with one egg beaten in.  With these a slice or two of cold tinned corned beef. In my beloved salad, the red or green cabbage is thinly sliced, the carrots grated.  I add tiny slivers of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and a lot of salt.  At the end, I drag my bread across the bowl and it is stained orange with the remaining oil and the life blood of carrots.  I know this as a Greek winter salad, but my beloved roommate of the period made cabbage and carrot in her home Tatarstan.  Cabbage and carrot is home food across great distances. I remember eating a bowl of this and a loaf of the airy bread procured from my corner shop, lying on the bed with Iris Murdoch's best novel, and smoking cigarettes.  This memory is especially riddled with nostalgia--now there are no more cigarettes, there is no more bread eaten in number 5  Happy Street (actual address) in a distant Istanbul suburb.  I still make cabbage and carrot salads, but they are simulacra. Some foods are not my own creation.  Another summer I spent every one of my lunch breaks eating xoriatiki salata from the same cafe while reading the majority of Stephen King's novels.  Greek salad and The Stand are intimations of heaven on earth.  During some weeks I was left to my own devices I contrived to eat the platonic ideal of chicken and rice at Philippou, the most wonderful restaurant in all of Greece, every day that I had the money to acquire it.  That's where I read Under the Volcano.  I went back years later and took my beloved, but I cannot recapture the feeling of those hot days in a cool room, the whir of fans and the silverware clinking on the plates of the regulars, the ruination of Geoffrey Firmin. Probably my nostalgia is less for the these books and these tuna fish crackers, but for lost places, lost summers, lost time (Oh hallo, Marcel--do pass the madeleines). Every passing year makes an afternoon spent on the couch less an inalienable right and more of a louche extravagance.  Every year I see more clearly the first-world silliness of a spoilt youth eating dozens of baked chicken portions in a classy Athenian restaurant.  I wouldn't talk sense into her now, though.  These memories are too precious. All is not lost and melancholic.  The dry spell will end, god willing.  There are still books to read in snatched half-hours; there is passionate reading in our future.  There is still tuna fish and cabbage salad. (Image: Dijon-Cilantro Tuna Salad on Whole Grain Bread from galant's photostream)

Of Human Limitations

I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now). A year later, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for my sixth grade library project. I chose the novel for the sole reason that I had heard it was the longest book ever written. It took me a semester to read, and though my presentation (in verse, obviously) lasted only ten minutes, the social repercussions of being such an outrageous, unprecedented show-off lasted easily until I (inevitably) changed schools. It seems far too grandiose to presume that we are what we read. But if our persona as a reader is shaped, perhaps not by the books we choose, but by why we choose them, then this was my ignoble beginning: as a stubborn, competitive show-off. I wish I could say that I was drawn to those books because of a precocious curiosity in their subjects. I wish I had lingered over Fowles’ Darwinian pontification rather than viewing it as bland nutrition that made the (disappointingly few, considering the title) love scenes seem that much more flavorful. But apart from the reasons given above, my outside interest in reading those two books was, at the time, negligible. It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read.  And the latter category won over the former time and time again. No doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove - right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons. Until recently, when I began writing about literature, I’d all but forgotten about that exercise in Pynchon, and what I wrote to my teacher at the time. But though I’m no longer particularly fixated on the psychology behind my persona as a reader, I now desperately want to define my persona as a writer. I’ve heard it said that when you’ve found your style - whether in writing or any other form of creative expression - like a successful love affair, it just flows. For a long time, I fantasized about writing the sort of obsessively analytical criticism that involves impossibly vast theories and encompasses broad surveys of literary works. (Admittedly, this is a peculiar fantasy.) But now that writing is actually supposed to be, well, lucrative, doubts begin to arise. That genre of writing, for me, is far more about effort than flow. It doesn’t always come easily. It isn’t always so natural. Oh, well. Perhaps not all of us, as writers, are cut with the analytic capabilities of Harold Bloom. Given years, of course, I might be able to achieve something passably close to maybe the worst thing he’s ever written. But it might be a waste of my potential as a writer (not to mention my finances) slaving to be a second-rate Bloom when I could be a first-rate someone else entirely. The existential struggle of settling into the sort of writer I am is not so different from coming to terms with the sort of reader I am. Perhaps not all of us are meant to read Gaddis. That’s not such a curse, is it? We all can read Gaddis, we should certainly try, but to fruitlessly labor - at the expense of reading books with which we share a natural chemistry - might once again be a waste. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at reading, just as we should stick to what we’re good at writing. But, my inner Vikram-Seth-reading obnoxious brat whines, I don’t want to just write what comes naturally. I want to write the harder stuff. If writing about literature, for lack of a less irritating word, is my “art,” then what do artists do if not struggle and suffer for their art? And implement unsound financial policies? I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be. Since then, as a reader at least, I’ve come to see the struggle in a very different light. A few years after Gravity’s Rainbow, I struggled through Of Human Bondage - which made the process of reading the novel actually resemble human bondage. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his New York Times review of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, described the use of the “deliberate stimulation of the reader as part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience.” Struggle is such a stimulation. I was as frustrated by my compulsion to finish the book as I was frustrated by the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist Peter Carey, and the inexplicably poor decisions he made again and again. Peter and I commiserated in our frustration. We united against the author, our common enemy. Finally, on the last page of the book, Maugham writes, “It may be that to surrender to happiness is to accept defeat, but it is a defeat better than many victories.” I knew exactly what Maugham meant right then. And just like that, all three of us were free.

Modern Library Revue: #72 A House for Mr. Biswas

I don't tend to condemn books solely because the writer was some variety of wretch.  But I have done so if I think it will create a smoke-screen for the fact that I did not understand the book.  For example, the poems of Ezra Pound mystify me, so I make sure to remind people quite needlessly that he was an anti-semitic, Grade A Best Quality fuckwad.  On the other hand, I recently learned that Eric Gill, famous book arts figure, sexually abused members of his family.  Since this revelation, I have scrapped my plans for an Eric Gill tattoo, but I still think his art is beautiful and I look at it from time to time, with a furrowed brow.  It is a very troublesome thing, the space we make in our hearts for the horrible--if they make something we like, that is.  About the creator of a beloved work it is easier for people to be more relaxed, to make hand gestures and say things like "What a man, but what an artist" (cf Of Human Bondage, I think, for the quotation). I'm not looking to sign a Free Polanski petition, but I think I understand the motivation behind (some) of his apologists. Moving on, several years ago I remember reading Naipaul's A Way in the World and finding it very boring and hard to understand.  Although, having just this minute skimmed a few reviews, it seems that either I was actually reading a different book altogether, possibly a math textbook, or that I am an incurable philistine.  In fairness, this may have been during one of the still frequent and inexplicable periods in my life when the only things I want to read are A Girl of the Limberlost or Betsy In Spite of Herself ('bout that time now, actually), and should attempt nothing else. (Although I have since this writing completed A Bend in the River, my tepid reaction to which I've shared here before.) Recognizing that V. S. Naipaul is a Distinguished Man of Letters I felt sheepish about not enjoying A Way in the World, but I received a boon in the form of an article about him, one which painted him as a terrible bastard.  So I felt that all was well, and turned my defeat into a victory over sin.  It was in this admirable spirit that I approached A House for Mr. Biswas, disdainful and yet cagy, as you would a fraud you suspect is smarter than you.  My prejudice colored the first third of the book, so that when things got grimly fun and picaresque, I reminded myself that V. S. Naipaul is a jerk.  By the end, though, I had become a quiet convert to the novel's quiet charms.  By which I do not mean to say that I wish to hold hands with V. S. Naipaul or lie down next to him, rather that I found the story very stirring and sad.  It warmed and then unpleasantly squeezed my small heart. The novel is about the shortish life of a singular man named Mohun Biswas.  The narrative opens with a prologue, which explains the whole story in a nutshell, and tells us that Mr. Biswas is ill and not long for this world.  Chapter one begins with his birth in a village hut on the island of Trinidad, and the story takes us through the whole circus of his life.  Mr. Biswas is born, he gets hustled into marriage, and for 500 pages he laments his life, has nervous breakdowns of varying degrees of magnitude, and schemes to acquire a house.  He gets the house, it's miserable and then magical, he gets sick, and dies.  He has four children, lots of jobs, little money, a shitload of inlaws, and the most ornery, pathetic, foolish, cruel and marginally lovable disposition you could imagine.  And I don't mean he is simply the third-world equivalent to the protagonist of a My Dick novel.  He is something special.  This is not a bildungsroman; it is a Biswasroman. Although, like I said, I started the novel with an ill will and was disinclined to like anybody in it, I think Naipaul very carefully forged the narrative so that the reader goes through a variety of stages with regard to Mr. Biswas.  You are angry that he is such a pain in the ass and mean to his wife.  You are depressed about his living conditions, even though he is living better than many.  You admit that his life has become unmanageable.   You deny that you are enjoying the book.   You accept that you kind of like Mr. Biswas.  You write V. S. Naipaul a letter apologizing.  Or something like that.  He also lulls you, that V. S. Naipaul, referring to Mr. Biswas as "Mr. Biswas" from page one.  The use of the honorific for someone to whom so little honor is given, but who takes himself so seriously, it tugs at the heart.   There are lots of things that tug at the heart, especially toward the end.  Their son Anand, a clever, touchy bastard like his father, gets third in the school exhibition exams, and I felt so relieved, like I, too, had put all my happiness eggs in his brain basket.  I just wish he had written more letters home once he went off to abroad. There is something distant, almost cold, about the writing; it doesn't feel like Naipaul is holding everybody in his hand, rather at arm's length.  But he must have had some affection for this family to write about them so; maybe it's a case of being very stern and grumpy with everyone so that you don't collapse into sniffles. What a man but what an artist, and all that.

Modern Library Revue #66: Of Human Bondage

Modern Library Revue is Lydia Kiesling's irreverent, ongoing treatment of the Modern Library's 100 best novels of the twentieth century. Lydia is a graduate of Hamilton College. She is an ardent book-lover and has spent the last two years working in the antiquarian book trade. The Modern Library project was recently born at her blog, Widmerpool's Modern Library Revue.Of Human Bondage is a healing salve for life's pernicious rash. It is a special shoe for the clubfoot of my mind. I have not always felt this way. First I hated the protagonist Philip Carey with what I now realize was the hatred you can only feel for people you think are nerds, who you then realize are just like you. I'm not some kind of sad weirdo or anything, but haven't we all been teased by our schoolmates? Haven't we all thought we were good at something only to learn that we sucked at it? Haven't we all been sick with love for some unsuitable, puppy-kicking wretch? Haven't we, I ask you? After this realization I got to appreciating Philip Carey's modest charms, and I go back to them whenever I have a long train ride or an empty Sunday. So many epochs in orphaned, differently-abled Philip's life to revisit! Let's see some highlights:Philip goes to live with his vile uncle, the Vicar of Blackstable. He only gets to eat the top of the hard boiled egg, and mustn't play on Sundays.Philip goes to school, where the children mock his clubfoot, and the object of his bromantic affection spurns him.Philip goes to Heidelberg and drinks beer with a Byronic nitwit.Philip goes home and gets erotic with a cougar-type person, but it's a disappointment. Women are a drag. Welcome to the world, chum!Now it's time to join the middle-class grind, wherein you pay someone to work in their office. Boring!Philip's off to Paris to learn painting! He wears soft pants and talks to drunkards!Philip is bad at painting. Chuck!Medical school, repeatedly.Philip falls in love with a trashy bit of stuff called Mildred. She's just not that into him. She'll do it with literally anyone except him. Misery!Philip spends his tiny inheritance on Mildred and the stock market. He sleeps on a bench.Philip goes hop-picking, an allegedly fun vacation for the impecunious. There he has relations with a veritable infant. She guesses she'll marry him. Philip is happy! The sun is shining!It's a huge novel filled with embarrassing truths about the various stages of emotional development, about the people one meets and the ways one tries to kick free from society's traces. You can imagine a sardonic arch to the author's eyebrow as he wrote about young Philip's vagaries. I read Of Human Bondage before I read anything else by Maugham, so when I read The Razor's Edge shortly after I said to myself, "What is this malarkey?" Of Human Bondage is much earlier, and belongs to the tradition of Thomas Hardy and Samuel Butler and feeling bad and being Victorian, except that Maugham had a superior sense of humor.The Razor's Edge is later Maugham (1944), written when he was very famous and accustomed to fraternizing with society people and spiritual types. It has the taint of sophistication and of "California Chris" Isherwood. I die for Maugham always, especially the short stories, but his later work can seem rushed and less than fully-realized compared to Of Human Bondage. The Painted Veil, for example, reads as though he thought it up during a short lie-down and wrote it before dinner. It's not a bad novel and I am certainly not calling William Somerset Maugham a hack; nonetheless, beside the massive achievement of OHB, some of the other things look a touch moth-eaten. Maugham himself wrote that he was "in the very first row of the second-raters," which evidently made him sad. I think that assertion is way harsh. I just think that Of Human Bondage was his Ultimate Literary Jam.
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