This year, like many before it, my year in reading was largely a record of my year in teaching, as a majority of the books I read were books I assigned in classes taught during spring semester, a summer session, and fall semester. This means that I was either rereading books I admire or, in some cases, reading for the first time books that I hoped and expected to admire. (Industry secret: Professors, on occasion, have not previously read the books they assign.)
This year I had roughly 30 books on my syllabi, 20 of which I had read before. I very happily reread Alice McDermott’s That Night and Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, for perhaps the eighth time each. It was a painful pleasure to revisit Bartleby and Ivan Ilyich, James Welch’s magnificent Winter in the Blood, Toni Morrison’s elusive Love, Glenway Wescott’s underappreciated The Pilgrim Hawk, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams, which has held up nicely indeed.
The books I had not read previously are almost all books I will eagerly read again, including Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, Lucia Berlin’s Where I Live Now, Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, Elizabeth McCracken’s Thunderstruck. I was completely bowled over by Rebecca Lee’s collection Bobcat and Other Stories.
And then there’s always the “busman’s holiday” books, the ones I sneak in during breaks in teaching. This year I enjoyed the novellas in Dorthe Nors’s So Much for that Winter and the exhilarating stories in Jensen Beach’s Swallowed by the Cold. Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline was published nearly two years ago and has been thoroughly celebrated at this point, but I just got to it over the summer. Everyone was right: Outline is indeed thrilling in its form and point of view, and it’s a genuinely innovative book. I haven’t been as excited about a novel in a long time. It will no doubt make its way onto a syllabus soon.
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After the authorial point-of-view penetrates, after the characters have been made flesh, after the scent of New England wafts and the starburst leaves shimmer like a smoke screen before your eyes, the tensions tip us forward, the rhythm of our breath matches the rhythm of the prose, and just like that, we’re drinking pages — 10, 20, 100 at a time. This full-immersion baptism is what John Gardner calls the “vivid, continuous dream,” and it’s the reading experience we long for. Short stories can move us in this way, but they rarely do. Novels are often more conducive to this rapture. Instead, short stories move us in different ways, offering flashes of wisdom, linguistic pyrotechnics, provocative dialogue, tantalizing ideas. But Edith Pearlman, in her new collection, Honeydew — magically, gracefully — accomplishes both of these feats. The flourish is where it should be: far from the nose, underwater, begging for another dive, another dive, another dive.
The phrases “master of the short form” and “undiscovered genius” didn’t start appearing next to Pearlman’s name until her fourth and much-lauded collection, Binocular Vision, came out in 2011. Why was she only then catapulted to the top shelf of Literary Land Yiyun Li clues us in when she says Pearlman “works outside the noise.” She eschews gimmick and shock and ignores the standard of the day to begin in media res. This is good old fashioned fashioning: sumptuous feasts of character, place, plot; beginning-middle-end; generous, wise, et al. Binocular Vision gave us a beautiful vagary of Jews, Gentiles, and pagans of all shapes, colors, and sizes grappling to either accommodate or be accommodated to. We saw a war doctor battling cancer, a seven-year-old girl separated from her parents near Harvard Square, an exiled minister of health holed up in a barn, fearing arrest for her liberal politics. We saw loads of disappointed, flawed, charming, and somewhat self-alienated people. “I love to write about what isn’t me,” Pearlman told The Boston Globe. Many of her stories take place in Godolphin, a fictional, first-wrung suburb of Boston, which she described for Beatrice in 2005:
Bow-fronted apartment buildings line Jefferson Boulevard; trolley tracks run down its middle like a zipper. In the town live ancient Yankees, prosperous Jews, envious academics; shopkeepers, secretaries, music teachers; Asian-Americans, Irish Americans, Russian almost-Americans. A few inhabitants sleep in alleys. Godolphinites exhibit every sexual preference including the preference to be left alone.
Whether in Godolphin or elsewhere, the stories of Honeydew often explore how one person’s societal remove — however painful or quotidian — pushes them to the brink of isolation and forces them to bumble out into the world in search of connection. In the opening story, “Tenderfoot,” Bobby Farraday, a young divorcé, moves to a smallish town to teach art history at the local college. The bathroom window of his top floor apartment offers a plain view into the pedicure parlor across the street and, more importantly, of the parlor’s owner, Paige, a 49-year-old widow. “Secretly he considered himself more than her neighbor. He was her invisible housemate…he stood to watch the pedicures, but usually sat on the lidded toilet, like a peep-show connoisseur.” Pearlman repeatedly thrills us by opening up secret worlds, and it’s because of the exquisite care with which these worlds are formed that we come to care deeply about her people (“characters” just doesn’t cut it).
Secrets are hoarded, shared, withheld, and sometimes tacitly roil between two characters. This tug-of-silent-war, this intimacy of knowing what is hidden/seen, fuels characters with intractable and often baffling powers. Because of this, the stakes often feel extremely high. In “Dream Children,” for example, a live-in nanny named Willa stumbles upon her employer’s stash of gruesome paintings. With these paintings comes the secret pains of their maker. When Willa chooses to make this information known to her employer conjures the wager of gaining compassion — or perhaps losing her job.
The Jewish diaspora continue to make their mark in Pearlman’s work, but she seems more concerned with the broader world’s sometimes darker subject matter. In a heartbreaking story, “What the Ax Forgets, the Tree Remembers,” Gabrielle volunteers for the local chapter of the Society Against Female Mutilation, where she coordinates victim presentations. She routinely checks in on a Somalian victim, Selene, and gets thrust into an unpremeditated but not unwelcome intimacy. Our own secrets, rather than others’, can surprise us the most. In another, “Honeydew,” the last story and perhaps the strongest, Pearlman takes on anorexia. Emily Knapp, a 90-pound 11th grader, has an obsession with bugs. “She dined among her dead insects, admiring chitinous exoskeletons while she put one of three carrot sticks into her mouth.” Alice Toomey, the headmistress of Caldecott Academy wants Emily kicked out, but she’s preoccupied with her own secret love affair.
Sometimes the secret isn’t so much of a secret but more of a private world. “Castle 4,” (a novel in miniature, really), another standout, offers a trio of love stories. The story takes place in and around a High Victorian Gothic hospital, which people refer to as “the Castle.” It begins as a straightforward tale about an isolated, discontent, socially awkward anesthesiologist named Zeph Finn who falls for a dying patient, but Pearlman, in a feat of omniscience, deftly lifts the view and draws our attention to Acelle, a sixth-grade Filipina, who slips in the woods beyond the Castle and is stabbed in her upper thigh with a narrow branch. Her playmate Joe comes to her rescue. On the ground floor of the Castle, the manager of the gift shop falls for Acelle’s father, the security guard. It’s tempting to summarize the whole story, because it’s so lush, so impeccably designed and economized that it makes you want to give Pearlman an Honorary Novel degree.
“Wait and See,” previously collected in xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths, is the most obvious homage to the fairy tale, which has always earned its energies by private invitations. Like a pigeon or a butterfly, young Lyle is believed to be a pentachromat, meaning his retinas have five types of light-absorbing pigment, allowing him to see a thunderous wonder of colors. This gift, this “mischievous gene,” the doctors believe, was most likely passed down from Lyle’s sperm donor father, an African, “unknown bestower of semen.” Lyle is “like Anansi, the helpful spider of his favorite tales — a quiet ally who prefers his own company but skitters over to join you when you need him.” His head might be in the clouds, but in this case, the clouds are not dreams but an intricate reality. Like a magic carriage or enticing apple, Lyle is offered a way out of his isolated view with a pair of trichromatic glasses. The choice is loaded — joining the crowd, seeing things how others see them, or holding on to the one obvious thing that makes you who you are?
The shortest stories are the most forgettable. In “Her Cousin Jamie,” two teaching colleagues sit at a hotel bar and one is gripped by a memory of her cousin’s love affair. Once the story gets traction, it barrels into a tragic surprise, but the conversational frame feels unnecessary. “The Decent of Happiness,” one of the few stories in the first-person, feels more like an anecdote. A woman of indeterminate age looks back on a single memory when she was eight and went on a house call with her father, the country doctor. When the patient’s wolf-like dog bounds after her, she has her first ruminations of death. It’s not a bad story, just uncharacteristically rushed. Even so, there’s always wisdom to be found in a Pearlman story: “…I have discovered through the years that anyone who restricts his conversational responses to what he knows — what he knows he knows — will always seem to have an extraordinary, well-stocked mind.”
What holds these 20 together is what holds all of Pearlman’s stories together: recurring characters, settings, themes of love, loss, innocence, and the manifold forms of hunger and exile. There are a fair amount of widowers, divorcées, fussy loners, unsettled Jews, and therapists masquerading as small business owners, and they’re all so attentively and compassionately rendered that they rarely, if ever, blur. The distinct beginning/middle/end lends many of the stories a “once upon a time”/“one day this bad thing happened,” fairy tale structure. Make no mistake, Edith Pearlman’s world is grounded in reality, but as with John Cheever, John Updike, A.S. Byatt, and V.S. Pritchett, among others, her stories hold a reverence for the magical, the anomalous, and the chance encounters all around us.
In the afterward of Paris Stories, Mavis Gallant says, “Stories are not chapters in novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.” But when a story collection is a considered a page-turner, it’s high praise. Usually, I heed Gallant’s advice, because every word counts in a story. Often, you need to re-read, let it settle, but something about this book feels so urgent, so wise, and it had me turning pages until the wee hours. So, what is the proper way to approach it? Lucky for us: either, both, and then again.
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
July is the month of revolutions, so much so that in France’s upheaval even the month itself was swept away. The French Revolution that began with the liberation of the Bastille on July 14 tried to reinvent many traditions from the ground up — the metric system lasted longer than most — and the calendar was among them: under the new regime 1792 was declared Year I, with 12 newly defined months of three ten-day weeks each. (Since that only adds up to 360, the five or six days left over became national holidays, les jours complémentaires, at the end of the year.) The poet Fabre d’Églantine was given the task of choosing names for the new months, among them the two that overlapped the traditional span of July: Messidor, from “harvest,” and Thermidor, from “heat” (British wags were said to have suggested “Wheaty” and “Heaty” as local equivalents). Each day of the year received an individual name too, inspired by plants, animals, and tools: In Year II, for example, luckless Fabre d’Églantine was executed for corruption by his own revolution on Laitue (Lettuce), the 16th day of Germinal. He handed out his poems on his way to the guillotine.
By comparison, America’s revolution hardly altered its calendar, except for the new Fourth of July celebration (which didn’t become an official federal holiday until 1870). For fiction that evokes the American Independence Day, you can turn to Ross Lockridge Jr.’s nearly forgotten epic, Raintree County, which uses the single day of July 4, 1892, to look back on a century of American history, while George Pelecanos’s King Suckerman crackles to a final showdown at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington D.C., and Frank Bascombe, in Richard Ford’s Independence Day (a Pulitzer winner like Raintree County), attempts a father-son reconciliation with a July Fourth weekend visit to those shrines to American male bonding, the baseball and basketball Halls of Fame.
Here is a list of suggested reading for the heat and upheaval of July:
The Federalist Papers by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (1788)
Anybody can have a revolution: the real achievement of the American experiment was building a system of government that could last, as argued for in these crucial essays on democracy and the balance of powers.
Autobiography by John Stuart Mill (1873)
In July 1806, the scholar James Mill challenged a fellow new father to “a fair race with you in the education of a son.” It’s hard to imagine Mill didn’t win: his son, John Stuart Mill, was reading Greek at three and was a formidable classicist by 12. His memoir of his precocious childhood remains a legend of Victorian education.
The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922)
No Antarctic tourist would choose the height of the southern winter for a visit, but that’s when emperor penguins nest, so Cherry-Garrard and two companions set out on a foolhardy scientific expedition across the Ross Ice Shelf in the darkness of the Antarctic July, a “Winter Journey” that became the centerpiece of Cherry-Garrard’s classic account of the otherwise doomed Scott Expedition.
“Why I Live at the P.O.” by Eudora Welty (1941)
Why? Because they all ganged up on her: Mama slapped her face and Papa-Daddy called her a hussy and even Uncle Rondo threw a package of firecrackers into her bedroom at 6:30 in the morning, all because Stella-Rondo came home on the Fourth of July and turned them all against her, that’s why.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon (1959)
Before there was John Frankenheimer’s film in 1962, there was Condon’s original Cold War fantasia — the direct source of most of the movie’s deliciously bizarre dialogue and convoluted paranoia — which begins with an Army patrol that goes missing in Korea in July before being saved by their sergeant, Raymond Shaw, the finest, bravest, most admirable person they’ve ever known.
The Great Brain Reforms by John D. Fitzgerald (1973)
The fifth of Fitzgerald’s eight Great Brain books is perhaps the finest and most dramatic in the superb series for kids set in turn-of-the-century Utah, with a story of a rigged Fourth of July tug-of-war between the Mormons and the Gentiles and a rare comeuppance for Tom, the charming, swindling Great Brain himself.
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
“It rained all that night. The next day was Saturday, the Fourth of July.” There’s no danger of spoiling the ending of Shaara’s Pulitzer-winning novel of Gettysburg by giving away its final words, but knowing the battle’s outcome makes the drama no less appealing.
Saturday Night by Susan Orlean (1990)
Orlean’s first book, a traveling celebration of the ways Americans spend their traditional night of leisure — dancing, cruising, dining out, staying in — follows no particular season, but it’s an ideal match for July, the Saturday night of months, when you are just far enough into summer to enjoy it without a care for the inevitable approach of fall.
Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant (2002)
What better way to celebrate Canada Day and Bastille Day (and Independence Day, too, for that matter) than with the stories of Montreal’s great expatriate writer, who left empty-handed for Paris with a plan to make herself a writer of fiction before she was 30 and found an American audience for her stories in The New Yorker for six decades afterwards.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy (2005)
It’s July 11 and everything is in place: the glum pianist playing Rachmaninoff, the liver lady frying liver in a pan, the motorcycle enthusiast clanging in the courtyard, and the staff ready behind the scenes for the first re-enactment in McCarthy’s relentlessly provocative (and diabolically approachable) experiment in fiction, in which a suddenly wealthy man’s attempt to recreate his own fleeting past exposes the limits and seductions of memory and the tyranny of unlimited power.
The Damned Utd by David Peace (2006)
Brian Clough’s unlikely decision in 1974 to manage Leeds United, the club that had once been his bitterest rival, began a spectacularly disastrous 44-day summer reign that Peace transformed, with his propulsive and obsessive style, into what many have called the greatest novel on English football.
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman (2007)
“This summer’s houseguest. Another bore.” Hardly. For teenage Elio, the intrusion of a young American academic into his family’s Italian summer sets off a summer’s passion whose intensity upends his life and still sears his memory in Aciman’s elegant story of remembered, inelegant desire.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)
Five years are all it’s taken for the marriage of Amy and Nick, a once-high-flying media couple, to curdle, and Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary, July 5, sets off this twisted autopsy of a marriage gone violently wrong.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In 2010 I read Mavis Gallant’s collections, Varieties of Exile and Paris Stories. Gallant is in her 80s, a Canadian who moved to Paris in 1950, an important writer about whom I knew nothing, I’d heard her name. My Gallant discovery –- in reading, the discoveries that count are ones you make for yourself — started when browsing in St. Marks Bookstore, where I noticed a new book from the NYRB press; its title intrigued me, Varieties of Exile, so I read a sentence, became excited, bought it, and read each story. I felt (and feel) wild about her brilliant language and the complexity of her mind, the sophistication and breadth of Gallant’s experiences and complementary syntax. Her stories are as richly puzzling and daunting as Henry James’s, Edith Wharton’s and Chekhov’s. In the US we’re overwhelmed with novels of inexperience and memoirs of bad experiences. Gallant’s fiction comes from lived experience, knowing-ness, and out of intellectually fertile situations, where troubled, fascinating characters, not good, not bad, are as alive as words get. Her stories –- some set during and after World War II — carry history into the continuous present. I’ve just started reading an out of print copy of Paris Notebooks, her day to day observations of May 1968. So, I feel lucky. In this past decade, I’ve discovered Mavis Gallant and Paula Fox, for myself, and even in this fiercely stupid, dull ugliness we live in now, they shine. Hell, they light me up.
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Lauren Groff’s fiction has appeared in journals including The Atlantic Monthly and Ploughshares and the most recent editions of the Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, will be out in February.This year I fell in love with the New York Review of Books Classics series, which reissues books that are either out-of-print or wildly underappreciated. Among the best were Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, John Williams’s Stoner, and Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls and The Slynx – a Gogol-esque dystopian tale. But the absolute sockdolager was Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, which I read slowly and breathlessly – and when I finished I was furious that nobody had ever told me about Gallant and all her staggering talent before now.From other sources, I loved Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep – electrifying, human – as well as Junot Diaz’s The The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. On a long car trip, I listened to an audiobook of Huckleberry Finn – the reader’s voice was the opposite of my internal reading voice, and it became a whole new book to me, layered atop the old book I knew so well.Also, because I moved full-time to Florida, my father-in-law lent me a copy of this strange old essay collection called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King, which is supposed to explain/lampoon the south to northerners (the cover: a tiny blonde in a Confederate flag with a mint julep in hand). Yikes. It’s cringe-inducing, but makes me laugh, and I often find myself reading it when I should probably be reading other things.More from A Year in Reading 2007