If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
Geoff Dyer, author of Otherwise Known as the Human Condition.
Chad Harbach, author of The Art of Fielding.
Deborah Eisenberg, author of Collected Stories.
Duff McKagan, author of It’s So Easy: And Other Lies, former bassist for Guns N’ Roses.
Nathan Englander, author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.
Amy Waldman, author of The Submission.
Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.
David Bezmozgis, author of The Free World.
Emma Straub, author of Other People We Married.
Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen.
Philip Levine, Poet Laureate of the United States.
Mayim Bialik, actress, author of Beyond the Sling.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The Walkmen.
Chris Baio, bassist for Vampire Weekend.
Bill Morris, staff writer at The Millions.
Rosecrans Baldwin, author of You Lost Me There.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer at the LA Times.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer at The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, Tumblrer at The Millions, books editor at The New Inquiry.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Melting Season.
Dennis Cooper, author of The Marbled Swarm.
Alex Ross, author of Listen to This, New Yorker music critic.
Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood.
Yaşar Kemal, author of They Burn the Thistles.
Siddhartha Deb, author of The Beautiful and The Damned: A Portrait of the New India.
David Vann, author of Legend of a Suicide.
Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
Edie Meidav, author of Lola, California.
Ward Farnsworth, author of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric.
Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation and Other Stories.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament.
Brad Listi, founder of The Nervous Breakdown.
Alex Shakar, author of Luminarium.
Denise Mina, author of The End of the Wasp Season.
Christopher Boucher, author of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
Patrick Brown, staff writer at The Millions.
Jacob Lambert, freelance writer, columnist, contributor to The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of Last Night in Montreal, staff writer at The Millions.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family, staff writer at The Millions.
Jeff Martin, author of The Late American Novel.
Jane Alison, author of The Sisters Antipodes.
Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case.
Nuruddin Farah, author of Crossbones.
Natasha Wimmer, translator of The Third Reich.
Jean-Christophe Vatlat, author of Aurorarama.
Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination.
Brooke Hauser, author of The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens.
Belinda McKeon, author of Solace.
Ellis Avery, author of The Teahouse Fire.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
A.N. Devers, editor of Writers’ Houses.
Mark Bibbins, author of The Dance of No Hard Feelings.
Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.
Rachel Syme, NPR contributor.
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The nominees for the 2011 PEN/Faulkner fiction award have been announced. The books in the running are Millions Hall of Famer A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Egan profiled at The Millions); The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg (Eisenberg profiled at The Millions); National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon; Model Home by Eric Puchner (one of our “20 More Under 40“); and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives by Brad Watson (Brad Watson’s Year in Reading 2009).
I read some exceptional new books this year, including Brian Dillon’s The Hypochondriacs, Adam Levin’s The Instructions, Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, Amitava Kumar’s A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, and especially the latest iteration of Mark Twain’s autobiography, and I discovered the amazing John Jeremiah Sullivan thanks to Lorin Stein’s debut issue of The Paris Review. I’ve discussed most of these books at more length, at my website, NPR, Salon, and elsewhere. Mostly, though, I’ve been focused on (for real this time) finishing up my own novel.
When I’m writing, really writing, I read selfishly. Not only do I want to be awestruck, I want to be driven to write better — as well as I possibly can — and I want to feel that the book I’m reading, however superior to my own work, shows me how I might do that. I want it to lead by example.
By now I have no idea how many times I’ve read and re-read Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a wry, sly, and piercingly insightful book about a group of elderly friends who start receiving anonymous crank calls telling them to “remember you must die.” I’m reluctant to describe the plot that way, though it is in fact in some loose sense the plot, because it makes the novel sound gimmicky and dully experimental, when in fact it is neither of those things. The characters are fleshy, fully alive on the page; the dialogue is true and deadly, and very, very funny; and the story is sexy and propulsive: past and present dalliances and double-crossings are always threatening to be revealed.
“The fact that Spark is so unbelievably and witchily entertaining,” her editor Barbara Epler recently argued, “has kept her from her full share of glory as the greatest British writer of the 20th century. Humor has never been the long suit of most critics.”
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By most external measures, Deborah Eisenberg has been on a roll lately. There are the rarefied reviews that greeted 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes (“masterful”; “masterly”; “wise, careful, benevolent“). There’s the 2009 MacArthur “Genius” Grant. And, just this month, there’s the publication of a 950-plus page omnibus that – like a camera pulling back from a single edifice to reveal the skyline’s sweep – lays bare the scope of what she’s been up to these last 30 years.
If Eisenberg’s Collected Stories tell us anything, though, it’s that external measures are the least interesting kind, and, reached by phone at her New York apartment, she expresses a kind of shambolic bemusement at her achievements, as though they might just as easily have accrued to some other fiction writer who shares her name. “I’m terribly inarticulate,” she apologizes at one point. “Glacially slow,” is how she describes her process at another.
Actually, she’s frightfully quick. In conversation as on the page, she moves fluidly from the telling detail to the big idea and back again. Metaphors emerge at thoughtful intervals, like amuse-bouche at a casually brilliant restaurant. But it would be a mistake to write off Eisenberg’s eloquent disavowal of her own eloquence as mere good manners. Rather, it is emblematic of the antinomies that animate her long short stories: articulate muzziness, ironic passion, controlled chaos. Together, they comprise an ethos we might call active passivity – a kind of curiosity about the things that simply seem to happen to one. That is, against the aura of willful exertion that usually clings to the word “master,” The Collected Stories arise from their maker’s patient attunement to the accidents of character and of art.
For Eisenberg, the first accident was to be raised in Winnetka, Illinois, a predominantly Gentile suburb 20 miles north of Chicago. Some of the Eisenhower-era temperament of the place can be glimpsed in her Reagen-era short story “The Robbery.” Though there were “some deeply, deeply liberal people there,” she says now, “It was very conservative in certain ways,” and sharply divided from the Jewish enclaves it abutted. She was not conscious of the “anti-Semitic element” until after she left, but had a sense of being different from an early age. Outwardly a “very nice girl,” she felt inwardly “like a complete Martian.”
This is in some measure the fate of all sensitive and intelligent children, existing as they do in a world controlled by somewhat less sensitive and intelligent adults. (Eisenberg would soon be plucked from her public school and packed off to a boarding academy in Vermont.) But her sense of unbelonging had a political dimension that soon made itself felt. At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, she managed to get herself thrown in jail as part of a group working on a project “in a KKK county somewhere in the Smoky Mountains. . . . I can’t take credit for it,” she insists (a high-school friend had invited her along) but “It was probably the thing I’m most proud of in my whole life.” It was what happened afterward, however, that would make the biggest impression on her art. She returned north to find the adult world eager to chalk the injustices she’d witnessed up to adolescent hyperbole. “It was an eye-opening experience: the experience of being told you didn’t see what you saw.”
The ultimate remedy for this estrangement lay in the city, which had always seemed “very glamorous and beautiful” to Eisenberg – a glamor more powerful for being forbidden. “‘Lock your door, Jill'” says the mother in “The Robbery,” as she drives her daughter in
to one of the stately old department stores, or to a matinee when the ballet came to town . . . and at that moment the earth seemed to become transparent, and they would drive toward its center, penetrating worlds and then worlds. When they reemerged on the surface, which was settled on a human scale with houses and shrubs and newly covered driveways, her mother would draw in her breath deeply, and the road would heal up behind them and become opaque. But later the hidden day would emit around Jill the troubling light of a dream.
After a stint at Marlboro College and a period of hitchhiking around the country with a boyfriend, Eisenberg ended up in New York. She was rudderless, directionless, “confused and desperate,” she remembers, “in the condition of a beached whale. . . . I was always confused in those days.” New York did not end that confusion so much as provide a hospitable setting for it, as it would for so many of Eisenberg’s characters. “My expectations were not of a glittering life of any sort, but I loved the metropolitan tolerance, the metropolitan disorder, the feeling of something continually being generated, even if it was anarchic, and quite scary.” She was comforted, too, by the anonymity the city offered. “It was like crawling into a great rumpled bed,” she says approvingly. “A bed in which there are already people.”
One of those people was the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, whose life had been running on a parallel track. Having grown up even more fully ensconced in the fruits of postwar prosperity – Putney; Harvard; father the editor of The New Yorker – Shawn had grown concomitantly more uneasy about the provenance of those fruits (as he describes in his recent book, Essays). When he and Eisenberg began seeing each other, it was not only a meeting of the minds – “the wonderful writer with whom I live,” is how she refers to him these days – but also the opening, albeit obscure, of a vocational path.
The first story she wrote was a diary-like thing called “Days,” whose precipitating incident was the protagonist’s decision to quit smoking. “My only autobiographical story,” Eisenberg calls it. Though she began it many years after she herself had given up cigarettes, she was, like her protagonist, “falling apart” at the time of composition. “I was in terrible shape,” she recalls, “like a heap of shredded paper on the floor. [Shawn] gave me a pen and paper and said, well you have nothing to lose.” The result is, in its brilliant images, absurdist wit, and sensitivity to the slightest shifts in the inner life of its protagonist, like Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno in miniature. And one senses, between the lines, a writer discovering her own powers. Late in the story, the narrator suggests that
It is amazing to be able to find out what I want to do at any given moment, out of what seems to be nothing, out of not knowing at all. It is secretly and individually thrilling, like being able to open my fist and release into the air a flock of white doves.
Another critical intervention – or happy accident, depending on one’s orientation – came in the person of Joe Papp, renowned founder and director of New York’s Public Theater. After a friend of Eisenberg’s had directed a staged reading of “Days” at the Public, Papp asked her to write something for the theater. At first, she declined, but when he offered money, she set to work on her first and only play, Pastorale. Eisenberg’s ear for dialogue, soon to be celebrated, was at that point an unknown quantity, even to herself; “Days” had contained relatively few lines of direct speech. But she felt “weirdly confident” in Pastorale, and even though Papp “ended up hating it,” she might not have become a professional writer had he not first mistaken her for one.
A series of first-person stories followed, which, somewhat to their author’s surprise, would become the collection Transactions in a Foreign Currency. As in “Days,” the form of the dramatic monologue offered Eisenberg intimate, moment-by-moment access to the surprises and disappointments of her characters. She had a sense that she was cheating, somehow, by making all of her protagonists an “I,” but feared that the linguistic plasticity that interested her wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And then one day, she says, she decided that it would. She began writing her first third-person stories, which would appear in her breakout collection, Under the 82nd Airborne. “It had taken me all these years to figure it out,” she says. “The stories had taken shape under water, sort of.”
In the shift from first- to third-person, she had discovered a voice to match her sensibility: a voice struggling toward objective fidelity to subjectivity of lived life. It is the sound of a mind talking to itself, replete with hesitations, gaps, interjections (of course), and adverbs, which Eisenberg wields more expertly than any writer since Henry James. Expressionism and realism reveal themselves as aspects of a single phenomenon. Here, for example, is the waitress Patty, in “A Cautionary Tale,” climbing into the lap of one of her customers, a transvestite dancer named Ginger (in this scene wearing theatrical wings).
Ginger brushed his cheek against Patty’s lashes, and when she opened her eyes again the eyes that gleamed back were feral and slanting. “Little flower mouth,” he said, and Patty’s mouth opened, too, as he arched, letting her glide it from his jeweled earlobe down his polished neck and along the sweep of his collarbone, but there was a quick explosion in her brain as “Waitress! Waitress!” someone called, and Patty scrambled trembling to her feet, scraping her shoulder against papier-mâché.
The other (related) innovation of Under the 82nd Airborne was its explicit engagement with the political. Its title story is set in Honduras, which the Reagan Administration had been using to facilitate not-so-covert aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. Another story, “Holy Week” – and three in the collection that followed, All Around Atlantis – would take place in Central American landscapes scarred by three-plus decades of antidemocratic U.S. interventions. These stories arose, Eisenberg says, from her travels in the region with Shawn, which began around the time of the Iran-Contra scandal and continued through the end of the go-go ’80s. Shawn, she says
was very interested to see Nicaragua, to see a socialist revolution. Of course, I didn’t know a socialist from a socialite. But I wanted to see Guatemala. You know…lakes, volcanoes. Wallace asked did I know what I was talking about, and suggested I do some reading. I said I’d do it when I got back.
Then again, Eisenberg was not exactly disinterested in the subject of justice. She admits,
I did start to read about U.S. policy in the region and then wanted very much to go to Honduras. . . . The whole thing was so shattering, that to come back to the unreality that New York was was simply intolerable for a while, so we kept going back and back.
Together, Under the 82nd Airborne and All Around Atlantis work to suggest a context for the lives of privilege and disorder depicted in Eisenberg’s earlier fiction. As she puts it, “Guatemala provided a way to understand what was going on in my own country, which is corporatocracy.” It was a short jump from seeing U.S. military power propping up banana republics abroad to the sense of pervasive but intangible powers at home – a real world behind the unreal world, or vice versa. “Well, actually,” Eisenberg corrects herself, “there are two sets of real worlds and two sets of unreal worlds. . . . There’s the actual real-real, which is always in flux,” and there’s “the real world in the sense of the structures that form the world we live in.” And then, she says, confidence growing, there’s “the very unreal world that we in the U.S. live in, the parochial world of what used to be the middle class and is the educated elite now that the middle class doesn’t exist anymore.” And finally there’s the subjunctive unreality – the personal realm of desire and wish and dream – we move through daily. This layering of worlds and the attempt to negotiate it would persist in Twilight of the Superheroes, set against the backdrop of September 11 and the War on Terror.
Of course ideas – especially political ideas, and especially one’s own – pose certain risks for fiction. It is a peculiarity of Eisenberg’s writing (Norman Rush may be her only peer in this) that it manages to adumbrate “the structures of the world we live in” without ever telling us what to do. A key strategy is irony, and particularly a willingness to concede that right-minded characters are often wrong and wrong-minded characters right. Take “A Cautionary Tale,” for example: about which Eisenberg says, “I amused myself partly by instilling attitudes that are mine” not in Patty, the heroine, but in an “absolutely intolerable,” fire-breathing liberal named Stuart. Or take “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” from 2003, whose main character, Lulu, combines glimmerings of historical awareness with utter interpersonal ineptitude. In The Collected Stories, as in the actual-real-real, people rarely manage to keep their personal and political lives consistent.
Indeed, Eisenberg points out, fiction liberates one from the burdens of consistency.
I think one of the great things about fiction is that you don’t have to adhere to a formal idea about building a case. The responsibility is almost to go beyond the confines of any case you could build. And people do talk about things, of course. They don’t just talk about nail polish. You can go for days thinking, “All anybody cares about anymore is square footage,” and then have three extraordinary conversations in the grocery store.
It helps, she says, that her own ideas “aren’t even complete. Always, they’re being shaped by reality.” That’s actual real reality, of course, which may help to explain why the last decade (which saw “reality-based community” become an epithet) so unsettled Eisenberg’s characters. “This is a very interesting moment to be alive,” she says, “and that is the only thing that makes it bearable.”
As for what comes next, she has “absolutely no idea. I really want to move along . . . I really do. But I’m sort of desperately throwing myself against pieces of paper and only coming up with what look like bug smears.” Of course, she has felt glacially slow and terribly inarticulate in writing her first 27 stories. “But one wants to say, oh, when I complained then, I wasn’t really serious. Now I’m serious. I have to reconfigure my brain somehow. . . . It hasn’t quite reconfigured itself yet.”
This last emendation – from the active voice to the reflexive – has come to seem like a classic Eisenberg move. It’s as if a too-proprietary stance toward her own mind might endanger the flow of perceptions that shape her art. As if knowing might get in the way of seeing, and feeling. But one has every confidence that eventually active passivity, or passive activity, will win out – that her brain will have been reconfigured. And if, for all her perceptiveness, Deborah Eisenberg can’t quite see what she’s accomplished in all these years of hurling herself against pieces of paper – “I myself don’t see any particular thing in this collection,” she confesses – perhaps she doesn’t need to. The actual, real reality is there, between the covers of The Collected Stories, waiting for prepared spirits to receive it.
(Photo © Diana Michener)
A big week for new fiction. Ian McEwan’s latest novel Solar is out. Kakutani just called it his “funniest novel yet.” Also now apparently available (despite its late April pub date) is the latest in the long line posthumously published works by Roberto Bolaño, Antwerp, a slim volume that has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. Deborah Eisenberg’s big new volume of collected stories is also out today, as is Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations. Hilary Mantel is a fan of the latter. And finally, The Lotus Eaters, a debut novel from sometime Millions contributor Tatjana Soli.
MacArthur Genius™ Deborah Eisenberg, whom we’ve often celebrated here, publishes her 1,000-page Collected Stories this month – we ardently commend it to your attention. If you’ve read ’em all already, get your Eisenberg fix at the NYRB, where she reviews Dezsõ Kosztolányi’s “quiet, shattering, perfect” novel Skylark.