It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice.
Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game. With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages. In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic.
Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear). Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.
I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year). Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it. This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word. It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time. It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received. I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you’ll love Another Brooklyn.
Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award? This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader. You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch).
Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.
I don’t know when this entry will run, but I am writing it on a Friday, and I’m supposed to have a baby on Tuesday. I’ve been home since Wednesday, prowling around the house — if a very pregnant person can be said to prowl — feeling lumpy and alert and expectant. It’s safe to say I’m weirding out a little. For weeks I have been in the grip of so-called nesting hormones, which are real, and which remind me of being in college and taking other people’s adderall to finish a term paper, except the term paper is cleaning baseboards, or finally buying a decent set of towels after reading a lot of information about what makes a towel nice, or creating tasteful yet affordable shared adult/baby bedroom decor out of an old calendar and 12 discount frames from Amazon. I’ve been reading a lot of Amazon reviews, so many that it doesn’t feel like I’ve read much of anything else.
But that’s not true — I read a book of essays by Nora Ephron. And I read this article in Harper’s, about squadrons of elderly people living in campers and humping merchandise through an Amazon warehouse. Nora Ephron feels bad about her neck; I feel bad about my ankles, and my strenuous participation in late capitalism. I feel bad about the number of huge cardboard boxes filled with tiny things I’ve gotten from Amazon. I don’t want to buy any more things from Amazon, but I don’t know how I will get my cat litter, or new hooks for my shower curtain, or a tiny dehumidifier that fits in a closet, or a ceramic space heater with automatic shutoff and remote control so the baby doesn’t freeze in our cold little house. I don’t know where I will read 400 earnest assessments of which Pack and Play is the best Pack and Play. Did I mention I’m weirding out a little?
Speaking of late capitalism, last week I read four children’s books by Beverly Cleary, because I have been thinking about what it means to have a family and to be middle class and the Ramona books feel like a portrait of a kind of family and life that is maybe on its way out in America. I read select passages from The Chronicles of Narnia to get in a more cheerful frame of mind, but not The Last Battle, because that’s the one where everyone dies. I read the first few pages of Renata Adler’s Speedboat because people are always talking about it on Twitter, but I didn’t understand what was happening and I took a break and then accidentally returned it to the library. I read some stories by Julie Hayden, and want to read more, but there aren’t very many to read. I read Rabbit, Run, which I had always assumed that I’d read and it turned out I hadn’t, and which I probably shouldn’t have read while nine months pregnant since it depressed and angered the hell out of me.
I read Invisible Man. I read Austerlitz. I read The Patrick Melrose Novels and was not as charmed as I had hoped to be. I read new things, The Good Lord Bird and Life After Life and The People in the Trees and Dept. of Speculation. I read Americanah over a blissful Easter Sunday, which I spent in bed eating popcorn in an empty house. I read Station Eleven over the course of a blissful regular Saturday, with my cats and my blanket. I read Thrown, which filled me with envy of people who are professional writers. I read Submergence. I re-read Dance to the Music of Time and The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Howards End and everything by Donald Antrim. I read small parts of a vast number of books about pregnancy and babies and felt overwhelmed with details regarding the cervix. I read all of Labor Day, because Edan is in it, and I found most of the entries frankly alarming, but less so than the comments on BabyCenter. I read a lot of studies about what the numbers on a nuchal translucency mean, and many opaque articles about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
As with every year, there were a lot of things I wanted to read and didn’t. I didn’t read anything by Norman Rush and I didn’t read anything by Ivan Turgenev or Katherine Mansfield or Karen Russell or Ben Lerner.
There were a lot of things I wanted to write and didn’t. I didn’t write an essay about my great-grandmother Vera. I didn’t write my Anita Brookner reader, or an essay about late capitalism, or a novel. Parenthood, as far as I know, is not a condition characterized by increased productivity, so I don’t know what will happen to these plans in the new year. I will say I have found pregnancy, for the most part, unexpectedly generative and wonderful. I mean, obviously, it’s generative, but I mean generative of things other than blastocysts and embryos, or of strong feelings regarding towels. I mean of thoughts about life and books and writing. The first real things I ever wrote I wrote after I met my husband and fell in love; maybe loving a new person will open other horizons. Maybe it won’t. It’s impossible to say. For now I’m just weirding, watchful.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I’ve been a slow reader this month. First, I slogged through The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles; the contemporary, omniscient narrator of this Victorian-age narrative fascinated my nerd-brain, but failed to truly interest my reader-brain. Then I took my sweet, sweet time gliding through Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, as translated by Lydia Davis. I hadn’t read the novel since high school, and this time around I found myself reading aloud passages that were truly a feat of magic, summarizing with rigorous and well-chosen details whole weeks or months or years at a time. I loved the way, too, that Flaubert distilled character into a single paragraph, stringing together a distinct list of experiences, memories, habits, and desires in a such a way that I knew that person. One sentence near the end of the book made me especially happy: “His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight through your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie.” That word–disarticulate; I savored it for days.
But after these two books, I longed for a contemporary novel about contemporary life. I longed for references to malls, and to boners, and to “intense cell phones” and to a pillow made of denim with an actual jeans pocket on the front, “like it thinks it’s Bruce Springsteen.” Enter: The Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone. This funny, sad and engaging novel scratched this particular reading itch.
I first discussed wanting to read Rathbone’s debut novel in my essay about teenage protagonists. As I wrote in that piece, the novel is narrated by 17-year-old Jake Higgins, who has been sent to a juvenile detention center in Northern Virginia for armed robbery. The book is composed of Jake’s diary entries about his time at the JDC. With a lesser writer, this conceit might have exhausted me after 50 or so pages in, or at least shown its marionette’s strings, but Rathbone is skilled enough to maintain the veracity of her character’s teenage-consciousness while still including electric and surprising descriptions that further my understanding of him. Jake’s a smart kid, but (thankfully) not overly precocious, and Rathbone’s talents as a wordsmith easily become Jake’s. The woman who runs the computer room, Mrs. Dandridge, “is a pile of a person who smells like someone’s weird house,” and David, Jake’s partner in a class project, “had this like, air-conditioned aggression that’s more state-of-the-art than anyone else’s.” On every page there was a line like these two to delight in.
I loved the way this book was structured, as each notebook entry led me further into Jake’s soul-deadening, suffocating world, with its lack of nutritious food, its too-cold rooms, and its awful inspirational posters. They also led me further into Jake: his feelings for fellow inmate Andrea, who’s been sent to the JDC for selling pot to elementary school kids; his hatred for his abusive, alcoholic stepfather, whom he calls Refrigerator Man; and his conflicted feelings about adults beyond the facility who lead “normal” and “productive” lives.
I also loved this structure for how quickly and easily it led me through the story. These were bite-sized chapters, each one an amuse bouche of clever and/or heartbreaking information. I read Rathbone’s debut in less than 24 hours, and, holy frijoles, was it fun. The ending felt a touch rushed after such a wonderful build-up, but I didn’t mind: I was too pleased to be reading a page-turner, and to be laughing aloud, to be reveling in so many sparkling turns of phrase. Jake seems like a person who would appreciate the word disarticulate, as does Ms. Rathbone. I look forward to devouring her next book.
Thirty years ago, the late British author John Fowles, who spun such imaginative tales as The Magus, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and The Collector, wrote The Tree, recently reissued by Ecco to commemorate its anniversary, a thoughtful essay on the natural world and man’s relationship with it. In its ninety pages, Fowles takes the reader on a journey through the wild and untamed. He takes to task the Victorian obsession with categorizing and trying to tame the wild, and makes a case for experiencing nature and “green chaos.”
He also trains his eye back on himself as a novelist and creator. He lauds the 18th century attitude viewing nature as a mirror for philosophers and poets, evoking emotion. Art and nature, Fowles asserts, are two branches of the one tree.
The first chunk of The Tree doubles as a fascinating family memoir, with Fowles taking us back to his boyhood before and during the Second World War. In particular, he writes of his relationship with his father, who, in his tiny suburban London back yard, created an orchard. Fowles writes of the gulf that lay between father and son, with the young man rebelling against the precisely pruned suburban tree garden and beginning a lifelong love of the woods, of the forest. Trees, countlessly plural and wild.
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.
The man who ran the magic-trick concession at Polk’s Hobby Shop, now just a distant memory on 31st and Fifth, always wore a white shirt, cuffs rolled (“Nothing up my sleeves”), narrow tie loosened at the throat, and above it all a five o’clock shadow that seemed to tell its own story of late nights and long hangovers. His midfield gaze and melancholic smile spoke of a lifetime of disappointment and the kind of dashed dreams that push you to the back row of life: canceled gigs, second-billings and threadbare audiences in the Poconos or the Catskills. His job at Polk’s was to perform trick after trick, encourage you to buy one, and then afterwards take you behind his counter where he kept his brown-bag lunch and his Daily Mirror and where he quietly and discreetly showed you how it was done. His breath was a cocktail of bourbon and Sen-Sen. By that time money had changed hands, and the horrible realization that nothing magic had actually happened—that the whole damned thing was just another cheap trick crudely devised with bits of wire and lengths of fishing line—also meant that refunds were not available. Magic, like life, he seemed to be saying, is just another five-buck trick.
“Never reveal your secrets,” he’d always tell me as he placed my purchase in a paper bag. “A good magician keeps it inside, right, kid?”
When night falls and gravity has its way with him, he goes uptown to an apartment you can see from the number 4 train to Woodlawn as you head north out of Manhattan. He drinks Seagrams and watches the fights and falls asleep in front of “Sergeant Bilko” or “The $64,000 Question.” He does the occasional charity show, or performs at kids’ parties, tossing down a shot before setting out for an afternoon of mystification. When once a month he gets together with his fellow practitioners of the black arts he’s a real kibitzer, lurking by the bar, slapping backs and telling jokes. He’s had a wife, who ran away with another performer, and the two of them live in Vegas. Eventually her husband will retire, she’ll trade in the Caddy for an Accord, and now and again she’ll think of the man she left who worked at Polk’s, and of how, when they were both young and in love, he could pull a Queen of Hearts from the air and make her feel like the luckiest woman in the whole wide world.
He was just a guy I used to see on the Saturdays my mother took me to Polk’s, but he’s stuck with me over the years, living in that apartment in the back of my memory, palming coins and fanning cards behind that glass counter. That newspaper; the rolled sleeves; the five o’clock shadow. Out of those few remembered details comes an entire life. It may not be exactly his, but I’ll find a place for him somewhere.
Some years ago, at an eighth grade graduation (not my own, eighth grade for me being nothing but a dim memory on the Hudson midway between Sing-Sing Prison and the Rockefeller estate), the guest speaker had brought what she called the Backpack for Life. In it contained everything that the graduates would need for setting out on their great journey in life. There was a mirror, a comb, a pen, a notebook, and five or six other objects, all of them giving way to meditations on why these would be important. What dawned on me was that she left out one big thing: all the baggage that the average eighth-grader has picked up along the way and stuffed into the other backpack. That bag would be mighty heavy. You ain’t going to ninth grade with that, my young friend.
Or, rather, you are. By the time you reach college it’ll be even heavier. And just wait until you’re forty, when you really start feeling the weight of it. Or fifty—? At that stage an 18-wheeler might just do the trick.
Lately I’ve been meditating on the nature of writing fiction out of one’s own life. I know what they tell you in writing school (even though I never took a writing course in my life): write what you know. Which means what the average young author knows: childhood, parent issues, girlfriend or boyfriend angst, bad skin, the odd broken limb, summer jobs, applying to college, then college and, if you need a few extra years to kill, graduate school. There’s a lot of emotional material there, all the growing issues and coping issues, the triumphs and disappointments, and these are important, because childhood and adolescence are the great gateway experiences to adulthood, middle-age, the so-called golden years, and then decrepitude when you get to forget all the stuff you agonized over for so long. All that, waiting to be unpacked. By that time it’s too big for a backpack. We’re talking about a whole civilization you’ve buried in your backyard.
No one had ever told me to write what I know, so my first five or six attempts at fiction were about writing what I wanted to know—books set in countries where I hadn’t (yet) lived, about characters utterly unlike myself, until I was ready to write what became my first published novel, which was set mostly in France of the 1930s and 40s and in London of the 1970s and 80s, where I was then living. The characters bore no relation to anyone I knew, but for the fact that they were Russian, and I’m Russian by ancestry. Nothing in the book is drawn from my life, save for the narrator’s need to create a story out of his past. Is it true, or is it just another con game, like the ones his parents played in the South of France all those years ago? The narrator is creating a fiction both to give his life some sense and to cover up what really happened in Nice in 1938 and in Paris during the German Occupation. What I had was a circumstance and a handful of characters, and I just wanted to know who these people were and what they were up to; answering these questions was my goal.
While screenwriting is the art of disclosing a story determined in advance, writing fiction is all about excavation, luck and discovery. As a novelist you start your dig (John Fowles famously woke from a dream about a woman standing at the end of the Cobb in Lyme Regis and out of that single image came The French Lieutenant’s Woman). Your shovel turns over clots of soil, worms, shards of pottery, bits of glass. Maybe an ancient coin or two. And if you’re very lucky, you hit something immovable in that deep earth and uncover the city of gold that’s been buried for so long. It might be your own past, or even just the tomb of someone you’d forgotten and who, awakened from the deep slumber of oblivion, comes to life and steps onto the page and, like a magician, plucks out of the air something amazing for you to write about. But attempt this too early and you’ll turn up only familiar things, fresh memories not yet ripened by time. Experience really demands a degree of strangeness before one can write about it. We need to outgrow the person we were way back then in order to see him whole.
Seven or eight years ago my wife and I were watching Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I’m not sure what sparked the memory, but I turned to my wife and said with complete clarity and certainty, “We never dug it up.” That was the origin of a recently-completed novel. My memory had snapped into focus, shot me back some thirty years, and I had the beginnings of my story. Time, memory and objectivity, the ability to gaze back and dispassionately see a period of one’s life as a finished thing, observable and definable: this is what a writer needs before taking it on as material for a book.
It began as a script. On one level it was a buddy story (these do well: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider, even Sideways); on another, a crime story, a caper film. What I discovered after writing it as a screenplay is that no one in Hollywood is much interested in a movie starring a couple of old guys in their 50s. Can you make them, oh, twenty-three or something like that? I could almost hear that voice in my ear. And can you add some shoot-outs and crashes?
No, I could not. This was the story I was going to tell. It was about something I’d buried and forgotten for all these many years. It began with a different me from the one that’s here now. And, oh, before I forget, along the way I was going to reveal more about myself and my own experiences than I’d ever done before. I own up to crimes and lapses both real and moral: things I’d thought I’d forgotten; things I’d done that I’d allowed to sink into the mud of oblivion. Until now. My backpack is all the lighter for it. My conscience is clear. And my backyard is a damned mess. I’m still digging up bodies.
Image credit: Flickr/froderik.
It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.
Hamilton Leithauser is lead singer of The Walkmen. The New York-based band released A Hundred Miles Off and Pussycats in 2006 and has a new album on the way in Spring 2008.Set in modern London, where all is dark and dirty, and those characters that haven’t abandoned all morals are simply too stupid to fend for themselves, Martin Amis’ London Fields is consistently funny and enjoyable. The Keith character, a low-life, dart-playing criminal, is a real highlight – he spends the majority of the book waxing dart philosophy or loud-mouthing around his home-away-from-home pub The Black Cross about women and booze. From the first page you learn there will be a murder, and the whole setting is so saturated with an apocalyptic vibe that you know that ain’t the worst that’s gonna happen. But Amis maintains humor and lightness through even the darkest moments, which prevents any doomsday preaching from ever getting too heavy. I loved this thing.I couldn’t put down John Fowles’ The Magus for the first thirty or forty twists and turns. The story follows Nicholas Urfe, a young Englishman who leaves his more complex life (girlfriend, family…) behind in England for what seems a mind-clearing existence as a teacher on a remote Greek island. But once on the island Nicholas meets a reclusive millionaire who in turn introduces him to a bunch of increasingly strange characters and increasingly strange situations. The evolving vibe is tremendous – from the tranquil beginning to the truly bizarre ending – and this is definitely the book’s strength. Eventually the number of twists proves a little too much and you start thinking that maybe martians or Bruce Willis might show up or something. My recommendation would be to read it until you start thinking things are getting a little too weird for you.After putting that one down, you might want to pick up The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was by far Fowles’ most widely-acclaimed work. He says at the beginning he wrote it as a modern Dickensian novel, and I guess that’s a pretty good description. It’s a classic English period piece with tons of delightful forbidden love and betrayals, but written with a distinctly 20th-century voice. As in The Magus, Fowles saves some major surprises for the end, but as there were simply less of them here, I thought the overall effect was better, and I would most definitely recommend this one.More from A Year in Reading 2007