To start, a list of the books I enjoyed very, very much:
I expected to like Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel, The Golden State, not only because she is my friend, but because I only made her be my friend after reading her genius nonfiction on this very website. However, I did not like the book. That puny, superficial word doesn’t portray my experience with this powerful, singular work. Never! The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation. Of course! This is what parenting a young child is like! The novel begins, “I am staring out the window of my office thinking about death when I remember the way Paiute smells in the early morning in the summer before the sun burns the dew off the fescue.” Its brilliance never lets up.
My favorite nonfiction book of the year was Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. In her book, Garbes shares her personal experiences as a pregnant person and mother, and balances these with larger investigations into the history and science of reproduction, pregnancy loss, childbirth, breastfeeding, and so on. Her writing is accessible and compassionate, and filled with wonder at the miracle of the female body. (I get it! The placenta, for instance. HOLY SHIT.) Garbes’s project takes on political weight as it becomes increasingly clear how the medical and scientific communities have ignored and/or devalued women, especially black and brown women, which is perhaps why it’s taken this long to get a book this good.
This summer I found myself about to get on a plane without a book. The horror! I ran into the nearest Hudson Gum and Magazine Store and bought the first novel that looked the least egregious. I have to admit, I wasn’t planning to read Less by Andrew Sean Greer. Sure, it won the Pulitzer, but I’d read and not cared for a previous novel of his, and the premise, about a writer trying to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding by accepting every literary invitation to come his way, and thus traveling the world, sounded annoying. Writers! Who cares? Well, turns out, I do. Less was by such a delight: funny and moving, with paragraphs that made me weak. The writing made me at once jealous and full of joy. Everyone and their mom has read this book, but if you’ve resisted, please just give in and read it. Here’s a taste: Greer describes a jellyfish as “a pink frothing brainless negligeed monster pulsing in the water.” Negligeed. Isn’t that perfect?
For professional events, I re-read two books that I had the pleasure of reading for the blurb-industrial-complex the year before: Invitation to a Bonfire by Adrienne Celt and And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell. Celt’s second novel takes its inspiration from Vladimir and Véra Nabokov’s famed marriage: it’s got sex, intrigue, a vicious all girls boarding school in 1920s New Jersey, and lines like, “On a budget, eggs are the perfect food, until they’re not.” It’s delicious and smart and I want HBO to adapt it into a mini-series. O’Connell’s is a collection of funny, irreverent, cry-fest-inducing essays about becoming pregnant by accident at age 29, and follows her pregnancy and the beginning of her son’s life. Yep, another motherhood book, and a necessary one. In the tradition of A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk, And Now We Have Everything doesn’t hold a single thing back in its mission to convey the mindfuckery that is becoming a parent for the first time.
I read these and many other wonderful books in 2018 all by my lonesome: in the bath or in bed or over lunch, or, as mentioned, on an airplane. My favorite reading experience, however, occurred with another person—my son, who turned seven in June. Most of the time, since I am busy putting his sister to bed, or making school lunches, or hiding in the corner with my phone, he reads alone or with his dad. However, a few times this year, I took over. Have you recently read a chapter book to a child? Sometimes they cuddle. Sometimes they wipe their snot on your shoulder. Sometimes they pace the room as you narrate. Sometimes you have to argue about the division of labor (in our house, it’s supposed to be two pages per person, back and forth). The experience is different from reading a picture book, for there is no shared visual to comment upon; it’s a comforting alone-together feeling, each of us projecting images inside our own brains as we read from the text.
Together we’ve read Because of Winn-Dixie, and the first Harry Potter, and began the new translation of The Odyssey (but, I admit, stalled out at Book 3). My favorite book I got to read with him, though, was Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I love the beauty of the sequel, the more famous Little House on the Prairie (there is an image of the stars in the sky that pretty much ruined me…), but Wilder’s racist depiction of the Osage Indians—and the fact that the family is taking their land—is, though an important history lesson, not my favorite book to share with my kid.
Little House in the Big Woods, however, takes place in Wisconsin, before the family moves to “Indian Country” and it offers some of the same pleasures as the later, more problematic books, including detailed-yet-simple descriptions of their everyday tools and domestic duties. We learn how Ma colors the butter with some carrot-soaked milk, and how Laura and her sister Mary get a pig bladder to toss around like a ball, and how to smoke some Venison in the hollow of a tree. Wilder’s prose is clear and easy for a young reader, but it’s not without its poetry. The final paragraphs are the best thing I read all year:
“She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.”
Reading these words, I recalled what it was like to be a child, to be seven again, my son’s age. I didn’t just think about it, I felt it.
What a gift reading is.
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.
James Joyce discarded Catholicism, but he religiously observed Groundhog Day. February 2 was his birthday, and Joyce took his birthday seriously throughout his adult life. He didn’t look for the groundhog’s shadow, however. He looked for his own, and believed he’d found it in the person of another, lesser-known Irish writer who he came to consider his spiritual twin. Joyce claimed the other man had also been born on Groundhog Day in Dublin in 1882, just like him, though scholars have been unable to verify the exact birthdate of this other, lesser-known scribe. Little of the other man’s biography is in fact known with certainty.
The man may have been two years old when his father died and possibly six when he entered a Dublin orphanage, never to return home. It’s all a bit unclear; a fog of rumor hangs over his origins as it does over John Henry or Jesus Christ. This much is known: he was very small as a child; when he grew up he was still so short that one journalist said he was no taller standing than sitting; others called him a leprechaun, and he didn’t much like that; he told a cartoonist, “Eh, you want to caricature me, eh? Well, the Almighty beat you to it.” This too is known: notwithstanding his diminutive beginnings, great men would come to worship at his feet.
The Irish playwright Seán O’Casey called him “the jesting poet with a radiant star in his coxcomb.” Eugene O’Neill asked him to name his children and so Oona and Shane O’Neill got their names. James Joyce asked him to complete Finnegans Wake should Joyce himself go blind. He published plays, novels, stories, and poems, including a series of them in The New Yorker in 1929, and his voice once pervaded the Irish airwaves like rainbows south of Skibbereen. This so-called leprechaun with a voice “nimble as a goat’s foot,” as one commentator puts it, was called James Stephens.
Some evidence suggests Stephens was born not on February 2, 1882 like Joyce, but rather on February 9, 1880. Perhaps Joyce asserted they were twins because he regarded Stephens as a particularly worthy rival, and because Joyce conquered his rivals by appropriating them — and because, after being enemies, they became good friends. In a letter dated May 31, 1927, Joyce reports that for years he carried three portraits in his pocket: one of his father, one of himself, and one of James Stephens. When Ulysses was published on February 2, 1922 — on Joyce’s 40th birthday, by his own design — he inscribed a copy to his poetical twin. Stephens in turn wrote a theosophical poem called “Sarasvati” for Joyce’s birthday and for the rest of Joyce’s life gave him the kind of respect that Joyce demanded of every animal, mineral, and vegetable. Stephens called Joyce a king, encouraged him to carry on with Finnegans Wake, and when it was published, told Joyce that its last chapter was the “greatest prose ever written by a man” — praise that deeply moved Joyce, and with which he surely concurred.
But the two men didn’t like each other at first, and one senses that their rivalry forever chafed at Stephens, beginning with their first meeting in 1912, when Joyce feared and envied Stephens. In 1907, Joyce had published a small volume of poetry called Chamber Music that garnered its author little attention; Stephens’s poetry meanwhile had so impressed the famous Irish poet AE (a.k.a., George Russell) that in 1907 Russell adopted Stephens as his protégé. Stephens had by 1912 furthermore upstaged Joyce in prose. When the two first met on Dawson Street in Dublin, Stephens’s second novel The Crock of Gold was already at the printer, while Joyce was still struggling to publish his first prose work, Dubliners. According to Joyce’s biographer Richard Ellmann, Joyce dumped his publishing frustrations on Stephens, the writer whom Joyce described to his brother as “my rival, the latest Irish genius.” Stephens had of course faced trials and difficulties himself, but Joyce neither knew nor cared. Stephens says that Joyce gazed down at him in Pat Kinsella’s pub with blues eyes so magnified by his spectacles as to be “nearly as big as the eyes of a cow” before commencing a verbal assault. Stephens narrated the meeting thus on the radio in 1946:
He turned his chin and his specs at me, and away down at me, and confided the secret to me that he had read my two books; that, grammatically, I did not know the difference between a semi-colon and a colon: that my knowledge of Irish life was non-Catholic and, so, non-existent, and that I should give up writing and take to a good job like shoe-shining as a more promising profession.
I confided back to him that I had never read a word of his, and that, if Heaven preserved me to my protective wits, I never would read a word of his, unless I was asked to destructively review it.
Stephens had had the upper hand in 1912, but by 1946 Joyce had thoroughly overshadowed his old rival. The word “non-existent” in the foregoing passage calls out the name of another of Stephens’s wounds, a possible turning point in the Stephens-Joyce rivalry. It was in a 1915 essay in The New Age entitled “The Non-Existence of Ireland” that Joyce’s influential champion Ezra Pound dismissed Stephens as “a mild enough writer.” It enraged Stephens, who wrote a bitterly funny letter to The New Age deriding Pound in doggerel form. Stephens concludes that having written Pound’s name, he had to go “fumigate” his sullied pen.
Such injuries were perhaps fresh in Stephens’s mind when, in a 1917 letter, he conceded to his American publisher that Joyce was “a clever, competent writer, but…by no means a great writer.” Stephens went on in that letter to slag Joyce as “a disappointed, envious man” and Joyce’s work as “unpleasant” and “thin.”
In later years, after Stephens and Joyce had become close friends, and after Stephens had affably accommodated himself to Joyce’s international fame, he repented of those criticisms and praised Joyce at every opportunity. And the two friends celebrated their shared birthday together. On February 2, 1933, Stephens wrote from Paris to thank his children Iris and Seumas for their birthday wishes. His letter calls February 2 “that most noble of dates.” “Tis Candlemas,” he writes, “and it is also the end of most things, and the beginning of everything…[W]ill go thence at 8.30 to the Joyces where a party of some kind is to be held to celebrate our mutual birthday…It was bitterly cold here until three days ago, and I had a cold — your mother has it now, but I didn’t need it anyway.”
Stephens was famous for his wit, and Richard Ellmann and others have observed that his humor depended on his modesty and self-deprecation. Being under five feet tall, he identified with the little guy. An editor of Stephens’s letters, Richard Finneran, asserts that Stephens celebrated his birthday on February 2 long before his acquaintance with Joyce; if so, perhaps that’s because, as Ellmann speculates, “Stephens was invariably sympathetic to the intrusions of small creatures into the universe.” Those sympathies are plainly evident in Stephens poems like 1924’s “Little Things” in which Stephens writes, “Little things that run and quail, / And die in silence and despair. / Little things that fight and fail, / And fall on earth and sea and air.”
Ellmann notes that unlike Joyce, Stephens “often chose to appear as elfin.” He was unlike Joyce in his temerity before the possibility of oblivion. David McCord wrote in 1962 of Stephens: “the man put his books out the way one would plant a tree, each to grow to its own size, each to gather in its shade those who have traveled a long way through the mire, the dust and the anxiety of the world.” There is something sagacious and honorable in Stephens’s retiring attitude to posterity, but one sad outcome may be that “the readers of Joyce — a big lot of them too — have overlooked a fellow genius,” as McCord says. Stephens is for one thing much funnier than Joyce, McCord contends, and it’s impossible to disagree with him. “The surrealist in Stephens is always spacious,” McCord goes on, “his hells and heavens (for me at least) have both an altitude and depth that I do not find even in Finnegans Wake.”
Could it be that the shabby, out-of-print volumes that keep custody of Stephens’s legacy are, as McCord argues, “vintage wine in a rain barrel?” Could it be that underneath a homely title like Irish Fairy Tales, which Padraic Colum notes was “never sufficiently praised” and which is now mislabelled as children’s literature, there lies a work of true genius?
Having read Irish Fairy Tales, I add my voice to those who sing in praise of the long-lost leprechaun of Irish literature. For Irish Fairy Tales is more than good. It’s a work of genius on the Joyce and W.B. Yeats level, though stylistically different in almost every way from that of his taller and more famous peers. Stephens writes in that work:
I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.
No wonder no one ever wrote Stephens a fitting epitaph; no one could say it quite as well as him! But perhaps what Stephens wrote of the king of the salmon is good enough for himself. He is brave, skilled, honorable, and as unconcerned with either fame or revenge as his hero Fionn.
In “The Boyhood of Fionn,” a piece of magical realism in Irish Fairy Tales to stand aside Gabriel García Márquez and Franz Kafka, Fionn encounters a wise poet sitting on the bank of a wild, remote river. He asks the poet, “Why do you live on the bank of a river?” The poet answers:
‘Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind.’
‘How long have you been here?’ was the next query.
‘Seven years’ the poet answered.
‘It is a long time,’ said wondering Fionn.
‘I would wait twice as long for a poem,’ said the inveterate bard.
Retiring into Joyce’s shadow, Stephens remarked that Finnegans Wake is both “unreadable” and “wonderful.” His own works are readable and wonderful. Groundhog Day seems a fitting time for Stephens to step back out into the light after a long winter of oblivion in Joyce’s shadow. Or, if that’s not to be just now, later then. However long it takes. Stephens would wait twice as long for a poem.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.