Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Gary Shteyngart

Having made four British friends, this year I decided to devote myself to the fiction of the sceptered isle. I read Middlemarch (totally awesome), David Copperfield (pretty dang awesome), and Pride as well as Prejudice (plain awesome). I was reared in 19th Century Russian literature and then the literature of American Jews (Roth, Bellow, etc.) and I always had difficulty with the relative lack of emotion in English lit. I developed several strategies to make my reading easier. First, I would insert some hot Russian emotion into the chilly scenes by hand. So if a character is carrying on some abstruse conversation about standing for parliament or whatever, I would interrupt it in my mind with: "And then Casaubon Casaubonovich threw himself around her neck and cried violently." Problem solved. Then I decided to Yiddishize some of the writing to make it more haimish. Take for example the first line of David Copperstein: "Whether I shall turn out to be the mensch of my own life, or whether that station will be held by some other putz, this spiel must show." Or: "Miss Brooke had the kind of punim which seems to be thrown into relief by her shmatas." Once you mentally add a dollop of sour cream and a tablespoon of schmaltz to 19th Century British literature, you will find it tastes as good as anything in the Western canon. Mr. Darcyvich never had it so good. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Norman Rush

I consider George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays the most necessary book of the year 2013. Our political mise en scène has metamorphosed of late into a dark carnival (the phrase is Ray Bradbury’s), confusing and ominous from any vantage point. Over the years, George Scialabba has consistently been among the fairest, smartest, and most trenchant assessors of our political culture. Usefully, this collection focusses on some of the marquee commentators and theorists (among them Thomas Friedman, Michael Sandel, Roger Scruton, Jonathan Haidt, Stanley Fish) who have been influential in the discussion of political policy issues. Scialabba gives credit where it is due, but he is lucidly unsparing in his critiques. Classic presences like George Orwell, Ignazio Silone, and Adam Smith are revalued. A few essays illuminate aspects of the author’s intellectual evolution, his family background, his struggle with clinical depression. These are brave writings. Scialabba publishes in an eclectic array of periodicals, and it’s good to have pieces he published in Salmagundi and Commonweal brought together with those from The Nation and The Boston Globe, so that they may interact. This book is full of intellectual fire. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Dani Shapiro

It was a year of piles of books. Piles and piles stacked around my office floor, resting on my nightstand, even perched precariously on the top of the stairway banister. These piles competed and collided in my mind every day. Do I begin the morning reading for work? Reading for pleasure? Sometimes these were the same. In the category of re-reading, I discovered Mrs. Dalloway anew, and –– if you’ll forgive the analogy –– it was like being prescribed exactly the right SSRI. Interior life! Laid out in all of its intricacy, and yet the product of a turbulent mind. As a writer, it gave me hope for my own turbulent mind. And as I wrote to the Buddhist teacher and writer Jack Kornfield (whose book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, wins my vote for most awesome title) it made me think of Woolf as an accidental Buddhist. Next up on the re-read list was Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. I’ve been pressing this book into students’ hands for years, and finally it is most deservedly back in print. A hybrid of novel and memoir, an extraordinary evocation of pure consciousness, I fear I’ll turn off readers by saying that Sleepless Nights is entirely without plot, but bear with me when I tell you that this doesn’t prevent it from being its own kind of page-turner. Ruth Ozeki’s novel, A Tale for the Time Being was one of the only books published this year that I was able to rescue from the endless stacks and read purely and simply for pleasure. It’s a daring, exciting novel that defies categorization. Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat was a favorite story collection, and I now want to read everything she writes. Chris Belden’s novel Shriver  ­­­­­–– an example of a terrific book brought out by a tiny press (Rain Mountain) –– is a send-up of academia and literary pretension, as well as a poignant exploration of writerly insecurity. As a side note, Belden has written a hilarious song all about writerly insecurity, an ode to the author photographer Marion Ettlinger. (“Marion Ettlinger/Won’t you take my picture...”) This being a year that I was finishing my own book about writing, I also read or re-read a fair number of writing books, and discovered that some of the classics hold up beautifully: Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, of course. As well as Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. A new discovery was Beth Kephart’s Handling the Truth, a must for memoirists. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Sergio De La Pava

Much as I love the damn thing when the A is capitalized, the most potent words I read this past year weren’t even lowercase art. They were more like a truth-seeking missile, one that seethed with indignant if wholly justified outrage. Imagine a country that never tires of self-identifying as the land of the free yet is actually the undisputed global leader in incarcerating its own citizens. Now imagine that this country’s program of almost-militaristic mass incarceration is being deployed in a racially discriminatory manner and almost exclusively against those who are already pathetically marginalized; and all the while almost no one with a platform or power can be bothered to utter a dissenting syllable, so entranced are they by what insulates them. If that seems too grim an imagining to engage in, then just pick up The New Jim Crow by the equal parts brilliant and courageous Michelle Alexander. With the kind of meticulous empirical support such a title demands, Professor Alexander sets out what must become the new template for thinking productively about American criminal justice. I say must because no entity that silently countenances the fact that “[a] human rights nightmare is occurring on our watch,” can ever truly cohere. So read it. Now. But be forewarned that you may thereafter have trouble getting too worked up by the usual filler whereby a liberal arts college professor finds himself attracted to a comely grad student or Upper West Side locavores debate how to best staff their food co-op. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Hamilton Leithauser (The Walkmen)

My number one book this year was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I'd never read anything by her before and was just floored at how great this one was. It's a tragic story of poor black families in Ohio, and all sorts of awful things happen to them. The plot centers around a little girl named Pecola who thinks all her problems would disappear if she were white, with pale blue eyes. The plot's nothing but a downer, but not indulgent or wallowing, and never boring. I give it an A+. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis was a surprising and interesting story of the (unknown number of) Americans who were lured to Stalin's Russia during the depression with the promise of work and prosperity in accordance with "The Five Year Plan." I remember one man saying something like "I should have known it was too good to be true when I stepped off the boat and a banner read '2 + 2 = 5'." Of course it didn't work out, and as their passports were immediately confiscated, the ex-pats were disowned by their own (former?) government, and ignored by a particularly naive and/or complacent American Ambassador (whom Tzouliadis just trashes). I've never known all that much about Soviet History...basically what I maybe remembered from high school history (nothing?), and Martin Amis's excellent Koba the Dread, so maybe it wouldn't be as enlightening to someone who already knows more, but this book does a great job of portraying the crazed but patient and systematic mass murder Stalin inflicted on Russia for well over a decade. Interesting details about Henry Ford, Paul Robeson, and many others are highlights. Definitely worth checking out. Morrissey's Autobiography was a quick and entertaining read all the way through...far past the point where I started losing interest in the records. It's funny how someone known for being so difficult can come across as so reasonable. Maybe there's another side to the stories, but I liked his. He's funny and charming throughout. I disagreed with so much of the praising and trashing of his own records, but it was fun to hear his take. I've always liked the Smiths, and a good amount of Morrissey's solo stuff, but I know there's an army of devotees who would consider me a peripheral fan. After this book I must say I'm all the more onboard. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Alice McDermott

This year, I spent some quality reading time with what I think of now, in retrospect, as three sad men.  I began the year with a gift from one of my students, Stoner, by John Williams. I was, perhaps, somewhat late in discovering this marvelous novel of university life, first published in 1965, but I’m grateful now to have had the experience of it, to have lived William Stoner’s life: to have been the shy farm boy entranced by the power of literature, the earnest professor, the long suffering spouse and the doting father, the middle-aged lover surprised by joy. It is a kind of enchantment, to be lured so completely into the life of this character.   Something of the same can be said about Per Petterson’s 2003 novel, Out Stealing Horses, an intensely hermetic account of a sixty-seven year old man’s self exile to a remote cabin in Norway. There’s as much cold, and dark introspection, and wood chopping as one might expect, but there is also tenderness and grief, and the land is beautiful. This year I also revisited Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. It was a novel I had loved in high school – as much for its portrait of pock-marked, chain-smoking, king-making Sadie Burke as for its larger-than-life depiction of “The Boss,” Willie Stark, or even its cynical and yet highly romantic, and loquacious, narrator. Having lived inside the beltway for nearly two decades now, I thought it time to reconsider, as an adult reader, whether All the King’s Men (written by a poet, after all, not a reporter) is indeed America’s best political novel. It is. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Choire Sicha

Unfortunately for me, I spent more time this year writing and editing than I did reading. But I did have two rewarding reading-related projects. First, I wanted to indulge in the stakes-free popular literature. So I read all the George R.R. Martin books. Mmm hmm. They are honestly pretty great, like chocolate milkshakes, although I started Kindle-highlighting references to rape at a certain point around book three — I think that one's the rapiest? — and it really gets ya down. What is the deal? He thinks about rape more than Andrea Dworkin! I really didn't agree, in the end, with Daniel Mendelsohn's fascinating essay on the topic of Game of Thrones. I mean, open that link up, and apple-F "Brienne," and apple-F "rape," and... nothing??? You can't get to "remarkable feminist epic" without passing those stations of the sexist cross. There's also a question about the series overall that's the "show your work" problem, as in, I don't really care about the efforts of the math problem you had to do, I mostly want to see the solution to the math problem. In this case that means: Are we still reading prologue? Have we just read several thousand pages that actually don't matter? Maaaybe. In this vein I also read the James Franco book Actors Anonymous and the very silly Dave Eggers book, The Circle. That would make a really good cartoon television show maybe. With a laughtrack. What a silly book! I read it so fast, I basically couldn't stop. Milkshake! My other project was... Catching Up With The Kids. This is a thing you have to do consciously as you start to get older, particularly if you don't teach. So, I read a Tao Lin book! (Taipei, obviously.) I read/engaged with the works of Amanda Hugginkiss Steve Roggenbuck and "Marie Calloway." I am currently reading the manuscript of the forthcoming book by the proprietor of Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, who is or is not named David Shapiro, and it is pretty terrific so far. I like this vein of writing, though not as much as the other young people do. I have already read the New Narrative writers and Dennis Cooper and all that flat affectless 90s jazz and though all the youngs are certainly bringing something new to the table, I don't think it's particularly innovative to go all in for this mode. Also, narcissism as an art form is eminently boring. I am ready for something more than people writing I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I. Anyway I am starting to re-read Rebecca Brown's The Terrible Girls, which has just been reissued! It's already the best book I've read all year. Every emo youngster should read this, it is where their contemporary literature came from! Every time someone clicks on Thought Catalog, a Rebecca Brown reader should auto-download! More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Claire Messud

I read a lot of wonderful books this year, many of them new, and others simply new to me. I loved Amity Gaige’s Schroder, and Victoria Redel’s Make Me Do Things, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta – to name but a few. But this year was, for me, most profoundly about re-discoveries and re-readings. I wrote an article on Albert Camus which had me, for some months, living again with those books I felt so passionately about when I was young: not just The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall, but also The Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel, and his earliest writings, the glorious little book of essays Noces, which is essentially a love letter to his native Algeria, and which can be found in English in his Lyrical and Critical Essays. Then, too, I’ve been writing an introduction for a forthcoming reissue of Jane Bowles’s wonderful only novel, Two Serious Ladies, a book I consider almost my blood relation. I came upon it by chance years ago in college, and felt so strongly about it that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on her work. Her astringent wit, her particular eye, her combination of levity and profound seriousness – Jane Bowles is unlike anybody else. You can read about her all-too-brief life in Millicent Dillon’s fine biography, A Little Original Sin. In the Venn diagram of the apparently vastly disparate Albert Camus and Jane Bowles, there are more overlaps than you might think (eg North Africa: Algeria for him, Morocco for her), but chief among them is Simone Weil, whom both writers admired and whom Camus championed. So now I’m reading Simone Weil – Waiting for God, to begin with – in order to make sense of why both Camus and Bowles have such significance for me. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

I don’t tend to read a lot of new English-language fiction. This isn’t from any sort of prejudice; it’s a side effect of the fact that I’m trying to go through the entirety of Russian literature, which takes up most of my available reading time. Fortunately, my writer friend Jim Salant occasionally forces me to get out of my Russian rut and experience a book he’s enthusiastic about, and most recently this was Tessa Hadley’s novel The London Train (P.S.). I wasn’t familiar with Hadley (and as of this writing she doesn’t have a Wikipedia article to her name), but by the time I got to the end of the first paragraph (“On the wall behind her desk was pinned a colorful year planner, almost every square scribbled over with busyness and responsibility: he imagined a space on the planner where his mother's occupation of her room abutted abruptly onto blankness”) I was entirely willing to put myself into her hands and go where she wanted to take me. Her characters are drawn with clear-eyed affection, her prose is endlessly pleasurable without needlessly calling attention to itself, and she has a daring way of constructing a book (the “P.S.” in the title serves as a warning) that makes for an unexpected and enjoyable ride. When I finished it, I liked it so much I wanted to experience it again, so I read it to my wife. Hadley also writes short stories (I’ve since read a memorable one in the New Yorker), and I look forward to reading more of her work. My great find in the field of Russian history this year was Karl Schlögel’s Moscow, 1937, which immerses you in just about every imaginable aspect of that place and time, from construction projects to literature to music (jazz, pop, and Shostakovich) to the brand-new Gorky Park to the unstoppable, unmanageable flood of people from the starving countryside to the capital, where at least there was the hope of a job in one of the many new factories and therefore of survival. It's the kind of blend of literary, cultural, and political history, with constant references to geography (and a nice annotated map of Moscow on the endpapers), that I love. If you want to understand the era of the great purges, this is one of the first books I would recommend. My understanding of Russian literature and its history was shaken up by Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature; I had never given a thought to that side of Soviet literature, and I doubt many people have, but she convinced me that (as she puts it) “The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate.” If you’re interested in, say, Bulgakov or Platonov, you’ll want to understand this aspect of where they came from. And there’s a companion volume, the anthology Red Spectres, which provides eleven stories in the genre; the pick of the bunch are the two stories by Bulgakov and one by the relatively unknown Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, but they’re all good reading. As for Russian literature itself, in the course of working my way through the early nineteenth century I’ve come across any number of writers I think should be better known, and at the head of the pack is Alexander Veltman. Veltman was extremely popular in his heyday, he was one of the pioneers of Russian science fiction, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky praised him (his Serdtse i dumka [Heart and head, 1838] was one of Dostoevsky's favorite novels), and he’s tremendous fun to read. As far as I know, the only translation into English is Selected Stories, edited and translated by the late James J. Gebhard (Northwestern University Press, 1998), which I am hereby recommending, but I would urge any adventurous publishers out there to commission translations of his novels, starting with Strannik [The wanderer], which burst onto the somnolent Russian literary scene at the beginning of the 1830s and made its author instantly famous. It begins “This sedentary, monotonous life has grown wearisome; let us go, sir! — said I one day to myself — let us go a-traveling!” and whisks the reader off to Bessarabia and Bulgaria; it’s a war memoir, a travelogue, a fantasy, a dream of fair women, with poetry and ethnography tossed in. It explains its own wild discursiveness thus: “In everything, harmony arises from disharmony... Thoughts, opinions, speeches, deeds, all of life, everything is subject to this law.” Veltman clung stubbornly to that law, even after tastes changed in the 1840s and the Russian public started wanting serious novels of social realism with explicit points of view on serfdom, nihilism, and the like; he kept writing books where you couldn’t make out what was going on for a long time (in Koshchei bessmertny [Koshchei the immortal, 1833], there is no mention of Koshchei until the twelfth chapter), and you just had to hold on tight and trust to the author’s fertile mind and ever-lively prose. It’s postmodern fiction, is what it is, and I think the world has finally caught up with it. Any publisher who takes the plunge will not only be delighting readers and making money, they’ll be helping to rewrite the received history of Russian literature. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 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.
Notable Articles, Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: 2013

Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you're like us, when you look back, you'll mark out the year in books -- weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder. And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013. For our esteemed guests, the 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 2014 a fruitful one. As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish 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 or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way. Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat. Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs. Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City. Alice McDermott, author of Someone. Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen. Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing. Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies. Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure. Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon. Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family. David Gilbert, author of And Sons. Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger. Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn Mark O'Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them. Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun. Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction. Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions. Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions. Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions. Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You're Not Yet Like Me. Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions. Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions. Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. Edwidge Danticat, author of  Claire of the Sea Light. Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9. Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge. Scott Turow, author of Identical. Chang-rae Lee, author of  The Surrendered. Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions. Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers. Tom Drury, author of Pacific. Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Paul Harding, author of Enon. Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones. Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions. Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods. Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors. Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet. Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City. Tess Malone, intern for The Millions. Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen. Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions. Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World. Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador. Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask. Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin. Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil. Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections. Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking. Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed. Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming. Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator. Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review. Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird. Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island. Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions. Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape. Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer. Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.