The commute to my day job takes an hour. Books are indispensable, because while I don’t necessarily believe that hell is other people (I’ve given this some thought, and am actually reasonably certain at this point that hell is Delta Airlines), if I had to be fully present on the subway for two hours a day I’d probably start snarling at random strangers. Forgetting to bring a book with me constitutes an emergency. I’ve turned back on the street on harried mornings and walked back up four flights of stairs just to find something, anything to read. If I’m almost finished a book, I’ll take an extra just in case. All my memories of reading this year involve harsh overhead lighting, bright stations, glancing up in time to see that strange underground river that runs along the G line, and noise-blocking headphones. (There’s often nothing attached to these headphones. I just need a plausible reason to ignore anyone who bothers me while I’m trying to read.) So, then, a few of the best books I read this year. This isn’t exhaustive, and to a reader of The Millions or other literary blogs, this list will likely have an air of déjà vu. The books I particularly loved this year mostly fell into one of two categories: either I already wrote them up on The Millions, or I didn’t write them up here, but only because they were already so popular that it kind of seemed like everyone was writing them up everywhere else, and what’s the point of covering a book that everyone else has already covered, when so many wonderful books are published each and every week with insufficient publicity budgets? 1. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher Christopher Boucher’s debut novel concerns a young man whose girlfriend gives birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle. I found it to be deeply moving and hilarious. 2. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu An intelligent novel about a time-machine technician. Upon reflection, there are surface similarities with the Boucher novel (sad young man seeks father in surrealist alternate universe), but this one’s less surreal and more pseudo-sciencey. I think of it as a beautifully conceived piece of literary science fiction. I very much like the idea of galaxies that are specifically zoned for space opera. 3. After Midnight by Irmgard Keun Keun published this novel in 1937. The book follows a 19-year-old German girl, Sanna, through a catastrophic evening in late-1930s Frankfurt. It’s harrowing and beautifully written. 4. Spurious by Lars Iyer A poignant and often funny meditation on friendship, failure, the apocalypse, messianism, Kafka, and mold. Mostly it’s an extended conversation between a writer named Lars and his best friend, W., who feels compelled to express his love via insults. (“W. remembers when I was up and coming, he tells me. He remembers the questions I used to ask, and how they would resound beneath the vaulted ceilings. -- ‘You seemed so intelligent then,’ he says. I shrug. ‘But when any of us read your work…’, he says, without finishing the sentence.”) 5. Snowdrops by A.D. Miller The book concerns a lonely British lawyer living and working in Moscow in the 1990s. There’s a body in the first chapter, but the real story here isn’t the crime; it’s the extent to which we’re willing to lie to ourselves, to ignore the obvious, in pursuit of happiness or companionship or love. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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To be gay in a civil-rights era often seems like an us-versus-them declaration, which — as much as I support the cause — can be exhausting. Like most people, I don’t always want to feel like a placard. So whenever I’m feeling burned out on the news, I look for more nuanced and complicated or let’s just say “literary” characters/voices, which this year I found in two amazing novels, one older that I re-read and one new, both of which transcend two-dimensional arguments about homosexuality and weave questions about what it means to be gay into narratives about humanity and — perhaps more important — becoming an artist. A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas was first published in Europe in the mid-80s and follows a Hungarian living in Cold War East Berlin, where he falls in love with a frustrated poet (another man) who longs to escape to the West. Chapters jump between the narrator’s adult life and memories of his childhood, a structure made almost insanely complicated by a third series of chapters — again written in the first person — by a belle-epoch writer who also moves back and forth between his past and present. Despite the logistical challenges — and at first it can be hard to tell exactly who’s writing — it’s a beautiful and rewarding read. Nadas captures the many selves and desires, often conflicting, which reside in all of us, and his descriptions of adolescence are particularly gripping, when he must come to terms with living in a police state and with a secret love he feels for another boy. The book should resonate with anyone who has endured questions about identity while navigating through what often feels like terrifying, brutal, and shifting alliances in our circles of friends and enemies. Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles is much easier to digest on a sentence-by-sentence level, but no less profound. In what feels more like a memoir (albeit one concerned with self-invention) Myles — though again, not chronologically — after growing up in Boston describes moving to Manhattan to pursue a career as a poet and, later, a lesbian. (And she uses the word “career” to describe both, which is painful, hilarious, and not exactly PC in the manner of much of the book.) Myles has an intoxicating willingness to try anything — or well, just about, whether involving sex, drugs, or supplicating herself to important people in her downtown scene — in her decades-long march to become a paid artist. At times her deadpan cool seems emotionally detached (and no coincidence, one of her favorite books is The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil), but by the end it’s clear she has mastered her craft to an extent that as a reader it’s almost impossible not to feel deficient for being anything but a poet/lesbian, and specifically anyone but Eileen Myles. (Which is a pretty amazing trick when you step back and consider the political power held by lesbian poets in our society at this juncture generally speaking.) For Myles, the issue is not “it gets better” but a rather more punk-rock “it IS better,” which I found to be the perfect antidote — a kind of artistic redemption — to the more depressing tedium that so often accompanies the painstaking march for political/social equality. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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At 74, Clive James is a remarkably prolific poet, one who’s working hard to finish or publish three books in the next year alone. He spoke with Douglas Murray of The Spectator about his unflagging energy. “At the moment, I am in the slightly embarrassing position where I write poems saying I am about to die and I don’t,” he says. You could also read our own Garth Risk Hallberg on James’s book Cultural Amnesia.