THIS is my second annual list of my favorite reading. It doesn’t include the newest off the press, just what I’ve picked up through various sources and liked. This year, I’ve got not only titles, but categories because there’s more non-fiction than usual on the list. When I started 2007, I’d resolved to have a poetry category by year’s end, but that went the way of a number of other resolutions. It’s good to have unkept resolutions. “The reach should exceed the grasp,” says Browning, a maxim I obey at all times. The order is not ranked.
NOVELS–the top ten (er–eleven) in non-ranked order
Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez This delicious novella opens with one of the most arresting first sentences you’ll find anywhere. “The year I turned ninety, I wanted to give myself the gift of a night of wild love with an adolescent virgin.” The narrator gets his night, but it isn’t a wild one, and he suddenly, despite his age, he finds himself infected with an infatuation worthy of Goethe’s young Werther. He loses her, spurns her, tries to give her up, but can’t rid himself of her or the emotions she evokes. . .
On Beauty by Zadie Smith You can’t sum up a work of this dimension in a phrase, but Smith comes as close as you can with the what to me is the telling line from the title poem (Not Smith’s): “The beautiful don’t lack the wound.” Read this book
The Road by Cormack McCarthy It’s different this time, Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel. We’re not in the far or near past, the old west or West Virginia. We’re not treated to long, super-vocabularied philosophical discourses. No, The Road places us in a post-apocalyptic world with language and circumstances as elemental as the dilemma of where to where to find your next meal
Snow by Orhan Pamuk. One of the jacket blurbs on the paperback edition of Snow declares that the book heralds the return of the political novel. I don’t know that the political novel ever went away or, indeed, what a political novel is, exactly, but I do know that the phrase cannot contain this first-drawer work of literature.
Snow’s themes and ideas are complex enough to absorb seminars by themselves. Isolation–political, psychological, romantic, artistic–is but one of the concepts that is intertwined in the interior and exterior lives of the characters as well as the overall action of the novel. The concept of authority–where it rests and how it is exercised in government, families, friendships–moves the plot through the streets of the storm-isolated town of Kars where the novel is set. Kars itself is at once the place where nearly all the action occurs and a metaphor for Turkey and even for the emotional lives of the characters. The analyst who diagrammed the travels of protagonist Ka through its streets might be rewarded with meaning kin to Leopold Bloom’s meanderings through Dublin. And these don’t begin to exhaust what all could be termed main themes. The book is resplendent with them.
Montana, 1948 by Larry Watson I’d never heard of this small 1993 classic until a friend recommended it, and I’m sorry it hasn’t received wider recognition. At 164 pages it could qualify as a novella, I suppose, but that’s hardly the point. On the surface, it’s among the simplest works of fiction ever in its language and structure. A brief prologue highlights some key moments in the story we’ll be reading. The narrator (an adult recalling the summer of his twelfth year) highlights his family history, then describes the central event of the book and of his life. From that point, the story seems to tell itself (one of the most difficult effects for any storyteller to achieve) and the action concludes in a manner most writers only dream about–the surprise that in retrospect seems inevitable.
Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen There have been many novels set among the denizens of stage and screen, I don’t think there have been many set in the circus. I remember a movie or two such as the classic Trapeze, with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollobrigida, but not a single novel comes to mind. I’m sure more than one title has escaped my notice, but I think they’re few and far between. Water For Elephants is refreshing for that reason alone. But there’s plenty more to recommend it.
Gruen’s tale has a well-crafted plot that frames the action and keeps the reader involved and entertained, but not manipulated. It’s an honest, unpretentious piece of fresh writing.
The protagonist is a ninety- (or is it nine-three? He can’t quite recall. ) year- old rest home resident who alternately relates, dreams about, and recalls, his three-month stint with the Binzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth in the year 1931. Jacob Jankowski is one set of exams short of a Cornell veterinary degree when he receives words that his parents have been killed in an auto accident and that all their property is forfeit to the bank. Wandering, depressed, he ends up with the circus.
Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol It was my son-in-law who steered me here. I was telling him about Catherine the Great, and he told me about the time he decided to self-educate himself in world lit and assigned himself three books each from a number of countries. Dead Souls was one of his assignments, so now it’s mine, and a good thing, too.
Both the title and premise of the novel are misleadingly grim, as is the cover picture of the Penguin edition. It’s actually a witty tale of a small-time schemer who has decided to enhance his social standing by acquiring as many peasants as possible–an essential status item for your 19th century Russian aristocrat. As a semi-corrupt and inept public servant, he can’t afford more than the two slaves he already has so he contrives the scheme of buying the names of dead ones from landowners who must taxes even on deceased Muzhiks until the next census. Seems like a win-win, since the landowners no longer have to pay the piper and Chichikov can present a list of official list of owned humans to whomever he wants to impress, among whom is a potential marriage partner we never meet. However, complications ensue as he wanders from town to town and estate to estate trying to build his stash, and we get to meet a wonderful array of characters and get involved in myriad situations.
Prisoners of War by Steve Yarbrough Told that Steve Yarbrough’s Prisoners of War is a World War II novel, you might think you’d open the book and find yourself in Germany or Italy. Instead, you’re in Mississippi. The American War Department did set up some POW camps here and used the prisoners as laborers, in this case, cotton pickers. These Aryan enemies of America were often afforded privileges unavailable to black fighting men. Our soldiers had to watch the men they’d been recently paid to shoot ride on trains, eat in restaurants, and piss in toilets deemed too good for the use of the darker brothers.
Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies A friend of mine has been highly infatuated with Davies ever since she met him in a workshop a few years ago. I’ve admired him as one of the better short story writers around, but never been enthralled. That’s changed.
I believe Davies’ long stint in a medium where every second counts contributed to the excellence of The Wesh Girl. Nothing is wasted. Not a character, not a description, not a rumination. And it adds up to a beautiful whole.
The Welsh girl in question is Esther Evans, a seventeen-year-old who feels stuck in her village but feels destined for a wider future. Others see her as a potential globetrotter, too. But there’s this war thing. The action begins just before D-Day, and in short order, the world comes to her before she has a chance to leave.
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon is Michael Chabon’s first novelistic venture since his Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay in 2001, and in some ways, it’s a step up.
Despite the exotic setting–The 1948 establishment of Israel has failed and a compromise is a fifty-year Jewish colony in Sitka, Alaska–the book includes a set of stock crime novel characters. A semi-degenerate, wisecracking detective, (Landsman), with bad luck, bad attitude, and a bad relationship with the rules. There’s a martinet supervisor who insists on said rule book (twist–Landsman’s is his ex-wife.) There’s a body in a seedy hotel room. There’s a crime boss. There’s the Feds interfering with local justice. there are drugs involved. As usual, the characters combat the sordidness with sardonic humor, and Chabon’s is right up there with Chandler and the other aficionados of the crime fiction trade:
“Did you touch anything in the room?” Landsman says.
Tenenboym says, “Only the cash and the jewelry.”
That’s on the first page, and there’s a lot more all the way through.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.E. Coetzee Gun to my head, I’d have to name Coetzee as the greatest current practitioner of English prose. There’s certainly no one writing in America who can touch him, and I’d personally put him above both Ishiguro and McEwen. Maybe not Unser. I fault him only for his lack of humor. He seldom displays a light touch, but the rest of his work is so profound that chuckles would be a little like laughing out loud in church.
Waiting for the Barbarians is set at a nameless frontier outpost of a nameless empire. The narrator, identified only as The Magistrate, is a man of late middle years who is responsible for dispensing justice and keeping order in the small community. He has plenty of leisure to indulge his propensities for good food, classics, prostitutes, and archeology. He looks forward to living out his career as a comfortable bureaucrat well below the radar of the far-off rulers.
Into this tranquil setup comes an expedition from Empire Central, “the capital,” on mounting a military campaign to subdue the titular Barbarians–a nomadic people of the surrounding plains and mountains. The magistrate does all he can to accommodate the invaders, reasoning that they will soon exhaust their curiosity, then leave him alone as they have in the past. This time it doesn’t work out that way.
I’m usually not one for short story collections. I tend to pick them up, read a couple, put them down and feel guilty about not revisiting them. 2007 was a lucky year for me, though. Here are three I read with gusto from cover to cover and would recommend as much as any of the novels:
FAULKNER REDUX–The Big Woods short stories I just felt a need for a Faulkner fix and decided on these stories, which are bound by theme, characters, geography, and chronology. The most famous of them is “The Bear,” though it’s not chronologically the first in the series of events. The story has been heavily anthologized because it’s a coming-of-age piece as well as a bridge between primitive and modern worlds. We’re in the company of a young boy (Isaac McCaslin) whose job is to shoot an animal and to love the animal he kills and to be bathed–or at least marked by–the blood of his prey as an initiation into the male adult world. But it’s a world that is disappearing as surely as the indigenous folks who previously did this sort of thing with stones and arrows. Much of Faulkner is, after all, about the destruction of Eden, and if he were writing today, you might find him writing Greenpeace ads. You don’t think so? Bet you never thought Bob Dylan would sell out to Victoria’s Secret either. Kidding aside, Greenpeace would be missing the point, for Faulkner’s Eden is not a place of innocence. Here are some of the boy’s words as an old man:
God created man and He created the world for him to live in. . .I reckon He foreknew man would follow and kill the game. . . I reckon he foresaw the end. But He said I will give him his chance. I will give him warning and foreknowledge too, along with the desire to follow and the power to slay. The woods and the fields he ravages and the game he devastates will be the consequence and signature of his crime and guilt and his punishment.
The Best American Short Stories of 2007, Edited by Stephen King. Stephen King’s foreward bemoans the state, not of the short story itself, but of the market. Everyone’s writing, but no one reads. Or at least buys. Or is able to market in a way that people buy. It’s the same kind of wail Anne Patchett raised in her foreward to her version BASS collection a few years back. In a world of declining readership due to the yearning for an instant fix, one might think that shorter works would be doing better, but I guess not. But, in the spirit of accepting what I cannot change, I’ll just go on to the reading.King has enormous star power, of course, and though I’ve liked some of his work, I didn’t expect his selections to match my tastes. Wrong, wrong. I liked this edition probably better than I’ve liked any other BASS. I didn’t want to. I wanted last year’s by Michael Chabon to be the best. I’ve met him, you see, and he lives in my neighborhood. Also, one of his books will be in my top ten of 2007. But, alas, Michael, I’ve got to say that Stephen beat you out.
War by Candlelight by DANIEL ALARCóN
In the best collection of short stories I’ve read in years, Daniel Alarcón has purchased himself a place among the leading young American authors. His well-reviewed new novel Lost City Radio may erase the word “young” from that phrase, though. I haven’t read it yet. I think the guy’s got it all and that we’re in for years of delicious reading.
Alarcon’s background is unique in that it is so unremarkable for a guy who writes about such exotic locations and subjects Yes, he was born in Lima (Peru, not Ohio), but he was raised in Birmingham (Alabama, not England.) His parents are both physicians, and he traveled an establishment educational process including Columbia University and an Iowa Writers’ Program masters. You can find insights into his thinking manner in an interview with Latina. Click here to check that out. Alarcón is a painter who uses simple line and form, not too much color or texture, but whose final product is rich, evocative, memorable. As memorable as some of his superb titles. “A Science for Being Alone.” “A Strong Dead Man.” Read this book.
Things Kept, Things Left Behind is a coming-out celebration for a terrific writer named Jim Tomlinson. The inability to finish reading short story collections is one of my shameful flaws. I write the things, but I struggle to read them. I buy Best American Short Stories nearly every year, read several, let the rest languish. But the why of that failing is a subject for another blog because Things Kept, Things Left Behind is an exception–a group of short stories that captivated me.
You can begin with some of the names–Arnel Embry, Grandpa Coy, Dexter Chalk, Cousin Shuey– wonderfully evocative of the rural Kentucky environment where the stories are set.
You can go on to the smells.You’ll never run into a writer with a keener nose; and the images, impressive in themselves, don’t simply add texture to the prose, they become a primary tool for creating plot and character:
“She liked the familiar smell of him, slightly musky, with a hint of machine oil that lingered even after he’d showered. It was the smell of his work, the smell of lathes and grinders and milling machines. And it was not so different…from the smell of her father, the smell of locomotives.”
You can go on to the sentences–simple, clear, incisive, Carver-like. Try these:
“Sometimes she thinks of herself as a howl. The wail of a coyote, maybe, or a lone banshee, a shriek dying away in the night without reaching ears.”
Not bad, eh? Read the rest. There’s a lot more where that came from.
NON FICTION. The non fiction for this year has been the most exciting ever. As captivating and even more educational than the fiction.
THE RAPE OF NANKING–BLOODY HISTORY BY IRIS CHANG. The first time I heard of the dreadful events described in The Rape of Nanking was from Flora, our Shanghai guide, during a tour of China in 2003. The intensity of her emotions about the incident paralleled those of holocaust survivors I’d met concerning the German concentration camps, and I wondered that I knew nothing of what was apparently one of world’s historic slaughters. We continued to Thailand on the same trip and learned from Thai people of the animosity that remains sixty years later against the Japanese for atrocities committed there. We knew, of course, a bit more about that situation because of the film The Bridge Over the River Kwai. However, Nanking had no Alec Guiness to spread the word, and history, for reasons I’ll discuss in the next piece when I get to the book itself, has paid little attention to Nanking.
Among eeriest feelings I’ve ever experienced was eating a delicious meal in a floating restaurant beneath that famous bridge, a bridge that has now become a tourist attraction to the extent that crews were busy setting up for a light show later the same evening of our dinner. I’m rather glad we missed the celebration. After a somber walk across the bridge, a tearful tour of the restored bamboo barracks (now maintained by Buddhist monks) full of photos of starved and suffering prisoners, and a perusal of the gravesites of troops who died in the forced-labor camp (most of the graves were U.K. soldiers, who bore the brunt of the savagery. The bodies of U.S. soldiers were nearly all brought back to the States.) our supper seemed nearly sacrilegious in itself I wrote two blogs on this one it disturbed me so much. Read it for yourself.
Catherine the Great by Henri Troyat You won’t find a more fascinating historical or human figure than Catherine. She’s full of the kind of powers and contradictions that make for the best and the worst among us. Imported to Russia from Germany in 1746 for one of those arranged marriages meant to cement political alliances (Frederick II was the German monarch), she found herself at fifteen married to a loutish son of reigning empress Elizabeth who expected her to start producing babies. Elizabeth knew full well that her son was incapable of heading the country and looked for Catherine to produce a suitable heir. Problem was, Peter was more interested in playing with toy soldiers than in sex. In addition to the mental and emotional conditions that blocked consummation of the marriage, he was afflicted with a condition called Phimosis. I’d never heard of it before, but it’s an apparently not uncommon inability of the foreskin to completely retract. It’s easily repaired with a quick flick of a lancet, but Peter refused the operation until years after the marriage when some buddies got him drunk and forced him to submit. The scalpel didn’t cure the other problems, however, and no babies were in evidence till Catherine took her first in a string of lovers that ended only when she died. Nine years after the wedding, Paul was born and taken from her by Elizabeth to be raised as the next emperor. None too soon. If Catherine hadn’t produced, she was headed for exile or worse, having failed at her most important function. Not her fault? So?
Eventually, of course, it’s Catherine herself who takes the throne. She’s prepared herself psychologically and intellectually by keeping informed about affairs of state, prodigious (if random and unguided) reading, immersion in Russian culture, and a steady correspondence with leading French intellectuals–Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, et al.What happens after that is history, but Troyat’s hands its also high and entertaining drama.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A.Caro The 2500 pages of the three extant volumes of Robert A. Caro’s biographical work The Years of Lyndon Johnson make for a prodigious but rewarding read. There’s a fourth book to come, but with Master of the Senate, (The preceding two being The Path to Power, and Means of Ascent) we’ve now arrived at the eve of 1960, the year of his election to the vice-presidency. The next volume will presumably carry through the presidency to his death, though with Caro’s thoroughness, I wouldn’t put a fifth volume past him. He’s devoted over thirty years to the project so far. That’s nearly an entire career, with The Power Broker about the titanic Robert Moses of New York as his other Pulitzer claim to fame.
It’s hard to imagine a work of this length achieving a constant sense of urgency and drama. But Caro does it, and no brief quotations can convey how well he does it. You’ll just have to try it for yourself. If you want to read just one, I recommend the second volume–Means of Ascent–which is the story of that run for the Senate. All drama all the time and more theatrical history than you can find in the evening news. Taken as a whole, however, The Years of Lyndon Johnson is such a monumental, disturbing, and well-written work, it almost reads like a novel.
Johnson was, in a sense, my second president. I was aware of Eisenhower, but with boyhood lack of connection to the adult world, didn’t feel part of his political era. When I graduated from high school in 1959, you still had to be twenty-one to drink or vote, so I was a spectator for the 1960 elections of JFK and LBJ.* By the time of the 1963 assassination, however, I had fully bought into and identified with the Camelot myth and was in deep grief with the rest of the nation. With Johnson’s succession followed the horror and the glory of Vietnam and the Great Society, respectively. LBJ didn’t start things in Vietnam, but he poured more lives than anyone else into the Southeast Asian jungles.
Even with Nixon’s Parrot’s Beak incursions into Cambodia and other fiascos, no other American bears more responsibility for those ugly years than Lyndon Johnson. On the other hand, no other person with a white skin save Abraham Lincoln did more to advance the cause of justice for American citizens of darker hue than Lyndon Johnson. And those two facts exemplify what Caro calls the dark thread and the bright thread in the fabric of LBJ’s life and career. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that none of it would have happened like that without the 87 fraudulent votes which Johnson stole to gain his senate seat in 1948.
Johnson grew up in intense poverty. Texas hill country was so poor, they couldn’t afford Negroes. Whites had to do all the “nigger work” themselves, so he was relatively free of direct experience with minorities of intense experience with normal southern prejudices of the time. Not as free as he claimed to be, of course. That would have been impossible. However, he demonstrated intense compassion for the poor of his own race as well as for those of other races from time to time. One of his early jobs was as a schoolteacher in a small Tex-Mex town where in the course of one year he practically transformed his have-not Cotulla High School into a place where kids could at least play ball and have a debate club. He identified with the transient kids who would be in class one day, then be trucked off to the fields the next. The same thing had happened to his own white friends (though not to him) when he was growing up. Again, when he had a chance to head up a youth employment agency as part of the early new deal, he did a lot to make sure black kids at least appeared to get more than their fair share of the resources. As a congressional representative, he pioneered through great personal sacrifice to bring electricity to sparsely-populated hill country when no power company wanted to do it.
That compassion, however, needed to coincide with his ambition, or it became expendable. Most of us have a streak like that unless we’re Mother Theresa. We’re glad to help others as long as it doesn’t cost us too much time, money, convenience. But Johnson carried this normal human impulse to gargantuan proportions–as he did most matters in his life. From his earliest days, he had to win, and had to be the center of attention. “Just had to,” as an early acquaintance put it. That attitude never diminished, and it made and unmade many a career and changed the course of American history.
Ben Franklin, An American Life by Walter Isaacson. This biography makes a wonderful complement to the 1938 Pulitzer Prize winning Benjamin Franklin by Carl Van Doren. Van Doren’s book is dense and exhaustive and admiring of both the man and his work. Isaacson is thorough as well, but more readable, and more critical, especially of Franklin’s personal life. It’s been several years since I read the Van Doren book, and I don’t plan to go back for a point-by-point analysis, but if you want to read just one, I’d say go for Walter.
Pretty much everyone knows something about Franklin’s Horatio Alger beginnings and about his role as a signer of the Declaration of Independence and framer of the Constitution. Folks connect his name with Poor Richard and the Almanac, the Franklin Stove, the lightning rod, and bifocals. Many fewer, probably, know of his business acumen, how he turned one small Philadelphia print shop into a multi-colonial string of franchises that enabled him to retire at age forty-two (1747) to pursue projects of scientific and community betterment.
He used his “leisure” time to lead the world in the discovery and use of electricity, invent a musical instrument (the Armonica) which became enough of an orchestral standby to warrant compositions by Beethoven and Mozart, correspond with scientists and philosophers worldwide on a huge range of subjects, write the constitution of Pennsylvania, organize fire departments, raise and lead a militia, and organize a postal service that achieved a twenty-four hour turnaround on letters between New York and Philadelphia. All this before the revolution was even a glimmer in Samuel Adams’ eye.
So, why would a man of so many talents and obviously superior intellect be labeled “bourgeois”? Read the book and find out for your self.
GREAT PLAINS BY IAN FRAZIER
THE GREAT (HUNGARIAN) ESCAPE AND WHAT IT DID FOR ALL OF US
Kati Marton’s The Great Escape is an eye-opener. How many of us know that turn-of-the century Budapest was a world-unique hotbed of intellectual and artistic activity where Jews participated on an equal basis with gentiles? Not me.
Over a dozen Nobel Prize winners emerged from roughly the same generation of Hungarians. (there is some dispute as to their numbers, twelve to eighteen, depending on whether one counts areas of the county of country the Treaty of Trianon stripped away in 1920.) Among them were George de Hevesy, John Polanyi, and George Olah, awarded nobel Prizes in chemistry, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Georg von Bekesy, awarded Nobel Prizes in medicine; Dennis Gabor and Plilipp Lenard, who joined Eugene Wigner in winning the physics Nobel; and in economics, John Harasanyi, who won a Nobel for his work in Game Theory, the field pioneered by von Neumann, whose early death probably denied him his own Nobel. There were others–not all of them Nobel laureates. Marcel Breuer designed his famous chair and other Bauhaus masterpieces, as well as the Whitney Museum in New York. Bela Bartok’s disturbing harmonies started in Budapest and reached the world. For decades, Bartok’s students, as well as other products of Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy, among them Fritz Reiner, Geroge Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, and Anatal Dorati, created the sound of the world’s’ great orchestras.
And every one of these names has an exciting story attached, stories which Marton tells lucidly and with a great eye for historical significance. One of my best Christmas presents ever.
BEST CRAFT BOOK–HOOKED BY LES EDGERTON A genre I generally don’t find either useful or entertaining, but if you want to write, this is an essential tool.
MOST DISAPPOINTING–FAULKNER BY FREDERICH KARL I think Faulkner is the best American novelist of the twentieth century, the only one who can hold his own with the likes of Joyce, Lawrence, et al, so I was dismayed to encounter this turgid, unreadable tome. I struggled through about two hundred of its thousand-plus pages before giving up.
MOST BIZARRE–URIEL’S MACHINE by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas–If you are interested in history as fable and/or loved The DaVinci Code, you’ll love this account of the story of humankind via the Masons and Knights Templar and meteorites. It even explains Stonehenge, though not the Loch Ness Monster.
That does it. Fun for me to relive this stuff. Wonder if anyone will actually read all this. No matter.