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Our Year in Reading 2012 Continues

By (December 1, 2012) No Comment

A look back at some of the reading we did at Open Letters in 2012
Max Ross, Editor

If one—say, during the holiday season—is feeling a bit existentially low, and wondering about one’s place in the world, while also, in a more professional sense, stressing over the demise of the publishing industry and its paltry 5advances and fees and the substanceless titles it releases week after week after week, and the weather is cold and gray, and family cheer seems a thing of the past, it is a good, redemptive thing to turn to Jon Klassen’s treatise This Is Not My Hat.

A neatly conceived commentary mostly on capitalism, but touching—lightly, deftly—on matters of the soul, This Is Not My Hat follows the exploits of Little Fish (a thinly veiled stand-in for your average American proletarian) as he takes something that belongs to Much Bigger Fish (the aristocracy) and endeavors to get away with the crime. Specifically, he takes Much Bigger Fish’s small blue derby hat.

From the very outset, Little Fish is an unsteady, self-deprecating character. “This is not my hat,” he declares—disregarding that it is very likely the profit from his, Little Fish’s, hard toiling in the ocean’s murky sand factories that enabled Much Bigger Fish to buy that hat in the first place. One wouldn’t be remiss to ask if the hat does not rightfully belong to Little Fish in the first place; indeed, it seems to fit him perfectly. Nevertheless, he admits he’s in the wrong and feels a bit guilty for it. If one detects notes of Crime & Punishment in Little Fish’s wavering, one will not be surprised that Klassen has implicitly listed it as his inspiration in several interviews.

But, like the ‘coyote’ character of classic Native American literature, or the ‘Jew’ of a typical Philip Roth novel, Little Fish is a wily, enterprising sort. In short, he wants to get his. While Much Bigger Fish is asleep, Little Fish somehow maneuvers the derby hat away (with his fins? with his mouth? the idea being that the worker will always find a way to prevail), and makes for the thick seaweed patch, where he believes he will be safely hidden.

SPOILER ALERT: he will not be safely hidden. In a cunning, Orwellian twist, Klassen acknowledges the indomitable nature of the upper classes. While surely Much Bigger Fish does not need his superfluous derby hat, and could easily obtain another with his means, he makes a point of searching out and punishing Little Fish—keeping him in his place. The lower classes cannot, of course, be allowed to rise. Re-hatted, Much Bigger Fish once again falls into a spoiled stupor.

Yet Klassen’s point is clear: one must struggle. Fruitless and self-destructive as Little Fish’s efforts may be, they gain meaning—perhaps profundity—for their very futility. Even as the reader turns the pages fully aware of Little Fish’s inevitable failure, there is hope. There is hope.

Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief

6Sea-saltiness tends to permeate the prose in the quaint and wonderful cottage industry of Cape Cod nature writing, and for the most part readers wouldn’t have it any other way. The Cape brings out one’s inner curmudgeon; its visitors suddenly pine for a way of life in closer concord with the tides and the seasons, without newfangled extravagances like electricity and motor cars—a life, that is, they’ve never remotely experienced. For this reason, the grizzled nostalgia of legendary Cape Cod writers like Henry Beston, John Hay, and Wyman Richardson—authors who evoke the twilight glories of a lost world—will always be timeless, and always welcome.

But this year I read a few of the books of Robert Finch, who leads the way in a somewhat newer generation of Cape Cod naturalists. I use the word “newer” conditionally, since Finch’s beautiful first book, Common Ground, came out in 1981. But because there’s always a sense on the peninsula that time is best measured on a geological scale, Finch seems positively new wave. As he explains in Outlands (1986, and my favorite of his books), he did not move to Cape Cod to exalt a bygone golden age or to escape modern life, but to find a balance between technological convenience and a physical engagement with one portion of the natural world:

My aim in living where I do—on Cape Cod in the last quarter of the twentieth century—has been to try to reestablish this kind of close, tactile relationship to the landscape. I do not live in a traditional Cape Cod house, nor do I practice subsistence farming or fishing. As a child of technology, I use its products…. And yet one of the primary reasons this place yields so much to me so consistently is that I have invested so much of myself into it, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I have cultivated its landscape as others have cultivated their gardens, sowing thoughts and expectations into its rich, sandy soil. It has been both my recreation and my study, my work and my play, so that when I look at a marsh, a wooded hillside, a kettle hole, a curve of beach, I receive back more than I would elsewhere because I not only know what these things look like but what they feel like, having established patterns of motion, rhythms of my own life in relationship to them.

In this spirit of quiet, involved observation, Finch’s essay collections (including The Death of a Hornet from 2001) survey the whole of Cape Cod’s teeming landscape, from the furthest sand spits off Chatham to the scrub oak and pitch pine woodlands of the swampy interior. All the region’s wildlife receives careful attention, and not just locally iconic creatures like seals and whales and alewives; one of Finch’s most moving essays is the four-page piece “Hurt Junco,” which begins with the line, “Injured birds have a way of humbling us and our pretensions to reparation in the natural world.”

The sense of having been profitably humbled is the greatest reward of Finch’s attuned, compassionate books. True, his writing has none of the magnificent thunder and lamentation of his graybeard predecessors. But he speaks to modern realities with wisdom and equanimity, and no less devotion to Cape Cod than any writer before him.

Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor

kimRudyard Kipling normally resides somewhere at the bottom of my “people to read” list. I leafed through The Jungle Book as a child, have somewhat confused memories of it, and that’s that. Or it was until I read an essay of Randall Jarrell’s, in which he related an anecdote about a critic whose only non-professional reading – the only thing he read for pleasure – was Kim, once a year.

Despite this odd sort of recommendation, I’m not sure what I expected from Kim – something staid and upright and British, but with lots of people muttering “mem-sahib” in the corners, I suppose. What I got is rather different, and infinitely better: a rollicking adventure yarn about an orphan traveling under the care of a Buddhist monk, the Great Game between Britain and Russia, and the delightful and uneasy mixing of cultures. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, a love letter to India, and to happiness itself:

The diamond-bright dawn woke men and crows and bullocks together. Kim sat up and yawned, shook himself, and thrilled with delight. This was seeing the world in real truth; this was life as he would have it – bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it.

Those shrieking green hosts! By this point in the book, I was as happy to be in Kim’s milieu as he is described to be. I entered this book wary, and I left it disarmingly satisfied. I’m pretty sure I’ll be re-reading it in the new year.

nillingLisa Robertson is one of those poets that I am completely unable to get over. Every new book is snatched up immediately, and I have made a practice of foisting copies of her wonderful long poem The Men on unwary and bewildered victims. Her hold over me only continues with Nilling, her new collection of essays and other short prose – intriguing, baffling, always stimulating.

I found myself particularly attracted by Robertson’s thoughts on the act of reading. In the collection’s  opening essay, “Time in the Codex,” Robertson describes the doubling, folding or layering of time that occurs to a reader by virtue of reading. Outside of the book, time proceeds in its dull, sequential way, while within it, minutes are repeated, inverted, and elegantly fanned. I am reminded of of those old punch cards that warned: “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate.” By reading, the reader does all those thing to time, and often to great purpose.

In “Lastingness: Reage, Lucrece, Arendt,” Roberston writes of the “nilling” – the willing negation of self – that a reader offers to what is read, allowing herself to be swallowed by what she reads. We’ve all read books that we’ve resisted – books that we hold ourselves above and over, sniffing – but there are others that, it must be said, we take like drugs, heedless.

As I read my self-consciousness is not only suspended, but temporarily abolished by the vertigo of another’s language. I am simply its conduit, its gutter. This is a pleasure.

This is reading at its most total. Using three texts to guide and shape the discussion – Reage’s The Story of O, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, and Arendt’s The Life of the Mind – Robertson explores an erotics of reading that I think any real reader will recognize: “Overwhelmingly in my submission to reading’s supple snare, I feel love.”

rookI give a blameworthy percentage of my reading over to purely escapist fiction. It’s true that many of these descents into pulp give me a headache – all that plot rushing giddily past, peppered with holes of varying sizes. And then there are the characters with wooden dialogue, dubious motivations, and the dei ex machinis that regularly are pulled from the shiny, seedy tophats of pot-boiling scribes. And yet – every once in a while, there is a book like The Rook.  Its plot synopsis is straight out of the 50-cent bargain bin – “Myfanwy Thomas awakes in a London park surrounded by dead bodies. With her memory gone, her only hope of survival is to trust the instructions left in her pocket by her former self”  – but its plotting, prose, and characterization are the equal of any “serious” book that gets discussed at cocktail parties.

Yes, it hit all of my pulp-fiction buttons  Brits, magic, sleuthing, the intricacies of hierarchical institutions, and the quiet satisfaction that no matter what my troubles, I, unlike the heroine, don’t have a bunch of super-assassins on my trail. But while philosophical questions aren’t its focus, like any good science fiction, it manages to raise them nonetheless. If our personalities are in part created by our pasts (if past is prologue), then what happens to someone whose past is erased? What good is knowing the future if you only know a bit of it? How much of success is attributable to planning, and how much to luck?

Genre fiction often gets a bad rap, but as other, abler readers have pointed out before me, it is getting much harder to pooh-pooh a book just because some of its characters may be cowboys, or have magical powers, or live on space stations. Magical, space-faring cowboys sometimes hold up a very reliable mirror to reality. At the very least, they make it a little more fun.

Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor

I’m not sure they’re the best books I’ve read this year, but two collections of criticism made me happier than anything else. I usually read these anthologies in linear fashion, like any other book. Reading front to back I try to get some idea of how the writer evolves, like a story hidden in the text. I also hate the idea of leaving pages unseen. Some authors, though, demand dipping and binging. They are the ones you go to when you’re miserable. They are those rare specimens, the funny critics.

nobodysperfectHumor in criticism is hard to bring off. Sometimes jokes don’t play and sometimes jokes aren’t in order, and then the whole piece can go sour. Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film critic, occasionally succumbs to both faults (especially the second, which may be why the New Yorker pairs him with David Denby), but when he’s on there’s no one funnier. His 2003 collection, Nobody’s Perfect, is mostly short-ish reviews. You are invited to scan the table of contents, find the junkiest movies, and watch him go to work.

Here he is demolishing Showgirls, a typical mid-90s sexploitation flick he thought so absurd it wasn’t worth taking offense:

For the most part, this movie is a blank—a waxwork museum with moving parts. But I did find something rather touching, in the emotional rather than the lap-dancing sense, in Elizabeth Berkley. She can’t act, but the sight of her trying to act, doing the sorts of things that acting is rumored to consist of, struck me as a far nobler struggle than the boring old I-know-I-can-make-it endeavors of her fictional character.

Or taking offense at Batman & Robin:

You sit there feeling brain-damaged and praying for the mayhem to cease; when it finally does, along comes one of the quiet and thoughtful scenes, which are somehow even worse. It is tempting to dismiss Batman & Robin as simply inept, but the crassness goes deeper than that. I thought I smelled something truly corrupt in this film: its expectation of what we expect from movies is so low and snarling that you come out feeling not just swindled but mildly humiliated.

Lane is still in his prime, and due for another anthology. Wilfrid Sheed died nearly two years ago, and his criticism – three volumes in all – is criminally out of print (though they’re not hard to find online). Sheed is less of a stand-up comedian; his jokes aren’t as bald and risky, which means he’s less likely to bomb. He is also better at modulating tone; I never find myself telling him to knock it off and be serious.

morning-after-long-wilfred-sheed-paperback-cover-artMy favorite volume is The Morning After … and Long After, a 2002 reprint of a 1971 collection with some new material and a graceful introduction, in which Sheed talks about how he fell into criticism and offers a few gentle apologies for all the egos he bruised.  The most battered of these was Norman Podhoretz. Sheed’s review of his soul-bearing memoir, Making It, was so brutal that Podhoretz accosted him at a party and called him a son-of-a-bitch – three decades after the review saw print.

“Podhoretz’s life,” Sheed writes, just getting warmed up, “has lacked specific content as perhaps only an American life can.” Making It was a prideful book-length admission of a wannabe intellectual’s craven and empty desire for success and the depths he plumbed to get it. Podhoretz thought it would be revolutionary. Sheed explains why it is merely déclassé:

A tradition of conversational manners is a complicated affair devised originally to ward off dullness and pain, although sometimes used perversely to cause both. Podhoretz’s revision of the code would surely do so. People sitting around discussing their success, even their success at Columbia University, would be as inspiring as executives modeling long johns in the locker room. Civilization has its reasons for keeping such talk to a minimum.

…he has written a book of no literary distinction whatever, pockmarked by clichés and little mock modesties and a woefully pedestrian tone… Podhoretz has been rummaging among his belongings and come up with this. One can’t imagine what he keeps underneath…

Sheed also happens to be a good film critic. Here he is praising the famous opening car jam in Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend:

It works, as few such satires recently have, because Godard has chosen the right institution to pick on. The lunatic hostility of drivers is only one step away from total war. And when the drivers do pull knives and guns on each other, our minds pass smoothly and without snagging to the larger forms of butchery; and the audience writhes in hysterical assent.

Then Sheed proceeds to mock and condemn the rest of the film, spiking humor with high dudgeon, and by the end you’re almost feeling sorry for the over-serious French filmmaker. Almost: you are having too much fun, and all is well with the world again.

Our Year in Reading Begins