Our Year in Reading 2014
Any given year will see an enormous amount of reading getting done at the world’s literary
journals, and 2014 was no exception! Review copies came to Open Letters in copious amounts, and – as bookish folk invariably will – OLM writers and editors and friends also wandered into byways and curiosities far from the bright lights of new releases. We asked what some of those 2014 reading experiences were, and the results were as varied and thought-provoking as you might expect. Here, as our final Title Menu feature for 2014, is “My Year in Reading.”
Greg Waldmann, Editor in Chief
It’s always hard to cull favorites from twelve months of reading, so after a while I gave up and chose arbitrarily: I picked the longest and shortest books I read this year.
George C. Herring’s From Colony to Superpower, a history of U.S. foreign policy since 1776, clocks in at about a thousand pages, or enough to hold you fast to the ground during a tropical cyclone. Most books in this field are dull or polemical; Herring is scholarly, comprehensive, and insightful—often the best one can hope for in a historian. But he writes good prose, too, and he harnesses it to a subtlety argued point. In dealing with other countries, he writes, national sentiment tends to oscillate between “ideological fervor” on the one hand and pragmatic transactionalism on the other, but history shows that America usually behaves like any other ambitious great power. And that is because these opposing impulses tend to color its actions as often as they shape them. The United States has never obeyed a coherent ideology of international relations: from its inception (before, actually), it pushed against its boundaries, and each territorial or economic or martial gain encouraged its leaders to look further and further over the horizon of possibility, until its definition of “national interest” at last encircled the planet. It supports democracy and overthrows governments, forgives debt and imposes sanctions, and promotes an economic order that lowers poverty and spreads iniquity. This is the America the world sees: Janus-faced, an avatar of freedom with an arsenal of death. I said Herring is not polemical, and he isn’t, but in closing he offers a well-measured piece of advice, one that seems more apt with every passing day:
Even if in decline, the United States will remain a crucial player in world affairs, and in coping with the challenges of a new and complex era the nation has a rich foreign policy tradition to draw on… Americans must also “disenthrall” themselves, to borrow Lincoln’s apt word, from deeply entrenched ideas about their country and its place in the world…They must cast away centuries-old notions of themselves as God’s chosen people. In today’s world, such pretentions cannot fail to alienate others.
The shortest book I read this year, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, has a fifth as many pages in a smaller format with larger font. As long as a year’s reading list can be, the list of unread books is always longer. I write mostly about non-fiction and I never read as much fiction as I want, so when I do I tend to gravitate toward shorter work—something I can finish in a day or two. The mood struck one Sunday and I picked up Disgrace, a recent gift from a thoughtful friend. (That’s another thing: I have to read a novel soon after I get it, or else another comes along and it’s forever until I think of it again.)
Disgrace is set in post-Apartheid South Africa, and its narrative orbits around a restless, divorced white college professor with an undistinguished career. One day, after the prostitute he frequents spurns his intrusions into her life, he takes advantage of an impressionable young African student. Her boyfriend finds out and begins haunting his classes. He finds this terribly improper. The affair is discovered and a hearing is convened. The university is still structured to protect him: most of his interlocutors are sympathetic, but the professor is so offended by the idea of accounting for himself that he rejects even feigned contrition. He moves out to the country to live with his estranged daughter, whose independence he can’t quite fathom either. The world is changing and all he can do is submerge his resentment in a pathetic display of worldly hauteur. But reality keeps intruding in this disturbing, mordantly funny novel, and the professor is hammered down until there is very little left. Only then does he find a place for himself—at an animal shelter, caring for beings who don’t ask him to change.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
It’s especially surprising to me because, despite hearing hours of WWII stories at my grandfather’s knee, I’ve never been a buff of the stuff. This year—maybe because I miss old Colonel Cotter and his stories —I decided to dive in. Anthony Beevor’s Second World War was a fine place to gather the acronym-freighted facts, but when I went looking to emotionally connect with the reality of what had happened there, I received more than I’d reckoned with in Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. Somehow, by framing the events at Auschwitz as a kind of dark comedy, Borowski accomplishes that strangest of feats: he makes them new. By coating the monstrosity of the Holocaust in a kind of black sugar he enables us to do something we’d otherwise naturally shrink from doing: he makes us swallow it, massaging our throat with his hand to get it down. Once it’s down, of course, the sugar wears off, and you feel that panic and that pain as strongly as you can on this side of history.
In Kaputt, Curzio Malaparte also takes an unlikely approach to the war, in this case the middle days of the war when Ukraine was already in ruins and Nazis were still feeling cozy on their European thrones. An Italian jet-setter on a journalist’s tour of the defeated and occupied nations, Malaparte wraps his real dragons in smoke, in chant-like repetition, a kind of painterly prose. His dying soldiers and his empty battlefields are the verbal equivalents of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare.
All of this makes the book memorable, but what makes it great are the intimate interactions our narrator has with the Nazi elite (paired against pitiable encounters with the most wretched of their victims). Here he is at the table of Polish Riechminister Hans Frank, bantering about the mortality rate in the Warsaw ghetto:
“It is not an easy matter for the technical departments to cope with such a large number of dead,” said Frank. “At least two hundred trucks would be necessary, instead of the few score handcarts. We do not even know where to bury them. It is a serious problem.”
“I trust that you bury them,” said I.
“Naturally! Do you fancy that we give them to their relatives to eat?” said Frank laughing.
Everyone laughed, “Ach so, ach so, ach so, ja, ja, ja!” And of course I broke into laughter too. My idea that they might not bury them was really amusing. I laughed so hard that tears came into my eyes. Frau Brigitte Frank pressed her bosom with both her hands, tilting back her head, and opening her mouth wide, “Ach so, Ach so, wunderbar!—that’s wonderful!”
As an acquaintance in a café remarks a hundred pages later, “What is most horrible in war … is precisely what is gentle in it. I cannot bear to see smiling monsters.” Combine pages full of those smiles with pages full of lush prose describing kinds of things you see in fairy tales (like the heads of hundreds of battle-spooked horses protruding from a frozen lake that iced before they could reach the other side) and you have a memorable book indeed.
To cheer myself up, I read a novel about the end of the world, Gore Vidal’s Kalki. Since long before he died, the official word on Vidal has been that his novels weren’t ever very good. Such an impression is understandable given the incoherent foolishness of his later years (and last works); it is also dead wrong. His novels are wonderful–minus the first and the last decade of his career, which still leaves us 30 full years of fine writing. Kalki is his end-of-the-world fantasy, relating the story of James Kelly, an ex-soldier and possibly deluded visionary who claims to be a reincarnated Hindu deity finally arrived to bring this cycle of history to a bloody end. A satire of Hollywood, charismatic religiosity, government incompetence, and American gullibility, Kalki is also strikingly feminist and it’s as funny as it is suspenseful. Go pick up a dollar copy at your local used bookstore right now.
And while you’re at it, look into stuffing a stocking this Christmas with a nice paperback of Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by the always-reliable Lawrence Wright in collaboration with a team of 160 lawyers. It is an airtight damnation of L. Ron Hubbard’s unique mania and the quintessentially Hollywood religion that spawned inside it. Everything is here, from delightful celebrity gossip to the entirely plausible history of Teegeeack (we know it as Earth) and why the evil overlord Xenu cast his enemies into live volcanos there to emerge as ghostly thetans and inhabit the bodies of men until a noble science fiction author and sexual dynamo taught us all to cast them out. Or tried to tell us. We scorned him, compelling our unheeded prophet and his followers, and a quirky team of teenaged police in hot pants, to sail the world in a series of camouflaged yachts, searching in vain for a government to overthrow and dealing fairly with their critics and apostates via threats, harassments, beatings, and–Wright strongly implies–murder. This book will change your life.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor
It seems like such a natural outgrowth of reading lots of books: reading books about books! I read more books in 2014 than in any other year of my life, and I also reviewed more books than ever before – so I was in a good position to appreciate the odd and often-overlooked little alley-genre that is book-journalism, something that’s not quite book-blogging, not quite literary criticism, and not quite ready by the time you turn it in. In 2014 I read some very enjoyable examples of book-journalism, and these three stand out:
What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton (Tor) – Long-time sci-fi/fantasy author Jo Walton upkept a book column for Tor.com for many years (still does, in fact) in which she wrote about her favorite authors (not necessarily in-genre; there are a few writers enthused about here who never went anywhere near science fiction) and often broke down their books into minute anatomical detail. Walton is such a terrifically unpretentious enjoyer of books that her enthusiasm leaps off every page of this collection, whether she’s writing about genre pathfinders like Lord Dunsany or present-day giants like Vernor Vinge. These appreciations make the transition quite well from website to printed page, and they hold up quite well to re-reading.
Preoccupations by Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Speaking of holding up quite well! I sometimes think book-journalism is second only to theater-reviews as the most evanescent type of public writing there is. The rear quarters of magazines and newspapers have been filled with book reviews for the last two hundred years, and only the tiniest fraction of it has been remembered even a season later, let alone a generation. So it was extra-encouraging to see Farrar, Straus and Giroux reprint this classic collection of reviews and essays by Nobel Prize-winning Seamus Heaney from thirty-five years ago. Heaney died in 2013, but he always maintained that he did his best living in the printed word, and it’s certainly true here: piece after piece, on more modern poets like Patrick Kavanagh, Philip Larkin, and Ted Hughes as well as on great figures from the past like Keats and Wordsworth, all come vividly alive in Heaney’s wise and questioning prose.
By the Book edited by Pamela Paul (Henry Holt) – The idea of evanescence is surely courted by this plump volume of gleanings from the New York Times Book Review, since the Paper of Record has amassed over the decades a great sloping mountain of utterly forgettable book-journalism. The element of forgetability has been the core of the Book Review‘s “By the Book” feature, in which authors, celebrity authors, and the publicists of non-literary celebrities are asked a series of softball questions about the books that shaped them. This is the sort of feature that’s expected to be lining the bird cage before the week is out, and yet editor Pamela Paul manages to highlight some actual gems among the blather and dross. Particularly amazing is how some of the worst authors alive today – people like James Patterson or Khaled Hosseini – can often produce the most interesting book-observations. Go figure.
Sam Sacks, Founding Editor
The book lover’s bugbear is the fragility of memory. There is nothing more frightening for the constant reader than the sense that all those stories, all those characters, all those ideas, all those beautiful and terrible moments of drama will simply be scattered to the winds of our weakening minds. Yet what is less permanent than a reader’s recollections? I swear on Father Zosima’s Bible that I read The Brothers Karamazov less than five years ago, but I cannot now recall even the most preliminary facts about that book, including the brothers’ names, whether ‘Brothers’ or ‘Karamazov’ comes first in the title, or who the hell Father Zosima is.
Thus the attraction of forces of preservation—book blogs, book journals, and commonplace essay collections like Roger Grenier’s Palace of Books. Grenier, who was born in 1919, is a legendary figure in French letters with over forty books to his name. Here he draws upon an eventful lifetime of reading in a charming series of freeform meditations on such subjects as the private life of the author, unfinished books, the act of waiting, last words, and memory itself. In a fine translation by Alice Kaplan, Grenier floats effortlessly from anecdotes and quotations of Moliere (who “coughed up blood and wrote a farce about hypochondria. He died during the third performance.”) to Sherwood Anderson (“one of the first writers to save the short story from the straitjacket of the well-told tale, to liberate it”) to Rousseau (he “declared rather oddly that the short story is the Corsica of literature, since nature is its only law”) to Casanova (“he expects nothing more from life than the chance to live again by writing his memoirs”) to countless others, both canonized and not. An added pleasure of Grenier’s essays is that, no matter how much he has read and retained, he writes of literature as an unending pursuit. A quote from a 14th century Japanese monk, Yoshida No Kaneyoshi, gives the book its title: “In the palaces of old, the requirement was that one building was always left unfinished.”
Some books can’t possibly be held in the mind after a single reading, and must be returned to again and again throughout one’s lifetime. The Bible is the ultimate example of this sort of work, and throughout the year I slowly made my way through Robert Alter’s recent translation of the Books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings (the volume is titled Ancient Israel). Like Alter’s magnificent Five Books of Moses, this is an iconoclastic and always eye-opening translation enriched by profuse footnotes that elucidate both the original Hebrew and the stories’ rhetorical and literary effects. Where most versions say that King David dances during the triumphant procession with the Holy Ark, for instance, Alter has him “whirling with all his might before the Lord.” The small change helps clarify why David’s celebration was so controversial—as he whirled and leapt while wearing an ephod (a short garment tied around the waist) the king was exposing himself to God and country. There’s an image that’s hard to forget.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor
2014 is the year I finally started reading Dorothy Dunnett.
How can this be, you might well ask, given my longstanding and oft-mentioned reader’s love affair with Francis Crawford, the hero of her 6-volume saga The Lymond Chronicles? It may seem paradoxical, but it isn’t really. Dunnett’s Lymond books are among the very few books I don’t trust myself to write critically about, or to have dispassionate conversations about with people who (due to grave personal defects and dysfunctions, no doubt) don’t fall under their spell. So great is their hold on me that instead of sending me straight to her other books, my fanaticism has had the perverse effect of keeping me away from the House of Niccolò series (“better than Lymond,” you say? inconceivable!) or King Hereafter (“her masterpiece,” you say? pshaw!).
This year, however, I finally got over myself and made a start on Dunnett’s other historical novels, and of course they are every bit as rich, complicated, and astonishing. King Hereafter tells the story of the historical Macbeth, Thorfinn Sigurdsson, or Thorfinn the Great, as he is known. The outlines of the story are familiar from Shakespeare’s play, but Dunnett’s protagonist is a very different man, his rise to rule a lesson in politics and nation-building rather than ruthless ambition, his wife a noble partner and his equal in every way. Dunnett’s territory here ranges from the wind-swept Orkney islands, where “a man or woman could lean on the wind as into the bosom of God and look upon the whole sunlike world of green grass and blue sea,” to the opulence of Rome. The very virtuosity of her world-building makes King Hereafter challenging — Dunnett’s historical knowledge is vast and she makes no compromises on our behalf — but her obvious mastery earns our trust even as her fearless storytelling carries us along.
Niccolò Rising, the first in another six-volume series, has many of the same qualities, though the world it immerses us in is 15th-century Flanders and the characters are not heroic warriors (not by and large, anyway, or not yet) but students, traders, and mercenaries. Compared to both King Hereafter or any of the Lymond books, Niccolò Rising has a slow burn: it builds its interest as much by the gradual revelation of character through action as it does by the twists and turns of its plot. And yet (also like Dunnett’s other novels) Niccolò Rising has a plot of such remarkable complexity that it defies both summary and belief — belief, that is, that anyone could actually be responsible for creating and interweaving its multitudinous elements.
This evidence of almost overweening intelligence becomes the reminder of Dunnett’s own presence, not just in Niccolò Rising but in all the books of hers that I’ve now read. That’s what I suppose I was trying to avoid, all those years I read only the Lymond books: oddly, those intensely, conspicuously written novels nonetheless always felt as if they came to my imagination unmediated. Indeed, it wasn’t until I took so much of my reading life online that I realized I’m just one among many for whom Francis Crawford is the nonpareil of literary heroes. How can I be sorry to find this fellowship? And yet I have felt just the faintest, most foolish hints of regret at the demystification of this very personal reading relationship. Taking up with Dunnett’s other books is another step in this direction, but one that’s impossible (after the fact, at least) to regret.
Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor
This year, I tried to keep a running list of all the books I read. As has happened in each of the three prior years in which I tried this, I failed miserably – undermined by an inability to find the list so that I could add to it, by being troubled over whether to count books I read most of but didn’t finish, etc. But of course, there is a better list that does actually exist, if only in my head: Books I Can Actually Remember Having Read. These tend to be the books worth talking about, anyway. This year, that list of memorable books includes two volumes of poetry, both of which exhibit a quality that is somewhat underrated in contemporary verse: charm.
Gregory Robinson’s All Good Movies Love the Moon is superfluous in the best sense: it exists only for the pleasure it gave the author in writing it, and the delight it gives a reader longing to recall when reading was just that – delight, not duty. You will learn things from the book, but charming, oddball, baffling things suitable for cocktail banter, and nothing that will give you moral heartburn. Robinson is fond of the wry declarative, as in this snippet from “Secrets of a Soul (1926),” which explores the connection between film and psychoanalysis:
Nine out of 10 men do not want to get jacked up on coke then sleep with their moms. One out of 10 does, and that is why there are movies.
or the similarly snarky opening salvo of “The Last Laugh (1924)”:
When I was sixteen, McDonald’s did not call me back, even to say no. The sweaty-browed manager instinctively knew I was not McDonald’s material.
The brief poems, each named for a particular silent film, each proceeding in chronological order toward the certain apocalypse of the talkies, alternate with dryly captioned images of title cards from long-lost features with improbable but actual names like “Hell’s Hinges” and “Sherlock, Jr.” Robinson’s captions are little marvels of whimsical economy in themselves, gaining rhetorical power from their matter-of-factness: “If there were an award for creepy title cards, the German Expressionists would win” or, rather astoundingly, “In The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, Douglas Fairbanks stars as a detective who injects bad guys (and himself) with copious amounts of cocaine.” But for all its drollery, the book is essentially tender toward its subject: it does not mock, and all the gawking it engenders is fond – more, “Oh, would you listen to him?” than “Ugh, look at that.”
Joan Didion famously wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. The first motion pictures represented a revolution in that telling, binding image and text together into illuminated, moving manuscripts. All Good Movies Love the Moon is an homage and memorial to that illumination. Its concluding poem glosses Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “City Lights,” in which the blind are restored to sight, and ends by repurposing that movie’s final title card – “Yes, I can see now.” – to encapsulate the realizations of which movies make us capable.
Chris Nealon’s Heteronomy is also charming, but more sinuously so. The book consists of five long, interconnected poems (a short excerpt from the fourth, Furia, first appeared in our March 2012 issue). These poems, with their extended, prosy lines, are a form of essay, a contemplation, and theirs is the charm of listening in, eavesdropping on Nealon’s rambunctious mind as he ponders moral questions without moralizing:
Environmentalists of a certain stripe like to point out scornfully how many diapers the
average American baby goes through in its first few years –
But there’s also simply what it means to be a species, which is to soak up resources and
create waste –
I mean look at that goose shit –
The species-shame, the American shame we feel on the left – we teach ourselves that
shame is what will mark us off us from the right – it’s immobilizing –
The thing that should distinguish us from the right is the refusal of all exploitation –
I just don’t think self-hatred is what shame is for
I do think shame is a species of pride – crushed, inverted pride – and speaking as
someone who has been continuously ashamed since the age of 13, I think I can
say regret is better
Capable of sarcasm, but never sardonic, world-weary at times, but never cynical, Nealon undergoes through the five poems of Heteronomy a journey into the underworld and back. He’s his own Orpheus, his own Dante, his own Scrooge, accompanied into the past, present, and potential future by Ghosts that are none other than himself. These poems converse; these poems think.
Let’s start with 1978—
“Whenever I Call You Friend, “ maybe—
though hollowed out by 1995—that skin-crawling scene in Safe, where Julianne
Moore is trying to convince herself she’s having a good time at the toxicity-
reduction campground’s Wednesday dance—
can any art come out the other side of that?
—maybe as form,
the duet empty, overblown, its profitability in question,
then re-emerging changed on a beautiful spring day in the early teens
These quotations say more than I could, but less, certainly, than Heteronomy does – as with many long poems, Nealon’s work resists tidy excerpting. But unlike many, it also prompts it, in the way that enthusiasm prompts one to point excitedly, as though noting a passing goldfinch: “I didn’t want you to miss this.” Let me end this way: I read a lot of poetry; I re-read very little. Heteronomy I’ve read three times over in as many months, each time knowing, with pleasure, that I will read it again.
Justin Hickey, Editor
I seem to have cycled between two kinds of books this year—tomes and kids books. As a methodical reader, who loves to steep long in an author’s prose (and never reads two works by one writer in succession), the allure of tomes is plain. My draw to young reader titles, however, rests not in how quickly they’re consumed, but in the Irresistibly Clear Truths that the best of them contain (like, “Happiness is excitement that has found a settling down place,” from E.L. Konigsburg’s The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler).
For a lover of animals and super-heroes, Kate DiCamillo’s Flora & Ulysses—about a squirrel who gains smarts and the ability to fly after being sucked into a vacuum cleaner—was a can’t-miss book. It won the Newbery Medal, and features absurdly charming illustrations K.G. Campbell (Lester’s Dreadful Sweaters). The cream-filled plot has cynic Flora Buckman secretly adopt the half-bald Ulysses—who can read, type, and appreciate poetry—against the wishes of her cranky, recently-divorced mother. Eventually, their adventures lead to her father’s therapist, Dr. Meescham, who discusses life with the young girl.
Talking about Pascal’s Wager on the existence of God, Dr. Meescham says, “Cynics are people who are afraid to believe.” The story’s super-heroic context allows readers, especially younger ones, to take or leave this broad-stroke of proselytizing. Some, though, will see this line as the Irresistibly Clear Truth bestowed by DiCamillo. I don’t. The line I’ll always remember comes from earlier in the scene, when Flora and Ulysses are examining a painting of a giant squid and its prey, a tiny boat. Flora tells Ulysses that the squid is a villain, and he should be outraged at the boat’s fate. “Yes, well,” says Dr. Meescham, “loneliness makes us do terrible things.” And having someone makes us do beautiful things, as Ulysses’ poem at the end of the book proves.
The tome I’d like to highlight is 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami (sorry The Fifties, by David Halberstam). I didn’t read this book immediately like many devoted fans of the author and/or weird fiction; this means I knew of its divisive nature going in. While this Japanese epic (translated by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel) seems to beg for easy categorization as “magical realism” or, something more disparaging, like “steaming pile,” that would be laziness talking on both counts. I found that this book—about a writer, an otherworldly teenage girl, and the surreal bestseller they concoct for mass consumption—squirmed and morphed beneath my analysis, which becomes a truly miraculous event the longer one reads supposedly-difficult works.
The hardest part of 1Q84 is the day-in-the-park pace that Murakami sets, with writing that tediously details everything that everyone does, from slipping arms inside coats to closing doors. Then you begin to realize that his male protagonist, a writer named Tengo, labors inside a haze of meta-suffrage, in which
He could write with some style and make up reasonably interesting stories, but his
work lacked the strength to grab the reader by the throat. Something was missing.
Here, Murakami’s “something” not only involves a dead goat and devious Little People, but the game of reflecting how the reader may feel at certain points in the novel. These reflections are initially simple, and almost seem like pandering to his native audience (like the stiletto-wearing, bisexual Aomame, who also happens to crave middle-aged men who are balding just-so). Then Murakami’s nods to the reader get more sophisticated—and rewarding—as we progress. Hundreds of pages in, when we may be wondering why such a pointedly odd tale needs to be so long, Aomame begins reading Proust’s multi-volume In Search of Lost Time, about which she says “there is a sense of time wavering irregularly when you try to forge ahead. If what is in front is behind, and what is behind is in front, it doesn’t really matter…”
This happily describes 1Q84. But if you still aren’t impressed, know that Murakami occasionally reminds us that we’re in the presence of a master:
There was an inexhaustible source of clouds in some land far to the north. Decisive people, minds fixed on the task, clothed in thick, gray uniforms, working silently from morning to night to make clouds, like bees make honey, spiders make webs, and war makes widows.
Elisa Gabbert, Contributing Editor
I suffered for much of this year from a case of reader’s block, and both started and finished fewer books than I typically would. Nonetheless, two favorites stand out from my year in reading, the first being Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles.
Bowles apparently considered Carson McCullers to be her literary rival – a contemporary working in a similar grotesque style, McCullers was the more commercially successful of the two. Two Serious Ladies, though, is every bit as much a masterpiece as The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and in fact I prefer it. Bowles’ only novel follows the lives of two peculiar women, Christina Goering and Frieda Copperfield, who are both attracted, for unclear reasons, to spiritual debauchery, and ruin their own lives in pursuit of it. Miss Goering is a very rich woman who forsakes a life of comfort in Manhattan to live in destitute conditions on what must be Staten Island. Mrs. Copperfield travels to Panama with her husband, whom she adores, but once there she falls into a delight, what we might now call a girl crush, with a teenage prostitute named Pacifica. What motivates these “serious ladies”? Their behavior seems irrational and yet consistent with some opaque, internalized moral code, as if only by daring themselves to walk into the darkness can they prove God is on their side. The prose is crisp and unfussy (“Mrs. Copperfield drank her gin and enjoyed it.”), and the dialogue in particular is hilarious; take this scene from Christina’s childhood, in which she coerces her sister’s friend Mary to play with her:
“Mary,” she screamed, “come on up here.” When Mary arrived in the tower, Christina asked her if she would not like to play a very special game with her. “It’s called, ‘I forgive you for all your sins,’” said Christina. “You’ll have to take your dress off.”
“Is it fun?” Mary asked.
“It’s not for fun that we play it, but because it’s necessary to play it.”
You’ll be laughing throughout, but the story is chilling; there are consequences for women who don’t do what they’re supposed to.
If Two Serious Ladies was the best novel I read in 2014, To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems by Graham Foust was the best book of poetry, but although I’ve had it for months, I haven’t finished it yet. It’s so good I don’t want to finish it, and I keep going back to the beginning and starting again, afraid I may have missed some nuance through a moment of inattention. For example, I read the first three sections of the long poem “Ten Notes to the Muse” without having fully absorbed the title; I had to go back to discover the meaning of the “you” in lines like “Comes upon and at me does your gone-tinged promise,” and “You look like no one else; you look like smoke; I look like me.” There’s so much to latch onto in this poem – so many hooks, sounds, images, ideas – I’d love it even if I didn’t understand it as an entry in the tradition of muse poetry. But the poet is also, of course, talking to himself, as he does more explicitly in the poem titled “To Graham Foust on the Morning of his Fortieth Birthday”:
You and I are one another in the ways the closest whisper might be called a kiss, and here we are – kiss or no kiss, kiss or not – up close and vanished as per standardized desire.
That said I’m both camera and satellite, so let’s cut live now to where it’s night to catch crowds rushing out of various overpriced events converting their initial impressions into speech they can’t be bothered to commit to memory.
In your sad and American manner, you get as choked up about the collective as you do over the individual.
When it comes to songs, you’re up and down for them, whether anthem or unfathomable murmur.
The tone is often wry and the sentences often knotty. At his best, Foust has the ability to bend simple language into something startlingly complex, like the twist that turns a strip of paper into a Mobius band: “I sing as if I’m eating what I’m singing from a knife.”
Stephen Akey, Contributing Editor
As once mighty Theory recedes ever further into a misty nostalgia for the 1980s, good old fashioned Criticism, whose only method, according to T. S. Eliot, is to be very intelligent, reasserts itself. Two critical surveys published this year show how much is to be gained by the application of unfettered intelligence to the study of literature and music. Both books – Michael Schmidt’s The Novel: A Biography and Bob Stanley’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyoncé – reconsider what is more or less the accepted canon of the moment; it’s just that the canon in the one case consists of people like Gustave Flaubert and Ralph Ellison, while that in the other case consists of people like Tina Turner and the Bee Gees. Yet the two books have more similarities than differences. To begin with, Schmidt and Stanley share an amazing catholicity of taste and an easy erudition. Schmidt seems to have read every novel ever published in English, while Stanley seems to have listened to every pop music record ever made. It may be, however, that Stanley has the harder job. Schmidt can select apposite quotations, which he does to great effect, while Stanley faces the perennial problem of describing one medium (music) in terms of another (words). He solves that problem chiefly by avoiding the extremes of technical analysis and of gushing fandom in favor of a middle path of witty, self-effacing expertise. If you’ve ever wondered exactly what made Sly and the Family Stone so special, this book will tell you: Sly “took the live excitement of the Stax soul revue, grafted on James Brown’s functional rhythm-as-a-pure-state funk, and mixed in the heightened airs of psychedelia. . . . But it’s not just that no one else had thought of it; no one else could have made it as tight and loose and blessed and blith-spirited.”
From Sly Stone to Henry Fielding is a bit of a jump, but there’s no reason why writing about the one should be any less judicious than writing about the other. “Fielding’s legacy,” writes Schmidt, “is his clear perception of the readership he is addressing, and at the same time his refusal to write down or simplify his plan in the light of his readership. He knew readership as a journalist does. Writing with a sense of it encouraged directness; and when a journalist of Fielding’s character turns his hand to fiction, he retains his habit of address; he does not set aside the essay style but brings it into play.” This is as sensitive an appreciation of Fielding’s style (all those essayistic addresses to the reader that introduce each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones) as any I’ve ever read. And what Schmidt does for Fielding he does equally well for Ford Madox Ford, Mary Shelley, and (by my count) about 347 others.
With writing this informed and humane, you easily forgive both authors their occasional blind spots and crotchets. Maybe Ian McEwan isn’t that bad and maybe Martin Amis isn’t that good. Maybe New Morning isn’t one of Bob Dylan’s best albums. Who cares? I intend to keep both of these books at my fingertips for a long time to come, dipping into them whenever I feel the need to test my perceptions against those of two writers whose opinions may be variable but whose sensibilities are wholly to be trusted.
Rosemary Mitchell, Contributor
Reader, I bought a Kindle. I had been resisting the temptation for some time, because I love books – not just their contents, but the smell of them, the cover illustrations, the feel of the pages, the annotations by previous readers (a lot of my books are secondhand), the sight of them sitting on the shelf, perhaps whispering to each other when I’m not there. What does The Mayor of Casterbridge have to say to Pride and Prejudice, as he slouches despondently in his worn Penguin Classics paperback, with its tissuey yellow pages, next to the smart green early-twentieth-century version of Austen’s best-known work, with its whimsical illustrations by Charles Brock?
There’s no doubt the Kindle has its delights. You can read the whole Game of Thrones saga on the train to and from a conference in Paris, without having to take a suitcase the size of an articulated vehicle with you. You can download great works of literature for practically nothing – and there are times when nothing but an immediate injection of Trollope or Balzac will do. You discover megapacks of ghost stories which you can read in the dark, with the haunted page glowing like an overexcited ghost as you read it. You can try out authors you’ve always wondered about, but whose names cause mild hilarity in bookshops: I read Philip K. Dick for the first time – fantastic stories, shame about the prose. (Would an electric sheep make a good pet, I wonder?). And you can give your copy of Mary Beard’s wonderful Pompeii to a friend in your book club, and still read it on your Kindle, marvelling at how she can make even the very pavements and bollards of the excavated city interesting.
But then you return to your hard copies. To the pocket-sized version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, with its red leather imitation cover and unusual font, which you remember reading first of all in the garden at home (it still smells a bit grassy), and to the closely-packed pages of Susan Bridgen’s recent biography of Sir Thomas Wyatt, which embody in form as well as word the dense detailed dangers of the Tudor court. Solid joys and lasting treasure, as the old hymn puts it.
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