Posts from December 2009

December 26th, 2009

Stevereads 2009 Honor Roll!

Several of you have made interesting suggestions for how I should wrap things up here at Stevereads in 2009 – and some of those suggestions have been more practical than others! Perhaps influenced by what you’ve read on other book-blogs, several people have emailed (privately, of course! wouldn’t be the Silent Majority without the ‘silent’ part, now would it? Sigh…) asking me to finish up by listing all the ‘books read’ this year. I’ve seen such features on other blogs, and I agree, it gives a nicely-fenced picture postcard of a year-in-books. But it won’t work here, for the simple reason that I tend to read much more than most people (not bragging, mind you – I also sleep quite a bit less than most people, so finding the time isn’t difficult). This week, in a feverish attempt to polish off most of the books I have left for 2009, I’ve been devoting more time to reading than my customary 6 or 7 hours a day – and that’s pushed my year-to-date tally to something like 700 books. Which clearly won’t work for a blog entry, even one of my classic stem-winders.

Another suggestion a few of you have made was for me to devote an entry or two to my favorite re-reading experiences this year. But while it’s true that I dearly love re-reading, when you think about it, the bulk of Stevereads has been a chronicle of just that, my experiences in re-reading. I’ve tended to leave discussions of new stuff to my colleagues, collaborators, and myself over at Open Letters Monthly (whose beautiful new January issue goes up in less than a week, so you should all mark your calendars – it’s an eye-opener!). It’s only in these year-end round-ups that I’ve predominantly dealt with new titles, and really, does anybody need to know that in 2009 I re-read the Penguin Classic War with Hannibal again, or The Power That Preserves? Bad enough that I know it myself …

Surprisingly, several of you have emailed asking for video! Partly this is understandable, since I am, after all, a stone-cold super-hottie – and part of it is eerie, since in 2009 I did, in fact, explore the technological requirements of doing podcasts and video-podcasts. My explorations yielded no technology anywhere near simple enough for me to use, however, and the year’s end has closed in on me before I could inquire further.

But one of the most-requested items this year is something I can most certainly do: a Stevereads Honor Roll. In the winnowing process for selecting my Best Fiction and Best Nonfiction, I was constantly reminded of all the really good books I read this year that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut for the very top lists. Books that challenged me, or amused me – books that were definitely worthy of attention. In your emails – and in person – several of you have said something like “I wish I had you with me when I’m browsing at the bookstore/library” – and I’d dearly love to be there …. I love recommending books to people.

So here’s the Stevereads Honor Roll for 2009! In the interests of space, I’m foregoing elaborate plot summaries and just issuing an Atlantic-style seal of approval: each one of these books is an outstanding example of its category; each one of them is well worth your time, should you encounter it. You can consider it the blog-tastic equivalent of having me along at the library, only this way, you don’t get dog-hair on your clothes!

2009 Fiction Honor Roll:

Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin – We’ll begin and end the Fiction Honor Roll with ongoing mystery series that continue to hit all the right notes – starting with the latest Adelia Aguilar novel, which again has our headstrong sleuth applying 16th century (at least!) forensics to 12th century crimes.

The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno – As summaries go, ‘a quirky
family learns about love’ is usually enough to make me vomit on a book, not put it on an Honor Roll – but what can I say? Meno’s book, summarized in just that way, spectacularly works.

Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty – Although it’s easily the best gritty Irish noir being written today, that alone wouldn’t put McKinty’s latest (don’t miss his Dead I Well May Be) on this list – no, there’s also a forlorn kind of poetry in his prose line, an ear that would recommend his prose no matter what he was writing about.

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine – An old storyteller is dying, and his family gathers around him with stories of their own – again, as premises go, this one should have sent me running for the nearest MEG novel – but the execution here is so talented, you get swept along.


Men I Might Have Known by Brad Saunders – It’s no easy thing to write gay male erotica this good; Saunders faces competition from about a million websites, bloggers, and tweeters (the entire Internet being based, you see, on porn – most certainly including the stuff aimed at the gays). But his stories are surprisingly memorable – little might-have-been fantasies like the kind we all spin about random strangers every day.

Will by Christopher Rush – This is a perfect example of that particular kind of book that sticks with you weeks after you read it, refusing to be forgotten. Rush may well have written the single best Shakespeare novel ever – which is a far more astonishing accomplishment than you might at first think, if you didn’t know the sheer numbers of his competition.


Love and Summer by William Trevor – The thing you notice about this slim, very engaging novel is how confidently it doesn’t say things … there’s a world of very adult implication filling up the silences of this 1, 436th novel by Trevor, whose debut novel Turn of the Rose was, as you all know, published in 1210.

The Silver Skull by Mark Chadbourn – An old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery novel, complete with two staples of that long-lost and much-lamented sub-genre: non-stop action and a hero whose very perfection ought to make him annoying, but doesn’t. You’ll be mighty entertained.


Gone Over by David Chacko and Alexander Kulcsar – The authors of this riveting historical novel take that marginal Falstaff of the American Revolution, Israel Potter, and give him a life story worth of Flashman. And the most amazing part is that for all we know, it might all be true! Makes for great reading in
either case.

Love in Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millett – A collection of short stories dealing mostly with pets – and yet there’s no mawkish sentimentality, no thinly-veiled ‘bomb the puppy mills’ rhetoric, and damn few happy endings. What you get instead is Millett’s powerful prose on every page, insisting that these stories (most of the plot summaries of which make them sound, shall we say, slight) are important. She’ll convince you.

The Wet Nurse’s Tale by Erica Eisdorfer -This one came the closest of all these to making the Best Fiction list – and almost solely on the basis of Eisdorfer’s masterful central creation, Susan Rose, the slatternly, opinionated, complexly lovable wet nurse of the book’s title. Watching her by turns hilarious and appalling misadventures among the high and low of Victorian England will give you a fantastic reading experience – one you should certainly avail yourself of, either at the library or when this odd, daring book comes out in paperback.

Jack Wakes Up by Seth Harwood – Jack Palms, the rugged has-been actor at the heart of Harwood’s day-glo noir, is a trouble-magnet, and Harwood is extremely good at dishing up that all kinds of trouble in this slim but muscular book. The story is sharp, funny, and compulsively readable.

Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper – If there’s anything more jolting, uncompromising, and bizarrely individualistic than a Dennis Cooper novel, it’s a Dennis Cooper short story, and here are a bunch, blasting at you without a smile or a pulled punch in the bunch. Cooper’s fictional world is full of users and people who want to be used, and at its best, it’s better than almost any other writing out there, even if only about a hundred people read it.

Manituana by Wu Ming – This is American colonial fiction like you’ve never read it before, served up by a multi-person writing group of very disparate personalities – and yet the seams hardly show at all, and what conflicting narrative impulses there are serve only to strengthen this odd, engrossing tale of a Mohawk nation caught between two incomprehensible forces. This will be one of the strangest and most memorable novels you read all year.

Makers by Cory Doctorow – It seemed impossible to top Doctorow’s epic, era-defining Little Brother, and this book doesn’t – but it comes really close! Reading it, you lose track of just how many of our current society’s idiocies it’s riffing and lampooning, and it’s all done with Doctorow’s by-now trademark biting wit and off-kilter narrative jazz. The heroes are once again disillusioned hackers with nothing better to do, and the book is once again impossible to put down.

The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Fleming – It seems like just last year that I was condemning novels set in contemporary times that contort all over themselves to jazz up some era of the past in order to further their own silly plots, and on the surface this book looks like yet another example of that – with a little actual time-travel thrown in to capture the audience of a certain well-known popular novel from a few year ago. But there’s so much more going on here, and all of it so intelligently done, that all my objections go out the window. Much like the hokey but effective John Maxim novel Time Out of Mind (another title I meant to get to here at Stevereads, alas), this book puts 19th century New York at the focal point of temporal disruptions – but in this case they extend all the way to the far-flung kingdom of the title. This is a completely invigorating debut.


Elegy Beach by Steven Boyett – This is the first book of Boyett’s to come to my attention (drawn, in part, by the simple-yet-evocative cover), and boy, is it good! Years ago, the Change swept through the world, disabling higher technology and enabling something that looks a lot like magic, and some of the inhabitants of the resulting world would like to try Changing things back. Several after-the-change conventions are stood on their head in these pages – playfully, and yet the author takes his story very seriously. One of the best science fiction novels I read this year.

Faces in the Pool by Jonathan Gash – Lovejoy is back – a jubilant statement that will baffle newcomers but bring joy to all of us who are wondering just how long we’ll still have all these old British standbys we’ve loved so much for so long (Inspector Morse having died, and readers having been forced to see the saddest three words in the English language: No more Rumpole). The most nimble thing about this latest caper is that it will equally please both newcomers and old fans of Gash’s irrepressible main character.

2009 Teen Fiction Honor Roll:

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd – It’s easy enough for
ordinary people to feel like space aliens when forced to spend any time in Iowa, and the fully-realized young protagonist of Nick Burd’s immensely enjoyable novel is anything but ordinary – at least he thinks so. On one level, this is a fairly standard tale of teen alienation (see Execution, Texas: 1987 or Clay’s Way for other excellent examples), but Burd’s really sweet prose elevates it from all its competition this year.

Dull Boy by Sarah Cross – He has superpowers, yes, but fitting in and being comfortable in his own skin aren’t among them – Sarah Cross’ main character reflexively hides his extra abilities from everybody, but eventually he meets other teens with weird abilities, and from there, can a super-villain be far behind? Dull Boy is a good old-fashioned hoot; when the ending makes a sequel fairly obvious, you’ll cheer at the prospect.

Crows and Cards
by Joseph Helgerson – It’s the easiest thing in the world to imitate Mark Twain poorly – hundreds of writers have made a decent living at it, including Twain. The wonder of Helgerson’s book (with several winning pencil-sketches by artist/fellow super-hottie Peter DeSevier) is that it completely succeeds, on both its own merits and Twain’s. The old boy would have been proud of this book – and then he would have invested in a special seaweed-based print run, and both he and the author would have gone bankrupt. So perhaps it’s better they haven’t met yet.

Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan – Brennan’s fantastic book is based on a time-honored literary axiom well known to Homer: nothing sells a story like super-hotties with deadly combat skills! The embattled teenage brothers here will win the hearts of their young female readers and keep the young male readers turning pages – talk about supernatural feats!

Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logsted – Love! Lust! Longing! Crippling disfigurement! In a weird and utterly memorable novel, Baratz-Logsted pushes about a dozen boundaries of the teen fiction genre – and along the way tells a story that’s ultimately very touching.

Breathless by Lurlene McDaniel – This novel – about a champion teen swimmer who faces cancer, possible amputation, and deadly complications – hits hard and fast and never cushions anything for its readers. McDaniel’s greatest strength as a writer is her willingness not only to put her young characters into physical and ethical situations that would challenge people three times their age but to let them find their own way through those challenges, without recourse either to quick fixes or cheap sentimentality. It’s easy to imagine the bored, excellent young reader she’s attempting to snare with writing this good, but bored, excellent readers of the adult persuasion will like it too.

Intertwined by Gena Showalter – The author is manically prolific, but we can hardly fault her for that! The teenage boy at the center of this gripping book has several radically different souls living inside him, each of which wants everything its own way. If somebody’s come up with a better allegory for young adulthood, I haven’t read it.

Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo – What begins as a fairly simple story of a boy trying to find out about his missing sister turns into a wonderfully complex and whimsical novel about the totally unexpected ways fate can come crashing down on somebody like an … well, you get the point. By no means let the ‘young readers’ for whom this enchanting book is nominally slated have all the fun – read it for yoursel, it’ll touch your heart.

Leviathan by Scott Westerfield – Westerfield is a publishing institution unto himself, and on display in this fun, fantastic novel are some of the reasons why: he’s got a great ear for dialogue, he’s adept at twisting his plots until they’ll grip just about anybody, and he’s not above a little daylight robbery when it comes to concepts other writers have sketched out first. Thus, in this book about an alternate World War One fought between the forces of technology and those of ‘soft’ science (often indistinguishable from magic), where cadets serve on giant living airships, readers will no doubt notice the odd detail here or there they may have encountered in other fantasy novels (or graphic novels). Westerfield’s great skill is his ability to take those various elements and make a whole new soup out of them, and he certainly does that here. The best parts of this book have very little to do with the science fiction or fantasy involved and everything to do with the dynamics of people looking past the prejudices with which they’ve been raised their whole lives.

Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick – The book that made waves based solely on its captivating cover is built around a basic plot that will strike a Twilight note in all its readers: a socially reserved (yet stunningly gorgeous, of course) high school girl falls in lust with a mysterious bad boy (who’s stunningly gorgeous, of course) even though there’s plainly more to him than meets the eye. The thing that saves Fitzpatrick’s book is its fervent conviction in its own wares (plus Fitzpatrick’s engaging way with a sentence). There’s more planning and narrative sense in this one volume (the first of a series, it seems) than in several hundred panting pages of … those other books. And the cover certainly doesn’t hurt.

Candor by Pam Bachorz – Granted, selling teen readers on the premise that everybody’s out to get them is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, but even so, Bachorz’s wonderfully creepy Stepford-esque novel believes in its premise so strongly that it makes you believe as well. There’s some very strong plotting here, and lots of snappy, first-rate dialogue, and the obvious social issues are explored with a lot more intelligence than the cover’s obvious tag-line would lead you to believe. And I’m betting my last quatloo there’s a geeky comic book allusion in the very title, a nod to a tiny city in a glass bottle as a metaphor for a world with no expectation of privacy …


2009 Nonfiction Honor Roll:

Master of War by Benson Bobrick – Was he the unimaginative paper-pusher that he seems to be in the famous memoirs written by his rival generals, or was George Thomas perhaps the greatest overlooked figure of the American Civil War? No matter how you answer the question, Bobrick’s assured book will rivet you – here’s one of our greatest living historians, really digging into his latest subject.

The Sibley Guide to Trees – If you’d have told me last year that David Sibley could make trees as interesting as he’s made birds, I’d have thought you were barking up the wrong one … and I’d have been wrong! This wonderful book makes the furniture of the world utterly fascinating – John Evelyn, bless his boring soul, would have been overjoye

Flight from the Reich by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt – In concentrating so much on the millions of lives the Third Reich extinguished, historians have often overlooked the many further millions whose lives were spared but radically fractured – and that’s a shame, since Dwork and Van Der Pelt amply demonstrate here that those lives make gripping, though grim, reading.

The North American Porcupine by Uldis Roze – Everything you’d ever want to know about this dim but lovable American gnawer, the fat, friendly North American porcupine! There’s natural history here, plenty of anecdotes (none, alas, featuring outstanding cognitive traits… we’re talking basset hound-level here, folks …), and even some facts and figures for the boring kids in the front of the bus!


The Thirty Years War by Peter Wilson – This transformative conflict in European history is here given the definitive – and hugely appealing – popular narrative it’s always deserved. Wilson is superb on battles, superb on social disruptions, superb on personalities … in short, you’re in
really good hands.

Reading in the Brain by Stanislaus Deheane – By turns incredibly informative and downright creepy, this up-to-date illumination of the very activity in which you’re right now engaged (not that one – reading, you filthy thing!) ought to be ultimately disillusioning- after all, nobody wants to think firing neurons have anything to do with loving a book – but in the end, probably due to Deheane’s unassuming, optimistic prose style – you’re even more in love with the homely skill.

The Rise and Fall of Communism by Archie Brown – Brown takes Communism – most especially in its biggest, scariest avatar, the Soviet Union – as exactly what it is: the most handy textbook study of a political life-cycle as we’re likely to get in recent history. And he does an always steady often epic job recounting that cycle on all its fronts. Some of you will have lived through a part of this history – and all of you should read about it!

Sweet Thunder by Wil Haygood- The raucous life and times of the great boxer and decent human being Sugar Ray Robinson, told with verve and tough-sensitive insight. From the Harlem Renaissance to segregation to killing a man in the ring, this book takes its readers through an epic American life – and you know if I’m praising a sports book, it’s got to have more than just sports to recommend it! This one does.

Mile-High Fever by Dennis Drabelle – Those of you co*******ers who only know the mighty Comstock Lode through f*****n’ references on HBO’S mot*************n’ series Deadwood owe it to yourselves to read Drabelle’s fantastic book about the subject – at the very least, it’ll teach you what you f*******n’ well should have known already: the truth, told with this kind of spirit, trumps any mot************n’ fantasy.

Hero of the Fleet by William Stone – The term ‘old salt’ might as well have been invented for William Stone, who was born in 1900, saw action with the British Navy in both the First and Second World Wars, and just recently died at the ripe old age of 108. A life such as he lived seems like something of a miracle in our more cautious modern era, and this memoir he produced is a miracle in its own right: it’s circumspect without being tedious, grand without being grandiose, and best of all proud without being boastful. If it ever gets any kind of distribution in the United States, you’re all urged most heartily to read it.

Central Park in the Dark by Marie Winn – The disarmingly teeming wilderness at the heart of New York City has been the subject of intrepid natural histories before, but Winn carries hers off with an extra dash of sparkle and an enviably smooth way with exposition. Even nature-loving New Yorkers (a seeming contradiction in terms, yet their name is legion) will find facts and insights here they never encountered before, in this very careful, very loving examination of one of the world’s strangest little biospheres.

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Mammals – Guide book/reference books like this one are fairly common new arrivals in Western bookstores, and this Princeton volume has no shortage of competitors in its niche market. It blows them all out of the water so easily, so thoroughly, that the very best of the rest can’t bear comparison in the same paragraph

The Greek Poets by Peter Constantine – It’s only when you start to think about the sheer span of time and work involved in this magnificent volume – a thousand poems written over three thousand years – that you begin to see the massively complex job Peter Constantine and his team of editors attempted – and that you begin to appreciate how wonderfully they succeeded. A century ago, an Oxford don famously deadpanned “One feels so rotten about the Greeks, because one is so permanently indebted to them.” Reading this volume, you’ll feel something of the same staggering cultural debt (it almost equals the achievement of Ireland!) – but without the rotten part, I hope. This is a keeper for your permanent poetry library.

Lords of the Sea by John Hale – The insistent conclusion of this great, thrilling work of ancient history – that high culture could not exist without war, that it’s a luxury only the guaranteed peace of war-footing can make possible – won’t sit well with those of a certain Cantabridgian mindset, but Hale’s case couldn’t be more compellingly put, and along the way he displays over and over again an uncanny and extremely effective ability to transport his readers into the ethos and physical reality of ancient Greece. In many ways the strongest volume of our concluding triple-blast of Greek history!

Travelling Heroes by Robin Lane Fox – The opening schematic of this great beguiling echo-chamber of a book, the framing meditation on travel, speed, and concept of place in Homer and Homeric times, is just the smallest beginning of the riches Fox lavishes on his readers in his latest book. Fox’s work has grown to become as brilliant and occasionally weird as the ancient culture he studies, and this book likewise defies easy categorization. Certainly Homer runs all through it like the weave of a tapestry, but it would be equally accurate to say it’s just an extended ramble-session by Fox himself – there are ample asides and digressions, and even the central concern, about what motion meant to Homer and the ancient world, serves handily as a metaphor for restlessness. In many ways, this book should have been at the top of my Best Nonfiction of the Year list, and the reason it wasn’t is at least honest: I don’t think I understood it sufficiently – in all its moods and implications – to put it there. Do yourself a favor: familiarize yourself with Homer, then dive into this book.

And to finish things off this year, I’m concluding with Great Moments in Comics, specifically the greatest moment in comics in 2009 – and those of you who know me will have seen this coming for about eleven months now. The comic in question is the venerable Justice Society of America, in a storyline from early this year. The team has been joined temporarily by an alternate-universe Superman, an older, more world-weary Man of Steel who accompanies the team on a few adventures before being returned to his own reality. Upon his disappearance, his JSA teammates are naturally curious to know what happens to him in his own universe – does he go on to live a happy life? And thanks to the writing of Geoff Johns and the marvelous artwork of Alex Ross, we readers get to see that life as it extends over a thousand years of alternate history, from the death of Batman to several Earth-shattering natural cataclysms … and finally, to the rise of the Legion of Super-Heroes, in whose front ranks fly the youngest bearers of that legendary “S” symbol. And in the enthusiastic crowd below, there’s one very old man with a knowing smile – and just the faintest wisp of a famous spitcurl of hair.

It’s been a great year here. Thank you all, more than I can say.

December 25th, 2009

Once Again!

Twice as many books this year, so a handy summary is in order!

Worst Fiction of 2009:

10. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer
9. The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard
8. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
7. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
6. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
5. Under the Dome by Stephen King
4. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
3. The Collected Works of P. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen
2. How to Sell by Clancy Martin
1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Worst Nonfiction of 2009:

10. The American Civil War by John Keegan
9. Imperial Cruise by James Bradley
8. The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose
7. Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
6. Byron in Love by Edna O’Brien
5. The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert
4. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
3. The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb
2. Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer
1. Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman

The Best Fiction of 2009:

10. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
9. A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan
8. Roanoke by Margaret Lawrence
7. American Rust by Philipp Meyer
6. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
5. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely
4. The City and the City by China Mieville
3. Lowboy by John Wray
2. Girl Mary by Petru Popescu
1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Childrens Book by A.S. Byatt

The Best Nonfiction of 2009:

10. Endless Forms by Diana Donald and Jane Munro
9. The Annotated Origin by James Costa
8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood
7. The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, edited by Robert Strassler, translated by John Marincola
6. Meriwether Lewis by Thomas Danisi and John Jackson
5. Worlds Made By Words by Anthony Grafton
4. Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms
3. National Geographic Image Collection
2. Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn
1. Following the Water by David Carroll, The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson

Up next, by popular demand: a few more lists to round out the year!

December 21st, 2009

Best Books of the Year! Nonfiction!

The Best Nonfiction of 2009:

10. Endless Forms, edited by Diana Donald and Jane Munro – The central idea behind this stunning volume is simple and undeniable: great ideas manifest far outside their native spheres. The great idea in this case is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, and since both Darwin and that theory had an anniversary in 2009, the large number of corollary volumes was predictable – but even so, I didn’t expect the generally steep level of quality among them, and I certainly didn’t expect that two of them would make my top ten! Nevertheless, there it is: this book is an amazing evocation of the far-flung ripple-effects Darwin’s theory had on the various realms of the plastic arts. It’s an indispensable addition to any Darwiniana library. And speaking of which!

9. The Annotated Origin by James Costa – The idea here is also very simple: let a passionate, knowledgeable guide walk readers through Darwin’s great masterpiece, illuminating everything, explaining everything, and ultimately celebrating everything about the book – and in the process reminding us all of two salient Darwin features we sometimes tend to forget: first, that he was himself a passionate guide, enthusiastically studying the teeming world around him, and second, that he was the practitioner of a fine, strong Victorian prose style, well worth reading in its own right. It’s difficult to see how this book could be annotated better – everybody who’s ever read the thing should read it again in this volume.

8. Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood – The Oxford History of the United States continues from triumph to triumph with this latest volume, studying the newborn Republic from the problem-fraught aftermath of the Revolution’s victory to the problem-fraught aftermath of the War of 1812. And the triumph here extends to a personal dimension as well, since this immense volume represents the chief and glorious masterpiece of redoubtable American historian Gordon Wood, who here displays all the qualities that have made so many of his books towering classics of the genre: a complete mastery of exhaustive sources, an irrepressible curiosity about all aspects of the years he’s examining, and a sly wit throughout. No serious reader of American history can afford to miss this grand synthesis. And speaking of which!

7. Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms – Here is another incredibly vigorous synthesis, the kind of narrative history that’s as much thought-driven as fact-driven. Simms does so much right in this plump volume that it’s hard to decide what he does best of all – there are deft and exciting summaries of military activity, there are wonderful three-dimensional vignettes starring virtually all the marquee names of the time, and on top of everything, the House of Hanover finally gets some of the credit it deserves! Simms re-thinks quite a bit about England’s history throughout the long 18th century, and even in those few instances where he’s implausible, he’s still and always thought-provoking. This book and Empire of Liberty are pretty much exactly the way history should be written.

6. Worlds Made By Words by Anthony Grafton – There will, of course, always be a place on my year-end list for sui generis works that shine with their own quirky brilliance, and Grafton’s book is certainly one of those! This is a knotty, uncompromisingly intellectual collection of a type we can legitimately fear we may not see again, a book written in high style by a man who was living a scholar’s life when card catalogs were Wikipedia and actual work was required to distill knowledge from books. Not that Grafton displays any of the bitterness predictable in a dinosaur (some of that, just possibly, might be coming from me…) – one of his book’s concluding sections, on the Internet and digital knowledge, is as lively and inviting a look at the future as anybody could ask for. Rather, this book’s inadvertent advocacy is for a joyful, engaged rigor – in academia, in theory, and most of all in reading – and I can’t help but wonder if rigor’s day is over, regardless of champions like this one.

5. The Landmark Xenophon’s “Hellenika” – edited by Robert Strassler, translated by John Marincola – Certainly scholarship’s day isn’t done – at least not yet! Once again, Robert Strassler has overseen the creation of a masterpiece. He’s followed The Landmark Thucydides and The Landmark Herodotus with this masterful, hugely satisfying volume, which contains not only a new translation (a fluid piece of work by John Marincola, instantly surpassing all previous English language versions) of Xenophon’s vital, forceful war story but an appendix of interesting essays and a lavish undergrowth of notes. That this volume of Xenophon should get the Strassler treatment instead of better-known works of classical history makes me secretly hope these magnificent volumes will become an established series. I’d trade a slightly used middle-aged basset hound for The Landmark Livy, for instance.

4. Meriwether Lewis by Thomas Danisi and John Jackson – This is by far the best biography of the serious, sexy, dangerous half of the Lewis & Clark expedition, the eternally puzzling and contradictory Meriwether Lewis. Danisi and Jackson have combed through archives, studied letters, and most importantly done a lot of thinking about what their sources are really telling them – and the result is a thoroughly invigorating biography of a young man who would certainly have become President, had he lived (the authors also tackle head-on the problems involved in that innocent-sounding ‘had he lived’ by digging deep into the mystery of why he didn’t).

3.National Geographic Image Collection – After a hundred and something years of continuous perfection, it’s become a trifle pat to cite National Geographic for that very quality – but what other words applies to this latest collection of photos? The selections here span the whole long range of the magazine’s life, including many incredible shots never seen by readers. The overall effect, after turning the pages and studying in awe the images, is that of being a bystander by the ramp as Noah’s Ark is emptied after landfall. Here is the gorgeous, quirky, magnificent panoply of life on Earth, parading before us for what may be the last time – and as usual, National Geographic is there. This big, beautiful book is the closest you can come to a single representation of all those stacks of yellow-spined magazines your grandparents have it their attic. It’s a book full of wonders.

2. Marcus Aurelius by Frank McLynn – There’s something extra satisfying about a very thorough, very energetic author taking on a very famous, much-researched figure from history and making that figure fresh and new. That’s just what veteran biography McLynn has made a career of doing, and that’s just what he does to extremely impressive effect in this big, definitive biography of the philosophical Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The title of the book could easily be ‘Marcus Aurelius: His Life and Times,’ because readers get a very generous overview of the social, political, and intellectual world in which the emperor was born, grew, and ruled. And the portrait of the man himself is not only equally full but also, charmingly, very much a McLynn production. Our author is distinctly in favor of titans from history being first and foremost human beings – his Marcus Aurelius will become your Marcus Aurelius too.

1. Following the Water by David Carroll, The Greeks and Greek Love by James Davidson – Year-end roundups like this one always like to spot trends, and every time somebody else does it, I always think it’s just so much bunkum. But there’s no denying the vast and invasive ways the Internet is changing the nature of books, especially nonfiction books. An excellent example would be the recent book Owl by Desmond Morris, a book that might well have made this list a decade ago. It stood no chance of doing so this year because it was only a book. Only a book! But hear me out: Owl was a dutiful trot through the natural history of the birds and their major appearances in world literature. It featured a hundred common-property photos of owls. In other words, every single one of its prospective readers could have acquired all its information and seen all its visuals by consulting the Internet. If you’ve produced the exact equivalent of a Wikipedia or Google Image search, you’ve produced something that’s asking for its own extinction – something that’s only a book. You can keep doing that in the Internet Age, certainly – but if you do, you can’t complain when your readers vanish and your publisher deserts you. The best books have always been more. We’d be crazy to go to Herodotus for facts, but we keep reading Herodotus, and happily. Likewise with the two books that share the top spot for Nonfiction this year at Stevereads: both are constructed on vast amounts of research, but both are unabashedly personal books. It’s easier to spot in David Carroll’s poetically moving latest account of his life out wading in turtle-haunted backwaters – this book is full of personal moments, and it’s only when you’re done with it that you realize how much you’ve learned. Davidson, in his enormous masterwork study of love between men in ancient Greece, takes the mirror-image of this approach: his prodigious learning is everywhere, on every page, and it’s only when you’re finished that you realize how personal a book you’ve just read. Both Carroll and Davidson have always made art out of that combination, and 2009 saw the very best books to date from both of them – and the two best new books I read this year.

And there you have it, ladies, gentlemen, and manatees! The Stevereads Best and Worst of 2009! Hope it was as much fun to read as it was to write!

December 21st, 2009

Best Books of 2009! Fiction!

2009 displayed an epic lineup of new novels from old hands at the form: we had new works from Margaret Atwood, Mary Gaitskill, A.S. Byatt, E. L. Doctorow, John Irving, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Powers, William Trevor, Pete Dexter, Richard Russo, J.M. Coetzee and a list of other luminaries, almost all of whom disappointed in some way or other. And there’s a certain kind of balance to be found in the fact that much of the year’s best fiction was written by far less familiar names. It’s enough to make you think that in 2009 we saw not an unprecedented assembly of established writers but the birth of a new pantheon. If so, I say bring it on – when Thomas Pynchon makes a promotional video for his slight, charming new novel, it’s clearly time for a new pantheon. Here are the real winners of 2009, by my lights:

10. The Song is You by Arthur Phillips – Don’t let the emo cover photo fool you: this is a smart, funny, and above all happy novel, every bit as quotable and music-obsessed as Phillips’ other books would lead you to expect, but with an added breadth of both maturity and narrative command. I cheered inside at the end of this book – and although I had the same reaction at the end of The Egyptologist, in this case I was cheering because the book made me happy, not because it was finally over.

9. A Day and a Night and a Day by Glen Duncan – There’s a surprisingly amount going on in this slim novel, but its dramatic centerpiece is the slow, thoughtful, systematic torture of one man by another, complete with grotesque physical violence and complex verbal sparring. Both the victim and his torturer are instantly memorable characters, propelling this novel far beyond anything Duncan has previously shown us. There’s a thoroughgoing indictment of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney here, but there’s no ripped-from-the-headlines triviality – this is more parable than parody, and its dark lessons will still be electric fifty years from now.

8. Roanoke by Margaret Lawrence – This lean, dodgy Elizabethan historical novel succeeds where so many countless thousands of novels set in the same time period have failed because it never takes anything about its readers for granted – it earns every dramatic payoff through precise realization of scenes and characters, not through lazy reliance on ‘Good Queen Bess’ to carry the bulk of the weight. I can’t call it the best Tudor novel of the year (that spot’s taken!), but I can and will fudge things a bit and call it the best Elizabethan novel of the year!

7. American Rust by Philipp Meyer – This bleak, elliptical novel about tragedy overtaking two young men in Nowhere, Midwest America was unfairly ignored for all the year’s major literary awards, despite being tautly plotted and knowingly executed to a degree few novels this season could approach, let alone equal. Perhaps the problem was the setting: most two-books-a-week literate Americans know more about the society of Dune (or Hogwart’s) than they do about the various kinds of low-rent dead-ends Meyer so perfectly evokes. If so, it’s the readers’ loss; this is a stark, memorable book.

6. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead – Another strong, remarkable book, fleet and funny, Whitehead’s latest and best novel was misunderstood right out of the starting-gate by most critics, who were so busy describing how little the book works as a racial manifesto that they failed to report on how well it works as a witty, assured bildungsroman. It’s unthinkable that critics would have been so confused if Whitehead and all his characters were white, and the confusion is a shame, because the realizations of love, bullshit, and summer in this book are pretty damn wonderful. Who knows how many people missed out on that while they were treasure-hunting for The Souls of Black Folk 2.0?

5. How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely – You read this novel the first time because of how laugh-out-loud funny it is. The story of a schmuck who decides to write a bestseller, the book does for the whole writing and publishing industry what Gulliver’s Travels does for society: skewers it and serves it up over an open flame. Long after you’ve stopped laughing, scenes and screeds will stick with you – and you’ll certainly never view commercially popular fiction of any kind the same way again.

4. The City and the City by China Mieville – The author of this fantastic, mind-working blend of police procedural and Twilight Zone hypothetical (two cities co-existing in the same physical space, and the mysterious law enforcement entity that keeps them from interacting) here strips his usually-ornate writing style down to lean, almost telegraphic basics – which only serves to highlight both the poetry and the originality of his vision. In addition to being one incredibly gripping read, this book is also a near-perfect example of that rarest of rarities: a science fiction book that’s perfect for people who hate science fiction. I’d say it’s not possible for Mieville to top this performance, but I’ve said that about all of his previous books – and been wrong twice.

3. Lowboy by John Wray – This precisely written and ultimately very touching novel about a mentally disturbed teenager who’s on the loose in the bowels of the New York, convinced that the world is about to end, works perfectly because it takes virtually none of the easy routes on offer: its policemen aren’t morons or monsters, Lowboy is sweet but not Movie-of-the-Week redemptively sweet, and – in the toughest fictional move of all – his brittle, intellectual mother is never allowed to become a Medea stand-in. And the whole thing unfolds for the reader with such speed and confidence that the ending comes rushing up on you. Certainly the best work of fiction I read this year that wasn’t a historical novel.

2. Girl Mary by Petru Popescu – And speaking of historical fiction, there’s surely no suburb of that particular genre that sports more eyesores than Biblical historical fiction, so I naturally expected the worst from this novel about the young girlhood of the Virgin Mary. But Popescu’s book is nothing short of marvellous – Defiant, free-thinking Mary comes alive in these pages, as does her much older husband Joseph and her most obstinate Suitor, Who quite literally won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. These characters and this story couldn’t be more familiar to Western readers, and yet they’re all vitally, amazingly new in this book.

1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt – In his own roundup of the year (and the decade)’s best fiction, Sam Anderson wrote that the 20-aughts showed the beginning of a literary trend toward fragmentation and diminution, that the age of big, heavily-plotted conventional novels may well be over, driven to fragmentation by blogs, blurbs, and tweets. If he’s right (and I wouldn’t bet against him – he’s pretty smart), then the two best novels I read in 2009 are pure anachronisms – but oh, what glorious anachronisms! Byatt’s opulently-detailed Trollopian look at two intertwining Victorian families and Mantel’s brutally powerful narrative of the Thomas Cromwell’s heyday in power have no patience whatsoever for the alleged disintegration of the reading mind: they present complex, compelling stories and demand that their readers concentrate and follow along. Those who do are in for two immensely satisfying reading experiences.

Up next: 2009’s best Nonfiction!

December 20th, 2009

Worst Books of 2009! Nonfiction!

Worst Nonfiction of 2009:

The American Civil War by John Keegan – I admit, I wasn’t the first person on the scene of this particularly horrible highway accident. I was still waiting for my copy of Keegan’s book (enthused, as who wouldn’t be, because the man has written some of the best works of military history in the last century) when the first rumors of its, er, shortcomings began to reach my ears. I picked up a copy of the book from a bookstore display table one day and handed it to a friend who’s a Civil War scholar, saying “I haven’t read this yet, but I’m hearing that it’s got some problems – what do you think?” He took it, flipped to the three-page account of one battle he knows really well, and took a couple of minutes to read it. And then he looked up, aghast. And then I read the epic plank-by-plank destruction the book received in the New York Times. And finally I read it myself. And was aghast. Long lists of facts wrong – days, dates, casualty lists, physical locations, names – and worse by far than that (although the sheer extent of that made it inexcusable), horrible misunderstandings of the war and its meanings, sophomoric misunderstandings, on virtually every page. So Keegan has another accolade: he’s written the single worst book on the American Civil War by a major historian. Now all I want to know is how the thing got into print.

9. Imperial Cruise by James Bradley – I guess I always knew a travesty like this was brewing with Bradley. The hugely overpraised Flags of Our Fathers was a curio draped in just enough autobiography to make it both unassailable and unimportant, and Flyboys, inestimably helped by the heroism of its subject, made for good-enough reading. I guess I always worried that the acclaim Bradley received from both those books might go to his head and make him forget that he’s not actually a historian, just a professional sentimentalist. And in Imperial Cruise, hoo-boy, does he forget. This hyperventilating account of how “Teddy” (on every goddam page) Roosevelt and “Big Bill” (on every goddam page) Taft did all sorts of illegal things in order to placate ruthless Japan is aggravating junk from the very first page, a clanking, ugly collection of snide remarks, scandalous insults to the memory of two very good men, and gross misreadings of the primary sources, all of it absolutely smothered in just the kind of distorting hindsight trained historians are careful to eliminate from their work. Two pieces of urgent advice: first, don’t read this book, and second, if you do read it, don’t believe a single word of it.

8. The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose – Even if I hadn’t known that Roose was a disciple of the manipulative moron A. J. Jacobs (he of The Year of Living Biblically), I’d have guessed it by the time I got to the end of this moronic, manipulative book about how Roose took a semester off from Brown and spent it at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, studying the Evangelical Christian students there in order to, as Roose continuously lies, learn more about them. What follows is like getting a eunuch to write a bedroom expose – the author does a lot of unconvincing poking around, but he completely misses the point. This is the Jacobsian formula: either take a complex subject and dumb it down until it can be read on a business flight from New York to L.A., or take a simple subject and try your gelded best to make it seem complex. Liberty University is a simple subject: it’s a gigantic enclave of sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, evolution-denying reactionary Klansmen-in-training. Roose would shake his head at the persistence of such ‘stereotypes'; I shake my head at brainless authors who’ll play any kind of dumb in order to get a book contract.

7. Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner – I didn’t think it was possible for any book to irritate me even more than Freakonomics did, but the authors here proved me wrong – they took their first book, which was already shriekingly dumb, and made it even dumber. Here’s page after page filled with faulty logic, unsubstantiated claims, and exactly the kind of pothead anti-logic that manages to be both pointless and dangerous. Pointless because merely reading something so easily disproven is a waste of time, and dangerous because most of the millions of people reading these pieces of crap apparently aren’t bothering to disprove any of it. There’s a wide stratum of young male readers out there who apparently want the world around them to appear as strange and inexplicable as the darkest Medieval cosmology. Bad enough that such a stratum should exist at all – much worse that carnie barkers like Levitt and Dubner should be so eager to feed it.

6. Byron in Love by Edna O’Brien – The first sign of trouble here came from lining up the book’s title with the book’s length: Lord Byron was one of the most complex young men who ever left us a mountain of letters and poems, and he strained, fought, and fled from the idea of love for his entire life, quite possibly without ever having once encountered the real thing with another human being (that he encountered it at least a few times with dogs is evident from his poetry, at least to anybody who’s also encountered it) – and yet O’Brien’s book is barely 180 pages long. There are authors who could cover the subject in such short terrain – Lytton Stratchey could, or Jessica Mitford – but O’Brien sure as Hell isn’t one of them. Instead, what she covers – thinly, badly, is a quick tear-sheet of Byronic cliches without a single legitimate insight to recommend this book over the 8,000 better volumes on the subject. If Byron ever was really in love, you’ll find not a hint of it here.

5. The Wauchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert – The premise here – a writer visits a home for retired show business chimps and examines his reactions to them – is so good that the execution is all the more galling. Siebert has done work in the past I’ve enjoyed, but in this book – this potentially vital, potentially important book (that it has pretension to the latter is evident even from its title) – every trick of his trade just grates. It’s never a good sign when you’re reading a book wishing the whole time that the author would just shut up and tell the story – but after a couple of chapters of Seibert’s nasal, dated wisecracking, you’ll not only be wishing that, you’ll be wishing it out loud, angrily. When I finished this book, I was filled with the angry sadness that can only come from watching an important subject treated in a shallow, annoying way. Which brings us to!

4. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer – Foer has always been inordinately impressed with his own writing talents; it was that morosely serious cockiness that gave Everything Is Illuminated whatever slender charms it possesses. And for all we know, Foer will ill-advisedly mine that thin vein for the rest of his career – except for this book, a disastrous detour into nonfiction, in which Foer writes like he was the very first person to a) father a child, b) craft a sentence, c) eat a hamburger, or d) research human cruelty to animals. This has two inevitable results: first, it offers a fairly palpable insult to anybody who’s ever done a, b, c, or d. And second, it makes for a pretty damn tedious book. It’s like listening to an overly-earnest ten-year-old tell you that the sun is actually composed of superheated gas: you’re glad the kid’s learned something he didn’t know, but after about five minutes, you’re hoping his parents will take him into another room.

3. The Book of Genesis illustrated by R. Crumb – I’d say something like “it’s hard to tell which is worse, Crumb’s stilted, pretentious introduction or the pages and pages of drawings that follow,” but that wouldn’t be completely true. The pages and pages of drawings are much, much worse. In his introduction, Crumb trumpets his “research” into the history and visual iconography of early nomadic tribes – but then he spends hundreds of panels drawing caricatures, anachronisms, and the gigantic, vaguely humanoid monsters he always substitutes for women. He likewise trumpets his fidelity to the text of Genesis – then spends the whole book visually undermining that text whenever he gets the chance. In the end, it’s a good thing God doesn’t read graphic novels (sorry, Kevin); if He did, He’d be even more pissed off than usual.

2. Signature in the Cell by Stephen Meyer – The closest this deeply, almost sinfully mendacious book comes to a thesis can be summed up like this: DNA, the ‘assembly instructions’ of living cells, is not the ultimate denial of the existence of God but rather the ultimate assurance of His existence. Using truckloads of fuzzy anecdotes and quasi-science, Meyer does his best to fog over the fact that DNA’s journey from chemical process to biochemical process is fairly well documented and will only get more documented as scientific advances continue. When the last of DNA’s mysteries are cracked – in ten, maybe five years – Meyer or somebody like him (probably a Liberty grad) will have to write a book exalting another Golden Calf of unobtainability … and until then, we’ve got this cowardly little bit of Inquisition advocacy.

1. Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin, The Tyranny of Email by John Freeman – It’s natural to lump these two together, since they’re basically the exact same shrill screed, offered by the same blue-haired old biddy-bean who’s just got too many dang people jabbering at her all the time. Both Helprin and Freeman deplore the effects the Internet and Internet-related technologies are having on the Western mind. People don’t concentrate anymore (say the authors of these two fairly lightweight books); people don’t research anymore (say the authors of these two obviously Wiki-friendly factoid assemblies); people have lost the simple joy of curling up with a good book (say the authors, even though Helprin hasn’t done that in thirty years and Freeman has never done it in even once in his entire life, not even while laid up with a sprained ankle) – and while they’re both doing all this hand-waving, the Internet they profess to despise is virtually teeming with a greater variety of good writing – by a greater variety of good writers – than any other forum in the history of the species. That juxtaposition begs us to simply ignore books like these – easy enough in Freeman’s case, far harder, far sadder, in the case of the author of Winter’s Tale.

OK! Everybody get some water, marshal your outrages, and gird your loins! The Best is yet to come!

December 20th, 2009

Worst Books of 2009! Fiction!

2009 is finally winding down, and the End of Days clamor regarding the death of paper-and-ink books has never been louder. The Amazon Kindle is (if you believe their publicity statements) selling more than any other physical item in the history of the human race, and smack-dab in the entrance way of every single Barnes & Noble is a sleek kiosk staffed with book-averse clerks hawking B&N’s own electronic reader, Nook. What book retailers are thinking in pursuing this ‘get out ahead of it’ strategy utterly eludes me; it’s like if Tower Records and HMV had busily installed kiosks in their foyers offering Napster downloads of all their wares. Prognosticators are saying the days of the printed book are similarly numbered.

If 2009 represents the death-throes of an industry, well, the end won’t be pretty – because Nook or no Nook, publishers this year went to just the same exorbitant lengths to churn out mountains of crapola as they did when no electronic readers threatened their existence at all. Thousands of books crossed my path, many hundreds made their way to my nightstand (friends and basset hounds will attest: it’s a big nightstand, and it’s always stacked high with books), and here we are at the tail-end of the year to sort them all out. And as you could no doubt tell from our trusty elephant-crap photo up top, this particular entry will be devoted to the worst of those many hundreds of books. I’m expanding the list and dividing it into fiction and nonfiction, for your book-avoiding convenience. So let’s get started!

Worst Fiction of 2009:

10. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer – Impossible to believe the fulsome, breathless praise this narcissistic piece of poop has garnered from virtually all corners of the critical world, although not impossible to understand: Dyer might not know how to write (Dyer certainly does not know how to write), but he knows how to nudge and wink and pass a bong, and book reviewers – being pallid, friendless sorts who grew up yearning to be cool – don’t seem to have been able to resist the cool-ness Dyer is so relentlessly going for. Come Monday morning, when their collective crush has migrated to some other writer, perhaps they’ll turn on Dyer en masse – seeing that would almost make suffering through the acclaim of this one worth enduring.

9. The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard – Despite the idiotic claims Patterson makes in his introduction to this tiny little book (which his legions of fans dutifully made a bestseller), it definitely belongs on a fiction list – it’s wretched enough as fiction, but with its endless pages of invented hackneyed dialogue and stereotypical plot-twists, it would be reality-warpingly unthinkable as history. Ancient Egypt hasn’t suffered an outrage this bad since Napoleon’s troops tramped through its ruins.

8. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell – This one stings a little extra because it genuinely tugged at my expectations: Littell can do good work, and the book is satisfyingly long and ambitious … all of which made the disappointment even greater when it turned out to be a bloated, overblown brick of pointless Euro-nihilism that neither affirms anything nor interestingly condemns anything. Instead, grotesquerie after grotesquerie is served up in lavish detail to no point at all – which I’m sure Littell’s defenders would say is the whole point, that war and atrocity are like that. And they should keep their condescension to themselves, the poor little darlings; I know perfectly well that war and atrocity are like that – but war and atrocity novels – good ones, anyway – are not, and Littell spending 3000 pages wallowing in narcissistic self-loathing certainly isn’t.

7. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem – Some of you will say that of course this book – one long hymn to getting high – would have to be on my list, since I’m no fan of the stink of that particular habit (or the evening-long stupidity it engenders). But that’s not true – if Lethem had worked to make his prose enjoyable, I’d have liked it no matter what it was about (I liked Pynchon’s Inherent Vice just fine this year, and it’s easily as stoned a book at this one). But he doesn’t, because he’s plainly figured out he doesn’t have to – his readers will move his book off shelves regardless of what he does.

6. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson – It’s been a handy rule of mine almost from the first moment I started making rules about reading (I’ll have to attempt a comprehensive list of them here some day!): nothing good can be expected from a book whose title is a cliche. And there’s nothing good in Johnson’s lazy little pamphlet of a pastiche – just flat, boring prose so inconsequential you feel extra sorry for all the earnest first-time novelists out there who’d love to have the money Johnson got (for both serial rights and novel rights, geez) for spitting up this drivel. Oh, but we’ll be getting to first-time novelists, don’t you worry!

5. Under the Dome by Stephen King – But first, a novelist who’s been working so long you’d think at least some sort of craft would have penetrated the force-field of his mediocrity … but you’d be wrong, and you’d waste a hell of a lot of reading time being wrong. King’s new novel (written at the rate of roughly 10,000 words a day- in other words, not only without thinking but also without pausing in the physical act of typing – something, that is, that cannot possibly under any circumstances be good) about a small Maine town full of Stephen King fans suddenly cut off from the wider world is full of an irony so painful it has to be involuntary, and that irony is only darkened when a giant bucket of garbage like this gets an adulatory review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. End of Times indeed.

4. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli – The writer-artist here has no more willing fan than I am, but this wretchedly stilted, unbearably pretentious mess of a graphic novel does literally nothing right. The artwork is too didactic to be dramatically involving; not only are we never given any reason to like the shallow, irritating main character but we’re also never given any reason to keep turning the pages about him; the host of secondary characters are hauled on, talked down to, then shuttled offstage to no purpose at all, and the ending – well, again, I’m sure Mazzucchelli’s defenders would say it’s meant to be hipster-ironic, but that’s just them being fey: it’s actually just Mazzucchelli accidentally proving that he does his best stuff when he’s got a writer handling the words.

3. The Collected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen – We mentioned earnest first-time novelists, and we did it sympathetically – but no sympathy extends to first novels written with either crass manipulation or frat boy bragging. Larsen’s oh-so-precious tale of an adorably quirky little boy with a penchant for illustrating things is a perfect case of a book that considers it safer to trick readers into affectionate sympathy than to genuinely arouse that feeling in them, through work. And by all sales accounts, the trickery has been effective – it’s entirely possible Larsen will have a standing reservation for the #3 spot here on the list. There is no writing lazier than gimmick-writing, and no more gimmicky book than this one has appeared on the scene in many, many years. I can only hope that somewhere down the line Larsen learns that “Hate reading books? Try Reif Larsen!” isn’t, in fact, a recommendation.

2. How to Sell by Clancy Martin – This is where the frat boy bragging comes in. Martin’s book looks on the surface like a standard roman a clef about a naive young guy who comes to the big city and learns the biz (doesn’t matter what biz) while learning about life and love, blah, blah, blah. But underneath, this tone-deaf lump of clumsy prose cares about only one thing: making its young author lots of money (through a Hollywood sale, naturally, not boring old bookstores). This is a book entirely without a soul – I’m surprised register scanners could read its bar code.
Once again, most critics loved it because it gave them a vicarious burst of ‘cool’ – it was called a promising debut enough times so that we can legitimately fear the author believes it.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers – Necessary to list these two abominations together, since they share the same things: rhapsodic critical reception, sludgy, colorless prose, a 100 percent total reliance on cliches (saintly minorities, for instance, in both cases), and opportunistic necrophilia. McCann’s book ham-handedly uses the tragedy of September 11 to gin up his otherwise entirely forgettable tale of them brawlin’ bardin’ Irish immigrants, and the insufferable Eggers ham-handedly uses the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to gin up his otherwise forgettable tale of a good little man confronting The System when all he wants to do is help people. It’s not enough to say that neither book would be imaginable without the real-world disaster on which its plot hinges; it’s painfully obvious from both these windy, self-adoring works that their authors consider plot-hinging the reason disasters happen in the first place. This is the worst kind of cultural vampirism, and after the praise heaped on Netherland last year, I’m starting to think our current crop of writers simply can’t rise to the challenge of transmuting real-life turning points into challenging prose. Eggers has created his Grand Old Man status with his own money (and an unflagging conception of all writing as twee anachronism – a conception the literary world has embraced whole-heartedly without, apparently, seeing the loathsome irony), and McCann has recently had his Grand Old Man status conferred upon him, so they themselves can’t help but see their praise as vindication of their grave-robbing. But the rest of us should maintain a proper outrage – novels have a higher calling than the sophomoric melodramas these two have produced.

Up Next: 2009’s worst Nonfiction!


December 15th, 2009

What Ails the Little Fella in the Penny Press?

The Commentary in last week’s TLS is by John Barnard (too much to hope that in addition to being a stodgy academic he’s also related to the author of such minor-key classic murder mysteries as The Bad Samaritan?), and it’s a pretty good example of the hand-wringing pettifogging that does so much to disenchant ordinary civilians with the world and the antics of literary criticism. The essay is heralded on the issue’s cover with the preposterous banner-line “Who Killed John Keats?” – the thing is titled “A Sleepless Night,” and the teapot hosting this particular tempest is the savage critical reception accorded young John Keats by Blackwood’s and the Quarterly Review upon publication of his long poem Endymion in 1818.

Two indisputable facts follow here: 1) Keats was understandably bitter about this kind of ferocious critical response (and he was if anything more outraged at the suggestion that this was some kind of trial by fire, and that reviews of his future works would be correspondingly gentler), and 2) Keats died three years later, of consumption, in Rome. And since the very moment #2 happened, half the nincompoops in the Western world have been trying to prove #1 caused it. In this issue of the TLS, Barnard comes as close as a cautious soul could dare to joining the nincompoops.

Keats’ friends started the whole business almost as soon as he died, hinting and then outright saying the depression caused by bad reviews broke Keats, laid him open to the “decline” that eventually killed him. Lord Byron – never a big fan of Keats while Keats was alive, although a grudging but honest admirer after his death (Byron’s gracious responses were often tardy but never failed to appear) – told a friend that “poor John Keats died in Rome of the Quarterly Review” and inserted the famous line into Don Juan about Keats being “snuffed out by an article,” and the idea caught on. It’s the silliest damn thing going, and Barnard’s subject in this Commentary is Charles Cowden Clarke, a long-time intimate friend, cheerleader, and sometime-mentor to Keats.

In 1821, Clarke wrote a long letter to the Morning Chronicle describing how badly those negative reviews hurt young Keats’ feelings:

If it will be any gratification to Mr. Gifford [the dastardly reviewer, he assumed] to know how much he contributed to the discomfort of a generous mind, I can so far satisfy it by informing him, that Keats has lain awake through the whole night talking with sensative-bitterness of the unfair treatment he had experienced …

Twenty-five years later, Clarke (who was a good-natured if egotistical boob – a combination that can perhaps be gleaned by the fact that he had his doe-eyed amiable face painted smack-dab between Chaucer and Shakespeare) wrote up a formal memoir of Keats and published it in The Atlantic Monthly, but in this much earlier letter, Clarke describes Keats’ first meeting with the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon. Haydon asks Keats if he loves his country, and Clarke writes, “how the blood rushed to his cheeks and the tears to his eyes, at his energetic reply.”

Barnard takes that line and has an insinuation field-day with it, writing: “… Keats’s ardent patriotism, and the swiftness of his physical responses when emotionally aroused, are both well attested.”

Yes, but there’s a bit of difference between getting all gushy over love of England and up and dying because Blackwood’s hated your book. As Barnard himself reports, we have plenty of accounts that say Keats shrugged off his critical savaging fairly quickly – and his own letters testify eloquently to two facts: 1) he never stopped writing poetry, even during the worst of his critical reception, and 2) he never seems to have seriously doubted that his poetry would make his name immortal. The little tobacco addict was just about as tiny and epicene as an adult human being could physically be, but he was every bit as tough as Lord Byron (who often said that after his own early critical drubbing he drank three bottles of claret and got back to work) when it came down to it.

Clarke loved insinuating otherwise – that this brave young hart of his was drawn and bayed by savage book critics, those purveyors of “coarse pandarism to depraved appetites,” those launchers of “the torpedo touch,” those deployers of “the pikes and bayonets of literary mercenaries” – and it looks like John Barnard is willing to second him.

But I’m one of those literary mercenaries (and I am, on occasion, rather proud of my torpedo touch), and I say enough’s enough! It was plain old Mycobacterium tuberculosis that killed John Keats, who would otherwise have gone right on writing gorgeous poetry no matter what a hundred Quarterly Reviews had to say about it.

December 15th, 2009


Our book today is the slam-bang sci-fi novel Killer by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner. The book (an entirely successful outgrowth of an equally successful but substantially different short story by the same title) is set during the reign of the emperor Domitian and features the stoically heroic big game hunter Lycon, who has provided many an exotic beasts for the slaughter of the Roman games. Lycon has developed many contacts over the years, and the story opens when one of them shows him a weird animal found by some natives in Numidia in the rubble after a mountaintop exploded. The creature in question is man-shaped, with tough scaly blue skin and razor-sharp claws, and all the other animals in the caravan hate it instinctively.

Drake and Wagner are old hands at crafting expert sci-fi thrillers; they set to work immediately playing on the delicious narrative tension that arises from the fact that we understand right away that the creature is from another planet, whereas Lycon and his associates can’t possibly think that and so spend the bulk of the novel simply to trying to comprehend how such an animal could exist in the world. The creature is cunning and at least human-smart, and it quickly escapes and begins to create havoc. Lycon pursues it with a pack of enormous dogs, and the results are sadly predictable:

Lycon was less than a hundred yards from the hedge, when the blue-scaled lizard-ape vaulted over the thorny barrier with an acrobat’s grace. It writhed through the air, and one needle-clawed hand slashed out – tearing the throat from the nearest Molossian before the dog was fully aware of its presence. The lizard-ape bounced to the earth like a cat, as the last two snarling hounds sprang for it together. Spinning and slashing as it ducked under and away, the thing was literally a blur of motion. Deadly motion. Neither hound completed its leap, as lethal talons tore and gutted – slew with nightmarish precision.

Lycon skidded to a stop on the muddy field. He did not need to glance behind him to know he was alone with the beast. Its eyes glowed in the sunset as it turned from the butchered dogs and stared at its pursuer.

In the course of the pursuit that follows, Lycon gains the help of a mysterious “native” who conceals secrets just as otherworldly as those of the blue-skinned man-ape, and the hunt quickly goes from desperate to gruesome, as the hunters find an old associate hanging from the rafters of the creature’s latest lair, his goo-encased body serving as an unwilling incubator:

Smiler’s throat convulsed. Then his lips moved and spewed not words but blue-shimmering larvae the size of men’s fingers – dozens of them, gouting up to flop onto the wood and writhe on vestigial legs toward the man who had just approached. Blood sprayed from Smiler’s lips and throat together as the entire substance of his body seemed to convulse and give way to pass more of the things that had just hatched within his living flesh.

Killer takes the premises of Alien and Predator, shakes them vigorously, and transports them two thousand years into the past. The pace of the action never slows down for a moment, and the neat little trick the authors (both of whom are lifelong unapologetic advocates of the neat little trick) pull off at the very end will have you smiling for days. David Drake went on from Killer to overwrite severely – he’s still a first-rate craftsman, but the best thing he could possibly do for that craft would be to summarily kill off every single character in all of his ongoing series, take a solid year off from all writing of any kind, then take a solid year to write – really write – one self-contained novel that will have no sequels. It would sweep the sci-fi awards if he did, you mark my words.

And if Killer prompts even a few of you to hunt around and explore the gritty, dark fictional worlds of Karl Edward Wagner, so much the better. A fat new collection of his work – with a fittingly badass new cover illustration – would be a fine thing indeed. Fortunately, in the meantime, we have this novel – in which both of them are clearly having a whale of a time.

December 11th, 2009

God Knows

Our book today is Joseph Heller’s 1984 novel about the Biblical King David, God Knows – and it serves as yet another illustration of one of literature’s odd quirks: how often writers are best known and longest remembered for books other than their masterpieces. Examples multiply like toadstools, especially in the undiscriminating 20th century, where Anthony Burgess is linked instantly to A Clockwork Orange but not Earthly Powers, William Golding is known for Lord of the Flies and not The Spire, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is so well known its title is a term in dictionaries, while God Knows languishes in comparative obscurity. You can never tell what will catch the zeitgeist, but once it’s caught, it sticks like fly paper.

And of course it’s a shame in this case. God Knows is David’s life story narrated by himself, and throughout Heller uses a historical novel trick that originated in the 20th century heyday of historical fiction: piercing the novel’s equivalent of TV’s ‘fourth wall’ – David knows he’s writing a book for the 20th century, knows all about his enormous statue in Florence (and doesn’t approve of it), knows the contents of the Bible and is cockily certain he has the best story in the Table of Contents – it’s a story that has everything, including the bitter dispute at the heart of the book:

I’ve got a love story and a sex story, with the same woman no less, and both are great, and I’ve got this ongoing, open-ended Mexican standoff with God, even though He might now be dead.Whether God is dead or not hardly matters, for we would use Him no differently anyway. He owes me an apology, but God won’t budge so I won’t budge. I have my faults, God knows, and I may even be among the first to admit them,but to this very day I know in my bones that I’m a much better person than He is.

David isn’t speaking to God (and vice versa) because as punishment for David’s transgression with the wife of Uriah the Hittite, God kills the baby Bathsheba had just borne to David – and David can’t reconcile the wanton, capricious, nonsensical cruelty of it. God Knows is a very funny book, fast-paced and firmly tongue-in-cheek most of the time; but it has a tragedy of stunning simplicity threading through its entire length, as David grapples with the weird nature of the God he used to consider a friend:

I know if I were God and possessed His powers, I would sooner obliterate the world I had created than allow any child of mine to be killed in it, for any reason whatsoever. I would have given my own life to save my baby’s, or even to spare Absalom. But maybe that’s because I am Jewish, and God is not.

All the familiar stories of King David are here, and all the familiar characters, from Goliath to Saul to Bathsheba to Jonathan to Solomon, all rendered with sharp sardonic humor and a depth of insight that exceeds anything else Heller ever wrote. There are wisecracks everywhere, of course – most of them deadpanning on Jewish culture:

Boy, did we have laws – laws governing everything. Before I gave up, I counted six hundred and thirteen commandments, which I found a remarkably large number for a society with a language that had no written vowels and a total vocabulary of only eighty-eight words, of which seventeen can be defined as synonyms for God.

And through David, we get fast-paced and delightfully demystified scenes from all over the Hebrew Bible, including several featuring the guy who really does have the best story in the book:

“I’ll kill them all,” He roared to Moses. “You think I’m joking? How much more do you think I’m going to be provoked by these people and do nothing? How many more signs do I have to show them before they begin to believe? I did it before, once with flood and once with fire and brimstone. Stand back, Moses.”

“Can’t we reason together?” Moses began trying earnestly to deter Him, emphasizing that God would become a laughingstock to the Egyptians for destroying His chosen people after taking them so far and promising them so much. “… they will say we were killed because You were unable to lead us in, not because we were unable to follow. They will believe You failed, not us.”

“All right,” relented God, who did not want to become a laughingstock in Egypt. But He aimed His thumb over His shoulder in a jerking motion and commanded, “Start walking. Hit the road.”

This is a far more powerful, mature, and questing novel than the somewhat slight farces that make up so much of Heller’s work, and at the heart of its many inquiries is an unflinching study of the many ways the father-son relationship can turn tragic. Of David’s own father we hear almost nothing, but the book probes the depths of his bonds with his two great father-figures, King Saul and God, both of which present almost bewildering complexities (David’s own sons fare no better – the book’s characterization of Solomon is very funny and not very nice). And likewise Heller’s facility with giving his novel’s great endings (a skill that has all but vanished from practitioners of the craft in the 21st century) is at its strongest here – the final paragraph of God Knows will knock you flat, and the book’s final sentence is quietly stunning.

I’m pretty sure you can walk into your nearest Barnes & Noble and buy a new copy of God Knows (the high tide of Catch-22 floats almost all the rest of Heller’s boats), and you should. And of course if you’d rather not, I’m happy to send you a copy, with my whole-hearted recommendation.

December 7th, 2009

Modern American Usage!

Our book today is Wilson Follett’s toweringly smug, irresistibly arrogant 1966 classic Modern American Usage, a wonderful echo and amplification of H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage – only retooled for a different continent and enhanced with twenty to thirty-five percent more snark.

I usually avoid proscriptive grammar books like this one for two reasons, both of which, alas, are on full display in Follett: first, it’s virtually impossible for them to avoid petty pedantry, and that can get a bit wearisome. Due to the sheer wattage of intelligences guiding this particular book, the ‘petty’ part is considerably muted, but oh, the pedantry still shows up! Take one little example among many, about the familiar sign “Trespassers will be prosecuted”:

It may be pardonable pedantry to point out that criminal trespass, which might justify prosecution, has been abolished nearly everywhere. Trespass now gives warrant only for a civil suit. Ergo, all the stout trees bearing the familiar notice are unconstitutional and should be relabeled: Trespassers will be sued.

The second reason is more complex (pedantry at least can be funny)(as readers of Stevereads may have cause to know!) – proscription is inherently wrong-headed. It seeks to set in stone what is actually the most liquid of all human inventions: language. No matter how great a stickler you are for having things the way you like them (or the way you were taught them), language will not freeze. The most useful thing any concerned language-watcher can do is gamely chart the changes, not stand in the doorway insisting on the proper use of the plu perfect. Since Follett (et al) perforce believe in the Platonic ideal of an unchanging perfect usage, parts of Modern American Usage read like time capsules – no less interesting for that, but certainly less accurate. Here’s a bit on connotations:

Some words and phrases of great import tend to acquire through literary or vernacular use a particular meaning or force that is at odds with the literal meaning. As a result, the purpose that such words and phrases can serve becomes limited, and these limitations can be thoroughly learned only by close listening or extensive reading; frequent repetition is needed to impress the exact scope and intention on the mind. People who use these expressions in their literal meaning, as though tradition had not done its work upon them, mislead at least some of their audience.

Thus, to have words with someone does not mean to exchange chitchat but to quarrel; to a degree means to a very high degree and not to a certain extent (to an extent, by the way, is not yet an idiom in formal English) …

Half a century later, to an extent (and much more so to a certain extent) certainly is an idiom in formal English (to the very, very limited extent such a thing as formal English still exists at all), and to a degree has slipped back from that ‘very high’ status it apparently once enjoyed and is today once again a strong qualifier. And since nobody can foresee or prevent such shifts, building fenceposts before them will inevitably fail.

But the reason to read – and treasure – Modern American Usage is, paradoxically, that very certainty. Because when this book knows it’s right, it really knows it’s right, and the results can be enormously bracing. Here you will (finally!) learn the difference between a Foreward, an Introduction, and a Preface, and here you will find a thousand inconsequential details nailed down for all eternity in the following utterly delightful manner:

It is apparently easy to confuse the idea of inclusion with that of identity. Witness this assertion: Some of the 30 or more scientific and technical disciplines which this vigorous research-based organization is applying in its pioneering effort include [a list of eighteen items]. The whole thirty, of course, include the eighteen; but some of the thirty are the eighteen named. The writer incurred the usual consequence of trying to say something in two ways at once; he started by restricting his subject to a part of itself, but chose a verb that can go only with the unrestricted subject.

There’s something wonderfully instructive about reading prose that sharp, that clearly-written, and that sure of its own sense. In that way it can honestly be said that reading Modern American Usage will make you a better writer. And the editors can’t be faulted for their soaring passion for the importance of language. In their own preface/introduction/foreward, that passion is fully expressed (with a couple of side-orders of backhanded sexism and condescension, of course):

The poorly taught, the foreign-born, the ambitious young aiming at the professions, the unassuming men of business, the mothers whose minds are not given over to total permissiveness in child-rearing – each individual for his own good reasons struggles over dimly felt obstacles to make his meaning clear. He or she may seek help in the “Words” column of the monthly magazine or in the headier manual of usage, but all hope to find somewhere the way to better means of self-expression. The professional writer, of course, is concerned not with what is allowable or defensible, but rather what is good enough to need no defense. From the common root of their desires the artist and the user of language for practical ends share an obligation to preserve against confusion and dissipation the powers that over the centuries the mother tongue has acquired. It is a duty to maintain the continuity of speech that makes the thought of our ancestors easily understood, to conquer Babel every day against the illiterate and the heedless, and to resist the pernicious and lulling dogma that in language – contrary to what obtains in all other human affairs – whatever is is right and doing nothing is for the best.

Any book that opens with rhetoric that grand is surely worth reading. Unless it’s Hitler’s book, of course. Hence the trickiness of proscriptive writing, and its oddball allure.