Posts from December 2010

December 27th, 2010

Honor Roll, 2010!

Even so, 700-something is a big number. As vituperative and well-meaning as these ‘Top 10′-style lists are, they can only cover so much ground – a great many titles I loved in 2010 are inevitably left out. I read a small pile of paperback romance novels, for instance, and an equally-big pile of murder mysteries. This was a very good year for military history, and a very bad year for Star Trek fiction – and I read a lot of both. Even with both Stevereads and Open Letters Monthly as regular outlets, there’s just no way to cover it all while still tending to my basset hound full-time. So just like last year, I’m offering these few additional books as a Stevereads Honor Roll – they’re all really really good, they all deserve your money and your attention!

Fiction

Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz – this panoramic novel about a handsome young working-class Jewish boy from Philadelphia and his rise to the heady world of Manhattan’s moneyed elite is remarkable for many things, but what struck me most was its texture – it’s one of those fictional narratives stretched over many decades that really conveys a sense of the time passing in the story. The main character is by far the most interesting part of the novel, but even so the story wouldn’t get far without Pomerantz’s sure-footed knowledge of what makes a good story. I was disappointed that more people didn’t try this book.


Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari – Two feckless Americans decide to take a side-trip to Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge and encounter a trio of Japanese schoolgirls who’ve likewise taken a side-trip away from their visiting school group. When they go missing, this slim, vastly readable debut novel takes off. Ritari’s characters are all memorable individuals, even the students in all their vapidity. The point of view shifts all throughout the novel, but Ritari’s control of what he’s doing is never in doubt, and the climax of the thing is refreshingly well-0rchestrated.

King, Ship and Sword by Dewey Lambdin – Ive praised Lambdin’s ongoing chronicle of the adventures of his rascally main character Alan Lewrie before (maybe even here at Stevereads – I’ll have to check), and it’s no slight to this slam-bang thrill-ride of a novel to say it’s no different from its predecessors. Peace has broken out between England and France, which throws Captain Lewrie on his own considerable resources for a while, but the plot’s twists and turns are twisted one extra time when the war resumes and Lewrie is given a fighting command. Thrills abound, and they’re all the more delectable since Lewrie shares none of Hornblower’s honor nor Jack Aubrey’s scruples.

The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman – this dark fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy, for no discernible reason) owes more than a few debts to Gene Wolfe – and repays them amply by being so grabbingly good on its own merits. It’s the story of 16-year-old Cale and his friends, who escape from the grim Sanctuary of the Keepers and find themselves embroiled in the ferment of a coming war. The action sequences are low-key and memorably intense, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting more. I thought this was a fairly weak year for fantasy and science fiction, but I’m fairly certain this novel would have stood out even in a strong year.

Nonfiction

Nesting Season by Bernd Heinrich – Any book by this author is a cause for celebration, and this one follows the splendid pattern he himself established with such classics as Ravens in Winter. This is a long, personal, fact-filled, utterly captivating study of the mating and nesting habits of birds, and woven throughout its many examples is Heinrich’s valiant call for a change in the way we think about the wildlife we study, a questioning of whether or not the strident anti-anthropomorphizing stance of a century ago is all that wise or does all that much justice to the commonality of living things.

The Lost Peace by Robert Dallek – This was one of the most thought-provoking works of history I read this year, a book bursting with new readings of familiar events in postwar 20th century. Dallek’s fascinating insights into how virtually all the world leaders blundered into the aftermath of the Second World War certainly wouldn’t play as a Tom Hanks movie: it’s his contention that the best chances the world had for lasting peace were squandered by Western powers hell-bent on fighting the war they’d just won. Again, I was disappointed by how little attention readers paid.  Every serious student of history should read this book.

Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott – The apocalyptic Battle of the Somme, with tens of thousands of casualties happening in a single afternoon, has long been a used as a symbol of war’s utter futility and waste. Philpott challenges that characterization – holding that the Somme, however bloody, deserves to be remembered as a victory for the Allied powers – and he does it in the best way a historian can: with masterfully assembled facts and a very winning prose style. Books on the Somme are incredibly numerous, but Philpott here has managed a rarity: he’s written one that’s indispensable.

Habeas Corpus by Paul Halliday – I’m a big fan of legal history and constitutional scholarship, but to put it mildly, this book towers over its competition. As an examination of its core principle – that people accused of crimes have a basic legal right not to resist simply disappearing under the weight of those charges – this book is the best of its kind ever done, but its merits go well beyond that. The crystalline quality of Halliday’s prose sneaks up on you, and the quiet work he’s done to make his prodigious research amicably readable is everywhere apparent. This is the kind of magnum opus most authors deliver only once in their careers – I’m hoping that isn’t the case here! I enjoyed this book far too much for it to be one of a kind!

Teen Fiction

As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins – a breezy and quite funny episodic account of 16-year-old Ry’s various misadventures on his way to camp, this is a spirited teen version of life being one damn thing after another.

A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker – the improbably-named Walker crafts a wonderful, warmly inclusive story out of those dumb fake-marriage exercises that used to be popular in some high school civics courses. She has the requisite spunky heroine, cool jock, and unlikely romantic interest, but she infuses it all with a more palpable tinge of nostalgia than you usually find in teen novels. It’s a winning combination.

Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride – Main character Sam is an ordinary young college drop-out killing time and hanging out with his friends when one day he learns that he has the potential to be a Necromancer, a sordid class of sorcerer capable of communing with the dead.  Sam is no happier about this revelation than are Seattle’s other Necromancers, and a fast-paced, funny, and ultimately oddly charming plot quickly develops. I expected the titillation and teen-speak (although I didn’t see either done better in 2010 than here), but what surprised me about this book was its fine ear for the various meanings of friendship. Much like its main character, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer has some interesting depths underneath its too-cool-for-school exterior.

Great Moment in Comics
And we’ll end things with a bang here as Stevereads signs off for 2010! The best payoff scene for me in any comic this year happened at the conclusion of Marvel’s violent, problematic, and ultimately kinda-sorta uplifting mini-series “Siege.” Some of you will know the story behind this moment: psychopath Norman Osborn, decked out in super-powered armor and calling himself “Iron Patriot,” has finagled his way into control of S.H.I.E.L.D., the US government’s most powerful covert paramilitary organization. And after months in control, Osborn’s old megalomania has begun to reassert itself, and he’s decided to dispense with that ‘covert’ part of his job description in the most dramatic way imaginable: by leading an armed assault on the mystical city of Asgard, which at the moment is hovering over Broxton, Oklahoma (it’s a long story, of course). Osborn leads his super-powered shock troops in an all-out attack, and the city is defended not only by a whole mead-hall of ticked of Norse gods but also by Thor and the Avengers.

The fight seems to be going badly for the good guys when suddenly one of Osborn’s lieutenants warns him to look up. He does, and somehow artist Oliver Coipel manages to work arrogance into the inexpressive lines of  “Iron Patriot”‘s armor. At first, we see nothing:

Then in a delightful quick sequence of panels, we see what’s coming: the best, most satisfying reinforcement the good guys could ever get:

Watching that sequence unfold, you just known that when Captain America’s shield finally hits its target, Norman Osborn’s reign of terror in the Marvel Universe is about to come to an end.

Another thing coming to an end this time around (though hopefully not a reign of terror! Ulp … walked right into that one, didn’t I?) is Stevereads for 2010, but I couldn’t sign off without extending my thanks once again to my dear darling colleagues at Open Letters Monthly for giving the autobiography of my reading a new home on the Internet, to all my readers far and near, and to all the dogged members of the Silent Majority who let me know that despite the bleak and empty wasteland of my Comments fields, my play here is read and appreciated. 2010 was an extremely odd and awful year for me – sudden and prolonged homelessness will take the starch out of anybody’s collar – and I can honestly say Stevereads played a big part in keeping me tethered to the dock. And that was because of you readers – so my deepest thanks. See you all on the other side.



December 26th, 2010

Recap, 2010!

Worst Fiction 2010:

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport – Cathleen Schine

9. The Scent of Rain and Lightning – Nancy Pickard

8. How to Read the Air – Dinaw Mengestu

7. Hester – Paula Reed

6. All That Follows – Jim Crace

5. The Instructions –Adam Levin

4. The Privileges – Jonathan Dee

3. The Four Fingers of Doom – Rick Moody

2. The Passage – Justin Cronin

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Worst Nonfiction, 2010:

10. The War Lovers – Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise – James Bradley

9. Washington – Ron Chernow

8. You Are Not a Gadget – Jaron Lanier

7. Reality Hunger – David Shields

6. George Eliot in Love – Brenda Maddox

5. Hitch-22 – Christopher Hitchens/Life –Keith Richards

4. The Last Boy – Jane Leavy/The Last Hero – Howard Bryant

3. Between Two Worlds – Roxanna Saberi/Porait of a Drug Addict as a Young Man –Bill Clegg

2. Courage and Consequence – Karl Rove/Crisis & Command – Johh Yoo

1. Decision Points – George W. Bush

Best Fiction, 2010:

10. Witz –Joshua Cohen

9. You Lost Me There – Rosecrans Baldwin

8. Calendar of Regrets – Lance Olsen

7. Skippy Dies – Paul Murray

6. Easy for You – Shannan Rouss

5. Eddie Signwriter – Adam Schwartzman

4. Eight White Nights – Andre Aciman

3. Under the Small Lights – John Cotter

2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe – Frances Hunter

1. The Unnamed – Joshua Ferris

Best Nonfiction, 2010:

10 Denys Wortman’s New York

9. Dickinson – Helen Vendler

8. Ratification – Pauline Maier

7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years – Diarmaid Macullough

6. The Book in the Renaissance – Andrew Pettegee

5. Cleopatra – Stacy Schiff

4. Americans in Paris – Charles Glass

3. American Caesars – Nigel Hamilton

2. Lost Dogs – Jim Gorant

1. The Emperor of All Maladies – Siddhartha Mukherjee

 

December 23rd, 2010

Best Nonfiction, 2010!

Of course you all know where I stand: I have a very large, very roomy space in my heart reserved for nonfiction, so I’ve left Best Nonfiction of 2010 for last. This, too, was a crowded field – I read 97 works of military history alone this year, for instance. Books on every time period came to me, books on a host of historical figures major and very minor, books on trends, ideas, technology, science, nature, computers, business, gardening, and a dozen other things. And in all cases my criteria were unchanging – and stricter here than anywhere.

Nowhere is the insufficiency of mere Wiki-writing more evident and more merciless than in the writing of fact-based nonfiction, and these writers all seemed to know that; they went well beyond the staked borders of their topics and delivered of themselves as well, or delivered their subjects with much-needed clarity. I recommend all the wonderful books here in the ‘Best of’ section of our year-end roundup, but I recommend these particular books with just a sliver more enthusiasm than the rest.

10. Denys Wortman’s New York – The great artists who did their work quickly, under deadline, to supply the exploding periodical market of the early 20th century have never been given their due. Retrospectives on big advertising names like J. C. Leyendecker have made moves in the right direction, but of the men working in quick pencil-strokes to capture the zeitgeist, the book-buying public has seen comparatively little. This magnificent volume honoring the enormously talented Denys Wortman would thus be a cause for joy even if Wortman’s work weren’t so great. Luckily, it is – in scene after scene, he perfectly captures a now entirely vanished world of stoops and water-towers and fire escapes and an endless array of people, and he limns it all with a gentle, knowing humor. The reproduction quality here allows every minute decision of Wortman’s to be scrutinized and enjoyed, and that’s all the more amazing since he seems never to have made a bad one.

9. Dickinson by Helen Vendler – It’s a match made on Olympus: one of America’s greatest 19th century poets, a crafter of dreamily jagged verse badly in need of explication, gets a whole book’s worth of explication from one of the world’s greatest poetry critics. It’s signature Vendler work: she pours over the poems line by line, word by word, lavishing as much care and attention as the poet did herself (perhaps more? I’ve long had the impression that she found significances in Keats that he himself didn’t see) and yielding a multi-faceted reading richer and more rewarding than any Dickinson has ever had. If I had my way, Vendler would live forever and do a volume like this on every major poet in the world’s canon.

8. Ratification by Pauline Maier – In a book-market sludged to the eyeballs with sticky Founding Fathers pap, how refreshing it is to read this long, satisfying book about the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution, written (the book, not the Constitution! Our author isn’t quite that old!) by our greatest authority on the American Revolution. Bracing complexity is everywhere on display in this invigorating book, Meier’s best, and when you’re done reading it, you’re struck by how marvellously unlikely it is that the process worked at all. Many books have dealt with this subject, but none nearly so well as this one.

7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid Macullough – As far as opuses go, they don’t get much more magnum than this (included on a technicality because I read it this year!). Macullough tackles the whole incredible breadth of his subject with the gusto of a twenty-something graduate on his first book-contract trip to the Widener, and the result is a work of massive scholarship that’s nonetheless immediately approachable an even occasionally lighthearted (not an easy feat when dealing with a religion as soul-crushing and bloody as this one). I’ve had the stomach to read only four comprehensive histories of Christianity in my life, and this one is the only one of its caliber in English and may well be the best one ever written in any language. Certainly the wit, the perspective, and the erudition expended here are worlds better than their subject deserves.

6. The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegee – The modern reading world, caught in the revolution of the digital marketplace, is closer to the world Pettegee so spiritedly excavates than any previous era. Then, as now, established formats of books were under assault from a variety of new technologies and viewpoints, and then, as now, the universe of the written word seemed to be expanding in all directions faster than readers could adapt. Pettegee shows that they of course ultimately did adapt (he fills his pages with lively descriptions of all the geniuses, hucksters, and misfits who did the adapting); in addition to this book being first-rate history, it’s also quite accidentally (or is it an accident?) encouraging.

5. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff – How much more clearly can the paramount importance of execution be demonstrated than in Schiff’s fantastic biography of Cleopatra, a subject who’s received, by a conservative estimate, one million previous biographies? The facts of the last Egyptian queen’s life are well-trod – and yet Schiff makes it all feel new and fresh, almost solely through the sparkle and vigor of her prose. There’s a thought-provoking re-evaluation on virtually every page of this book, and the whole of it is about as entertaining as ancient history gets.

4. Americans in Paris by Charles Glass – This book matches a great subject – the thousands of Americans who for one reason or another were trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris for the duration of the Second World War – with a really talented writer of nonfiction, and the result is an absorbing examination of what incredible daily pressure does to people, how it forces them to be sometimes completely different from their usual selves, or sometimes heavily concentrated versions of themselves. Again, many previous books have covered this subject – but none so thoroughly, or with such a good ear for yarns.

3. American Caesars by Nigel Hamilton – The simplest temptation with this book would have been to treat it only as a high-spirited hoot: a modern version of Suetionius’ “Twelve Caesars,” substituting postwar American presidents for Roman emperors but keeping most of Suetonius’ angles and obsessions. And that level of entertainment is here in abundance (this is the most enjoyable book on American presidents you’re ever likely to read), but Hamilton delivers more than that, a surprisingly more passionate, heartfelt book, very much including his mandarin assessment of George W. Bush.

2. Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant – Really, this is probably the only worthy book anybody could write about the whole story of unrepentant coward and asshole Michael Vick’s dog-torturing ring – it’s the story of the dogs who survived and thrived with loving families, and it’s the story of those families, heroically patient and giving, who opened their homes and hearts in an effort to heal these dogs Vick had ordered tortured and fought. Reading this book isn’t quite as satisfying as would be reading a morning news report of Vick’s sudden and violent death, but it’s the next best thing.

1. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee – In the celebrated tradition of Zinzner’s Rats, Lice, and History, but at once grander in scope and more empathetic in tone, Mukherjee’s ‘biography’ of cancer utilizes dozens of patient profiles and interviews to shape a full-scale portrait of this most personal and devastating of all families of illness. The author’s dogged research and fieldwork is matched by the earnest grace of his prose. The combination creates a book of remarkable power and pathos, the single best work of nonfiction I read in 2010.

December 22nd, 2010

Best Fiction, 2010!

If cynicism was the besetting sin of the Worst Books of 2010, we’re all the more fortunate that cynicism has a counterpart in literature as well as life. The counterpart, of course, is truth, and just as a novel born of calculation and greed can never be anything but a weak little lie, so too a novel forged of faith, a work of fiction born of the author’s best groping attempts to be true – to their own heart while writing, to the world as they see it or would like to see it, even to their neuroses – is the only thing that stands a chance of being truly great.

I read a great many novels in 2010 – far more than I usually do. The world of self-published work blossomed open for me this year to an extent hundreds of times greater than last year. When I add to that all the mainstream novels I read, all the online fan fiction I read, and the handful of manuscripts I was privileged to see, I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that my reading now encompasses all of fiction out there being written in English. I see all kinds of it, and I work hard to maintain that spring in the mental knees, that openness that readers of fiction need. The genre has conventions, after all, and as pusillanimous critics have been pointing out for nearly 400 years, those conventions are very nearly as narrow as a sonnet’s. Things must happen, they must mean something to each other, and they must work together to move the reader. If they don’t, the book is no good. If they don’t because the author considers himself too smart to worry about it, the author is no good.

No, these are common  conventions here, and they are gloriously relevant to human life, and the writers who take them seriously and excel at their manipulation can look upon ‘open-form’ avant-garde poseurs with well-earned pity. This is the game as Chaucer played it, and Cervantes, and Fielding and all the other immortals we read today, and it’s in the mastering of the game that they became immortal. Mark my words: the names here listed have a clear, certain shot at that immortality, if they don’t weaken. Some of these novels are more stylistically challenging than others, but that’s not a disqualification. I myself helped in the making of two of them, but that’s not a disqualification either – good is still good, and all these books are very, very good.

10. Witz by Joshua Cohen – Some of you were surprised that I would so enjoy Cohen’s massive, discursive novel about the Last Jew in the World, especially since on some levels (its non-stop riffing, its intentionally bratty prose, its length) it appears to resemble Adam Levin’s The Instructions, which I hated (indeed, Cohen himself wryly pointed out the similarities in a review of Levin’s book). As stated, though, the execution is everything, and Cohen’s work here is everything The Instructions could only dream of being: smart, controlled, thoughtful, and genuinely funny. This is about as bitterly wry a minority as I’ve read in fifteen years.

9. You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin – The first of the explosively good debut novels on our list, Baldwin’s story is an elegant double helix in the nature of The GoldBug Variations: middle-aged flailing memory researcher Victor Aaron is confronted after his wife’s death with a series of index cards she wrote about their life together – descriptions that are tauntingly different from his own recollections. Even the book’s occasional flaws are not born of arrogance or timidity, and the strengths are freakishly strong.

8. Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen – A tangled and gorgeous John Cage symphony of a novel, Olsen’s book is a virtuoso interweaving of twelve separate narratives, done much in the manner of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas but without that book’s occasionally empty grandstanding. This is another one of those novels most people would assume I wouldn’t like, until they actually read it.

7. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray – Like Witz, this is a genuinely funny novel that will make you laugh out loud at the least appropriate things – in this case starting with the single funniest death-scene since Hamlet’s. The novel is set in an all-boys Catholic prep school (in Dublin), and as a parolee from just such an institution (in America), I was perhaps destined to love this book, but the acid-yet-tender writing would have guaranteed it anyway.

6. Easy For You by Shannan Rouss – This assured, very well-written debut story collection is everything I should hate: it’s completely contemporary (it’s set in, ecch, L.A.), it’s entirely domestic (pregnancies, infidelities, divorces, etc), and it’s a story collection instead of a novel. But none of that matters in the face of prose this good and narrative this intelligent. I was surprised and wholly captivated.

5. Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman – This riveting story of a murder, an exile, and an eventual reunion has a cipher at its heart (the eponymous main character), and you’d imagine that would be fatal, but no: again, this is a fiction debut (the author is a published poet) that knows what it’s doing with a certainty and beauty that sweeps all objections away. This story of a young man who flees Africa with a cloud hanging over him could easily have turned maudlin in less talented hands, but instead it’s spellbinding.

4. Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman – Even Aciman’s wondrously good Call Me By Your Name was no preparation for the sheer heft of this story of two affected young New Yorkers in love. There are huge swaths of brilliant prose here, some of the best evocations of love’s deliriums to be written in the last hundred years.

3. Under the Small Lights by John Cotter – The pitch-perfect dialogue and fine descriptive brush-strokes of this debut novella (the author is a published poet) are only its two strongest recommendations., This story of four affluent, feckless Connecticut young people in love and lust also brims with the kind of interlinear intelligence worthy of Burgess and a handful of walk-on characters worthy of Horton Foote.

2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter – As a sage critic at the Historical Novels Review Online wrote of this frontier story of Meriwether Lewis, “The characters here leap off the page, vibrantly living their lives, reading their books, worrying their worries, and the end result is nothing less than wonderful. Urgently, wholeheartedly recommended.”

1. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris – This second novel by Ferris – the haunting story of a man who’s occasionally compelled (by a disease? by a mania? nobody knows for sure) to walk and keep walking until he physically collapses – is a pure demonstration of the American can-do spirit. Not that the American can-do spirit has much to do with The Unnamed (although Ferris’ portrait of his main character’s desperately coping family is the best thing in the book), but it has everything to do with the open-mindedness of Stevereads, where an author whose debut was featured one year on the Year’s Worst could later feature on the Year’s Best solely by dint of writing a ferociously good novel. Is there similar hope for the wretched creatures on this year’s Worst list? Tune in next year to find out!

December 21st, 2010

Worst Nonfiction, 2010!

If cynicism was the underpinning animus of the Worst Fiction of 2010, it was the emblazoned fife and snare drum coronation anthem of the Worst Nonfiction. I’ve been reading books a long time now, and I can’t remember a lineup of nonfiction this bad since the 1970s. Not bad in terms of literary quality, although ye gods, would it have killed these people to run their flyblown manuscripts past a copy editor, or even a desperate English major who’d perform rudimentary sentence touch-ups for tobacco-money? But no, the rot runs deeper than shoddy execution; each of these books is not only shoddy in its conception but outright mendacious. And lest you reply that all texts ar to some extent fabrications, let’s be clear: I’m talking about a much worse kind of mendacity than just hope-nobody-catches-me lying. These books are brazenly lying, telling their blasphemies in bloomers, just openly daring the gullible reading public to point out the emperor’s new soiled shorts. And these, also, were eye-opening for me: until this year’s blasphemies, I wasn’t fully aware of how merciful I’d been to all the previous years’ blasphemies, how trusting I’d been in the face of what now, in retrospect, were obvious, bold-faced lies. Shamefully late in life, I’ve learned the truth of the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

10. The War Lovers by Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise by James Bradley – We’ll start with simple mendacity, then, and work our way down to the cold bit of truly unholy cynicism. 2010 saw two more-or-less coordinated attacks on the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, part of a cynical publishing strategy to always be saying something controversial about some pillar of American history, or to appear to be (see the last four books by Gary Wills, or P. J. O’Rourke on Adam Smith). The gist of these two crappy books is the same: that TR was a racist, a fraud, and a war-monger. The more serious offender of the two is Bradley’s execrable hatchet-job, which lays the blame for pretty much every subsequent 20th century ill at Roosevelt’s feet, mostly on the basis of poorly-read sources and flimsy conjecture. Thomas’ book is scarcely better; both ultimately find TR, at most, of being a man of his time. his reputation is too great to worry about such flea-bites, but they still irritate me.

9. Washington by Ron Chernow – This big block of hagiography is more mystifying than something like Evans or Bradley, where the writers intentionally obscure the facts that deny their theories; Chernow actually supplies those facts, over and over, all throughout the course of his book – and simply doesn’t seem to care that he’s drawing all the wrong conclusions. He goes into his mammoth task determined to like – to venerate – his subject, and that’s exactly what he does, right in time for the holiday book-buying season. It’s the black reverse of what historians are supposed to do, which makes its inevitable National Book Award all the more depressing.

8. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier – Referring to the brief rash of ‘manifesto’s that broke out in 2010, a wise critic commented that the manifesto itself is good, that it naturally propagates thought and response. This is certainly true, but it only applies if the manifesto-writer actually believes what he’s professing. If their manifestos are put-up jobs designed to sell books, then the only thing propagated is self-aggrandizing deceit. Hence, another vile phenomenon of 2010: the shamifesto. Prime case in point: Lanier, a computer pioneer and one of the architects of virtual reality, in 2010 produced a shamifesto about how the pre-packaged categories of the Internet are cramping the inner lives of the people who habitually use them. Lanier knows this is a silly straw man – the people who use heavily-packaged templates like Facebook or Twitter also laugh over those limitations – he’s just barking about it in his book to get attention. The essence of the shamifesto isn’t simply that the author doesn’t believe his own screed, however – it’s that he believes exactly the opposite; Lanier has fourteen working computers in his home, plus a footlocker full of gadgets. Physician, shut thyself up.

7. Reality Hunger by David Shields – This book is yet another shamifesto, every bit as fraudulent as Lanier’s but far more craven. Shields’ book is a plagiarist’s commonplace arguing that the traditional structures of fiction – plot, dialogue, Aristotle’s unities, etc. – ar all utterly, pathetically useless and false, and like Lanier, he himself doesn’t believe a word of what he’s writing. But his motivation isn’t only to sell books – it’s also to justify his own abject laziness. The traditional novel is no more useless and false than the sonnet or the groined vault or the no-hitter – it just takes discipline, work, and talent to do it it well, and who wants to bother with that when moronic mud-slinging is so much easier?

6. George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox – With friends like these, feminism sure as hell doesn’t need enemies. Maddox takes readers on a shallow, Cliffs-notes tour of George Eliot’s life and works (the latter tour being particularly listless – I actually expected her to mention “man’s inhumanity to man”) and works in sixty different insinuating laments that her subject wasn’t prettier. Instead of completely ignoring the question of physical appearance like she should have done (and would have done, if her subject had been, say, Tolstoy), Maddox returns to it repeatedly, turning the life of the 19th century’s greatest novelist into a reality TV show in which the plain girl ends up being kinda interesting. Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.

5. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens/Life by Keith Richards – The dogmatic egotism with which Hitchens narrates this airbrushed version of his own life – a string of money-fishing deadlines and crapulous mornings-after paraded like the Labors of Hercules – is exceeded by the arrogance of Richards – the drug-addict #2 man of a rock band, for Pete’s sake – since at least Hitchens wrote his own book – and remembers his own life. Not so Richards, who’s surely put his name to the longest amnesiac’s reconstruction ever written. In both cases, smoking, drinking, and whoring is elevated to a life’s vocation and then larded with intimations of depth, and in both cases, the authors come off looking more than a little ridiculous. It was an exceptionally poor year for autobiographies, but these two would have stood out in any year for the stinkers they are.

4. Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy by Jane Leavy/“Henry” Aaron: The Last Hero by Howard Bryant – This gambit has by now become familiar as baby-boomers approach retirement, reflect on how embarrassing they were in the 1970s, how evil they were in the 1980s, and how into “Friends” they were in the 1990s. They crave legacies, even ones not their own, because they secretly suspect themselves of being a failed generation of whining underachievers. It’s this fauxstalgia that animates virtually all current histories or biographies that have the word ‘last’ in their title, and these two books are especially bad cases-in-point. Bryant’s phony elevation of his subject is obvious even in his sanctimonious book’s title, which solemnly rejects a nickname that’s known from here to the Carpathians – readers would be within their rights to ask ‘who the hell is Henry Aaron? Is he related to Hank Aaron, the baseball player?’ And the embarrassingly starstruck Leavy’s book is even worse, cranking the fauxstalgia engine to such a pitch that readers are encouraged to overlook how unpleasant Mantle could be and often was, especially after he stopped being a ‘boy.’ As with Thomas, Bradely, Chernow, and Maddox, so too here: this is not what historians are supposed to do. Those who forget the past are doomed to sugar-coat it in time for Father’s Day.

3. Between Two Worlds by Roxanna Saberi/Portrait of a Young Man as a Drug Addict by Bill Clegg – Here’s where that ‘too good to be true’ adage comes in, but I’ll make up for lost time by all the more adamantly adhering to the literary equivalent: from now on, if somebody’s memoir has all the drama, suspense, dialogue, and pat happy endings of fiction, that’s because it is fiction. In fact, the whole sub-genre deserves its own mocking distinction: the memnoir. And the guilty phenomenon that spawned it comes from outside the book-world entirely: ten years’ of ‘reality’ TV have created in countless thousands of people a ravenous hunger for quick-bought fame and fortune that renders them nothing less than functionally insane (before he wrote his own memnoir, publishing’s Saint Dave Eggers wrote an incredibly long and passionate plea to be a participant on “The Real World”). The problem is that James Frey’s Million Little Pieces debacle proved the dangers inherent in simply fabricating your own memnoir, but this hardly impeded the insane for a moment: if fabricating wild, exotic, dangerous acts was troublesome, these writers wouldn’t fabricate anything – they’d just do those wild, exotic, dangerous things. But since all these fame-whores are also cowards, they made certain their acts were ultimately either livable or entirely revocable. Even while they were writing about hitting ‘rock bottom,’ somewhere in their back-pack or sock-drawer was a phone number, a lifeline to a lawyer, a parent, a UN delegate. In every case, that back-door was triple-checked before the guilty parties took off, ready to risk their bodies and their time in order to emerge with a book deal, a string of speaking engagements, and a James Franco movie. And since those things – and the material comfort they provide – were always the point, the experiences themselves are rendered the most insulting dumb-show imaginable. Saberi got herself arrested and imprisoned in Iran (“I knew it was illegal to write a book about life under the dictatorship,” wide-eyed blink, wide-eyed blink, “but I never dreamed it was illegal to research such a book. In public. With a tape recorder.”), spent a couple of months in confinement while the US government, the UN, and the United Federation of Planets worked around the clock to free her, and then had the shameless gall to write a self-serving book about her ‘ordeal’ while all her fellow-prisoners continue to serve their life-sentences without benefit of Connecticut legal services. She provoked her own arrest – she went to Iran specifically, insanely, to roll the dice and hope they came up ‘book deal,’ and, noxiously, it worked. Same thing with Clegg, who ‘descended’ into crack addiction before opening that sock drawer and making his do-over phone call, and who did it all so he could have a book deal and watch Emil Hirsch play him in the movie. The memnoir’s chief sin is its degradation of the very concept of truth, its validation of insane self-centeredness, and these were by far the worst offenders in 2010. Both these attractive young authors deserve the same thing: for the ‘ordeals’ they so blithely wrote about to actually happen to them, without the magic back-door escape.

2. Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove/Crisis and Command by John Yoo – It’s almost the very depth of cynicism, you’re almost there, to parade your own evil under the banner of doing what you thought was right – to know you were doing evil and gamble that ‘I was doing what I thought was right’ will fool most of the people most of the time. It wouldn’t be cynicism if you really believed it, but neither Rove nor Yoo has had a real belief unconnected with personal avarice in many decades. Only a step less loathsome than tyranny are those careful intellectual men who seek to justify tyranny, to itself and the world, as these two filthy books so brashly attempt. Rove is the architect of all that is rotten in 21st century American politics – the proud re-creator of a type of Tammany political viciousness that annihilates all nuance and debate and wants to. And Yoo is the Grima Wormtongue who squirts delusions of godhood into authority’s ear merely so that he himself gets to be authority’s footstool. These books share the same black heartbeat: that doing anything at all to your enemies – even the things that made them your enemies, especially those things – is somehow now the cost of doing business, that lies are honorable and might makes right and that all of this is a sign of real-world adulthood, of seeing things like they are. The fact that both Rove and Yoo are writing these books as free men only shows that they are the beneficiaries of far more legal lenience than they ever recommended for others. Both books are nonetheless criminal testimonies.

1. Decision Points by George W. Bush – This is it, then, the cold bottom of cynicism, a presidential memnoir. This is a petty, stupid man who never wanted the presidency for anything more than bragging rights spinning the most cruel work of fauxstalgia imaginable. The alternate reality is a great American story: an ordinary man, a screw-up in life, hits rock bottom, turns his life around through the love of a good woman and the light of a renewed spiritual faith, and arrives at his Presidential destiny just at the dark moment when his country needs him most. There isn’t a single person in the world who doesn’t wish they’d lived in that alternate reality for eight years, who doesn’t dream of how different the world would be if that alternate reality had somehow happened. And the thing that makes this book not only the worst work of nonfiction in 2010 but also hands-down the worst book of any kind so far written in the 21st century is heartbreakingly simple: it’s spoken in the voice of that alternate history and wants us to believe it really happened. This is a final insult of such an exquisite devastation that only an imbecile could wreak it.

December 20th, 2010

Worst Fiction, 2010!

It would be audacious to offer a common link for so many works conceived in so many different environments over so many years, and yet offer it I do! I read a great deal of fiction in 2010 and watched with keen interest as some books succeeded and others failed. I sifted not only matter but motive, and during my Nightmare Summer of Homelessness, I became extra-sensitive to scams and phony sincerity, as street people must. And once I gained the provisional shelter of the crude lean-to where I currently live, I found those newly-sharpened instincts a great help when scanning the New Fiction shelves at the Boston Public Library. Authors will always give you their motivations for writing – “I guess I’m just a simple storyteller,” or “my characters demanded life,” or some such clap-trap, and no doubt there are tiny little germs in their books that actually interest them.

But this year an animus was as obvious as it was distasteful., Virtually every offender on this list was born of a calculating cynicism of such staggering self-absorption as to provoke homicidal rage. Not ‘what do I feel?’ but ‘what kind of deal?’ prompted these monstrosities, but the real irritant is the arrogance of ‘you’ll take what I give you, and you’ll have the reactions I dictate.’ Not one of these novels is sincere, but worse: each one of them, in their own way, mocks sincerity with a bland hatefulness that can only be achieved by authors who’ve already been paid.

So here they are, the worst of the very bad! As in Dante’s Inferno, we’ll arduously ascend to the very bottom (or something like that):

10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine – Admitting up front that this wretched novel partially owes its place here on the list to the faults of others in no way lessens its own copious faults, nor does alluding to the book’s own Dark Predecessor. It’s true that Schine herself is not responsible for the embarrassing glut of Jane Austen pastiches choking the market these days, but she is responsible for all her own book’s hackneyed dialogue and coarsely-orchestrated feel-good moments. And she’s certainly guilty of hoping the same thing all the other Austen-defilers hope: that some of Jane’s wit and insight will automatically attach to any book that parodies or imitates her, even a book as bad as this one. Hoping doesn’t make it so, and that ought to be the final nail in the coffin of all such books, but we better not expect it. And there’s also the aforementioned Dark Predecessor: Schine’s The Love Letter was not only a viciously cynical, lazy, and horrible scrap of trash, but it also stands as yet untoppled as the Single Worst Novel Ever Written – only with no Internet back then for me to say it, just lots of ranting snail-mail letters to long-suffering friends. The enormous sin of that earlier book is a heavy burden to bear, but The Three Weissmanns of Westport commits plenty of sins of its own and dares its readers not to count them, and that would have earned it a spot on the list anyway.

9. How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu – It’s a neat little irony that Mengestu’s thin, meager novel is mostly about the many and multi-layered lies African ex-pats tell almost compulsively, and this book is a very good example of how a work of fiction can also be a sustained lie. African ex-pat Jonas Wondemarium (that surname wouldn’t be significant, would it? geez) is the alleged center of this book’s many trite stories, but the real point here is the novel’s unspoken but deafening proclamation: “I, the author, am an African ex-pat! I am a cottage industry! No matter what garbage I serve up, you must call it ‘a searing examination of exile and community’ in the New York Times!’ If the author’s name were Daniel Miller, this novel would have been called an idiotic, farcical bit of laziness. But the book-world is enamored of the exotic and will venerate any old crap as long as it carried a rifle across the veldt when it was eight.

8. The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard – You know you’re in trouble when an author feels the need to pack not one but two cliched abstractions into the book’s very title, as if she just can’t wait to set about the task of boring her readers. Some ineffable logic dictated that this book couldn’t be called The Scent of Rain or The Scent of Lightning, and that same logic governs every page of this tired, lazily-written story about an old murder, a new trial, and a conflicted family forced to confront What Really Happened That Night. Every character here is a cardboard stock-type out of some tepid Bonanza re-run, except there’s no Hop Sing to make saucy insults on his way back to the kitchen.

7. Hester by Paula Reed – Nathaniel Hawthorne should count his blessings it’s Jane Austen getting all that pastiche attention and not himself, if this ridiculous ‘sequel’ to The Scarlet Letter is any indication of the bullet he dodged. Hester Prynne, telepath. You have been warned.

6. All That Follows by Jim Crace – The standard line here in condemning a putrid little squib like this from an internationally-regarded novelist like Crace would be to say “how are the mighty fallen” or “a rare misstep” – but that standard line would be wrong, since Crace has been egregiously over-estimated since the moment he first set pen to paper. No, the correct response when writing about this flaccid story of sad sack Leonard Lessing (not Moring but Lessing, get it?), a wannabe radical tyrannized by the women in his life, is “more of the same.” Crace has always thought it acceptable to waste the readers’ time (and money) with pointless, meandering digressions on any little subject that happens to be fascinating him at the moment he sat down to his computer. As a result, his stack of tellingly slender novels are as stinky and insubstantial as a rack of farts. This novel, like his previous two, doesn’t even bother to conclude – it just appears, offends, and vaguely dissipates.

5. The Privileges by Jonathan Dee – Also criminally overrated, Dee turns in a lazy, cliched novel about money-grubbing power couple Adam and Cynthia Morey (not Lessy but Morey, get it?) and their messed-up kids and their glamorous lifestyle and their maniacal greed and Adam’s risky investment practices and the inevitable etc. etc. Not one sentence of this novel is energetic; not one paragraph was profitably revised, not one ounce of heart is present throughout this whole exercise of socially-relevant ‘topical’ fiction reduced to the mindless driving of cap-and-piston.

4. The Instructions by Adam Levin – Take a young author who hasn’t stopped writing shit since he was 12 years old, include every single uncrafted bit of journal-keeping about every single subject that has ever passed through that author’s head, create a crassly-manipulative shred of a plot starring not only a disillusioned young boy but a Jewish disillusioned young boy, take the resultant 1000-page disgustingly self-indulgent manuscript to a publisher who encourages such blockhead prolixity instead of scorning it, and you have The Instructions by first (and very much hopefully last) time author Adam Levin, here channeling David Foster Wallace and producing a book very nearly as awful as all those by his Dark Master.

3. The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody – Much like the tripartite godhead, the three books that comprise our Dark Trinity of the Worst Novels of 2010 are really one novel, and yet three separate faces of cynicism. And as with most expressions of cynicism, the core quality is contempt for the audience. This kind of evil, uninformed cynicism has achieved the state of considering the reading public to be contemptible stooges, sheep who’ll nibble on any rotten lettuce presented to them. how these three authors must have chuckled at their monuments of mockery were bought and talked about! How they must have smirked at a press so willing to play their game! And in some ways – although not the most important ones – Rick Moody’s opus of obscurity is the worst of the three, an act of open hostility against his readers. His hack writer protagonist Montese Crandall is introduced, mocked as an ineffectual C-lister, and then handed the book, as if Moody were saying “Let’s both of us – me and you readers – sit back and marvel at how bad this all is.” But what he’s really saying is, “These totally unconnected things – Mexican wrestling, baseball cards, etc. – momentarily interested me, and this was the first idea I had of how to string them all together; I didn’t try any harder because I’ve already cashed my check.” Moody has famously been called the worst writer of his generation; he provides ample evidence for this in The Four Fingers of Death.

2. The Passage by Justin Cronin – The cynicism informing this hackneyed, overwritten pile of poop is naked opportunism trying its damndest to disguise itself in New Yorker affectations. Cronin’s overlong post-apocalyptic story of lab-spawned ‘viral’ vampires and the people who fight and flee them has been ecstatically praised by both the publishing industry and the critics (most embarrassingly Dan Chaon). Its publication made Cronin a multi-millionaire, launched a thousand book-group discussions, and ensured Dakota Fanning a future Oscar – and all he had to do to achieve all this was sell his literary soul on the open market and then lie his face off about it in a million fawning interviews. A post-apocalyptic monster was indeed born out of a laboratory here – the lab was the 1980s, the Apocalypse happened this summer, and now, for the next forty years, It walks among us.

1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – The cynicism of our Worst Novel of 2010 is the God the Father of such evil, The Great Author. Franzen’s oily, unsmiling acceptance of this horrific honorific is not the least of his many sins, and his arrogance is by far the worst part of Freedom, a big fat speeding ticket of a novel that’s as long as it is bland, as strident as it is dull, and as stilted as it is silly. The plot of this mess (allegedly a satire on new-yuppie over-achievers but really a cringing apologia for them, issued by one of their own) hardly matters; what matters is the wing-back chair, the leather elbow-patches, the straight-faced evocation of ‘semiotics’ and ‘subtexts,’ the swampy, impenetrable dullness of the thing. Franzen’s kind of cynicism is the worst of them all, the presumption of entree into the literary pantheon. On his worst day, Raymond Chandler could write the pants off this pompous clown, but half a million pretentious book-buyers can’t be wrong.

December 18th, 2010

Best and Worst!

Despite the much-ballyhoo’d defeat of books at the hands of electronic gadgets, and despite the much-ballyhoo’d sloth of the general reading public (one book a year? Come on, people! That’s not even trying!), 2010 saw the usual torrent of titles pour off the presses – books in an endless array, almost infinitely augmented by the burgeoning self-publishing market. Far, far more books than anybody can actually read, even me. But the key isn’t the reading, it’s the sorting, and trust me, I’m a very good book-sorter. When confronted with a vast, heaped-high canvas tub full of books – let’s sat that represents the publishing world’s output in English in 2010 – the first thing you need in order to make any headway is a finely-honed instinct for the noteworthy stuff, good or bad. But the next most important thing you need is a muscular, heartless, instantaneous capacity to sort, to plunge into that heaped tub and hurl books to the left of you and books to the right of you, to see, snap, and shovel, to allow an almost super-tactile sensitivity to guide you when discarding instantly about ninety-five percent of it all.

The ultimate litmus test is – has to be – boredom. If a book is only its table of contents, no table of contents can save it: for good or evil, the execution is everything. The explosion of self-published novels has removed even the slightest shred of merit in merely plotting a story, and the pervasiveness of Wikipedia has removed even the slightest shred of merit in merely assembling facts – now more than ever, only the writers who do more than that (regardless of how well or poorly they do it) are worth any attention at all. In the great, grinding, mechanical threshing and sorting of a tub full of books, it’s only those writers who are worth a pause and a second look.

I dove into that tub in 2010, as I try to do every year. To date in 2010 I’ve read 703 books (that total will likely exceed 215 by year’s end), almost a personal best for me. And in 2010 a greater percentage of those were new books than in any previous year (I did less of my beloved re-reading than ever in my life, because I simply didn’t have the spare time) – new and self-published works of fiction, history, biography, natural history, politics, sociology, literary criticism, science fiction, mystery, romance (Paul Marron-related and otherwise!), theology, and even a little philosophy and poetry. I read young adult novels, graphic novels, teen novels, experimental novels, ‘alternate’ histories, crackpot conspiracy theories, political diatribes – and I considered all of it when tabulating our annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung. The only things I’m excluding from contention among the things I read all year long are dissertations, manuscripts, and all works in languages other than English (fortunately, you’ve all got Scott Esposito to keep an eye on the foreign stuff!). In that way only is the following not actually representative: I read plenty of stuff in 2010 that I knew perfectly well would never be up for possible inclusion here – either positive or negative. Because I routinely fail my own litmus test: I read far more boring books than I should, even after I know they’re boring and should throw them at the nearest basset hound. My curiosity far too often gets the best of me.

As always, I put that curiosity – and the many excruciating reading hours it provoked – at your disposal at this time of year! I often call Stevereads the autobiography of my reading, but it’s also true that I usually leave my reviews of new and current books for Open Letters, concentrating instead here on all the miscellaneous old wonders of my various bookshelves. At this time of year I open Stevereads up to the publishers’ lists and tell you about some of the current reading I do (no Gerald of Wales in any of the upcoming lists!).

So I hope you enjoy. The playwright Aeschylus tells us we must suffer, suffer into truth, so we’ll have to slog our way through the bad to get to the good. We’ll start next time with the Worst Fiction of 2010!

December 15th, 2010

Silent on the Moor!

Our book today is Deanna Raybourn’s stylish 2009 murder mystery, Silent on the Moor, the third novel starring the entirely amateur sleuth Lady Julia Grey, her enormous aristocratic family, and her Heathcliffean partner in crime detection, Nicholas Brisbane. The series started off with Silent in the Grave in 2007 (in which Lady Julia’s husband drops down dead very obligingly on page 1) and continued with Silent in the Sanctuary in 2008, so readers might be wary of picking up this third volume without a quick trip to the Boston Public Library for the first two. But one of the marks of a really good murder mysteries series is its approachability, and Raybourn manages very well the tricky feat of both inviting new readers and rewarding old fans. That trick is a hell of a lot tougher than it looks (it certainly goes well beyond what can be covered in a ‘What Has Gone Before’ summary at the beginning of later volumes) – it’s almost wholly dependent on the author having a crack cadre of first-readers who see the manuscript and catch the oversights before the eager world looks on. Past a certain point, of course, no preventative in the world can help – the later volumes of most long-running mystery series often devolve into a weird, barely-connected series of in-jokes and talisman-phrases aimed specifically at the people who’ve been buying and reading the books for 50 years. Characters will look at each other, smile meaningfully, and say “Artichokes!” – and there’ll be gales of laughter from long-time fans, although the text will be blockaded in kabbalistic obscurity for any first-time reader.

Readers of the Julia Grey novels will therefore be divided in their hopes: on the one hand, they’ll want that kind of rut to be avoided, but on the other hand, they’ll want the series to continue that long. I’m divided just that way myself: I acknowledge that it would be unbelievable for Lady Julia and sexy Brisbane to have even a couple more life-threatening adventures (with all due respect to Amelia Peabody and her sexy husband, whose propensity for ripping entirely out of his shirts is well matched by Brisbane), but as long as Raybourn can keep serving up such delectably enjoyable novels as this one, I kind of want her to keep doing it.

At the beginning of Silent on the Moor, Lady Julia determines to accompany her sister Portia to Grimsgrave Hall in the furthest reaches of mist-swathed Yorkshire. Portia has received a very tentative invitation from Brisbane, who’s recently come into possession of the Hall, and Lady Julia wants to go along because she’s tormented by the inconclusive way she and Brisbane left off their relationship. She’s in love with him, and she’s convinced he’s in love with her (a conviction not shared by her large and opinionated family), and so the two set off – with servants, pets (including a quite unfairly maligned pug), and, serving very unwillingly as their chaperon, their younger brother Valerius. After traveling to what seems like the end of the world, they reach Grimsgrave Hall and meet the Allenby women who, until the death of the last male heir, were the Hall’s mistresses – and they meet Brisbane, who’s the new lord of the manor and seems almost crazed by pressures about which he’s initially reluctant to speak a word.

One of the many charms of this series is the easy way Raybourn alludes to Lady Julia’s exalted status in her Victorian society; the family has manors, titles, and an endless supply of money, and no great fuss is ever made about it (there’s a rumor going about the Internet that Raybourn isn’t even English – that she’s not only American but Texan – but given the sureness with which she conveys 19th century British landed aristocracy, that surely can’t be true; judging by her name, I’m pegging her as minor Scottish nobility). The sisters can be casual about matters beyond the reach of most families:

“I poked about the public rooms earlier,” I confessed, coming to sit beside her. “Did you see the tapestry? All those little stitched crowns?”

Portia nodded, her expression faraway. “They are a bit ancestor-mad, I think.”

“But why? I mean, we’ve had kings and queens perched in the family tree, and we do not go about putting it on the walls for everyone to see.”

“Because we have never lost it,” Portia pointed out patiently. “The Allenbys haven’t been royal since the time of Canute. Do I mean Canute? Was he Saxon?”

“Danish, I think,” It was difficult to remember. We had had several governesses, none with a very firm grasp of history.

Portia shook her head. “In any event, the Allenbys probably lost everything except their royal blood when the Normans came in and upset the apple cart. They’ve no grand titles. They are marooned out here like Robinson Crusoe and Friday, with no proper company and a house that is threatening to fall down over their heads at any moment. Is it any wonder they cling to what little prestige they once had? If nothing else it gives them something to lord over the neighbours.”

Silent on the Moor is the first of these novels I’ve read in which the bubbling sub-plot of sexual tension between Lady Julia and Brisbane is almost bumped off the page: it’s Portia who most strongly fascinates here – Portia who’s using the freedom of her well-financed widowhood to share her house with another woman in defiance of society (the book isn’t two pages old before she’s referring to that woman as ‘the love of my life’ to her imperious older brother). It’s not that Lady Julia isn’t sympathetically portrayed – when poison and murder make their appearance at Grimsgrave Hall, she rises to the occasion in ways that will be immensely pleasing to all mystery readers, new to this series or not. But there’s a well-worn quality to her sparrings and jarrings with Brisbane – as well-executed as they are, we’ve seen them before. Less so Portia, and there are times in this novel when most readers will want the focus to stay on the supporting player.

Still, it’s Lady Julia’s show, and there’s great description and some very skilled tension-building and a blissfully satisfying ending, and these things are hardly to be sneezed at! I heartily recommend all three books for those of you who like your whodunits and your Burke’s Peerage well mixed!

December 13th, 2010

The Wages of Destruction!

Our book today is Adam Tooze’s 2006 The Wages of Destruction. It’s subtitled “The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy,” and it’s an astounding work that’s rendered all the more remarkable by the fact that it should have bored me cross-eyed. Tooze has delved deep into the financial records and business accords of Germany in the first half of the 20th century, and his book is replete with tables and graphs, nor is he a man afraid to raise the unholy specter of tariff revisions. Fortunately, he’s got an ear for serious historical narrative (this book is, blessedly, about as far away from the ‘102 Amazing Things You Thought You Knew About WWII – But Didn’t!!!’ school of history-writing as it’s possible to be) and a compelling way with marshaling and presenting all that research he did, or I’d have been stonewalled after about two pages.

He also has a curiosity about bigger questions, including the biggest question of ’em all when it comes to Nazi Germany: how was it possible? How was it possible that a country known for its culture and hospitality could become the nest of one of the most evil states in history? Like virtually every other major historian of the time, Tooze refuses to state (or perhaps even to believe) the glaringly obvious explanation – but that serves his purposes anyway, since he’s mainly concerned with the very practical side of that question: not how was it possible, spiritually and philosophically, but how was in possible, practically and financially? How did the Nazis pay for it all, and what can that tell us about their history? Tooze is convinced the question of money holds the key to many other questions besides:

For it is only by re-examining the economic underpinnings of the Third Reich, by focusing on questions of land, food and labour that we can fully get to grips with the breathtaking process of cumulative radicalization that found its most extraordinary manifestation in the Holocaust.

And he’s not only convinced of this – he’s convincing. Reading this fantastic book is like inhaling a gust of cold fresh air, clarifying so much and making you realize just how many WWII histories you’ve read that ended up being mainly one more colossal re-run of tanks, marching troops, the fog of war, Churchill’s bulldog tenacity, and the race for Berlin. It’s always invigorating when a really talented historian shakes up some comfortable narrative by looking at it from a new perspective, and Tooze does that throughout his book. He wants to know how the Great Depression fits into it all, how the economic policies of the National Socialists were received in all levels of German society, and abroad – along the way providing a much-needed reminder that the early 1930s were very tricky years for anybody to assume control of a nation, even if that ‘anybody’ was a gang of ruthless, evil thugs:

It was this contrast between domestic authoritarianism and international ‘liberalism’ that defined the ambiguous position in which German business found itself in 1933. On the one hand, Hitler’s government brought German businessmen closer towards realizing their domestic agenda than ever before. By the end of 1934 the Third Reich had imposed a state of popular pacification that had not existed in Germany since the beginning of the industrial era in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the disintegration of the world economy and the increasingly protectionist drift of German politics was profoundly at odds with the commercial interests of much of the German business community.

Naturally, Hitler steps onto the stage almost immediately and never leaves it, and you’d think that might hamper Tooze in the pursuit of his subject. But to the extent that he agrees with some big names in the field by insinuating that economics relies more on personalities than most people think, it turns out to be no hindrance at all. Hitler was no economist, but until he completely lost his mind, he had some pretty uncanny instincts for survival – and Tooze charts these shifts and twists very adroitly:

If Hitler had wanted war on 1 October 1938, he could have had it. The French and the British had reached the point at which they could make no further concessions. The armies of France and the Soviet Union had mobilized. The Royal Navy stood at full alert. On 29 September 1938 it was Hitler who stepped back not his opponents, and there is no better explanation for this abrupt change of course than the sheer weight of evidence, argument and pressure that had been brought to bear on him over the previous weeks … Nobody could accuse either Goering or Mussolini of opposing war on principle. But neither wanted to risk a war against Britain and France in 1938. Furthermore, if Hitler abstained from open military aggression, the British and the French were clearly willing to give him virtually anything he might ask for. Reluctantly, Hitler backed down and accepted the extraordinarily generous settlement on offer at the hastily convened conference in Munich. In doing so, he almost certainly saved his regime from disaster.

Tooze naturally comes to some epic conclusions in the course of his book – one of the most bracingly fascinating things about The Wages of Destruction is how brave it is in making those big statements, and yet how shrewd (WWII wunderkind Niall Ferguson knows all about the big statement part, for instance, but he could learn a thing or two from this book about the shrewdness). Our author isn’t willing to say that World War II was the war to end all wars, but he makes an interesting case that one of its aftermaths was “its demonstration of the futility of war as a means of great power politics.” I read that first with outraged denial, but it stuck with me, and I like it when challenging ideas stick with me. Plenty of historians declare that the Second World War changed the very nature of the world, but I’ve never read the particularly limiting nature of that change put better:

The apocalyptic temptation of militarism was largely exorcized from Europe. Its dying embers flared up only occasionally in the rearguard actions of empire. but with it also went any aspiration to the ‘freedom’ once implied by great power status. As early as the autumn of 1943, after the Battle of Kursk, the United States ha realized that the dominant power over Europe for the foreseeable future would be the Soviet Union, not Britain, let alone France.

It’s a mark of how good this book is that the above quote – and many more gems just like it – are actually far afield from its central topic; that prodigality of insight is the mark of a master at work, and it’s one of the main reasons I so regularly re-read this book. There’s a shelf of truly landmark WWII histories – it’s about 55 books long, and The Wages of Destruction belongs on it.

December 13th, 2010

Oblomov!

Our book today is Ivan Goncharov’s irrepressible masterpiece, Oblomov, specifically the sparkling 2008 Yale University Press translation made by Marian Schwartz, which so serenely replaces all previous English translations that they must quietly fade from consideration, even though one of them is a … gulp … Penguin Classic.

It’s possible the story will be familiar, even though the book has never really enjoyed the wide-scale popularity of relatively contemporaneous works by Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: young aristocrat Ilya Ilich Oblomov moves – very slowly – from his day-couch to his bed and back, virtually never leaving his townhouse, virtually never entertaining or writing or doing much of anything. He’s looked after by his crusty servant Zakhar, who’s perpetually astounded at the vast resourcefulness of his master’s sloth:

Zakhar peeked through the crack [to Oblomov’s study, where his master had resolved to go and write]. What on earth? Ilya Ilich was lying on his sofa, his head resting in his palm, and before him lay his book. Zakhar opened the door.

“What, lying down again?” he asked.

“Don’t bother me. Can’t you see I’m reading!” Oblomov blurted out.

“It’s time to get washed and write,” said a tenacious Zakhar.

“Yes, indeed, it is time,” Ilya Ilich woke up. “You go for now. I’m going to think.”

“When was it he managed to lie down again?” grumbled Zakhar, jumping on the stove. “He’s quick!”

And he’s harangued regularly by his brisk friend Stolz:

“For God’s sake, Ilya!” said Stolz, casting an amazed look at Oblomov. “What do you do? You’re like a lump of dough rolled into a ball and lying there.”

“It’s true, Andrei, just like a lump,” responded Oblomov sadly.

“Do you think your awareness of the fact is any excuse?”

“No, it’s just an answer to what you said. I’m not trying to excuse myself,” noted Oblomov with a sigh.

“You have to pull yourself out of this daydreaming.”

“I tried before, but I failed, and now … why should I? Nothing excites me, my heart doesn’t long for anything, and my mind keeps sleeping peacefully!” he concluded with almost imperceptible sadness. “Enough about that. Why don’t you tell me where you’re coming from now?”

“Kiev. I’m going abroad in a couple of weeks. You should go, too.”

“Fine, if you like,” decided Oblomov.

“All right, sit down and write a request, and tomorrow you can hand it in.”

“It can wait until tomorrow!”

Stolz wonders at one point if his friend is simply “too lazy to live,” but he loves him all the same, as does Zakhar, and, in the novel’s wonderful turn, so does Olga, a spirited young woman who finally brings that longed-for excitement to Oblomov’s heart. For the span of a hundred breathless pages, she believes she can change our sedentary hero, and more tragically, he believes it too. Even in a literature as thickly populated with memorable, three-dimensional female characters (something that could hardly be said about American or even most English fiction during the same period), Olga is a magnificent creation – and all her fiery qualities are of course thrown into greater contrast every time she shares a scene with her phlegmatic beau. When he tells her he’s sorry, she snorts, “Children say they’re sorry, or people when they step on someone’s foot in a crowd. But ‘I’m sorry’ won’t help here,” and when she begins to realize how hopeless her intentions are, her arias become almost unbearably heartbreaking:

“Why is it impossible?” she asked. “You say I’m ‘mistaken, I’ll fall in love with someone else,’ and sometimes I think you will simply stop loving me. What then? How can I justify what I’m doing now? If not people or society, what will I tell myself? Sometimes I can’t sleep because of this, but I have not tormented you with my conjectures about the future because I believe in something better. For me, the happiness outweighs the fear. I’m worth something when your eyes sparkle because of me, when you search me out, scrambling up hills, when you forget your idleness and rush after me through the heat, to town for a bouquet or a book, when I see that I’m making you smile and desire life. I have been waiting and searching for one thing, happiness, and I believe I have found it. If I’m wrong, if it’s true that I’m going to mourn my mistake, at least here” – she put her hand over her heart – “I feel I’m not to blame; it means fate did not intend this, God did not grant it. But I’m not afraid of my future tears. I will mourn, but not in vain. I did buy something with them. I felt so good … before!”

Schwartz has chosen to translate the 1862 version of the novel, noting that Goncharov made substantial changes to the version that first appeared in installments in a Russian periodical in 1859. Such a choice can make a reader leery – authorial re-workings are so often ill-advised things, the ham-fisted tinkerings a writer does when he fails to realize that he’s become just another reader of his earlier work. But we’ve all seen examples of it working well (Peter Mathiessen’s Shadow Country springs to mind), and it’s impossible to argue with the results here.

Those results aren’t universally successful, of course – what translation can ever boast that? In the first quotation here, for instance, Scwartz can’t make excuses in her Introduction for something as awkward in her text as having a character jump on a stove, and in the second quotation, that ‘imperceptible’ clearly applies only to the audibility of what Oblomov says, not the strength with which he feels it. Likewise in the Introduction Schwartz says she struggled with how to translate the novel’s famous invention “Oblomovshchina,” a word Stolz invents to hint at everything that’s wrong with his friend. She rejects “Oblomovism” because “the English suffix “-ism” is neutral and encompasses all of Oblomov’s characteristics, good and bad alike, whereas the Russian suffix “-shchina” has exclusively negative implications.” She decides to surrender and just use “Oblomovshchina,” but English, too, has the kind of damning suffix she wants: “-itis.” “Oblomovitis” would work just fine the way she wants it to. But you know a translation is first-rate when the worst you can throw at it are such quibbles.

First-rate this rendition certainly is: for the first time, the full range of Goncharov’s talent is clear in English – not just his uncanny ability to evoke the maddening miasma of Oblomov’s existence but also his ability to save his main character from our ultimate dislike, indeed to make us love him just as much as those around him do. It’s been remarked that Oblomov is a perfect example of that rarest of rarities: an affectionate satire. That delicate balancing-act has never been done better than the job Schwartz has done here, but for the first time, everything else Goncharov does is equally visible, right down to his unapologetic instinct for low-key slapstick and very funny one-liners. Of all the half-dozen or so Oblomov‘s out there in English, this is the one to read.

It’s also the one to give to any Oblomov you happen to know, although nothing will come of it, alas.