Posts from December 2013
December 29th, 2013
Well, obviously our mighty Year’s Best – and Worst – Books cataclysm wraps up my book-blogging for 2013, but I couldn’t fade into the sunset for the next few days without extending my heartfelt thanks to all of you out there reading Stevereads, whether you’ve been checking in for a few months or a few years (and to those of you who’ve been following my new-book reviews over at the “Open Letters Weekly” annex of my beloved Open Letters Monthly). I’ve said from the beginning that I intend Stevereads to be the autobiography of my reading, and every year I’m a little bit more amazed at how unpredictable and rewarding that personal trek can be. I’m more glad than I can say to learn from your emails that it’s been rewarding for some of you as well.
I’ll be disappearing now in my own run-up to the turning of the year, but in 2014 I hope to be back and full of new book discoveries (and foragings in me darling Penny Press, of course) to share with all of you. As always, it’ll be my pleasure.
In the meantime, Happy New Year to all of you!
December 19th, 2013
The whole category of “nonfiction” is necessarily an evil enough hodge-podge (in bookstores, a special sneer is reserved for those customers clueless enough to come in asking for “the nonfiction section”), and I’m perfectly aware that some of the books on this list could migrate to other lists without too much cognitive dissonance. Nevertheless, the staying power of hodge-podges lies precisely in their usefulness, so “best” – and of course worst! – nonfiction remains, and in the course of 2013 it filled up fast! Here are the best ten books I didn’t feel quite comfortable categorizing as either history or biography:
10. The New New Testament by Hal Taussig (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) – The idea behind Taussig’s brilliantly thought-provoking new book is fairly simple, though radical: take a number of non-canonical early Christian texts (‘alternate’ gospels, letters, hymns of praise, etc., mostly derived from the Nag Hammadi trove of such documents uncovered in Egypt in 1945, although there are some wackier choices here too) and incorporate them into the canonical books of the New Testament, presenting the whole as a collection sanctified by philology rather than faith. The result is a book that belongs on the shelf of every reader – believer or otherwise – interested in the history of Christianity.
9. Stay, Illusion! by Simon Critchley & Jameison Webster (Pantheon) – Talk about ex-canonicity! This great, playful little book sits down with Shakespeare’s most-dissected play and not only dissects it all over again, coming to some shall we say novel conclusions (but since I’ve read an analysis in which a student, without a trace of irony, tried to make the case that Elsinore was a planet and Fortinbras was Palpatine, I’m game for anything), but also enlist toward that end a motley company of philosophers and even psychoanalysts. The book ends up being a kind of hilarious interpretative food-fight that had me re-thinking old assumptions about the play – and yearning to see it on the stage again.
8. The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo – I admit I groaned a little, Tudor fan though I am, at the prospect of reading yet another biography of Anne Boleyn, having read all the previous ones and having formed the strong impression that no new life of this woman will ever again be necessary. But Susan Bordo’s book is so much more than a biography – in fact, it’s really the only kind of book about Anne Boleyn that can be profitably written: not about the woman but about our perceptions of the woman down through the centuries. Anne has always been a particularly plastic figure, shaped to suit the times, and Bordo traces those many shapings with tremendously readable skill. You can read my full review here.
7. Last Night in the Viper Room by Gavin Edwards (HarperCollins) – Going into 2013, I’d have thought it exceedingly unlikely that an entertainment-industry book like this one could end up on this year-end list, not only because I’d have thought the death of a twentysomething actor twentysomething years ago would hold no interest but also because entertainment-industry books tend to be so bad. But Gavin Edwards’ Last Night in the Viper Room, about the life, career, drug addiction, and death of actor River Phoenix impressed me as no such book has done since Charles Cross’ 2001 Kurt Cobain book Heavier Than Heaven; it’s so effective in evoking the tightening borders of the addict’s world that when you finish it you’ll want to take a long walk or eat a salad. And its case for the importance of River Phoenix was so heartfelt it almost convinced me.
6. Ancient Israel by Robert Alter (W.W. Norton) – Happy the year when there’s a first-rate work of Biblical exegesis on my year-end list, so how much happier when there are two! In this thick, immensely satisfying volume with the hideously dull title (once again, all your publishing houses: my services are available at very reasonable rates), Alter continues his amazing work re-invigorating the entire Bible with fresh translations and thrilling analysis. You can read my full review here.
5. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics by Robert O’Kell (University of Toronto Press) – Never in a million years would I have thought a scholarly-literary study of the God-awful novels of Victorian Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli would be something I’d even feel particularly behooved to read, let alone include on this list, which just reminds me again that when you work hard to keep an open mind about books, you can never be sure where that mind will lead you. Robert O’Kell’s book is a wonder of literary scholarship, managing to make the always-fascinating Disraeli just that much more fascinating by exploring the psychodrama he was enacting in the aforementioned God-awful novels. You can read my full review here.
4. Give Me Everything You Have by James Lasdun (Macmillan) – The same steady, incremental piling-on of psychological layers that makes Lasdun’s novels such afflicting spasms of boredom here works the opposite effect: this account of how one obsessed former student is able to invade and almost completely disrupt his life starts out as a cautionary tale about the dark side of the always-connected Internet world but steadily deepens into something much more challenging. In these pages, Lasdun has the courage to doubt his own certainties about identity and accountability, and his prose is chillingly understated, implicitly underlining the fact that everything happening to the author in this book could happen to any of us.
3. Portrait Inside My Head by Philip Lopate (Simon & Schuster) – The more often I go back to this fantastic collection, the more astounded I am that it could find a major publisher in 2013. Lopate isn’t just a shrewd and insightful editor (whose big 1994 anthology The Art of the Personal Essay is one of the truly indispensable books of the 20th century), he’s also our single best living practitioner of the personal essay, but what use does the hyper-distracted universally-blogging modern age have for a pensive, meandering form perfected by the likes of Emerson and Hazlitt? Still, I’m extremely glad the book is here, even so: these perfectly-crafted pieces – some about Lopate’s Brooklyn childhood, others about his relationship with his family, and all about the quintessential quest to make sense of the essayist’s own self – are as good as the art-form gets.
2. On Poetry by Glyn Maxwell (Harvard University Press) – Glyn Maxwell’s slim distillation of years of teaching poetry is incredibly aphoristic, nimble, and oddly, playfully conservative or at least stern toward some of the more ridiculous affectations of modern versifiers, but this is not a hidebound book, far from it: this is a searchingly honest and personal examination of what poetry is, how it works, and (through the quasi-fictional device of showing a small group of students at work) how writers do it. It’s been over half a century since Kenneth Koch’s epic “Fresh Air” took the genre of poetry out for such a vigorous walk as Maxwell gives it here – it was long overdue.
1. Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong (Simon & Schuster) – Not just one entertainment-industry book this year, but two! And this second one, a day-by-day and sometimes moment-by-by moment account of the birth, wobbly adolescence, and life of a legendary TV comedy series, was the best general-nonfiction book I read in 2013. I myself loved “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and for a couple of moments at the beginning of reading Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s unlikely book, I worried that my fond memories were propping up feeble efforts. But no: this book is blazingly good, telling with thrilling dramatic skill the story of a group of strong-willed industry professionals coming together from hugely varied backgrounds in order to make a great show – slowly, gropingly figuring out what sorts of things would work and what wouldn’t … and experiencing the particular joy only acting troupes know when the grunt-work turns to magic. Nothing about the description of this book prepared me for the skill of its execution; if it hadn’t been shoved under my nose by a friend in the industry, I’d likely have ignored it. I’m really glad I didn’t.
December 18th, 2013
Fiction was remarkable in 2013 for the way it almost constantly awarded craft. This isn’t always the case; it frequently happens that raw, relatively untested talent – or drastically but well-controlled stylistic gambles – will propel a book into a firmament more typically occupied by older stars. But this year not only are many of the names on this list well-known, but – in a twist I find both mortifying and thrilling – many of them (and many on the Fiction Honor Roll) are authors I had to one extent or another already decided I hated with the fire of a thousand suns even back when many of you were still in swaddling clothes. If you’d told me in 1977, for instance, that Joyce Carol Oates would ever be on a list like this (written on a typewriter, then photocopied and mailed to my 37 bookish friends), I’d have proudly said “I’d no sooner include her on such a list than I’d exclude Thomas Pynchon!” So we live, and, with any luck, learn. The ten best novels of 2013, then:
10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – Yet another YA title! But I haven’t gone over to the BookTubing Dark Side quite yet: yes, Two Boys Kissing’s main plots center around the dating vicissitudes of teenagers, but two things elevate it far above most of its sub-genre: first, it isn’t written in that incredibly annoying hyper caffeinated faux-teenspeak that fills so, so many YA novels, and second, the narration of this story is done by a ghostly Greek chorus of adults – men who died of AIDS in the first flush of the disease’s US outbreak. I know I was supposed to be rooting for our spindly, listless heroes, but it was the haunting sentiments of that chorus that made the book so memorable for me. You can read my full review here.
9. The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas (Yale University Press) – In this beautiful and heartbreaking little fantasy, Rojas imagines the poet Federico Garcia Lorca in hell, reflecting on his tumultuous life and murder in 1936 at age 38. When he’s confronted with two older versions of himself from alternate realities in which he didn’t meet his gruesome end, the narrative loops and expands in ways translator Edith Grossman captures perfectly. This was the strangest novel I read in 2013 and one of the ones I find myself thinking about the most.
8. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins) – Joyce’s sprawling, surreal high-Gothic historical novel is set in turn-of-the-last-century Princeton and environs and features a large cast of real historical characters like Jack London, Mark Twain, and a beautifully, viciously-realized Woodrow Wilson, but although those things automatically intrigued me long before I read the book, they also made me wary: I’ve been burned by Oates’ mannered, self-enfatuated prose so many times before, after all. But this hugely ambitious novel, which reads like something from a writer in her mid-30s rather than her mid-70s, amazed me and kept right on amazing me to its final pages – proving almost to a certainty that I can’t ever be 100 percent certain who will and won’t show up on these lists.
7. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (Macmillan) – There’ve been times over the years when I thought I might be Wilton Barnhardt’s only faithful fan (certainly I often felt lie the only fan of his huge historical novel Gospel – I’ve actually never met another person who’s even so much as finished it), so the appearance of this hugely entertaining deep-fried Southern comedy of a book utterly delighted me, not only in its own right (virtually every scene is perfect, right down to the hilarious drink-swilling family-confrontation set-piece at the climx) but because I felt certain it would do what it in fact has done: draw a lot more attention to this fantastic writer.
6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown) – It feels almost strange to include on this list of mine a book that’s on everybody else’s list as well, and yet it happens a few times this year, and always for the same reason: even I must bow the head to stupendous books written by novelists at the peak of their powers (when I made this list back in 1902, I assure you I included The Wings of the Dove, even though I’d previously been no big fan of its hifalutin author). Donna Tartt’s two earlier novels made me eager for her new one, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the sheer controlled power of The Goldfinch (nor for its killer one-two punch of an ending, though I should have been). A perfect case of the critical chorus getting something right – will wonders never cease?
5. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) – “Controlled power” works equally well for this book too, Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful story of one brother absorbing the shockwaves of another brother’s life – in fact, the control here at first glance seems so cold as to be almost arctic, a Muriel Spark-like narrative trait I’d noticed before in Lahiri’s fiction but never to this great an extent. Thanks to her extraordinary storytelling ability, that reserved narrative voice actually enhanced the power of this novel, which I think I’m not alone in considering the finest thing she’s ever written.
4. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press) – Every time I read a book by him, I think: “How wonderful it is to have Percival Everett writing among us!” – and this book, too, (like so many on this list) is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s the story of a son visiting his father in a nursing home where the old man is writing the story of his son, and from that already-mischievous opening premise, the narrative tangles and twists upon itself as almost every story prisms back upon its alleged teller, but all circling back and back to an old man unhappy to be in a nursing home, and all of it told with such riveting skill that I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why Percival Everett isn’t a much better-known author.
3. Harvest by Jim Crace (Vintage) – Crace’s slim historical novel about a late-feudal English hamlet waking up to very unwelcome changes to its way of life misfired with me the first time I read it. But I kept thinking about it, and when I returned to it and slackened my reading tensions to let it work on me at its own pace, I saw its strange, heartfelt beauty – and its sly power, achieved more through accretion than drama, very similar to the way Ismail Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge and William Golding’s The Spire achieve a similar effect. This is by far my favorite Crace novel and was #1 on this list for months, until the next two books bumped it off.
2. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf) – I’ve mentioned a few times recently that strange phenomenon, the sidereal drift of estimation, where the appreciation for a book slowly changes in the background of your mind while it’s being thoroughly digested, and so far no novel of 2013 has undergone more drift than this stunningly disturbing work by Claire Messud about a thwarted, unmarried, unhappy woman who attaches herself to a charismatic family and slowly, alarmingly works her way closer and closer into the family’s lives. When I first read it, the book struck me as extremely competent but fairly one-dimensional. Over time I found myself thinking about it and returning to it, until finally I had to acknowledge that such a response, however delayed, is also a legitimate barometer of an author’s talent. Then I finally sat down and re-read the thing and was astonished.
1. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Doubleday) – Critics tended to have a field day with this one. The poets hated it for its doggerel verse (although it’s always mystified my how anybody could hate something with such a lovely name); the novelists hated it for its telegraphic narrative; and the occasional example of that unlucky symbiont, the novelist-poet, was driven to distraction by the whole bloody thing. No doubt a part of this confused reception was due to the author’s recent death in August of last year, which was bound to make some critics bridle at the expectation of reverence and others (perhaps including this one) elevate the book above its merits because they’ll so, so miss the author. But the sidereal drift of estimation works to calm the clouding agitations of the heart as well, and in their aftermath this slim book of interconnected stories scrambling hard to find hope just keeps rising in my estimation. I now believe it would be every bit as moving and funny and ultimately uplifting even if its Rakoff had done us all the favor of living to be 100. The book that became his elegy is also the best novel of 2013.
December 16th, 2013
One of the most contemptible traits running through the Worst Nonfiction list this year, out of a very large number of such contemptible traits, was the reek of undisguised cash-grabbing cynicism that characterizes almost all of it. Cynicism itself is nothing new to these kinds of books, designed as they are for mass distribution to gullible hillbillies at Target and flattering show-spotlights from the TV hucksters who provide those gullible hillbillies with the only book recommendations they’re ever likely to get (such people really need Stevereads, but then, so many people do). But although even the most biddable American can gulp down buckets of raw sentimentality before breakfast, there was a time – roughly 200 years of time – when they’d spit back even the smallest kernel of naked opportunism. So it’s always behooved make-a-buck authors to cover their crap with at least a thin veneer of earnest belief. In other words, they had to at least try to act like they believed their own bunkum, and that therefore the piles of money raked in were a happy side-effect. But somewhere in the last few years, that baseline requirement seems to have disappeared. I myself blame the implacable rise of “reality” TV, where millions of impressionable viewers watched people acting crassly fake – and fakely crass – for fame and profit, with the viewer in on the act and encouraged to condone – and imitate – asshole behavior in the implicit understanding that it might one day be their own turn. The result has been an intensification of the already-unhealthy American willingness to do or say anything for money, and it’s certainly trickled into the publishing world. In 2013 more than in any previous year, authors felt comfortable showing a Krusty-the-clown-level of open cynicism about their own products. In addition to the more rank-and-file tediousness and ineptitude, that cynicism crops up often among these, the worst Nonfiction books of 2013:
10. David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell – Since he’s become virtually synonymous with ‘bamboozling the credulous,’ it was inevitable that Gladwell’s name would crop up somewhere in our year-end festivities, and this year he makes things extra easy by producing his worst book yet – no mean feat for a writer this horrible. And here the naked opportunism I mentioned is on open display: Gladwell’s baggy, asinine ‘thesis’ is that life’s underdogs, those can-do strugglers who were accepted to their second-choice Ivy League school but not their first-choice, can still manage great things if they try enough and complain enough. In interviews, Gladwell regularly prattles that “the data tell us some surprising things” – for all the world as if he’d only just a moment before shucked his white lab coat and was simply reporting what he and his fellow in-the-trenches social scientist number-crunchers have discovered, when in reality the only number-crunching going on here is the plotting out of speaking fees for the corporate junkets during which Gladwell, the pseudo-intellectual court jester lickspittle to the 1%, assures audiences full of executives that even though their sons and daughters are being out-worked and out-performed by real underdogs, it’s still possible, if they work hard and bribe hard, for those son and daughters to grow up and gut the nation’s economy just like their proud parents did.
9. Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer – The creationist hobbyhorse being whipped so incessantly in Meyer’s latest is the so-called Cambrian explosion some 542 million years ago, which was once viewed as a standing rebuke to the Darwinian idea of evolution by means of random mutation and natural selection, since it appeared to be from-scratch appearance of virtually all the basic life-forms we know today. The main problem here, of course, is that the ‘once’ in ‘was once viewed’ happened almost a century ago; ever since, science has been steadily clearing up the ‘mystery’ of the Cambrian explosion – and Meyer, a sharp young guy, knows that as well as any grade school science student. But he writes his book anyway, piling up one partially or deceitfully-parsed scientific study on top of another to imply that the Cambrian explosion is some sort of secret victory for the idea that an extra-dimensional intelligence busied itself in the propagation of life on this planet. There isn’t a single page of this book that doesn’t include some dodge, some lie, or some sleight-of-hand intelligently designed to misstate what science knows or mischaracterize what science doesn’t know. The Almighty shouldn’t need a defense this furtive.
8. The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen – The ostensible ‘project’ here, the translation and annotation of some essays by early 20th century Viennese intellectual Karl Kraus, is never anything more than an obvious ruse, conducted knowingly on Franzen’s part in order to give himself both Upper West Side cache (“Karl who? Man, is there anything Franzen doesn’t know?”) and a convenient little stage from which to hurl cranky-old-man rants at an audience who bought their tickets under false pretenses. You can read my full review here.
7. How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields – Readers seeing the title of Shields’ latest harebrained screed and thinking they’re going to get an account of how literature saved the author’s life have reckoned without the open, knowing cynicism I’ve been discussing. For years, Shields has been making a living as a writer by disparaging writing – the title of this book should be “How Literature Saved My Life and Got No Thanks From Me” – and this latest is no different. Once again, Shields dresses up his own boobish laziness as some kind of high-principle ongoing protest against the strictures of conventional narrative or some such crap. He doesn’t believe his own imposture … he knows perfectly well that his inability to stop binge-watching “House of Cards” reflects poorly on him, not on Anna Karenina, but he rolls out the fakery just the same, for obvious financial reasons. You can read my full review here.
6. Here and Now by Paul Auster and J. M. Coetzee – Probably it was only standard karma that Year’s End list containing so many first-rate letter collections they filled up their own category would also contain at least one such letter collection that was wretched instead of great, and here it is in this incredibly annoying, incredibly artificial correspondence between Auster and Coetzee, both of them writing for the collection rather than each other, both of them laboring over arch phrases designed to seem tossed-off, and both of them soiling the very concept of snail-mail correspondence. In fact they didn’t correspond at all, not in the real sense of the word – they just worked on this book together, and the result, a disgusting little exhibition in which two middle-aged men essentially confer about how cool it is that they’re both famous, looks all the more pathetic alongside the great correspondence volumes we saw in 2013.
5. The Murder of Cleopatra by Pat Brown – More arrant cynicism, this time of a singularly vintage variety. TV host Pat Brown makes a big to-do about ‘taking on the Cleopatra case,’ knowing full well the whole time that it’s all P. T. Barnum-style hoaxing. Brown was once a working criminal profiler; she knows at least the rudiments of what constitutes evidence and what doesn’t. She knows, in other words, that after 2000 years it’s just possible the Cleopatra crime scene has been compromised. But admitting that kind of thing doesn’t get you a TV special. You can read my full review here.
4. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg – The hateful pattern showing up over and over again here – deceitful authors retro-fitting some self-serving bit of their own business into a manifesto or project meant to look like it’s actually about something – reaches its full nails-on-chalkboard pitch with this vile, hypocritical little tract by brittle, reptilian millionaire Facebook mucky-muck Sheryl Sandberg in which she presents some research about women in the workplace done by terrified underlings and then tops it all off with some career advice for those women: take more risks, assert yourself more, do more elbowing to get what’s rightfully yours – no matter how much overtime you need to give your driver, your personal secretaries, your nannies, your au pairs, your exercise coach, your yoga instructor, your home chef, your office chef, your travel coordinator, your security team, your accountants, your landscapers, your lawyers, your content-tweeters, your beauticians, and your feng shui team. Hang the expense – if you’re not doing everything you can to maximize your chances of being as big a vicious dickhead at work as you are in the rest of your life, you’re just not leaning in enough! Sandberg might be loathsome, but she’s not stupid: she knows perfectly well that virtually no corporate women are in a position as comfortable and privileged as her own and so would be insane to take her advice – but that doesn’t stop her from giving it (or the rubes from buying it, which is much to the point).
3. To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov – Tech-commenator Morozov’s latest slapdash murky little rant centers on the straw man of ‘technological solutionism,’ which he describes as the delusion (promulgated by the wonks of Silicon Valley) that all problems are essentially technological, Internet problems with technological, Internet solutions. For the approximately 12 pages that his book actually stays on-target, he poses at railing against this kind of ‘solutionism’ and thereby joins our insidious little club this year, authors making little or no effort to disguise the essentially cynical attention-trolling they’re doing in pursuit of book-sales. Not only does Morozov know perfectly well that the kind of extreme ‘solutionism’ he’s attacking here is actually believed by about fifty people on Earth, he also knows he’s one of those fifty people. He just thought the gimmick of somebody under the age of 30 – i.e. somebody who’s never known a computerless world – railing against the Internet would make a good shtick. And no fellow commentator is calling him on it because they all likewise dream about one day lying their way to a book contract.
2. The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond – The surest way to trap someone who’s telling the particular kind of lie we’re talking about here – lies against intellectual self interest, we can call it – is to expect them to practice what they preach. If you guaranteed Paul Auster that every snail-mail letter he ever writes would disintegrate immediately after it was read and enjoyed by its recipient, his immediate response would be “The recipients can go screw themselves” If you told Jonathan Franzen the translation project for this author he purports to love so much could only go forward if it had no personal notes from Franzen at all, his immediate response would be, “Karl Kraus can go screw himself.” If you demanded that Sheryl Sandberg treat her three superiors at Facebook the way she advocates all professional women treat their male bosses, if you tried to take Evgeny Morozov’s Internet connection away … you get the point. Nowhere on this list would such a trap be more effective than in the case of Jared Diamond and his moronic book The World Until Yesterday, in which he sententiously lectures his iPad readers on all the down-to-earth wisdoms pre-industrial societies could impart on matters like judicial reform or caring for the elderly. It’s Fenimore Cooper’s “noble savage” revived for the 21st Century without a hint of embarrassment, but if you suggested Diamond himself submit his latest lawsuit to a ‘council’ of gazelle-clubbers, his immediate response would be, “The village elders can go screw themselves.” Like so many other authors on this list, he doesn’t think what he says he thinks, doesn’t believe what he says he believes, and writes what he writes not to convince but to fleece. You can read my full review of his rotten book here.
1. Country Girl by Edna O’Brien – As the dear old Ma would have said, “Who the Divil does she think she is – the Queen of Sheba?”
December 16th, 2013
A book-critic friend of mine, contemplating the horrifying object in question, drawled, “You don’t really read a new Amy Tan.” He was right, of course, in all his unspoken implications (including the least-spoken of all, namely that you don’t really write such a line in your review either, especially if Tan’s publishers are paying $15, 000 for full-color book-ads in your paper): nobody really reads the new Amy Tan, because the actual book, the thing with a gaudy cover and pulp pages and a price tag that’s pure daylight robbery, is almost entirely ancillary to the whole rumbling process of “the new Amy Tan.” Running before it, trailing after it, and entirely enveloping it in an almost impenetrable fog is the antiquated apparatus of the 20th century celebrity author machine, arranging plush book-signings at the usual venues, arranging pro forma interviews the author can knock off ten at a time in her (comped) hotel room, never saying anything even remotely true (this time around Tan is claiming as the inspiration for her latest mother-daughter saga the recent discovery of a secret in her own family, or some such horse crap), never even really paying attention to the pre-scripted answers, and certainly never seeming to grasp that the apparatus cannot exist in the same space with any kind of creativity – if you’re engaged in the one, you have sacrificed, perhaps permanently, the other.
In such gruesome circumstances, where the book itself is very much beside the point, there can be no real hope for quality writing – and yet it’s almost invariably these authors who tend to be the most arrogant and self-entitled. Having long ago been fooled (or eagerly fooled themselves) into conflating their epiphenomenon with their actual worth, they can be relied upon to chair writing seminars, tell Brian Lamb that they lisped prose even in the cradle (“I had to be a writer, Brian – I really didn’t have a choice”), and condescend to … well, basically everybody.
Such creatures and the paginated black holes they spawn on a tellingly regular basis, are always the bane of my reading existence, and a distressing number of them crop up on the Worst Fiction list this year, alongside the bunglers and the merely arrogant. So brace yourselves! From out the teeming hordes of the year’s lowest depths comes this list of the Worst Fiction of 2013:
10. Taipei by Tao Lin – The vapid stupidity of Tao Lin’s prose has been an open secret in the publishing world for many years now, characterized by affectless lists and plodding sentences and championed by Lin’s small legion of fans, who unwittingly damn his work by saying things like “I usually hate reading books, but I love Tao!” The fact that this latest outing, full of bored, pretty people ingesting mountains of drugs, managed to garner more high-profile critical attention than anything else Lin’s written proves two things: 1) if you throw enough crap at a wall, sooner or later you’ll find a book-critic willing to call it “trenchant,” and 2) provided he remains physically healthy, Lin will be foisting this kind of garbage on the Republic of Letters for decades to come.
9. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Moshin Hamid – The only halfway clever thing this gruel-thin novel does is give a conscious nod to its own pat, programmatic nature, styling itself as a business-and-life manual for becoming an Asian millionaire in order, one supposes, to lampoon and excoriate such manuals. But that clever conceit (if it was a conceit and not just simple racism) evaporates almost immediately and is replaced by the fictional equivalent of a Catskills standup routine about how funny odd little foreigners are.
8. Woes of the True Policeman by Roberto Bolano – The latest from the prolific Bolano, producing books like his very life depended on it, is weak and self-indulgent even by the standards he himself helped to lower almost all the way to the ground. The story is ostensibly about a professor whose life is laid bare (and, in the usual Bolano twist, semi-invented) by an exhaustive police investigation, but even the furtive lunges of imagination that can sometimes make small parts of his other books bearable are missing here. In an interview Bolano gave to The Paris Review last week, he hinted that he was thinking of taking a break from writing “serious” novels and just concentrate on his poetry collections, essay collections, cookbooks, and his ongoing murder mystery series set in a Catalonian B&B. Perhaps that would be for the best. After all, you can only write so much in one lifetime.
7. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini – This wretched, gassy novel is surely an almost-perfect example of the apparatus I mentioned: in place of an actual story or actual characters (and let’s not even talk about quality prose – this thing is a flat rock on which flat pebbles are dropped at random), there’s just the huge tactical deployment of “the new Khaled Hosseini,” with a sadistically-orchestrated story of foreign misery presented in a series of syrupy readings to well-fed American audiences who like to feel multi-cultural but who used to turn off the news whenever anybody said anything “depressing” about whole villages being flattened in Afghanistan. The novel itself, lodged like a pea under so many mattresses, hardly matters – which in this case (as in most cases) is lucky, since it stinks.
6. Night Film by Marisha Pessl – When Special Topics in Calamity Physics came out, it struck me as a novel more contemptuous of its own genre than anything I’d read that year (it appeared just about at the same moment that I myself was returning to public book-reviewing after a long hiatus, so it slipped past my still-rusty reflexes), and Pessl’s latest only deepens that impression: Night Film isn’t about its plot (the death of a reclusive, cult-figure horror director and the ripples that spread out from it) – it’s about how boring old things like plot and character simply can’t be expected to keep the Netflix generation interested, hence the loading of these anemic pages with pop-visuals of all kinds – like the whole thing was a website. No concentrated attention is required to read this piece of poop, but that’s only fitting, since no concentrated attention was required to write it.
5. The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kusher – If a convenient shorthand for the kind of apparatus I’ve mentioned is “hype,” then that shorthand has an equally-convenient name: Rachel Kushner, whose advance reading copies are sent out by the cargo container, whose promotional budget is roughly the GNP of Panama, and whose books are no damn good. Her universally-praised debut Telex from Cuba was a bandwagon-jumper’s dream, and this latest misfire, about a naive young girl who comes to SoHo in the 1970s just in time to meet lots of cool people, has been talked about and written about everywhere, despite being a bland, disorganized mess of banality and pretension. I don’t know how much scotch was needed to get Robert Stone to blurb this thing, but he’s going to hate himself in the morning.
4. The Duplex by Kathryn Davis – Contrary to possible first impressions, I have nothing against experimental fiction in and of itself. I’ve seen it done very well, but that can only happen when it proceeds from an initial respect for ‘traditional’ fiction. When that initial respect is present, a talented writer’s dismantling of form and narrative can yield some thrilling results. When that initial respect is absent, an arrogant writer’s idea that ‘traditional’ fiction requires saving yields only enraged agitation for yours truly. The genre of fiction doesn’t need saving just because Marisha Pessl would rather surf YouTube than write; it isn’t rendered obsolete because Tao Lin is mentally incapable of reading Barchester Towers – and, alas, it is not resuscitated when a smart and perceptive writer like Kathryn Davis decides that readers tired of boring old plot-structure will pay in hardcover to watch her free-associate whatever comes into her head. This novella’s morphing children and hidden realities are as quick and shiny as soap-bubbles, and that’s fine – except these soap-bubbles are being called not only ‘fiction’ but ‘great fiction.’
3. The Circle by Dave Eggers – “The new Dave Eggers” is the stomach-churning summa of process over product – naturally, since lots of money and twee arrogance have allowed Eggers the condescending, talentless writer to become Eggers the Grand Old Man Publisher, a biting mould eating away at the book-world on the inside while simultaneously degrading it on the outside. The Circle is Eggers’ latest farting little assault of a novel, about an idiotic young woman (as I’ve noted before, all the female ‘characters’ in Eggers’ fiction are avatars of the author’s contempt for women) who becomes the latest foot soldier in a Google/Facebook-type Internet corporation bent on consuming its followers like so many egg yolks. As she learns more and more about the company, the book expands into one long predictable drone about all the ways voluntary surrender of privacy impoverishes the inner life – and if readers of this junk have side-noted the hypocrisy in the fact that Eggers himself has been eagerly willing to sell his own privacy to the highest bidder for the whole of his career, they’ve been mighty quiet about it while watching the Grand Old Man now sour on Tumblr.
2. Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adicie – 2013 saw a more virulent rash of arrogant, preening foreigners using their book contracts to sling mud ineptly on the culture that made those book contracts possible than it’s seen since the backlash the US incurred by saving the world from Hitler – only this time without the literary talent. Of the many examples of this deplorable trend in 2013, Americanah was by a wide margin the worst, not only for its many blocks of exposition about how racist everything is but for its bloated self-satisfaction that those blocks of exposition are in fact what the book’s paying customers came here for. This last may be right; they certainly didn’t come for plot, character development, or dialogue, all three of which steadfastly remain at the grade school level in this story of a pure-hearted ingenue who emigrates to horrible, racist America (where even the gated academies aren’t truly color-blind, and where no black person could ever dream of being the country’s highest-paid sports celebrity, most-beloved TV star, or, you know, President) and encounters mean people in her quest for a world as perfect as she is.
1. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks – It’s surely not often that the worst novel of the year is both execrably bad fiction and also sacrilege, but 2013 managed it with this boring little smear on the sacred Jeeves & Wooster texts by middlingly talented but at least hitherto principled Faulks, who’s styled this crap as a well-intentioned homage rather than a commissioned act of necrophilia on the part of Wodehouse’s heirs. And since the major offense of the book’s very existence is compounded by the minor offense of it not being funny, my advice would be that you give it the mitten.
December 15th, 2013
Never was an Honor Roll more badly needed than in the sprawling catch-all that is Best Nonfiction! That catch-all is where I did an enormous chunk of my reading in 2013, which made the task of fitting all my favorites into one skimpy 10-item list a nightmare. So it’s a bit of a relief to use two skimpy 10-item lists instead. Here are ten great works of nonfiction from the past year – rather heavily skewed toward history, I realize, but that, too, is representative:
10. The Future by Al Gore (Random House) – This new book from the author of An Inconvenient Truth is written in an almost jarringly optimistic register, even though the former Vice President and winner of the 2000 US presidential election got a Nobel Prize mainly on the strength of his doomsaying about the future. In his book by that name, he turns instead not to how the world will change but to what will change it. In flow chart after flow chart and page after wonky page, he charts the development of six social and technological “drivers” of that change, and the whole thing is never less than fascinating – and at least guardedly hopeful, since humans have the ability to work most of these drivers in more enlightened ways, if they so choose.
9. Boston and the Dawn of American Independence by Brian Deming (Westholme) – I discovered this book comparatively late and consumed it in one long deliriously pleased reading session, and while I don’t expect other history fans (or Bostonians) to finish it off quite so quick, I’m pleased to announce it’s indispensable! Deming approaches his well-worn subject – how the prosperous, happy port city of Boston went from a loyal British colony to the focal point of the American Revolution in less than 20 years – with completely fresh gusto and a veritable blizzard of research, underscoring anew what some of us have known for a long time: the mishandling of Boston was the single worst mistake the British ever made. This is the first of an encouraging number of landmark historical studies on our list today.
8. Return of a King by William Dalrymple (Bloomsbury) – Speaking of landmark studies, Dalrymple’s sumptuously detailed history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1849-42) certainly qualifies. In a series of tellingly-written chapters, Dalrymple draws dozens of analogies between the overconfidence and bungling of the British in the mountains of Afghanistan 150 years ago and the overconfidence and bungling of American occupying forces there under the orders of George W. Bush. And if there are perhaps one or two too many of these analogies, well, there’s ample compensation in the sheer humanist conviction of Dalrymple’s scholarship – and by his sterling prose, which flows over these pages with such wit and confidence that I wanted to underline a passage on virtually every page.
7. Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill (Perseus) – In this relentlessly chilling and thoroughly documented account, Scahill exposes the vast network of secret intelligence officers, secret tactical commanders, and secret soldiers – organized, equipped, and funded entirely ‘off the books’ – that operates almost entirely at the discretion of the sitting President of the United States. The complete picture Scahill paints, of a shadow army entirely unaccountable to the law and entirely loyal to the President, is the stuff of conspiracy theorists’ nightmares, and yet Scahill is brutally calm and focused as he presents his evidence in this truly perception-altering book.
6. Comandante: Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll (Penguin Press) – The main purpose of Carroll’s widely-researched and beautifully-written account of the rise and rise of the late Presidente is to take the reader inside the many worlds of a popular dictator, and he succeeds wonderfully in doing that – Hugo Chavez seems to come alive again while strutting through these pages, and the story of his path to power is told in marvelous detail. But there’s another narrative unfolding in the background: the 200-year-old narrative of an unaligned South American dictator deciding to pursue something like independence in the shadow of American military and economic might. No matter where you stand on the memory and legacy of Chavez, you’ll find a great deal of food for thought in these pages.
5. Narwhals by Todd McLeish (University of Washington Press) – McLeish affects a guardedly optimistic attitude in the pages of this first and most entertaining of general-reader studies of these weird and little-known whales, but his book is as much about their badly endangered world as it is about their natural history, and it’s riveting on both. You can read my full review here.
4. Antarctica: A Biograpy by David Day (Oxford University Press) – As will be apparent from the fact that the book covers 200 years out of 200,000,000, there’s a bit of a misnomer here: Day’s engrossing and hugely researched book is a ‘biography’ of human exploration in Antarctica, not a biography of the continent itself, which could hardly be written and would fashion if it could a narrative so bleak and long it could only be read by mountains. Instead of that book, we get a much more interesting saga of doomed expeditions and totally unprepared men and dogs encountering some of the closest approximations of an alien world that Earth’s surface produces.
3. The Sea & Civilization by Lincoln Paine (Random House) – Despite the impression Antarctica currently gives to those hardy souls who visit it, Earth is a water-world, and Paine’s big, exuberant book explores the countless ways mankind’s history has been shaped and determined by the water all around us. Paine gives us the old familiar stories of early navigation and exploration, of water-borne commerce, of naval warfare, and all the rest, told with such erudition and enthusiasm that they seem new again. There’ve been a handful of attempts to tell “a maritime history of the world,” but this one beats them all.
2. The Worlds of Sholem Alecheim by Jeremy Dauber (Random House) – Jeremy Dauber probably tackles an impossible task in this remarkable and very entertaining book when he tries to draw the great journalist, book reviewer, and public intellectual Alecheim out of the shadow of Tevye and the rest of the Fiddler on the Roof world, but his attempt is so good – so spirited and all-knowing – that he very nearly succeeds. Certainly his Sholem Alecheim comes alive more fully in these pages than he’s done in any English-language work to date; Daubner finds all the pathos, sifts as much of the written record as remains, and presents every great and wise and funny anecdote with precise care. The reading world once knew the work of Sholem Alecheim much better than it currently does; here’s hoping Daubner’s book begins a renaissance.
1. Gettysburg: The Last Invasion by Allen Guelzo (Random House) – The Civil War in general – and the Battle of Gettysburg in particular – gets chronicled so often that the texts start to run together, and the weary reader starts to think perhaps there’s nothing new or interesting to be written. Allen Guelzo walks right into the center of such overwrite anxieties – and dispels them before his first chapter is finished. His big new book on Gettysburg makes for absolutely thrilling reading. You can read my full review here.
December 14th, 2013
Honor Rolls have been a godsend for me, mainly because that sidereal drift of estimation I mentioned last time applies to all kinds of books, and more to fiction than anything else. At some point in the course of 2013, virtually all of these Honor Roll books spent some time on my Best list, only to be nudged off by some new entrant. And that process is fluid and certainly doesn’t stop at the publication of these lists, but for now this is where the chips land. It’s more immediately convenient and probably more honest to think of these Honor Roll lists as annexes to the Best lists rather than basements to them. Here are, in other words, ten more first-rate works of fiction from the year, albeit ones that strike me – today – as in just some slight way less powerful than the ones to come, but still very much worth adding to your list:
10. The Abomination by Jonathan Holt (HarperCollins) – This first book in the author’s projected “Carnivia” trilogy starring Carabiniere Captain Kat Tepo is a snapping good portrait of modern-day Venice and its seedy ills and stoking tensions. Holt’s ear for dialogue and his uncanny ability to present the most garish and gruesome plot points in brutally realistic terms carries the plot easily over the absurdities inherent in this kind of fiction (Michael Dibdin was another such author, and Holt is certainly working in his fictional world) and keeps it all so vividly memorable.
9. The Boy by Lara Santoro (Little, Brown) – ‘Memorable’ is also the stamp of Santoro’s vivid novella about a woman on the doorstep of middle age who allows herself to fall into an almost heedless erotic relationship with the 20-year-old son of one of her best friends. The prose here glows with a slangy fluency that makes this very old story feel completely new again. You can read my full review here.
8. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking) – As one of the only people on Earth who disliked Gilbert’s nonfiction bestseller Eat, Pray, Love as being maudlin and manipulative, I went into her big new novel with plenty of trepidation. But this lush, hyper-detailed evocation of the world of 19th Century botanist Alma Whittaker and – with a puckish strain of subdued humor – all the various life forms she encounters out in the world utterly calmed my reservations with its profuse intelligence and sure-footed understanding of the hopeless awkwardness of mating, let alone love.
7. Stella Bain by Anita Shreve (Little, Brown) – Shreve has written nearly 20 novels, and I’ve detested all of them as cheap and easy river-bait for wine-sodden suburban book clubs, but I was utterly won over by Stella Bain, the story of a woman who wakes up at the Western Front in the midst of the First World War and immediately starts to piece together her own identity. Shreve manages with exquisite precision her two counterbalanced plot developments, the regaining of Stella’s memory weighted against the complex of reasons why she lost it in the first place – and the result is a far more controlled and beautiful work than anything this author has ever written.
6. The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth Laban (Knopf) – I would ordinarily grit my teeth at the very idea of importing even a nominally YA title to such a list as this; the increased spread of YA writing into discussions of adult literature is a plague currently running rampant in the Republic of Letters, with countless adults gushingly enthusing about the latest installment in some series intended for children, and we shall all live to see Penguin Classics of the Harry Potter books. But as long-time Stevereads followers will perhaps recall, I don’t hate the YA subgenre altogether, and as always it’s the execution that matters – and Laban’s wryly-told story of the problematic high school love between the most popular girl in class and an albino newcomer is executed very nearly to perfection.
5. The First Book of David by Pastor Larry (WestBow Press) – The execution saves this book too, since the story of the Biblical King David has been told in fiction many dozens of times in English alone. In Larry Booker’s handling, where the young man David is seen from the viewpoints of a handful of characters who encounter him in one capacity or another, there’s no plaster-saint hagiography: not only is this David still stumbling toward his legendary status, but his various chroniclers are by turns salty and sarcastic and even sometimes sympathetic, and the whole familiar story gallops along as a result.
4. The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (Harper) – Graver’s story of the generations of the Porter family – who gather at the family home at Ashaunt Point, Massachusetts and from that hub experience all the freaks and fascinations of 20th century American life – would have fascinated me just for its premise, since I’ve known many families (dysfunctional and otherwise) who’ve had such talismanic old beach houses, and I’ve seen the strange and not unattractive gravity the places can exert on their people. But that personal experience would have made it at most a curiosity; Graver’s beautiful prose is what got it on this list. This is one of the handful of novels I’m mentioning this time around that I most clearly see myself re-reading after a little while.
3. Schroder by Amity Gaige (Twelve) – There were quite a few novels in 2013 in which the apparent abduction of a child by a parent kicked the plot into motion, and that would ordinarily bug me, but Gaige’s story here – told from the point of view of the eponymous father who’s accused, among other things, of kidnapping his daughter – is so heartfelt and intelligent that for weeks after I read it, scenes from its pages kept replaying in my mind. Ultimately, in its irresolutions, this is a stranger novel than it seems on the surface, and that also has kept me thinking about it. (Side note to those of you with aesthetic standards: Schroder‘s American publisher has for some reason decided to replace the hardcover’s lovely and evocative cover with something boring and hideous, so you might want to invest in the hardcover, since this is a book you’re going to want to keep)
2. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (Atlantic Monthly Press) – Even more than the other books on this list, these last two really should be viewed as simply #s 11 and 12 of the forthcoming Best Fiction list; they’re here simply because they didn’t fit there, but they’re both utterly brilliant. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (I stress once again, to all you publishers out there: my services in giving your books non-sucky titles are entirely free and yours for the asking) is Bob Shacochis’ masterpiece, an enormous, sprawling work of espionage, Haiti, World War II, and, not incidentally, dark sexual compulsion that remains constant in any time and setting. The book is well over 700 pages long, but the author’s pin-prick control of its dozens of moving parts never falters for an instant.
1. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday) – Another nod toward the fluidity of these categories: I could have included this incredible book on my “Best Fiction Debuts” list, although at many points while reading it, and for long stretches of reading, I completely forgot that I was reading a debut author. This story, multi-layered and joyously well-conceived, about a mysterious and extremely long-lived island people discovered in Micronesia and the deliciously conflicted people who do the discovering, reads like the work of an old hand, somebody who’s learned the shell game of unreliable narration through many prize-shortlisted earlier novels. As it is, I was swept away by this author’s first effort – this is an amazingly textured book, not at all bogged down by the serious ethical questions that haunt every one of its plot-lines. One appreciative critic, apparently in an attempt to scare readers away from the book so he could have it all to himself, referred to it as “a haunting story of moral absolutes confounded by a seemingly empirical understanding of the merciless caprices of nature” – but don’t let such a frankly terrifying description discourage you! This book will grab you and keep you grabbed right to the twist at the end.
December 13th, 2013
As long-time Stevereads readers may recall, I like biography just a bit more than I like any other kind of writing. Something about the way it combines the sweep of history and the narrative of fiction tends to work on me even when the specific volume in question is less than stellar. And 2013 provided me with some truly stellar volumes! In fact, so strong was the field this time around that my enjoyment of these ten best examples was undimmed by three factors that should have doomed it: 1) some of these biographies are of individuals I loathe and despise, 2) some of these biographies are in sub-categories (like acting or, gawd help us, sports) that have typically held no interest for me, and most of all, 3) some of these biographies are part of two-volume sets and so, you’d think, would have struck me as incomplete. But the energy and sheer literary quality of these ten titles swept away such petty objections – leaving me with plenty of books to enjoy, and to recommend strongly:
10. Coolidge by Amity Shlaes (Harper) – A perfect case in point: Shlaes’ lovingly painstaking biography of this walking slab of gluten-free tofu should have been as boring as every previous biography of America’s third-least-loved president, but such is Shlaes’ sheer gusto that it’s sufficient to transform even this wretched Massachusetts carpetbagger (referred to rather pointedly by a journalist in his own time as “tedium in a top hat”) into a figure of fascination, if not sympathy. This was a weak year for presidential biographies (the only other really prominent example being hagiography of the most revolting stripe), but Shlaes’ book would have stood out even in a strong year.
9. Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion by Anne Somerset (Knopf) – 2013 was also something of a weak year for royal biographies (Jane Ridley’s The Heir Apparent being one of the only other possible contenders for a Stevereads list and failing only because it couldn’t beat out its own predecessors), and at first glance Queen Anne – reflexively despised as weak and easily bullied – would seem an unlikely candidate for the distinction. But Anne Somerset is an old pro at this, and her book is a masterpiece. You can read my full review here.
8. The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams by Ben Bradlee Jr. (Little, Brown) – This big book represents another hurdle, since the last baseball book I loved was Leigh Montville’s 2006 Babe Ruth biography The Big Bam. Montville also once wrote a biography of the Splendid Splinter himself, Ted Williams, and in this lovingly-crafted doorstop about Williams from Ben Bradlee, jr., that earlier work is surpassed so handily it seems effortless. Bradlee’s book magnificently captures the famously multi-faceted (a euphemism for “mostly horrible but we really wish it were otherwise”) personality of the man many fans rank as the best ever to play the game. The writing here shifts from powerfully acerbic to openly sentimental with such brawn and confidence (as befits a writer who polished his chops in Boston) with such confidence that the thing could have been about Bill Buckner and I’d have kept reading.
7. Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power by Phillip Dwyer (Yale University Press) – What the mighty Book Barn in Niantic, Connecticut immortally refers to as “The Pestiferous Little Corsican” leads off a little trio of superb Napoleonic-era biographies that came out in 2013. This first one is Dwyer’s concluding volume to the big biography of the little tyrant he began in 2008 with Napoleon: The Path to Power, and the sequel is an even better piece of popular scholarship, detailing Bonaparte’s time in power. You can read my full review here.
6. Nelson: The Sword of Albion by John Sugden (Henry Holt) – Like Dwyer, Sugden in 2013 came out with his concluding volume in a two-volume biography, this one of Horatio Nelson, whose face-stepping rise to power Sugden chronicled in 2004’s Nelson: A Dream of Glory, and this book, too, is not only a masterpiece on its own merits but also forms, with its preceding volume, the definitive work on its pudgy, egomaniacal subject. The ‘Dwyer Napoleon’ and the ‘Sugden Nelson’ will stand for a century as scholarly shorthand for the indispensable works on their respective subjects. You can read my full review here.
5. Wellington: The Path to Victory, 1769-1814 by Rory Muir (Yale University Press) – Unlike Dwyer and Sugden’s books, Muir’s fat masterpiece is the beginning of a set, not the conclusion – this is Wellington the soldier, not Wellington the statesman. And one of the many brilliances of Muir’s book is to remind readers that both those Wellingtons were also always Wellington the politician; the over-arching effect of this great book is to make this figure – in many ways the most complex of his era – even more complex, and that’s a mighty thing for a book to achieve. You can read my full review here.
4. Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by Charles Eliot Gardiner (Knopf) – Gardiner’s long-awaited work on J.S. Bach turned out to be even better than I’d been hoping, a truly heartfelt monument to one man’s lifetime involvement with one of the greatest musicians of all time. Given Gardiner’s own musical talents, it’s not surprising – it’s in fact a source of great joy – that this book is so suffused with musicology, but I was amazed at how smoothly even the most technical deconstructions are worked into the flow of the narrative. You can read my full review here.
3. Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch (Yale University Press) – Damrosch’s book is a perfect example of a phenomenon I encounter quite often in my reading: the sidereal drift of estimation. I read a great many of my books in at least two stages: bound galley advance copies and finished hardcover copies, usually separated by several months. And in that time, while I’m reading other stuff, very often my initial estimation of those already-read books will be shifting and settling down in the cargo holds of my book-memory. I form an initial impression immediately (you’re shocked, I know), but some books fight with those impressions, nagging me either to like them more or to dislike them more. There is no accounting for the sidereal drift of estimation (a book is a book! it doesn’t change), and there’s no predicting it (two of the works on my Best Fiction list this year, for example, started out on my Worst Fiction list!), but I certainly felt it in the case of this fantastic biography of Dean Swift, which first struck me as programmatic and then revealed itself to me as far more subtle and intelligent, in fact a great work on this great writer (the only writer-biography on our list this year). You can read my full review here.
2. Barbara Stanwyck, Steel-True: 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson (Simon & Schuster) – Another perfect case-in-point of the unlikely nature of some of my top Biography picks this year! If you’d told me last year (when I’d only heard the vaguest rumblings about this book) that I’d be getting a 900-page biography of actress Barbara Stanwyck that doesn’t even reach the period of her greatest artistic achievements, I’d have said there was no way I would even read it, let alone love it, but Victoria Wilson has overruled all that and written a book that will stand as a masterpiece even if its concluding volume never gets written. The sheer breadth of her research is staggering – there seems to be no tiny source or detail about Stanwyck’s rise to fame that she’s overlooked – but by far my favorite part of this great book is Stanwyck herself: whenever Wilson quotes her, this incredibly smart, opinionated, and altogether wonderful voice enters the narrative and gives it a jolt. You most certainly don’t need to have any prior interest in Stanwyck or the great and savage Golden Age of the American studio system to love this book – Wilson and Stanwyck herself will keep you reading anyway.
1. All the Glittering Prizes by John Taliaferro (Simon & Schuster) – How nonplussed gentle, chirping John Hay himself would have been if he’d held in his hands this sumptuous and utterly wonderful treatment of his life! Here is his long life in politics, starting out as one of Abraham Lincoln’s many surrogate sons and coming to know four other US presidents quite well and not only see a new international era being born but personally assist with the delivery. Here we have the social life so amusingly prosecuted. Here we have the long and epoch-defining diplomatic work, and the friendships with all the good and great names of his day (especially with the cerebral and acid-tongued Henry Adams). And ultimately here we have the best biography of 2013! You can read my full review here.
December 12th, 2013
History, too, was thriving in 2013, although I saw the usual reasons for concern – mainly two: the continued rise of imbecilic cardboard garbage calling itself history and increasingly mistaken as such even in respected venues, and the (connected, obviously?) decreasing historical competence among the average citizens of the Republic of Letters. In a word: dumbification. In a country where the heavily and ineptly ghostwritten pseudo-histories of TV comedian Bill O’Reilly can be phenomenal bestsellers, this downward trend is manifestly visible, but as in all previous years, so too in 2013, there is hope yet! I read well over a hundred works of genuine, searching, intelligent history this year (a great many of which were issued with little hope of profit by my beloved academic presses without which the intellectual landscape would be a barren mire) so many, in fact, that I had my usual agonizing hour choosing only ten of the very best:
10. Furies: War in Europe, 1450-1700 by Lauro Martines (Bloomsbury Publishing) – Martines’ lean, fast-paced book reminds its readers that the Renaissance era we thumbnail as a time of burgeoning artistic expression was also a time of unrelenting war; this was the most truly interesting book on the period I’ve read in years. You can read my full review here.
9. The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt) – As great as the previous two volumes in Atkinson’s Liberation trilogy were, this third one stands far beyond them in its sheer narrative power as the author brings us into the heart of the Western Front of WWII. You can read my full review here.
8. Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (Random House) – I was initially skeptical of Anderson’s approach here, as he lavishes hundreds of pages on lesser-known English and American players in the Middle East in and around the time of the Arab Revolt; I wondered how much weight could really be placed on characters T. E. Lawrence had only seen fit to mention in passing in his great Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But I was once again reminded that the storyteller makes the story, not vice versa: Anderson’s book is toweringly good, even though Lawrence still (and always?) steals the show.
7. Rebranding Rule by Kevin Sharpe (Yale University Press) – Shortly after I read this enormous and scholarly masterpiece, I was shocked to learn that Kevin Sharpe recently died – I’d actually been ready to send him an email praising the monumental achievement of this book. I can’t tell him how much I loved it, alas, but I can tell all of you: this account of the slow and subtle ways monarchy domesticated itself and adapted to its own powerlessness (in order to survive at all) is brilliant and utterly convincing. When taken as the capstone of a life’s work (all of Sharpe’s other books are equally good), it’s all the more impressive, although melancholy.
6. Franco’s Crypt by Jeremy Treglown (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – This artfully written examination of the long shadow cast on Spanish culture by the dictatorship of Francisco Franco doubles as very insightful look at what life under that shadow was actually like. Treglown’s approach is so elastic and all-encompassing that this book sometimes felt tricky to classify; the author is easily conversant with the history of Spain in the 20th century, but what he’s really doing here is tracing the soul of a cultural identity. The subject matter couldn’t interest me less (I suspect I’m not the only one for whom Hemingway spoiled Spain), but the book captivated me completely.
5. The Genius of Venice by Dial Parrott (Rizzoli Ex Libris) – This beautifully-illustrated book (the straggling, pathetic remnant of last year’s mighty all-Venice list!) turned out to be something very different and very much better than I’d expected. I went into it thinking it would be yet another smoothly impersonal art-and-architecture view of the Piazza San Marco, complete with the usual canned, freeze-dried chunks of Venetian history. But Parrott infuses his familiar subject with terrific energy and pathos; he tells the story of Venice’s unfolding social history as if it had never been told before and makes it all feel new. The result is a Venice book so good it doesn’t even need the gorgeous pictures that adorn it.
4. Warsaw 1944 by Alexandra Richie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – The horrifying, utterly pitiless story of the Warsaw Uprising has been told many times before, but never to my memory better than this fat volume by the author of that wonderful feast of a book, Faust’s Metropolis. Richie has studied her subject down to the least historical document, and she fills these pages with dramatically-realized real characters – which makes the whole thing even more emphatically heartbreaking.
3. The Borgias by G. J. Meyer (Bantam) – The second Italian Renaissance history on our list this time around, this spirited study by Meyer (whose World War I history A World Undone was fantastic, and whose one-volume history of the Tudors is mighty good too) takes a clear, revelatory new look at the era’s most notorious family – and finds nothing at all he was expecting to find. The resulting tone of smart, incredulous outrage that fills the book is extremely entertaining. You can read my full review here.
2. The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Simon & Schuster) – The headlining subject of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest and best book is the personal and political rift between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft that resulted, among other things, in the election of Woodrow Wilson as President. But the book’s other subject – the progressivism of the Roosevelt era and the tight-knit group of muckraking journalists who sharpened their rhetorical skills on the many corporate and social evils of the day – manages to be even more interesting. The combination of the two makes for a mighty involving book. You can read my full review here.
1. Days of God by James Buchan (Simon & Schuster) – Buchan’s incredibly lively, incredibly thoughtful examination of the fundamentalist revolution that gripped Iran in 1979 and plunged the entire world into spasms of violent, unpredictable religious insanity from which it’s still suffering every day is outstanding on every level; not only has Buchan traced the actual roots and details of the revolution with painstaking care, but he’s written it all with passionate prose and a very old-fashioned sense of high dudgeon that make this the best history book of 2013.
December 11th, 2013
“One of the grim pleasures of reading collected letters,” Wilfrid Sheed, a connoisseur of grim pleasures, once wrote, “comes in watching a style being built year by year until it resembles a model prison, with the writer on the inside. ” 2013 saw an exceptionally strong showing of such prisons, so for the first time this guiltiest of literary guilty pleasures gets its own category here in our year-end festivities. “Guilty” pleasure because in almost all cases, such scholar-curated letter collections are presented to the reading public against the explicitly-stated wishes of the correspondents themselves – time and again, the star figure in the collection puts himself on record forbidding any posthumous publication of what he wrote for private consumption, and though professional writers enamored of appending a Byronic “Burn This” even to innocuous one-page chats are always, always lying and would be mortally offended if the recipient actually did so, plenty of people actually don’t want their private laundry annotated and aired in public. So letter collections have an ineradicable allure of gossip about them; it makes them hard to resist, and in 2013 I didn’t resist very much! In fact I read damn near all of them, and these were the best:
10. The Selected Letters of Willa Cather, edited by Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout (Random House) – We start off this inaugural ‘Best Letters’ list (inaugural and perhaps isolated? Who knows what new speciality the books of 2014 will display? Even I, who’ve been reading 2014 books for months now, consider it far too early to tell) with this fat and immensely interesting collection from a writer who very much would have been appalled at the sight of it – and yet, the vaguely forbidden allure holds stronger here than in most such collections, not because of the well-known fleshing-out of Cather’s sexuality but for her surprisingly approachable and sometimes caustic take on the world – and the people – around her. My own reading experience prompts me to say the Willa Cather found in these letters is a hell of a lot more interesting than the Willa Cather found in her books, which have always struck me as severely over-praised … but thanks to Jewell and Stout, I may have to re-think that.
9. Italo Calvino Letters: 1941-1985, edited by Michael Wood, translated by Martin McLaughlin (Princeton University Press) – A little sub-theme in this list this year is the way it’s inadvertently re-positioning some authors for re-appraisals by yours truly in the near future, and this splendid Calvino volume is a perfect case-in-point: as with the dreary, ham-handed fiction of Willa Cather, as with the … well, the everything-ever-written of T.S. Eliot, so too with Calvino, whose slim novels have always struck me as just so much mugging for the camera – and yet the Calvino writing these letters, an immensely cultured and puckish man I instantly wanted to know better, wrote those novels! And so, since I loved this volume so much, I must re-visit all those books in light of this one. It’s a great letter-anthology that can do such a thing.
8. The Selected Letters of Anthony Hect, edited by Jonathan Post (Johns Hopkins University Press) – As with so many of the writers on this list, Hecht could often erect a facade of literate, cultured bonhomie that was at dire odds with the boredom or panic he was feeling, and although he sometimes did something similar in his letters, a more disturbing and appealing vulnerability peaks through. You can read my full review here.
7. The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 4: 1928-1929, edited by Valerie Eliot and John Haffenden (Yale University Press) – Long before the grizzled old legend and borderline crackpot, there was Eliot the brilliant reader, editor, and deadline-prose writer, and that’s the Eliot captured in this wonderfully-researched volume, by far the most entertaining so far in Yale’s ongoing publication of the Eliot correspondence. You can read my full review here.
6. The Letters of Paul Cezanne, edited by Alex Danchev (J. Paul Getty Museum) – Danchev, whose 2012 biography of Cezanne was so deeply thoughtful, returns to the master in this sparkling collection of freshly-translated letters that show the man in all his steadfast dedication and infrequent volubility, all of it underpinned by Danchev’s typically wonderful critical apparatus. This Cezanne is no great shakes as a letter writer (but then, not many people, even great prose artists, tend to be), but his personality animates everything he wrote so fascinatingly – and charmingly – that the reading is irresistible.
5. Reason and Imagination: The Selected Correspondence of Learned Hand, edited by Constance Jordan (Oxford University Press) – The austere and forbidding sepia print Oxford picked for the cover of this fantastic and long-needed collection of the letters of the great jurist Learned Hand perhaps does a disservice to the leaping, often playful mind contained in these correspondences, but readers won’t have to go far into this volume to encounter it, and along the way they’ll get to know one of the most penetrating and sometimes controversial legal minds America has ever produced.
4. The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin Sandler (Bloomsbury Press) – This is a comparatively short book and a necessarily discreet one, and those are its only flaws. But even the mostly polite (and mostly official – in other words, carefully proofed and routinely redacted by JFK’s faithful secretary Evelyn Lincoln, who was often far more of the President’s “auxiliary brain” than Ted Sorensen ever was, only without the grandstanding) selections provided here richly display Kennedy’s sharp wit and equally sharp insight, and Sandler’s accompanying curations are winningly non-intrusive.
3. The Selected Letters of William Styron, edited by Rose Styron and R. Blakeslee Gilpin (Random House) – This one is technically a late 2012 publication, but it got to me too late for inclusion in last year’s list and is far, far too good not to be included on this one! This is a brimmingly human collection, showing Styron in all his many mental registers as he recounts in quasi-Rablesian terms the clashes and triumphs of his writing life, first to his colleagues and peers in the trenches and then, later, to the younger crop of writers to whom he was a problematic but challenging mentor-figure. If 2013 was a standout year for ‘selected letters,’ it’s this great book (and William Shawcross’ surprisingly wonderful collection of the Queen Mother’s correspondence, also from late in 2012) that kicked it off.
2. The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press) – This is another of those ‘selected letters’ volumes that any sane reader would wish were five times as long (and so prolific a correspondent was Bernstein that such a mammoth volume could theoretically be assembled – and may yet be, we can hope). Here is all the man’s irrepressible spirit, his uncontrolled hyperbole, his unfeigned interest in all things, even the easily-imagined echo of his glutinous, infectious laugh. Simeone’s editorial apparatus is excellent, but these letters would shine like bright suns (what a joy it must have been to get one in the mail) no matter what their setting.
1. Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963, edited by Katherine Powers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – I thought the critical reception given this great, sad, heartwarming book – the best Letters volume of 2013 – by the professional punditry class in the United States this year was puzzling enough almost to be disgraceful. Space was allotted to the book (which is almost always a boon of some kind), but usually the space was allotted in order to warn readers that the space ought not to have been allotted – that Powers, essentially, isn’t a literary figure worthy of this kind of careful, archival attention, even from his own daughter. This “readers who like this sort of thing will probably like this sort of thing” passive-aggressive sniffing informed even some of the critical appraisals that seemed most praising on the surface, and it’s a shame; it downplays what is here a magnificent achievement on Katherine Powers’ part, a painstaking reconstruction of the heart and mind of one of America’s most penetrating satirists – a thoroughly daring act of empathy from a first-rate critic in her own right.