Another sub-genre that’s pleased me greatly for a great deal of my reading life has likewise been unjustly neglected here in my year-end summings-up, despite how much I invariably write about it during the year itself: my dear Penny Press, the pieces poor paid hacks (of various pedigrees) create for the ravening maw of newspapers, magazines, and now the Internet. Some genuinely first-rate writing happens in such venues, of course, and it’s high time I acknowledged that fact here – with a couple of provisos, of course. First, I thought it best to exclude anything connected with Open Letters Monthly, for propriety’s sake. And second, the periodicals – unlike with books to anything like the same degree – calling a list like this with almost a whole month still to go means running the risk of excluding some great pieces. I don’t see any way to avoid that, but if I do a list like this next year, I’ll make sure to cast my net back an extra month, in an attempt to catch everything worth catching. But that still leaves PLENTY of great items from among the countless pieces I read this year! Here are the ten best:
10. “Do We Really Want to Live without the Post Office?” by Jesse Lichtenstein (Esquire) – This surprisingly emotional piece from February outlined the parlous state of the PO’s finances and deployed dozens of fascinating facts (“The postal service handles almost half of the entire planet‘s mail” or the more creepy “… a federal employee literally touches every house in America every day but Sunday”)
9. “My Son and the Bear” by William Broyles (Outside) – Vietnam veteran Broyles’ story of encountering an enormous grizzly bear while hiking Alkali Basin in Wyoming with his ten-year-old son made for some heart-stopping reading (the regular if too infrequent appearance of stories like this one is why I’ve been reading Outside for so long), and some of its lessons resonate beautifully:
Next time we came to the mountains, we’d be ready, not that it would make any difference. We hadn’t earned a next time. The bear had given it to us. Grace came as a gift from unexpected givers. And if you weren’t grateful, if you didn’t thank God or nature or the Great Spirit for your life, your children, for being granted the moment to walk on the earth, then a bear might as well eat you and shit you out as a green puddle.
8. “High Notes to Low and Back” by Michael Downes (TLS) – Despite constituting by far the largest percentage of Penny Press pieces I read in any given year, actual book reviews hardly feature on this list at all, mainly because the call-and-response nature of most such reviews makes them essentially incomplete without the possession – or at least the awareness – of the book under review. But for Downes’ witty, knowing review of Michael Steen’s Great Operas, I’ll make an exception, and for passages like this:
Opera is strange on a number of levels; almost always a narrative form, it is intended – one would think – to tell a story, and yet the way in which words are set conspires against that story being understood; the techniques required to project operatic voices (particularly female ones) into huge auditoria also make it almost impossible to distinguish words. In earlier eras, audiences often prepared for performances by studying the libretto; today’s ubiquitous subtitles remove that need, but also draw attention away from the stage and cause problems of timing. If comprehensibility is an issue, so to is plausibility; why do these people sing instead of speaking?
7. “The Aga Khan’s Earthly Kingdom” by James Reginato (Vanity Fair) – It’s a classic Vanity Fair piece: in factually comprehensive and smilingly cosmopolitan prose, Reginato takes his readers inside the previously closed world of Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of millions of Muslims worldwide (who only a small handful of VF‘s readers will remember as an affable, toothy Harvard student complaining about Boston’s “unbearable” cold while browsing the Brattle Bookshop outdoor book-carts) and also a philanthropist with a global reach:
Aga Khan IV is thus both philanthropist and venture capitalist. But the high level of synergy he maintains between his nonprofit and commercial activities is probably unique in the world. All of the surpluses from his profitmaking companies are re-invested in his development work. “He has a very fine mid for investing – and he does a bloody good job balancing the task of increasing his capital with that of advancing the needs of his followers,” says former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, a good friend. “At the end of the day, he is looking for human profits.”
6. “More Mating” by Ruth Franklin (The New Republic) – There will always be room on a list such as this for the fine art of the literary take-down, and 2013 saw no takedown more intelligent and more remorseless than this savage evisceration by Franklin of Norman Rush’s latest novel Subtle Bodies, which is disassembled on a sub-molecular level until it all but vanishes from human history. Franklin is wrong about the book – just completely, hopelessly, point-by-point wrong – but she’s still a joy to watch in action:
I dwell on Mating because it is the existence of that book – and to a lesser extent Mortals, its less remarkable but still very fine successor – that makes Rush’s newest book so bewildering. Were it the work of anyone else, Subtle Bodies (even the title is beneath him) would be simply a failure; a novel that never quite gets moving and still feels incomplete, with an unsubstantial plot and characters who are either too weird or too banal to merit the time spent contemplating them. But the fact that it is a novel by Norman Rush makes it an interesting failure, not only because it shows how even a great writer can take a terrible misstep but because it reveals the problems inherent in his fictional method.
5. “Enemy Inside the Wire” by Matthieu Aikins (GQ) – Aikins’ account of the day in 2012 when fifteen Taliban dressed as American soldiers snuck into Camp Bastion, the sprawling and supposedly impregnable US air base in Afghanistan and started killing people and blowing things up reads like the world’s most intelligent action-movie screenplay, and yet it’s scrupulously reconstructed from first-hand accounts, through which Aikins traces – and unfailingly dramatizes – an opportunistic raid the US originally tried to cover up:
Meanwhile, the second and third teams of Taliban fighters passed unimpeded through the hole in the perimeter fence. One five-man group, bent low with the weight of their ammunition, ran to the cryo facility, a lab between the fence and the fight line where Marines produced oxygen and nitrogen for their jets … The other group of five moved purposefully toward their next target: the fuel farms, massive rubber bladders set inside earth embankments and with enough jet fuel to supply the whole air wing.
They would make perfect bombs.
4. “The Homeless Herd” by Rowan Jacobsen (Harper’s) – This gripping and ultimately heartbreaking story about an Indian village engaged in a protracted battle of wills and fences with a persistent herd of elephants is exactly the sort of thing Harper’s can still do to perfection: paint a moving portrait of a problem most readers would find utterly alien. The villagers in Jacobsen’s story, wanting to protect their fields and granaries from a herd of elephants, find themselves facing a truly alien mind:
“It’s difficult to prove an elephant’s intelligence … They don’t have a monkeylike intelligence. ‘Intelligence’ isn’t even the right word. It’s more like wisdom. They can sense things. They know what to do. They’ll take whatever a situation offers them and use it to their best advantage. And they don’t aggravate situations. Unlike monkeys.”
3. “The Comeback Artist” by Clive James (The Atlantic) – When it comes to that rare phenomenon I mentioned above – a book review that also functions as something broader and more independent – Clive James has been writing little else for his entire career in criticism. This piece, ostensibly a review of Franco Mormando’s Bernini: His Life and His Rome (and not just ostensibly: the book gets a very efficient drubbing), sparkles like all the rest of James’ critical work with his own understanding and showmanship:
It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events.
2. “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman (Rolling Stone) – The controversy that briefly surrounded this story (there were sporadic boycotts of the issue in Boston) in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings centered on the magazine’s decision to put the comely, soft-focus face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two bombers, on the cover. Protesters thought it glamorized the young killer, but it actually underscores the point of Reitman’s completely absorbing account of how bizarre it is that a normal Cambridge, Mass. kid could become a terrorist. Reitman talks to all “Jahar”s friends and schoolmates in order to present a composite view that’s all the more unsettling for being so ordinary – and yet Reitman herself maintains some distance in her sympathies, perfectly written in her piece’s conclusion, where the bomber’s friends learn that upon waking up in the hospital, he cried for two days:
No one in the group had heard this yet, and when I mention it, Alyssa gives an anguished sigh of relief. “That’s good to know,” she says.
“I can definitely see him doing that,” says Sam, gratefully. “I hope he’s crying. I’d definitely hope…”
“I hope he’d wake up and go, ‘What the fuck did I do the last 48 hours?’ says Jackson, who decides, along with the others, that this, the crying detail, sounds like Jahar.
But, then again, no one knows what he was crying about.
1. “The American Boy” by Daniel Mendelsohn (The New Yorker) – Considering my own life-long appreciation of the historical fiction of Mary Renault, whose Alexander the Great novels Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy I’ve re-read (and gifted) more times than I can count, it’s not surprising that this piece by Mendelsohn grabbed my attention. But what did surprise me about it, what somehow always surprises me about this particular writer, is the understated but stunning bravery with which he interweaves himself into so many of his subjects – most certainly including these novels of Mary Renault, with whom he had a tentative correspondence that forms the spine of this, the single best Penny Press piece of 2013. As in so many of his best books (The Elusive Embrace, most especially The Lost), he makes the confessional starkly beautiful:
Reading Renault’s books, I felt a shock of recognition. The silent watching of other boys, the endless strategizing about how to get their attention, the fantasies of finding a boy to love, and be loved by, “best”: all this was agonizingly familiar. I knew something about pothos, and thought of the humiliating lengths to which it could drive me – the memorizing of certain boys’ class schedules or bus routes, the covert shuffling of locker assignments. I was astonished, halfway through Fire from Heaven, to find that this kind of thing had always been happening. Until that moment, I had never seen my secret feelings reflected anywhere.