Posts from January 2017

January 16th, 2017

The Travels of Mark Twain!

travels of mark twainOur book today at first almost seems like a blasphemy: it’s The Travels of Mark Twain from 1961, and its seeming blasphemy comes from the fact that Charles Neider is its editor rather than its author. Rather than a work of history and analysis about Mark Twain’s extensive travels, as its title might indicate, it’s an anthology of highlights from Twain’s accounts of those travels – and since those writings are some of the best stuff he ever produced (and since, for instance, one of those books, Life on the Mississippi, always vied with the unreadable Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in Twain’s own mind as the best book he ever wrote), the shrill question immediately arises: what kind of barbarian would want to read an anthology of bits and pieces when he could read the whole, unabridged, glorious works themselves?

In one sense, there’s no good answer to that question. Twain was an omnivorously engaging writer, but he had a particular flair for travel-writing, and his many books and collections of it are endlessly enjoyable (and have no dud pages). An anthology of bits and pieces from those book will strike die-hard Twain fans as merely a sacrilegious butchering.

But there are a couple of good answers to the question nevertheless. The first is that die-hard Twain fans have to come from someplace, and for over a hundred years, especially when it comes to books that aren’t Huckleberry Finn, that place is usually an anthology of some kind. And the second is that this particular anthology is superb.

It’s superb thanks to Charles Neider, who was in his day was the best Mark Twain popularizer in the world. He had a complete command of the man’s sprawling life’s work, which put him in the perfect position to assemble selections of that work, selections designed to invite, designed to make die-hard Twain fans out of curious dabblers. Probably the most popular of the anthologies Neider crafted was his “Autobiography” of Twain, but this generous 1961 volume, with its thick pages and deckled edges, does excellent service for its readers, despite some ominously phlegmy moments in the Introduction, as when Neider writes about The Innocents Abroad, “Nor can one overlook the book’s technical skill – for example, the subtle shifts of tense from past to present to give sudden vividness to scene and description, or the wise, sly avoidance of much use of the first-person pronoun, suggesting that the author’s opinions and reactions are typical.” You can practically hear Twain drawling, “You figure I’m doin’ all that, Seymour?”

But the simple truth is that Twain wrote a great heaping pile of travel-writing, including Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator, and A Tramp Abroad … and an expertly-chosen anthology like this one can come as a godsend, especially to the bewildered newcomer to Twain, wondering where to start.

It’s more than that, also: Neider isn’t just making things easy. Thanks to his amazing knowledge of Twain’s writing, he’s able to zero in on one especially outstanding excerpt after another and fit them all smoothly into an over-arching narrative of his own construction. And some of the aspects of Twain’s relationship to his subject might come as a surprise even to those die-hard Twain fans. Neider is surely right to characterize the whole field of writing as something of a job for its author:

He was on the whole a conventional traveler who treasured his comforts and was content to go where others had gone before. One suspects that he went to California mainly because of its proximity to Nevada and that he liked San Francisco largely because he could pursue his trade there while enjoying a society which by the standards of his childhood and youth was extremely cosmopolitan. As far as I know he did not visit Monterey (the old Pacific capital), the missions, Sutter’s fort, or the village of Los Angeles. It is a pity; his impressions would be worth having. He made no effort to penetrate into Africa. He did not bother to record his week in Spain near the end of the Holy Land excursion. In later years, despite many visits to Europe, he did not go to Spain, Greece, Russia or any of the other places where travel was likely to be uncomfortable. He liked the well-padded trails: England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy.

And true to form, he finds the perfect quote from Twain himself, a cold-water quote if ever there was one:

An indefatigable traveller! That’s where I am misunderstood. Now I have mad thirty-four long journeys in my life, and thirty-two of them were made under the spur of absolute compulsion. I mean it – under nothing but sheer compulsion. There always was an imperative reason. I had to gather material for books or sketches. I had to stump around lecturing to make money, or I had to go abroad for the health or education of my family. For love of travel – never any of these thirty-two journeys. There is no man living who cares less about seeing new places and peoples than I. You are surprised – but it’s the gospel truth.

It’s hard to reconcile this kind of dour grousing with the absolutely infectious enthusiasm of the travel-writings themselves, which certainly don’t read like the expressions of somebody who isn’t interested in seeing new places and meeting new people. It’s no doubt one of the reasons why Neider chose to put such a quote right at the beginning of the anthology: so readers can hear the author’s own disclaimer … and then get swept away by the excerpts themselves. And Neider is so good at picking his bits and pieces that a book like this functions as much as a “greatest hits” album as an invitation to newcomers. Either way, it’s a mighty delightful thing to have on the Twain shelf.

January 12th, 2017

Artful Dodgers and Fartful Codgers in the Penny Press!


I couldn’t help but be charmed by the long essay by Joseph Epstein in last week’s Weekly Standard, despite its barrage of annoying ticks and quirks. The piece is called “Hitting Eighty,” and it’s the latest (and – sad thought – the last?) in what turns out to be a little series of pieces Epstein has written about his own aging. He’s a marvelously companionable writer most of the time, even when navigating a subject like this one, which is bound to make just about anybody sound like an egotistical prig.

epstein1Epstein has never needed much help in that department, mainly owing to his Mencken-style habit of industriously mining the nearest Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and then trying, without any success ever, to pass it off as a feat of offhanded oh-can’t-everybody-do-it ease. Try to imagine what, for instance, a paragraph like this one would have looked like if you’d shaken its author awake at 4 in the morning to write it:

I’ll accept the “old” part. One of the dangers of being old – for the moment setting death aside – is that one tends to overvalue the past. Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, writes: “Men do always, but not always with reason, commend the past and condemn the present … [and] extol the days when they remember their youth to have been spent.” Santayana holds that the reason the old have nothing but foreboding about the future is that they cannot imagine a world that is any good without their being in it. The temptation, when among contemporaries, is to lapse into what I call crank, in which everything in the past turns out to have been superior to anything in the present. Not true, of course, but oddly pleasant to indulge – even though one knows, as Noel Coward, who later in his life himself indulged in crank, had it, “There is no future in the past.”

But when he’s not quoting Santayana, Epstein is time and again insightful on the many little victories and many, many more little defeats of reaching what even the most generous of friends would have to call old age. He tells us that he’s been very lucky in the lottery of general health, and his body of work in the last decade attests to the fact that his literary powers aren’t yet suffering with time. He mentions that he can still pull his pants on while standing up, a great little detail that will seem utterly banal to anybody, say, under 30 but that will resonate just a bit with his dwindling target demographic. He also mentions one of the nice fringe benefits of visible old age: the freedom to compliment young people on their appearance without immediately being the subject of a police inquiry.

In fact, only one passage in the essay gave me pause:

As for books, I mentioned to someone the other day that I was slowly reading my way through Theodor Mommsen’s majestic four-volume History of Rome. “You don’t read any crappy books, do you?” he said. With the grave yawning, I replied, why would I? As a literary man, I used to make an effort to keep up with contemporary novels and poetry, but no longer feel it worth the effort. No more 500- and 600-page novels for me written by guys whose first name is Jonathan. I have given the current batch of English novelists – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – a fair enough shot to realize I need read no more of them; their novels never spoke to me, and are less likely than ever to do so now. I glimpse poems in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and in the few literary quarterlies to which I still subscribe; but none stick in the mind, and poor poetry itself has come to see little more than an intramural sport, restricted in interest largely to those people who continue to write the stuff.

Not only is this, as mentioned, wincingly self-serving (You don’t read any crappy books, do you? tlscoverWell, do you?), but it’s also genuinely a little alarming. A life-long reader and book-reviewer who can write such a passage has made a great many more concessions to the Grim Reaper than he’s willing to admit, maybe even to himself. No longer worth the effort? When the whole literary life is comprised of just that effort? As I said: alarming.

Fortunately, elsewhere in the Penny Press I was able to find an old duffer firing away on all cylinders, although in this case it was a very old duffer, not quite firing away as echoing the cannon-shot of yesteryear. The mighty TLS reprinted a sparkling piece written by Anthony Burgess back in 1972 in which he writes delightfully about that same aspect of the literary life, the omnipresence of reviews, both the reading of them and the writing of them. For all that I might disagree with him on this and every other subject, I could read Burgess on reviewing until the cows come home:

But of ordinary reviews – those one finds in the Sundays or weeklies – it is hard to say anything good. Even when they praise, they cannot resist cleverness at the expense of the reviewed: they approve, but from a height: they imply that their own prescription for a good piece of writing seems to have been fulfilled: this patient is fit enough, but, of course, he will have to watch his health. When they dispraise, they neither damage the sale of the book – whose quality the reader must find out for himself anyway – nor help the writer to reform his fault. Usually the writer knows far better than the reviewer what his faults are, and if he could get rid of them he would.

Of course he can’t raise the subject without going over yet again the trouble he got into when he reviewed one of his own books under a pen-name, but I’d rather have such artful dodging any day of the week from a dead author than a pallid “I need read no more of them” from a living one.

January 11th, 2017

Comics: The Lure of the Artwork!


The week’s comics reflected a very, very old pattern of mine: buying for artists rather than writers. It would be wrong to say that for most of my comics-buying life I cared atariforcemuch more about a title’s artwork than about its writing; far closer to the truth to say I didn’t care about the writing at all – to the point where I’d routinely buy issues or even entire runs of books whose writing, the actual characters and plots, didn’t interest me in the slightest. If John Romita Jr. drew Iron Man, then I’d buy the latest Iron Man, even though the character bored me spitless. If Dave Gibbons drew Green Lantern, I’d buy the latest Green Lantern, even though the character was tedium incarnate. This even applied when my favorite artists were, shall we say, miscast in their latest art chores. When the mighty Gene Colan briefly drew Wonder Woman, I dutifully bought the issues, even though he made Wonder Woman look like Bella Abzug’s older sister. When the sublime artistry of Michael Golden was lavished on Micronauts, or the equally-sublime artistry of José Luis García-López lavished on Atari Force, I not only micronautsloyally bought the issues but also loyally write letters praising the artwork.

Friends over the decades pointed out that this could be construed as a standing insult to the very medium I professed to love. “What you’re saying is that it doesn’t matter how well or poorly the issues are written,” one such friend (who’s since gone on to write some mighty fine comics himself) would argue on fragrant evenings in Madison. “Which means you’re saying they CAN’T be well-written enough to get your money gibbonslanterneven if you don’t like the artist.”

I confess, at the time and for the longest time afterwards, the very idea of buying a comic for the writing alone – a comic whose artwork did nothing for me – was simply bewildering to me. After all, weren’t comic books an entirely visual medium?

I didn’t quite track the exact period when that predisposition changed, but here in the 21st century, jrjrironmanit’s certainly different. The writing in superhero comics has been steadily improving since the 1990s, to the point where the baseline level of complexity and humor in 2017 is easily enough to keep me reading an ongoing title even if it’s drawn by Barry Kitson.

So I was given a little jolt of nostalgia this week when I realized that as random chance would have it, the latest issues I was buying were chosen entirely because of their artwork. For instance, there was the third issue of Marvel’s Occupy Avengers, written by David Walker and drawn by the great Carlos Pacheco. The series seems to be following the Avenger Hawkeye as he travels across America slowly and gradually accumulating a team of weak-ass third-string superheroes to fight local crimes. The writing is slangy and occavengerscoverenergetic, but Walker inexplicably makes Hawkeye not only a weakling (in this issue he takes a beating from Nighthawk that, as Pacheco draws it, should have left him blind and severely crippled) but a bad shot – but I’ve been haweye1buying the issues anyway, because I wouldn’t miss any work done by Pacheco.

Likewise the great Lee Weeks, who does the art for issue #7 of DC’s new Titans title, featuring grown-up “Rebirth”-continuity versions of the Teen Titans. There’s Nightwing, Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Speedy … but the usual messy post “New 52” continuity makes a hash of who knows who, who’s always known who, etc. Luckily, the issue’s writer, Dan Abnett, makes up a lot of this lost ground by crafting instantly likable versions of all these characters – although even that little toe-hold is pried loose in this issue by the appearance of the “Rebirth”-titanscovercontinuity Superman, who hails from the same pre-reboot universe as Kid Flash. The two of them have a muddled and halting talk about it in this issue, just matter-of-factly discussing the fact that they now live in an alternate reality in which none of their old friends and loved ones titans1remember their old relationships. Superman’s best theory? “Something weird is definitely going on.” These characters, the ones readers have followed for decades, would ordinarily be banding together and stopping at nothing to return to their own home reality … but since DC wants the “Rebirth” continuity to further the “New 52” reboot rather than re-write it, our two survivors here simply accept the loss of their earlier lives. Which is wwcoverpretty maddening.

I expected to be maddened by the third issue under consideration this time around, and it, too, I bought for its art: issue #14 of the “Rebirth” Wonder Woman, written by Greg Rucka and drawn magnificently by Nicola Scott. I hadn’t been reading this title prior to noticing this issue, so I was coming aboard deep inside an ongoing story chronicling the “Rebirth”-version of Wonder Woman’s first year in Man’s World. In this issue, Wonder Woman and wwSteve Trevor are fighting the evil war-god Ares, and maybe it’s Rucka’s vision of the early years of the character, but I absolutely loved the issue; the glowering, sword-wielding savage “New 52” version the Amazon princess is nowhere in evidence – this version has the glowing lariat but no sword at all, and her costume is brightly-colored, and her nature is full if caring optimism; it was like getting the best version of the character back again for a single issue … and drawn with delightful grace by Scott.

There were other issues on the stands this week, plenty of them, and given the merry-go-round of creators on most comics these days, the great artists featured in these issues will probably be gone next month. But for now, it was great to snap up some comics for my oldest reason.

January 9th, 2017

The Inevitable Guest!

inevitable-guestOur book today is The Inevitable Guest: A Survival Guide to Being Company & Having Company on Cape Cod, a spirited but ultimately hopeless 2000 book by Marcia Monbleau, writing from the hallowed precincts of Harwich Port. I took it down from its shelf in a perversely contrarian moment, since the book is about the complications of being and receiving guests to an old Cape Cod house … during the summer. Guests don’t “stop by” Cape Cod during the winter, especially to the glory of the region, the unweatherized saltbox – but as any owner of such a blessed plot can attest, guests are forever finding reasons to “stop by” during summer (even though, as Monbleau points out, the Cape is sufficiently out of the way so that nobody actually “stops by” – rather, they “make a beeline”). The perversity comes into the picture because Boston is currently bitterly cold and probably on the doorstep of a two-month block of glacial misery; the region is about as far away as it can get from the season of Monbleau’s guests – which makes re-reading the book curiously extra-enjoybable.

This is a sarcastic little treat of a book, full of salty Cape Cod humor. The ruling impression lurking behind all of the advice and warnings in these pages is, ironically enough, that the Cape can be cranky, unpredictable, er, inhospitable place. “Bringbeach clothes for hot weather,” our host warns, for instance, “warm weather, cold weather and rain. (That’s one day.)” Guests should prepare in case of rain, of course, and one of the main preparations for it is simple – don’t bring kids: “Presumably they will be putting the dog in a kennel or leaving their cat with food on the floor and an open window. See if they can make either of those arrangements for the children.”

But there’s an exception:

However, guests with infants should be encouraged to bring them. Children who are not yet ambulatory are welcome in most places. They arrive in a tote bag, can be placed on the floor and are unable to move. As long as you don’t step on them they’re quite pleasant to have around, and you have proven yourself to be child-friendly.

Despite the fact that The Inevitable Guest is all about how magnetically house-guests are pulled to reluctant Cape houses, Monbleau is clear over and over about how magnetically repulsive most old Cape houses are when it comes to accommodating visitors. The roofs are low and slanted, the stairs are so steep and narrow that they used to be called “ladders,” the mystical phenomenon of mildew is omnipresent, the windows are closed and crowded with treasures (“fishies, antique cup plates, stained glass, crystal prisms – anything that looks pretty with sunlight shining through”), and guest-windowthe everyday furniture doesn’t seem to want to be used: “The procedure for opening any drawer on the Cape is as follows: take hold of the two pulls or knobs, begin a rocking, side-to-side, pulling-pushing motion and have someone standing behind you to break your fall when the thing finally lets go.”

In her friendly-but-prickly way, Monbleau tries to make it clear that the occasionally primitive amenities of the old Cape house are more than countered by the glories of the place – as grudging and partial as those glories can be:

On a good day, New England has the best weather in the world. That perfection is appreciated all the more because of oogy days in between. The Cape has pea soup fog, rain, black clouds and gale force winds; later the same day it has blue sky, silky ocean and perfumed air. What it does not have are tornadoes, flash floods, six-month droughts, sandstorms, earthquakes or 150 inches of snow in the winter.

Re-reading The Inevitable Guest of course brought back all kinds of warm Cape memories (of Harwich Port, among other places), both as a guest and as a host. But these days, the key word is that “warm.”

January 5th, 2017

Penguins on Parade: Percy Bysshe Shelley!


Some Penguin Classics almost play tricks on your memory, you’re so certain you’ve seen them before in earlier editions. Surely, for instance, any sizable US Penguin Classics library going back a few decades will already have a big fat volume of Percy Bysshe Shelley?

And yet no! When I first clapped eyes on the big, beautiful new Penguin Classics Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley edited by Jack Donovan and Cian Duffy, I automatically scanned my memory – and my shelves – for its predecessor, something along the lines of two fat volumes of Wordsworth poems that the publisher put out forty years ago, or the great John penguin-shelleyBarnard edition of the complete poetry of Keats that Penguin brought years ago. And the more I searched, the more amazed I became to think that there might not actually be such a predecessor, that this might actually be the first big, generous scholarly volume of Shelley that Penguin Classics has ever done in this country.

Better late than never, I guess, particularly because this new Penguin volume is absolutely wonderful, nearly 1000 pages of poems, prose, copious notes, and a feisty Introduction in which the “extraordinary output” that has “come to be recognized as one of the major literary contributions to the English Romantic Movement” is examined through a perspective I of course found especially entertaining: Shelley as Box Office Poison, the enfant terrible who managed to get plenty of reviews despite being an upstart unknown – but who also managed to get disproportionately nasty reviews from all and sundry when, as our editors put it, “a number of factors combined to deny him the audience that he persisted in seeking in the face of both widespread disregard and outright hostility.” Donovan and Duffy outline some of that outright hostility and shrewdly point out that such was the capacious spread of Shelley’s innovative genius that his carping critics often had to take aim at only one aspect or fragment of the strange, beautiful, unaccountable work that had crossed their desks:

Remarkably, for a writer whose works did not enjoy wide circulation, Shelley’s volumes of verse were regularly reviewed in contemporary literary periodicals. These notices encompass a more extreme range of opinion than that provoked by any major English poet of the Romantic period. The Shelley that emerges from them is not a single figure but several, usually portrayed in striking colours, not infrequently from the garish quarter of the palette. The most egregious instance of this kind is the vain, sour, querulous, ignorant and vicious individual who is sketched in a review of Laon and Cynthia/The Revolt of Islam in the April 1819 number of the Quarterly Review.

I lost myself for an entire evening in this Penguin Selected Poetry and Prose, which only has competition as a one-volume edition of this poet from the thick 2003 Oxford University Press volume Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Major Works – and once again, as always when I read much of this author, I found myself wondering with a kind of nagging sadness what marvels he might have created if he’d lived to 60, or 50, or 40, or even 31. Even in his short life, he wrote well over 400 poems, a startlingly high percentage of which read like the finished products of a much older poet; the imagination quivers a bit at the thought of what might have been.

A nice big Penguin Classic like this one is all the consolation such thoughts will ever have, but as consolations go, it’s a mighty good one.

January 4th, 2017

Comics This Week: Three DC Classics!


A crackerjack week at the comics shop here in Boston, and while I was reading and really enjoying the three new issues I bought at the Android’s Dungeon, I couldn’t help but notice that these are characters I’ve been reading about for a long, long time! I got the latest issues of three iconic superheroes, and I encountered no scraggly beards, no amnesiac A-holes, no hooks for hands … instead, thanks to the recent “Rebirth” revamp at DC Comics, I encountered more or less classic versions of these characters, written for adults, paced to please on an issue-by-issue basis, and drawn with a cinematic level of detail that had me studying individual panels in order to catch all the details.

To put it mildly, none of this is true these days when I read Marvel titles, in which the current incarnations of both Thor and Iron Man are women, in which there are two different Captains America, one of whom is the Falcon and the other of whom has been, it seems, a murderous Hydra-agent traitor for his entire career, in which the new Hulk is a wisecracking Asian kid in complete control of his powers and the old Hulk is dead (killed in cold blood by Hawkeye, who we’re still supposed to consider a hero), in which Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Professor X are all dead, in which there are four separate Avengers teams, none of which know or work with any of the others and the members of which don’t know or like each other, in which there are roughly a dozen Spider-Men, and in which there’s no Fantastic Four … so, basically, a company that’s doing Doctor Strange right and only Doctor Strange right.

How refreshing, then, to turn to DC Comics’s “Rebirth” line for the week! These were the issues I read:

aquaman14Aquaman #14: This is the third chapter in “The Deluge,” a big, fast-paced storyline in which a mysterious third party is manipulating events to drive the United States and Aquaman’s undersea kingdom of Atlantis to the brink of war, and it’s in this issue – written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Philippe Briones (with a stunning pastel cover by Joshua Middleton, depicting the classic, smiling, golden-haired, golden-armored version of the character that I fear will disappear as soon as Jason Momoa’s hulking, scowling, dreadlocked version shows up on movie screens in the Justice League movie) – that our hero finallyaquaman66 gets the key clue he needs in order to figure out who the unseen manipulator is. The identity won’t really be a shock to any long-time readers of this character (Aquaman only has two super-villains to call his own), but the thing I did find shocking about this issue was the matter-of-fact way Abnett introduces the chapter’s threat, a group of “Aquamarine” soldiers who attack Aquaman in Atlantis – as a covert kill-team explicitly tasked by the US government with straight-up assassinating Aquaman, the head of a foreign power. And equally shocking is the way our hero simply accepts it: “The spec ops removal of the leader of a rogue nation is considered fair game.” It’s a pretty damn cynical sentiment, something straight out of Abnett’s books, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked how it underscores the fact that, super-villains aside, Aquaman deals with entirely different kinds of threats than his fellow members of the Justice League.

superman-14Superman #14: This is the first installment of a new story-arc called “Multiplicity,” written by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason (with fantastic artwork comprised of layouts by Ivan Reis and finishes by Joe Prado, with some really standout colors by Marcelo Maiolo), in which some unknown super-villain is traversing the many dimensions of the multi-verse, collecting each reality’s version of Superman. In this first issue, our Superman encounters the alternate-reality Russian Superman (from Mark Millar’s fan-favorite 2003 mini-series), beaten and battered, being hunted by the energy-wielding minions of this mystery villain (since the classic Superman only had one villain who specializedsuperman66 in collecting Kryptonians, I’m betting I can guess who this bad guy turns out to be). Without much time to think, the two are suddenly confronted by these minions (“We fight until there is no one left standing,” the Russian Superman says, and our Superman responds, “Sounds like a plan”). They pull out a win and are joined by interdimensional good guys calling themselves “Justice League Incarnate” (“I kind a had a feeling you were going to say something like that,” Superman deadpans), and the stage is set for the tracking down of the bad guy and the liberating of dozens of captive Supermen, and the whole issue is done with a no-fuss panache that I instantly liked. From this first issue, it looks like “Multiplicity” will be a Superman storyline that doesn’t very much feature the Man of Steel’s supporting cast, but over the last year I’ve learned to trust this particular creative team not to disappoint.

batman-14Batman #14: I’m coming to this particular story-arc after its hullaballoo is over; this issue, part one of a two-part coda called “Rooftops,” apparently comes immediately after an arc in which Catwoman has been found guilty of hundreds of murders (which Batman doesn’t believe she committed) and sentenced to life in prison without parole. As this issue begins, Batman is ready to deliver her to the police himself, but she asks him to wait until morning, to share one last nightbatman66 of freedom on the rooftops of Gotham with her: “They can have my life, without parole. But this night, right here … tonight. Look at it, Bat … It’s a diamond,. It shines.” The whole issue, written by Tom King with absolutely gorgeous artwork, inking, and coloring by Mitch Gerads, is the funny, bittersweet, and ultimately very moving tale of that night, perfectly capturing both the very different natures of these two characters and the pitched chemistry writers have created between them for, well, a long, long time. There’s no endless Bat-cast in this issue, no grittier-than-ever super-villains … just two iconic figures delivering involving drama while staying perfectly in character. DC’s “Rebirth” line is starting to lull me into expecting this kind of thing, as wary as I might be.

December 27th, 2016

The Best Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!

Best Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!

We come to the end of our bookish 2016 chimes-ringing with the admittedly vague category of general nonfiction, which can extend to all kinds of reportage and memoir and often, I’ve found, connotes a particular kind of narrative fire, a particular urgency. These works tend to be telling new stories, bearing dispatches from the frontiers of events that are unfolding right before the author’s eyes, and they tend to be more meditation than summation. But no matter how I might define the exact parameters of the category, these books were far and away the best examples of it:

way-to-the-spring10. The Way to the Spring by Ben Ehrenreich (Penguin Press) – Ehrenreich’s concentration on one West Bank village and one family in that village serves as the blade by which he slices open the whole broader question of the Israel-Palestine question, and as old a narrative tactic as that is, it works: the book is depressingly gripping from start to finish. You can read my full review here.

9. Against Democracy by Jason Brennan (Princeton against-democracyUniversity Press) – Brennan’s book was long in preparation and appeared in August, but even so, it’s brutally topical. His central contention is that most of the things citizens of democracies tend to think about democracy as a means of government – that it’s fairer than any other system, that it’s more representative than any other system, etc. – are demonstrably wrong, mainly due to the abundance of what came to be known during the 2016 US presidential race as “low-information voters.” These voters – through a jaw-dropping combination of stubbornness, irrationality, and simple stupidity – demonstrated on Election Day 2016 that Brennan’s is completely, incontestably right on all points made in this the-genenow-more-important-than-ever book.

8. The Gene by Siddhartha Mukerjee (Scribner) – The many, many readers who found themselves swept up in Siddhartha Mukerjee’s smart, attentive storytelling in his book The Emperor of All Maladies will find the same combination of scientific knowledge and personal insight on display in his latest book, The Gene, which not only details the amazing story of mankind’s study of its own biological blueprints but also asks plenty of questions about the future of the science. You can read my full review

7. In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (Bloomsbury) – This book – in which novelist and essayist Jenny Diski chronicles not only the highlights of her life but also the process of its ending (due to the lung cancer she assiduously courted in a lifetime of chain-smoking) – was in many ways inevitable; long before Diski made a career out of transmuting her life into writing, she’d made a habit of it. And the resulting narrative is heartbreakingly sad and bittersweet. You can read my full the-last-of-the-lightreview here.

6. The Last of the Light by Peter Davidson (Reaktion) – This slim book was an endless revelation to me. It’s a study of the many roles played in human art and society over the centuries by twilight, that strange, pessimistic stretch of time that’s no longer day but not yet quite night. It’s an easy subject about which to be trite or boring, and virtually every other book or essay I’ve read on the subject has been either trite or boring, but Peter Davidson’s book eye-opening and wonderful, as lovely and gentle and strange as the daily phenomenon it describes.

5. City of Thorns by Ben Rawlence (Picador) – Human rights researcher Ben city-of-thornsRawlence spent the better part of four years visiting and living in the sprawling Kenyan refugee city of Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world, and the stories he tells in this arresting book are like nothing else I read this year, delving into the lives of the men and women (and, most miserably, the children) who live in a place that isn’t and can never be their home, on the sufferance of strangers, in the middle of a desert, seemingly in perpetuity. Rawlence is a clear, merciless narrator of the many injustices folded into Dadaab’s very existence, and children-of-paradisethe book is brilliant.

4. Children of Paradise by Laura Secor (Riverhead Books) – Laura Secor’s searing, emotionally vibrant book is a portrait of contemporary Iran, the weird, contradictory madhouse-nation that sprang out of the 1979 Khomeini revolution in which a wave of murderous religious zealots took over a modern society and began an ongoing experiment in transforming it into a working theocracy. Secor is scrupulously fair to all sides of the resulting society, and she’s especially effective in her portraits of the multifaceted ongoing resistance to that theocracy. The long aftermath of the Iranian Revolution has been waiting for a book like this one.

3. Track Changes by Matthew Kirschenbaum (Belknap Press) – It’s always antrack-changes unsettling and amazing feeling to read the history of a series of events you watched unfold in real time in your own life, and that’s a part of what makes Matthew Kirschenbaum’s history of relatively short lifetime of word processing so fascinating: if you’re online right now, the chances are very good that you’ve experienced four-dimensional-humanmany of the changes detailed in this book personally, and Kirschenbaum writes it all with an infectious flair, which is also true of Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human (WW Norton), a book that tries to assess the changes we’ve all needed to make to our lives, our legal rights, and even our personhood as a result of all that online writingcyberspace-peace and writing and writing. If Track Changes is the best history of word processing I’ve ever read, The Four-Dimensional Human is the best study of how the Internet itself is changing its users. And likewise this year I read the best popular study of cyberspace yet written, Cyberspace in Peace and War by Matthew Libicki (Naval Institute Press), a massive, comprehensive examination of this whole new realm humans have invented in which they can do business, create relationships, and make war. These three books combine to make absolutely essential 21st field-guide-to-liescentury reading.

2. The Field Guide to Lies by Daniel Levitin (Dutton) – In many ways, this great book by Daniel Levitin is the user’s manual to the previous three; it’s a guidebook, a demystifying road-map through the sprawling, infinite wilderness of masterless information that now bombards every person with access to a cellphone. Levitin breaks down not only that mass of information but the ways of thinking that are required to approach it in the first place.the-new-trail-of-tears Absolutely riveting reading.

1. The New Trail of Tears by Naomi Schaefer Riley (Encounter Books) – The best nonfiction book of 2016 was this bleak, unrelenting expose of the current state of the American Indian reservation system, a horrific, hopeless open-air penal system for the innocent, a gulag that combines the systematic injustices of Ben Ehrenreich’s book and Ben Rawlence’s book and then situates them squarely in America, where most Americans firmly believe they’d be impossible. No nonfiction book this year rivaled Riley’s work for its power and urgency.

December 26th, 2016

The Worst Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!


Worst Books of 2016 – Nonfiction!

There was a very annoying strain of worried hand-wringing running through a great deal of the year’s general nonfiction, with a great many authors who ought to know better (and a number who do and were only lying for a paycheck) mounting their platforms to call X, Y, or Z staple of modern life a sure sign of the deterioration of the human species and a harbinger of the End Times. The irony of this tendency was only bitterly underscored by the fact that while all of these authors were publishing their worry wart tracts and embarking on their book tours, the real world they so studiously ignore was easily outdoing them; income inequality grew wider than at any point in modern history, rabid xenophobia took hold everywhere, and for the second time in a century, a powerful industrial Western nation was taken over by Nazis. All of which makes fretting about gluten look even sillier than usual. Such fretting didn’t define all the worst books of 2016, but it had a quorum:

revenge-of-the-analog10. The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter by David Sax (Public Affairs) – This hymnbook for hipsters hauls in just enough faux-research to shore up its contention that “real” – i.e. ostentatiously anachronistic – objects are making a comeback as more and more Williamsburg mustache-waxers come to find the digital life unfulfilling. Virtually none of the book’s exposition is reliable, and its underlying rejection of modernity is as insulting as it is thank-you-for-being-latedisingenuous.

9. Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) – The idiotic Chicken Little theme of so many of the books on the list this time around is on full display in this pile of crap by bestselling bottler of nonfiction bilge-water Thomas Friedman; for page after breathless page, he goes on about how fast-paced and hectic things are these days, and his wandering contentions aren’t only so much unimaginative arm-flailing but also frequently and startlingly stupid (contentions that the carriage-horses of Victorian times would have been the first to object to the combustion engine, for instance). As a “manifesto” for mindfulness, I’d like to say it’s singularly mindless – except it’s got plenty of company.

the-distracted-mind8. The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaky & Larry Rosen (MIT Press) – The opening note of this scatterbrained screed has at least the potential for some worth: that distraction and multi-tasking go hand-in-hand and lead not only to inefficiency but also unhappiness. But the authors bury that opening note under whole symphonies of preposterous hand-wringing about how the smart-screen devices currently in possession of 6.5 billion of the world’s 7 billion humans are making those humans dumber, lazier, and less happy, when all three of those things are demonstrably the direct opposite of what those smart-screen devices are actually doing. If you’re worried about having too many things chattering for your when-we-are-no-moreattention, waste no time in dropping this book from the list.

7. When We Are No More by Abby Smith Rumsey (Bloomsbury) – The bulk of this book is a largely unobjectionable quick run-through of some of the roles memory has played in human history, and the ways humans have invented to aid memory and sometimes substitute for it. But like so many other books on this list, this one advances its points much further, worrying about how our present-day records and ephemera may or may not be preserved for future ages. The book isn’t long, but thanks to preemptive silliness like this, it sure as Hell feels long.

the-internet-of-us6. The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data by Michael Patrick Lynch (Liveright) – Although it’s a very crowded field, this book may be the single most shrill and quavery Chicken Little screed to appear this year. Lynch spends dozens and dozens of pages loudly worrying that our ability to Google things is killing our ability to think about things, that our ability to store data electronically is killing our ability to remember things, and that always-on smart-screen technology is killing our ability to live without always-on smart-screen technology … and while he’s at it, he covers the whole thing in a woolly carpet of cod-philosophizing, all of it pulling the tired rhetorical trick of taking the small percentage of worst-case scenario tech-abusers and inflating them into the status quo of the whole world in order to say that world is in big trouble. It’s all bunkum, of course, and like many other books on this list, The Internet of Us is really designed to frighten elderly Luddites by painting the single most glorious age of the mind as a Dark Age reaching out to impoverish their grandkids.

5. Against Everything by Mark Greif (Pantheon) – Greif’s status as co-founder of the against-everythinginsufferable literary journal n + 1 goes a long way toward guaranteeing him a place on any list like this one, but I went into Against Everything conscientiously working against that prejudice, especially since I’m a big fan of contrarian prose when it’s done well. But on page after page, Greif nailed his own coffin shut as just the kind of pretentious blockhead that seems to be an indigenous n + 1 sub-species. The book’s anile, on-deadline grumping is repetitive and totally unconvincing; as a “manifesto,” these collective essays represent with dismal accuracy what a comfortable middle-class bourgeois thinks informed contrarianism sounds like.

undeniable4. Undeniable by Douglas Axe (HarperOne) – The heart of this wretched, lying book is Axe’s contention that not only is the universe and everything in it self-evidently designed (by the Christian God, naturally) but also that we all intuitively know this and have to be manipulated into believing otherwise. Part of Axe’s sales pitch rests on the fact that he was trained in science many years ago before becoming a religious zealot, but that original training only underscores the duplicity of the book; it allows the reader to see with ease the cynical ways Axe twists and cherry-picks the fake science in his book. But if anything, the insisted implication that all of those readers somehow psychically know the truth of Axe’s religious claims, deep in their innocent child’s heart, is even more insulting than the trickery. You can read my full review here.

3. The American Miracle by Michael Medved (Crown Forum) – For dozens of pages, american-miraclewhen you first start reading Michael Medved’s stupendously moronic new book, you’re absolutely certain he’s got to have some alternate, ironical scheme, some double agenda. It just doesn’t seem possible that any author could literally mean that the United States of America as a political entity was helped into being by the Christian God through a series of very specific miracles – snow during a certain battle, strong winds during another, the Louisiana Purchase, for Pete’s sake. But no, that’s exactly what Medved is claiming in this book: that his God was loading the dice in favor of the creation of his home country. Never mind that this would make his God complicit in millions of murders, hundreds of thousands of slave abductions, and dozens of separate campaigns of genocide; never mind that this is supposed to be the same God worshiped by the British were fighting to prevent the “American Miracle”; never mind that if God wanted the United States to exist, He could have taken a more direct route than mucking around with weather forecasts … in fact, never mind any hint of rationality.

first-ent2. First Entrepreneur: How George Washington Built His – and the Nation’s – Prosperity by Edward Lengel (Da Capo Press) – The figure of George Washington has always attracted crackpot quasi-historical pulpit sermons – that he was a wise father to the nation, that he was a political visionary, that he was a military genius, etc. But even given that tendency, this new book by Edward Lengel is horrifically incredible: a study of Washington’s finances that’s overwhelmingly adulatory, a study, for that matter, that isn’t all but entirely about slavery, is an abomination even laid against the hyper-praise this figure has always garnered. Washington built 90% of his prosperity on the buying, selling, bartering, and leveraging of human beings. So what’s next? Hitler’s Interfaith Outreach? – maybe with half a dozen Index entries on “Jews, contentious the-faitht-of-crelations with”?

1. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens by Larry Alex Taunton (Thomas Nelson) – On levels that feel both intellectual and somehow personal, this book by Larry Alex Taunton is by a wide margin the worst nonfiction book of 2016. In its deceitful, self-serving pages, Taunton wheedles and implies and hints and winks that the renowned atheist Hitchens was reconsidering his stance against Christianity at the end of his life. Loathsome of Taunton, who claims to have been the man’s friend. Simply and purely loathsome. You can read my full review here.

December 25th, 2016

The Best Books of 2016 – Fiction!

Best Books of 2016 – Fiction!

The very factors that are usually the banes of my existence as a reader of fiction – stylistic eccentricities and rhetorical showing off – turn up quite often on this particular list actually helping the books featuring them, which just underscores the ideological fluidity of fiction that I, like any sensible person, find so off-putting and yet so enticing about the genre! I read a larger-than-usual percentage of novels in 2016, and although a larger-than-usual percentage of those turned out to be enraging failures, the good ones were really good. Here are the best:

underground-airlines10. Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Mulholland Books) – This amazing alternate-history novel tells the story of a good man tasked with the disgusting job of hunting a fugitive slave – in modern-day America. Winters masterfully imagines an America in which the Civil War was never fought and a bitter, stubborn core of slave states still exists. It’s an illuminating moggerhangerperformance.

9. Moggerhanger by Alan Sillitoe (Seven Stories Press) – This novel, the third installment in a trilogy I haven’t read by an author who’s long dead, shouldn’t have had a chance of making this list, even if Sillitoe did write The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The first two books in this sequence, A Start in Life and Life Goes On, weren’t published in the US, but high-diveI read Moggerhanger with absolute delight – the book easily works as a stand-alone comic masterpiece road-trip novel.

8. High Dive by Jonathan Lee (Knopf) – Lee’s bowstring-tense novel about the four weeks leading up to the assassination attempt in 1984 on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in Brighton is as gripping as a thriller. He takes his readers inside the lives of a small cast of characters and then steadily, skillfully ratchets up the tension as the day of the bombing draws slowly closer. And the final 40 pages or so have stuck with me long after I finished the book.

7. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – There’s a great deal here-i-amabout this big novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, his first in over a decade, that’s easy to mock, and my first time reading it, I mocked those things plenty. The main male character is just enough of a self-absorbed shmendrik to do stand-in duty for Foer himself, and the cataclysmic event at one of the book’s climaxes is rather negligently handled. But there’s a glass-sharp beauty to a great deal of the prose here, and an insight into the nature of his characters’ unhappiness (Stuart Kelley reviewing the book in the TLS called Foer “a pathologist of perished moonglowemotions”) that’s plenty brilliant enough to make up for even such major shortcomings.

6. Moonglow by Michael Chabon (Harper) – Likewise this latest novel from Michael Chabon: it too should have done nothing but irritate me, since the author explicitly maps his own autobiography onto the book’s framework of a dying grandfather telling his auditor a long string of tales about the past. And I was able to hold onto that irritation for about twenty-five pages or so – then the stories themselves swept away my objections and left me just eagerly reading. Even more than Telegraph Avenue, this book cemented my estimation of the-lesser-bohemiansChabon as very likely the best novelist of his generation.

5. The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride (Hogarth) – This story about a naive young drama student who forms a strange and powerful relationship with an older, famous actor in 1990s London surges and ripples with experimentation in imagery and narration – just the kinds of surges and ripples that usually get my hackles up, because they usually signal an author trying to cover up weaknesses rather than display strengths. But in this case, as in all the other such cases on the list this year, the opposite is true: in these pages, McBride’s stylistic innovations thomas-jefferson-dreamsare matched by the sheer gifted power of her storytelling.

4. Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor (Viking) – In the most astonishingly accomplished literary debut I’ve read in many years, Stephen O’Connor takes the familiar, sordid story of Thomas Jefferson and the slave woman Sally Hemings and fractures it into dozens and hundreds of stories, dozens of shards of impression and perspective, scattered across time from Jefferson’s own era to the present day. The one thing all those shards of narrative have in common is an unflagging but hard-eyed sympathy for the human flaws of tall the characters – that and an eerie imagine-me-gonereadability. I can’t recommend the book strongly enough.

3. Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown) – Haslett’s earlier books impressed me in their own way, but nothing in them prepared me for the brutal brilliance of this masterpiece, the multifaceted story of a tightly-knit family with a nuclear core of tragedy at its heart. All the author’s gifts are assembled here, especially his deft hand at character-shaping, but they’re keyed to such a new level of strength and heatlightpersuasiveness that the novel is downright haunting.

2. Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh (Ecco) – As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m always immediately suspicious of topicality in novels, so I approached Haigh’s big novel warily, since it has natural gas and fracking at the heart of its main plot lines. But much like in Haslett’s case, in this book Haigh’s natural gifts – particularly in this case her ear for dialogue and her sense of scene-pacing – are racing along at such a high level that my reserve was conquered almost immediately. Haigh fills her book with a wide array of precisely-drawn characters in her signature little Pennsylvania town as it confronts all the complications of this rapacious new style of extracting natural gas from the ground – to the point where I didn’t mind at all how topical it all is.

1. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown) – Emma Donoghue’s uncanny ability the-wonderto create wide-scope drama in the smallest of settings won’t come as any surprise to the millions of people who discovered this author through her bestseller Room, and that ability is once again the key ingredient in her newest book, the best novel of 2016, The Wonder, in which an English nurse is called to the bedside of an 11-year-old girl in an Irish village in order to investigate the growing tale that the girl has survived for months without food, living purely on the grace of God. Much of the drama is consequently focused very tightly on the world of that girl, but the world of her adult caretakers proves if anything even more narrow, and the novel leads reads calmly and terrifyingly to an incredibly touching final act. I myself have no doubt that Emma Donoghue can top even this novel, but I can’t for the life of me imagine how.

December 24th, 2016

The Worst Books of 2016 – Fiction!


Worst Books of 2016 – Fiction!

When surveying the damages in summing up fiction in 2016, the old saying “you can’t have your cake and eat it too” comes to mind, a saying tartly corrected by Wilson Follett in his epically mandarin book Modern American Usage, since as he points out, nothing could be easier than having your cake and eating it too – the more useful formulation is to eat your cake and have it too. Either way, there’s a certain lazy petulance being attacked, a certain ideological eye-crossing that’s being deplored, and that kind of cross-purpose fumbling runs through most of the worst novels of the year. These were the chief offenders:

jerusalem10. Jerusalem by Alan Moore (Liveright) – Our first pick is the biggest, most monstrous example of eye-crossing on the list this year: comic book writer Alan Moore’s unreadable 1300-page sterile hybrid of autobiography (the thing mostly takes place in the seedy back-alleys of his native Northampton) and high fantasy (there are angels). In his attempt to blend these two things – really, in his attempt to defy the odds and write an autobiography that’s actually interesting – Moore epically fails to do either one well. Instead, readers who might have paid for this brick out of loyalty to Moore’s undeniable excellent comic book writing are rewarded with endless maundering and rhetorical “experiments” that are as boring as they are predictable.

9. Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte (Morrow) – Likewise in his debut novel Tony private-citizensTulathimutte – who’s been compared to everybody from F. Scott Fitzgerald to George Frickin’ Eliot by book-critics who really ought to switch to decaff – tries to do two things but tries both with the same underlying cynical contempt for the very process of written prose, thus guaranteeing double failure. On one level, the book is a broad-scale tour d’horizon of group of so-called Millennials in San Francisco, and on another, it’s a send-up of that group, a satirical commentary on their days and ways. But the tour d’horizon fails because Tulathimutte doesn’t know how to write scenes, characters, dialogue, or internal states, and the satirical commentary fails because Tulathimutte clearly thinks Millennials are the only worthwhile human beings currently living on the planet. It’s not a debut novel that augurs well for a career in any sane world, so I predict National Book Awards, Pulitzers, and a Nobel in short order.

nutshell8. The Nutshell by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese) – The central gimmick of McEwan’s latest novella, having the whole story told from the point of “view” of a baby in the womb of one of the main characters, is intriguing but would only work if the author of the gimmick really invested time and creativity in carrying it off. Instead, as with so many authors on our list this year, McEwan tries to eat his cake and have it too: he plops his gimmick on the table and then ignores it, writing the whole thing from the viewpoint of a dyspeptic author in his late 60s. And if you pose your book to be narrated by a baby in the womb and then narrate it in your own late-60s adult-male voice, your book will not only fail but stink – Q.E.D.

7. End of Watch by Stephen King (Scribner) – This is the concluding volume in King’s “Bill end-of-watchHodges” trilogy, and although the previous two books have displayed to full, demoralizing effect the central, stunning fact of King’s writing career – that he still doesn’t have more than a single speck of anything resembling talent – they at least on the surface seemed to be striving for something relatively new in this rotten author’s repertoire: a tightly-controlled and relatively modest trilogy complete with an opening act, a complicating middle, and, presumably, a payoff ending. But no: in End of Watch, the concluding 100 pages of which honestly feel like they weren’t even thought about, much less revised before publication, any trust the reader might have placed in the internal dynamics of the trilogy is casually, contemptuously betrayed in ways that might be familiar to King fans but are no less revolting for that.

improbable-fortunes6. Improbable Fortunes by Jeffrey Price (Archer) – Price’s novel, set in a dilapidated Colorado mining town and half-heartedly wheeling in a murder plot, is distinguished in its pass-me-the-bourbon rhetorical hijinks only by a handful of things, and all of them are bad. The foremost of these, unmissable by even the most sympathetic reader, is how bad the prose is even on a mechanical level: subjects don’t line up with predicates, tenses wander in ways the author clearly didn’t intend, pronouns go a-begging for antecedents, etc. But the book is also marred by the fact that Price obviously had no real concerns about what to do with the thing after he’d dreamed up his wacky premise. The sum of these and all the other failings of the book summons a bane from Worst Fiction lists of years past, the specter of authorial entitlement, which is infuriating enough coming from somebody like Salman Rushdie but becomes rich indeed coming from the screenwriter of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

5. Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn (Knopf) – There’s an accidental but burning-down-the-housemurderously strong aura of topicality around this book, since its two plots center around a New York real estate millionaire and the Eastern European slave trade, which has present-moment resonance because the next President of the United States is a New York real estate millionaire who purchased his Eastern European third wife for fair market value back in 2005. But as with many other books on this list, Burning Down the House fails completely because its author tries to eat her cake and have it too: she attempts both to humanize and satirize the world of the New York super-callow and super-rich but a combination of technical incompetence and nonstop punch-pulling causes the whole ungainly mess to fall flat.

eligible4. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Random House) – As with McEwan, so too with Curtis Sittenfeld: it’s always extra tough when an author I really like shows up on this particular list – but when you think about it, they’re more likely than their less-experienced colleagues to write a real stinkeroo, and that’s exactly what Sittenfeld does here, with this attempt at a high-spirited modern-day take on Pride and Prejudice that fails in every way, even on the sentence-by-sentence level where this author usually never disappoints. It isn’t just that this is a tone-deaf and desperately dumb pastiche-response to Jane Austen – that’s common enough to be unsurprising. No, the worst part of Eligible is that it’s a tone-deaf and desperately dumb contemporary novel in its own right.

3. The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (Spiegel & Grau?) – The main perilthe-high-mountains-of-portugal represented to any author having a breakout hit as huge as Martel’s The Life of Pi is self-evident: lightning, both in terms of sales and in terms of inspiration, hardly ever strikes the same author twice. The Life of Pi was a middling-effective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose, but it found a large and vocally supportive readership. Martel’s latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, is an entirely ineffective confection of pop-spirituality and workmanlike prose that deserves no readership at all; it’s the story of three generations of men finding, seeking, or accidentally rediscovering a quasi-mystical Mcguffin, and its plot and characters are as flat and pandering as its philosophical underpinnings, as free of lightning-strikes as a boring modern novel could be.

boy-who-never-was2. The Boy Who Never Was by Sjon (translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)(FSG) – Of all the time-wasting failed hybrids on our list this time around, this novella by “Sjon” is by a wide margin the most angering and insulting. On one hand it’s the story of a young man joylessly turning tricks for self-loathing older men in 1918 Reykjavik, an entirely vacant figure without a brain, a heart, or a soul. And on the other hand, the author’s last-second revelation is supposed to turn the whole mess into some kind of testimony about the age of the AIDS epidemic, despite the fact that the central character is essentially a heterosexual barnyard animal who turns gay tricks because those are the paying customers. There’s not a well-considered single paragraph anywhere in this travesty; if this is the state gay fiction has come to, it needs to have a long, unblinking look in the mirror.

1. Just Us Girls