The Best of 2014: In the Penny Press!

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The roll call of periodicals I read was grimly undiminished in 2014. The list – currently National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Outside, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s, The Rolling Stone, Audubon, The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The National Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The Nation, Smithsonian, Yankee Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, The Journal of Roman Studies, and of course the mighty TLS – is fairly long, and so the pool of candidates for the list is correspondingly huge. And inevitably, the more one reads (and the more Twitter-links one follows), the more one comes to realize how much other good stuff is almost certainly slipping by unread. This list, unlike the others in this annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung, is constructed in the full awareness that it’s only a rough approximation. That’s irksome, and in response I’ll be including a bit more than my customary ten items this time around:

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18. The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker) – Naturally, I’m as appalled by the limitless super-phenomenon of YA author John Green as any other thinking adult. I shudder to think that this smiling, affable purveyor of fairly ordinary two-dimensional overwritten children’s books is the most influential and best-selling author in the history of mankind, with a vast cult of millions of tweens who would unhesitatingly garotte their grandmothers if he or his brother Hank so much as suggested it. But appalled or not, I couldn’t help but love Margaret Talbot’s shrewd – if droolingly hagiographic – profile of John Green, including her insights into how reading itself has changed for Green’s numberless fans:

In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.

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17. 21st Century Limited by Kevin Baker (The Atlantic) – Any profile of the American long-distance passenger rail system is bound to be heavily steeped in nostalgia, and this is certainly true of Kevin Baker’s lovely piece in the Atlantic. But Baker balances things out with some very good observations about the nature of the allure here:

“The romance of it!” But just what this means, they cannot really say. It’s tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. But hang seen a rural train emerge silently through a gap in the New England woods, having seen the long slide of a 1 train’s headlights, I suspect that the appeal of trains is something more primitive than this. Trains are huge things that come upon us like predators. Almost from the beginning of the machine age, Americans yearned and sought ways for the train to connect their little towns – to connect them – to the greater world.

16. The War of the Words by Keith Gessen (Vanity Fair) – The story of Amazon v.s. the book world is far from over, but one of the best reports from the front lines was this smart and surprisingly funny piece by Keith Gessen from Vanity Fair, where for once Gessen’s tendency to make every single thing that happens in the world about himself actually works in favor of the performance, since he’s both a piece-writer for the glossies and a published author himself and thus vested in the whole question. And maybe as a result of this, he manages to fill his piece with great quotes and apercus:

Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out. “Book publishers had the longest time horizon to prepare for the digital transition,” the industry lawyer told me, “and they were the least prepared.” From Amazon’s perspective, demographics is destiny: people who read print are dying, while digital natives are being born.

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15. Snowden in Exile by Katrina Vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen (The Nation) – Until I read this long interview with Edward Snowden in The Nation, I had very firm opinions about the guy, and they weren’t favorable by any means. Somehow, through the shrewdness and comprehensiveness of the questions and discussions provided by Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, this piece brought me to a new understanding, mainly, I think, by allowing Snowden to do so much of the talking himself:

“When people say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ what they’re saying is, ‘My rights don’t matter.’ Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen – that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, ‘I don’t need them in this context’ or ‘I can’t understand this,’ they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights.”

14. The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair) – It’s well-known – hell, I’ve been saying it for years – that William Langewiesche is the Homer of air travel, and this brilliant piece in Vanity Fair, about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, is this great author at the height of his powers:

There is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed.

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13. The Dogmatist by John Gray (The New Republic) – I might have little patience with John Gray as a philosopher, but I have a new respect for him as a book reviewer after this New Republic piece savaging not only the new memoir by Richard Dawkins but also Richard Dawkins himself, and in such virtuoso terms that I almost felt sorry for Dawkins:

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a mind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted prose of indignant rationality merely laughable.

12. What To Call Her? by Jenny Diski (The London Review of Books) – It seems almost blasphemous to cite this piece by Jenny Diski from The London Review of Books about her experiences when she was a girl living in the household of Doris Lessing instead of any of her incredibly moving essays about her recent ongoing struggle with cancer, but I can’t help it: this piece is such a perfect balance of tender and bittersweet that it got my vote:

As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering cliches when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all.

11. Dead End on Silk Road by David Kushner (Rolling Stone) – In beautifully controlled prose and scrupulous reporting, David Kushner in this Rolling Stone piece tells the harrowing story of the “Silk Road,” a backstage illicit shadow-Internet of crime, and of Ross Ulbricht, who for years oversaw the Silk Road as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” profiteering enormously and casually ordering the deaths of buyers and sellers who crossed him, until finally the Feds caught up with him. Kushner sifts through the evidentiary record and unfailingly sniffs out the best bits:

Though DPR was careful to keep a distance from his customers, he occasionally lifted the veil slightly – after Green helped the seller unload a kilo of coke to a buyer for $27,000 worth of Bitcoins, DPR reached out to him. “Congrats on the sale,” DPR wrote, initiating an exchange in which he later referenced his girlfriend. Curious about how DPR managed his double life, the seller asked, “Does she know who you are? … Dread, I mean.”

“No way,” DPR replied. “Maybe never.”

“How can you hide that from her? I have to guess that [you are] spending at least 10 to 12 hours a day on SR.”

“I’ve become good at hiding,” DPR replied.

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10. This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker) – Legendary writer Roger Angell’s piece in The New Yorker this year about being 90 was remarkable not only for its unsparing clarity but also for its ideological flexibility. Readers over a certain age will find themselves nodding at every one of his sudden-seeming realizations:

My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my lists is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?

9. Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ by T. J. Clark (TLS) – The mighty TLS is seldom represented in this year-end list, mainly because the journal concentrates so heavily on task-specific book reviews that don’t lend themselves to stand-alone virtuoso writing. This extremely thought-provoking piece by T. J. Clark about the great Veronese was the first of two happy exceptions this year:

Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how ‘As would be expected …’ is no answer.

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8. The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written by Frank Rich (New York) – As a matter of course, I try never to miss anything that Frank Rich writes, and since I’m already a big fan of Moss Hart’s Act One, I read this long appreciation of the book with avid interest – and I wasn’t disappointed:

What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid.

7. In the Egosphere by Adam Mars-Jones (The London Review of Books) – This epic-length and very polite career-evisceration of Philip Roth by the brilliant Adam Mars-Jones is electrifying from start to finish, even for somebody like me, who’s been eviscerating Roth’s writings for thirty years. Mars-Jones’s piece is full of great quotes (“Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed chronic mistrust of rugs,” and many other examples) and also a delightful number of challenging broader pronouncements:

Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship.

6. Blood on the Sand by Matthew Power (Outside) – This Matthew Power piece from Outside is the hauntingly sad story of young Jairo Mora Sandoval, who spent his brief adult life protecting the great sea turtles who beach themselves on the sands of Costa Rica in order to lay their eggs. Sandoval was killed by bandit egg-poachers, and Power’s piece makes no bones about his heroic status:

Just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Wildcast’s pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora’s funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.

“Sweetie,” Fernanda replied, Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”

And “Blood on the Sand” is doubly sad, because Power himself – as talented and friendly a young feature-writer as ever drew breath – died suddenly of heat stroke in 2014, with this and a handful of other pieces standing now as his memorials.

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5. Losing Aaron by Janelle Nanos (Boston) – When Aaron Swartz hanged himself in 2013, the emotional ripples shot out in all directions (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s ridiculous “Let us weep” tweet, but generally improving from there), and one of the most touching I’ve encountered so far was this piece by Janelle Nanos for Boston magazine about Aaron’s father Bob and his own torturous attempts to deal with the tragedy – including a quite natural layer of anger:

In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines … but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.

4. Never Out of the Storm by Tim Kendall (TLS) – This gorgeous, lightning-quick piece by Tim Kendall from the TLS deals with the lyricist Ivor Gurney, a WWI veteran whose querulous, yearning regard for his own poetry (neglected even while he was still alive and certainly ever since) is nicely captured by Kendall:

Then, with his greatest work still to write, Gurney was dropped, his manuscripts returned again and again until he gave up trying. “Surely this is a good poem,” he would write in cover letters to editors, bewildered as he was by repeated rejection. Pleading got him nowhere: he never published a third volume, and died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, aged forty-seven, with a reputation primarily as a gifted composer who had not quite realized his potential. The poetry was all but forgotten.

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3. Gombe Family Album by David Quammen (National Geographic) – The mighty National Geographic magazine fielded dozens of first-rate pieces in 2014, but the one that struck me most sharply was an interview by naturalist David Quammen with Jane Goodall about her time with the chimpanzees of Gombe … an interview during which she relates my personal favorite of her life-story anecdotes:

It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds, or their feelings. Those are unique to us. Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true. And that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.

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2. Cage Wars by Deb Olin Unferth (Harper’s) – The subject of the factory farming of produce animals has generated quite a few articles and books in the last few years, and this piece by Deb Olin Unferth in Harper’s stands out for its fantastically readable evocation of what chickens themselves are actually like:

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells.

And the best thing I encountered in the Penny Press in 2014:

1. The Fiction in the New Yorker - From the very first week of the year and straight on through with hardly a dud week in the year, the New Yorker has had the single greatest run of short stories in its long and venerable history. I ordinarily feel about New Yorker fiction pretty much the same as everybody else does: it’s well-done but predictable, intelligent but Upper West Side anodyne, as free of challenge as it is of outright tedium. But in 2014, that picture was radically altered; through some backstage editorial shifting or higher-caliber slush-pile interns or whatever the reason might be, the fiction in the New Yorker has all year been brightly, insistently re-energized – hell, even the artwork and layout looks to my eye to be receiving extra loving care. And the results have been electrifying: stories like “Here’s the Story” by David Gilbert, “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce, “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, “Eykelboom” by Brad Watson, “Original Sins” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Last Meal at Whole Foods” by Said Sayrafiezadeh, “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane, “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson, and (a personal favorite, for obvious dog-related reasons) “Madame Lazarus” by Maile Meloy – these and dozens of other stories have confidently reclaimed the whole term “New Yorker fiction.” No idea if it’ll stay this way in the new year, but in 2014 it was the best thing I read In the Penny Press.

 

 

Best Books of 2014: Guilty Pleasures!

Laying out the ground rules for a new category like “Best Guilty Pleasures” almost necessitates defining such a thing as “guilty pleasures” just in general, I realize, and that’s always trickier than it seems, especially if you’re trying to avoid a lazy fall-back like Justice Potter Stewart’s offhand definition of pornography, I know it when I see it. Certainly there are two qualities of a guilty pleasure that are clear: a) they are cheeseball-easy in their conception – The History of the Penis! The Year I Spent in My Kid’s Treehouse! My Pet Pig Can Dance! – the kind of book-pitch that, as we used to say, practically writes itself. And b) their execution itself is designed for easy slurping-down; there’s scarcely a book on this list that couldn’t have been transformed into a serious, non-guilty pleasure with a little deeper digging or more complicated revision. The authors of these books chose instead to write these versions – to amuse (especially, of course, the actual pieces of comedy on the list) quickly rather than to challenge seriously. There’s nothing wrong with that (unless you’re Jennifer Weiner and want to poop out a pop-culture smoothie and nevertheless have it treated like it was the latest Marilynne Robinson novel; such people are funny), nor is there anything wrong with having the odd hour beguiled by what amounts to good clean literary fun. 2014 had less of that kind of fun than most years, but here are the best examples:

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10. The Clone Apocalypse by Steven L. Kent (Ace) – This tenth (and – say it ain’t so! – last) of Kent’s frantically readable gunning-and-running saga of a 26th-Century killing-machine clone with a heart of gold is one of the best of the whole wonderfully disreputable series: someone had designed a virus specifically to kill clones, and the only man who’s immune is the only man for the job of stopping it: Wayson Harris, our hero, portrayed on the cover, as always, by our old friend Paul Marron. Kent claims this is the final installment in his Clone saga, but the book ends with the door wide open to more books. Here’s hoping we see them.

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9. Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation by Jan Morris (Liveright) – In this lovely tossed-off keepsake volume, Morris accompanies dozens of beautiful reproductions of the artwork of Renaissance Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio with delightful essays – sometimes about the paintings, sometimes about the things in the paintings, sometimes about whatever Morris feels like addressing (there’s a little poofy-dog on the cover, for instance). Morris is a fantastic writer who could make virtually any topic interesting, and Carpaccio is a great subject – this isn’t an artistic monograph by any stretch but rather the engrossing dinner-conversation of a great lover of Venice.

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8. The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown) – Weir’s novel (destined, I think, to become a classic of science fiction) focuses on a killer premise: Mark Watney, an ordinary-guy engineer, is accidentally separated from his mission teammates and stranded on Mars and must survive using only his wits, his engineering knowledge, and the contents of the mission’s habitat. Thanks to Weir’s infectiously jaunty prose style, the series of Mark’s adventures is utterly gripping. You can read my full review here

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7. Another Great Day at Sea by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon Books) – Dyer’s braying dilettantism has annoyed me enough in the past to earn him a spot on the bad lists, but the best elements of that dilettanisim – the curiosity and the appetite for adventure – can work wonders too, as is the case in this enormously entertaining account of life and duty aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H. W. Bush. Dyer spends a good deal of time deep inside the workings of this floating city, and his descriptions of the pressures and psychologies on board are riveting.

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6. The Kills: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit by Richard House (Picador) – This grand four-volumes-in-one stylistic update of John LeCarre, this sprawling set of thrillers in which desperate and culpable men fight their way out of the tangles of the Iraq War, is so beautifully written that you can go 50, 100, even 150 pages so enraptured that you fail to notice what bubbling, frothing nonsense it is. It’s slightly easier to spot it if you pick a couple of pages at random, where you’ll almost inevitably interrupt an exchange like, “Understand me, Myers: those protocols are dead, and if you hold onto them, you’ll be dead too. Now I’ll ask you again: what is the decryption sequence?” “Oh, I understand you perfectly, Utrecht, but these protocols are my lifeline, and that’s not negotiable.” The more I think about The Kills, the more I think all this rhetorical empty posturing and tail-chasing might be entirely intentional, a Grand Guignol commentary on the insantiy of the Iraq War itself. It could very well be – The Kills strikes me as one of the books most likely to shift position in my estimation over time – but for now, what enormous mindless fun.

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5. Prince Lestat by Anne Rice (Knopf Doubleday) – In terms of guilty pleasures, Rice’s Vampire Chronicles have been front and center for longer than most of these other authors have been alive. And in this latest confection, she returns to her best character, strutting, dynamic super-vampire Lestat, who sets himself to uncover the evil behind a rash of vampire-killings going on throughout the world. The book isn’t for beginners to the continuity: Rice fills it with countless allusions to her many previous novels. But fans of the Vampire Chronicles – in their millions – will simply love it.

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4. My Pet Book by Bob Staake (Random House) – Of course children’s picture books are almost by definition guilty pleasures for any reading adult, although I’ve certainly derived intense amounts of pleasure out of them over the years, and I likewise smiled from ear to ear while paging through Staake’s tale of a little boy in Smartytown who’s decided that he doesn’t want a dog or a cat as his pet but rather a book, which he proceeds to take with him everywhere. No book-lover should be without this little pet.

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3. Never Turn Your Back on an Angus Cow by Dr. Jan Pol (Gotham Books) – Semi-legendary Michigan veterinarian Dr. Pol has thousands of stories about his many thousands of animal patients, some of whom have been angelic, while others have been almost as nightmarish as the average human being would be (on the book’s cover, he’s posing with a basset hound). Pol’s tall tales have been polished to perfection over the decades, and they’re infinitely fun to read.

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2. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor) – This second volume in Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” is every bit as absurdly, cataclysmically long as the first volume was, and for the same reason: Sanderson gives a hundred-page back-story to every rock and blade of grass and person and artifact on his storm-wracked world of Roshar, and the reason no editor is willing to reign him in is simple: he’s a fantastically entertaining writer – as far as I’m concerned, he can yarn-spin in these books as long as he wants. You can read my review here

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1. Worst. Person. Ever by Douglas Coupland (Penguin Group) – Raymond Gunt, the main character in Coupland’s irresistible comic romp, is a scabrous, foul-mouthed jerk (you’d be one too, if an enormous homeless guy pressed your face into the sidewalk and forced you to sing “Tainted Love” from start to finish), and the book – which is basically one hilariously inappropriate joke setup after another – is a little snapshot of the sheer amount of havoc he can wreak in just one misadventure. None of it has any more literary value than anything else Coupland’s ever written, but boy, is he a fiendishly entertaining writer. You can read my review here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Books of 2014: Romance!

The book-snobs among you – and you know who you are – will no doubt raise an eyebrow at the fact that “Best Romance” is a separate category from “Guilty Pleasures.” “Surely,” such book-snobs will sniff, “all romance novels are guilty pleasures? Surely a genre with no pretensions to literary quality can’t be anything but a guilty pleasure?” But that kind of response only tempts me to abolish the category of “guilty pleasure” (or, if I could somehow manage it, the category of book-snobs), not to lump romances into it. No, this genre is too venerable (the oldest, it bears remembering, in prose fiction), and the ladies who build it are too hard-working; they do more charity-work than Jonathan Franzen has ever heard of, they goof around with their pets more frequently than would ever occur to gloomy old Cormac McCarthy to do, and when you get them together happy and chatting in one room, ye gods can they drink. And, for what it’s worth, their audience is by and large just as hard-working and funny as they are – and the size of that audience dwarfs that of all other genres combined. And – the real point – it takes a good deal of work and skill to write a successful romance novel. If the genre isn’t your cup of tea, feel free to skip this segment of our thunderous year-end festivities. But on your way out to the cafe to brood over the book you’ve been not-writing for a decade, feel free to send to your adorable and tough mothers and aunts and grandmothers the link to this, the Stevereads Best Romances of 2014:

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10. I Adored a Lord by Katharine Ashe (Avon) – The fun of Ashe’s latest installment in her “Prince Catchers” series is how openly she flirts with the hoariest and most shopworn cliches in the book and then just laughingly rises above them. Her story of pert, flirtatious Ravenna Caulfield and sexy, sarcastic Lord Vitor Courtenay, isolated with a matchmaking crowd in a snowbound castle with a murder to solve should dissolve immediately into a murk of lazy writing, but she keeps the whole thing bubbling with energy and humor.

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9. The Sharp Hook of Love by Sherry Jones (Gallery Books) – Surely the least-promising source material for any romance novel would have to be the ill-fated affair between arrogant older philosophy instructor Peter Abelard and brainy Heloise d’Argenteuil, whose domineering uncle expects her to become one of the great abbesses of twelfth century France, but Jones infuses the story with such intelligence and atmosphere that there’s a heartbreaking moment when you actually find yourself hoping things will work out.

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8. The Wickedest Lord Alive by Christina Brooke (St. Martin’s) – Brooke’s smoothly-handled latest novel begins where Regencies used to end: with a marriage. Dissolute Lord Steyne, desperate for some dowry money to settle outstanding debts, marries Lady Alexandra, performs his, er, conjugal duties, and goes about his business. Lady Alexandra wants no more to do with him than he does with her; she moves to the country and spends the next few happy years as Lizzie Allbright, the pastor’s daughter. But fate isn’t done with these two: when Steyne suddenly finds himself in need of an heir, he goes looking for Lizzie – and Brooke’s real story, of two people meeting at the right time instead of the wrong time, takes off.

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7. The Viscount Who Lived Down the Lane by Elizabeth Boyle (Avon) – In the latest in Boyle’s “Rhymes with Love” series, a horrible cat’s misbehavior brings together bossy-but-adorable Louisa Tempest and wounded-but-salvageable Viscount Wakefield in an exuberant take on “Beauty and the Beast.” You can read my full review here.

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6. The Magic Between Us by Tammy Falkner (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Falker’s lighthearted and ultimately touching book does a surprisingly effective job blending the Regency period with the supernatural, this time in the story of two young lovers in the “Fae” world, Marcus Thorne and Cecelia Hewitt, who find themselves abruptly separated when Marcus heeds the call of his human family, who want him to take his place in their world. Both Cecelia and especially Marcus are well-drawn, and Falkner works a good deal of lightly-worn pathos into what might otherwise have been merely Romeo-and-Juliet-with-Pixie Dust.

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5. Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare (Avon) – When the daughter of a famous novelist receives a mysterious behest after his death from his aristocratic patron, she hardly imagines that she’ll find herself the owner of a slighly forbidding castle in Northumberland – or at odds with the castle’s rightful owner and current occupant, the brooding Duke of Rothbury. But that’s just what happens to Izzy Goodnight in this sparkling first installment of Dare’s “Castles Ever After” series. You can read my full review here.

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4. Shield of Winter by Nalini Singh (Berkley Books) – Singh’s novel – the 13th in her “Psy/Changeling” series and brimming with shout-outs and allusions to the vast fantasy tapestry Singh has been weaving for years – shouldn’t have had a chance of getting on this list. After all, it shares so many of the traits that make contemporary “urban fantasy” romances so disagreeable: bare-bones scene-setting, not particularly likable characters (in this case super-powered assassing Vasic and tormented empath Ivy), and heaping helpings of pornography. But Singh’s become sinfully adept at her storytelling: I couldn’t put Shield of Winter down, and after the first few chapters, I didn’t want to.

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3. Loving Cara by Kristen Proby (Pocket Books) – This first of Proby’s “Love Under the Big Sky” series, set in the wide open country of Montana, features beautiful, high-spirited young Cara Donovan, whose come out to the Lazy K ranch owned by incredibly sultry Josh King, who used to tease her when they were kids and is now bowled over by her grown-up beauty. Proby’s fast-paced dialogue alone is worth the price of admission here, and of course it doesn’t hurt that Josh King is portrayed on the book’s cover by an old friend.

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2. The Bargain by Jane Ashford (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Ashford’s fizzy entertainment centers around Lord Alan Gresham, who’s the sixth son of a Duke and so well out of the pressures of the social world, free to continue his studies at Oxford – until, that is, the Prince Regent asks him to investigate an alleged ghost haunting Carlton House. Also on the case is Ariel Harding, and Ashford has a good deal of fun showing us these two proud characters learning to believe in each other.

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1. Captured by a Laird by Margaret Mallory (self-published) – In this first installment in Mallory’s new “Douglas Legacy” series, Lady Alison Douglas, the newly-widowed mistress of Blackadder Castle, is browbeaten by her imperious brothers into marrying David Hume, the so-called “Beast of Wedderburn.” In classic Romance novel fiction, Lady Alison turns out to be much more than Hume expects, and he in his turn is quickly captivated by her spirit. But the real draw in this, the Stevereads best romance novel of 2014, is the strong and insightfully-realized historical knowledge Mallory layers over her tale. It’s a thinking person’s historical romance, and it makes the promise of future volumes extra enticing.

 

 

 

Best Books of 2014: Nature!

The danger of nature-writing in 2014 is glaringly obvious: nature itself is in full retreat on most parts of the planet. Species are going extinct at a rate unseen in millions of years; environments are being destroyed so quickly that the deterioration can be measured year by year and sometimes month by month; animal species even recently secluded from mankind are now being hunted to extinction as simple food items. Such circumstances want to make celebrations of animal species seem naive, even though such celebrations are every bit as worthwhile as they ever were. It’s a tricky line for the writers of such books to walk, and yet 2014 saw a handful of such books that did a great job.

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  1. The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich (Houghton Mifflin) – The years when a Heinrich book can appear on this list are always good ones (and he’s on the Best Reprints list as well – doubly good!), and this book is Heinrich at his best, taking a large and complicated subject – how and why animals engage in the sometimes-enormous migrations they undertake. You can read my review here.

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  1. The Galapagos by Henry Nicholls (Basic Books) – This comprehensive and finely-written history and natural history of the Galapagos Islands is, I discover, even better to re-read than it was to read intially. Nicholls is a very able storyteller, and he’s wonderfully skilled at compressing huge amounts of information into a smooth and colorful narrative. You can read my review here

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  1. A Message from Martha by Mark Avery (Bloomsbury Natural History)The American emblem of the tricky underside of nature books I mentioned is surely the passenger pigeon, which once filled American skies in uncountable numbers and was extinct within a single generation of Americans realizing that fact. The last passenger pigeon was Martha, whose death in 1914 kicks off Avery’s sensitive and ultimately hopeful book. You can read my review here

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  1. The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis (Thomas Dunne) – This marvellous natural history of the Great Lakes certainly walks that fine line, since the Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s standing fresh water, are currently retreating faster than they’ve ever done in their history. Dennis expertly tells the stories of all the various lifestyles that depend on the Lakes for survival, and he’s equally good on the nature of these vast spaces. Anybody who’s ever spent time in this incredible landscape should read this book.

the sixth extinction cover

  1. The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt) – This book, the most rhetorically powerful of the ones on this list, takes as its actual subject the tricky balancing-line I mentioned at the top: it’s about the holocaust currently happening to life on Earth. She manages it with grace and even, amazingly, some tenacious optimism, and the result is one of those rare books every single one of us should read. You can read my review here

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  1. Bears in the Backyard by Ed Ricciutti (Countryman Press) – One of the natural by-products of the depredation of the natural world in the 21st Century is fairly straightfoward: if humans destroy the habitats of other animals faster than they destroy those other animals, those other animals will have no choice but to move into the artificial habitats humans have created for themselves. That unwilling migration is the subject of Ricciutti’s lively, enjoyable book. Like so many of our authors this time around, he, too, tries his best to inject an element of optimism into his account of the increasing entanglements between humans and the bears, coyotes, cougars, wolves, and other animals who can no longer avoid them.

the cougar cover

  1. The Cougar by Paula Wild (D & M Publishers) – In fact, the increase of human encounters with the wild is at the heart of Wild’s fascinating and informative volume about mountain lions. True, she does a fine job of giving her readers the natural history of these terrifying (if, I grudgingly admit, elegant) animals. But she can’t help but focus on the interaction element, since more and more humans are encountering cougars in their suburbs. It’s a very refreshing snapshot. You can read my review here

the fish in the forest cover

  1. The Fish in the Forest: Salmon and the Web of Life by Dale Stokes (University of California Press) – Sometimes really good examples of nature-writing and natural history are achieved through extremely fine focus – study one particular patch of ground, one species, even one particular individual animal – and this beautifully-written book by Dale Stokes is one of those books, focusing on the salmon of the Pacific Northwest and extending the narrative outward to show it for the keystone species it is. It would be a shame if a book this good were noticed only by anglers.

beavers of popple's pond cover

  1. The Beavers of Popple’s Pond by Patti Smith (Green Writers Press) – Here’s another fine example of a nature-writer who achieves her wonderful effects through close focus: in this case, a family and society of beavers in Vermont. She watches this tightly-knit society for many years with a scientist’s attention and a poet’s sensibility, and the result is not only fascinating but in fact uplifting. Anyone with a love of the great outdoors should go straight to the Green Writer Press website and order a copy of this book.

the owl who liked sitting on caesar

  1. The Owl Who Liked to Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)The best nature book of 2014 is this hugely intelligent and eloquent memoir about Windrow’s experiences living with a tiny owl with an enormous personality. The surprisingly fruitful man-meets-owl sub-genre has scarcely ever been done better than this. You can read my review here

 

 

 

Best Books of 2014: Reprints!

In a trend that’s continued for three years now, I read more new books this year than in any previous year of my life, a very drastic change from the many years when I read virtually no new books at all, and a big enough change even from as recent as ten years ago, when the balance was closer to fifty-fifty. The sacred Open Letters PO box gets bombarded with deliveries every day (as my wonderful and long-suffering crew of clerks there can attest), and I like to keep my darling Open Letters Weekly hopping with new reviews, and these things have worked a sad but inevitable winnowing effect on the amount of random old stuff I tend to read. But whatever melancholy I might feel about that (and to be fair, a Boston Irish Catholic can feel melancholy about a broken toaster, so this is no great shakes) is mitigated by one of the most miraculous aspects of the publishing world: the steady appearance of intriguing reprints, which in themselves neatly combine the new-book and old-book duties of the conscientious reader. 2014 saw a very nice variety of such reprints, from which I’ve culled the best here:

life in the cold book

  1. Life in the Cold by Peter Marchand (University Press of New England) – This fourth edition of Marchand’s classic “Introduction to Cold Weather Ecology” takes on more urgency – and more poignancy – in a super-heating world that will, in the lifetime of babies being born today, actually lose the season of winter in most of the latitudes where humans live. For years, Marchand tramped through some of the most ungodly winters the 20th Century could supply, studying the ways living things adapt to brutal temperatures and scarcity of food and light. This is the prettiest and most lavish edition of this book so far, for all that it looks increasingly to be describing an alien world.

the bridge cover

  1. The Bridge by Gay Talese (Bloomsbury) – Talese’s great work of New York Times reporting from 1964 remains as sturdy and intermittently inspiring as his great subject, the Verrazano Narrows bridge linking New York City to Brooklyn and the nether region known as Staten Island,and this lovely reprint comes out to celebrate the bridge’s fiftieth anniversary. Talese is fading from the consciousness of the Republic of Letters, which is a shame – the tart eloquence and wily commentary on display here are a fine demonstration of what will be lost if this writer is forgotten.

ring of bright water cover

  1. Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (Unicorn Press) – Like many of our reprints this time around (and, really, any time), there’s an anniversary-related justification here: Unicorn Press brings out this beautiful edition of Maxwell’s 1960 classic in observance of the centennial of Maxwell’s birth. This edition has lovely watercolor illustrations by Mark Adlington, although it could come in a brown paper bag and still not diminish a bit the beauty and sadness of Maxwell’s masterpiece. Still, this is the edition to have.

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  1. Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (Godine) – Like Ring of Bright Water, this attractive reprint of Lee’s masterpiece has the centennary of the author’s birth as its justification, and like Life in the Cold, the book itself describes what amounts to a vanishing world. Lee’s sweet, bright, melancholy stories about an early 20th-century England of hedgerows and thatched roofs and unlocked doors was a predictably explosive bestseller when it came out in still war-weary 1959, and it reads even more wonderfully today, when the world Lee describes so lovingly is now largely a thing of fiction.

ravens in winter use

  1. Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich (Simon & Schuster) – This one brings us back to winter: it’s a reprint (with a new Introduction) of Heinrich’s landmark study of what ravens – intelligent, inventive, voluble – actually do during the long and forbidding winters that characterize many of their ranges. Heinrich is a fine writer and a fine observer, and the unendingly odd behaviors of ravens come alive in his account as in no other account I know. It’s always a pleasure to re-visit this book, so any new reprint is enthusiastically welcomed.

some flowers cover

  1. Some Flowers by Vita Sackville-West (The National Trust) – Sackville-West is one of those writers who virtually never wrote a dull word of nonfiction (her fiction, on the other hand …) , and this 1937 gem is certainly no exception. In it, she chooses 25 of her favorite flowers – such a simple scheme – and describes their lives and ways in prose so lovely that it easily surpassed the photographs that accompanied the text when it was first published in 1937. It still surpasses the elegant watercolors by Graham Rust that adorn this edition, but the watercolors certainly make for a very attractive package.

penguin tale of heike cover

  1. The Penguin Tale of the Heike! Translated by Royall Tyler – Penguin Classics turns out a reliably beautiful black-spined paperback of Royall Tyler’s superb translation of this rollicking 14th-century Japanese epic stuffed full of violence, raw humor, and forced moments of stolen tenderness. Tyler’s performance here as a translator is tremendous. You can read my review here

matriarch cover

  1. Matriarch by Anne Edwards (Rowman & Littlefield) – The slight danger of this welcome reprint is that the good folks at Rowman & Littlefield chose for its cover the coronation portrait of Queen Mary by Sir William Llewylln that was also the cover art for James Pope-Hennessey’s official biography of the same Queen Mary – an invitation for confusion, lessened somewhat by the fact that Pope-Hennessey’s book is currently out of print. Edwards’ was too, and it’s good to have it back, this scrappy and brightly conversational life of King George V’s fascinating queen consort.

quartered safe out here cover

  1. Quartered Safe Out Here by George MacDonald Fraser (Skyhorse) – Bless the folks at Skyhorse for giving new life to this lancingly intelligent memoir of the Burma theater of World War II by Fraser, the author of the immortal “Flashman” novels. This is one of the best war-memoirs ever written, wry and vivid and gloriously readable, and it thoroughly deserves this new chance at a wide readership.

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  1. Mercy of a Rude Stream by Henry Roth (Liveright) – The most outstanding reprint of 2014 was this lovely but forbiddingly enormous one-volume edition of Roth’s fictional saga of Ira Stigman and the 20th-century Jewish-American immigration experience. Like everybody else, I loved Roth’s 1964 book Call it Sleep and despaired of the constituent volumes of this saga as they appeared, and so I dreaded the appearance of this book, even though it had the new temptation of an Introduction by Joshua Ferris. I was surprised and amazed by the experience of reading the whole of Roth’s epic – this is a work that actually demands to be read as the single, gigantic tapestry Roth clearly envisioned it to be, and it’s an absolutely stunning vindication of his writing vision. This volume deserves a place in the canon as a 20th-century masterpiece.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stevereads Year-End List: A General Prologue!

stevereads typewriter

December begins here in Boston as all other months now do, with bright sunlight, shirtsleeve weather, and not the smallest hint of wind or moisture – like Tempe, only with a Dunkin’ Donuts every 500 feet. But December of course has one distinctive feature: it signals the end of another year, the swift winding-down of 2014.

The Penny Press dines on such occasions, and the segment of the Penny Press that Gore Vidal referred to as ‘the book-chat world’ certainly does its share: year-end book-lists abound in every corner of the literary world. And in addition to those book-lists, 2014 has also seen a virulent new outbreak of the kind of aesthetic wishy-washiness that drives me nuts – a wavery readerly relativism that refuses to call anything ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but rather ventures only ‘good for me’ or ‘bad for me.’ I’ve been lopping the blossoms off this particular weed for a very long time, and the pruning never gets tiresome, but the increased need for it is thought-provoking.

stevereads cartoon1I blame two factors for 2014′s outbreak, and they’re deeply connected: the increased proliferation of fully-grown adults reading novels written for children (not just one or two such novels, but exclusively such novels), and the increased proliferation of book-blogging and, more to the point, book-tubing on YouTube. If you’re a shaving, beer-drinking, car-driving grown-up and you’ve allowed your reading habits to degenerate to the rhetorical equivalent of curling up in your jammies in bed with a teddy bear, you’re naturally going to be disinclined to take up the tools of critical, evaluative reading (even less so if you’ve got a viewing audience whose ‘likes’ you’d rather not lose). In fact, if you’ve backslid far enough to proclaim children’s book authors like Rainbow Rowell or John Green to be great literary figures, you’re most likely going to resort to the one line of argument that stands any chance of giving you shelter from the adults you’re embarrassing: the argument that there’s no such thing as objective, binding standards in the world of books and reading.

If you question any of the hundreds of 25-year-olds who film their BookTube posts standing proudly in front of walls of YA books, if you put any pressure on their decision to squander the only reading life they’re ever going to get by exclusively reading things like Divergent or Beautiful Creatures, the answer they’ll most likely bleat goes something like this: calling a book bad is just mean – you can say it didn’t work for you, but you can’t say it isn’t good.

This is nonsense, naturally. I think it ultimately derives from the fact that unlike virtually any other learned skill, reading is poisoned from grade school with a demographic delusion. If the most you do every day is walk to the subway and back, when you turn on your TV and watch sweating, exhausted marathon runners crossing the finish line, you absolutely don’t say: they’re not better runners than I am. The most you might say is: with a lot of time and a lot of training, in a lot of years, I might, just might, be able to do that. Same thing with that most appealingly democratic of all sports, soccer: all you need is a ball, a friend (or enemy), and a patch of ground – but even if you have all three of those things, you won’t conceivably look at a televised match between the greatest teams in the world and say, “I’m every bit as good as they are.” You won’t say it. You won’t think it. It would be nonsense.

But when it comes to reading, people are just naturally inclined to think everybody’s Christiano Ronaldo. The very idea that one person could be a better reader than another now strikes most people as an inherently personal insult … and, unbelievably, that kind of prickly idiocy has infiltrated even the ranks of allegedly serious book critics. The books editors of some of the most prominent literary journals in the world, if questioned at a symposium (for instance), will instantly say they’re not in the prescription business. “Don’t mistake me,” they say, “I’m not recommending any of the books I write up each month” – with ‘recommending’ sneered in just the same tone of voice you’d use for snake-handling. It’s disgraceful.

I read more books in 2014 than in any previous year in my life. This was true in 2013 as well, and this time last year, when I had my rough final tally for the year’s reading, I deliberately didn’t mention any numbers here at Stevereads, because I knew they’d look unbelievable. The same thing happened to an even greater extent in 2014, to the point where the two close friend of mine who actually know the numbers each told me, essentially, “I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t spent the whole year hearing you go on about all these things ad nauseam.” And I reviewed more books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life – a long string of reviews for Kirkus, The Historical Novel Review, The National, The Washington Post, and of course Open Letters Monthly (very much including my beloved Open Letters Weekly, which accounted for over 250 reviews all by itself).

I am, in other words, by any reasonable estimation an expert reader. I’m not an expert in what works for me – I’m an expert in what works and doesn’t work. I dive intostevereads picture 2 books avidly, hungrily, with an open mind and a pencil in hand (or the electronic equivalent, if I’m reading an e-book); I’m wide open to surprise and very willing to be convinced by an author’s talent or command or even vision. But I come to those new books with an extensive expertise in the act of reading itself – exactly the kind of expertise that so much of the Penny Press punditry (and virtually all of the blogosphere and vlogosphere) so hurriedly disowns in favor of some cockeyed egalitarianism that would draw no artistic difference between The Hunger Games and The Brothers Karamazov.

This annual Stevereads summing-up is therefore most emphatically not a judgement-free list of my favorites from the year that was. There’s nothing wrong with such lists – indeed, Open Letters itself is currently running a splendid one for the month of December – but this isn’t one of them. Only one of my categories this time around – a new one called “Guilty Pleasures” – exists as a sop to the kind of relativisim I’m deriding here, although even in that category, I could, if asked, lay out my case justifying why each book is on that list and no other list.

In any case, with some trepidation (derived from the fact that in order to provide this mega-list a little earlier this time around, I’m forced to close it out with still an entire month’s-worth of reading yet to come), I now launch into the eighth annual Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year. At this point in my life, the month I’ll be missing represents more new books read than most people read in a year, and the thought that some of those books will merit a place on these lists will haunt me over the next two weeks.

I’ll bear up under that sense of nagging incompletion – and as usual, I’ll look forward to your comments.

Penguins on Parade: The Analects of Confucius!

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penguin analectsSome Penguin Classics become immediately indispensable. They so firmly supplant all previous editions of their particular work that those previous editions become curiosities, interesting in only ancillary ways. A notable recent example of this would be the Royall Tyler translation of The Tale of the Heike, and now the Penguin imprint clearly has another: a lavish new edition of the famous Analects of Confucius, translated and annotated by Yale history lecturer Annping Chin.

These Lunyu of Confucius (551-479 BC) are an enormous, shaggy, multi-faceted collection of sayings and anecdotes preserved by the disciples of Confucius and their disciples. The work is a pillar of Chinese literature, and the many, many parallel (and rival) commentaries on the work by its later handlers shape some fascinating, alternating readings. As Chin correctly points out, that multitude of analytical voices has sometimes been simplified by later scholars:

Most of the translations in English, however, do not reflect this rich tradition in reading the Analects. Instead, they tend to favor one commentary, Zhu Xi’ from the twelfth century, that had become standard through five hundred years of imperial support and the only interpretation the state would accept in the civil service examinations. My work follows a different approach. I relied on the scholars from the last three hundred years – scholars who put research before ideology – to show me the competing interpretations and the possibilities of understanding a word, a sentence, or a passage, and my translation is what I arrived at after I had considered the range of choices before me.

“My hope,” she writes, “of course, is to recover some of the ambiguities and nuances in what Confucius says, which are often lost if one comes to trust a single voice or a single vision.”

She succeeds wonderfully in her edition of the Analects; for the first time in a popular non-academic version, we get something very closely approximating the strange and compelling nature of the original, which reads like a surreal blending of Christian scripture and the social commentaries of Tom Wolfe. Too many times in previous editions, translators have reduced this rich complexity to a string of fortune-cookie apothegms that don’t in any way convey why this text would have remained a foundational work revered and consulted and studied for centuries.

Take a look, for instance, at the 1955 translation done by James Ware, which was such a sales hit for the old Mentor paperback line:

It is hard to converse with the people of Hu, so when a lad arrived and sought an interview with Confucius, the pupils were in a quandary.

“I do not sanction his departure just because I sanction his arrival. Why all the worry? When a man, hving cleansed himself, arrives, I receive him; but I don’t guarantee his future.”

In the Mentor version that found its way into so many backpacks in the early ’60s, that’s all you get – pithy, yes, but not particularly informative. Chin’s translation and lucy reading confuciusaccompanying note flesh things out considerably:

The people of Hu village [being boorish and obstinate] were difficult to talk to. A young man [from this village] came to see the Master [and the Master received him]. The disciples were puzzled. The Master said, “I accepted him when he was here, but that does not mean I will accept whatever he will be doing when he is not here. So why should there be a problem? In coming here, he made his heart pure, and so I accepted him [as he was,] a purified man. This does not mean, however, that I proved of what he had done in the past.”

Note

Although no one can say for sure why the people of Hu village were “difficult to talk to,” it seems reasonable to assume that they were “boorish and obstinate,” as Zheng Xuan and Liu Baonan suggest. And Confucius’ decision to speak to this young man from Hu reveals much about what he was like as a teacher: he accepted anyone who came to him with pureness of heart even though, he said, he could not vouch for the person’s past or future behaviour.

Or take a famous passage from Book 17 about perception and reflection. Here’s Chin’s translation and accompanying note:

The Master said, “If a man, by the age of forty, is still being disliked by others, that perception will remain until the end of his life.”

Note

Confucius expresses similar sentiment in 9.23, but there he says, “If a man is forty or fifty and has not done anything to distinguish himself, then he is not worthy of our respect.” So while he suggests in both statements that by the time a man is forty his character is formed and so it is nearly impossible for him to change, here is stresses other people’s perception of such a man – that they will not alter their view of him and start liking him. This led Qing scholar Yu Yue to conclude that Confucius could be speaking about himself.

And in the Mentor edition (which is by no means atypical of the all the earlier versions)? It’s this:

It is all over for the man of forty who is held in aversion.

Four things above all, we’re told, the Master taught: literature, conduct, loyalty, and reliability. He would look with favor (and maybe even a smile!) on Annping Chin’s labors.

The Resurrection of the Dead

old granary burial ground

 

The Resurrection of the Dead

 

We are buried below with everything we did,

with our tears and our laughs.

We have made storerooms of history out of it all,

galleries of the past, and treasure houses,

buildings and walls and endless stairs of iron and marble

in the cellars of time.

We will not take anything with us.

Even plundering kings, they all left something here.

Lovers and conquerors, happy and sad,

they all left something here, a sign, a house,

like a man who seeks to return to a beloved place

and purposely forgets a book, a basket, a pair of glasses,

and purposely forgets a book, a basket, a pair of glasses,

so that he will have an excuse to come back to the beloved place.

In the same way we leave things here.

In the same way the dead leave us.

-Yehuda Amichai

(translated from the Hebrew by Leon Wieseltier)

By Small and Small: Midnight to 4 A. M.

hospital bed

For eleven years I have regretted it,

regretted that I did not do what

I wanted to do as I sat there those

four hours watching her die. I wanted

to crawl in among the machinery

and hold her in my arms, knowing

the elementary, leftover bit of her

mind would dimly recognize it was me

carrying her to where she was going.

 

- Jack Gilbert

Six for the Books!

Ink Chorus

The dear old Guardian the other day published what the kids call a “listicle” – basically a themed list of items air-pumped into roughly the dimensions of an actual column – on a subject near to my heart: good books about books and reading, and I was right away reminded of a good three dozen such books I’ve loved over the course of my short and sexy life. The Guardian‘s listicle was written by Rebecca Mead, who is herself the author of one of the sub-categories of book – the “bibliomemoir” – she takes as her topic: she wrote My Life in Middlemarch, a book (warmly reviewed by my Open Letters colleague Rohan Maitzen, one of the world’s leading experts on Middlemarch and all things Eliot) about her involvement with George Eliot’s masterpiece. And for her listicle, she includes books like Michael Gorra’s extremely good Portrait of a Novel, about Portrait of a Lady, Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose, and Laura Miller’s book The Magician’s Book, about the world of Narnia.

So, in the belated spirit of the thing, here’s a listicle of my own on the subject! Six books I enjoyed about books and reading, to go in your ‘recommended’ file:

so many books coverSo Many Books by Gabriel Zaid – This slim, pocket-sized volume features Zaid’s most polished and dolorous viewpoints about the world of books, written right at the moment when that world was on the edge of transforming itself yet again, this time to accommodate e-readers that Zaid can only dimly imagine (in his list of the superiority of reading books over reading on a computer, he says, for instance, that “books are cheap,” that “books are portable,” that “books can be read without an appointment,” etc. – all objections annihilated by hand-sized e-readers that can be read in the dark and through which an eager reader can purchase a copy of virtually anything at any time of the day or night). Zaid makes a great many literary allusions in a small amount of pages, but the main attraction here, perversely, is watching our author worry about one bookish impossibility after another:

A reader who reads carefully, reflects, engages in lively conversation with other readers, remembers, and rereads can become acquainted with a thousand books in a lifetime. A prodigious or professional reader, who handles and consults books with specific intent, can read perhaps several times as many, rarely more. But there are million of books for sale, dozens of millions in libraries, and uncounted millions of unpublished manuscripts. There are more books to contemplate than stars in a night on the high seas. In this immensity, how is a reader to find his personal constellation, those books that will put his life in communication with the universe? And how is a single book among the millions to find its readers?

(Needless to say, the first time I read that “thousand books in a lifetime” bit, I nearly fainted dead away)

On Rereading by Patricia Meyer Spacks – I was drawn instantly to this excellent 2011 book, for an obvious reason: I dearly love re-reading (in fact, the only dark on rereadingcloud over my current reading landscape is that the enormously-increased number of new books I now read has greatly reduced my re-reading time and given it the allure of a guilty pleasure). Spacks analyzes the phenomenon of re-reading with a very pleasingly sharp intelligence, getting eventually to the heart of the matter:

Willingness to yield oneself to the text in a way impossible the first time through is, I think, the crucial element in rereading. As denunciations of television customarily points out, reading, unlike tv-watching, is an active process. The reader engages in constant judgment and interpretation, involved in a sequence of challenge and response. The rereader customarily feels less pressure.

end papersShe looks at every aspect of re-reading, including many I hadn’t really thought about myself. I can’t recommend the book enough for fellow re-readers.

End Papers by A. Edward Newton – this 1933 volume of “Literary Recreations” by fussy, fastidious book-collector Newton comes the closest in my listicle to the particular kind of book-about-book whose current master is Nicholas Basbanes: the mania of book-collecting, of rare editions and incunabula and the like. This is the part of the book-world that interests me the least (whenever the Boston Book Fair rolls around, for instance, I give it a wide berth), but it often makes for lively books, and Newton wrote some lively books. In this one, he moves between straightforward appreciations of authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and specific reviews that preserve his garrulous tone, as when he opens a review of Henry Clinton Hutchins’s Robinson Crusoe and Its Printing with, “When a book by an American scholar is favorably reviewed in the London Times Supplement one may conclude that the work has merit; so much merit, in fact that the reviewer has been unable to ‘dust the varlet’s jacket’ as he, no doubt, intended to do at the outset.” I suppose it’s possible that Newton’s books themselves are now collectible – he’d have appreciated that (and expected nothing less).

Reading in Bed edited by Steven Gilbar – This delightful 1995 volume typifies another kind of book-about-book, perhaps thereading in bed most popular kind: the anthology of book-writing. Gilbar collects some of the best such writing here, from Herman Hesse’s “The Magic of the Book” to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Books Which Have Influenced Me” to Hazlitt’s “On Reading Old Books” to, of course, Montaigne’s “The Commerce of Reading.” Books like this – and this is a dandy example – work so well because they bristle with gems you’d otherwise have to hunt through your library to find, like this wonderful bit by Joseph Epstein on the weird ways books fit (and shape) the people who read them:

The one clear advantage of the bookish life over the life of action is that, unlike the latter, the pleasures of the former do not decrease with age. As for the utility of drawing up a list of books, such a list seems almost as useless, and as impossible to follow, as a plan for life. The mystery and the wonder of it is that, somehow or other, the books one needs are the books one finds. But only a very accurate fortune teller could list them for you now and by title.

lost in a bookLost in a Book by Victor Nell – This great, meaty 1988 study of “The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure” is surprisingly almost free from academic jargon, despite having Appendices and a Bibliography as long as your arm. It’s true, the noxious word “ludic” crops up quite often, but the author’s writing style is so winning you can almost ignore it while you’re enjoying his wide-ranging examination of this activity you’re engaging in right now. Just listen to how powerfully good Nell is on this subject:

Reading for pleasure is an extraordinary activity. The black squiggles on the white page are still as the grave, colorless as the moonlit desert; but they give the skilled reader a pleasure as acute as the touch of a loved body, as rousing, colorful, and transfiguring as anything out there in the real world. And yet, the more stirring the book the quieter the reader; pleasure reading breeds a concentration so effortless that the absorbed reader of fiction (transported by the book to some other place, and shielded by it from distraction), who is so often reviled as an escapist and denounced as the victim of a vice as pernicious as tippling in the morning should instead be the envy of every student and every teacher.

I love this book (despite that bit about ‘transportation’ only happening to readers of boring old fiction) and, needless to say, I love re-reading it.

Passions of the Mind by A. S. Byatt – One kind of “book about books” is of course that most rarefied of publishing boondoggles,passions of the mind the collection of old book reviews. The idea of this boondoggle is ancient, and I’ve never really understood how it could possibly have a wide enough appeal to justify a printing press run. And yet somehow the math continues to make these things possible, and one of favorite is this 1991 volume by the great English author of Possession and The Children’s Hour. Here she reflects at length on a wide variety of writers, from Barbara Pym to Iris Murdoch to Robert Browning to – and here we come full circle – George Eliot, whom she celebrates on many grounds, including the personal:

And I, as a woman writer, am grateful that she stands there, hidden behind the revered Victorian sage, and the Great English Tradition – a writer who could make links between mathematical skill and sexual inadequacy, between Parliamentary Reform and a teenager’s silly choice of husband, between Evangelical hypocrisy and medical advance, or its absence. When I was a girl I was impressed by John Davenport’s claim, in a Sunday novel-column, that “nobody had ever really described what it felt like to be a woman.” I now think that wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. People are always describing that, sometimes ad nauseam. George Eliot did that better than most writers, too – because it was not all she did: she made a world, in which intellect and passion, day-to-day cares and movements of whole societies cohere and disintegrate. She offered us scope, not certainties. That is what I would wish to celebrate.

 

lucy reading about books

 

 

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