Mystery Monday: Sugawara Akitada!

 

mystery monday header

Our books today are the utterly delightful Sugawara Akitada mysteries of I. J. Parker, set in the Heian heyday of 11th-Century Japan and starring brainy but rashomon gate coverfrustrated Sugawara Akitada, a low-level clerk in the Ministry of Justice whose father died while he was studying at university and who is therefore compelled to act as the family patriarch and breadwinner for his bitter mother, his two younger sisters, and the family’s servants. The family has noble blood and descends from finer prospects, and that, plus the fact that he’s sharper than everybody around him, tends to make Akitada abrupt when he should be patient and outspoken when he should be silent.

Parker, whose debts to Robert Van Gulik’s great Judge Dee novels are too manifest to need detailing, does a similarly understated and wonderful job of bringing to life Akitada’s world – the tensions of his family life, the hyper-regimented tedium of his professional life, and broader world into which he inevitably ventures on various assignments for the Ministry of Justice. Akitada is a young man when we first meet him in 2005′s The Dragon Scroll, eager to prove himself worthy of more than the bureaucratic drudgery of the Ministry’s paperwork, and it’s great fun to watch him grab at more and more opportunities as the series progresses.

Parker is very good at winking give-and-take in dialogue, and she’s also confident and non-showy in constructing the actual whodunits at the heart of her stories. And she possesses one other little skill – something Van Gulik had down to a cold science – that always pleases me when it’s done well: the creepy opening, in which we see the initial crime being committed but have key identifying details tantalizingly left out. I love how the creepy opening emotionally invests us in the crime without spoiling the ensuing guesswork, and Parker is generally first-rate at the gambit, as at the beginning of The Dragon Scroll:

Just past the temple, in an open field where squatters had built their tattered shacks, the second watcher caught up with the young woman.

The human predator had expected his prey to return with her lover, whose long sword he had prepared against by positioning his men close by, but this was far better.

Grinning, he jumped into her path. She stopped and gasped. Just then the clouds parted and the moonlight fell on his face. Recoiling in horror, she screamed.

This time the goddess did not hear.

Or my favorite, from what I consider the best of the dozen or so Akitada novels Parker has written so far, 2002′s Rashomon Gate:lucy reads rashomon gate

The corpse was headless. It lay huddled in a dark corner where only the faint light of the moon filtering through the wooden shutters picked out the paleness of naked skin from the prevailing gloom.

A dark shadow moved in the gray light, and an ancient voice rasped, “Look around for the head!”

“What for?” growled another voice. A second shadow joined the first. “It’s no use to anybody but the rats.” The speaker cackled suddenly. “Or hungry ghosts. For playing kickball.”

“Fool!” the first shadowy creature turned and, for a moment, the moonlight caught a wild mane of tangled white hair. It was a woman, crouching demonlike over the body, her claws quickly tucking some white, soft fabric inside her ragged robe. “I want the hair.”

And through all the novels, we have our same old impetuous Akitada, who “can’t help himself” when piping up to his superiors, typified in a quick scene from 2007′s Island of Exiles when he can’t abide even for courtesy’s sake the flimsy story to high-ranking Imperial envoys give him for why they’ve travelled to a remote prison in the Sea of Japan:

The thin man bit his lip and exchanged a glance with his friend. “We traveled to Sado to verify the facts.”

Akitada shook his head. “I do not think so. The journey to Sado Island from the capital is long and dangerous. In this instance, Your Excellencies appear to have undertaken the journey wihtout escort and incognito. Would a minor squabble between two provinical administrators really cause His Majesty to send his most trusted advisors on such an assignment?”

There’s a subtle thread of wisdom running through most of Parker’s Akitada novels, the sure feel of an author who’s read and studied deeply (this, too, is welcome echo of Van Gulik). We can almost see the sly grin on our author’s face when she has her eager young sleuth decipher a scroll by Meng Tse: “Seek the truth and thou shalt find it! Neglect the truth, and it shall be lost forever! The seeking is within they power, but the finding is in the hands of heaven.”

Book News: The Gatekeepers!

book news

One piece of the day’s book-news comes, unfortunately, in the form of a windy, tweedy, leather elbow-patched throat-clearing in Slate by former Random House poo-bah Daniel Menaker, who’s upset – in his phlegmatic way – about the upshot of the much-publicized contest between Amazon and Hachette and Amazon’s unseemly desire “to have a say in curating literary culture” … and by extension, the desire of anybody to have a say in curating literary culture – anybody, that is, other than the traditional curators, the “gatekeepers” of the Slate piece’s title. Buried under paragraphs of hem-hemming, Menaker wants to make the case that those tried-and-true gatekeepers, the stalwarts of the traditional publishing houses, are the ones who should have the job. Menaker himself was one of those stalwarts for many years, and he strikes an anthem-style tone:

Right now, the principal intermediaries between writers and readers continue to be publishing companies, large and small. They make their choices, pay more or less for them (usually less), more or less support them (usually less), hope that they have good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing. In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who – along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps – have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding – tectonic – friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.

Rich, pungent stuff, as all bullshit is. I’ve known as many of these knights errant as Menaker has, and he does their ranks a considerable favor by thinning out all the alcoholics, all the crowd-followers, all the middlebrow functional illiterates, and all the outright morons. If Menaker is right, those 20 or 30 Justice League members have far more to answer for than to brag about, as even a glance at American publishing over the last couple of decades amply demonstrates. Despite their unsung efforts – or because of them – our life of letters has been so systematically dumbed down and commercialized that the bestseller lists look like childrens’ parodies of their counterparts from, say, the early 1970s and the midlist author as a species has all but vanished from mainstream publishing. You can get a pretty clear impression of the almost-sickening combination of craven fad-following and clubbish exclusivity Menaker is defending by forcing yourself to read this choice bit of insufferability:

Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s – Ahmet, Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler – they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better. Someone new, without the disappointing sales baggage that most authors have to lug around. The one in a hundred or more likely thousand who will go on to have a long and important run as a writer of books. Elmore, Zadie, Alice, J.M.

Not sure what Elmore or Zadie or Alice or J. M. – to say nothing of Phil, John, the other John, or Normie – would make of a ponce who unselfconsciously refers to himself as an “analysand,” but they’d surely spot that telling, damning contradiction over which Menaker blithely sails (since he’s too busy hitting that “new” over and over): if your cultural heroes aren’t taking the phone calls of any authors who are lugging around the “baggage” of previous books, they’re going to be turning away the Elmores and Zadies and Alices you could otherwise smugly name-drop down the line.

slate

Since it scarcely ever happens that such a hidebound piece as this one will run its whole length without a side-swipe at the sweaty proletariat of the Internet, I waited patiently for Menaker to take his turn condescending directly to the hordes outside his gated community, and I didn’t have to wait long:

The modern, often online and anonymous, neo-Levellers who object to the “elitism” of publishing arrive at their position from the other side, the populist. They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books.

*Sigh* Yes, certainly, these new Levellers must be the very same talentless, straining authors who’ve been thwarted by the unsleeping vigilance of these 30 gatekeepers. Or else readers who find “snobby” books just too hard to get through (as opposed to the kind of Proustian masterpieces Menaker’s heroes have managed to park at the top of the bestseller lists – unashamedly complicated tomes like Shit My Dad Says or Fifty Shades of Grey)(whoops – but surely not those two, since they began their august literary lives as the works of grunting, anonymous online muddlers). These people can’t be gatekeepers in their own right, Menaker blandly asserts, because “they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.” Kind of makes you want to throw a brick through the windows of the nearest traditional publisher, doesn’t it?

“It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly,” Menaker says by way of conclusion. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

This is just a flat, fearful pronouncement, of course, not a point much less an argument. But it’s fatuous anyway; the unwashed hordes of Menaker’s nightmares don’t want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves – they want to circumvent them and go more or less directly to the reading public, to take their chances in the open marketplace. The less generous among them might add that they’re not all that impressed with the job those gatekeepers have done in the last couple of decades, industriously following fads, feverishly avoiding risk, contemptuously mocking the slush-pile (and plucking things out of it basically at random, or on the basis of a rumor that something is hot right now), hatefully priding themselves on just exactly the kind of exclusive Elmore, Zadie, Alice inaccessibility Menaker so clearly admires. But the more generous among those gate-crashers are perfectly happy to let the old, manifestly faulty system keep creaking along – they don’t want to have a say in curating the literary culture, they just want to give expression to their life-long dream of writing for an audience.

I deal with more of those gate-crashers in any given week than Menaker has in his entire life. I know first-hand that they’re capable of every bit the genius and power of their carefully-curated counterparts. And I know – as Menaker bloody well should – that even whole armies of those curators and concierges have never stopped gluts of garbage from swamping that literary culture.

So it’s entirely possible we’re talking about a mostly-useless occupation finally getting a little bright sunlight shed on it. And maybe the general readers out there, just like the pampered residents of Upper West Side apartment buildings, don’t need their concierges quite as badly as their concierges need them. If the fruits of MY labors were the collected works of John Grisham, James Baldacci, and James Patterson, I probably wouldn’t preen in Slate.

Yesterday’s News in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

Beginning any new year always means batting clean-up on the odds and ends of the old year, and this latest transition was no different: I wrapped up my annals of the Penny Press in mid-December, but the Penny Press didn’t know that – it kept pouring into the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box regardless of what bloviating I was doing here at Stevereads, and so it’s only natural that there’d be stragglers.

tlsTake the December 19 & 26 issue of the TLS, for instance, in which Kathryn Murphy does a very good review of the English-language translation of Ivan Klima’s My Crazy Century, although she points out “cultural references are not glossed, and the essays, which appeared interspersed with the biographical chapters in the original, are presented without any explanations.” I reviewed Klima’s book here and have thought about it quite a bit since then (I haven’t bothered to hunt for it on my bookshelves, since I think we both know it won’t be there anymore)(*sigh*).

Or, in the same issue, a very engaging review of Andrew Roberts’ Napoleon the Great (which I reviewed here under its timid American title Napoleon: A Life) by the redoubtable Victor David Hanson, who points out quite rightly, “It is a tribute to Roberts the distinterested scholar and the fair-minded historian that there is evidence collected in this vast and intellectually honest work that can be used to question the author’s own favourable assessments of Napoleon’s career.” Certainly I’ve been questioning plenty of Roberts’ assessments in the weeks since I reviewed it.

And a real highlight among the straggles was the cover story for the January/February issue of The Atlantic, a stinging essay by James Fallows called “The Tragedy of the American Military,” in which he analyzes in damning detail deep-seated flaws in atlantic coverboth the philosophy and the tactics of the U.S. military, and he very much spreads some blame to the American populace itself:

Citizens notice when crime is going up, or school quality is going down, or the water is unsafe to drink, or when other public functions are not working as they should. Not enough citizens are made to notice when things go wrong, or right, with the military. The country thinks too rarely, and too highly, of the 1 percent under fire in our name.

The article includes a very powerful insert by Robert Scales, who links his own experiences commanding troops in combat in Vietnam with the current shocking state of U.S. military equipment:

With few modifications, the weapon that killed my soldiers almost 50 years ago is killing our soldiers today in Afghanistan. General Ripley’s ghost is with us still. During my 35 years in the Army, it became clear to me that from Gettysburg to Hamburger Hill to the streets of Baghdad, the American penchant for arming troops with lousy rifles has been responsible for a staggering number of unnecessary deaths. Over the next few decades, the Department of Defense will spend more than $1 trillion on F-35 stealth fighter jets that after nearly 10 years of testing have yet to be deployed to a single combat zone. But bad rifles are in soldiers’ hands in every combat zone.

True, the enormous majority of the rest of the issue’s contents was decidedly lackluster (and let’s not even talk about its literary coverage in these bleak post-Schwarz days), but that piece by Fallows will be in the much-contested running for the Best of the Penny Press honors here at Stevereads in Decemeber.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penguins on Parade: The House of the Dead!

 

penguin colophon

Some Penguin Classics don’t really seem to need updating. One such solid-looking piece of work is the translation David McDuff did for Penguin Classics of Fyodor penguin house of the deadDostoevsky’s 1860 novel The House of the Dead. That translation appeared in 1985, and it – and all other translations of this particular book – are suddenly threatened with superfluity, since in March there’ll appear a new rendition from Knopf by the superstar Russian-translation team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. That translation will get the kind of review-coverage a Penguin Classic can only dream about (you can certainly look for my own review, in due course), and as has been the case with virtually every P&V translation that’s appeared in the last fifteen years, it’ll no doubt get called “definitive” by at least half a dozen monoglot freelancers. Suddenly, all previous translations will fall under a suspicion of being old or outmoded or some such left-handed condemnation.

As some of you Stevereads readers will know, I’m a great fan of outmoded translations. I love how oddly and sometimes fascinatingly they tend to reflect and warp the intellectual environment that produces them; I love the unabashed braininess that tends to infuse even the clunkiest translations of long works of literature (I’m less sanguine about poetry – the closer I get to age 30, the more convinced I am that poetry is, in fact, untranslatable)(a Stevereads diatribe for another day!).

But I get the best of both sides of the issue, since I also love the intense and sometimes prolonged book-world conversations that always result from the appearance of some high-profile new translation, regardless of what I think about the new translation itself. P&V have a pretty poor track record with me – I find their work jangly and needlessly showy, seemingly designed to dissuade readers from enjoying the works in question. But if their new translation of The House of the Dead sparks lots of first-rate discussion about the book itself, I’ll gladly read every instalment of that discussion.

Dostoevsky’s book details the ordeals faced in prison exile by Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, and the work is heavily autobiographical, reflecting the ordeal Dostoevsky himself underwent when he was sent to prison on 23 January 1850 to begin a four-year term in punishment for his part in the Petrashavest conspiracy. Dostoevsky had been a promising new author prior to his arrest, at which point his entire world ended and was replaced by a much smaller, more restrictive version. Long after the fact, he described it to his brother:

We lived all of a heap, crowded together in one barrack. Imagine, if you will, this dilapidated old wooden building which had long ago been scheduled for demolition, and which was now quite unfit for use. In summer the airlessness inside was intolerable, likewise the cold in winter. All the floors had rotted through. The floor was covered in nigh on two inches of muck; it was easy to slip and fall.

“Yet it would be a mistake to view the novel simply as a work of documentary realism,” McDuff writes in his slightly murky Introdcution to his translation:

It is important to realize that the book also describes an inner crisis – a spiritual death and an awakening. Dostoevksy is correct when he predicts that in the book his personality ‘will disappear from view.’ The tormented, eccentric Goryanchikov is all that the book contains by way of a characterized central figure.

Dostoevsky’s portrait of Goryanchikov’s sufferings ranges across a very wide spectrum (a spectrum of suffering that becomes from this point out a central characteristic of this writer’s work), from the iternal, emotional end (at one point he touchingly says, “I could never have conceived how terrible and agonizing it would be not once, not even for one minute of all the ten years of my imprisonment, to be alone”) to the bitterly psychological end (which, as always with lucy reading the house of the dead 1Dostoevsky, is three-fifths self-pity, however justifiable in the present case):

When a common man goes to prison he arrives among his own kind of society, perhaps even among a society that is more developed than the one he has left. He has, of course, lost a great deal: his country, his family, everything – but his environment remains the same. An educated man, subject by law to the same punishment as the commoner, often loses incomparably more. He must suppress in himself all his normal wants and habits; he must make the transition to an environment that is inadequate for him, he must learn to breathe an air that is not suited to him …

The House of the Dead, with its vivid portrayals of Siberian exile in all its pathos, was a sales hit for Dostoevsky first serialized it in 1860, and having re-read it just recently in a kind of nerdish ‘preparation’ for the Pevear & Volokhonsky version, I can certainly see why: it moves fast, it sinks all the way down to the depths of human misery and yet still provides glimmers of hope amidst the squalor (there’s a famous scene where the inmates keep an injured eagle as a kind of barracks pet, and it’s every bit as heartbreaking now in my third re-reading of the book as it was the first time). It’s as riveting an example of the prison-memoir (I’m not quite as sold as McDuff on the idea of it being fiction) as I’ve ever read, and if Pevear & Volokhonsky can add a memorable translation to the tradition, more power to them.

The Grand Inventory!

the count!

Our books today are … all of them, every book I currently possess here in the quaint, white-painted confines of Hyde Cottage.

bedroom bookcases1Over the course of 2014 in particular, I was reminded again and again of a process every bit as mysterious and insidious as the disappearance of odd socks from the dryer: the steady, unpredictable disappearance of books from my allegedly permanent collection. In 2014, I lost count of how many times I’d get some new book in the mail, be reminded by it of some older book I got in the mail and very much liked, go looking for said earlier book on my shelves in the deadfall certainty that it would be there – and then find, to my infuriated exasperation, that it wasn’t, that it was long, long gone.

“Oh, that’s easy to explain,” I hear some of you say. “You have book-reading moods and phases just like the rest of us, and you’ve got your precious Brattle Bookshop right there on speed-dial, ready at any moment to come over and whisk away the piles of books you’ve decided you don’t want.” And added to that would be the presence of several assiduous lurkers at the Brattle, ‘regulars’ who can be relied upon to snap up interesting-looking goodies as soon as they appear on the pricing table, before I even have a chance to see my discarded books on the shop’s shelves. It’s a likely explanation.penguins

But I’m talking about non-negotiable items here! Books I simply wouldn’t ever decide to discard! Not the umpteenth slim political biography of Edmund Burke, for instance, but rather the Penguin Classic Selected Talmud, or Jonathan Steinberg’s big, great biography of Bismarck, or the Big New Yorker Book of Dogs – things that I’d be intensely grateful to get in the mail, intensely happy to read and review, and then intensely satisfied to keep on my shelves forever. Those sorts of things, it biographiesturns out, also disappear.

And the solution, I’ve determined, is to make a Grand Inventory. I’ve drafted my sturdiest three-ring binder to the task, filled it with paper, sub-divided it into pertinent sections (“Fiction,” “Classics,” “History,” “Biography,” “Nature,” “Comics,” “Sci-fi/Fantasy & Mystery,” “Poetry,” and “Miscellaneous”), and now that the New main parlor bookcase & hutchYear has begun, I shall commence doing something I haven’t done in a long, long time: I shall commence counting and listing every single book I own.

I’ll do it as methodically as I can. My strategy will be to proceed bookcase-by-bookcase, with a strict no-rearranging policy in place until it’s all completed. The hotspot of trouble, of course, will be the shelf in the living room where I store and sort forthcoming books by month; to a greater degree than I ever thought possible, that shelf now feeds the rest of my personal library, and since it’s always changing, I can hardly inventory it. I’ll save that whole area for last – I’ll concentrate instead on nether bookcases whose contents haven’t changed in months.

Or have they? *Sigh*

I’ll provide progress updates, as the calamitous Grand Inventory devolves into chaos …

Thanks again!

lucy homecoming - june 2014

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times along the course of our epic journey, I read more new books in 2014 than in any previous year of my life, and that preponderance re-shaped the very topography of my reading itself. The rough balanced that had held for many, many years, a more-or-less equality between new books and old books (except for travel years, when old books tended to rule the roost)(unless I was staying someplace in proximity to good used bookstores – as was true, for instance, in the great multifarity that was old Austin, or the beautiful pre-gentrication bohemia that was Hermosa Beach) – that balance has shifted drastically in the last few years. I now read almost 90% new books – the endless bounty of the world’s publishing houses (and the ever-growing ranks of self-publishing), rather than the endless bounty of the Brattle Bookshop, as it were. This may very well alter the tone of Stevereads, which is, after all, the autobiography of my reading – but I’ll let the New Year sort that out.

In the meantime, now that our revels here are ended for 2014, I want to pause and thank you all, newcomers and long-time readers alike for being a part of Stevereads. It’s the time of my life writing the book-commentary that is Stevereads, and your emails (always welcome! st.donoghue@gmail.com) and active reading bring me a joy that hasn’t dimmed in the eight years I’ve been back in the book-chat world. So thank you all again, and Happy New Year.

 

 

Best Books of 2014 – Nonfiction!

This is a tricky category, of course; it wanders over its nearest borders with a good deal of recklessness. Some of this year’s top Nonfiction picks might just as easily qualify as history, for example some species of sociology, or even biography, but against its oddness I every year lay its unfailing ability to get under my skin, to move me. That quality is rare, and this kind of book is for some odd reason, the most likely to possess it (hence its place of honor here at the end of our Stevereads festivities). These tend to be sui generis books, and I think that accounts for the narrative snap so many of their more straightforward genre cousins so often lack. In quest of that extra little charge, I read all kinds of general nonfiction every year; here are the best of the best from 2014:

the novel a history

  1. The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt (the Belknap Press) – For the book that represents the biggest single amount of sheer fun in 2014, Schmidt’s wins by a country mile. His hyperenergetic tour of all prose has something happily quotable on almost every single one of its 1200 pages. This is one of those books every book-lover should read. You can read my review here

inferno cover

  1. Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment by Robert Ferguson (Harvard University Press) – There’s no bleaker or more discouraging book on any of my 2014 lists than this study by Robert Ferguson about the almost unbelievable iniquities of the American prison system, and there are few that are more eloquently written. You can read my review here

the naked future

  1. The Naked Future: What Happens in a World That Anticipates Your Every Move? By Patrick Tucker (Current) – Tucker’s broad-range look at the always-increasing capabilities of apps and computer programs to shape predictions about their human users is incredibly lively reading, and it’s incredibly informative, but the thing about it I liked the most was its optimism: Tucker insists on seeing the bright side of all these coming technologies – and he’s very convincing.

the wrong enemy

  1. The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 by Carlotta Gall (Houghton Mifflin Hardcover) – This lean, intensely kinetic book is the outcome of Gall’s wide-ranging and thoroughly brave reporting on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan for over a decade, and it’s an amazing, at times harrowing gallery of set-pieces and personality-portraits, all informed by Gall’s signature combination of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness.

on reading the grapes of wrath

  1. Reading the Grapes of Wrath by Susan Shillinglaw (Penguin Books) – Sometimes, great things come in small packages (just as sometimes wretched novels come in huge packages, but that’s a rant for another time), and in 2014 that was nowhere better demonstrated than with this brilliant, passionate little book Shillinglaw’s written about The Grapes of Wrath. No matter where you stand on Steinbeck’s fiction – whether your despise it or only hate it – you’ll love this book. You can read my review here

capital dasgupta

  1. Capital: The Eruption of Delhi by Rana Dasgupta (The Penguin Press) – The vast, teeming, thoroughly disreputable and irresistibly alive city of Delhi is captured beautifully in Dasgupta’s prose; his keenly-trained observer’s eye shifts from the bizarre to the pathetic to the vaguely heroic with ease. Delhi’s future is as uncertain as that of every other megalopolis in the fragmenting, frying, flooding new century, but Dasgupta’s book is a loving snapshot of its present.

 

  1. storm surgeStorm Surge: Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future by Adam superstormSobel (Harper) & Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy by Kathryn Miles (Penguin) – It’s the slimmest but sometimes most reliable silver lining of any major ‘act of God’ natural disaster: first-rate book-length works of reporting. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, US publishing has so far seen two superb examples, both rich in narrative and personal detail, both crystal-clear on the science of storm cells and the devastation wrought by this one. I whole-heartedly recommend both books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WhenAmericaMetChina5 J2.indd

  1. Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity by Prue Shaw (Liveright) – This luminous book – from one of our greatest living Dante scholars – gives readers a wonderful (albeit tantalizing) taste of what it might be like to be a student in one of Prue Shaw’s classes. With the ease of total mastery, she tours the world of Dante – his work, his history, his philosophy – and it’s all done with such cheerul confidence that this most forbidding of medieval writers suddenly seems to open like a blossom. The paperback should go to every single person thinking of reading Dante – or re-reading him.

 

can't we talk about something more pleasant

  1. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast (Bloomsbury) – When I first saw Roz Chast’s actual four-page cartoon by this title in the New Yorker, I was floored; as bittersweet and worldly-wise as her illustrations always are, nothing in them had prepared me for that spot-on and utterly unsentimental precis of having aging parents. The book that followed is equally impressive, both funny and unsparing, happy and sad by equal, amazing turns. Of all the books on my lists this time around, this one stands the greatest chance of making you cry and laugh in the same sitting.

the last pirate

  1. The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana by Tony Dokoupil (Doubleday) – To put it midly, everything about Dokoupil’s debut seemed calculated to disenchant me; father-son emotoinal dramas have tended to weary me since Edmund Gosse (my own Irish forefathers having drained that particular bog dry three-quarters of a century ago now); the romanticization of drug-dealing that’s hinted at in the book’s subtitle vaguely irritated me (the current U.S. sweep to legalize yet another addictive carcinogen – let alone the way its partisans tend to characterize it as healthy – has left me, as it were, fuming); and of course there’s the looming threat of the memnoir, a “personal recollection” that’s quite literally too good to be true. But Dokoupil knew better than his reader (this one, anyway): not only is his book gorgeously, electrically written – this, the Best Nonfiction Book of 2014, is the arrival on the publishing scene of a major new voice – but it’s also heartbreaking and stunningly wise.

 

 

Worst Books of 2014 – Nonfiction!

elephant-crap

This year’s list of the worst malefactors in the Republic of Letters in 2014 could really have been boiled down to one entrant (which will become evident, and which all of you should be heartily ashamed of making so popular), and that entrant perfectly typifies exactly the same kind of cold-eyed arrogance that characterized the worst fiction of the year as well – the reek coming off these pieces of crap has the same aroma: reflex, laziness, and, most of all, an insufferable sense of entitlement. Instead of books we have product, and once it’s been manufactured by cheap labor, it then has to be marketed and hyped – in which process, my own shabby profession, book reviewing, now reliably features to an absolutely disgraceful degree. In fact, even talking about these things as books almost seems fraudulent … if only the greater fraud weren’t clearly being perpetrated on unsuspecting book-buyers everywhere. For once, this Stevereads list appears early enough before the book-buying holidays to function as a warning instead of merely a ‘what-were-you-thinking’ castigation. And so, with that in mind, here are the worst of the worst: the Worst Nonfiction Books of 2014:

the churchill factor

10. The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson (Riverhead) – The boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering Mayor of London here slaps his name on a string of Wiki-factoids and bald lies revolving around the boorish, opportunistic, popularity-pandering WWII Prime Minister and his bulldog tenacity, adding yet another and one of the most nakedly needy bumper-stickers to the Churchill pile.

instinct cover

9. Instinct: The Power to Unleash Your Inborn Drive by TD Jakes (FaithWords) – It’s harder and harder with every one of this fraud’s tawdry little books to understand how anybody can take him seriously, as an honorable or interesting person, much less a “man of God” – and yet the ranks of his followers swell with every passing year. This latest thing purports to show you the way to “achieve ultimate success,” which couldn’t any clearer be huge amounts of money if there were piles of the stuff on the cover. Jesus Himself would be tempted to shin-kick this guy.

clouds of gloryembattled rebel

8. Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief by James McPherson (Penguin Press) & Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda (Harper) – These two slightly sloppy and necessarily blinkered books – by two historians who ought to have known better – aren’t the only examples of retrospective whitewashing of appalling historical figures on our list this time around, nor are they the worst examples of it, but they’re plenty bad enough, celebrating the heroism of two of the worst traitors in American history … while at the same time contributing virtually nothing new or interesting to the study of their life and times.

the invisible bridge

7. The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein (Simon & Schuster) – This big follow-up to Perlstein’s Nixonland has a crackerjack subject: the unlikely, alarming, and deeply inexplicable political rise of Ronald Reagan. But although Perlstein gives the subject a generous amount of space, he also gives it a generous amount of massaging; if you follow the veritable blizzard of notes and citations back to any of Perlstein’s primary sources, you’ll find him spinning and stage-managing the facts in such a persistent way as to make the whole thing irritatingly untrustworthy. You can read my full review here.

 

the nixon defense6. The Nixon Defense by John Dean (Viking), World Order by Kissinger (Penguin Press), &  The Greatest Comeback: How Richard greatest comebackNixon Rose from Defeat to Create the New Majority by Pat Buchanan (Crown Forum) – As I’ve learned in spending a year studying the career of British historian David Irving, some of the truly evil creatures of mankind’s history are perfectly capable of mesmerizing the biddable and the deeply flawed even long after they themselves have died. Even though Hitler died when Irving was still a small child, Irving as a full-grown man fell under the Fuhrer’s dark spell as surely as if he’d been standing in the crowd at a Nuremberg speech, and that same process was very much at work in 2014′s book world, as can be seen in this unholy trinity of books still under the shadow of Richard Nixon: the oily John Dean’s bizarre ongoing acrobat-act of both trying to exonerate himself from all blame for Watergate and, somehow, trying to exonerate also the Boss he betrayed; the odious former Nixon Wormtongue Henry Kissinger, who in his latest book has the gall to decry the lack of trust and consistency in international relations, when he himself did more to destroy those things in world politics than any other person in the 20th Century, and the thuggish former Nixon flunky Pat Buchanan, who wants more than anything to convince you all what a grand guy the Boss could be, if you caught him at just the right moment. I was jaw-dropped aghast reading through each one of these horrifying zombie-jobs, and I’m seriously hoping this trio represents the last gasp of trying to rehabilitate one of the foremost occupants of Hell.

 

the price of silence

5. The Price of Silence by William Cohan (Scribner) – The more I thought about Cohan’s long re-hash of the notorious rape scandal that engulfed the Duke Lacrosse Team in 2006, the angrier and sadder it made me, and re-reading it prior to drawing up these year-end lists actively infuriated me. Cohan is a fantastic writer, but that just makes things worse: what on Earth is he doing here, writing a breathless what-really-happened account of an incident that was thoroughly destroyed in court? What word by ignoble attaches to an attempt to re-grow some credibility for lying ‘victim’ and re-accuse three young men who, though undoubtedly A-holes, were also indisputably innocent? The book lies there, like a stain on the carpet. You can read my full review here

bad feministmen explain things to me

4. Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (Harper) & Men Explain Things To Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket Books) – If the general ruck of 20-something coffee shop hipsters are nowadays almost spectacularly ignorant of all culture, art, literature, politics, and history that doesn’t directly affect their own lives or Twitter followings, how much worse must such a situation be for the young women among their number, so many of whom have imbibed a culture in which it’s perfectly acceptable not only to know nothing but to proudly reject learning anything unless the source happens to be female? It’s a thoroughly closed circle of shrill ignorance, and in 2014 it was epitomized by these two books, Bad Feminist – in which Roxane Gay confuses talking with having something to say – and Men Explain Things to Me – in which Rebecca Solnit makes it clear that all men, simply by virtue of their genitals, are misogynistic condescending A-holes. It’s an ongoing intellectual embarrassment that actual intelligent feminism has spawned a modern offshoot so brainless and bigoted, so bereft of ideas or informed outrage, and so mired in grade-school prose, but we can always hope 2014 represented an all-time low-point.

waking up

3. Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion by Sam Harris (Simon & Schuster) – It isn’t just that as Harris grows older he grows more offputtingly abrasive, although that’s a factor in why Waking Up appears here. And it isn’t just that the book is in its essence a cringe, a crucial step back from the honest, godless precipice where Harris has spent all of his popular publishing career until now, although it’s certainly that, a strong feint to the idea of the warm, embracing arms of an invisible something just a bit beyond human experience. No, the main thing that lands this book on the list is that apart from its condescension and apart from its hypocrisy, it’s also abundantly bad: turgid, sloppy, gaseous, distractible – product, rather than any kind of important construction. If this is the state of New Atheism, the movement needs a new firebrand.

capital cover

2. Capital by Thomas Piketty (The Belknap Press) – Like a few other culprits on our list this time around, Piketty’s bloated, nearly-unreadable crap-suzette ‘study’ of the fissile nature of capitalist societies wouldn’t have gained anywhere near the level of notoriety it did if it weren’t for the craven me-tooism of its reviewers. For two awful months (until, South Sea-style, the thing’s bubble burst under the pressure of its own absurdity), it was lovingly and lengthily reviewed in every literary journal in Christendom, and if professional reviewers were out of their depth and required actual economists to step in and write pieces pointing out Piketty’s errors, fair enough. But the only reason so many non-economist reviewers even attempted it in the first place was a plain, damning thing we’ll see again as we slouch toward our #1: simple in-crowd opportunism.

my struggle

1. My Struggle by Karl Knausgaard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Contenders come and go, of course, but there was never any real doubt that this grubby monstrosity would be the Stevereads Worst Book of the Year in the category of Nonfiction – taking all the boring volumes as one book, and more importantly, taking the whole noxious project as nonfiction rather than the fiction a uniform chorus of bandwagon-jumping book critics hailed it as all throughout 2014. Since half the people so obviously tracing-papered by its sloppy, lazy prose are suing the author’s publisher for slander and the other half are in therapy to deal with their entirely-natural feelings of betrayal, since walking tours are now conducted in the author’s tediously-recreated Norway and parts West, and since every store receipt and theater ticket stub can be called into evidence, this isn’t fiction any more than his cast-iron solipsism would make the author another Proust (oh wait – he was already called that by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The London Times, The Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, Der Spiegel, Pope Francis, Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky, Lucille Ball, and former U.S. Presidents Ford, Reagan, and Lincoln). Although Knausgaard’s navel-staring is the loathsomely prominent choice as Worst Nonfiction Book of 2014 (among its many, many other sins, it manages to be even less interesting than its infamous namesake), surely a dishonorable mention must go to the legion of critics who were, until the mania passed, so proud of being able to name-drop which volume of “My Struggle” they were currently wading through. Seldom in recent memory has the Republic of Letters been so badly failed by its very own watchdogs, all of whom could surely see in 10 pages that this particular emperor had no clothes but not one of whom stood up and said it (or better yet, simply declined to give it page-space). When the Big Fraud of 2015 comes along, we’ll all have to hope for better.

Best Books of 2014 – Fiction!

There are some years when the practitioners of fiction seem almost embarrassed by their profession – not because that profession still hasn’t turned its back on own charlatans, but rather because it sometimes seems like the reading public itself is increasingly turning its back on their profession in favor of pap. I’ve lost count of how many times in the last few years I’ve read some jaded op-ed or blog post lamenting the death of the novel, this time doomed not by TV or the Internet but by the rapid erosion of your average adult’s ability to pay attention to anything longer than a tweet or more complex than a YA novel. But if there’s some truth to that (I now know dozens of of adults who openly admit that all they read these days is fiction written for children – although even the bravest of them no longer try to justify this degradation to my face with the blasphemous follow-up of “I’ve read everything else …”), it certainly isn’t reflected in the Best Fiction of 2014! Each of these wildly separate novels has one thing in common with the others: confidence, not only in their own craft but in the architecture of fiction itself, as vast and elaborate as their builders can make it. Here are the best examples of that craft in 2014:

the paying guests

10. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead) – Waters’ story of a staid mother and daughter in post-WWI London forced for economic reasons to take in a young married couple as boarders is, much like a handful of other choices on this list, deceptively quiet at its outset, a remarkable small-scale drama that Waters steadily complicates. This is the author’s most elegant and confident work – a joy of subversion.

the emperor waltz

9. The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (Fourth Estate) – There are a couple of examples on our list this time around that display not just confidence but elaborate confidence, and Hensher’s is the first of them, a great sprawling thing dramatizing the subtleties of ostracization in, I think I counted, five different time periods (and in many soft gradations inside each of those periods) and all of it coming together in the end in a great symphonic superstructure exceeding anything Hensher’s ever done.

to rise again at a decent hour

8. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown) – I’ve been a fan of Ferris’s work almost since the moment when I stopped being an enemy of it. His low-hanging-fruit workplace-novel debut, Then We Came to the End, filled me with the same combination of ennui and contempt that I’ve felt in bookstore break rooms over the decades, hearing co-workers gripe and whine. But I thought his second novel, The Unnamed, was incredibly strong, a masterpiece of modern personal dislocation. That dislocation them certainly continues in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, a winningly garrulous story of a hapless dentist whose life is gradually and mysteriously appropriated online.

the may bride

7. The May Bride by Suzannah Dunn (Pegasus) – It’s certainly a stunning act of authorial confidence to write a Tudor-era novel with hardly a Tudor to be found anywhere in it, but Dunn not only does this but does it magnificently, telling the captivating, raw human story of a strong-willed young woman who marries into the rising Seymour clan and eventually finds herself at the heart of a wrenching scandal. You can read my full review here

tigerman

6. Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf) – Sergeant Lester Ferris finds himself on the dilapidated cut-adrift former colonial possession of Mancreu in Harkaway’s sharp and unforgettable novel about heroism and life-saving. Lester’s adrift himself when he encounters Harkaway’s most hilarious creation to date, a young boy so smart and pop culture-saturated that he’s effectively superimposed his own fantasy world over the rotting hulk of Mancreu. The chemistry Harkaway creates between these two quickly spreads to the whole of this utterly marvelous book.

all the light we cannot see

5. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner) – The threat of cliches that hovers around the premise of Doerr’s book – a blind French young woman and a technically-oriented German young man, tossed together by the Second World War – very nearly disinclined me to read it. I was drawn in by the lyricism of Doerr’s prose, and the complexity of what Doerr was doing – the confidence of it all, again – kept me eagerly reading his unabashedly, gloriously conservative novel to the end.

the bone clocks

4. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House) – As with Philip Hensher’s book, so too here: hyper-abundant narrative confidence. Mitchell returns to the storytelling profusion that won him such renown with Cloud Atlas, joyously elaborating an intentionally disjointed story of two rival sects of immortals and the young woman who finds herself caught between them and then gradually, impeccably drawing the whole mass of it to a precisely-controlled and masterful conclusion.

lila

3. Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – We turn from sprawling symphony to intimate sonata in Robinson’s stunningly moving novel anchored in small-town Iowa and explicating the torturous, groping love between hapless preacher John Ames and his much-younger and much-wilder wife Lila. Robinson has been on the good and bad sides of these Stevereads lists, but this book is a calm and questing demonstration of genius.

arctic summer

2. Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (Europa Editions) – It would be too easy to describe Galgut’s beautiful fictionalization of the years E. M. Forster spent in India as “Forterian” (I know this because roughly 200 book-reviewers unhesitatingly did just that), and it would sell the book short, too. Actually, our author is here taking several narrative risks all his own – almost always with praiseworthy results.You can read my full review – and note how much my appreciation grew with this re-reading -  here

an unnecessary woman

1. An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine (Grove Press) – Alameddine’s novel is a miracle of understatement. Its heroine Aaliyah, is thoroughly bookish in a way every one of Alameddine’s bookish readers will instantly recognize, and Alameddine steadfastly refuses to load her story with epiphanies or princes charming. The story is immeasurably stronger for this restraint, and the book lingers a long time in the memory, mainly because we feel that we know Aaliyah and have known her all our lives. You can read my full review of this, the Best Novel of 2014, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worst Books of 2014: Fiction!

elephant

It’s always a lurking danger when dealing with novels, novelists being by nature the vilest narcissists this side of book reviewers, but this year it runs the table in the “Worst Fiction” department: arrogance. Specifically, the belief on the author’s part that they, and not their stories, are the proper object of their readers’ attention. Ordinarily, it’s a vice endemic to memoirs (or the Stevereads-dreaded memnoir, in which the author rather ostentatiously lies about things they’re at that moment attesting to be true). But the blurring of categories between fiction and memoir – seen in the baleful rise of the “my-life-in-literature” hybrid known as the “shelfie” – has allowed a certain sinister seepage into the precincts of fiction, and along with it the aforementioned arrogance that idiot-memoirists employ as a stock-in-trade. Certainly this explains a great many of the crappy novels on our list today: “I sat down to write this,” we hear our authors say, “True, I didn’t bother to shape the plot or craft the dialogue – whatever – but it comes from me! Are you calling nine thousand Twitter followers wrong??” The result is an inversion that always bodes poorly for the Republic of Letters: fiction that’s more painful to read than it was to write. Here are the worst offenders of 2014:

california cover

10. California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown) - If there were a special Stevereads award for “Worst Example of Somebody Who Never Reads Science Fiction Half-Assedly Writing Science Fiction” (we could call it the Atwood Prize), this ridiculous bit of fluff would win it even in a fairly crowded field. Lepucki’s disjointed story of young couple navigating a post-apocalyptic America is even more thoroughly stuffed with genre cliches than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – it’s a wonder there was room left for crappy prose.

revival cover

9. Revival by Stephen King (Scribner) – The bedrock mystery of Stephen King – how the man could write fiction steadily for 40 years and never, even for a moment, get any good at it – gets no solution in this turgid, tangential, boring, self-referencing kinda-sorta “update” of the classic horror story “The Monkey’s Paw,” with plenty of soppy period sentimentality and King’s usual trite, leaden gear-work involving priests and losers doing stand-in for good and evil. Prime Atwood Prize stuff here, as always.

boy, snow, bird cover

8. Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead) – Oyeyemi’s labored, boring novel, the story of a young woman named Boy who arrives in a small Massachusetts town in the 1950s, meets people with names like Arturo, Mia, Webster, Snow, and, eventually, her own daughter Bird, and encounters ham-fistedly-rendered versions of benighted racism at the hands of characters who might as well have been named Snarkly, Bad-Baddy, and Smog in this limp little storyboard for a bad Hallmark movie.

every day is for the thief cover

7. Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole (Random House) – Cole’s latest ghastly-dull novel harps at yet more length on the slang and depradations of postcolonial Africa, as his main character returns to Nigeria after a lengthy stay in bloated old racist America, only to encounter a long chestnut-string of expat cliches in such rapid order that the whole thing might have been a kind of prose version of a Wole Soyinka one-act stage lampoon – except there’s no good humor here, no intelligence, and no style. If the reader didn’t know that Cole himself was Nigerian, the book would evaporate entirely.

big little lies cover

6. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Putnam) – The sheer popularity of this disasterously cliched and lazy novel about three female friends in Australia raising kids and dealing with ‘family stuff’ is appalling enough even when seen at a distance; when you actually hunker down to read it, things get ever so much worse. The writing is utterly lifeless, the five main characters are shrill and flat, and the two big plotlines are wrapped up so unimaginatively that the book’s last 50 pages feel like some kind of elaborate prank.

young god cover

5. Young God by Katherine Faw Morris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Telegraphic chapters, tweet-long paragraphs, and a young author who looks like the ‘reality-TV’ show cast member you’re supposed to love to hate – there’s everything here to despise in a debut novel except length. You can read my full review here.

landline cover

4. Landline by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s) – The burning question of whether or not popular children’s book author Rainbow Rowell could follow in J. K. Rowling’s footsteps and make a successful move to adult fiction (Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy being, against all odds, quite good) isn’t answered by the steaming pile of poop that is Landline; or rather, it’s answered in the worst way possible: for a large section of the reading populace, this is adult fiction now.

friendship cover

3. Friendship by Emily Gould (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Our baleful theme of arrogance could scarcely be better exemplified than by this bloated status update masquerading as a novel: you’re quite simply not supposed to pick up this book without first knowing who Emily Gould is – and that a priori justification is openly meant to justify this entire little vanity exercise.

on such a full sea cover

2. On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead) – The last of our Atwood Prize-winners, Lee’s bumbling, self-contradictory botch of a novel is exactly the kind of dystopian novel a writer knowing nothing and caring nothing about genre fiction (to say nothing of internally-consistent world-building) would produce if he wanted to generate some creaky ‘social commentary’ and net a rack of plaudits from book critics who, like him, wouldn’t go near real science fiction if their Starbucks Rewards cards depended on it.

you're not much use to anyone cover

1. You’re Not Much Use to Anyone by David Shapiro (New Harvest) – In a narcissism black hole singularity, the goddam author is on the book’s front cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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