Posts from July 2014
July 15th, 2014
The dog days of summer have settled into place (although it’s resolutely refusing to feel that way in the entire eastern half of North America), and all my young friends over on BookTube are happily ensconced in making their July book-videos – very much including the book “hauls” they somehow manage to take in despite lacking, most of them, anything resembling a vigorous bookstore culture where they happen to live (they’re devotees of The Book Depository and The Book Warehouse, these young BookTubers). As I’ve mentioned before, it gives one a yen to join the fun.
On a warm day in Boston recently, I took in a book-haul of my own – hardly surprising in its own right, since I do that practically every day when visiting my favorite orifice in the whole world, the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box. But this book-haul wasn’t the latest crop of forthcoming books sent from publishers – and it also wasn’t, mirabile dictu, the latest harvest from my beloved Brattle Bookshop. No, since Boston and I go back a very, very long time, I know every single nook and cranny where books can be found – including discarded books that would otherwise be boxed up and sent to the incinerator.
I recently snagged a full tote bag of such books, and they’ll constitute my Stevereads book-haul for July, starting off with that fixture of used bookstores, the fat little red mass market paperback of the collected short stories of John Cheever. This is an author who’s been growing on me for a decade now, and I’ve found myself re-reading especially this collection with a great deal of enjoyment. I have it, of course – this copy’s a double, because it’s a neat thing to give away.
Also in little mass market paperbacks are two stellar romances, A Courtesan’s Scandal by Julia London and Temptation and Surrender by Stephanie Laurens, two lavish modern Regencies that I remember liking very much the first time I read them – and that are both helped out considerably by the presence of a certain someone on their covers …
Next is Michelle Moran’s 2009 novel Cleopatra’s Daughter, about one of the children Cleopatra had with Marc Antony. I read it when it first came out and remember considering it a fairly solid Roman historical novel, ripe for re-reading, especially since the price, as it were, was right.
Then there’s Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass, a baleful, horrifying classic of natural history writing the like of which you’ll never have read in your life. It’s all about the apocalyptic havoc animal-venom can wreak on the human body, and the long chapter on the Brown Recluse spider will be one of the most freezingly terrifying pieces of nonfiction you ever read. This one too is a double, of course, intended as a gift – provided the recipient is made of some fairly sturdy stuff.
Along the same lines as the Grice is Stephen Herrero’s classic Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, which is effectively a natural history of North American bears rather than something specifically danger-oriented. This heavily-illustrated volume covers just about everything – mating, life cycles, tracking, behavior, etc. – but it keeps coming back to its central subject: what happens when bears and humans interact, and how to stop those interactions from turning deadly. I owned a copy of the original edition of this book and found it fascinating, although I’ve also had my fair share of bear encounters in the wild and can counter-balance the book’s hopeful, ecological outlook with the simple observation that when it comes to frothing, ferocious engines of pure hate and destruction, the North American bear is second only to the North American moose. So a book like this can induce shivers.
Shivers of a very different kind with the next book, the mighty Helen Gardner edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, which is (with all due apologies to Rumpole of the Bailey!) the best edition of this timeless classic. Gardner couldn’t equal the sturdy Victorian beauty of the prose of her predecessor, Arthur Quiller-Couch, but she’s ten times the editor he is and very nearly ten times the scholar, and those are the qualities for this job. The edition I found the other day has a dreadful Giorgione cover illustration (that was dramatically fixed in the following edition), but it hardly matters: there’s an undeniable thrill to finding a volume like this – one of the English languages tiny handful of true ‘desert island books’ – in perfect condition, in a pile of discards nobody had the sense to want anymore.
The same certainly holds true for the next book in our haul, Wilton Barnhardt’s great, sudsy 2013 Southern novel Lookaway, Lookaway, in which a magnificently dysfunctional North Carolina family falls apart before the delighted reader’s eyes. I loved the book as soon as I read it, in an advance copy long before publication, and I loved it even more when I re-read it once I got the finished hardcover. I considered it one of the best novels of 2013, so it was a treat to find a free copy. I know exactly who’s getting it, and that’s a nice feeling too.
One of the features of a random haul like this is that it’ll almost always feature at least one book that you always meant to get around to and never did. For me, this time around, that book was Kevin Phillips’s Wealth and Democracy from 2002, but I confess, having been so ruinously bored by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I almost hesitated to pick up this book, so clearly a spiritual ancestor of the Piketty bore-fest. But I really liked Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor, and I feel certain that if Open Letters Monthly had existed back in 2002 (how did the world manage to scrape by without it?), I’d have requested this book from the publisher and consumed it eagerly. Resolved then not to let Piketty trauma afflict me, I added this to my pile. I’ll report back what I thought of it.
I’ve already made plain what I thought of Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed: I loved it, considered it, too, one of the best novels of 2013 (much to my surprise, since this is an author who’s seldom pleased me in the past), and then promptly lost my copies (I had the ARC and the finished hardcover, both mysteriously vanished) – so it was very handy to find this paperback in the bin, especially since this is a prime example of the kind of book that reveals more of itself upon re-reading.
And speaking of re-reading! Hee. When I saw this neat little hardcover copy of The Return of the King, I couldn’t help myself – I grabbed it, even though I have one or two editions of the book already and have read it once or twice. And as inevitable as the sunrise, it was the first book from this haul that I read, thrilling again to the Siege of Gondor and Battle of Pelennor Fields, the madness of Denethor and the death of Theoden, and the long Appendices at the back that are in themselves so full of stories that they could easily spawn a thousand pieces of LOTR fan fiction. Granted, I could have enjoyed all those things by simply returning home and taking one of my other volumes of Return of the King off the shelf – but this one was right there! Hopelessly impulsive, I know.
Impulsive too the last book in our haul this time around, yet another novel from 2013, Julie Garwood’s Hotshot, a paper-thin but mindlessly entertaining modern-day romance in which a sexy resort owner falls in love all over again with the sexy FBI agent who was her childhood friend. The book has all the trappings of New York Times-ready contemporary romances: the female lead has a man’s name, the male lead has a ridiculously action-hero name, the writing consists almost entirely of clichés and idioms, and the plot, such as it is, turns on a mundane triviality. If Garwood weren’t such a practiced and snappy pacer (and if the cover didn’t feature a certain someone), the whole thing wouldn’t be worth picking up off a table, let alone reading. But she is, so I did.
And there you have it! A nice healthy July book-haul! It doesn’t reflect what came to the OLM Post Office box on Friday, or yesterday, but since Sunday is the one day of the week when I don’t traffic in books of any kind, it’ll do just fine for today.
December 18th, 2013
Fiction was remarkable in 2013 for the way it almost constantly awarded craft. This isn’t always the case; it frequently happens that raw, relatively untested talent – or drastically but well-controlled stylistic gambles – will propel a book into a firmament more typically occupied by older stars. But this year not only are many of the names on this list well-known, but – in a twist I find both mortifying and thrilling – many of them (and many on the Fiction Honor Roll) are authors I had to one extent or another already decided I hated with the fire of a thousand suns even back when many of you were still in swaddling clothes. If you’d told me in 1977, for instance, that Joyce Carol Oates would ever be on a list like this (written on a typewriter, then photocopied and mailed to my 37 bookish friends), I’d have proudly said “I’d no sooner include her on such a list than I’d exclude Thomas Pynchon!” So we live, and, with any luck, learn. The ten best novels of 2013, then:
10. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan (Knopf Books for Young Readers) – Yet another YA title! But I haven’t gone over to the BookTubing Dark Side quite yet: yes, Two Boys Kissing’s main plots center around the dating vicissitudes of teenagers, but two things elevate it far above most of its sub-genre: first, it isn’t written in that incredibly annoying hyper caffeinated faux-teenspeak that fills so, so many YA novels, and second, the narration of this story is done by a ghostly Greek chorus of adults – men who died of AIDS in the first flush of the disease’s US outbreak. I know I was supposed to be rooting for our spindly, listless heroes, but it was the haunting sentiments of that chorus that made the book so memorable for me. You can read my full review here.
9. The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas (Yale University Press) – In this beautiful and heartbreaking little fantasy, Rojas imagines the poet Federico Garcia Lorca in hell, reflecting on his tumultuous life and murder in 1936 at age 38. When he’s confronted with two older versions of himself from alternate realities in which he didn’t meet his gruesome end, the narrative loops and expands in ways translator Edith Grossman captures perfectly. This was the strangest novel I read in 2013 and one of the ones I find myself thinking about the most.
8. The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (HarperCollins) – Joyce’s sprawling, surreal high-Gothic historical novel is set in turn-of-the-last-century Princeton and environs and features a large cast of real historical characters like Jack London, Mark Twain, and a beautifully, viciously-realized Woodrow Wilson, but although those things automatically intrigued me long before I read the book, they also made me wary: I’ve been burned by Oates’ mannered, self-enfatuated prose so many times before, after all. But this hugely ambitious novel, which reads like something from a writer in her mid-30s rather than her mid-70s, amazed me and kept right on amazing me to its final pages – proving almost to a certainty that I can’t ever be 100 percent certain who will and won’t show up on these lists.
7. Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (Macmillan) – There’ve been times over the years when I thought I might be Wilton Barnhardt’s only faithful fan (certainly I often felt lie the only fan of his huge historical novel Gospel – I’ve actually never met another person who’s even so much as finished it), so the appearance of this hugely entertaining deep-fried Southern comedy of a book utterly delighted me, not only in its own right (virtually every scene is perfect, right down to the hilarious drink-swilling family-confrontation set-piece at the climx) but because I felt certain it would do what it in fact has done: draw a lot more attention to this fantastic writer.
6. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown) – It feels almost strange to include on this list of mine a book that’s on everybody else’s list as well, and yet it happens a few times this year, and always for the same reason: even I must bow the head to stupendous books written by novelists at the peak of their powers (when I made this list back in 1902, I assure you I included The Wings of the Dove, even though I’d previously been no big fan of its hifalutin author). Donna Tartt’s two earlier novels made me eager for her new one, but even so I wasn’t prepared for the sheer controlled power of The Goldfinch (nor for its killer one-two punch of an ending, though I should have been). A perfect case of the critical chorus getting something right – will wonders never cease?
5. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf) – “Controlled power” works equally well for this book too, Jhumpa Lahiri’s powerful story of one brother absorbing the shockwaves of another brother’s life – in fact, the control here at first glance seems so cold as to be almost arctic, a Muriel Spark-like narrative trait I’d noticed before in Lahiri’s fiction but never to this great an extent. Thanks to her extraordinary storytelling ability, that reserved narrative voice actually enhanced the power of this novel, which I think I’m not alone in considering the finest thing she’s ever written.
4. Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press) – Every time I read a book by him, I think: “How wonderful it is to have Percival Everett writing among us!” – and this book, too, (like so many on this list) is the best thing he’s ever done. It’s the story of a son visiting his father in a nursing home where the old man is writing the story of his son, and from that already-mischievous opening premise, the narrative tangles and twists upon itself as almost every story prisms back upon its alleged teller, but all circling back and back to an old man unhappy to be in a nursing home, and all of it told with such riveting skill that I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why Percival Everett isn’t a much better-known author.
3. Harvest by Jim Crace (Vintage) – Crace’s slim historical novel about a late-feudal English hamlet waking up to very unwelcome changes to its way of life misfired with me the first time I read it. But I kept thinking about it, and when I returned to it and slackened my reading tensions to let it work on me at its own pace, I saw its strange, heartfelt beauty – and its sly power, achieved more through accretion than drama, very similar to the way Ismail Kadare’s The Three-Arched Bridge and William Golding’s The Spire achieve a similar effect. This is by far my favorite Crace novel and was #1 on this list for months, until the next two books bumped it off.
2. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (Knopf) – I’ve mentioned a few times recently that strange phenomenon, the sidereal drift of estimation, where the appreciation for a book slowly changes in the background of your mind while it’s being thoroughly digested, and so far no novel of 2013 has undergone more drift than this stunningly disturbing work by Claire Messud about a thwarted, unmarried, unhappy woman who attaches herself to a charismatic family and slowly, alarmingly works her way closer and closer into the family’s lives. When I first read it, the book struck me as extremely competent but fairly one-dimensional. Over time I found myself thinking about it and returning to it, until finally I had to acknowledge that such a response, however delayed, is also a legitimate barometer of an author’s talent. Then I finally sat down and re-read the thing and was astonished.
1. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff (Doubleday) – Critics tended to have a field day with this one. The poets hated it for its doggerel verse (although it’s always mystified my how anybody could hate something with such a lovely name); the novelists hated it for its telegraphic narrative; and the occasional example of that unlucky symbiont, the novelist-poet, was driven to distraction by the whole bloody thing. No doubt a part of this confused reception was due to the author’s recent death in August of last year, which was bound to make some critics bridle at the expectation of reverence and others (perhaps including this one) elevate the book above its merits because they’ll so, so miss the author. But the sidereal drift of estimation works to calm the clouding agitations of the heart as well, and in their aftermath this slim book of interconnected stories scrambling hard to find hope just keeps rising in my estimation. I now believe it would be every bit as moving and funny and ultimately uplifting even if its Rakoff had done us all the favor of living to be 100. The book that became his elegy is also the best novel of 2013.
August 13th, 2012
A wise and wonderful editor I once knew was fond of exclaiming, when the subject came up, “God save me from anthologies!” He was referring to the committee-nightmare procedure of selection and rejection, I’m fairly certain, not to marketing them (they do well – always have, always will – hardly ever spectacularly, but well) – and certainly not to the reading of them, for one simple reason: anthologies are a lot of fun.
Even bad anthologies are, and good ones can be revelations of juxtaposition and personal interpretation. If strong, well-read editors (rather than boards, joylessly checking off boxes of demographic representation) are at the helm, anthologies can scarcely help but entertain and often enlighten, and some of them become legends in their own rights, like Palgrave or the mighty Oxford Book of English Verse, or even more recent volumes. Let’s add a few more of those recent ones, shall we, on the general assumption that we can never have too many such recommendations?
The Oxford Book of Detective Stories, edited by Patricia Craig
You’d expect Oxford University Press to show up on a list like this, and you wouldn’t be wrong: they have an age-old knack for putting together good volumes. In this case the task falls to the delightful Patricia Craig, who writes in her Introduction:
Inevitably, at least half of the stories selected for this volume have been written during the last thirty or forty years, and come right up to the present to give some sense of the astonishing developments which have taken place as the genre has become full-fledged – in spit of predictions that it would never attain maturity because of in-built defects such as a formulaic framework and otiose assumptions. In fact, it has proved immeasurably resilient.
Craig includes the usual suspects – “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” is the Sherlock Holmes piece, and there’s Agatha Christie, Dashiell Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen, and Raymond Chandler (a good taut number of his called “No Crime in the Mountains”), but like all the best anthology editors, she also throws in the less well-known (three cheers for Judge Dee!) and the unexpected (Borges and Skvorecky make appearances). There’s even a rare foray into detective fiction by Georges Simenon. Hee.
Pages Passed From Hand to Hand, edited by Mark Mitchell and Stephen Leavitt
Some anthologies do more than assemble a group photo – some of them actually break new ground, gathering things that had never been gathered before. Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is a stunning example of that latter function, as its sub-title suggests: “The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914.” The book pulls together scraps (often heavily encoded) from Herman Melville, Owen Wister (!), Henry James, Willa Cather, E.M. Forster, and an extremely well-chosen group of people you’ve never heard of, often by arduous means, as our editors attest in their Introduction:
Today the study of pre-1914 homosexual literature is still a matter of pages passed from hand to hand. To assemble this anthology, we asked friends. We read photocopies of photocopies that scholars and antiquarians sent to us; books of which only one copy existed in one “special collection.” We did our time at the British Library in London and at the Clarke Library in Los Angeles, mentally translated the F-shaped S’s in Charlotte Clarke’s Henry Dumont, an edition so old and frail that specially weighted velvet bags had to be used to hold it open.
The result of all that labor is a memorably stunning work, a clearing and re-setting of the stage.
Writing New York, edited by Phillip Lopate
This fat collection pulled off the rare feat of becoming an almost instant ‘classic’ when it was published in 1998, with Library Journal summing up the consensus by rightly declaring that the book should be in everybody’s personal library. Writing New York contains over 100 snippets from the writings of such New York-associated writers as Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, George Templeton Strong, Henry James, Edmund Wilson, and Dawn Powell. Damon Runyon is here, and A.J. Liebling (his sublime “Apology for Breathing,” what else?), and Robert Moses’ freezing portrait of Fiorello LaGuardia. There’s something from Louis Auchincloss, a selection from Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” a selection from Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and something from Tom Wolfe. There is, like a sad, beautiful rainbow over the whole thing, “The Day Lady Died” by the great Frank O’Hara. And there’s Lopate himself, in his quick, lackluster Introduction, reminding us that “There is a characteristic tone as well in New York writing, of skeptical humor, sardonic wit, disenchanted realism. A famously hard environment, New York inspires both stoic pride and chagrin.” Pretty much the only thing missing to make the whole thing the perfect pre-9/11 monument to the Big Apple is a YouTube clip of Simon & Garfunkel singing “American Tune” at the Concert in Central Park.
Esquire’s Big Book of Fiction, edited by Adrienne Miller
The choice of an editor is crucial for any anthology that hopes to be great, and sometimes that choice is so unorthodox it either has to succeed wildly or fail completely – case in point the choice of pretty, elfin young Adrienne Miller to edit a collection of the best fiction from the famously brawling, testosterone-soaked 70-year history of Esquire magazine. A reader unfamiliar with Miller’s steel-trap mind might have expected the big-bellied earth-pawing specimens in her Table of Contents – names like Ernest Hemingay, John Steinbeck, Richard Russo (here represented by his particularly poignant “Monhegan Light”), Norman Mailer, John Gardner – to overwhelm her, but there was never any chance of that, and besides, Miller is aided by such compensating thinkers as Barry Hannah, Pete Dexter, Russell Banks – and Flannery O’Connor, writing all the gentlemen under the table. In typically direct fashion, Miller lays out her simple criteria:
There is a short story called “Porcupines at the University,” by Donald Barthelme, and in it there are three questions: “Are these porcupines wonderful? Are they significant? Are they what I need?” That’s how I chose these stories: They’re the ones that got a yes, a yes, and a YES.
The Book of Dracula, edited by Leslie Shepard
Some themes are more narrow than others, but no less yielding – like this compact, powerful 1991 volume from horror wonk Leslie Shepard. The book combines the earlier Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories and Dracula Book of Great Horror Stories and features virtually every pillar of undead lit any beginner (or connoisseur) could want, from “Dracula’s Guest” to Algernon Blackwood, E.F. Benson, and Sheridan Le Fanu – plus an anachronistically sexy cover and an almost de rigueur mixture of haughtiness and looniness in Shepard’s Introduction:
The older stories of vampirism have a certain melancholy dignity … and do not present this grim tradition as something for trendy kicks. There is an underlying morality in these tales which symbolizes ancient mysteries of life beyond the grave, the decay of the body, the strange passions of the blood, and the age-old struggle between the forces of good and evil in the human soul. The protective power of the cross is an ancient theme, for it was a pagan talisman long before Christianity gave it new emphasis. But the real conflict with vampires is in that twilight zone between waking and sleeping, when the will and the moral senses are bemused, and that is why the classics of vampire literature are more subtly meaningful than the contrived sensationalism of modern horror movies, where the mind and emotions are deadened by violence for its own sake.
The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates
As we began with an Oxford anthology, so too we’ll end with one, as a kind of quiet acknowledgement that we could have run through a list twice this long consisting only of great Oxford anthologies (some houses just have the knack) – and every time I take this one – the 1992 Oxford Book of American Short Stories down from the shelf, I’m newly amazed that I even own a copy, much less return to it as regularly as I do. Joyce Carol Oates and I have never been on the same aesthetic wavelength, as it were – except for this volume, in which she gives full rein to all her various stubborn idiosyncrasies and yet somehow manages to cohere them in a way that’s not only not irritating but is movingly beautiful. She gives readers only the barest handful of expected items – “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Things They Carried” – and she fills the rest of her space with less-trafficked pieces like Hawthorne’s “The Wives of the Dead,” or Mark Twain’s “Cannibalism in the Cars,” or a neat little stack of crap from Sandra Cisneros, and all of it guided by her enthusiasm, which for once is neither falsified nor frittery:
We must assume that storytelling is as old as mankind, at least as old as spoken language. Reality is not enough for us – we crave the imagination’s embellishments upon it. In the beginning. Once upon a time. A long time ago there lived a princess who. How the pulse quickens, hearing such beginnings! such promises of something new, strange unexpected!
That last part is crucial, as Oates points out: great anthologies can reprint all the familiar stuff they want, but somehow, by the alchemy of their alignments, they manage always to make that stuff new and strange and unexpected. Must be why I have a couple of shelves of them, well-thumbed. We’ll do six more in a bit!