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Our Year in Reading 2013

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Year in Reading
Our Year in Reading
– 2013 –
by
The Open Letters Staff
Sam Sacks, Editor-in-Chief

An uncomfortable truth: Save for the slivers of experience in which we call ourselves specialists, we’re amateurs at most of what we do. So it may be that the measure of our lives is gauged by the passion with which we embrace our dilettantism—and, not far removed, by the teachers we find to guide us.

onpoetrymaxwellGlyn Maxwell’s effusive little book On Poetry (Harvard University Press, 2013) is one of the best guides I have ever read to the greatest and most intimidating of all the literary forms. Maxwell is himself a poet and he wears his expertise confidently but casually. He takes on daunting, recondite concepts and elucidates them stylishly and personably, in the same spirit by which Roger Fry demystified the Post-Impressionists and Julia Child universalized the Quiche Lorraine.

Here, for example, is his quick taxonomy of linguistic effects:

A word and four ways. Prime meaning, resonant meaning, way it sounds sans meaning, way it looks sans meaning. Solar, lunar, musical, visual. I think the best poems encompass all four, in such a way that your meeting with a poem is like your meeting with a person.

To Maxwell, a poem must “act upon you in a way that resembles a human encounter,” and he can be very funny when familiarizing celestial classics. He imagines a young woman meeting four Romantics at a party—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Byron—each of whom woos her with opening verses to their famous poems. She writes in her diary, “This bloke pointed out some old bridges he likes. A stoner told me how sad he was feeling. An emo boy had this random story. Finally this hot guy with a limp said hey life’s like that and he knew of a better party.”

But Maxwell’s ability to endow a poem with a body temperature and character quirks has immense practical value as well, particularly in his discussion of meter: “Poetry is creaturely. What survives in it echoes corporeal phenomena: the heartbeat and the pulse, the footstep and the breath. How it echoes is different in each language, in each culture, in each age.”

On Poetry, which concludes with a long, oddball poem in which Maxwell attempts to put into practice all that he’s preached, navigates a welcoming middle path between hidebound tradition and the free-for-all of formlessness. It reminds us that although only a select few are called to be Poets, reading, writing, and loving poetry is for anyone.

fieldguidetoamericanhousesOf course, I relied on the tutelage of experts in countless other areas. Not long ago, for instance, friends persuaded me to buy Virginia & Lee McAlester’s A Field Guide to American Houses (Knopf, 1984, updated in 2000 and 2013). I therefore had it during a trip to New Paltz in New York’s Hudson Valley, and could learn things like this about the town’s 18th-century Dutch Colonial architecture:

Dutch rural houses, with their substantial stone walls, were less easily expanded than were their wooden English counterparts. Although there are many examples of early Dutch stone wall being incorporated into later, and larger, houses, these thrifty colonists generally favored another method of house expansion. When a house became too small, a larger version was built immediately beside the smaller, which then became a kitchen or bedroom wing of the new dwelling. Dutch Colonial houses thus often show a linear sequence of two or three (rarely more) units built at different times.

The book begins with a clear, detailed glossary and pictorial key and is filled with photographs, line drawings, and demographic maps. I soon realized that it was folly to travel around the U.S. without it—although for those of us who don’t own cars, it’s a heavy thing to lug. Perhaps Knopf might see their way to producing an electronic version?

FossilsFinally, there are guidebooks that have little function except to fire the imagination. The Golden Nature Guide to Fossils (Golden Press, 1962, updated 1990) doesn’t feature many things you’ll come across outside of the Natural History Museum (and the ones that are still around, like cockroaches, you wish had gone the way of the trilobite). But the color illustrations by Raymond Perlman, the maps, and the prehistoric family trees are so disarmingly attractive that it’s easy to lose an evening reading about this teeming lost world. Nearly every Golden Nature Guide can pull you in this way. No amateur’s library is complete without them.

Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor and Host of Stevereads

One of the most macabre little side-shows in the 2013 book world has been the sight of the traditional publishing industry still acting like it’s the only game in town. This has never been less true: e-book sales continue to climb, foot-traffic at brick-and-mortar bookstores continues to decline, and a random (admittedly unscientific) glance at any subway car or college green reveals a veritable sea of glowing screens, with scarcely a printed book to be seen. E. L. Doctorow, at this year’s National Book Awards, may have mumble-ranted about how e-books aren’t real books, but it was clear even in the moment that not only did his audience not agree with him but most of his own readers don’t agree with him. They’d rather download and read than buy, lug, pack, dust, and unpack.

Traditional print publishers have mostly responded to this sea-change by pretending it isn’t happening. They still raze entire forests in order to facilitate enormous print-runs of overpriced hardcovers that are stacked in bookstores for a six-week window before being boxed up and shipped back to be remaindered or pulped at losses that are factored with increasing desperation into the cost of doing business, with the huge majority of the customers who might once have bought such hardcovers now merely noting their titles for future downloading to Kindle, iPad, Nook, Kobo, or what have you. The average new hardcover book, regardless of genre, is such a drab affair in terms of physical design that it might as well have ‘analog’ stamped right on its boring, derivative cover, or down its flimsy, dot-glued spine.

E-book technology is poised to widen this already-yawning gap with innovations like color e-ink, finer, ‘warmer’ resolutions, and 3-D video enhancements that will make today’s e-books look like the first versions of Pac-Man. Print publishers ought to be adapting by stressing their strengths, by accentuating the things paper books can give readers that they can’t get from a flat screen. And while the most telling of these strengths are boringly technical (especially the fact that nobody ever really owns an e-book – they basically rent it indefinitely, but the publisher can yank it back at any moment), the most demonstrative are purely aesthetic: a beautifully-crafted physical book easily trumps its digital counterpart.

Fortunately, dying industry or no, traditional publishing hasn’t entirely forgotten this concept! 2013 has seen a good number of printed books of such exquisite beauty that a digital copy of any of them would be hopelessly banal.

paintingsofnormanrockwellOne case in point is that holiday/gift-giving staple, the Norman Rockwell collection. In this case, Abbeville Press’ The Paintings of Norman Rockwell, a lovingly produced oversized hardcover featuring 332 magazine covers the iconic American artist did over the course of his long career, each image accompanied with lively annotation by art critic Christopher Finch. Rockwell’s fame rests as much on the precise detail of his compositions as on their syrup-content, and that detail might be more searchable on a touch-screen, but its full effect is only experienced by actually looking at a nice big bright piece of art.

artandmusicinveniceAnd if that’s true for Norman Rockwell, it’s far more true for the world’s greatest painters, the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, Canaletto, and Tiepolo (both of them), whose works are given lavish adoration in Editions Hazan’s new volume Art and Music in Venice: From the Renaissance to the Baroque, a big, ornate book full of scholarly articles curated by Hilliard Goldfarb and illuminated by some of the finest art the world has ever seen, printed on rich, bright paper-stock that no electronic version yet can match.

That ‘yet’ is crucial, of course, since the flat-screen technology for viewing works of art is only in its infancy and will, when it matures, far outstrip anything a two-dimensional page can do. This can already be seen clearly in the mapping software computers provide: it’s tempting to ask what printed atlas, for instance, can now possibly hope to oxfordatlasoftheworldcompete with something as genuinely awe-inspiring as Google Earth. And yet, even here, print books done well can easily hold their own – a perfect case-in-point being the latest Atlas of the World from Oxford University Press, which features not only breathtaking photography but the kind of charts-and-exposition that cartography geeks will love poring over in print even more than they’ll love clicking over online.

And speaking of geeks – in the midst of these titanic high-priced volumes, it’s worth noting that the latest deluxe one-volume edition of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has an elegant and lovely solidity that no electronic version can approach. It’s a classic text, attractively re-packaged to feel good in the hand, with genuine human attention paid to even the smallest details of its design – a book, in other words, to last a liftetime, which isn’t something yet dreamt of in any e-book’s philosophy.

John Cotter, Executive Editor

There’s a trick the best short stories can turn where, even as the events and the characters move briefly through a patch of light from dark to dark, they manage to change and to surprise and to rivet their reader more in that little space than whole books, whole shelves can do with world enough and time. In the most careful and the most revelatory tales each word that follows the last both changes and deepens the meaning of what you’ve read; each word rearticulates the features on the faces you’ve only just met, makes things funnier and stranger as it brings them into that light. I read three such stories this year, all of them from fine collections, but each so powerful that I wish I owned little freestanding folios. I want boxes of pamphlet-size copies of each, minus all of the other fine but inevitably imperfect stories, the Randy Jacksons and the Billy Carters they come with, so that I can buy boxes in bulk and hand them out to friends, students, creditors, waiters, and anyone working a register or a phone or a ticket counter. All of them break the agreed-upon rules of the workshop story, but none do so indulgently. They should be in motels.

The cover of my little pamphlet of Carol Shield’s “Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass,” from her 1985 collection Various Miracles, would be ironically exotic—perhaps the flowering ukebanas of Japanese pagodas—for the central character, the titular Mrs. Turner, is, variousmiracleson the surface at least, both dull and dry. “Oh! Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass in a hot afternoon in June,” Shields announces straight off, alerting us via that “Oh!” to an canny omniscience that enables her to pivot from one character’s free-indirect point of view to another’s, covering five points of view in a ten-page story. Any creative writing teacher worth his salt would strike a line straight thorough it—keep your POV consistent, please—and yet it’s only through the several eyes of the neighbors and fellow vacationers Mrs. Turner encounters in her dotage that we’re able to understand what a remarkable and varied series of faces this superficially unremarkable person has shown the world.

To the high-school girls wandering by, Mrs. Turner, in an “ancient pair of shorts,” is a walking horror; and her neighbors in these outskirts of Winnipeg, the Saschers, are appalled by her use of a chemical killer in the garden; “they’re hoping she’ll go into an old-folks home soon or maybe die, and then all will proceed as it should.” By now we see where Shields is going—she’s going to tell us what a wonderful person Geraldine Turner really is. We’re wrong: Geraldine is no angel, and her mind is not particularly deep. It’s a small miracle then, or more likely Shields’ fearsome skill, that leaves us loving Geraldine, forgiving her the child she abandoned in New York, the minor condescension she feels toward her husband, and the fact that she travels abroad each year not to be enlightened or surprised but so, shockingly, “she’s reassured, always, by the sameness of the world”:

Everywhere she’s been she’s seen people eating and sleeping and working and making things with their hands and urging things to grow. There have been cats and dogs and telephone poles, and objects to buy and take care of; it’s amazing, she thinks, that she can understand so much of the world and that it comes to her as easily as music floating out of a radio.

amorandpsychoCarolyn Cooke’s “The Boundary,” from this year’s Amor and Psycho, is also a study in character, but one that cleverly deceives us. The story opens on the narrator—a young woman who paints murals with at-risk schoolchildren—mentoring a Pomo Indian boy named Scarface. But the boy seemingly distains his older mentor, begs her to buy him weed, runs away from her. Only gradually, after she force-marches the asthmatic and ghasping Scarface up a steep hill to exercise him, long past the hour when she ought to have brought him home, do we begin to realize that this is not a story about Scarface’s demons that we’re reading, but about what would ever drive the narrator to take an interest in him. What does she mean when she offhandedly says “I understand boundaries and enjoy controlling them” or, about Scarface, “[I] loved him for the way you might love someone for his money, or his beauty”? Or perhaps she is somehow driven by the darkness of her own childhood, one we we’re lead to explore with increasing queasiness as the story evolves.

Halfway through “The Boundary” the narrator flies to visit her sister, an aid worker in the Congo. But If there are any firm rules to writing short stories, one of them is that you can’t send your main character on a vacation to Africa and back in the middle, abandoning everyone we’ve met at the start and trotting in a whole new cast. Nonetheless, it works here, eerily well. Her sister turns out to be a kind of distorted mirror through which we understand, or almost understand, the narrator’s own motives, her own hardened but sturdy heart. Her sister was molested by an uncle, Uncle Gene, and presses the narrator to admit to having been traumatized as well. But the narrator maintains an odd affection for Uncle Gene, defensively reflecting:

As far as I know, Uncle Gene never forced anybody to do anything. But he was persuasive. He made girls feel something, and when they were feeling it, Uncle Gene was there with his avuncular touch. He was, of course, a bad man. But just as great individuals are sometimes scarred by flaws, can’t a bad man be varnished by qualities?

Not every writer can make a character both sympathetic and delusional. The main character in “The Boundary” is far from a fool—she’s sophisticated and ironic (note that sardonic “avuncular touch”) and so while we believe in the existence of her own self-knowledge, we’re permanently unsure of its extent. Eventually, we come to question our own identification with her, our own motives for what we do in the world. This is high art.

atortoiseforthequeenoftongaThe cover of the last of the stories would be of a tortoiseshell pattern, for such is its subject. “A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga,” from Julia Whitty’s 2002 collection of the same name, relates the 200-year story of Tu’i Malila, still the longest-living animal on record. Fished by Captain Cook from her home off the atoll of Aldabra in 1976, Tu’i is accepted by the King of Tonga as a gift for his wife, who nurses the frightened creature back to health. The Queen thinks kindly of Captain Cook, subsequently devoured by Hawaiians. “She wondered what he had tasted like.”

It is the kind of rule that hardly needs setting down: short stories should not take place over the course of over two-hundred years. But this rule is flung down and danced upon in “A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga,” and to fine effect. Through a series of seamless vignettes, Whitty glides the reader through queen after queen, king after king, beginning with young Prince Lini, a fakaleiti, or boy who behaves like a lady. When his brothers die and he becomes the kingdom’s heir, meaning he must become a man, a king, he grows despondent and weeps into the tortoise’s shell. Years later, a royally fat Lini and his fat queen swim in the warm coastal waters together, and “as the tortoise studied the stars and dozed, the royal love of Tonga, like the love of whales, played out on the buoyant bed of the sea.”

Missionaries arrive, and the royal family is discouraged from going nude. Typhoons pass by, volcanos erupt, and every year the sea turtles come to lay their phosphorescent eggs on the sand. There are turtles sufficient to feed the island, but there are no tortoises. Though Tu’i Malila takes some pleasure in her royal friends, the events of the changing world of men mean little to her. Finally, in 1966, she dies in the palace gardens, “of extreme old age and a heart that had swelled insupportably from nearly two centuries of loneliness.”

All three of these stories are worth letter-pressing, binding, and widely distributing, but “A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga” stands beside Rick Bass’ “The Hermit’s Story” and Gustave Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” as one of the most singularly beautiful short stories I have ever read.

Greg Waldmann, Senior Editor

I rarely recommend nakedly political books, even though the genre makes up most of what I review. Most people just aren’t interested. They know that politics, as a daily practice, is a big kabuki show, a theater of false virtue and phony umbrage; serious readers, in poetry or prose, are looking for some kind of truth. I usually get around this by recommending history, but every now and then a few great books on politics come along. These are usually genre-benders.

clintontapesIn 2010, Taylor Branch, the civil rights era’s foremost historian, published an unusual book called The Clinton Tapes. It sits, he writes, “somewhere between politics, journalism, and history.” Clinton, aware of history’s gaze and thinking of the tapes Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon left behind, tapped Branch for advice. He wanted to leave something like that to posterity. After a few bull sessions they fell into an arrangement. Branch would tape Clinton’s thoughts on the events of the presidency and Clinton would keep the tapes for his presidential library and memoirs, while Branch would make his own record, dictating to a recorder everything he could remember as he drove home from each session. Those tapes are the foundation for this intriguing book.

Branch had a neutral conception of his role, prodding Clinton sometimes but mostly listening in order to keep the record as unfiltered as possible. About his own book he is far too modest. “It consists,” he writes, “mostly of paraphrase resting on memory—paraphrases of Clinton’s contemporary voice on countless subjects, drawn from memories dictated on my drives home to Baltimore.” Yet we see and hear Clinton through his eyes and ears, and more often than not, we read Clinton’s thoughts in his words. Branch frequently regrets that he couldn’t fully remember Clinton’s eloquent thoughts on a subject – one impression the reader can’t avoid is how brilliant Clinton really was – but I found myself wondering, as I read along, how much Clinton benefitted from Branch’s understated and intelligent prose.

In this passage, for example, Branch summarizes Clinton’s ruminations on Haiti in 1993, as the President tries to figure out how to secure the return of its duly-elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been deposed in a coup:

From briefings, he concluded that Haiti’s coup leader had accepted the Governors Island agreement in principle only because they did not believe Aristide would issue its stipulated grants of amnesty to them for crimes known and unknown. Once Aristide did so, sacrificing justice for change, Clinton said the top military officers went into a stall. No longer mere hirelings of wealthy Haitians, they had assumed personal control of the large state enterprises, which they would relinquish only if some external force threw them out…They faced inertia within and between Western governments, fueled by grim predictions, widespread indifference, and crippling opposition. Senator Dole had announced that restoring Aristide to Haiti was not worth the life of a single American soldier. “So how do you get around that?” asked Clinton, stumped, but he said he was not yet resigned, either.

The book is replete with Clintonian disquisitions on political tactics, reflections on the use and limitations of power, and his relationships with other world leaders, most memorably Jiang Zemin, an uneasy successor to Deng Xiaoping, the man who put China on the quixotic path of modernization it treads today. Clinton personalized foreign policy as much as domestic politics, attempting to forge personal relationships with foreign leaders in order to subsume the posing and anger that grew from policy disputes. None frustrated him more than Jiang. It took years for Clinton to reach his breakthrough moment, which occurred at a 1995 meeting in New York:

Once again, he made no progress whatsoever on human rights. Jiang deflected him. Clinton said he renewed his anthem of friendship, distinguishing between disputed issues and hostility. He listed many things to fix about the relationship… but he insisted that the United States wanted to be China’s friend… there was only one area in which Clinton considered China a threat to the national security of the United States. He said this comment startled the Chinese president, who asked briskly what that could be. Jiang’s glaze softened. Clinton said he felt human contact for the first time on affairs of state… “You are growing China into a wealthy economy,” he told Jiang. “It’s not your fault, but if you don’t find a better way to do it than the rich countries before you, then you will ruin the planet.”

Clinton was surely working Jiang (a year later he sent two aircraft carriers through the Taiwan Strait to make a point), but it’s a startling moment, and a reminder that the fate of billions can turn on the fortunes of a personal relationship.

There’s little in The Clinton Tapes about the seedier side of politics, as Clinton practiced it and as it’s practiced generally in Washington, because Branch’s policy of minimal interference limits his impressions and analysis to what Clinton is willing to tell him. It is this aspect of politics, the dispiriting sense that the self-interest of Washington’s elite trumps all, which turns people off more than anything. So why read about it? One reason might be to laugh.

This TownThe best political book of this year is Mark Leibovich’s This Town, a caustic, hilarious demolition of the schmoozing and self-promoting people who make up the capitol’s political class, or “The Club,” as he calls it. Being chief national correspondent for the New York Times Magazine, he sheepishly admits, confers full membership status, but he doesn’t spare anyone because he knows they’ll still come to him when they need something.

The book opens in 2008 with NBC anchor Tim Russert’s funeral, a 30-page set-piece introduction to The Club’s most notable members and the cloying aspirants who buzz around them:

You can’t work it too hard at a memorial service, obviously. It’s the kind of thing people notice. But the big-ticket Washington departure rite can be such a great networking opportunity. You can almost feel the ardor behind the solemn faces: lucky stampedes of power mourners, about two thousand of them, wearing out the red-carpeted aisles of the Kennedy Center.

There’s the Clintons, who “plainly despised” Russert but pretend otherwise; Terry McAuliffe, whose “principal identity is as a professional best friend to Bill Clinton”; and Alan Greenspan, “a prime Washington Leading Thinker” who despite his role in the financial collapse is still an honored eminence at all the hot parties and funerals – the Henry Kissinger of economics. Of Russert himself, Liebovich claims “no one was better attuned… to the cultural erogenous zones of powerful men.”

This Town is breezily digressive. Leibovich keeps interrupting his narrative, dilating on this or that person to joke and explain what they represent. At the funeral, for example, Leibovich runs into one of Reagan’s former chiefs of staff, and has a little fun at his expense:

[Ken] Duberstein keeps shaking hands and waving and looking mid-sentence over your glistening head to see who else is in the vicinity. He wears a big welcoming smile, which he relaxes, at the appropriate time, into an expression of grave distress over the loss of Timothy John Russert.

He’s also a familiar type, the “former” who peddles his government experience into a perch on a corporate board, a spot on a lobbying firm, or worse:

Duberstein is often referred to in these words: “It isn’t exactly clear what Kenny does.” You know you’ve made it in D.C. when someone says that—“It isn’t clear what he does”—about you. Such people used to have an air of mystery about them. You assumed they did something exotic, like work for the CIA. Now you might assume the Kuwaiti government or someone is paying them a gusher to do something not terribly virtuous. They would prefer not to discuss their work, if you don’t mind, and you have to respect their discretion. Ambiguity pays well here.

If Leibovich conveys anything it’s that Washington’s social scene, an endless procession of self-honoring ceremonies and glitzy Georgetown mansion affairs, is the lubricant that greases its incestuous professional relationships. Senators become lobbyists and paid speakers, aides become pundits and journalists, ex-congressmen hire themselves out to the industries they used to regulate, and everyone parties together. It’s a terrible way to run a country, but it’s a small comfort, at least, to watch them humiliate themselves.

Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor and Host of Novel Readings

I spent a lot of time this year reading and thinking about heroes: who they are, what defines them, why we need them.

For one thing, I read all 40 Dick Francis novels in a row. I’m not usually one for binge-reading, but this was for work, not (just) for fun, and the immersive experience was both wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly illuminating. I’ve been reading and rereading Dick Francis for decades — he’s one of the writers I’m most likely to turn to when things are stressful and I need a story at once taut and familiar to distract me. The novels are all thrillers, all connected one way or another to the world of horse racing, and all told in the first-person voice of the hero, who changes names, physical attributes, and jobs from book to book but is otherwise essentially the same: principled, smart, and resistant to coercion.

straightdickfrancisIt’s these heroes that have always especially interested and attracted me about Francis’s novels, along with the array of independent, resourceful women they meet, work with, and love. I’d never taken the time before, though, to think through this impression, or to test it against the whole collection. I ended up with a new and richer appreciation of Francis’s achievement: his hero (repeated in slight variations across many different characters) reconfigures masculinity — especially the tough, stoical kind typical of detective fiction — for a world in which women are understood to be equals. This explains the appeal of his novels for a feminist critic like Carolyn Heilbrun, who named Francis as a favorite of hers. (It thus seems particularly fitting that John Leonard’s oft-quoted line about Francis, “Not to read Dick Francis because you don’t like horses is like not reading Dostoyevsky because you don’t like God,” appeared in a New York Times review that also covered Heilbrun’s Amanda Cross mystery Death in a Tenured Position.)

You’d think that reading 40 racing thrillers in a row would cause them all to blur together. Not only did I make a spreadsheet that helped me keep track, however, but I actually found (perhaps because I was giving them my undivided reading attention for once) that I ended up with a stronger sense of the novels individually. I even had a clear favorite (1989’s Straight) — though when I sorted out my top 10, I had to make some judgment calls that no doubt reveal more about me than about the novels.

copperfield“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life,” begins Dickens’s “favourite child” David Copperfield, “these pages must show.” What makes a hero in this novel, and whether David turns out to be one, is indeed a good question, one that’s harder to answer than you might think, but Dickens was certainly the hero of a summer in which exhilirating reading was in short supply. I’ve assigned and thus reread Hard Times, Great Expectations, and Bleak House many times; they are wonderful (and wonderfully teachable) novels, but it was time for a change and so I put Copperfield on the syllabus for this fall. The minute I settled in to refamiliarize myself with it I know I had done a good thing. From every page, it exudes delight in language and imagination; through every story it tells, it reminds us that to laugh and cry and love and hate is to be human.

It’s true that there’s all kinds of stuff in David Copperfield that doesn’t, strictly speaking, need to be there. Digression, repetition, and exaggeration are key tools of Dickens’s trade, and they can inspire irritation in readers convinced that “spare,” “taut” and “elliptical” are terms of the highest praise for fiction. But those very excesses are revolts against the utilitarianism Dickens saw pervading society: against this stingy spirit Dickens offers us an exuberantly various, inclusive, all-embracing narrative. It’s not an undisciplined or chaotic novel, though: its many parts are closely bound, not only by David’s own voice, shot through with the loves and sorrows and yearnings of childhood and the hopes and fears of growing up, but also by the many variations Dickens plays on his key themes: weakness and strength, innocence and knowingness, grace and disgrace, betrayal and redemption.Who would be without any of it, from the comic spectacle of Aunt Betsey Trotwood’s unceasing war against donkeys on her lawn to the tragedy that David so unsuspectingly sets in motion when he first introduces his cherished friend Steerforth to his childhood sweetheart Little Em’ly? Dickens’s writing is at its most powerful than when he brings us to the crisis of this awful story:

One mast was broken short off, six or eight feet from the deck, and lay over the side, entangled in a maze of sail and rigging; and all that ruin, as the ship rolled and beat-which she did without a moment’s pause, and with a violence quite inconceivable-beat the side as if it would stave it in. Some efforts were even then being made, to cut this portion of the wreck away; for, as the ship, which was broadside on, turned towards us in her rolling, I plainly descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest. But a great cry, which was audible even above the wind and water, rose from the shore at this moment; the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck, made a clean breach, and carried men, spars, casks, planks, bulwarks, heaps of such toys, into the boiling surge.

The second mast was yet standing, with the rags of a rent sail, and a wild confusion of broken cordage flapping to and fro. The ship had struck once, the same boatman hoarsely said in my ear, and then lifted in and struck again. I understood him to add that she was parting amidships, and I could readily suppose so, for the rolling and beating were too tremendous for any human work to suffer long. As he spoke, there was another great cry of pity from the beach; four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with the curling hair.

OrphanMastersSonHeroism and tragedy also mark the story of another orphan, Jun Do, protagonist of Adam Johnson’s extraordinary The Orphan Master’s Son, the best recent novel I read all year. There’s some comedy here, too, though it’s of a painful kind, stolen out from under the horrors of the North Korean regime. Like David Copperfield, The Orphan Master’s Son is a story of development, of a boy growing into a man, but it holds out none of the promises Dickens does that if you do your work and treat people right, you will earn a safe, happy future. Instead, in this novel people hardly know their own identities. Yet Jun Do nonetheless persists in trying to be someone honorable, cherishing not just the truth but his dreams. Johnson’s depiction of the brutal realities of ordinary life in North Korea is grimly unforgettable, but the most terrifying nightmare of the novel is the dislocation between those realities and the official stories that replace them with sanitized banalities. In this world, to survival as a person you want to be requires great physical and moral courage as well as ingenuity, but though he has these qualities, Jun Do’s heroism really lies in his refusal to stop imagining a better world for himself and those he loves. This constant testing of the is against the ought is what unites all of these otherwise disparate books; it turns out, in all of them, that the hero is the one who embodies our best hope for a convergence between the real and the ideal.

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Our Year in Reading Continues

(Cover photo from Flickr.)