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The Donoghue Interregnum: 1994!

By (December 5, 2015) No Comment

the donoghue interregnum logo

We’ve reached 1994, when genocide stalked Rwanda, the 145th Clinton scandal broke, Richard Nixon was recalled to Hell, and the great Cab Calloway died. The book-world’s top efforts looked like this:

Best Fiction:

the birthday boys10 – The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge – The doomed 1912 Scott expedition to the South Pole is the unlikely subject for this sharply-executed novel but Bainbridge, one of the best and least-sung historical novelists of the 20th century, and like all the best of Bainbridge’s novels, the harsh specter of inevitability in the story brings out the best in the author’s profane friendshipprose.

9 – Profane Friendship by Harold Brodkey – This story of a young European boy’s intense friendship and gradual erotic fascination with a Venetian boy is Brodkey’s most surreally dreamlike and poetic, a gorgeously-written examination of the sneaking, sideways nature of good night, gorillasuppressed love and the self-defeating irrationalities of jealousy.

8 – Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann – All during the Donoghue Interregnum, it should be remembered, I spent my days wandering around a large retail bookstore, ignoring petulant managers, mocking my hapless co-workers, and, most importantly for our purposes here, loitering all over the shop looking at the books. That’s how I found this utterly delightful book, in the Children’s section, and I’ve been re-reading it ever since – a pure classic.

7 – How late it was, how late by James Kelman – It took me three tries to even how late it wasunderstand this book’s rabid patois, let alone grasp the full genius of its story; it’s as thoroughly in-country a narrative voice as I’ve ever encountered in this strong a book. It’s the story of a Glasgow loser who wakes up after an epic drink-fest and proceeds to blunder through his life in headlong fashion while the reader scrabbles to keep up. At first I thought Kelman’s rhetorical fireworks were intended to paper over structural defects, but the more I re-read the book, the more the book of intimate grammarimpressed I am with the thought behind the chaos of the book.

6 – The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman – The eerie combination of childhood wonder and dark recent history in this book is so adroit that even after all this time and studying his subsequent books, I’m still not quite sure how Grossman accomplishes it. The book is the story of a boy in Jerusalem in the years leading up to the Six-Day War, and the narrative sensibility is uncannily delicate, an absolutely masterful achievement.marvels

5 – Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross – Reading this collection of Busiek’s four-issue mini-series only enhances the cumulative power of the story, which gives us a common-man’s view of the rise of the iconic superheroes of the Marvel Universe. It’s a gimmick that works much better than it should, and it results in one of the most intelligent and moving superhero graphic novels ever created.

the lost diaries of frans hals4 – The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals by Michael Kernan – Parallel narratives structure this fantastic, funny novel, one revolving around a hapless loser in present-day New York (although not quite present, as one glance at the unintentionally heartbreaking cover will show) and the other revolving around the famous 17th century Dutch painter. Both men and their respective world are superbly realized – I’ve certainly never thought of Hals the same way since reading this book.

3 – The Alienist by Caleb Carr – There’s a good deal of the alienistoverwrought prose in Carr’s story of a super-intelligent pioneering psychiatrist and his band of allies (including Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt) tracking a vicious killer in late 19th-century New York (although not nearly as much excess as can be found in the book’s sequel), but there’s also tremendous narrative zest and some very well-drawn characters. This novel was a popular success, and for a whole blissful season I was actually pleased by the book every felicia's journeysecond customer wanted to buy.

2 – Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor – To put it mildly, I had a hit-or-miss relationship with this author, especially when it came to his novels. But this slim story of a poor, pregnant Irish girl who falls into the orbit of a fascinatingly eccentric Englishman struck me right off as more plotted and controlled than great chunks of what I’d read from Trevor, and there are scenes in the folding starthe book’s tense climax that stick with me still.

1 – The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst – The basic structure of this elegant, brutal book is very similar to that of Profane Friendship: the torture of illicit, impossible love and desire. Only as is the case in most of Hollinghurt’s work, the emotional contrasts are sharpened and amplified to an almost unbearable pitch, and his main character, a fairly mild-mannered Englishman caught up in his own desires, is one of this author’s best creations.

 

 

Best Nonfiction:

the death of the messiah10 – The Death of the Messiah by Raymond Brown – This massive two-volume set contains some absolutely first-rate Christian exegesis, conducted with incredibly readable enthusiasm. Father Brown had a very long and very active career in New Testament scholarship, and most of his books have that elusive sparkle that always signals an author who’s enjoying himself – including this book, despite its gloomy subject matter. Even when I don’t fundamentally agree with Brown (which is often, since he believes his favorite mythology is historically true but nowhere grants the same favor to Cuchulain and the Aos Si), I learn from him, and I can’t quickly estimate how often I’ve consulted these volumes aristocratssince they first appeared.

9 – Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard – This wonderful book takes a detailed and exuberant look at the lives, adventures, and loves of the four Lennox sisters in the 18th century, the men in their lives (including their brother, the heir), and the sprawling, antic society in which they laughed and swanned and endured tragedies. Tillyard never doubts for a second that the story she’s telling is fascinating, and she conveys that fascination on every page.

the art book8 – The Art Book by Phaidon – At first I made a crucial mistake when encountering this book, one I worry too many other people have also made: I saw it and thought it was just another art-survey book, however prettily designed. It wasn’t until I started thumbing through it that I realized how strange and how eye-opening a thing it is: it’s done artist-by-artist, but not period-by-period –  simple alphabetical order. And as a result, flipping through it creates odd and unfailingly mind-expanding juxtapositions between artists who don’t ever show up near each other in more conventional books. This alphabetical arrangement actually makes this book the most striking celebration I’ve ever seen of the incredible variety and vibrancy of the history of mankind’s artwork.the art of the personal essay

 

7 – The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Philip Lopate – This big anthology traces the essay from far earlier in literary history than most such anthologies usually do, finding roots of the form thousands of years old, although Lopate expends most of his space on the glorious flourishing of the form in the last four centuries. Lopate is a marvelous editor; his choices are uniformly thought-provoking, and they make joe pappthis one of the best essay collections ever assembled.

6 – Joe Papp by Helen Epstein – This shrewd and intensely readable biography of the legendary New York theater-world mogul perfectly captures the many contradictions of the man. Epstein is a terrific writer, judicious without being bloodless, and she’s strictly fair about both Papp’s horrific traits (a more catty man never drew breath in Manhattan, which is saying something) and his odd and persistent grace. Epstein wonderfully dramatizes Papp’s battles in the stage world, understanding comicsand she adds an undercurrent of sly humor he himself would have appreciated.

5 – Understanding Comics by Scott McLeod – The slow, steady way this graphic novel about how to read graphic novels draws the reader into its world is a marvel to behold; McLeod is the most patient and skillful of teachers, breaking down the logic and dynamic of sequential art to its simplest elements and then building in complexity very gradually. the rape of europaMcLeod clearly doesn’t want to lose even a single reader, be they snob or newcomer.

4 – The Rape of Europa by Lynne Nicholas – The sordid, sad, and sometimes incredibly intricate story of Europe’s looted artwork during the Second World War is the subject of this engrossing book, the best account of the lootings of the Nazis that I’ve ever written. Nicholas brings all the various characters wonderfully to life, and her sleuth-work tracing the wanderings of the artwork are the coming plaguegripping from start to finish.

3 – The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett – This huge book is far more terrifying than any horror novel; it deals with the bubbling, toxic stew of opportunistic pathogens that fill the world and lurk everywhere, always ready to strike the human race. And the book’s own multi-faceted scientific paranoia actually works to keep it evergreen: all the most important destabilizing factors to which Garrett points as giving rise to these new plagues, things like environmental disruption, deforestation, and huge learned handrefugee migrations, are even more with us today than they were a decade ago.

2 – Learned Hand by Gerald Gunther – The author clerked for Judge Hand and studied his career for decades, and he turned all that work into this amazingly good biography of one of the greatest and most influential judges in American history. There’s a large amount of legal history in these pages – Hand was involved in several landmark cases over the decades of his career – but the strength of the book rests most strongly in its portrait of Hand the man, the deep thinker, steadfast friend, and adviser to the great and good. An one artimmediate benchmark biography.

1 – One Art by Elizabeth Bishop – The best nonfiction book of the year was this big volume collecting hundreds of letters written by the poet Elizabeth Bishop over the course of decades, and the surprising danger of the book is that it’ll strongly tempt any reader who gets even part-way through its 700 pages to come away thinking Bishop was a considerably better correspondent than poet. These letters, expertly selected by Robert Giroux, hit every possible note: they’re funny, scathing, moving, supportive, and uniformly bookish in an unforced and entirely contagious way. A fully-rendered person breathes again in these pages, which is a precious achievement.

Home » stevereads

The Donoghue Interregnum: 1994!

By (December 5, 2015) No Comment

the donoghue interregnum logo

We’ve reached 1994, when genocide stalked Rwanda, the 145th Clinton scandal broke, Richard Nixon was recalled to Hell, and the great Cab Calloway died. The book-world’s top efforts looked like this:

Best Fiction:

the birthday boys10 – The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge – The doomed 1912 Scott expedition to the South Pole is the unlikely subject for this sharply-executed novel but Bainbridge, one of the best and least-sung historical novelists of the 20th century, and like all the best of Bainbridge’s novels, the harsh specter of inevitability in the story brings out the best in the author’s profane friendshipprose.

9 – Profane Friendship by Harold Brodkey – This story of a young European boy’s intense friendship and gradual erotic fascination with a Venetian boy is Brodkey’s most surreally dreamlike and poetic, a gorgeously-written examination of the sneaking, sideways nature of good night, gorillasuppressed love and the self-defeating irrationalities of jealousy.

8 – Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann – All during the Donoghue Interregnum, it should be remembered, I spent my days wandering around a large retail bookstore, ignoring petulant managers, mocking my hapless co-workers, and, most importantly for our purposes here, loitering all over the shop looking at the books. That’s how I found this utterly delightful book, in the Children’s section, and I’ve been re-reading it ever since – a pure classic.

7 – How late it was, how late by James Kelman – It took me three tries to even how late it wasunderstand this book’s rabid patois, let alone grasp the full genius of its story; it’s as thoroughly in-country a narrative voice as I’ve ever encountered in this strong a book. It’s the story of a Glasgow loser who wakes up after an epic drink-fest and proceeds to blunder through his life in headlong fashion while the reader scrabbles to keep up. At first I thought Kelman’s rhetorical fireworks were intended to paper over structural defects, but the more I re-read the book, the more the book of intimate grammarimpressed I am with the thought behind the chaos of the book.

6 – The Book of Intimate Grammar by David Grossman – The eerie combination of childhood wonder and dark recent history in this book is so adroit that even after all this time and studying his subsequent books, I’m still not quite sure how Grossman accomplishes it. The book is the story of a boy in Jerusalem in the years leading up to the Six-Day War, and the narrative sensibility is uncannily delicate, an absolutely masterful achievement.marvels

5 – Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross – Reading this collection of Busiek’s four-issue mini-series only enhances the cumulative power of the story, which gives us a common-man’s view of the rise of the iconic superheroes of the Marvel Universe. It’s a gimmick that works much better than it should, and it results in one of the most intelligent and moving superhero graphic novels ever created.

the lost diaries of frans hals4 – The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals by Michael Kernan – Parallel narratives structure this fantastic, funny novel, one revolving around a hapless loser in present-day New York (although not quite present, as one glance at the unintentionally heartbreaking cover will show) and the other revolving around the famous 17th century Dutch painter. Both men and their respective world are superbly realized – I’ve certainly never thought of Hals the same way since reading this book.

3 – The Alienist by Caleb Carr – There’s a good deal of the alienistoverwrought prose in Carr’s story of a super-intelligent pioneering psychiatrist and his band of allies (including Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt) tracking a vicious killer in late 19th-century New York (although not nearly as much excess as can be found in the book’s sequel), but there’s also tremendous narrative zest and some very well-drawn characters. This novel was a popular success, and for a whole blissful season I was actually pleased by the book every felicia's journeysecond customer wanted to buy.

2 – Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor – To put it mildly, I had a hit-or-miss relationship with this author, especially when it came to his novels. But this slim story of a poor, pregnant Irish girl who falls into the orbit of a fascinatingly eccentric Englishman struck me right off as more plotted and controlled than great chunks of what I’d read from Trevor, and there are scenes in the folding starthe book’s tense climax that stick with me still.

1 – The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst – The basic structure of this elegant, brutal book is very similar to that of Profane Friendship: the torture of illicit, impossible love and desire. Only as is the case in most of Hollinghurt’s work, the emotional contrasts are sharpened and amplified to an almost unbearable pitch, and his main character, a fairly mild-mannered Englishman caught up in his own desires, is one of this author’s best creations.

 

 

Best Nonfiction:

the death of the messiah10 – The Death of the Messiah by Raymond Brown – This massive two-volume set contains some absolutely first-rate Christian exegesis, conducted with incredibly readable enthusiasm. Father Brown had a very long and very active career in New Testament scholarship, and most of his books have that elusive sparkle that always signals an author who’s enjoying himself – including this book, despite its gloomy subject matter. Even when I don’t fundamentally agree with Brown (which is often, since he believes his favorite mythology is historically true but nowhere grants the same favor to Cuchulain and the Aos Si), I learn from him, and I can’t quickly estimate how often I’ve consulted these volumes aristocratssince they first appeared.

9 – Aristocrats by Stella Tillyard – This wonderful book takes a detailed and exuberant look at the lives, adventures, and loves of the four Lennox sisters in the 18th century, the men in their lives (including their brother, the heir), and the sprawling, antic society in which they laughed and swanned and endured tragedies. Tillyard never doubts for a second that the story she’s telling is fascinating, and she conveys that fascination on every page.

the art book8 – The Art Book by Phaidon – At first I made a crucial mistake when encountering this book, one I worry too many other people have also made: I saw it and thought it was just another art-survey book, however prettily designed. It wasn’t until I started thumbing through it that I realized how strange and how eye-opening a thing it is: it’s done artist-by-artist, but not period-by-period –  simple alphabetical order. And as a result, flipping through it creates odd and unfailingly mind-expanding juxtapositions between artists who don’t ever show up near each other in more conventional books. This alphabetical arrangement actually makes this book the most striking celebration I’ve ever seen of the incredible variety and vibrancy of the history of mankind’s artwork.the art of the personal essay

 

7 – The Art of the Personal Essay edited by Philip Lopate – This big anthology traces the essay from far earlier in literary history than most such anthologies usually do, finding roots of the form thousands of years old, although Lopate expends most of his space on the glorious flourishing of the form in the last four centuries. Lopate is a marvelous editor; his choices are uniformly thought-provoking, and they make joe pappthis one of the best essay collections ever assembled.

6 – Joe Papp by Helen Epstein – This shrewd and intensely readable biography of the legendary New York theater-world mogul perfectly captures the many contradictions of the man. Epstein is a terrific writer, judicious without being bloodless, and she’s strictly fair about both Papp’s horrific traits (a more catty man never drew breath in Manhattan, which is saying something) and his odd and persistent grace. Epstein wonderfully dramatizes Papp’s battles in the stage world, understanding comicsand she adds an undercurrent of sly humor he himself would have appreciated.

5 – Understanding Comics by Scott McLeod – The slow, steady way this graphic novel about how to read graphic novels draws the reader into its world is a marvel to behold; McLeod is the most patient and skillful of teachers, breaking down the logic and dynamic of sequential art to its simplest elements and then building in complexity very gradually. the rape of europaMcLeod clearly doesn’t want to lose even a single reader, be they snob or newcomer.

4 – The Rape of Europa by Lynne Nicholas – The sordid, sad, and sometimes incredibly intricate story of Europe’s looted artwork during the Second World War is the subject of this engrossing book, the best account of the lootings of the Nazis that I’ve ever written. Nicholas brings all the various characters wonderfully to life, and her sleuth-work tracing the wanderings of the artwork are the coming plaguegripping from start to finish.

3 – The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett – This huge book is far more terrifying than any horror novel; it deals with the bubbling, toxic stew of opportunistic pathogens that fill the world and lurk everywhere, always ready to strike the human race. And the book’s own multi-faceted scientific paranoia actually works to keep it evergreen: all the most important destabilizing factors to which Garrett points as giving rise to these new plagues, things like environmental disruption, deforestation, and huge learned handrefugee migrations, are even more with us today than they were a decade ago.

2 – Learned Hand by Gerald Gunther – The author clerked for Judge Hand and studied his career for decades, and he turned all that work into this amazingly good biography of one of the greatest and most influential judges in American history. There’s a large amount of legal history in these pages – Hand was involved in several landmark cases over the decades of his career – but the strength of the book rests most strongly in its portrait of Hand the man, the deep thinker, steadfast friend, and adviser to the great and good. An one artimmediate benchmark biography.

1 – One Art by Elizabeth Bishop – The best nonfiction book of the year was this big volume collecting hundreds of letters written by the poet Elizabeth Bishop over the course of decades, and the surprising danger of the book is that it’ll strongly tempt any reader who gets even part-way through its 700 pages to come away thinking Bishop was a considerably better correspondent than poet. These letters, expertly selected by Robert Giroux, hit every possible note: they’re funny, scathing, moving, supportive, and uniformly bookish in an unforced and entirely contagious way. A fully-rendered person breathes again in these pages, which is a precious achievement.