As The Millions keeps rolling out their amazing Year In Reading series, I’d thought I’d offer my own attempt at doing justice to the books in my life, and not just the ones I read this year but the ones that keep piling up on my desk, on my floor, in my bed with the furor of a contagion, not to mention the ones I peddle during daylight hours at the bookstore I work at.
My Year In Books 2010 began with a book I never finished: Women And Men by Joseph McElroy, a 1300 page exercise in consciousness overload. Which is to say the book is “about” the molecules of thought that go careening through the wandering minds of several characters in New York City in the 1970’s. I made it halfway through and while I agreed that his sentences were indeed some of the most original I’d ever read I realized at the same time that I was missing out on other books. (And nowhere else will you encounter a forty-page interior monologue performed by a woman while she is masturbating.)
Richard Hughes’ A High Wind In Jamaica was the first great book I read in 2010. Written in 1929, this macabre, oddly-hilarious novel is about what happens when five perfectly heartless children are taken captive by bumbling pirates and what this says (and doesn’t say) about the arbitrariness of civilization. The first part of the book, depicting the ravages inflicted by a tropical storm on a colonial manse in Jamaica is some of the most deranged and beautiful scene-setting I’ve ever read. But then the book just gets better, weirder and lovelier.
I read three novels by Samuel R. Delany this year: Neveryona, The Mad Man, and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand.
Written in the early 80’s, Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand imagines a galactic civilization of over 5,000 occupied worlds where, in order to perform space travel in anything like a diplomatic fashion, it is necessary to plug into a database called General Information to learn about different cultures and customs. Sound familiar?
On a different note, The Mad Man is the most graphically explicit six hundred pages of man-on-man loving I’ve ever encountered — while also being a mystery, a romance and a philosophical thriller. The book is liberating in ways few others are; it dares to imagine what love can be like when all boundaries of tact, hygiene, class and moral certitude have been breached. Neveryona is, among other things, about a 9 year old girl-adventurer who learns about the origins of civilization from an escaped slave.
The best non-fiction book I read this year was The Way Of The World by Nicolas Bouvier, a travelogue illustrated with pen and ink drawings and published by NYRB Classics. In 1953, the twenty-four-year old Bouvier and his pal Thierry set out from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in their rattling little Fiat without any money or plans. And so began, improbably enough nearly a year’s worth of working and traveling in countries that few Westerners had been in, like the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and finally Pakistan.
Bouvier’s impressions are the most touching when he talks about the kind, gregarious and wise people he meets along the way, especially in the Muslim countries where he spent most of his time. There are unbelievable scenes of magic and tenderness on every page. Nothing I’ve ever read has so desperately seeded the desire to travel — and especially to places I know close to nothing about.
I read lots of books about love this year: The End Of The Affair by Graham Greene, Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson’s novel is gorgeous but I can’t recommend reading it in the heart of winter, in a cold, loveless room, beset upon by tooth aches and asthma, codeine and hot toddies your only friends. I exaggerate! (But not by much.)
But the best book I read about love was Eros: The Bittersweet by Anne Carson. Nobody will make you wish you had studied ancient Greek more than Carson. You will also never think about ice in quite the same way again. Or apples. Or puns.
It was also a year of “dipping” into books but not necessarily finishing them: Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, The Ticking Is The Bomb by Nick Flynn, The Crack-Up by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Role Models by John Waters, poetry by Rilke, H.D., Hart Crane. Which means it was also the year I started reading poetry again. Which made me realize that the reason I read anything at all is for the lines, which is to say: the language.
A Sport And A Pastime by James Salter was scarring. And yes the sex, as people have pointed out was painted maturely and exquisitely. And devastatingly. The narrative trick of observing the central love affair by a distant third party was fascinating. It made the whole thing read like someone else’s dream that you could easily pass off as your own. (Just such a dream as the one he dissects in blistering detail had been heavy on my mind at the time.)
I might have mentioned before how much I loved The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich. It gave me an idea for a novel, a sort of Neo-Victorian erotic werewolf noir. . . .
As for books that came out this year: The Thousand Autumns Of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell is incredible, if only for the deft and nimble way he mixes suspense, action, romance and lyricism into highly unconventional historical fiction. (It’s refreshing to see real adventure in fiction instead of just tedious autopsies of suburban/middle class life.)
Finally, the very best novel I read this year is sadly out-of-print: On Wings Of Song by Thomas M. Disch. Published the year of my birth (1979), this is Swiftian-Orwellian science fiction at its most searing and lyrical. It’s the future: Iowa is a police state where the farmers are the aristocracy. If you can sing passionately enough, it is possible to leave your body and fly. (Sounds cheesy? Well, it’s not. Really. I promise.)
But it’s illegal to fly! (At least in the farm belt.)
So our hero, after a year of eating Big Macs in a prison camp, must escape back East with his bride. But while she succeeds in the transport of song, he fails to fly and must maintain her living corpse for fifteen years by becoming a concubine for a castrated opera singer, dyeing his skin black and living out his dream as a pop-minstrel hero in a broken-down metropolis! (America has never seemed so much like itself than in this book.)
Ultimately, patriotism saves the day, love is vanquished and the world is restored to its fundamental blandness.
On that hopeful note, I must end this over-long ramble. And wish you a wonderful New Year!