16 December 2008

Books This Year

I've had a few requests to participate in various "best books of the year" surveys, and I've avoided them all, mostly because I have read so few new books in 2008 that I wouldn't be able to contribute anything of value. It's been easily the most difficult year of my life for more than one reason -- any one of them would have made it the most difficult year of my life, but there were more than one! -- though things are going fairly well now, and I'm less stressed out than I have been in a while. This is good. But a difficult year doesn't lead to a lot of reading or even keeping up with what's being published. In fact, moving from New Hampshire to New Jersey to New Hampshire over the course of 18 months saw me losing books right and left (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not).

But I thought it would be fun to try to remember some of the books I've encountered this year, particularly since circumstances have kept me from writing very much about a few of them...

I began the year with two books that were Christmas presents: All the Rage: The Boondocks Past and Present and The Complete Far Side. Though the folks who gave them to me couldn't have known it at the time, these were perfect gifts: my father died a few days before Christmas, and my life changed completely. I had no ability to handle much text at the time, but brilliant comics, yes, that was exactly what I needed.

The first novel I read in the new year was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, read on a plane while flying back from a quick trip to southern New Mexico. Except for certain elements of the ending, it seemed to me a perfect book in its own way. I'm sure I would have a somewhat different and more judicious response were I to read The Road now, but I treasure that first encounter with it. It was, for me, exactly the right book at exactly the right time.

The next book I remember encountering in the early part of this year was J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year -- Coetzee is my favorite living writer in English, and so anything he writes interests me. My memory of reading it remains vivid, while I've utterly forgotten plenty of other books I've read more recently.

I failed to make much progress with the Africa Reading Challenge, though I have read about half of Histories of the Hanged (it's vivid, excellent, painful, fascinating). I still plan on reading all of those books, but it's likely to be a few months before I have the time.

I dipped into a bunch of fun anthologies throughout the year, though never managed to read enough of even one to be able to write a review of any of them (my fault, not the anthologies') -- the VanderMeers' Steampunk and New Weird and John Joseph Adams's Wastelands and The Living Dead are the ones that stick out in my mind at the moment.

Even by the spring, I was still having trouble handling really meaty texts, so I found refuge in reading a bunch of old Spider novels. They were easy reads, and I never felt guilty about skimming. Pure bliss!

Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream remains a high point for my year as well, again because it was just the right book for me when I read it. The sentences and pacing were beautiful, the situations and imagery strange and lyrical, the comedy biting. What stuck with me most from it were the scenes with the animals -- there is a grace to those scenes that I have rarely found in fiction.

Glancing at the archives here, I see that May included two books that were a lot of fun to read: Money Shot by Christa Faust and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. Both were easy reads with something to think about as well, and though not books I would consider the best of this year or of any year, they did what they needed to do, and they did it well.

One book I would consider the best of any time is John Williams's Stoner, which was a real highlight of my 2008 reading.

Another highlight of the year, though one I did not write about, was Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. I have noted my love of Bolaño before, but I didn't mention Savage Detectives for a few reasons -- for one thing, there's been lots of other good writing about it, but also my reading of it has often been interrupted, and I've never had a much more intelligent thought about the book than, "Wow!" (Oddly, looking at that earlier Bolaño post, I see that I thought I was going to get Savage Detectives when it came out. I didn't. I waited for the paperback.) I had some trouble getting a handle on the first section of the book, and put it down a few times because of that, but eventually something clicked, I reread the first part, then jumped into the second section by taking big gulps separated by days. This seemed to work well. I kept developing a hunger for the book, returned to it, read 50 pages or so, then put it aside for a few days until the hunger returned with all its strength. I didn't quite get to the last section, though, when life caused me to have to put it aside, and it's only now that I'm returning to it, jumping back and forth throughout the second section to refresh myself about who is who and what is what. It's a marvelous way to read this particular novel -- I've rarely enjoyed a book as deeply.

I didn't get to too many short story collections this year, but among the ones I did encounter, the best were Paolo Bacigalupi's Pump Six and Jeff Ford's The Drowned Life (which I actually still haven't finished reading -- but it's a magnificent book, even if I've got a few more stories to go). Both are books that deserve an audience beyond the community of science fiction readers -- after all, most of us who know the SF world already think highly of Ford and Bacigalupi.

I read all three of Ursula Le Guin's recent YA novels: Gifts, Voices, and Powers, but though they were pleasant enough to read, they didn't really do much for me. Voices was my favorite by far, though even there I thought Le Guin was treading on ground she'd walked more gracefully before, particularly in Four Ways to Forgiveness, just about my favorite of her books.

This summer I devoured Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs, one of the most interesting and comprehensive explorations of a writer's process of writing and thinking that I've read.

Because I spent much of the summer preparing to teach a class on Feminism in America, I read a lot of feminist history and theory in a short amount of time, trying to find texts that would be useful to my students. One that I didn't end up using, but which I found fascinating and enlightening, was Cynthia Fuchs Epstein's Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender, and the Social Order, a valuable look at how gender roles and gender differences are discussed and studied.

My other favorite discovery among the many books I read in preparation for the feminism class was White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States by Louise Michele Newman. I even made the students read an excerpt from the book for class (they didn't enjoy it nearly as much as I did, but it gave us a tremendous amount of fodder for discussion). It's a dense book, certainly, filled with information and ideas, but I found it to be, unlike many academic books, gripping.

I started reading Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and Mike Davis's Planet of Slums. Liked both a lot. Hope to finish them ... someday....

I read a few books by Meja Mwangi in preparation for writing an essay about him. I still intend to write the essay, but need to read more books and review the ones I have read before I can. I had previously read Going Down River Road, and then this year read Kill Me Quick, Carcase for Hounds, and The Mzungu Boy. Next up will be Cockroach Dance, The Last Plague/Crossroads, and The Big Chiefs. I discovered Mwangi because some Kenyan writers spoke highly of his work to me -- indeed, among Kenyans I have found far more people willing to cite Mwangi as a formative influence than the contemporary Kenyan writer many people outside of Africa probably most closely associate with Kenya, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o.

As I chronicled at Strange Horizons, my re-reading of Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang was a powerful one, and I can report now that my students mostly seemed to enjoy the novel. I ended up pairing it with Borges's "Garden of Forking Paths", Ha Jin's "Saboteur", and Blade Runner (I was going to have the students read Mishima's "Patriotism" and then watch the movie, but I put this on the syllabus before watching the movie myself, and once I did watch it, I realized it was much too slow for the students to really appreciate.) I'll have a better sense of the results once I finish grading final exams, but the students mostly said they enjoyed the book, at least in comparison to the others I asked them to read.

The Journal of Jules Renard was another highlight of my reading year, a book that, like Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, I would especially recommend to writers.

I almost forgot to mention Brian Slattery's Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America -- a book no home should be without during an economic collapse!

Speaking of economic collapse, I've been taking good advantage of the library to read things like The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and Eric Rauchway's Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America to get some opinionatin' on economic history, a realm I only occasionally dip into. I also read The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew Bacevich because Rachel Maddow said nice things about it one night on her show and, well, I'd really kind of like to be Rachel Maddow... (Fun fact: Rachel Maddow, Samuel Delany, and my paternal grandfather all share a birthday. I'm certain this means something in the grand scheme of things. Especially since it's April Fools' Day.) It is, indeed, worth reading.

Most recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success and enjoyed it quite a bit, somewhat to my surprise. I had read some of Gladwell's previous work and had often found it a good read, but somewhat facile -- too neat, too clean (if that makes any sense). Outliers I liked more than the others, partly because I was already familiar with some of the research that it is founded on, having read a few books by Robert Sternberg and other writers on intelligence, talent, and accomplishment. Still, much of the information was new to me, and Gladwell presents it in his typically entertaining way -- his talent is not only for summing up complex ideas, but for narrative itself: he tells a good story. He conclusions are, once again, a bit facile, but I also think the general thrust of his arguments in this book is one that deserves as wide an audience as possible, and given his popularity, it might actually receive that audience.

Finally, though for some reason I hardly read any poetry this year, what I did read blew me away. I kept The Reservoir by Donna Stonecipher on my living room table for a few months, and numerous people picked it up and glanced at it, all of them quickly finding themselves sucked in. "This is really ... good..." they'd say, or, "This is weird, but -- I don't really know quite what this is saying but -- what is this? It's amazing!" These were not all poetry people or even people who read much. It's a beautiful, mesmerizing book, and rewards not just the quick glances that caused my visitors to be intrigued by it but real, sustained, careful reading.

The other poetry book that blew me away this year is one I've only recently received: My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer, which is a treasure-trove of extraordinary stuff. I discovered Spicer via Alex Irvine's novel One King, One Soldier -- I'd probably seen Spicer's name in various anthologies, but had never paid much attention to him until reading the novel -- and soon was on a quest to read his books, but it was hard because almost nothing of Spicer's poetry was in print. Eventually, I got a library copy of The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, but, it being a library copy, I had to give it back. The new collection includes all of the old one and a lot more. Ron Silliman says it is "one of the most important volumes published in the past 50 years. It is hands down the best book published in 2008. And it is one of the most powerful collections of poetry you will ever read."

Meanwhile, at the moment I'm reading The Boy Aviators in Nicaragua, or, In League with the Insurgents, which is ... about what you'd expect.

3 comments:

  1. Oh, so THAT'S where I found the recommendation for the Nick Flynn 'Bullshit Night' book. I'm reading it now, & though initially finding it cold, I'm loving it. It's made my un-put-downable list.

    Meanwhile Coetzee's 'Bad Year' didn't *quite* charm me as much as it did you, I think -- though I found it a smart, enjoyable read. Just ... wanted something more.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I actually wanted more from Diary of a Bad Year, too, because I am a greedy reader and the guy who wrote Life & Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians, Disgrace, and Elizabeth Costello ought to be able to shatter my conceptions of life and literature with every book, and instead he just writes a clever, amusing, thought-provoking, multi-leveled (literally!) novel, one any writer should be proud to have written. But it's not enough! Once capable of astounding masterpieces, I want him to write such a thing EVERY TIME! It's an unfortunate expectation, I know, but it's there. Heck, I keep yelling at Faulkner in his grave for not having been able to match his handful of masterpieces and to have instead written a bunch of flawed, usually amusing, sometimes dull and way overwritten novels instead. "Yo, Bill," I say, "do you really think A Fable is worth reading? And okay, so The Reivers is fun, but -- is that the note you wanted to leave on? You wrote The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and Light in August and Absalom, Absalom! fer gawd's sake -- put down the bottle, climb out of the grave, and write us another one, you old coot!"

    Sadly, he doesn't respond.

    Why why why can't the writers we love stay consistently brilliant?!

    But Coetzee's not dead, and Diary of a Bad Year was a good read, so I'm okay with it. For now.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hey, I just read a short, simple book called Love Song of Monkey yesterday. If you like Michael K (or Josef K; or K Vonnegut), you should appreciate this. It is one of the most beautiful and unique little books I've ever read.

    ReplyDelete