13 February 2010

Decade: Some Books

Personally, I think everyone should post a list of the books that delighted or awed them over this past decade, without pretending it’s anything definitive.
--Jeff VanderMeer

Nobody ever gets over their first camel.
--Bryher

I love lists and am wary of them.  They are a being that is half parlor game, half manifesto.  And half a few other things, too, including whatever's in the dumpster outside my friend Maury's apartment in Detroit.  (My arithmetic skills are impressive, I know.  And I don't have a friend name Maury.  I'm not sure I even know anybody who lives in Detroit.)

The years 2000-2009 were important ones in my life as a reader, though, and I would like to memorialize them with something.  I could spend the next decade making lists of books from the previous decade, but I've probably got better things to do. Instead, here's a list of books that come to mind this morning, Saturday, 13 February 2010, when I think about the previous ten years. I'll mostly, though not exclusively, stick to fiction here, because I read tons of nonfiction but in a very different way from fiction. Some links are to my reviews or notes about the books, though in cases of books I haven't written about or haven't written about online, I've included a link to The Book Depository, unless I knew of a better source of information.

Here's the list:

Far Away by Caryl Churchill (2000).  It's a tough choice between Far Away and A Number, but Far Away got to me first, and though I had enjoyed and admired and even loved some of Churchill's earlier work, Far Away was the one that made me a devoted fan.  Few plays are as visionary and bold and yet simple in their expression; it's like a single raindrop that contains a universe.

Light Action in the Caribbean by Barry Lopez (2000). When I went to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in the summer of 2000, Barry Lopez was my workshop leader, and he was the perfect person for me to encounter at that particular moment in my life. Light Action is not a perfect collection, by any means -- there are a couple real clunkers in it -- but it contains a number of haunting and beautiful stories as well as at least one masterpiece: "The Mappist". Yes, it's very Borgesian, but it's Borges via Lopez, and that's a heavenly match to me.

Pastoralia by George Saunders (2000).  What a great way for the 2000s to begin!  This book is the Saunders collection for me, which is not to say the others are bad (they're not), but that this one contains pretty much the full range of his wonders, from the hilarious and monstrous title story to "Sea Oak" to "Winky" to the utterly perfect final story, "The Falls".

The Stories of Paul Bowles (2001).  The first nearly-complete collection of stories by one of the writers closest to my heart.

Homebody/Kabul by Tony Kushner (2001, etc.).  Various versions of this play exist, and they're all breathtaking.  I read it when it was first published by Theatre Communications Group, then saw one of the revised texts performed by Steppenwolf in 2003.  It was always astounding, and seems to me Kushner's greatest accomplishment so far, and one of the greatest of all American plays.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Marriage by Alice Munro (2001).  Choosing one Munro collection is tough, and there's plenty I love about her others of the decade, especially Runaway (which includes one of my favorite stories of the decade, "Silence"), but Hateship, Friendship... was the book that sealed the deal for me, that made me go back and read as much Munro as I could get my hands on, and that has kept me a passionate fan ever since.  I don't know of many writers, past or present, who so subtly and effectively capture the lineaments of memory and consciousness, the drifting borderlands between dream and experience.

Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks (2001).  It was a year of great plays with dichotomous titles.  Parks has not, for me, ever exceeded the brilliance of the plays collected in The America Play: And Other Works, but Topdog is a great distillation of many of her concerns and motifs.

The Goat, or, Who Is Sylvia? by Edward Albee (2002).  Yes, it almost counts as minor Albee, but minor Albee is still better than major almost anybody else, and it rises above being minor by encapsulating so much of the absurd tragicomedy that is American bourgeois existence -- especially all of our assumptions about family, love, and sex.  I was lucky enough to see it in its first run in New York, and it was one of the highlights of theatre-going for me during the decade.

Things That Never Happen by M. John Harrison (2002). I could perhaps justify putting Harrison's Anima on this list, for though its two novels were not published during the past decade, the experience of reading them together in Anima is different from reading them separately. But Harrison's short stories are as good as, if not better than, the best of his novels, and Things That Never Happened gives us a view of his full range as a writer. It's a devastating collection -- or, rather, corruscating is perhaps the best term. Some of these stories are among the best of the last fifty years or so in English, I believe.

The Reservoir by Donna Stonecipher (2002).  I didn't read nearly enough poetry during the 2000s, but this collection is one of the ones I cherished.  I can't describe it -- get a copy, read it, and you'll understand.  These poems are magic.

Hitchcock's Films Revisited by Robin Wood (2002). I would have included this book on the list even if Robin Wood hadn't died recently, but his death makes it feel all the more necessary here. When I first encountered it about a year ago, it changed the way I saw Hitchcock's movies. More importantly, though, I think it's an extraordinary mix of autobiography and analysis -- were I teaching a graduate course on autobiography and/or memoir, I'd include it alongside Delany's The Motion of Light in Water -- very different books, with different purposes, but united in challenging us to perceive the world in complex ways, and to recognize the complexities of representing those perceptions in texts.

Women Writing Africa vols. 1-IV (2003-2008). Published by The Feminist Press, this is the most impressive series of anthologies I saw during the decade. When I think of the work that went into these books, and how much they make available to us now, and how many gaps and blind spots and holes and injustices they fill, cover, and recover -- when I think of what is here, it honestly brings tears to my eyes.  I am grateful that my university library has all four volumes; I wish I could give copies to every library in the world.

Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee (2003). Here's another book I hope to write more about eventually, though I've written about some of Coetzee's recent work (in addition to his earlier books). Elizabeth Costello, though, is one I've wanted to build up to, the one that of all his post-Disgrace books remains most vivid and challenging in my memory, perhaps because it's the most unresolveable book of them, the most open in its structure, the most beguiling.

The Death of Picasso: New and Selected Writing by Guy Davenport (2003). Davenport's own selection of his work is a fine representation of a unique career. His decision not to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction in the collection may seem idiosyncratic or even annoying, but reading the book, it makes sense, because few writers have ever blended the genres of essay and short story as effectively. I wrote at length about the extraordinary story "Belinda's World Tour" in a column for Strange Horizons in 2007, and the book is full of equally wondrous works.

Shattered Sonnets Love Cards and Other Off and Back Handed Importunities by Olena Kalytiak Davis (2003).  Nobody, but nobody, writes poems like Olena Kalytiak Davis.  (Which means nobody I've read writes poems like Olena Kalytiak Davis.  Maybe there are hordes out there, but if so, they're invisible to me.)  The twists and turns of her syntax and rhythms are beautiful, funny, bizarre, disconcerting.  Sometimes, they seem like mad, manic ravings.  Most of the time, they seem like words chiseled from the core of whatever it is that makes the Earth spin around, leaving no reader unmov'd and reader unshaken.

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh (2003).  These days, McDonagh may be best known as the writer-director of In Bruges, but that film, accomplished and entertaining as it is, does not give a full sense of McDonagh's talents, though it does show how well he mixes the comedic and the horrifying.  The Pillowman seems to me one of his most mature plays, and one of the most mature plays about violence and society that I know of from the 2000s.

Chekhov: A Life in Letters, edited and translated by Rosamund Bartlett (2004).  Bartlett's biography of Chekhov is also well worth reading, as is her selection of his stories, but it is this book that I keep near my desk at all times, a book that has become battered and dog-eared in the years since I bought it.  It is a book I could happily recommend to any serious writer or reader, and often have.

The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus (2004). The single best anthology of contemporary American fiction that I know. It introduced me to many writers I now follow closely, and it is one of the most ecumenical anthologies I've ever seen. That ecumenicalism can in some ways make it feel like a grab bag, but I also think it demonstrates forcefully and vividly how the environment of U.S. short fiction came to be what it was over the last ten years. I also love the book because it's such a great antidote to all the boring collections of American short fiction that constantly reprint the same set of writers and stories and have a debilitatingly narrow view of what fiction is and can be.

Lenz by Georg Büchner, trans. by Richard Sieburth (1835/2005). An essential text in a beautiful edition.

Chekhov: The Complete Plays, trans. by Laurence Senelick (2005).  Chekhov is one of my personal gods, and having all of his dramatic writings, including variations, well annotated and translated is almost too much for me to contemplate.  Thankfully, I don't have to contemplate it, I just have to take this book down off the shelf.  It is, for me, one of the most essential publications of the decade.

Mister Boots by Carol Emshwiller (2005). I admire all of Carol Emshwiller's work, and love in particular her collection The Start of the End of It AllMister Boots is the one novel of hers that I enjoy as fully as her best short fiction, which means it is a book I revere.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005). I've used this novel in classes a few times, and every time I read it I grow more impressed with all Ishiguro managed to pack into it -- and pack into it so efficiently, so subtly. I stand by all the defenses I made of it in my original review, and now would only make them more forcefully.

Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link (2005). If somebody proclaimed Kelly Link the great American short story writer of the first decade of the 21st century, I wouldn't disagree. (I don't believe any one writer should be proclaimed such a thing, though.) Her other books are all marvelous, too, but Magic for Beginners is the one that contains the two stories that made me realize just how good Kelly's writing could be: "Lull" and "Stone Animals". The consistency of her stories is also impressive -- I've never read one that didn't in some way or another interest or challenge me, even if some of them feel more slight than others. There are very few other writers, even ones I adore, about whom I can say the same.

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia (2005). Oh, how I love this book! I wrote plenty about it in my original review, and it remains for me the model of metafiction-that's-more-than-metafiction. It is one of those novels of which I am in awe.

The Glamour by Christopher Priest (1984/1996/2005). This one blew my mind. What more is there to say?

Octavian Nothing, vol. 1 by M.T. Anderson (2006). This should be the new generation's Johnny Tremain. If I could make every U.S. citizen read it, I would. Heck, every citizen of the world. Have you read it? No? Well, do it now before the coming of the revolution, because once I'm Emperor of the World, you either read it or I have you locked in a deep, dark, dank cellar. And you wouldn't like that.

About Writing by Samuel R. Delany (2006). I wrote my master's thesis on Delany, and so it would be unconscionable for me not to include a Delany title on this list, though my thesis focused mostly on his work up through Dhalgren. I'm very fond of Dark Reflections, too, and intend one of these days to reread it and write more extensively and thoughtfully about it than I have. But About Writing seems to me a tremendously important book, a fine introduction to Delany's critical ideas and a challenging goad to any writer. It's a book about writing and thinking and living. Reading it at this point for me is like hanging out with an old friend -- the sort of friend who often disagrees with you and is willing to argue that disagreement and share ideas in a fun, serious, friendly, stubborn, and exhilarating way.

Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro (2006).  This is one of those collections that grows more impressive every time I open it.  When I first read it, I was already familiar with many of the stories it contained, having been excited by Alan's work from early in the decade, but seeing the stories all together in some ways short-circuited and overwhelmed my ability to appreciate their artistry.  Time has also proved how unique these stories are -- there are so few people doing anything like this.  On a superficial reading, we would note some similarities to folks like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link and even George Saunders, but I think they're up to something different.  What I think these stories are up to changes every time I look at the book, but the more time I spend with it, the more different from other books it seems to be.  And that makes it very special, indeed.

The Empire of Ice Cream by Jeffrey Ford (2006). Choosing one of Jeff Ford's collections over another is tough and in some ways wrong -- Ford is nearly as consistent in the quality and power of his fiction as Kelly Link, though they're very different writers. But The Empire of Ice Cream is the book that made me believe this guy's among the greats, even though I can hear him right now laughing at such an appellation. ("Oh come on, Cheney," he says, "you know that's bullshit!") "The Annals of Eelin-Ok", "Botch Town", "The Empire of Ice Cream", "Boatman's Holiday" -- each different from the others and each an extraordinary example of what short fiction can achieve. I've been meaning for years to write a long essay about all three collections, and need to do so soon before Jeff publishes another and adds to my burden. His work deserves to be known far beyond its current readership.

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (2006).  Sure, if I were putting together an anthology of "slipstream" stories, it would be different from this one, and I would probably resist the term "slipstream" altogether. Nonetheless, this anthology is full of stories that have been important to me as both a writer and a person, and few other single books sum up so much of what I was most interested in during the decade.

Daughters of the Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the 20th Century edited by Justine Larbalestier (2006). There were many wonderful anthologies published in the last decade, but I particularly love this one because its selections are so thoughtful and because it works brilliantly as a book -- it's not just a good collection of stories or a collection of good stories (some of the stories are primarily of historical interest and can only really be called "good" in that sense), but is, instead, a magnificent collection of stories and arguments. It a book that reaches far beyond its own covers and encourages readers to dig deeper themselves.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips (2006). The biography of the decade for me, not just because it tells the story of a writer I admire, but because it is about so much more than just that writer -- it is, in many ways, a book about the 20th century, about all the rifts and riots, and especially about gender and sexuality, writing and expectations. (If Her Smoke Rose Up Forever had been published in this decade instead of, originally, 1990, that book would be here, too.)

Where Do We Live and Other Plays by Christopher Shinn (2006).  Chris Shinn and I spent a couple of years together in college, and I've followed his work ever since.  This collection includes Four, the play that justifiably brought him to the world's attention, and Where Do We Live, one of the best 9/11-associated works I've read.  Dying City, not included here, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, and one of these days I fully expect Chris will win that award, but this collection includes the early work, most of which I saw in their first New York productions, and so they are part of what define the decade for me.

Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer (2006). I haven't written nearly as much about Jeff VanderMeer's work as its importance to me perhaps requires -- I've expended thousands of words on vastly less fascinating works than his. Part of this is friendship: for various neurotic reasons, I find it hard to read the fiction of people I know well, never mind write about it. I also tend to feel that, for similarly neurotic reasons, I often misread the fiction of people I know well more disastrously than I misread everything else. There's lots of Jeff's fiction I would list among the best of the decade for me ("Secret Life" and The Situation in particular), but if I have to choose one, it's his novel Shriek: An Afterword, which is so rich and complex and affecting that I am always at a loss of words about it. Thankfully, Steve Shaviro has written brilliantly about it, so I can continue to be tongue-tied and just point people to those words instead. Or just the book itself, because that's all you really need.

One for Sorrow by Christopher Barzak (2007). The most personal of my personal selections here. I read this book in manuscript, and I vividly remember exactly where I sat when reading the first pages. It was a complex and in some ways difficult time of life, a time of immense tectonic shifts in my situation and being, and this novel is tied to all the good and exhilarating parts of that time, which is amusing to me in retrospect, given how melancholy the novel is on the whole. I'm wary of ever visiting Youngstown, Ohio, because the image of it in my mind from reading One for Sorrow is so strong that the reality would prove, I fear, too thin.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998/2007). I was tempted to include Last Evenings on Earth on this list, because it's one of my all-time favorite short story collections and thus easily one of my favorites of the decade, but I decided on Savage Detectives instead because it's the desert island book: forced to choose one Bolaño to take with me to a desert island, this would be it, a vast and fascinating book that shifts and changes and evades grasp on every reading. I haven't read 2666 yet, saving it for later savoring, so perhaps that will invade my desert island and blow its sibling to Kingdoms Came & Saw & Conquered, but that will be in the current decade, not the past one. (By the way, if I'm ever stranded on a desert island, I don't want a novel. I want a survival manual.)

Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet (2007). This was my first encounter with Lydia Millet's fiction, and so it stands tall in my memory. It's a messier book than some of her others, but I love it for that. Very few books with an explicit social-political purpose at their core appeal to me, but this one gets the balance right, and without the social-political core it would be a shallower creation, clever and amusing and not much more. It is much, much more.

Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery (2007). Yes, Slattery's second novel, Liberation is more accomplished, but Spaceman Blues was the one that blew me away -- I knew nothing about the writer and nothing about the book, and so it caught me unprepared for its marvels. By Liberation, I had me some expectations (which it lived up to and sometimes exceeded). I may never reread Spaceman Blues because I don't want to go back to it with expectations that can't be met; it's one of those books where I am fond of the memory and don't want to sully it with new memories. That first time was a perfect reading experience.

Grasses of a Thousand Colors by Wallace Shawn (2008).  I prefer some of Shawn's earlier plays, but this is the only one of the decade, and therefore must be on this list, because he is one of the great playwrights of our time.  Grasses is a profoundly strange play, an erotic apocalypse, a dissertation on humanity and nature and food and sex.  There's nothing out there like it except some of his other plays.

Orpheus in the Bronx by Reginald Shepherd (2008).  I reviewed this fine collection of essays for Rain Taxi, and will post that review here soon.  But for now, I'll give you the first paragraph:
It's not difficult to trace the source of all the magic in Reginald Shepherd's first collection of essays—the author's sensitivity to the fruitful borderlands between aesthetics and politics—but pinning down each wondrous effect emanating from that source might take a while. This is a book rich with ideas and implications, a book that provokes and dazzles and sings.
The New Weird edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (2008). Yes, Mr. V is already on this list with his novel Shriek, but I could not possibly let a representation of my experience of the decade escape without including one of the anthologies he and Ann put together during that time. 2002's Leviathan 3 is also an extraordinary and worthwhile anthology, but The New Weird sums up and analyzes some of the forces that allowed the decade to be as interesting as it was, and so when I think of the decade, The New Weird comes to mind even more than Leviathan 3.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 (2009). You probably have to be a Beckett fanatic to appreciate this book, but I'm a Beckett fanatic (I was tempted to include the Grove set of his works on this list, in fact, but it felt like cheating). In the decade that saw the demise of the personal letter, replaced for most people by email and Facebook and all that jazz, it's particularly rewarding to read such witty, knowledgeable, bizarre, informative, and beautiful letters as these. The scholarly apparatus is sometimes overwhelming, but also deeply welcome. And it's a book that's been reviewed by J.M. Coetzee and Gabriel Josipovici, so how could I not love it?

The City and The City by China Miéville (2009). Perhaps because of how it defied my expectations of what a "China Miéville novel" should be, this one was a gobsmacker. It filled, too, some hole in my desires for novels -- in some way or another, it was a book I'd been waiting for. Much of this can be explained by China's own explanation of his feelings about crime novels, which I read with that wonderful emotion no single word defines, but which comes whenever you read something you've thought, inchoately but naggingly, and then encountered in someone else's efficient and better-developed expression. Which is not to say I think of The City and The City as a "crime novel", whatever that is, but rather as a novel that is about, among other things, some tendencies that might be found in books some people are perhaps inclined to think of as "crime novels". I didn't mind what other folks saw as flaws in the book because those qualities were extraneous to my experience of it: to me, it was as much essay as fiction, as much meditation as text, and it was an essay I could embrace and a meditation I was happy to get lost in for a while, a walk through territory unfamiliar but nonetheless agreeable (though not comforting, no, not that at all). I look on The City and The City now with the fondness I'd have for a family member or a limb. A distant cousin or an extra limb, perhaps, but nonetheless: with fondness.

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (2009).  I discussed this book in my Strange Horizons column about Philip K. Dick and Jack Spicer, and I've said a few time that it's one of the best collections of contemporary poetry I know.  It seems a fitting last book for this list, too -- a collection of things from the 20th century that were so ahead of their time most of us weren't really ready to receive them until we'd gotten into the 21st.  Though I haven't been reading much poetry in the last few years, and my poetry reading during the 2000s has been too slim, I keep returning to this book again and again.

3 comments:

  1. Be aware that there's another Bartlett collection of Chekhov stories, The Exclamation Mark from Hesperus Press.

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  2. Thanks for letting me know -- I like Bartlett's work a lot, but didn't know about this collection of early stories. Now I'll seek it out...

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  3. Bryher to the contrary, I completely got over my first camel. I hardly ever think of him.

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