In my last exciting column of Canon Fodder, I catalogued my personal notes on recent movies I’d watched on DVD. Well, it created a sensation with my fans. I know because they both told me.
Now they’ve been running up to me in the street and saying, “What the heck are you doing in the middle of the street? There’s a sidewalk over there!” When we get under a convenient awning, they press me to similarly reveal my thoughts about the library books I’ve been reading, or half-reading, or hearing on CD as I drive around from the grocery store to the library to the Post Office to the library to the mall to the gas station to the library.
“We know you waste a lot of time in a fruitless effort to keep abreast of all that literary nonsense,” they asseverate perfervidly, “so you might as well let us have that between the eyes as well. Faith and begorrah, we need an injection of guilt about all the stuff we haven’t been reading combined with mild envy at your messily obsessive-compulsive delusions. Or relief that we have so much more of a life.”
They may have a point, and I am a slave to my public. True, I think about being accosted by people who drone on about what books they’ve been reading as my eyes glaze over, but heck, that’s what reviewers are good for. More significantly, I wish to stress that these aren’t even reviews or “professional” thoughts in any way, since nobody paid or rewarded me for reading these items. They were entirely self-inflicted in my impersonal quest for hedonistic pleasures, and my thoughts about them owe nothing to anyone, being coined originally for private correspondences that function as a kind of diary. I discovered long ago, to my horror, that many things I read are soon forgotten unless I scribble notes about them. In other words, I’m now perverting the original function of these notes. That makes these “reviews” curiously freeing, in my reckoning.
I prefer not to read for review anyway. That makes it homework, and that’s no healthy mindset to read a book (or see a movie, for that matter). I already fear secretly that my motivations for reading involve a desperate desire for some illusory bulwark against failure, mortality, and out-of-the-loopness, while being directed by sheer whimsicality and what looks good on the New Books shelf at the library. I judge books by their covers, especially their blurbs by prominent authors who all seem to know each other.
I leave things unfinished, sometimes by choice and sometimes by my neurotic checkout patterns. I check out what looks interesting, renew them twice, then turn them in, then wait for them to be reshelved and check ’em out again and start the whole cycle anew. When something is absolutely due for the final time in a week, I frantically try to read it, so I end up with lots of half-redd things that eventually get rechecked. And yet, in my own house are plenty of unredd things that I own outright. Acquiring a personal copy of something is dooming it to remain unredd on the theory that I can always get to it later. I’m sure it’s some kind of sickness, some literary equivalent of a passive-aggressive attitude to literary addiction.
So here are pretty much my last two years’ worth of literay jottings. What you’ll do with this information is something only you can know, Dear Reader. The only other fact you should need is that I coined the past tense verb “redd” in the late ’80s or early ’90s and have been using it consistently in my letters and notes since those years before email. That’s why you’ll find it dotted throughout. If anyone else coined it earlier, I don’t want to know.
Books on CD
1. I love listening while driving, but the voices make all the difference. Some stories, especially when written in the first person, benefit tremendously from the right voice. My hands-down favorite reader-aloud is the brilliant George Guidall, one of the most expressive and versatile of voice-actors. Thanks to him, I’ve listened to Frankenstein, Elie Wiesel, William Faulkner, and what strikes me as his great virtuoso performance, Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, which requires him to sing in Hebrew and juggle many voices in a jaggedly experimental climax (which he achieves brilliantly).
In the last couple of years, however, the only thing I’ve heard from him is Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a “concept album” of stories about people who all know each other, more or less anchored on an autobiographical young man. Astoundingly, the opening story of this 1919 book is about a man who’s suspected of molesting boys, although we’re assured he’s misunderstood (perhaps even by himself).
Child abuse of one stripe or another is the reliable key to the universe in today’s fiction, such that it’s become a grating cliché, but it’s rare to find it alluded to in anything more than a few decades old. The other stories are about the flounderings of equally lonely or desperate misfits, no matter how well integrated into town life they are. It was a pleasure to discover how good this book is, but that’s often the way with classics. There’s a reason why they’re classic.
2. Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan perfectly demonstrates the advantage of listening to a book. The various readers are perfect with the dialects, which are Creole mixtures of English, French and African languages, and all are delivered with authentic accents it would be hard to “hear” on the page. The book consists of three short stories and two longer ones, pretty much all masterpieces, that follow the viewpoints of children who experience horrific atrocities in various African countries.
One first-person story tells of a boy and his sister preparing to be sold by their uncle into sex slavery in Gabon. “Luxurious Hearses”, a social microcosm set on a bus, centers on a one-handed Muslim teen pretending to be a Christian. Surely this is one of the greatest collections of the century, its mix of noble intentions and successful storytelling (plot, character, style) a rare achievment this side of Tolstoy. Oprah Winfrey is to be congratulated on turning this one into a bestseller, but I really think listening is the way to go.
3. Listening also turns out to be great for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, for the actor’s carefully delivered in-character reading makes the whole thing simple to follow in context, and it goes by more quickly than reading the page would. The narrator, Alex, speaks in a lingo with many invented words that would cause the reader to pause and consider, whereas hearing them spoken in a carefully modulated manner makes the listener grasp them quickly and get used to them.
A foreward by Burgess explains how the 21st chapter wasn’t part of the US edition for decades. He declares that the Americans wanted a Nixonian ending instead of a Kennedy-esque one, and he further states that a character’s ability to change is what separates a novel from a fable. That’s nice, except that the whole book is about the narrator’s change, not just the last chapter, and is Burgess saying that Tom Jones or Pamela or Tristram Shandy change substantially by the end of their novels? Shandy’s not even born yet!
Anyway, the last chapter is important because it implicitly draws out an interesting theory when our humble narrator (as he often calls himself) summarizes all his proclivities and legal troubles as “being young”. He seems to mean, without dilating on the topic, that when cavemen didn’t last beyond 20, evolution rewarded the violent youth who killed animals or rivals and quickly had kids, and that as civilization grew into larger tribes and nations, it was still the case that teens went off to wars as soon as they were old enough to breed. Those who outlasted the others were made chiefs, and even the foundation of farming required hard work amid wars.
Since the industrial revolution and the creation of the middle class and the increasing of life spans, there have still been wars to channel and reward the violent impulses of youth, but gradually it’s become society’s problem to extend marriage and responsibility and employment beyond a lengthening adolescence, and teens are punished for what once would have gotten them medals and advancement. All that in a sentence or two in one chapter.
4. The Dinner by Herman Koch recounts the events of a night out (with extended flashbacks) in which the narrator’s violent mental issues are gradually revealed through his son’s behavior, and amid many digressions on the fine annoyances of life out of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Thus his comfortable Dutch smugness, at which he makes a point of sneering, is exposed as both hypocrisy and pathology. Alas, the narrative has major problems with credibility. Near the end, our protagonist recalls a violent attack in public that should get him brought up on charges, especially in the context of his medical/professional history, so why hasn’t that happened, and more to the point, why hasn’t it become an issue in his brother’s campaign for Prime Minister? That sort of thing would be impossible to keep quiet.
Also, under what circumstances is he writing this and what readers is he addressing and why? He makes a point of not mentioning certain things, like the name of the restaurant (although by the end, we know it’s across the bridge from a cafe where a famous incident occurs), but he gives his family’s names and discusses his famous politician brother. Are we supposed to interpret everything as a fantasy? Is this yet another “unreliable narrator”, pushed beyond cliché into convenience? There’s a difference between unreliable and untenable. As a study in the pathology of violence from a possibly unreliable narrator who affects sophistication, this recent effort pales in comparison to the Burgess novel above.
5. Axeman… something or other. Listened through the first three of the six discs of a Swedish small-town police procedural just to confirm what I already knew on Disc 2, that I didn’t give a damn who was the axe-murderer or why. This one plays coy by having a few passages from the murderer’s point of view inserted into the general low-key recountings of the police investigation. That kind of narrative shell-shuffling makes my teeth grind.
6. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje, delivered by the author. Putatively autobiographical reminiscence of when the narrator traveled by ship from Sri Lanka to England at age 11 in the ’50s, the various passengers he met and their little dramas (some sensational) and how these resonated through later life. Absorbing and pleasant.
7. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami runs a whopping 30-something discs, but the huge tree-killing doorstop of a physical volume with small print (originally published as a trilogy in Japan) is a perfect argument for listening to CDs. Most of the book alternates two narratives, which are read aloud by different voices–one male, one female. In the hopelessly literary and postmodern half, a writer is tasked with rewriting a weird fantasy story submitted for a prize.
The author is an affectless 17-year-old girl who claims the events really happened–something about little people from the other world who pass into this one through the corpse of a goat. The other storyline is about a beautiful hit-woman. We’ve seen that many times of course (especially in movies, where sexy hitwomen are all the rage), but this hitwoman apparently slips into an alternate reality after a mysterious cabbie advises her to take a stairway down from a highway while she’s hearing Janacek’s Sinfonietta.
This is a serenely slow and detailed book that partly comments on itself by having our hitwoman slowly read her way through Proust and observe that maybe she doesn’t need to read a book of forward momentum, just a minutely detailed report from another planet like this. And that’s kind of like the book she’s in too, although it also reminds me of the German 19th Century writer I found a couple of years ago, Adalbert Stifter, whose novel Indian Summer is a long, slow, ponderously detailed bildungsroman.
Meanwhile, over in the other braided narrative, the male protagonist is slowly reading Chekhov’s nonfiction account of his visit to Sakhalin Island, and he also reads a horror story about cats that I’ve discovered is indeed a real story, not Murakami’s invention. So much of this endless novel is about reading.
The last third of the novel throws in a third alternating POV, a grotesque private detective, and there are moments when the authorial voice deigns magisterially to stray from a given character’s view in order, as things come to a head and his characters begin to circle each other, to tell us point blank about things they don’t know. This is pronounced at the ironic moment when the three of them just miss meeting each other and the author speculates on whether this is good or bad.
This strange book not only answers few of the questions raised but continues to raise more at the end! The reason the novel is satisfying despite unanswered questions is that since the beginning, it’s set up a question of how the two alternating heroes relate to each other, and by the halfway mark we finally begin to grasp their connection, and by the end we’re in suspense for them to cross paths (complete with false hopes) so that, by the time they reach a consummation we’ve been anticipating so long, it meets our overwhelming desire to marry these narratives in this book about a book about an alternate world. In other words, it brokers an emotional satisfaction out of the void of background uncertainties. What audacity.
8. The Little Book by Selden Edwards is a very well-done time-travel fantasy in which each chapter jumps to a different point in the hero’s life. It begins with his emerging in fin-de-siècle Vienna, where he becomes a patient of Freud, which makes this the second fantasy I’ve heard in Freud’s Vienna (after Joseph Skibell’s A Curable Romantic, whose hero is haunted by a dybbuk). Other chapters shift to his “later” (earlier) life in California as baseball prodigy, then Eastern schools, then rock stardom.
Still other chapters cover other characters: mom, dad, grandma. The book is also essentially a hopeless romance with his grandmother! Very complicated, and with many star cameos and well-placed twists. Turns out the author’s been working on this for 40 years, though not continuously. I’d rank it with Jack Finney’s time books, and that’s praise. It’s about influence, culture, fate, history, the pursuit of excellence, and writing. It’s good to read in conjunction with watching David Cronenberg’s beautiful movie A Dangerous Method about Freud and Jung. (Edwards has now published a sequel that apparently retells the story from the grandmother’s POV.)
9. The Night Visitors by Chris Bohjalian is a horror book recalling Peter Straub’s tendency to be elegantly descriptive, although the plot is kind of “The Shining goes to Harvest Home”. A pilot recovers from the trauma of crashing his plane and losing most of the passengers, retreats to sinister New England home with wife and twin girls where the community is dominated by middle-aged female “herbalists” who take an unnatural interest in the twins. Shifts among several third-person perspectives, but the pilot’s sections are always second-person present tense. I find this annoying in general, but even more so when the things “you” are doing are things you couldn’t justify except as psychotic ghost-possession trauma. This author wrote a previous tragedy about twin daughters; I won’t ask what’s up with the twin obsession.
10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a more interesting “night” book that alternates between a young woman and man who have been trained to participate in a mystifying contest of magic in an endlessly inventive circus during the late 19th Century. Clearly the duelling protagonists will fall in love, and that element is convincingly romantic and restrained. This narrative shifts around too, and seems almost to lose its thread in favor of chapters that present one imaginative setpiece after another, like circus acts. Highly imaginative and well-balanced escapism.
11. The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant is my third “night” book. Narrated by American woman who went to Ireland to run a pub with her husband after he won a contest. She has a condition that allows her to swim naturally in very cold water, and this seems to symbolize her insularity and insecurities, which put a strain on a previously comfortable marriage. Things are odd on a nearby island, and she’s brooding about the tragedy she has to tell us, after which she’s recalling these events in a pained and weary tone. There’s an opening scene with a rich father-in-law that doesn’t appear to have much to do with anything. Many bizarre happenings are eventually served up and I’m not sure what for. The best I can say is that it’s unusual and avoids the obvious generic pegs.
12. The Future of Us is a Young Adult novel by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, who I assume handled the alternating chapters of the boy and girl narrators. In 1995, the girl gets the internet and when she puts in the free AOL disc from the mail, an unexplained writerly trick allows her to access her Facebook page 15 years in the future. Written unobtrusively and thoughtfully, with momentum, it explores this idea as she toys with changing her future and trying to figure out why she never seems happy. Meanwhile the boy carries a torch for her, natch.
13. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is only five discs, but I gave up at the start of Disc 4 after wanting to give up at three (and really at two). A Gulf War novel by a veteran, it’s organized around a buddy’s death, for which the narrator feels guilt as the defining thing of his life, and the structure jumps around in time between looking back at age 30 to what happened at 20, to coming home afterwards, and to building up toward that incident through boot camp and patrols in Iraq, without yet getting to the main event.
It’s best when it sticks to telling what happens, but the prose spends too much effort reaching or rather straining (“reaching” defines the book), both for Updikean descriptions of light falling on dirt and, worse, at the drop of a chapter trying to leap into nebulous abstractions of Life and Humanity and Existence spun around some nugget of wisdom like “you never know”, and without which it would have been even shorter. If only it had passed through the hands of Gordon Lish (Raymond Carver’s famous editor), he would have slashed its ass by half.
14. As soon as I cut that off and popped in the first CD of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, I knew I’d done the right thing, like stepping into the literary equivalent of a warm shower. His spellbinding sentences are a voluptuous pleasure. He’s like “What if Flaubert was a smartass?” He’s a Dionysian anti-Hemingway, albeit one overdosed on pop culture (count the Star Trek references) and lobbing syncopated F-bombs. (That’s a Chabonian sentence, not really.)
First three or four discs remain in the same 24 hours, about no particular plot but a bunch of black folks and one white Jewish couple around a used record store in Oakland, California. A later chapter is a run-on sentence literally from a bird’s eye-view, a parrot in fact. Yeah, it’s a stunt, but it works. Well performed by a guy who sounds like a sleepy soul DJ seducing your eardrum like Barry White.
15. This Is How You Lose Her is a series of overlapping alternate histories of ruined love by the same narrator, a Jersey Dominican academic from a previous novel, performed by author Junot Diaz. I thought they weren’t quite in the same reality because some details change from one story to the next. For example, in one story, his older brother quits his job at a carpet company when he gets cancer, but in another story, it claims he never had any job besides dealing drugs to white kids.
This is another book with many Star Trek references; it’s our cultural equivalent of the Bible or Virgil. We need to get our myths from somewhere. Anyway, these stories are vernacular monologues in a minor mode, so it’s appropriate for the author to read them aloud and he does it well, surely the best way to experience these.
16. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan is told by a woman who’s recounting the last few weeks, when her ship sank just at the start of the Great War in Europe and she was stuck in an overcrowded lifeboat. She’s writing this lucidly at the request of her attorneys, for she’s on trial for murder. This makes her unreliable though credible, detailed, and thoughtful. A few turns of psycho-babble seemed a bit “today”, but otherwise this story is vivid and absorbing as adventure, metaphor, and microcosm. It ends with some questions unanswered because our heroine doesn’t know the answers, and that’s fair.
17. The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain–Wow. My first Cain is his unfinished final novel, written in the mid-’70s and set in the ’50s, edited from various manuscripts, and it’s a doozy. It’s got everything. This carefully paced construction works as social milieu and class, as details of working as a waitress, as a woman’s POV, as character study in first person from unreliable narrator, as mildly sleazy titillation, and finally as understated suspenseful crime story, with a truly shocking final page.
18. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Narrator in her 20s recalls her 12th/13th year of ten years earlier, when she found out her father was having an affair and when she got her first crush and boyfriend, and became alienated from a best friend and all that stuff, and oh yeah, they found out the Earth’s rotation was slowing and the days and nights became longer and longer.
That’s a rather extreme metaphor for losing one’s gravitational balance (is it even a metaphor?), written lucidly and interestingly, although she allows herself to skip over lots of scientific and historical data because she knows she’s writing for an audience that’s living on the same planet and already knows all this stuff from the news. Convenient.
Aggressively Strange and Off the Deep End
19. Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash — Appalachian stories of vigorous incidents dating back to Civil War. People die in these stories or they are saved. The formula is that if the protagonist (and the reader) has reason to be apprehensive about the outcome, there will be relief and grace. If they feel reason to be confident, they’re tripped up.
Aside from that karmic predictability, the stories are excellent, and the variously accented performers chosen for each story give a rich listening dimension that I wouldn’t feel on the page, especially the great simple heartfelt story told by a janitor at a college. His wife is a waitress, and the highlight of their day is when they clean up at a hospital where they can Skype their daughter in Afghanistan and learn she’s okay for one more day. I cried, and much of it was the reader’s broad curved voice, a voice that lives to suffer and endure and put our complacencies in their place. It’s a story that briefly made me a better person; I’ll take that where I can find it.
20. Also a variety of reader voices are recruited for the stories in Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove. Her novel Swamplandia was wacky-realism of a girl’s Florida coming-of-age that dismayed me by being read aloud by an actual child, even though it’s clearly being recalled from an adult perspective.
This collection was more satisfying to me and more daring. The stories are aggressively strange and off the deep end: an old codger vampire sucking lemons in Italy, a Japanese girl in the Meiji Era sold into becoming a silkworm (this calmly horrific story would have been at home in Kij Johnson’s book–see #34 below), an Aboriginal boy Down Under finding that seagulls steal knickknacks from the future.
The best story is told by a masseuse who becomes haunted by her professional relationship with an Iraqui War veteran whose awful history is tattooed on his back–a brilliant literalization. I find this a more haunting, pointed and successful exploration of PTSD, its ancillary social effects, and broader cultural responsibility for war than the Powers novel above (#13), and I’m pretty sure Russell never served in the armed forces, so I’m reminded that just as fantasy is often more valid as “truth” than documentary, so is imagination sometimes better than experience at creating literature. Not always, of course.
21. The Magician King by Lev Grossman immediately revealed itself as a sequel to something I haven’t redd but engaged me enough to keep listening despite the narrator’s self-deprecating smartass tone while discussing his adventures in a magical land famous from children’s books that turns out to be real. In the last book, he became one of the kings of this land and lost someone he loved.
Now he goes on a Quest because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do in these things (and that’s how it’s put). The engaging part is the command of pace and invention, conveyed in a vivid visual manner. There’s also a parallel flashback narrative about one of the queens and how she learned her style of magic. It’s self-consciously Harry Potter for grownups.
22. The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison is two calm, magisterial Michigan novellas, one about a 60-year-old ex-painter-turned-academic in the process of becoming an ex-academic-turned-painter after “going home” and returning to his “first love” (literal and spiritual), and the title story a strangely random and mysterious tale of a 17-year-old boy obsessed with swimming around his island farm and discovering water babies (as in Charles Kingsley’s morbid Victorian children’s novel), which is a sinister miracle at best.
Both stories anchor the central character amid a galaxy of well-sketched relatives and friends (such as the academic’s emotionally distant bird-watching mother), weaving in lots of memories and thoughts and High Culture references. The stories make a good contrast, although this can’t be elaborated without giving too much away besides the obvious age/youth difference. Both men are obsessed with what is beyond themselves, which is also what is within themselves.
Books on Paper
23. Destroy All Monsters by Greg Hrbek is a collection of stories that won the Prairie Schooner Prize sponsored by that literary magazine. These tales are written in standard contemp lit style, understated while now and then reaching for elegance, often crossing into fantasy. For example, the first story (which also appeared in Best American Short Stories) is “Sagittarius”, about a family dealing with the fact that their newborn is a centaur. We can say it’s hopeful after a cathartic violent sacrifice. The last story, also hopeful, is about a man who deals with his infant’s death by sending some DNA for a do-it-yourself golem kit.
One story, set in a future after San Francisco was vaporized and against a backdrop of endless Middle East war with a draft, is about new ethnic alliances and suspicions among kids as an ex-soldier adopts a Muslim war orphan. The title story, though named after a Japanese monster movie, is actually about the filming of an earlier movie called Monster Zero and its American star Nick Adams, who’s going through a divorce while cruising bathhouses and wondering how his Oscar-nominated career is suddenly in decline. One of the most interesting stories is completely non-fantastic, about an incident on a Japanese island during WWII where many inhabitants killed themselves as the Americans landed.
24. Busy Monsters by William Giraldi. Breathless narrative in light brash tone mixing modern argot with quaint archaisms, as told by an eccentric columnist who transcribes his romantic odyssey chapter by chapter and publishes in a weekly magazine, so that everyone he meets is au courant and offers constructive criticism on the previous chapter. Episodic tale touches on encounters with bizarre characters and various monsters (Bigfoot, Loch Ness, aliens, giant squid) without actually crossing the line into fantasy while he flounders and vents about his girlfriend leaving and how to win her back. One of the monsters is a violent lesbian!
The acknowledgments thank someone for finding half a novel and making him finish, and I perceive that the last half is a more conventional race to a “happy ending” with less of the dark undercurrents that began with the hero driving south to kill somebody in Chapter One. Maybe he didn’t quite finish the same book.
25. Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert — Very fast read in very short chapters, told by octogenarian woman who writes obituaries for the local smalltown paper and deals with mundane family issues while the town’s in an uproar about a child who supposedly was kidnapped but nobody is sure she really existed. It’s also tied in with a children’s writer modeled on Lemony Snicket but whose popularity echoes J.K. Rowling, and references to this series are a motif. (Other recent novels are about children’s novels, e.g., Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton.)
The book never answers the questions it opened with and doesn’t so much end as stop. The writer has apparently been writing these quirky “midwest gothics” in which likable characters touch on real issues of aging, disappointment, etc. Feels like Anne Tyler lite (not intended as a slam).
26. Birds of a Lesser Paradise collects contemporary stories by Megan Mayhew Bergman. First-person women tell simply described stories of heartfelt, often screwed-up relations to parents, children, lovers, and animals, usually all in the same story. One story is about a woman who shut herself in protracted childhood on her beloved dad’s wildlife camp, her tenuous affair with a visitor, and being forced to confront dad’s mortality. A story set in 2050, about taking care of a 90-year-old father with dementia, “resonated” as they say.
The author comes from North Carolina, moved to New England, and is married to a veterinarian. Guess what. These stories about North Carolina, New England, and vets. A surprising number mention vinyl siding. The best two or three are piercing (a reviewer’s word I’ll use without shame here). I’d call these “aching” stories but I mean they make you ache, and they generally justified the blurbs. However, when I kept reading all the way through, they were all less of the same and began to make me wonder why I’m reading stories, or why so many at once.
Best in show: A single woman’s journey to a zoo with her son to see if she can provoke a parrot that used to be her mother’s to speak in mom’s voice. This is occasion to remember their pained moments of the mom’s last widowed years, the arguments and resentments that stick in memory more strongly than other things, the fact that mom loved that bird and the daughter hated it (implicitly for usurping unconditional love). A moment halfway through, as she wonders if her precocious boy will treat her as she treated her mother, triggered my imagination as I elaborated on it as a scene for a movie, bringing myself to tears. (This story is included in a recent Best American Short Stories.)
27. Tales of the New World by Sabina Murray, Australian-born writer who won Pen/Faulkner Award for her previous collection. These intelligent historical tales about real-life explorers require more than imagination. They take research! Indeed, they almost define “intelligent” stories: structured in little chapters, the prose balanced between not too fancy, not too minimal, a bit bloodless in their intellectual approach, the figures a bit ironized and mummified. You’re learning something carefully reckoned, an act of empathy with a modern perspective. Reminded me of Joanna Scott’s excellent collection Various Antidotes or of Andrea Barrett, who blurbed this author before. (Also compare with #59 below.)
Subjects include Victorian woman Mary Kingsley, who traipsed through Africa; the historian companion of Magellan who passed through the Straits to the Moluccas and died by savage island politics; Balboa upon a peak in Darien (before Cortes); Murray’s own father writing a thesis on the earliest report of a Greek who explored Africa; an essay-tale on Jim Jones (with errors, despite thanking her fact-checker); a pirate/privateer who inspired Defoe, Swift and Coleridge; a disgruntled Aztec governor appalled by Montezuma; and Chekhov on the island of Sakhalin–yes, the very same trip referenced in Murakami’s novel above (#7). That brings up influence and confluence, and with so many oceans involved, perhaps effluence.
28. Next up, two historically interesting science fiction satires. Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large, his first novel, is premised on the amazing idea that if God (“the Absolute”) is immanent in all matter, such that matter consists of its material and its immaterial God element, then the arrival of nuclear power would mean that as matter is converted to energy, the by-product or “waste” would be the immanent Absolute element, which then is loosed upon the world. I was reading this as the news was full of the discovery of the “god particle”, the energy that binds atoms. The story patiently unwinds a history of world war and apocalypse as everyone’s notions of the Absolute, now validated (as blind men touch the elephant), causes miraculous holy armageddons.
29. Black No More, by George Schuyler, later a rather unfortunate black conservative gadfly, is in a Library of America collection of Harlem Renaissance novels (two volumes). It posits a process that de-pigmentizes people and follows the satirical behavior of ex-black characters who exploit a racist movement against the procedure; white bigots who don’t realize they have black ancestors; changes in fashion as it’s suddenly the rage to darken yourself and too-light people are regarded with suspicion, etc. It’s not Twain, but it’s interesting in its relentless way.
30. The Town that Forgot How to Breathe by John Harvey is yet another horror-fantasy partly channeling The Shining (see also #9 above) in the plot-thread about a man separated from his wife, taking their daughter to Newfoundland town for summer just as the sea starts giving up centuries’ worth of her dead and there’s an epidemic of out-of-work fisherman (economic depression) who stop breathing autonomically (they must do it consciously or die) and drift into anomie and amnesia (“What am I?”).
Said paterfamilias broods on his failure (presumably as he’s possessed by another ghost) and starts getting murderous impulses against his family, conveyed through disassociated hallucinating prose. Follows many characters (shades of Salem’s Lot), including crazy old lady with “the sight”. The little girl has it, too, and chats with little girl ghost next door. Lots of innocent gifted threatened children in these books about the nuclear family in crisis under economic duress.
This begins like a beautiful sinister dream, justifying blurbs by J.M. Coetzee et al, then starts getting a little bogged down in too much story and not enough. The chapters are the days and nights of the week of crisis. It ends with a Luddite fantasy of the town giving up electricity because the waves interfere with ghosts and such and drive us crazy. And that reminds me of books I haven’t redd by James Howard Kunstler (World Made By Hand is the first) which imagine a post-power return to some pre-industrial fantasy after the world falls apart so much that apparently nobody can even go to a library and look up how to build a generator, and it smells less like a warning than a wish.
And now I see the similar fantasy in ads for the TV series Revolution, where the crossbow-shooting young hottie declares “When the world lost its power, I found mine.” This is a hell of a reactionary impulse, the opposite of Ray Kurzweil’s “technology will transform us” future.
31. I check out many books because they’re short. For example, Connie Willis’ All About Emily is a witty, breezy novella told by a Broadway actress (lots of musical trivia) who encounters a bright-eyed young android in a plot explicitly fashioned as a variant of All About Eve. The robot wants to be a Rockette, but prejudice is against her until they learn how to spin the publicity.
32. Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith, for another example, is a collage of short image-and-sensory laden chapters about a day in the life of a young library woman who’s interested in a soldier boy, mixed with her memories of life so far: Alaskan girlhood, hippie parents, her sister, her fetish for the past (old clothes, photos, etc.) and all things passing. Actually pretty good, and shouldn’t have been longer.
33. For a third example of a novella published as a book, and therefore gratefully checked out by me, John Scalzi’s The God Engines is a quasi-baroque grotesquerie crossing a Star Trek world with Lovecraft: in a galactic theocracy, captured gods are harnessed to power starships by folding space, but the times are a-changing. A very curious literalization of how we use our “gods” (faith) for power, enslaving them in the hopes they won’t enslave us, or how we become slaves to our own dwindling power sources.
34. The bizarre and persnickety tales, like bottled ships, in Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees include old Asian fables (a fox woman seduces a human) and future planets (though of backward cultures), often testifying to the survival of women in the face of random violence. The opening divertissement, “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss”, is like if Steven Millhauser had a vagina.
Humor also figures in “Schrodinger’s Cathouse” and the 18th Century pastiche “My Wife Reincarnated as a Solitaire” (a type of parrot). The title story has a woman stung by a bee and suddenly making a beeline across country until she finds the literal mid-air river of bees, which she follows to its/their source with her dying dog.
The longest tale, the prize-winning novella “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”, is concretely described surrealism, a slowly and carefully put-together tale of a methodical introspective architect on a world where lands are divided by literally unfathomable mist-seas that can only be crossed at peril. He kind of likes the equally taciturn and inward beauty who pilots the boats. Both love their jobs, the crossing more than the result. Rich and strange. Perhaps best of all is the final story, about what happens when dogs start to talk and find themselves abandoned; they gather in parks and tell trickster myths while society wonders how to handle them.
Apparently, Johnson publishes in fantasy and SF mags because they’re the only ones who’d have her, though New Yorker should be so lucky. The Publisher’s Weekly starred review (blurbed on the back) calls them “sometimes off-putting, sometimes funny, and always thought-provoking” and there are also blurbs from Karen Joy Fowler and Ursula Le Guin, who not coincidentally also publish at Small Beer Press. I may have to look into this publisher more thoroughly; they also do Kelly Link, who’s been on my curiosity list, and I see they have a collection by Geoff Ryman, author of Was, a cult novel about the impact of The Wizard of Oz on various characters including Judy Garland.
35. You know how you pick up a book, and it’s not only festooned with praise, but the first several pages of blurbs reveal that the author has been putting out acclaimed and award-winning books for years and you still weren’t aware of it? Such is my case with Caitlin R. Kiernan, who knows the right people and they all redd her The Drowning Girl in advance and showered it with compliments. As soon as I began, I realized here was a pleasure to read, not homework driven by my restless quest for finding something. This was it, a book in which you needn’t ask yourself if you wish to continue because you just plunge in and lose yourself via ontological orgasm, and it’s a little scary for it.
It’s narrated by a young medicated schizophrenic lesbian who’s keeping a journal in installments as therapy to explain a ghostly event that happened two years ago and whose ramifications are ongoing, and which she can’t be sure she remembers properly because she’s always contradicting herself and digressing, except the heavily allusive and well-redd digressions of course aren’t really digressions and are just as fascinating as the story she doesn’t want to tell. Postmodern with bells on, and wrapped around a cracking story.
36. It kept resonating with another monstrously acclaimed book I was listening to (wait, this should be in the CD section–oh too bad) that has similarities yet is completely different: Charles Baxter’s The Soul Thief. Wow, what a gracefully written work. The first half is a college tale of the narrator picking up a mysterious girlfriend and a creepy bohemian hanger-on and an air of foreboding. That’s a typical contour, made remarkable by its sheen of “realism” rippled by odd uncanny details and always expressed in elegant Updike-besotted descriptions and tropes.
Updike can be the curse of writers (as can Carver), but it’s a blessing when they pull it off. We realize the narrator is just as odd as the people he meets, and perhaps that’s why he meets them. The second part shifts to when he’s suddenly much farther along in life. It belongs in the well-trodden, always intriguing tradition of “double” or “doppelganger” tales.
37. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine. A bitterly comic novel narrated by drifting female English grad, 25, an outrageous master of rationalization, who falls in obsessive love with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel and uses it as inspiration to change her life–for the worse. An absurd early scene in an establishment called The Pet Library, where you check out animals like books, is one of the funniest things I’ve redd in years, and many later lines had me yipping and barking with laughter. Nasty, cruel-ish and short.
One problem: it begins with our triumphantly unself-aware anti-heroine declaring that now that her adventures are over, she’ll write them down, so we’d expect it to end somewhere beyond the existential writerly place where she stops. In that last chapter (really this is no spoiler), she first returns the book to the library and later sets forth on a voyage with a map, which includes the library on it. I would have suggested that turning in the book be reshuffled to the last thing she writes about, thus at least closing the circle which began with how she acquired the book. But she didn’t ask me.
38. Necropolis by Santiago Gamboa, supposedly narrated by the writer himself, finds him going to a strange conference on memory and biography in Jerusalem while the city’s being shelled in a siege, and he transcribes the speeches of the various attendees as well as investigating the mystery of one guest’s death. He refers not only to the Decameron but a thousand other books and writers, including a long hilarious paragraph in which he catalogues the books he’s taking to read at the conference, which had many names meaningful to me (including Adalbert Stifter, referenced in #7 above) until he gets to the punchline that there’s never time to read at conferences, anyway. This work falls into that decadent but sophisticated and flattering literary category, a meta-story for readers, with plenty of sex.
39. History of a Pleasure Seeker comes from the ridiculously acclaimed and handsome young South African Richard Mason, who has even used his literary and prize money (while attending college) to found a charity for underprivileged kids. Clearly I should hate him. This novel is an elegant variant of Jane Eyre, if Jane were a bi-sexually confident male in early 20th Century Amsterdam. (Reader, I banged her.)
It comes to a satisfying resolution of its story about being a tutor to a child with what we now call OCD in a rich family’s hothouse of schemes, then keeps going as if afraid we won’t wait for the sequel and embarks on the next story that lands him in the middle of a situation dangling until a next volume. This one, too, has a lot of sex, and of course is much the better for it.
With an Introduction by Johnny Depp…
40. Speaking of endings, though without as much sex, I was hooked by the strong hipster style and narrative impetus of David Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, only to crash into a slightly annoying denouement. This alternates between third-person chapters following the investigation and musings of a San Francisco homicide detective on a couple of murders, and first-person chapters of a 20-something Korean-American English major, slacker, and would-be gentrified yuppie who knew the victims and fears he may be next. Though all characters kind of think and sound alike, the pop-culture-soaked cynicism and craven fear are endearing, especially when our hapless hero touches on what he says is a painful pivotal Korean moment in American culture: the Virginia Tech massacre.
And then, when we get to the ending of the complicated and violent plot, the author suddenly declines to explain what all happened and leaves it up to the reader! What is this, Hammett meets Henry James? It smells like teen cop-out, especially when you’ve got a character who obsessively digresses onto every detail and impression snapping through his neurons, and then suddenly he says “I have a theory but I won’t go into it” and doesn’t even bother to spell out who got arrested or what happened to certain characters just because he’s in personal bliss–so why the hell did he sit down to write this? I grasp the concept of “open endings”, but this concept must match the nature of your characterizations and narrative.
41. At least the narrator of Nick Dybek’s When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man doesn’t flinch (at age 30, recalling decisive events that ruined him) when he gets to the wrap-up. This is yet another novel inspired by Treasure Island (see #37 above), couched as a memoir of teen boyhood on a West Coast fishing island and how the boy discovers that his father and his chums have kidnapped the young owner of the fleet, and now what’s he gonna do about it? Betray his dad or obey morality? (Another recent novel is Andrew Motion’s Silver, a direct sequel to Stevenson. What’s in the water? I trust it’s merely that Stevenson’s truly great moral adventure is no longer being so much taken for granted as some kind of kid’s book.)
42. I Cannot Tell a Lie Exactly is a collection by Mary Ladd Gavell, editor of Psychiatry magazine, who privately wrote stories but didn’t publish them. When she died of cancer in 1967, the magazine honored her by publishing one of the stories, “The Rotifer”, about a class science assignment, which found its way into that year’s edition of Best American Short Stories, then was revived by John Updike for his collection of the century’s best stories taken from these anthologies, and then a few years ago all her stories were collected into this slim volume.
Many are sketches of growing up in backwoods Texas (which she did). The last, longest and best story is a very sympathetic yet ruthless portrait of a difficult family where the old mother is dying in the house with her middle-aged daughter and pastor son-in-law, and in her dementia she finally reconciles herself to the marriage she never approved.
43. The Man Who Knew Coolidge by Sinclair Lewis is a “concept album” of stories transcribing the blather and vernacular monologues of a blowhard businessman in various situations (playing poker, asking a relative for a loan, bragging to a stranger on a train, addressing his club) as he discusses his life and philosophy. He refers to Babbitt as one of his neighbors. Comfortable midwest middle-class satire with sad undercurrents of failure and desperation masked by the obvious hypocrisies. Rather successful, and not as dated as you’d suppose.
44. Dear Life by Alice Munro. Mostly rural Canadians in stories that often take place over years, related swiftly with telling details from one person’s perspective or another. The last four stories are autobiographical. Munro’s style is unpretentious and confident. These are all about ordinary lives with disappointments and tragedies for people who live long enough to endure them.
A friend who lived in Canada declared these stories “very Canadian”, for what that’s worth. Each story quietly grips you in its flow, and they’re generally about messages mixed, connections missed, lives subdued and frittered. I’d hate to think that’s Canadian. The story “Corrie”, with a curiously altered ending, also appears in the volume mentioned below at #60.
45. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives is by Szuszi Gartner, a Canadian who surely won’t be confused with Munro. Vicious, spiky, elegantly funny stories send up right-thinking people. Two tales are set in neighboring cul-de-sacs where things go awry: social devolution from vegans to carnivore, and (my favorite story), the collective first-person-plural narration of five angels who take over five teens to find out more about humanity and report their findings. Title story is about a recovering terrorist who tries to curb her impulse for direct violent action; funny despite predictable twist ending.
46. A Place in Time: The Port William Stories by Wendell Berry is a chronology of stories in a town, going back a couple of centuries, but with the emphasis on the wartime and postwar years. Some are crackerbarrel yarns and easygoing anecdotes. Others are written in an elevated philosophical tone that erases the cliched distinction and warning about “showing, not telling”, such as the very moving “A Desirable Woman” about a pastor’s wife in the years just as WWII looms. (Have only read first half dozen or so, but am so struck by it I must mention it already.)
47. Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L. Allen is a brief and breezy, yet conceptually dense fantasia on Jack and the Beanstalk calculated to brush against modern issues–especially slavery, exploitation, and the environment. At first it’s told from the point of view of a boy giant in a society where humans (called “mans”) are pets and food.
As it gradually dawns on the reader that this is a reinvented fairy tale, it shifts to the POV of a “female man” who has many tribulations. Brutal events are related in a rapid history and wistful, elegiac tone, with characters who ache in the heart. More a fable than an adventure (though loaded with incident), it’s all about things that pass.
48. The Buffalo Hunter by Peter Straub is novella about a guy in New York with a nowhere job, lying to his parents back home about having a wonderful fiancée, trying to forget his miserable childhood while mom is going senile long distance, spending his nights reading westerns and mysteries while sucking alcohol from baby formula bottles. For some reason, this procedure sinks him literally into the stories, although they take on different events and interfere with his life until he makes the decision (don’t do it!) to read Anna Karenina.
This grim fantasy literalizes the concept of escaping into a good book and suggests that such psychological retreats aren’t a good idea, which must be an unfortunate point for writers to consider. Not to mention readers.
49. House of Earth was finished by folksinger Woody Guthrie in 1947, according to the introduction (by Johnny Depp!), and he sent it to a movie producer for possible filming. Since the first of four sections is an orgasmically detailed sex scene between a sharecropping farmer and his wife in their Texas shack, as they discuss politics and economics, you wonder how he imagined the film. It’s not surprising that he apparently never submitted it to publishers during the era when D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller couldn’t be published in the US.
It’s written in an often incantatory songlike manner, accreting details in the authorial voice between the lengthy folksy dialogues with their continual tension of joshing insults and teasing tenderness keeping despair at bay. The first two parts take place all on one day, and the last two parts on another day a year later when the wife gives birth with a nurse/midwife’s help. They dream of building an adobe house (Woody evangelizes for this) but first must somehow own their own piece of land.
There’s an undeveloped deus ex machina in that the wife’s estranged but rich daddy secretly gave her some money before the marriage. The book is a static meditation or tone poem as proletarian literature, clearly late in the day for that movement but not necessarily dated. How can it be dated when the problems haven’t vanished?
50. Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich is a comic novel about a numbers-cruncher, obsessed with statistics for disaster and end-of-world scenarios, who gets mysteriously recruited into an indemnity racket as a “consultant” advising wealthy corporations about possible disastrous futures. Although he liaises with a gung-ho business-major kind-of-girlfriend in the middle of a flooded New York that triggers his media fame as a prophet, his “real” romantic interest is a woman with a drop-dead heart condition who spends the whole book safely far away and even as the paradigmatic “girlfriend in a coma” (to quote a Morrissey song).
Will our hero come out of his funk and learn to seize the day before it seizes him? Will he fall for his lost love’s communal back-to-nature impulses? Is an optmistic conclusion out of place? An amusing journey about the traps of selling and profiting from paranoia.
51. The Rage by Gene Kerrigan, an Irish crime novel that won a Golden Dagger. Swift, punchy, coldly violent, multi-character study of Dublin and its political, economic, and historical reverberations: the real estate bubble collapse and unemployment, the legacy of investigations into church abuse, the bureaucracy of police work, the workaday world of barely competent drones, the culture of crime. The two main characters, a homicide detective and a vengeful killer, never meet, and one of the crimes is never fully solved. The style is so “minimal” that you must look closely to notice how elegant it is.
52. The Book of Mischief: New and Selected Stories gathers old and new tales by Steve Stern in a generous collection. These are modern incarnations of Jewish folklore fantasies, written in the kind of dazzling and funny sentences that must inspire Michael Chabon. That humor and dazzle is needed, because the stories are often tragic and sometimes sour and bitter. Not only do they end frequently in death, but sometimes that’s a happy ending! And he will surprise you with a good-natured ending, such as in the absurd story of a Kafka scholar who finds he’s not quite prepared to write off life as his idol did.
The final long and wonderful story is “autobiographical” in that it’s about a Jewish fantasist writer/academic, also splenetic and melancholy, who finds himself at a Catskills wedding where the bride becomes possessed by a dybbuk. Is the ending happy? It’s hard to say. A particularly memorable story is about a boy who climbs a huge tree and discovers the land of dreams. Again, is the ending happy? You tell me.
53. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa is a very interesting arrangement of linked macabre stories in which an incident or character from one shows up in the next, including a woman writing some of these stories. Also, all these first-person tales alternate male and female narrators. The characters mostly live in the same neighborhood or work in the same hospital.
There are stories about a torture museum and the people who visit or work there. Very short, fast-moving, cold stories, full of dark incidents and disappointed obsessives, like the man who makes specialized bags and is commissioned by a woman to make a leather covering for her heart, which is outside her body. Don’t wait for happy resolutions here.
54. The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy, which won the Flanner O’Connor Award, also has stories full of violence, usually visited upon the characters rather than committed by them, such as the opener about a young teacher confronting two killers. Harsh stories generally in Southern settings, so the award is appropriate. The semi-mystical title story is about people who disappear because they usually aren’t noticed except by each other.
Not all the stories are violent. A problematic loser son driving home for Christmas through a blizzard echoes a story from the parents’ POV in the Rutherford collection below (#55). The best story is “Translation”, which (spoiler! spoiler!) follows a man who wakes up with amnesia and finds he’s a college professor who got fired over faking a new story by Ovid that attempted to explain his own metamorphosis. That’s just brilliant, and the story is told with delicate suspense.
55. The Peripatetic Coffin by Ethan Rutherford has more stories, four of which are set on sailing vessels and use the word “topsides”. Two are based on historical incidents: the first submarine invented for the Civil War (narrated by a doomed crewman), and a Russian polar expedition (ditto). The last and longest story is set in a future where tank-ships trawl the desert-ocean beds for sandwhales (kind of like Moby Dick meets the sandworms of Dune).
All the stories are about what it takes to be a man: to meet your fate, to find your capacity for violence and/or death, the self-defeating wish not to be a wimp. The comic story narrated as an excuse or report by a director of a boys’ summer camp about “what you call the debacle” is a sharp analysis of escalation and war that should be redd into the Congressional Record.
56. The Devereaux Legacy is by Carolyn Hart, now a well-known mystery writer, so they reprinted this Harlequin Gothic from her wilderness years. A woman finds out her family is alive and depraved and living in South Carolina, when they all thought she died as a baby. The family legend holds that a ghost appears to signal imminent death, but in this Gothic tradition, we can be reasonably sure it’s a Scooby-Doo ghost. I don’t know why I redd it, except that it flashes by so quickly in its predictable mode.
Half the sentences are questions (“What did it mean? What would she find out?”) and every fourth or fifth sentence is “She shivered.” Transparent delays are required to prevent the heroine from finding out the story too soon, so that with virtual self-parody, someone with the inside dope literally drops from a heart attack as soon as she approaches, and then she delays going to visit him in the hospital until she’s blurted out her plans to do so.
What’s interesting is the Southern mansion setting, and the solution to the mystery is okay with effective misdirection that made me think of a different character. You can see Hart was already more interested in crafting whodunits.
57. The FSG Book of 20th Century Latin American Poetry. FSG refers to publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who published several of the titles here, sometimes on what appears to be off-beige paper towels. Original language on the left page, translation on right page, one or two poems per writer, with maybe four or five for the biggies. So far, they express the anxieties of coming to grips with a New World and new century.
I read the English first and then stumble through the Spanish (or Portuguese, or even French) to discover the rhymes and greater felicity in the original. I progress slowly and have only gotten to around page 100, which is up to Cesar Vallejo, though I skipped ahead for a couple of Borges. There was one Borges translated quite marvelously and rhyming, with only a couple of awkwardnesses, but the original was still so much more a slam dunk. The first poem by José Marti fairly knocked me on my ass.
One reason for my snail-like progress is that I go through it in conjunction with plowing through Martin Seymour-Smith’s section of Latin American poetry in his doorstop The New Guide to Modern World Literature, whose obsessively qualified disquisitions on who’s underrated and overrated should be enough for any one lifetime.
Intriguingly, he gives several examples of the same famous poems that appear in this anthology, but in different translations. Also, his casual reference to the fact that this or that person wrote a novel led me to request a couple of these obscurities through Interlibrary Loan, and they arrived from academic institutions, bless them. This leads us to:
58 & 59. The more trivial diversion is Vicente Huidobro’s bizarre and decadent adventure Mirror of a Mage about the fantastical alchemist Cagliostro in the era of Louis XVI. Huidobro describes this pleasantly artificial and self-conscious story (published in 1931) as his attempt to illustrate the influence of the cinematograph on the novel: rapid, image-driven narrative. (Too bad he couldn’t read some of those listed above.) Now and then he’ll drop in a remark like “Reader, consult what any other novel says about love and insert it here.”
An altogether different animal, though equally short, is Chilean author Pedro Prado’s Country Judge, which is nobody’s idea of a standard novel. Apparently something of a memoir, it’s about an architect (like the author) appointed to be a judge with no knowledge of law, and the first half consists of anecdotes of the cases. These combine the qualities of precision and off-handedness. Then the author and his character lose interest in law and it drifts into a study of our hero’s melancholy, which today might be called bi-polar.
One incident describes his amazement that his twin-soul artist friend (who also has a sick son, like he does) and himself have both sketched a house called La Mirador Viejo in completely different ways while standing next to each other, and later there’s a detail of how he emerges from the dark corner of a room to the surprise of others in the room, and these moments are united in the final image of startling himself when his reflection emerges from a dark corner and he realizes that this familiar figure, whose impulses are the same as his own, can never touch his hand through the cold glass separating them. It’s kind of a perfect place to stop, worthy of the New Yorker.
60. Astray by Emma Donoghue, a Scotswoman living in Canada, is a collection similar to Murray’s (see #27). All stories are based on real historical incidents or characters: Jumbo the elephant and his trainer prior to their move from London to America; a brother and sister in dire straits who meet Charles Dickens; a highly unconventional woman in the Old West (later committed to an asylum for her “crazy” behavior); a Texas slaveholder’s wife and the male slave; two Alaskan prospectors thrown into physical and emotional proximity; and several others. All are accompanied by postscripts that detail the sources, and the theme is immigration or migration to a new land and the sense of hope and/or loss engendered thereby.
The characters don’t all have unconventional sexual arrangements but several do, alluded to discreetly. These cameos into pivotal moments of their lives make for brisk, clean, uncluttered reads.
61. The O. Henry Prize Stories 2012, edited by Laura Furman, has 20 stories including one that turns out to be a horror tale from an author who won a Shirley Jackson Prize, and not knowing this in advance contributes greatly to its impact as its events creep over you. That’s why I’m not naming it.
There are characteristically serene, contemplative essay-stories by Wendell Berry (see #46) and John Berger; a perfect Steven Millhauser story (just add water) of essay-chunks on a town’s ghosts; Karl Taro Greenfield’s very good first-person account of a Japanese artist surviving WWII; Miroslav Penkov’s absurdly believable tale of a Bulgarian village cut in half by a flood; Yiyun Li’s extremely good novella of a middle-aged single woman in China; Jim Shepard’s socially engaged, noirish study of PTSD from a brooding, angry narrator letting self-pity and denial go round and round in his head; and Salvatore Scibona’s beautifully written, playful, unusually accoutred story about divorce, set in Iceland and featuring a dog.
How to describe Lauren Groff’s wonderful “Eyewall”? It’s told by a woman who drinks her way through a hurricane, looking at the carnage whirling outside and being visited by three ghosts, like Scrooge except they’re kindly ghosts who aren’t trying to convert her errors. Extravagant, metaphorical, almost disorienting sentences. This and the unnamed horror story are my favorites.
I want to address Anthony Doerr’s “The Deep”, the indirectly narrated viewpoint of a boy with a heart problem during the Depression in Detroit, and his love for a bold redhaired girl who loves underwater exploration. He’s always on the verge of passing out or expiring as the world shifts around him when he gets moved or too active. It’s interesting and sentimental, though the author indulges in poetic metaphors that are the writer’s thoughts, not the semi-literate boy’s. I suppose this Updike-ness doesn’t bother some people. It depends on how closely you want to say it follows the boy’s POV; it seems to be doing so 95 percent of the time, but then drops a stitch now and then with “ghostly armatures”, etc.
Also I was shocked that a character in 1924 flashbacks is called Ms. (twice!). I’m not surprised that a young writer would make that error, as you can see why it wouldn’t occur to him to research that word or notice he’d never seen it in pre-1970 writing, but I’m rather distressed that it’s gone through several editors without being corrected. Are they all ignorant whippersnappers? It even won a prize in England! And juror Ron Rash makes a point of praising the story for how the research is invisible. It sure is! Again, I don’t blame Doerr, but something that yanks readers over a certain age right out of the story cannot stand.
Mark Slouka’s “The Hare’s Mask” is a first-person childhood memory, or childhood memory once removed as the boy reconstructs his father’s undiscussed childhood during the Holocaust and how the son carries his father’s survivor-guilt by proxy. This is also in Best American Short Stories 2012. These anthologies don’t quite overlap, one being a fiscal year and the other by calendar. A few of the Best’s appendix of 100 recommended stories are in this O. Henry volume, and a few are in the previous year’s volume.
What’s interesting is when an O Henry story isn’t even listed in Best, indicating it didn’t make their top 120! That editor, along with guest editor Geraldine Brooks, complained about too many drab contemporary realism stories they had to sift through, but O. Henry has a wide array by American writers who avoided that, yet didn’t make the Best cut! Curious. Also curious that the most fantastical story in Best, by George Saunders, didn’t make O Henry.
Finally, Alice Munro’s “Corrie” (see #44) follows a callow architect who begins an affair with a partly-lame rich girl in a small town, and then the last half follows her thoughts as she comes to a revelation about their affair that might be her imagination based on her low estimation of herself. Reading about this story online from various responders, there’s some confusion about whether Munro “cheated” about the “surprise”, but I think that depends on whether you think there really is a surprise.
I think the story is about Corrie’s self-perceptions, and whether she’s actually right about what happened is secondary. It’s worth noting, however, that Munro altered certain parts significantly to make her meaning clearer in her own collection. If she’s going to workshop her stuff in public (and she’s known for it), perhaps one should only ever read the versions that show up in her own collections and skip them otherwise.
Lord knows I need any excuse to skip something. Alas. So many books to skip, so little time! Until we meet again, Dear Reader, keep turning those pages. Or changing those discs. Or downloading those doohickeys. Or whatever you do for kicks. While some say that a good book takes us out of ourselves, I tend to think it sinks us deeper into ourselves, but perhaps these are the same thing.