Category: Favorite Reading 2010

Favorite Novels in 2010

5. James Frey, Bright Shiny Morning. OK, let me explain a little back story here: first, I found myself sequestered in a Target store, looking for anything to distract me. Second, anyone who has lived in Los Angeles can attest that the cover image on the hardcover of this book intangibly captures the strange light of a crystal-clear L.A. morning. So then third, when I opened the book looking for distraction, within a few pages I was hooked by Frey’s colloquial minimalism, though this is probably partly due to nostalgia: the novel describes spaces in L.A. that used to be home for me. So this novel was a way of returning. But for a novel that’s probably mediocre at best, Frey does an excellent job of capturing the overwhelming ugliness of Los Angeles–something that would surprise those who know it only from its glitzy PR tentacles in Hollywood and television. Frey is a cartographer of the strip mall geography that is southern California, and an anthropologist of its underbelly.

4. Martin Amis, The Pregnant Widow. An aging hedonist reconsiders an Italian bohemian romp in the summer of 1970, zooming out to assess the so-called “sexual revolution” on a larger scale–all constructed around the story of Narcissus as told in Ted Hughes’ rendering in Tales of Ovid. The perfect platform for Amis’ cutting humor and curmudgeonly criticism. The image of the “pregnant widow” is itself suggestive of a strange transition: impregnated by a father no longer alive, the impending child will emerge in a world fundamentally different from the one in which he was conceived. The novel is perhaps at its best when it morphs into a reflection on aging.

3. Rafael Yglesias, A Happy Marriage. I read this after hearing Yglesias on NPR, and in light of teaching a course on marriage, family, and singleness. It is the story told from two ends, cutting back and forth between two periods until they converge: the beginning of their marriage and the end of his wife’s life, dying of cancer. The mechanics of this back-and-forth work very well. But the “novel” tracks frustratingly close to Yglesias’ own experience with his dying wife so I found myself constantly falling into the trap of reading it as if it were a memoir (sort of the inverse of Frey’s Million Little Pieces). Furthermore, on the mechanics front, while this is written in the third person, we don’t get any interior insight into any characters except Enrique, the husband. So this is turns out to be a Bob Dole narrator, Enrique talking about himself in the third person. This might also explain the blurring between memoir and novel: Yglesias perhaps thought shifting to an omniscient narrator makes it a novel, but this narrator is still functionally Enrique (aka Yglesias).

But despite those frustrations with form, the story is an honest portrait of the slog that is a marriage, with all its frustrations and joys. Enrique steps up when it counts and unfortunately only learns what it means to be married in the final moments of their story together. We are made privy to Enrique’s unfolding revelations of the gift he’s been given in Margaret, and one begins to see why marriage is a sacrament.

2. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Finally. I knew Freedom was on its way, and came to appreciate the friendship and collaboration between Franzen and DFW, so that also got me intrigued. Overall, I’d have to say I was disappointed with Franzen as a stylist (why am I always still looking for Updike?), but was impressed with his narrative abilities. Having come to Franzen from Wallace, the structure seemed pretty pedestrian, but when you step back and compare to others, there’s some creative framing of time, and the discrete narratives focused on characters (first Chip, then Gary, then Enid & Alfred, finally Denise) are brought together in a satisfying way in the final “act” as it were.

I think what most sticks with me is Franzen’s ability to capture the essence of “midwesternness.” While Enid & Alfred embody this, one also sees how this “midwesternness”–its sense of duty, its repression, its guilt–infects even the children who’ve made it to the coast. You can take the child out of the midwest, but…

1. Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story. My favorite read of the year. As I said earlier: A quirky, prescient story set in the not-too-distant future. Comprised of the diary of Lenny Ambramov, interspersed with the “GlobalTeens” (aka Facebook?) communications of his girlfriend, Eunice Park, the book extrapolates from our current cultural trends to imagine the future dystopia of what will be left of the United States, or more specifically, New York City. It is a world where people are publicly identified by their Credit Ranking, where nation-states have been replaced by corporations (compare Atwood’s Year of the Flood, and where the United States has become entirely enfolded into China (with sections parceled out to Norway).

Shteyngart’s social commentary is oblique and allusive, again projecting from our current cultural habits into an imagined future. One might describe it as the ubiquitization of a Facebook sensibility, where everything is made public–our Credit Rankings are displayed on “credit poles” that line the street; our emotions and thoughts are made public on äppäräts dangling from our necks; and nothing is left to the imagination as all the young women are wearing transparent “onionskin” jeans.

The story also tackles the identity issues of the 1.5 immigrant generation: Lenny the child of Russian Jews but raised on Long Island; Eunice the daughter of Korean Christians, raised in southern California, transplanted to New Jersey. And in the midst of all of this, Lenny works for a company that is sorting out the science of immortality. Fertile soil for philosophical and theological reflection.

The novel combines strong narrative force with exquisite attention to detail. There are a couple of mechanical moves late in the book that I found lazy and a bit disappointing from a formal standpoint, but these don’t obscure its strengths. I hope to write much more on the novel elsewhere.

Favorite Nonfiction in 2010

Most of my “professional” reading (which I don’t usually chronicle here) falls into the “nonfiction” category. So my reading “for pleasure” tends to be thinner in this area. But here are five standouts (with one hat-tip to a professional book worth mentioning):

5. David Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology. I’ll give one shout out to a theology book–as I noted earlier, this is a masterpiece that will need to be digested for a generation.

4. Thomas Wolfe, The Story of a Novel. This little tome–really an extended essay–was mentioned in the introduction to a collection of Wolfe’s letters. And then lo and behold I came across it at MacLeod’s Books in downtown Vancouver (if you’re ever in Vancouver, do NOT miss the chance to visit MacLeod’s). In it Wolfe, in his inimitable blend of charming narcissism, recounts the story behind and around the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, a wending tale of drama and relationships. And in the midst of this I was taken aback by a passage which instantly explained why Look Homeward, Angel had become so important to me:

“From the beginning–and this was one fact that in all my times of hopelessness returned to fortify my faith in my conviction–the idea, the central legend that I wished my book to express had not changed. And this central idea was this: the deepest search in life, it seemed to me, the thing that in one way or another was central to all living was man’s search to find a father, not merely the father of his flesh, not merely the lost father of his youth, but the image of a strength and wisdom external to his need and superior to his hunger, to which the belief and power of his own life could be united” (p. 39).

While critics would seize upon this as evidence of Wolfe’s Freudian modernism, I hear in it an Augustinian parable.

3. Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. This is a strange book: really just a cumulative, chronological assemblage of news clippings leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II. A haunting, non-theological refutation of the so-called “What about Hitler?” refutation of pacifism. While I think Baker is somewhat given to a rather utopian notion about the “effectiveness” of pacifism, he nonetheless recounts why and how World War II did not have to be, and how the Allies were certainly not concerned with saving “the Jews.”

2. Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays. A solid collection of Smith’s prose (some of these essays will be familiar to readers of Harper’s and New York Review of Books). The long concluding essay on David Foster Wallace is as insightful as it is controversial, and “The Crafty Feeling”–on the craft of writing–is worth the price of the book all by itself.

1. David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. It was strange to read this a month after reading Wolfe’s The Story of a Novel. This is almost the DFW equivalent: Lipsky, commissioned to interview Wallace for Rolling Stone, spends five days with him at the conclusion of the book tour following the release of Infinite Jest. There’s a price to pay to enjoy this book: you will end up pretty much detesting the parasitic Lipsky, fawning over Wallace while at the same time trying to keep up with his genius, trying to feel like “the writer” that Wallace has just become. But tolerating Lipsky is well worth it for what amounts to a lit geek’s wet dream: hangin’ out with David Foster Wallace who has to be one of the most lovable creatures of late 20th-century fiction. It’s like he never lost that Midwestern accessibility and earthiness. (Indeed, something like this becomes a theme of conversation: “It’s way beter for me to be living in Bloomington,” Wallace recognizes.)

It will be no surprise to hear that Wallace’s conversational voice is as supercharged as his writing. And in his various riffs you get to hear the sorts of original metaphors and neologisms that cut to the heart of things–like when he talks about the rare kind of book that activates “that kind of stomach magic” that makes you say, “God damn, it’s fun to read. I’d rather read right now than eat“–or when he talks about the force of music that gives you “an erection of the heart” (some way, some how, that is making it into the sequel to Desiring the Kingdom!).

By the end of it, you’ll feel like Lipsky: sorry it has to end. Which is also how we feel about the life and writing of David Foster Wallace.

Favorite Poetry in 2010

5. Sherman Alexie, Face. I’m a late comer to Alexie, but was immediately hooked. Granted, in the vein of Billy Collins, Alexie is probably one of our most accessible poets, but without the schmaltz of, say, Mary Oliver. I found this collection sincere and searingly honest, opening up worlds for me that would otherwise have remain unexplored territory.

4. Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection: Poems New and Selected. I have a dirty little confession to make: if a lot of Christians like a poet, I tend to avoid him/her like the plague. Yes, yes, I know it’s stupid and sophomoric and obnoxious. But I’ve just seen too much Luci Shaw in chapel. For a long time, unfortunately, Scott Cairns fell into that category for me, until someone gifted me with a copy of Compass of Affection. Mea culpa: I should have been reading him long ago. None of the tired cliches I worried about. Indeed, not even the “spiritual” fixation I expected.

3. Jeanne Murray Walker, New Tracks, Night Falling. Ditto for Jeanne Murray Walker. And mea culpa redux. Walker and I were both teaching at Regent College last summer. I was immediately charmed by the person, and then when I had the opportunity to hear her read from these poems, I was captivated. Several of these poems were constant companions through a difficult summer. “Adam’s Choice” is probably my favorite but I can’t find it available online. Fortunately another favorite is, “Staying Power“:

In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

2. Michael Robbins in Poetry, December 2010 (The Q&A Issue). This was a late discovery for me. While I was initially skeptical of the very premise of the Q&A issue (if you want to know what a poem means, don’t ask the poet; read the poem), but Robbins’ feisty charm only deepened my delight with his semantic energy lexical play. Give yourself permission to lose yourself for a moment in “I Did This to My Vocabulary” (and then listen to Robbins’ thoughts about the poem):

The moon is my alibi. My tenders throw hissy fits.
My scalp’s at the foot of the precipice.
My lume is spento, there’s a creep in my cellar.
You can stand under my umbrella, Ella.

Who put pubic hair on my headphones?
Who put the ram in Ramallah?
I’m just sitting here spinning my spinning wheels—
where are the snow tires of tomorrow?

The llama is burning! My heart is an ovary!
Let’s chase dawn’s tail across state lines,
sing “Crimson and Clover” over and overy,
till wonders are taken for road signs.

My fish, fast and loose, shoot fish in a kettle.
The boys like the girls who like heavy metal.
On Sabbath, on Slayer, on Maiden and Venom,
on Motörhead, Leppard, and Zeppelin, and Mayhem . . .

1. The Best American Poetry 2009, edited by David Wagoner. It might seem odd to extol one of these stock anthologies as a top pick, but this is just a downright exemplary collection–an almost perfect collection, given the constraints of the series. Wagoner does a masterful job of pulling together a widely representative collection, including both senior and junior poets, stars and up-and-comers, as well as poets from a wide range of regions in the United States. In other words, none of the typical New-York-centrism here. And thankfully, this isn’t another anthology of “the best of recent MFA graduates.” The reader should carefully consider the “Contributors’ Notes and Comments” (45 pages worth!) to gain an appreciation for the breadth represented here. Wagoner also valorizes online publishing by selecting poems that only previously appeared in e-magazines. I’m guessing avant garde aficionados will think their favorites are under-represented; I wish I could muster the sympathy to agree with them.

I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. You’ll find favorites like John Ashberry and Albert Goldbarth and Bob Hicok, as well as less familiar names (at least to me) like Bruce Bond and Jennifer Grotz. At the risk of doing injustice to others in the collection that deserve attention, let me note just one, Grotz’s poem, “The Record”:

Kisses, too, tasted of iron
the year we lived in twilights. They tilted warily
like bags of groceries I’d carry up the stairs
to find you in boxers, the smell of coffee mixed with vinegar
from the bowl of pickle juice you soaked your fingers in
trying to hurry the callouses. We trafficked in the grief
of incompatible day and night, we stretched the hours
as best we could, but mostly we practiced
a kind of starving, excruciating to recall
how hard we tried. I’d unpack the groceries
and tell you about the day, and after dinner
you’d pick out a tune on the guitar
(it was the year you apprenticed to the blues).
Before each night shift, in uniform and socks,
you’d climb into bed and hold me until I fell asleep.
Then you would slip quietly out.
and when I dreamed, I glimpsed the gods in you,
I dreamt you were Hephaestus with the iron forge,
the sweat covering you when you jogged home
was holy, it was the sweat of the whole city,
even the roses, even the bus exhaust.
The mind circles back like a record spinning,
a little molten, a little wobbly, a record
shiny as your black hair, a record player
crackling and stuttering over a scratch, an urge
to ask forgiveness even though it’s dark now
and you’ve already forgiven me.

Favorite Short Stories in 2010

As with almost all of these categories, it’s tough to narrow down to just five favorites, but here goes:

5. Thomas Wolfe, “The Lost Boy,” in The American Short Story, ed. Thomas K. Parkes. I’ve got a big soft spot for Thomas Wolfe, so it’s difficult for me to be objective. This story presages the death of the older brother in Look Homeward, Angel and shows the flashes of energy and passion that characterize Wolfe’s later corpus.

4. Alice Munro, “Corrie,” New Yorker (October 11, 2010). A Saskatchewan affair, but with a Joyce-Carol-Oatesish twist at the end.

3. Jonathan Safran Foer, “How We Aren’t, So Quickly,” in the New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” series. 2 pages of second-person, chronological fireworks on a marriage. Fabulous. Gave me new respect for Foer.

And I have to award a tie for the number 1 spot:

1. Carson McCullers, “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories. Here is one of the tiny treasures of American short fiction–a compressed little hymn to love, sort of Evelyn Waugh with a southern accent, but without his snobbishness or verbosity. What McCullers accomplishes here in about 1700 words took Walker Percy an entire novel. Consider just this little snippet as the old man begins to explain his “science” (starts to make Walker Percy look derivative, doesn’t it?):

“It is this. And listen carefully. I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?”

The boy’s soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.

“A woman,” the old man said. “Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God’s earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?”

“Yeah,” the boy said faintly.

“They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?”

The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.

“Son, do you know how love should be begun?”

The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:

“A tree. A rock. A cloud.”

It was still raining outside in the street: a mild, gray, endless rain. The mill whistle blew for the six o’clock shift and the three spinners paid and went away. There was no one in the café but Leo, the old man, and the little paper boy.

I dream of writing a story that could even be a shadow of McCuller’s accomplishment.

1. David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon,” in Oblivion. In.cred.i.ble. Not sure what else to say. It seems to me that this story is at the core of DFW’s entire corpus and gets at some of the philosophical and literary problems that occupied Wallace over his entire writing career. Here we get the classic stream-of-consciousness reflections of a recent suicide–the proverbial “final thoughts” in which your life flashes before your eyes, but which now seem to come to us as a postmortem missive. Thus Wallace both appropriates and deconstructs the cliche–a common strategy throughout his work. So “Good Old Neon” is a story that is constantly aware of the seeming impossibility of telling one’s story, what the narrator describes as a “paradox”:

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one slit-second’s flash of thoughts and connections, etc.–and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we’re thinking and to find out what they’re thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade and they’re just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.

But maybe that’s just enough.

Favorite Reads in 2010

As per my custom over the last several years, I’ll spend the next week recounting some of my reading highlights from 2010. I used to do this over at What I’m Reading, but having effectively abandoned that blog, I’ll incorporate the tradition here at Fors Clavigera.

I will choose five favorites from four different genres: short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and novels. Only a few of these will be works published in 2010; instead I’m focusing on some of the works that I read in 2010. Watch for them over the next few days.