At long last, the end: it was hard to write most of these, to figure out a way to gush without saying the same things over and over again. I gave up and used the heady adjectives (lovely lovely beautiful) often—they are accurate.
lovely lyrical novels:
Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
Oh how I loved the first half of this. And I very much liked the second half. It spun off at the end (particularly the last 20 pages or so), but I’m still going to decide I liked it a lot. The writing is consistently impressive and dense, but never in a way that was a chore to read. Content-wise, this is a tough sell: child sexual abuse, suicide, shame like a shroud over everything. A reviewer somewhere said it’s the most beautiful writing about child abuse ever, and I agree. Horrible subject, gorgeous sentences. I’m looking forward to Chee’s second novel (later this year?).
Do you remember what it was like, to be young? You do. Was there any innocence there? No. Things were exactly what they looked like. If anyone tries for innocence, it’s the adult, moving forward, forgetting. If innocence is ignorance of the capacity for evil, then it’s what adults have, when they forget what it’s like to be a child. When they look at a child and think of innocence they are thinking of how they can’t remember what that feels like.
Lark & Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips
It took me almost 150 pages to get hooked on this book (and multiple renewals from the library), but those last 100 pages absolutely flew—I finished it in one long sitting. Lark and Termite are siblings from the same mother: Lark at 17 takes care of Termite, a few years younger, who is thoroughly disabled but also gifted in some occasionally supernatural ways. The aunt, Nonie, who is raising them, also gets her own sections, as does Robert, Termite’s father, in Korea during the massacre at No Gun Ri. The sections with Nonie/Lark/Termite take place during a few days in 1959, with flashbacks to Korea ten years before. For a book that felt static to me for so long, there is a lot of plot (I didn’t realize how much until I sat down to write up my notes on it) and layered relationships that were complex but organic. Bonus points for an unbelievably beautiful ending with Termite’s shadowy perspective; a hot, weird—and unexpected—sex scene, and at least in hardback, a fantastic cover design.
The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa
I’ve now tried and discarded a dozen sentences right here, so I’m going to try again in small pieces that won’t help anyone decide if they are interested in the book or not. The parts of this book I liked caused me to think about my life in a different way. The parts I didn’t like I could barely keep my eyes open for. This happened before with Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name. Both books influenced me to make decisions that I’m not sure were the best ones, but they were the choices that felt right at the time. The books were like friends urging me to follow my instincts. I’m not sure if they are the sorts of friends I should be listening to. (Parts I liked: the relationship, the setting, the peripheral characters and their situations. The other parts: the politics and the history, both of which felt insufficiently tied to the primary story.) I can’t tell you if this is a good book or a great book or a bad book: it was so personally affecting that I have no perspective on it.
It was enough for me to see her to realize that, despite my knowing that any relationship with the bad girl was doomed to failure, the only thing I really wanted in life with the passion others bring to the pursuit of fortune, glory, success, power, was having her, with all her lies, entanglements, egotism, and disappearances.
You’re very nice but you have a terrible defect: lack of ambition. You’re satisfied with what you have, aren’t you? But it isn’t anything, good boy.
read too much/high expectation ruination:
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
I want to like Winterson so much more than I do, and I keep trying, following the recommendation trail. I woke up excited one morning, fresh from a dream realization that I did really like her books, the ones about British lesbians . . . that are written by Sarah Waters.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
I’m coming around a bit in that I’m glad I read it, but when asked about The Falling Man a few days ago (which I haven’t read), I realized that it might have permanently put me off DeLillo.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The first of a few that are really good books, but came with so much hype that it would have been a miracle if they survived the expectations I had for them. It’s a tiny book, full of neat, tight writing. I had a hard time keeping the characters distinct. Had I not been waiting for a Life-Changing Literary Experience the whole time, I think I would have loved this rather than liking it thoroughly.
I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending though the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than an actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
All of the above, minus the “tiny” part. Ian and others warned me that the book doesn’t answer all the questions it raises (or even resolve the basic conflicts—I don’t expect answers or clean conclusions). Again, I had a good time reading this, falling repeatedly into dozens-of-pages sprees when I meant to sit down and read for a few minutes at most. At 600+ pages, there is room for that sort of reverie. After the last page, however, I feel like it missed the fantastic mark for me by not giving back enough for the time and attention and thought that I gave it. I’m working with a bias against magical realism, too, so I’m not sure there is a way that the novel could have been a complete success for me. Several scenes—and not just the horrific ones—will stick with me for years.
I was the chain that bit into my ankle, and I was the ruthless guard that never slept.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
There is no way to write with any detail about my problems with this novel without spoiling it, so I’ll stick to this: I didn’t believe it. My belief was suspended, frequently, to the point that I couldn’t even commit to the characters after around the mid-point. This surprised me: I love Moore, love everything I’ve ever read by her, own five of her books, and made reading goals for 2010 that will allow me to reread all five. I’m not sure what happened with this one, and I’m tempted to pretend that it’s not there, especially after my recent reread of Self-Help, which has held up beautifully.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
After having to read All the Pretty Horses for a class, I swore I would never read McCarthy again. We are a bad match, and I know much of what I dislike about his writing is what others admire. So I had no plans to read The Road, but then everyone and everyone raved about it, and there was a loaner copy floating around, and I caved. I admit: I wanted to know what was going to happen next pretty much the entire way through, and finished the book quickly. It was scary and tense. I did not hate it. However: the movie trailer had more characterization (have not and am not planning to see the movie), the plot is on a loop (road, hungry, find a place, hide, road), the huge gaps got in the way, and his stylistic choices—lack of punctuation, breaks between each paragraph, dialogue consisting of the same 20 words for nearly 300 pages—drove me up the wall. Also, I was comparing it to Jim Crace’s The Pesthouse (another post-apocalyptic American roadtrip novel), which I liked and used apostrophes, the entire time.
No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This one hurts the most to write. I liked everything about the book, dug the voice and the tone and the characters and nerd-cultural touches and the history I knew nothing about. I even cried a little at the end. So what’s the problem? I read it too late: for over a year I heard about how perfect the novel is, and I had my own high hopes going in (based on how much I loved Diaz’s Drown). It was merely fabulous, only great. It’s 98% perfect, and I would recommend it to anyone (has anyone not read this yet?). It’s not Diaz’s fault this book isn’t in my next section—it’s mine for reading literally a dozen reviews before I read the book. Next one, I swear, I’ll read on release.
Love Invents Us by Amy Bloom
I think this was the only book I reread in 2009, and only because Lorelei Lee mentioned rereading this after every breakup in The Rumpus, and it was on the shelf, so I grabbed it. It yanked tears out of me several times, great barbed waves of them at the beginning and end. I love the aimless floundering of the main character (and the way Bloom explores failure), the inability to figure out how to make connections. Good stuff all around, and exactly what I needed at the time I read it—that’s something all the remaining novels share: in addition to being beautiful books, they were the books I needed at the time they showed up.
He read the first one all the way through and breathed in the love, that hot, hurting feeling under your ribs, love that made him sneak out of his barracks and slide past his cracker sergeant, risking court-martial for one of Arlene’s kisses through a chain-link fence, going to sleep with a rust-flecked diamond pressed into his face. Love that made life matter, even when you were just looking back at it.
And surely I cannot tell him that I’m no more good for me or for him than I ever was, that I will disappoint and confuse him, that I’ve been alone my whole life, and that it may really be too hard and too late, not even desirable, after such long, familiar cold, to be known, and heard, and seen.
The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer
Lyrical, suspenseful, lovely. He worked on my assumptions repeatedly (in a way that no book since Oscar and Lucinda, that heartbreaking bastard, has), then kept a fairly quiet story so taut that I could scarcely stand to put it down at the cliffhangers. All with unceasingly beautiful language, and like he was giving me a little gift, a few jabs at Fresno. I’ve tried shoving this book on friends, but it’s hard to do without giving away any of what made it so surprising and fulfilling.
Instead, we hid our fears. Just as my mother hid a lock of her dead brother’s hair in the throat of her high-collared Sunday dress, in a pocket she had sewn there. You cannot go around in grief and panic every day; people will not let you, they will coax you with tea and tell you to move on, bake cakes and paint walls. You can hardly blame them; after all, we learned long ago that the world would fall apart and the cities would be left to the animals and the clambering vines if grief, like a mad king, were allowed to ascend the throne. So what you do is you let them coax you. You bake the cake and paint the wall and smile; you buy a new freezer as if you now had a plan for the future. And secretly—in the early morning—you sew a pocket in your skin. At the hollow of your throat. So that every time you smile, or nod your head at a teacher meeting, or bend over to pick up a fallen spoon, it presses and pricks and stings and you know you’ve not moved on. You never even planned to.
Really now, how can you not read it after that?
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
Another case of good timing—I really liked this little book, and in a year full of more serious and somber novels, it was the standout comic work. The narrator is stuck, while en route to his estranged gay daughter’s wedding, in O’Hare after a series of routine flight disasters. The history of his relationship with his daughter and her mother comes out over the course of a very funny letter to the airline describing the hell of being stuck overnight in an airport, summarizing his life and work as a translator, and roughly translating chunks of the Polish novel he has with him. Endearing, hilarious, and well-managed.
for the funny, I give you this:
Perhaps my beef is actually with Senor Fabio Eurotrash who rolled off a foam-strewn Ibiza dancefloor at six A.M. with sixteen Red-Bull-and-vodkas still fizzing in his gut and whose clumsy pre-takeoff attempt at self-fellatio in Seat 3A forced an interminable delay while his pretzeled ass was removed from the plane.
for the touching balance, this:
’I mean, how can one puny word like that encompass all the shit you did—I don’t mean you, I mean us, everyone, me—but also all the, all the things you didn’t do? It’s the inactions that keep you up at night. The actions, they’re done. They’re done. The inactions, they never go away. They just hang there. They rot. How is sorry supposed to stretch across all that?’
Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers
I’ve heard (good lord have I heard) all the problems that people have with Powers: he overwrites, his characters are stiff, his situations strange. And I can see that—sometimes he lapses into a strange poetic language that doesn’t quite fit, and there have been times when I disliked particular characters or was taken off guard by plot twists in the two novels (this one and The Echo Maker) I’ve read. None of those factors come close to denting my enjoyment at reading what are primarily books about big ideas. Generosity made me think about the nature of happiness and what it means that I prefer realist fiction—and why we even call it that when nothing is ever that explicable in reality. I’ve said and heard the thought “it’s too bad that [thing that actually happened] wouldn’t be believable in fiction,” and I can’t count the number of times in my own stories or stories I’m critiquing that an event that occurred has been highlighted as unbelievable. The amount of coincidence and happenstance present in most lives knocks them clean out of literary fiction. Powers also digs around in ideas about happiness, exploring why, if happiness is such a good thing, humans are not set up genetically to feel it as often as would seem optimal. In the background, smaller ideas spin: celebrity, writing advice in the age of blogs, the role of money in science, and how the constant stream of information affects the timelines of stories and their responses. I came out of this book thoroughly satisfied with the story and characters, questioning some assumptions I had about all the above topics, and eager to continue reading both Powers and outside works on the topics he wrote about.
This is what the Algerian tells me: live first, decide later. Love the genre that you most suspect. Good judgment will spare you nothing, least of all your life. Flow, words: there’s only one story, and it’s filled with doubles. The time for deciding how much you like it is after you’re dead.
Right around Elkhart, Russell concludes that truth laughs at narrative design. Realism—the whole threadbare patch job of consoling conventions—is like one of those painkillers that gets you addicted without helping anything. In reality, a million things happen all at once for no good reason, until some idiot texting on his cell plows into you on the expressway in northern Indiana. The End. Not exactly The Great Gatsby. Sales: zip. Critical response: total bewilderment. A failed avant-garde experiment. Not even a decent allegory. Even the cutout bin doesn’t want it.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
I would fail a quiz on Gravity’s Rainbow. There are elements that were completely beyond my comprehension, a hundred things I’m sure I missed. I expected to miss even more. In the midst of all my confusion, however, I found several stories and characters and countless images that are going to stay with me forever. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I can think of, and I could talk for an hour about the things that aggravated me, but I can recommend any single page to everyone—Pynchon blew me away with his sentences, page by page, and I found myself reading lines aloud constantly, excited and stunned with what he was doing with words.
While neo-Potemkins ranged the deep Arctic for her, skilled and technocratic wolves erecting settlements out of tundra, entire urban abstractions out of the ice and snow, bold Tchitcherine was back at the capital, snuggled away in her dacha, where they played at fisherman and fish, terrorist and State, explorer and edge of the wave-green world.
She may know a little, may think of herself, face and body, as ‘pretty’ . . . but he could never tell her all the rest, how many other living things, birds, nights smelling of grass and rain, sunlit moments of simple peace, also gather in what she is to him. Was. He is losing more than single Jessica: he’s losing a full range of life, of being for the first time at ease in the Creation. Going back to winter now, drawing back into his single envelope. The effort it takes to extend any further is more than he can make alone.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
The only book to make it into my dreams while I was reading it last year—appropriate, because “dreamlike” is how I would describe it. Not the standard hazy magical version, either, but like my personal dreams. I recognize the characters (though they aren’t acting exactly like themselves as I know them), the setting seems familiar (if tilted five degrees off of reality), and although I’m along for the ride, nothing is happening the way that it should and always has and I am powerless to stop or predict it. And when they are over, I sit up and think, what the hell was that? and can’t get it out of my head.
The novel is weird, enthralling, and so unpredictable that I couldn’t have guessed what was going to happen on the next page if my life depended on it. A thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, and one that is pushing me to Millet’s other books.
Suffering ignites the spark of contact with the sublime and offers proof of humanity, he was thinking. He wondered why it had been given to him to see history unfold, when it would have been so much more usual to die.
Powerful people have the luxury of designing the way they suffer, he thought, while the weak have the manner of their suffering forced upon them. But neither category has much daily business with happiness.
It is suffering, he thought, that is the engine of transfiguration, a hub around which the captive self turns.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
A creepy, tightly interwoven tale of identity and how we recognize each other. There are glowing reviews everywhere about this, and unlike with Oscar Wao, I had the good sense to ignore most of them until after I read the book. Trying to write down the basic plot for my notes nearly did me in, yet I didn’t have a moment of confusion while reading. I got to a point in the book where I recognized that I wouldn’t be able to sleep until I finished, both because it gets scary and the narrative pull was strong enough to throw me off my usual patterns. One of the very few books I could imagine gifting to my most hardcore litfic friends, the primarily nonfiction occasional reader pals I have, and my genre-junkie family members.
And you wipe the snow out of your hair and get back into your car and drive off toward an accumulation of the usual daily stuff—there is dinner to be made and laundry to be done and helping the kids with their homework and watching television on the couch with the dog resting her muzzle in your lap and a phone call you owe to your sister in Wisconsin and getting ready for bed, brushing and flossing and a few different pills that help to regulate your blood pressure and thyroid and a facial scrub that you apply and all the rituals that are—you are increasingly aware—units of measurement by which you are parceling out your life.
A Mercy by Toni Morrison
All of the reviews in the world couldn’t get me to this beautiful little gem of a book until it swept the Tournament of Books last year. At the same time that it’s a one-sitting novel-ette margin-stretched to fill its pages, it’s as heavy and devastating as a novel three times its length. Although I haven’t read Beloved yet (I know, I know), I did get through a decent amount of Morrison in college: Sula, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, and then Love a few years ago on my own. None of it did much for me, and Love was the last straw. So thanks, ToB, for grabbing me by the shoulders and shaking me until I listened. It’s short, it’s lovely, it has a perfect ending, and it will take you maybe two hours to read. The first chapter is rough going in terms of understanding plot events that haven’t occurred yet, but the voices alternate and it’s only a few pages long, so stick with it.
Is this dying mine alone? Is the clawing feathery thing the only life in me? You will tell me. You have the outside dark as well. And when I see you and fall into you I know I am live. Sudden it is not like before when I am always in fright. I am not afraid of anything now. The sun’s going leaves darkness behind and the dark is me. Is we. Is my home.
and two perfect novels:
Stoner by John Williams
For my internet demographic, Stoner is the 2009 literary equivalent of surprise kitty, as close litblogs and book sites get to a firestorm of a book meme. Before 2009, I had maybe heard of it once or twice, probably skimming blogs (not following the linked reviews), but I couldn’t have told you a thing about it, from author to any idea of the story. And that’s how it should be. Very little happens in Stoner, and I’m glad I knew almost nothing about it other than readers and writers that I respect could hardly get the words out they were so moved by the book. I could tell you specific things I appreciated, but that would entail me telling you everything about the book, and then picking up the book and reading every single page out loud. A growing crowd of serious readers love this book; I’m joining them in proclaiming it perfect.
The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print—the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.
Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
My very helpful notes for Out Stealing Horses, in their entirety: “flawless.” There isn’t a word of this short book that I would wish changed. I’m not going to describe the plot or the characters (it’s difficult to think of a book that sounds as dull in description—maybe Stoner), but only say that after it was over, I felt like I had lost a life that I never lived, had lost a person who never existed. I’ve felt that a few times before—at the end of Infinite Jest, at the end of The Magic Mountain (oh god, Hans Castorp), Lolita, and Love in the Time of Cholera. When I think of those books, the first jolt of remembrance that comes to me isn’t of my reading experience or the quality of the prose or plot, but a stab of grief over losing people I knew and loved. I don’t know if Out Stealing Horses has what it takes to be a classic or if it will resonate with as many people, but Petterson gave me an entire world in one character. I can’t ask for more than that.