Archive for December, 2009

Although I’ve made good-faith efforts before, I’ve never read more than a few short story collections in a year. Something changed this year: twelve collections and I enjoyed the hell out of them.

Would recommend to anyone:
The Turning by Tim Winton
I haven’t shut up about this book since I finished it, and I don’t plan on stopping. Winton has an earthy, grounded voice that slid into my head so quickly that I would forget that I was reading within a few sentences of picking it up. That is a very rare happening—I can settle into that state of enchantment through big tense plots and believable characters, but it happens only once every few hundred books due to voice alone. I know close to nothing about Australia, so I don’t know if the settings and situations would be as novel for someone who has visited, but I’m not sure it would matter. His transitions are smooth, I never doubted any story or motivation, and the links between stories were delicate and faint. And my god, the writing.

“Time doesn’t click on and on at the stroke. It comes and goes in waves and folds like water; it flutters and sifts like dust, rises, bellows, falls back on itself. When a wave breaks, the water is not moving. The swell has traveled great distances but only the energy is moving, not the water. Perhaps time moves through us and not us through it. Seeing the Joneses out on the street, the only people I recognized from the old days, just confirmed what I’ve thought since Alan Mannering circled me as his own, pointed me out with his jagged paling and left, that the past is in us, and not behind us. Things are never over.”

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Along with Chaon’s Await Your Reply, this book is on everyone’s best of the year list, and for good reason: Tower’s stories are fresh and funny and exciting at the same time that they are touching and painful. The title story and “Leopard” in particular are worth checking out, even if only while standing up in the new books section and trying to decide if you’re the sort of person who reads short stories. I can think of an image from each story that will stick with me—the aquarium, the woodwork, the guy with the beers at the river.

Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories
Most of these are short and barbed. The long ones are barbed too. They all hooked me right in the throat. Hempel’s work is what I wanted Lydia Davis’s to be (not that Davis is bad: her stories just aren’t what I thought they would be based on the reviews I’d read). This hefty book is full of dogs and mental health issues and the importance of language. Killer sentences and perfect endings, with a few bonus connections between stories (even ones pulled from different books) for the observant.

“I have written letters that are failures, but I have written few, I think, that are lies. Trying to reach a person means asking the same question over and again: Is this the truth, or not? I begin this letter to you, then, in the western tradition. If I understand it, the western tradition is: Put your cards on the table.
This is easier, I think, when your life has been tipped over and poured out. Things matter less; there is the joy of being less polite, and of being less—not more—careful. We can say everything.
Although maybe not. Like in fishing? The lighter the line, the easier it is to get your lure down deep. Having delivered myself of the manly analogy, I see it to be not a failure, but a lie. How can I possibly put an end to this when it feels so good to pull sounds out of my body and show them to you. These sounds—this letter—it is my lipstick, my lingerie, my high heels.
Writing to you fills the days in this place. And sometimes I long for days when nothing happens. ‘Not every clocktick needs a martyr.’”

Also great:
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
I’d been meaning to read this for literally years, but it was never in the used stack, never in the library when I looked for it. It’s a tiny little book, only took me two distracted days. Linked stories of destruction and blasé mayhem by a single narrator—this man has serious substance issues, a total lack of future goals or plans, and a surprising evil streak. Though it was in keeping with their characters, every time one of the men would do something awful, I was shocked because Johnson had pulled me into sympathizing with them again. I also read Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, which owes something to this collection (while not being overly derivative—I enjoyed both), in January. The ending of Johnson’s first story, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” takes my breath away.

“It was raining. Gigantic ferns leaned over us. The forest drifted down a hill. I could hear a creek rushing down among the rocks. And you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you.”

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain
So good and deserving of all the attention it got. Themes that held across stories: characters in dangerous locales who despite their best efforts are mired in naivety, the near impossibility of affecting larger situations regardless of how hard you try, surrender. A couple of the stories weren’t as flawless as the best of the collection, but the good ones make those couple worth it. Again with the initial story being amazing.

How does it feel to be free? They were rising, rising, they might never stop—Blair closed his eyes and let his head roll back, surrendering to the awful weightlessness. Like dying, he wanted to tell them, like death, and how grieved and utterly lost you’d feel as everything precious faded out. That ultimate grief which everyone saves for the end, Blair was spending it, burning through all his reserves as the helicopter bore him away.”

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
I blogged about this one already (though never returned to it because I’m a lazy liar): again, a couple of flawed stories don’t come close to ruining the whole batch. Gaitskill does marvelous things with cold: chilly characters, people frozen into bad patterns, the cooling of relationships. I love the way she writes about sex (especially failed sex) and the tragic incompatibility of characters’ sexual proclivities and what they want in their partners. I also read her Because They Wanted To early in the year but took inadequate notes and remember almost nothing in the wake of the newer collection.

“We were nothing to each other, really. I rarely thought of her, and although she said otherwise, I doubt she thought of me except when she saw me. And yet from time to time, in a little pit with a shimmering curtain, we would discover a room with a false back, and through the trapdoor we would willingly tumble, into a place where we were not a mere addendum to another, more genuine life—a place where we were the life, in this fervid red rectangle or this blue one.”

My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up by Stephen Elliott
Speaking of kink… Only marginally fiction, the most appealing facet of this collection isn’t all the filthy sex (and there is a lot of filthy sex, enough for the book to end up in the Erotica section in some stores), but the harsh honesty about the shortcomings of everyone involved. Broken people breaking each other for the occasional moments of being whole and unbroken together

“I wanted her so badly. I wanted her to adopt me. I could stay in her bed with her and her fiancé who ignored her. I didn’t care. What I really wanted to say was that I loved her and I thought there was a way we could make it work, that there’s a solution to every problem, when of course there isn’t.”

Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
I was ready to dislike this collection because I’m a huge litfic snob with a low tolerance for whimsy and re-imaginings and fairy tales and magical realism. Here’s an even more snobby thing: when something is this good (see also: Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart), I start thinking it’s just that the rest of the genre isn’t well-written enough to make the grade. This is terribly unfair and a character failing on my part, but at least I’m still trying. Right? Hmm.

If I had read individual descriptions of these stories before reading them, I would have guessed that I would hate the very ones I ended up loving. A redo of Cinderella? A man in a hotel beyond the grave? A cousin who can disappear? A ghost in a fucking cello? Pass pass pass pass. And yet.

“I loved you the first time I saw you. Scarecrow, my dear scarecrow, I loved you best of all. Who would have predicted that we would end up here in this hotel? It feels like the beginning of the world. This time, we tell each other, things are going to go exactly as planned. We have avoided the apple in the complimentary fruit basket. When the snake curled around the showerhead spoke to me, I called room service and Miss Ohio, the snake handler, came and took it away. When you are holding me, I don’t feel homesick at all.”

Hit and Miss:
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
My expectation were a bit too high going in here. Quirky stories, but never over the edge into cutesy or kitschy. Okay, maybe once or twice. The final story, “How to Tell Stories to Children,” was a blockbuster. She handles details really well and deals with the sorts of characters who are on the fringes of functionality and are frequently unaware of it—or are using maladaptive coping skills and hanging on as tight as they can given what they have.

“We don’t know anything. We don’t know how to cure a cold or what dogs are thinking. We do terrible things, we make wars, we kill people out of greed. So who are we to say how to love. I wouldn’t force her. I wouldn’t have to. She would want me. We would be in love. What do you know. You don’t know anything. Call me when you’ve cured AIDS, give me a ring then and I’ll listen.”

The Boat by Nam Le
“Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” the first story in the book, is so brilliant that it obliterated the rest of the stories in the collection. They didn’t stand a chance. Other than a few sections of the one set in Tehran and the Vietnamese boat people piece, I was forcing myself through. No comparison at all. That first story is a fucking killer. It gets two quotes:

“If you ask me why I came to Iowa, I would say that Iowa is beautiful in the way that any place is beautiful: if you treat it as the answer to a question you’re asking yourself every day, just by being there.”

“At sixteen I left home. There was a girl, and crystal meth, and the possibility of greater loss than I had imagined possible. She embodied everything prohibited by my father and plainly worthwhile. Of course he was right about her: she taught me hurt—but promise too. We were two animals in the dark, hacking at one another, and never since have I felt that way—that sense of consecration.”

One of the few books I abandoned this year was a short story collection, Paul Yoon’s Once the Shore. I can’t really explain why these stories never caught me (I got to page 85 before it was due and I didn’t check it back out) as they are intricate and polished. Maybe too polished? I didn’t feel anything for the characters, even as I realized the mastery with which Yoon was moving them through their stories. There is also the possibility that I picked it up at the wrong time—readers I generally agree with admired it.

I’m going to try to keep up with the collections in 2010 and have a list of them to get around to. A sampling: Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys, Barrett’s Servants of the Map, Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Winton’s two other collections if I can find them, and DFW’s Oblivion, which I stopped myself from finishing early this year so I’d still have it waiting for me. Further recommendations are welcome.


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“It is necessary to respect what we discard.”

I did not like Underworld. DeLillo has written two books that I love: White Noise and Libra both blew me away. I expected the same from Underworld despite warnings that it wasn’t worth the time or energy. But I have a copy, a big hardcover 860-page brick, and it’s on all the lists (bestseller, National Book Award nominee, runner-up for the New York Times best book of the last 25 years), and it’s this and that and really, how could I not at least try? Besides, I have a hard time getting rid of books, regardless of how good the home they will go to, until I’ve read them. I picked it up in late February or early March, settled in for a long slow read while I read other books in the foreground.

“Pain is just another form of information.”

The book starts with the 1951 Giants v. Dodgers game which I only know from the screaming “the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” broadcast. Baseball: not my sport. Sports: not my subject. It will get better after the game, I told myself as I slogged through the long first chapter. At a couple of pages a day, even baseball is readable. (Now that I’m thinking about it, The Brothers K by David James Duncan was about baseball and was fantastic.)

“Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.”

How beautiful is that? There are lovely sentences here and there throughout the novel, graceful paragraphs, even a few whole sections that pulled me in. It wasn’t enough for the length, and the scattershot bits of plot didn’t pull together enough for me to get hooked on the story or characters. “If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock.” At some point around page 600, I started to tire of even the characters I liked. I had a brief conversation about big books recently, and though I defended them, I can see how this one just went and went for the sake of going.

“We were restless and grasping, we were a fling that had run intermittently for two years only because we lived in different cities, and we were religious in our attachment to risk, and she was the last thing I needed in this world.”

The point at which I liked Underworld the most was right after I finished it, when I read reviews and the Wikipedia page. The four-paragraph Wikipedia plot summary almost made me change my mind about the book—not because it explained plot points that I had missed or added to my understanding, but because, stripped of the literally hundreds of pages of extraneous scenes, DeLillo has a fierce little story with a handful of interesting characters. They were so diluted by everything else, however, that it took the summary and a few reviews for me to acknowledge that.

There are things I’m not writing about this year. There are stories I spent a couple of weeks in, got to know the characters of, saw images for, and dreamed about that I abandoned because they were too close to the things I’m not writing about. I read Underworld for most of this year, and the book revolves around themes that I tripped over the whole time: loss, risk, and waste. Sentences like the ones above and below would come along and touch/punch me, but then we were back to 20-page discursions with minor characters. Maybe, a different year, I wouldn’t have been so disappointed.

“I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.”

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I had a moment at the library earlier today when one of the nice librarians handed me a stack of requested novels. All this literature, for free, to my desired location. She seemed a little confused by it, but I handed over (for the donation box) all the change the parking meter graciously spit out at me–two dollars more than the quarter I put in.

Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. About halfway done (this is a substantial book), and though I like the protagonist, there is something overworked about occasional paragraphs and not-urgent about the plot that keeps me from bolting whole chapters. I’m about to run out of time on my check-out, but I’ll request it again and finish it off.
Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet. So into it. A good sign: I had a prolonged and involved dream about avoiding spoilers for the novel. In my ideal subconscious universe, one has to work hard to avoid public discussion of literature. A few months ago, I woke up with a flaming message from dreamland that I must read Jim Harrison. Harrison wasn’t on any of my booklists; I hadn’t heard an interview with him and couldn’t remember a single fact or title of his. But something snuck in, and I respect that. Up next, when I clear out my request queue: The Road Home.
David Copperfield by Dickens is my new slow-read. Why? It’s huge, and I could do with that space on the fiction shelves. (And it seemed more night-reading friendly, on first paragraph, than the other big books I was considering.)
You Don’t Love Me Yet by Jonathan Lethem. Loaner from Ian/Mo, and they weren’t kidding, the pages fly past. I feel like I’ve been reading for all of seven minutes, yet I’m more than a third done. Light, but not in a way that feels like I’m wasting my time. I’m not quite a Lethem fanboy (I’m told I should check out Fortress of Solitude to rectify that)–a couple of his other books bothered me in ways this one is not.
–just picked up today: Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply, and Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher. Using any time-management reading strategy* at all, I would start the Jelinek, get maybe 30 pages in, then read Morrison in a day, and only then pick up the Chaon. But oh, I love Dan Chaon’s books and everyone else has to wait.

–books on request, a long sentence with parallelism problems: still waiting for Houellebecq fan to return The Possibility of an Island, the yearlong battle with a Winnicott hater for Home Is Where We Start From continues (seriously, she has started making snarky comments in the margins about his penis during the interims when she request-snatches it back from me), The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller (I gave up on The Appointment, hoping this one is more accessible), Asterios Polyp is on all sorts of best lists so I’m joining in, the new Mary Karr memoir Lit (only 45 people ahead of me in line!), Cynthia Ozick’s Art & Ardor because someone mentioned it on Twitter, and the memoir A Sorrow Beyond Dreams by Peter Handke because Stephen Elliott gave it a great write-up.
–at home: several Tim Winton books (really, again, The Turning, magnificent, check it out), one of the two Meg Wolitzer books I have, Salter’s Light Years, still with Toibin’s The Master (though I feel like I should read James’s The Ambassadors first because I picked it up for a quarter last week and why not). I looked over my shoulder at the bookshelf to see what else and was overwhelmed. Everything.
–trying to finish up my thoughts on Underworld tomorrow and formulate some on Gravity’s Rainbow as an excuse to batter the internet with quotes. I’m considering a year-end list, but there are weeks left to go, and who knows, maybe something marvelous will come along before then.

*That sounds like a great heap of fun, doesn’t it? Yet it doesn’t seem to suck any of the enjoyment or magic out of my reading, only allow for more of it.

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