January 16, 2010
JC: We’re all very well aware that every newspaper, magazine, blog and website is seemingly required to list their 10 or 15, or whatever number of “best books” of the year. I guess this is kind of like that, but somewhat more amorphous. I don’t know if these are the best, and I’m not asking the guys for a specific number (hell, they don’t even have to be from 2009 – we’re rule-breakers here), but here are a few of the books I’m particularly glad to have read this year, that may or may not have been mentioned here on the blog.
- In The Valley Of The Kings by Terrence Holt – Intriguing and taut, Holt’s stories reveal him as a master. The stories in this collection are sophisticated and quietly twisted. Haunting and Poe-like.
- The Great Perhaps by Joe Meno – This was the first of JM’s books that I’ve read, though he’s been on the wish list for quite some time. As enjoyable as promised, if a story about a slowly disintegrating family can be enjoyable.
- Far Bright Star by Robert Olmstead – Olmstead continues to echo McCarthy in this story of cavalryman Napoleon Childs, leader of a party of horsemen hunting Pancho Villa. Ambushed, tortured, and forced to come to a reckoning about the path of his life and the inevitability of death, Napoleon plays the soldier philosopher. RO’s writing is brutal and lyrical.
- All The Living by C.E.Morgan – A lean, deceptively simple novel about a couple attempting to run a farm in Kentucky. A timeless air invades this book – it could be set in the 30’s or the 90’s. Subtly theological and almost ballad-like, I’ve thought about this book quite a few times since my initial reading. Highly recommended.
JR: It wasn’t about new books; certainly there have been hundreds, if not thousands that I should have read. I was sent a manuscript for a debut that will turn a lot of heads this summer called Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross. It’s an arresting piece of writing, combining cinematic genres, pulp mysteries, and insane details, with a strong whiff of the suburban discomfort found in the world of Raymond Carver. This brings me to the Carver Bio, which I touted to my accounts in September and got a lot of “yeah-yeah’s” in response, now look at it. 2009 was a year for me to discover John Cheever and John Updike, writers from a different time, legends, one who passed away, and the other whose life was documented in a lengthy biography. I realized that Cheever and his short stories spoke to me as a man, husband, father, in the same way the Don Draper spoke to me for thirteen weeks during the third season of Mad Men. That this life I’m living is not a fairy tale, as we are made to believe as teenagers, marriage is hard, life is harder, and the human experience is weird and constantly evolving, changing, disappointing, and thrilling. John Updike taught me things about being a writer; subtlety, voice, character, and point of view. All of this has helped me with my own writing, and in a way, Updike’s different characters spoke to my subconscious, where all men, husbands and fathers are riddled with self doubt, insecurity and wonder. I suppose all of this is to say that, through reading these old chestnuts I learned something about myself.
JE: We’re steeped in a lot of contemporary fiction around here, but we all do our best to mix in some dead guys. Here’s a couple things by dead guys I revisited this year that I didn’t blog about:
The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Everybody ought to at least dabble in Emerson’s essays on self-reliance, character, history, heroism, nature, and whatever else Emerson wants to spout about. The guy is as American as monster trucks—maybe even more! I make it a point to re-visit them every couple of years, and maybe tackle a new one. Here’s a little something from RWE’s essay on the intellect I happened upon recenlty, which I think I’ll tape above my desk for every time I’m lost in the early stages of a novel:
“All our progress is an unfolding, like the vegetable bud. You have first an instinct, then an opinion, then a knowledge, as the plant has root, bud, and fruit. Trust the instinct to the end, though you can render no reason. It is vain to hurry it. By trusting it to the end, it shall ripen into truth, and you shall know why you believe.”
A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley: Just about any writer is fundamentally Shakespearean or Dickensian in their approach to character. Faulkner: Shakespearean. Twain: Dickensian. Shakespeare is concerned with big characters exerting their influence on the world, Dickens with small characters upon whom the world is exerting its influence. Exley is decidedly Dickensian. His characters are small people operating in a big world.
While Exley’s voice is at times as ribald as Bukowski (I’m reminded of the singular, almost sacrosanct respect reserved by Mr. Blue for the mysterious and daunting possibility of cunnilingus), Exley’s insights into the squalid business of alcoholism, mental illness, and abject failure, are far more nuanced, distilled, and textured than anything from the imagination Bukowski. For anyone who liked our coverage of Patrick DeWitt’s Ablutions, or Joshua Mohr’s Some Things That Meant the World to Me, do yourself a favor, and read A Fan’s Notes.
And finally, here’s some stuff I read this year online, by people very much alive:
The Nervous Breakdown.com: Our friend Brad Listi has built a wonderful online venue for both up-and-comers, and established writers—one of the best, frankly, this 3 guy has ever seen. All year long I’ve read short fiction and narrative non-fiction, and yes, even a little poetry, at TNB. Some of my favorites this year came from Ben Loory, D.R. Haney, Greg Olear, Irene Zion (and her daughter Lenore), Alexander Chee, Erika Rae, Zara Potts, Rich Ferguson, our own 3 guy Jason Rice. If you’re not familiar with any of these names, you will be. And if if you haven’t browsed TNB 3.0, by all means do. Communities like TNB, along with Richard Nash’s forthcoming Cursor, are a big part of the future of publishing.
DH: I. I’m finishing up a reading of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room by the wonderful Other Press as 2009 closes out. It turns out to be the most satisfactory novel that I’ve read this year. It’s a wonder if a book can substitute serious diversion for the utter crap of pop culture and catch a sea change in my feelings.
The Glass Room is historical fiction. We’re in 1920’S – 30’s about-to-be-carved-up Czechoslovakia. An extraordinary modern house has been built by a German architect for the Landauers, who own and run Central Europe’s leading car company.
The house, built into the side of a hill, is “upside down”. The main floor is down the hill and down some curved stairs from the entry floor. It features an expanse of plate glass. The view becomes the room.
Chrome columns and white walls animate the space. In a bold touch of luxury in all this spartan coolness, there’s an onyx wall. When its veiny texture catches the light just right, it gives off reflected tree and maze-like patterns like an early Mondrian.
The room is the novel’s touch of allegory: a lens of rational coolness, of the scientific can-do spirit, of modern style detachment from prejudice and the politics of rage.
Would you want to live in such a room? Could you? When the Landauer’s move into their now world-famous, contemporary home, the lens has something to look at. And it’s not something rational and orderly. Messy human lives are laid out for you by the voice of the authorial third person narrator, a voice that’s a kind of analogue to the egg-like glasraum.
Mawer’s voice has become a centering paradigm for me. It displays a compassionate neutrality that carefully spins out a tale, making you long to turn to the next page. It’s quietly sympathetic…detached. Balanced. It’s unshaken by the traumatic events that it relates.
Watch as a lapidary fearfulness engulfs the characters while he who tells the tale remains as clear-minded as the light in the glass room. How much it means to be rational! How little it means! What a writer’s writer!
II. Contre Emerson: I love Montaigne. Emerson preaches. Montaigne never. Perhaps all essayists in democracies end up as preachers. Perhaps Montaigne, the citizen of a much more authoritarian society, didn’t dare. But I don’t think he wanted to.
I love Montaigne for saying if you lived through your day, that’s enough. Never mind this American cult of the piling up of tasks.
That’s not to say that Montaigne wasn’t active. He just wasn’t busy. He served as mayor of his town for awhile and did well. He stayed in good standing with the Catholic church and with the King, who esteemed his service, at a time of civil and religious wars. He got on with these absolutist authorities and still managed to be himself.
MM had a library of about 400 books. I have more than ten times that many. But he used his books ten times better than I have used mine.
Montaigne invented a literary form, the modern essay. It was the fashion in his time to show that you could quote ancient authorities. And Montaigne does this by pulling references out of his 400 books.
I’m elated he does this. I’ve heard some wonderful old stories in his essays. I got the feeling that MM got bored with this practice from time to time. But it was the fashion, his readers expected it. So he did it. It’s the courtier culture in him, I suppose. The desire to be gracious and to please. Not a bad thing. Try to find that in art or with your friends over a beer.
It moves me that although MM documented his temperament in his essays, his reactions to his world, it’s 16th century gossip (still interesting) and even his digestion, when it comes time for him to die, that takes place offstage.
This was the year that I read the Complete Essays of Montaigne in the Donald Frame translation. Having completed the whole compendious volume, I’ve started it all over again. Montaigne is my friend. In his writing is his voice. To read him is to talk to him. It’s the art of individuality without egotism. Such a pleasure to take.
III. An example of compassionate neutrality in the writer’s voice (Mawer) and individuality in writing without egotism (Montaigne). That’s what I’m taking into my reading and writing next year. But JC gave the Guys three shots each in this post.
In late 2009, I joined the Center for Fiction.
If you invented this founding story, it would sound like the premise for a Matthew Pearl mystery. An old fashioned private library, the kind you joined by subscription in the 19th century, the kind of place where Bartleby the Scrivener might have been a member, ekes out a musty existence in the 20th century and evolves into the Center for Fiction in the 21st.
The Center still functions as a library, collecting fiction and sheltering its readers in a classic old world reading room. It hosts talks by writers and discussion groups. It even provides low cost space for writers who need a quiet getaway in order to do their jobs. In every way, it is dedicated to the art of fiction.
So dust off those cobwebs and tell those old bookworms to watch what they’re biting. The Center for Fiction’s website also recently became cool.