In 2009, after reading all of the fiction in The New Yorker, I posted one massive year-in-review post with very brief thoughts about each story. In 2010, I posted an individual page for each story (though with one main index page), which allowed me to write more and also allowed others to leave comments as the year passed. I have not been particularly pleased with either approach, as much as I have enjoyed reading the fiction and sharing my thoughts. My 2009 method didn’t allow anyone else to share in the journey. My 2010 method was too much in the background of this site, so I don’t think some people who would have liked to share comments ever knew about it. So, in 2011 I am going to post my thoughts on this main page, and I’ll still use the same index page. There will be drawbacks with this method, too. One I see right away is that the discussion here will begin only after I have read the story. On the 2010 forum several readers regularly beat me to the stories but had a place here to share their thoughts. Also, this method will require more frequent posting on my blog’s main page, and book reviews (the regular meat) will be pushed down quicker, maybe before commenters are able to respond (for example, Eric Siblin’s great The Cello Suites will be pushed below this review after less than a day at the top). I dread that this will make this blog a respository of my thoughts only, but I hope there will still be plenty of commentary. All of this could be made worse since I have similar plans to start posting reviews of other short stories I read through the year (rather than only review collections).
I’m excited to begin the new year with a story by one of my favorites, Steven Millhauser, whose Pulitzer-winning Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer is sadly underread. Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. “Getting Closer” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s January 3, 2011, issue.
Click for a larger image.
Millhauser’s short stories are often quite short, and this one is no exception, but in just a few columns he manages to pack more than most other do in ten of the magazine’s pages. In “Getting Closer” we closely follow the thoughts and perceptions of a young boy who is excited because the day he waits for each year – the day when his family goes to the river — has finally arrived, almost. Here is Millhauser’s opening sentence.
He’s nine going on ten, skinny-tall, shoulder blades pushing out like things inside a paper bag, new blue bathing suit too tight here, too loose there, but what’s all that got to do with anything?
At the end of the story, we may come to think that those details matter quite a bit, not because they are important to the plot (they aren’t) but because those details are a part of this moment and this moment a part of this young boy’s life.
This is the beginning of a very simple story. The first few columns are a lush description of everything around them. The boy notices and relishes everything, and we are taken into his mind:
In the picnic basket he can see two packages of hot dogs, jars of relish and mustard, some bun ends showing, a box of Oreo cookies, a bag of marshmallows which are marshmellows so why the “a,” paper plates sticking up sideways, a brown folded-over paper bag of maybe cherries.
Still, though the day has arrived, the boy doesn’t think the day at the river really begins until he steps into the river. His older sister has already jumped in and is calling to him, but he’s not sure he wants to enter. Unlike the typical story, this is not leading to a drowning. The boy is simply struck by the realization that when he steps into the river, the moment will begin, and then it will be over: “He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose somehting if the day begins.” I remember when as a child I first realized that if Christmas actually arrived that would mean it was close to being over. Consequently, I soon wished that the moments before would never end, even if that meant Christmas never came. As an adult, the peace of a vacation has often been endangered by the realization that, once began, it would soon be over. And each New Year is filled with hope, but subverted by the realization that with the passing of a year a bit of life is gone: my child will never be this age again — it’s over, the nine-year-old is gone forever.
However, in “Getting Closer,” Millhauser inflicts this child with all of this plus the terrible intimations of mortality. This child has “seen something he isn’t supposed to see, only grownups are allowed to see it.” This is, then, the day this young boy – who is nine going on ten, whose shoulder blades are pushing out like things inide a paper bag, and whose new blue bathing suit is too tight her and too loose there — realizes he and everyone he loves is going to die:
If he goes into the river he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything that matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you’re using things up. The day starts slipping away behind you. He wants to stay on this side of things, to hold it right here. A nervousness comes over him, a chilliness in the sun. In a moment the day will begin to end. Things will rush away behind him. The day he’s been waiting for is practically over. He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere. It’s right there in the beginning. They don’t tell you about it. It’s hidden away in things. Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.
The ending, after that very peaceful beginning, is a rush of emotion. It’s a brilliant move by The New Yorker to place this story in the issue that would straddle the death of one year and the birth of another. The story’s concept itself may not be original, but in Millhauser’s hands the detail, the pacing, the structure make for a very strong short story well worth the time it takes to read and reread.
I’m no musician. When it comes to classical music, I’m a slight dabbler. Still, some of my favorite aesthetic experiences have revolved around classical music. I remember once in college going to see a a Russian woodwind quintet, who was performing at the college later that evening, giving brief lessons to the students. A student playing the bassoon sight read a string of notes, each played, from what I could tell, in perfect meter and pitch. But then the virtuoso played the same string — the difference was incredible. The student’s was technically correct, but it lacked the meaning the professional ascribed to the notes. For me, this was the first time I’d really recognized the difference between skill and talent, where, for me, skill means technical proficiency, or even mastery, and talent represents, err, something more. It was beautiful. But, since I’m a dabbler only, I rarely learn about and even more rarely read a book about music or a musician. One I had heard about this past year, and was reminded of in two reputable best-of-year lists (KevinfromCanada’s and The Economist‘s), was The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the Search for a Baroque Masterpiece (2009). I was thrilled when it showed up from Grove Press.
Review copy courtesy of Grove Press.
In 2000, Eric Siblin was a pop music critic for the Montreal Gazette, and he was, understandably, getting burned out: “The Top 40 tunes had overstayed their welcome in my auditory cortex, and the culture surrounding rock music had worn thin.” One evening, on a whim, he attended a classical music concert and was swept up in a new passion that would consume the next decade. Three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites were played by Boston cellist Lawrence Lesser. The music was beautiful, and Siblin decided he needed to learn more about it, and this book is one of the results.
Organized like Bach’s cello suites, the book is divided into six sections, each titled according to one of the cello suites. Within each section there are six subsections, or movements, named after the movements within: Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Galanteries (or Minuet for suites one and two, Bourrées for suites three and four, and Gavottes for suites five and six), and Gigue. Generally, the first two movements in each section deal with Bach’s biography, the second two or three with Pablo Casals’ biography, and the last with Siblin’s personal experiences researching the suites.
In general terms, I was already familiar with Bach’s biography, particularly as it is contrastsGeorge Frideric Handel. Bach was born just a month later and a short distance away from Handel, whom he never met. While Handel achieved stratospheric fame during his lifetime, Bach, though highly respected as a technical genius, remained in relative obscurity, never quite making it out of the lower echelons of the various German courts. Siblin pays particular attention to the years in which Bach is supposed to have written the cello suites, specifically highlighting events that may enlighten us about the individual suites’ moods and quirks, though, as Siblin points out, it is all speculation. Bach’s biography is notoriously bereft of solid information.
One of my favorite aspects of The Cello Suites was the biographical sections dealing with world famous cellist Pablo Casals (by which he was known professionally through his life, though his name is Pau Casals i Defilló – he was Catalan, and for much of his life Catalan was outlawed). When Casals was only thirteen years old he discovered the sheet music of Bach’s long forgotten cello suites languishing in a small music store. Casals goes on to make the music — and the cello – famous. Casals’ turbulent biography is incredibly turbulent, and Siblin spends most of his time in the years 1936 to 1939, when the Spanish Civil War was in full force, ravaging, among other things, Catalonian culture. It was also during these years that Casals made his famous recording of Bach’s cello suites. This was obviously an emotional time for Casals, and, as with Bach, Siblin speculates (though here the dates are more easily confirmed than with Bach) on how events outside of the music affect the famous recordings.
Siblin also injects episodes of his own personal biography at the end of each section, in the Gigue. Here we learn about the people he met, sometimes through sheer serendipity, who had some connection to the cello suites. Though these bits were less interesting to me than the others, Siblin’s passion for his project (he even decided to at least get some basic experience with a cello and to learn the first cello suite on his guitar) is infectious. It is easy to see just how much this project meant to him. In fact, as the project meant so much to him, that these section were so small led me to appreciate how much control Siblin displayed in the book. He could easily have made his personal experiences the main thread. That he restrained himself to these brief bits and structured his book according to the cello suites and not to his own decade pursuing them shows that he understands and respects the reader’s main interests.
There is another biographical thread that shows up in all of the sections and in all of the movements: that of the cello suites themselves, which is shrouded in mystery. For example, we come to learn that we don’t even know if Bach wrote this music for the cello. The major doubt comes because the last suite is explicitly written for an instrument with one more string than the cello. Another suite is tuned differently. Then there’s the fact that the cello was not regarded as a front-line instrument worthy of solo music at that time (nor was it really until Casals came along — in 1890, the same year Casals discovered the cello suites, George Bernard Shaw said, “I am not fond of the violoncello: ordinarily I had as soon hear a bee buzzing in a stone jug.”). Furthermore, we do not have Bach’s signature score. The closest thing we have is a the score as transcribed by Bach’s wife (leading some to speculate with little foundation that she wrote the suites). And her score doesn’t even have many notations to aid interpretation, so no one really knows how Bach intended this music to sound. While Casals made the music famous, his version has been seen as too romantic for Bach, but no one really knows.
The Cello Suites is a great read, particularly if you have any interest in these things. Siblin will grab onto your interest and won’t let go. I read the book in a few long sittings. Notwithstanding the above, I do have some problems with the book. For one thing, I wanted more music. Siblin spends a brief amount of time, usually in the preludes to his sections, describing the tone and structure of a particular suite, but that is usually it. Consequently, the suites, though the backbone to the entire book, often sit in the background. This is not to say that what I read I didn’t appreciate; I just wanted more, which perhaps speaks to just how much I was enjoying what I got.
A more substantial gripe is that some of Siblin’s writing doesn’t do justice to the moment it narrates. The phrases are familiar and, at times, melodramatic. For example, here is the moment when Casals discovers the suites that will transform his life and music forever:
Father and son made their way through the cramped streets to one second-hand store after another, rummaging for cello music. On Carrer Ample they went into another music shop. As they rustled through the musty bundles of sheet music, some Beethoven cello sonatas were located. But what’s this? A tobacco-coloured cover page inscribed with fanciful black lettering: Six Sonatas or Suites for Solo Violoncello by Johann Sebastian Bach. Was this what it appeared to be? The immortal Bach composed music for cello alone?
Again, my gripe is merely a trifle, and the book does what it set out to do in the form most appropriate for its purposes. This is very much a work of popular history meant to be consumed relatively quickly and hopefully by many people. It is not a work of disciplined scholarship (as the speculations bear witness), but it was created in passion and certainly satisfied this low-tier dilettante’s needs.
I have not before read anything by Ron Hansen, though the premises of his novels intrigue me, particularly the two about nuns: Exiles, which tells the story of five nuns who drowned at sea in 1875 and who inspired Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” and Mariette in Ecstasy (1991), perhaps Hansen’s most critically acclaimed work (though two others have been PEN/Faulkner finalists with one of those also being a National Book Award finalist). Nuns don’t often feature in contemporary literature. For that matter, neither does religion, unless it is being derided or is a part of a character’s past, something to overcome. I was very curious how Hansen, who is the Gerard Manley Hopkins Professor at Santa Clara University and who in 2007 was ordained a permanent deacon of the Catholic church, would tell these well-received stories with religious themes in a time when many readers have an almost instant revulsion to anything tinged with religion, even if, as is the case here, the book is not proselytizing but is simply exploring the viewpoints of characters who are religious, which, to me, is a part of our world worth exploring.
Mariette in Ecstasy takes place in upstate New York and begins in August 1906. When we meet Mariette (not “Mare-i-ette, like a horse [. . . .] Mar-iette, like a flaw”) she is seventeen and has slipped off her gown to stand naked in front of a mirror, anxiously offering up her body to Christ. Soon she will be wearing her mother’s wedding dress when she is inducted as a postulant into the priory of the Sisters of the Crucifixion. Her father watches “in misery.” When Mariette goes to him after the ceremony, he quickly walks out. We soon learn that fifteen years earlier Mariette’s older sister (by twenty years) also joined the priory. In fact, she is now its leader, Reverend Mother Céline.
Mother Céline fondly touches a hand onto hers and holds it there. “We must thank Our Lord for the honor of inviting both of us to serve Him here.”
“I shall. Every day.”
“Seeing you here is such a pleasure for me.”
Mariette smiles. “I have missed you so much.”
Mother Céline withdraws her hand from her sister’s. “I’ll seem subdued and distant. We’ll hardly ever talk. You’ll think I don’t love you because I won’t show it.” The prioress turns her head and then stands up. “Try to remember that I have many sisters in my family now. Don’t expect to much from me.”
One of the strengths of Mariette in Ecstasy is its unique rhythm. The book is narrated in short segments where the days are delineated by the religious calendar and the hours by the daily prayer schedule. The segments themselves are often segmented again into bit of natural detail, creating a world that is, probably, a bit foreign. We seem to have stepped back five hundred years rather than just one hundred.
Mass of Saint Ursula and Companions, Virgins, Martyrs.
Wrens are cheeping wildly and flying from branch to branch in the junipers.
Winter is still just a hint of purple and gold in the hilltop maples. High above them there is a faint sickle moon and twilight skies of indigo blue fading to beryl and green at the treeline.
Sister Dominique strolls in the garth at collation. She hears words from The Imitation of Christ. Wisps of smoke unwrap from the stovepipe. She rolls pebbles in her hand.
Workhorses noisily slurp water from a tank and simultaneously pause. Ears twitching, a pregnant mare raises her nose and sniffs the wind in two directions. Her tail flicks and the horses drink again.
Sister Monique. Sister Saint-Léon. Sister Emmanuelle. Walking in the Gethsemani garden. Wincing and smiling at talk of infants.
Star. Another there. And there.
Compline and dismissal.
I quote that passage despite my fear that out of context it will seem forced and contrived. It doesn’t come across that way in the book once one submits to the soft rhythm that mimics the passage of time. This world becomes tangible, and the manner in which these women look at it becomes something we almost experience first-hand.
That is not the only rythm in Mariette in Ecstasy, though. The other is a subversive yet robust strain of sexual energy and excitement. Like the natural observations and the passage of days, the sensual rythm draws the reader in quietly. It’s fascinating to watch how Hansen lets these two currents ebb and flow and diverge and converge throughout the novel.
Scenes with Mariette are usually depicted with sensual language and that sexually charged rhythm. Because of this, we readers, who first met her while she was “esteeming her breasts as she has seen men esteem them,” don’t know whether to trust her when she arrives at the priory. Before Mariette arrived in her mother’s wedding dress, her father sent word of rumors that she experienced “trances, hallucinations, unnatural piety, great extremes of temperament, and, as he put it, ‘inner wrenchings.’” What is Mariette looking for? What, to her, is devotion to Christ? Readers aren’t the only ones to have suspicions. From the moment she arrives there are complaints: “She is a daily temptation to intimacies and particular attachments.”
However, on Christmas Day the entire priory is in an uproar when Mariette, after a legitimately wrenching Christmas Eve, goes into a trance and allegedly receives the stigmata, the physical revelation of the five wounds of Christ on her body (holes in the wrists, the feet, and the side). As the months go by, Mariette becomes the focus of an inter-priory feud. Some believe that Mariette is in ecstasy and feel blessed to be by her side. Others believe that she is enraptured by the devil, and they want to put a stop to her sacrilege.
I see no possible reason for it. Is it so Mariette Baptiste will be praised and esteemed by the pious? Or is it so she shall be humiliated and jeered at by skeptics? Is it to honor religion or to humble science? And what are these horrible wounds, really? A trick of anatomy, a bleeding challenge to medical diagnosis, a brief and baffling injury that hasn’t yet, in six hundred years, changed our theology or our religious practices. Have you any idea how disruptive you’ve been? You are awakening hollow talk and half-formed opinions that have no place in our priory, and I have no idea why God would be doing this. To you. I do know that the things the villagers have been giving us have not helped us in our vow of poverty. And all the seeking people who have been showing up here have not helped our rule of enclosure. And there are breaches to our vow of obedience whenever you become the topic.
Whether Mariette is in ecstasy, enraptured by the devil, or performing a hoax is intriguing, but almost beside the point in this exceptional, small novel. Whatever is going on has a major impact on this idiosyncratic community, and that is just as intriguing.
Brian Moore’s creepy book The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne found its way on my best of 2010 list, and it had one of my favorite covers of the year. For some time I’ve wanted to read Moore’s Lies of Silence (1990), often cited as one of the only — if not the only – thriller to be a finalist for the Booker Prize. Thanks to the Book Depository, I was able to find a Longman Editions copy of it from the United Kingdom (complete with a glossary, notes, all kinds of questions, etc.), since it is not in print in the United States. I won’t hold out: the book is great. But I wasn’t nearly as pleased with the cover. In my two reviews of Moore’s books, we’ve gone from one of the best covers to one of the worst. (I say “one of the worst” because I have a published-on-demand copy of Sam Selvon’s Moses Migrating which features what appears to be a high-school artist’s rendering of a school mascot.)
When I began reading this book, though, I cared not at all about the cover. It was late at night and my wife was away. When that happens I find I have a difficult time going to bed, no matter how tired I am. To induce sleep, I’ll often read and find myself falling asleep after only a few pages (it is, as I said, very late). But this book kept me going. As it grew ever later, I knew I should put Lies of Silence down and go to sleep, but the book had woken me up even more than before. Plus, the IRA was breaking into a private residence in the middle of the night – who can sleep with that? I’m not sorry at all that it left me sleep-deprived the next day.
Lies of Silence concerns the moderately successful (by his own estimation) luxury hotel manager, Michael Dillon. He and his wife, Moira, live in Belfast, a place he despises and has wanted to leave for years. He and his wife are unbelieving Catholics and know that Protestants have discriminated against Catholics for years; still, neither sides with the IRA. Unlike her husband, though, Moira doesn’t want to leave Dublin.
When the book opens Michael is driving past a school, taking note of the graduates he sees. It’s that time of year again, and all of the activity will make his hotel a very busy place for the next few days. Suddenly he starts thinking about Andrea, his young girlfriend from Canada who celebrated her own graduation in the not-too-distant past. She is now working for the BBC in Belfast. Michael and Andrea have been having an affair for a few months, and Michael has decided that it is time to tell his wife, attain a divorce, and move away with Andrea. We find him entering his driveway the night before he plans to tell his wife:
He drove back down the Antrim Road and re-parked in the entryway. The light was now on in their bedroom window. Perhaps he could stay downstairs until she went to sleep? These last months he had found it easy to deceive her. She was the enemy of his freedom. But now he was sure he could not conceal his new happiness from her even for one night. Now she was no longer his enemy. She was his victim.
Michael’s relationship with Moira has never been good. He recognizes that his love for her has been self-deception. She’s beautiful, and he desired the power that came with her looks, the way walking around with her instantaneously put him on a perch above most other men.
It’s hard to read the chapter that narrates Michael’s arrival at home, his attempts to send his wife to bed so he can sit alone in the dark, her knowledge that something is wrong. Of course, this being a thriller, things only get worse. In the middle of the night Michael awakens to find his home invaded by a troop of young, masked, armed IRA “volunteers.” Why his private home has been taken over by these boys, Michael begins to understand. He’s heard of the IRA planting bombs in private citizens’ cars. Perhaps they have come for theirs. Soon he realizes, though, that he was targeted: he’s a hotel manager, and the next day a prominent and outspoken Protestant minister will be speaking at his hotel. As suspected, they want him to drive his car, park it, and leave it to explode, killing the Reverend and anyone else unlucky enough to be around. If he doesn’t do this exactly as planned, they will kill his wife.
Though quite a bit of setup has happened before Michael’s home is even invaded, Moore has instilled suspense in the buildup. We know something is coming because of the foreboding language, language that is clear and precise and never out of control or heavy-handed. And even during some of the most suspenseful passages in the book, Moore is able to keep the focus on the mental state of the protagonist, in all of Michael’s vacillation. Here is Michael, dissatisfied as ever, driving the car and the bomb to his hotel in the morning:
He had not known then that degree day was not a passport to freedom, but the end of freedom. He had not found the teaching job he wanted in England, in Europe, or in some faraway exotic place. His grandfather had run pubs and a hotel, his father ran a hotel and he had ended up, like them, a servant of sorts, arranging to feed people and pour their drinks and provide beds for them. Unlike his father and grandfather, he did not even own the hotel which he was now on his way to destroy.
Astoundingly, when the bomb explodes, we still have well over half of this book left. The suspense is in the aftermath, in the fear Michael feels every time he is alone, in the guilt he feels over his decision, and especially in the way this event affects his personal relationships. And it’s still suspenseful because we don’t know if anyone is out to kill Michael as he tries to pick up the pieces and restart his life.
In this superbly written book, Moore has shown how to write a book that is intelligent and thrilling. I can see I have many more good reading experiences ahead as I work through more Moore.
After I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker-winning Offshore, I realized I would have to read every book she published in that short but prolific burst of energy she displayed in the last twenty years of her life. I still can’t get over it: her first four books in four years (including the Booker winner and a Booker finalist), with the next five coming in the next fifteen years (including two more Booker finalists and one — The Blue Flower — which a Booker judge regrets was never submitted and so was passed up). The Bookshop (1978) was her second book and her first Booker finalist. I think I liked it even more than Offshore, which is saying quite a bit.
Like Offshore, The Bookshop is a fine look into a small, somewhat isolated community. In this case we are in the town of Hardborough, a seaside town in Eastern England that doesn’t have a bookshop. In 1959, Florence Green is hoping to change that and make a success of one. In a great display of precision and control, the first couple of paragraphs set up the novel and its theme of survival.
Survival was often considered all that could be asked in the cold and clear East Anglian air. Kill or cure, the inhabitants thought — either a long old age, or immediate consignment to the salty turf of the churchyard.
As dismal as that sentiment is, one might simply pass over it because Fitzgerald’s writing is dense and, strangely, urgent. Furthermore, this line is couched in a paragraph about how Mrs. Green is attempting to “make it clear herself, and possibly to others, that she existed in her own right,” since she had been living on the little money her husband left her when he died. So we come to that passage above thinking — at least I did — that this focus on survival was necessary and, perhaps, noble. However, through the rest of this short, brilliant novel, Fitzgerald shows that the way this small community survives is through a form of social warfare as sensible as king of the mountain. Here is one of Fitzgerald’s earliest descriptions of Mrs. Green:
She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation.
Nevertheless, after many sleepless nights of indecision, Mrs. Green purchases Old House, which is, as the name suggests, one of the town’s oldest buildings. It’s damp and leaky and possibly haunted (a fact which remains in the background, but give Fitzgerald moments to display her humor: ”The house agent was in no way legally bound to mention the poltergeist, though he perhaps alluded to it in the phrase unusual period atmosphere.”).
The bookshop has its ups and downs, but it is, nevertheless, a moderate success. And this frightens several of the townspeople. For one thing, there’s some jealousy from those doing more poorly, like Mr. Deben, who has been trying to sell his fish shop for several years. Why didn’t Mrs. Green buy his place. That might have benefited them both.
Certainly she knew that Deben’s wet fish shop was about to close. Everybody in the town knew when there were likely to be vacant premises, who was in financial straights, who would need larger family accommodation in nine months, and who was about to die.
Basically, Mrs. Green didn’t want Deben’s wet fish shop, and she’s not entirely apologetic (she knows how to hold her own as well).
The biggest threat comes by way of Mrs. Gamart, who, if the town had one, would be part of the reigning aristocracy. Each summer, when other towns are holding their arts festivals, Mrs. Gamart believes that everyone should support her idea of creating an arts center in Hardborough. It always comes to nothing because before any steam has built up the other towns’ festivals have ended, and, presumably, Mrs. Gamart goes on to worry about other ways to ensure that she reigns over a respectable, cultured town.
Now that Mrs. Green has purchased Old House, though, which is the perfect place for the arts center, Mrs. Gamart, as charming as ever, begins to turn the wheels on several machines meant to destroy Mrs. Green’s enterprise.
As in Offshore, though the story here is centralized and focused, Fitzgerald allows herself the liberty to take the reader on minor tangents to see the lives in Hardborough. Each character and each episode is so well developed that this short book contains more than most long books. And, because by the end Fitzgerald’s community has ceased to be a strange seaside town but is so real, so familiar, we echo Mrs. Green’s question: ”What is natural justice?”
This year I tried to limit my list to ten books, but I couldn’t decide which two of the following books should go: here are my top twelve books of the year. I had no trouble deciding which two were my favorites. They are listed at the bottom.
It was a great reading year for me. Each of the books below impressed me so much that I have already either started reading or started acquiring the author’s back catalog (or marked that their front catalog should not be missed).
César Aira: The Literary Conference – ”The Literary Conference borders on . . . no, delves into the ridiculous — in the best way possible.” Last year I put Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter as one of my top reads, and I could as easily have put his Ghosts. Neither of these books was particularly funny, so I was surprised when I declared The Literary Conference to be ”the funniest book I’ve read all year.” With more titles due in 2011 (will he make my top-reads list three years in a row?), there is much Aira to look forward to — thankfully! Next up? The Seamstress in the Wind, coming in spring of 2011.
Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad — “I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy. I assure you that Egan pulls it off. The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals.” I’m still not sure why this novel composed of interconnected short stories — each in its own unique style — didn’t show up as a finalist for the National Book Award. Surely it will show up in the awards early next year. After this, I went back to read Egan’s lesser The Keep. It was okay but didn’t do it for me. Nevertheless, next up is Look at Me.
Michael Frayn: Headlong — “We have as fast-paced a narrative as one can hope to find. Frayn’s writing is smooth, and very very funny. Throw in some genuinely intriguing art history (as opposed to that falsely intriguing stuff making bestsellers), and it’s already a winner for me. But now, throw in Frayn’s skill at tying the human drama to the art drama.” I still find myself pulled into Brugel’s paintings. I had already attended several of Frayn’s plays, but this was my first attempt at one of his novels. I have gone back to read Spies, and I look forward to reading The Trick of It. I might even read his memoir, My Father’s Fortune: A Life, which is coming out in February.
Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room — “I loved this book. I was completely entranced. I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.” Since it is out of context, I should probably explain: this is the first book I ever read successfully on an e-reader, and I hardly noticed the different medium so much did Galgut’s prose and story pull me in. My pick for the Booker Prize, even though I loved the eventual winner too (which didn’t find its way onto this list, but easily could have). Going to Galgut’s back catalog, I recently enjoyed The Good Doctor and can’t wait for The Imposter.
Alexander MacLeod: Light Lifting — “Perhaps I shouldn’t have started my Giller shortlist reading with this book. It might not get any better.” That turned out to be the case, and this book eventually went on to be the Shadow Giller’s choice (though I was quite taken by the Giller Prize winner). This book of short stories is a debut collection that encourages readers that MacLeod is the rightful heir to his father’s exceptional talent. Since MacLeod has no other book out, I cannot read his back catalog, though I would have if he had one, and I’m certainly in line for whatever he publishes next.
Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne — “At just over 200 pages, I expected to breeze through it, but it demanded that I slow down — in a good way. The language and the cadence of the story, at first delicate and then raucous, made it impossible to read quickly. The best thing about this book is not the cover.” That last sentence is saying quite a bit, since this is one of my favorite covers of the year. This is such a creepy book, I couldn’t resist acquiring several of Moore’s back catalog. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but it will probably be either The Temptation of Eileen Hughes or Lies of Silence.
Harry Mulisch: The Assault — “This is a fantastic book about chance and fate, about guilt and innocence, all against the backdrop of the twentieth century as the big issues range from World War II to Budapest to nuclear weapon talks in the 1980s. For all its scope, it remains intimate, just like that opening section when we looked on the four homes lined up in a row.” I know a lot of people feel that the market for World War II books is oversaturated, but this one is not to miss. I have what many consider Mulisch’s masterpiece, The Discovery of Heaven. It is quite long, though, so I’m not exactly sure when I’ll get to it.
Cynthia Ozick: The Cannibal Galaxy — “Though this is a relatively short book, it is incredibly dense with both plot and idea. The writing is top-notch.” Ozick had a new book — Foreign Bodies – out this year, and it, too, is exceptional. Still, I found that I connected more with this, a book about an aging pedagogue and his obsession with the mind of the mother of one of his students. Ozick is critically acclaimed, but her books are difficult to acquire since a few are shamefully out of print. I have her The Messiah of Stockholm on my need-to-read-soon list. Then again, I have all of her books (save her first novel) on my need-to-read-soon list.
Larry Watson: Montana 1948 — “[L]ike So Long, See You Tomorrow, Montana 1948 is a special book, a classic piece of American literature not because it is widely read (though it should be) but because it simply is in its depiction of a facet of American life and counterlife.” This was one of my favorite “quiet” books this year, and I hope that it eventually rises from relative obscurity. I actually haven’t done much looking at Watson’s back catalog, but I’m interested in Justice, which examines the Hayden family (the subject of this book) in the late nineteenth-century. I haven’t heard anything about it; then again, I hadn’t heard anything about this book either.
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome — “Ethan Frome skirts a Romantic ending and punches the reader in the gut.” Another of my favorite “quiet” books (how does a quiet book punch one in the gut?), this one looking at rural Massachusetts a little more than a century ago. It is the perfect little book for a dark winter night. After reading this novella I turned to Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and it was hard to know which of these two I liked more. Next up is Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which I’ve heard so much about and which recently made KFC’s best of the year list (also, K2D2 has written about it on his blog, and I know he’s a major fan).
Now for my two top books of the year. They are not only my favorites of the year but also two favorites of my lifetime. They are exceptional from any angle. Unfortunately, one of the authors is dead and wrote only a few novels. Fortunately, the other is very young. That she was not on The New Yorker‘s 20 Under 40 shows a major blindspot for that list.
Maile Meloy: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It — “I was so pleased with this collection I immediately marked Meloy as one of my favorite authors.” This book of short stories is the best short story collection I’ve read in a long time. Meloy’s controlled prose is simply in another league. I’m sure it heightened my interest that many of these stories are set in Montana, just north of where I grew up. (In fact, if you haven’t noticed, it seems that rural (even western) writing has won me over this year.) This is Meloy’s second collection of short stories; her first, Half in Love, is just as good. I have her two novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, in line. In fall 2011 her first young adult novel, The Apothecary, will come out. It sounds strange: a cold war novel featuring kids and magic. She hope adults will be able to read it too. I trust her. Count me in.
John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing — “As an American reader, deeply interested in what literature has to say about this land, its promise, its spirituality, and its emptiness, Butcher’s Crossing hit me with the same force as (if not more than) Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Age of Innocence, The Great Gatsby, Martin Dressler, American Pastoral, and Gilead. Yes, I expected Butcher’s Crossing to be great, I expected it to be well written — people told me so — but I was shocked at how much it contained, at how well it balanced jubilance and heartbreak, innocence and depravity, all while reinventing the western to expose the fault lines the American Dream is founded upon.” After reading Butcher’s Crossing, I read Williams’ National Book Award winner Augustus and the recently much revered Stoner. I loved each of them as well (Augustus is a worthy award winner, and Stoner deserves every ounce of praise it has gotten — more, in fact; each of the three books deserves more), but, to me, Butcher’s Crossing is Williams’ masterpiece. Williams only wrote four novels. He didn’t much care for his first, Nothing But the Night; however, where can I turn next? Plus, I learned earlier this year that, while the author may be right that a certain book is not a masterpiece, it doesn’t meant it is not worth reading.
One of the best things I did last January was subscribe to Archipelago Books. I have been the happy recipient of one of their beautifully produced new books nearly every month. I had heard of none of the books before receiving it, and each made me giddy at the prospect of reading it. The shame is that in the year I have only read and reviewed one of the titles, Elias Khoury’s White Masks. I can explain. Each book I’ve received from them has looked like a treat. And, as I like to do with treats, I’ve been putting them off, saving them for a later date, prolonging the joy of anticipation. That can’t work forever, obviously, but I have some good news: it worked for me with Buddhadeva Bose’s My Kind of Girl (Moner Mato Meye, 1951; tr. from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha). This book is, in its charming simplicity, a treat.
The reason I picked up this particular title rather than one of the others I received this year is because it was fairly short and because the concept behind it intrigued me as the cold nights leading to winter began to arrive. Its structure hearkens back to The Canterbury Tales: a few travelers decide that telling stories will make the time pass more pleasantly. In My Kind of Girl, though, it is not April; it is a “bitingly cold night in December.”
Four men, who are already well settled into life, are traveling by rail in the heart of India when their journey is delayed at the Tundla railway station; up the line, a cargo train has derailed. There is no hope that the travelers will be able to proceed that night, so the four men attempt to get comfortable in the first-class waiting room. Suddenly the door opens and a young couple, “clearly newlyweds,” peak in, see the men, and leave again as quickly as they appeared. The four men speak, at first lightly, of the newlyweds and how they must have been looking for a quiet and private place where they huddle together privately. As the men speak of the strange power of young love, though, the men become a bit more somber:
That couple, who had only given them a glimpse of themselves at the door before disappearing, had left something behind; it was as though the bird of youth had shed a few feathers as it flew by: some warmth, some pleasure, sorrow or tremor that refused to dissipate, something with which these four individuals — even if they did not speak, even if they only thought about it silently — would be able to survive this terrible night.
Their memories invade, and the four men reflect on an interesting question: “Is the memory of happiness that has passed happy or sad?” Without ever answering that question, one of the men suggests they pass the time by each telling his own story.
“Story! Story of what?”
“I mean — we’re all old men here, there are no ladies, so speaking openly will not be indecent, will it?”
“What are you getting at?” The fat contractor seemed apprehensive.
“He’s saying,” the doctor explained, “we had our days too, like the ones that couple has now . . .”
“I didn’t,” the contractor protested, and immediately his stubbled cheek reddened in unseemly mortification.
“You too,” said the writer. ”There’s no one who has never liked someone. What happened afterwards is not the point, the liking is what counts. Maybe it’s memory, too, that counts. Some kind of memory . . .”
The men wrap themselves up and, beginning with the contractor who said he had no story (he says he will relate a close friend’s), they take turns telling stories of their young love, regardless of the eventual outcome.
In the contractor’s story, a young man falls for his neighbor. From time to time he can look out his window and see her in her own home. She does not come from a wealthy family (her father is a professor), but she is an educated young woman, so his mother is anxious for the match. However, when she goes to propose the marriage of her son marry to the professor’s daughter, the proposal is rejected. When the War makes the son incredibly wealthy, the mother takes it as sweet satisfaction for the earlier slight. The son is not so certain.
The second story, this time in the first person (the teller is a government bureaucrat), is probably more typical to everyone’s experience. The teller, as a young man, had an innocent and pure relationship with a girl he rarely saw. One of his fondest memories is of a night when he and she walked together, away from the crowd of friends they were with. As happens, life for each kept going, and each married someone else, though in the years there have been some encounters. In this story, the narrative flow is disrupted when the teller pauses to wonder about the effect the story is currently having on him:
What misguided notion had led him to start this tale? . . . . He tried to return to his present reality; he tried to think of Delhi, his job, his wife, his children, but none of them seemed very important at the moment, his head was filled with the echoes of the events he had been recounting all the while.
The third story is the doctor’s, and he introduces it as a happy story; after all, the man married his love. However, when he met her, she was ”a love-struck, love-singed young woman.” In other words, when he met her, she was in love — deeply, disturbingly — with someone else. He is not her first love.
The fourth storyteller is a writer. By the time we get to him, it’s already late into the night. We don’t know if the quiet in the waiting room is because the other men are listening closely or because they are sleeping. The writer’s story is, again, a different angle on young love. In this case, the writer and two other friends all loved the same girl, a tragic figure in their youth. We know where this tale is going from the start, but I was glad to follow.
I found the book endearing and felt the warmth that must have sustained the men that cold night. My only quibble with the book is that is asked such interesting questions about memory, but then, when the stories themselves took over, such questions were pushed well into the background. Of course, the stories themselves speak about memory and its effect, but here that doesn’t seem quite enough to make those themes a clear subject; rather, memory is a catalyst for some stories that go their own way. That said, I might have liked it less had it attempted to maintain the gravity of such an abstract discussion through the stories. Certainly some of the charming nature of the traditional story would have been lost. And, just as these stories were a diversion to get these men through a cold night, leading them through emotions and to self-reflection, they are an excellent diversion from weightier and more abstract matters. They get us through the night and their telling will become a pleasant memory in and of itself.
As happy as I was to see Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question win this years Man Booker Prize, my personal choice was Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Still, it was a tremendous Booker year for me; both Jacobson and Galgut impressed me enough that I have since tried to acquire most anything they’ve written, and that is just what I hope from a prize. First stop on this back catalog project is Galgut’s prior Man Booker Prize finalist The Good Doctor (2003).
Since In a Strange Room was a unique blend of interconnected short stories, memoir, and travel, complete with a lovely style and the masterful handling of an unnconventional narrative technique, I was interested to see how well I got on with a more conventional novel from Galgut. To be honest, as much as I liked The Good Doctor, I do not feel the same warmth toward it as I do toward In a Strange Room — but I was expecting that. So, eliminating that comparison, I’d say The Good Doctor is an exceptional novel.
This is a retrospective, first-person novel. Our narratove is Frank Eloff, a cynical doctor who is working at a hospital in a remote region of South Africa that was once a Bantu “homeland.” Before the novel begins, Galgut tells us that a “homeland” was a type of tribally-based state set up during apartheid. The Good Doctor begins after this system has been abolished, but its effects — obviously — remain.
When the book begins, Frank is a sort of second in command at the tiny hospital. For years he’s been promised that he will run the hospital when Dr. Ngema, his black boss, gets a better post, but as yet that hasn’t happened. The hospital itself is basically irrelevant.
And there were no people. That was the last thing you noticed, though you realized then that it was the first thing to give you that uneasy hollow feeling: the place was deserted.
Some people come in from time to time, but not many. And if anyone is really sick, they get sent to the bigger hospital about an hour away. Frank is resigned to his own irrelevance too. At least in this emptiness he has his own space. Then, just as the novel begins, Frank’s space is invaded by a young idealistic doctor named Laurence Waters. This is the novel’s opening line: “The first time I saw him I thought, he won’t last.”
Laurence literally invades Frank’s space by moving into his bedroom. But worse, Laurence comes to this remote post looking to make it better. He wants work that matters — to him, work is all that matters. Laurence came to this remote hospital on purpose. He asked for the most difficult assignment possible, and now he is determined to do good there. But Frank immediately tries to disillusion him.
‘Laurence,’ I said. ‘Understand one thing. This isn’t a real hospital. It’s a joke. When y0u were driving here, do you remember the last town you passed, an hour back? That’s where the real hospital is. That’s where people go when they’re sick. They don’t come here. There’s nothing here. You’re in the wrong place.’
Immediately this grouping of the cynical and experienced Frank with the idealistic and green Laurence brought to mind Graham Greene’s exceptional The Quiet American, another book that deals with a precarious state of national affairs by meddling with some volatile personal relationships where, if we’re honest, we side with the cynical character. Again, if I allowed myself such a comparison, I saw Galgut’s book as lacking while I read it; however, in the time since, it has continued to gain strength in my mind as the characters are dissociated from those in Greene and have become characters in their own right. It is about a different place and time. Where in The Quiet American we see the problems that are to come to Vietnam, in The Good Doctor we see the problems that were and how they are still present even if the system has been officially terminated. In an effort to make Laurence understand (Laurence is a bit too young to have truly experienced life in the old system), Frank explains why the people in the region do not come to the hospital in their town:
‘What do you think this place means to them? It’s where the army came from. It’s where their puppet dictator lived. They hate this place.’
As the book develops, Frank and Laurence develop an unlikely and unstable friendship. Through their experiences we see Galgut dissecting this South African society with a hard past and airy promises about the future. Of course it is going to come to head:
‘They’re right about you,’ he said slowly. It was a bitter realization. ‘I couldn’t see it before. But now I see.’
‘What do they say about me?’
‘That you’re not part of . . . of the new country.’
‘The new country,’ I said. ‘Where is it, this new country?’
‘All around you, Frank. Everything you see. We’re starting again, building it all up from the ground.’
‘Words,’ I said. ‘Words and symbols.’
‘It isn’t. It’s real. It’s happening.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why? Why are you like you are?’ It was an angry question, but he didn’t sound angry. He sounded curious and sad. ‘You’re not a bad man.’
‘Maybe I am.’
‘You’re not a bad man. But you say no to everything. It’s written on you. I don’t know what’s happened to you. You just don’t believe in anything. I don’t think you even believe what you’re saying now.’
‘I do believe it.’
The Good Doctor has many layers and many other characters besides the ones mentioned in this review. One of my favorite aspects of the novel were the assumptions Frank made about how certain events and people were connected. He too, even in his cynicism, is a bit naive. As his assumptions falter one by one, leaving him and the reader with no solid understanding of what has happened, Frank is free to become even more cynical and isolated in his irrelevance.
For obvious reasons, the title Senselessness (Insensatez, 2004; tr. from the Spanish by Katherine Silver) reminded me of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness, a book about a young Hungarian boy who becomes a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Senselessness, in part, contains the chronicles of a population that was tortured and nearly eliminated. Castellanos Moya’s book and Kertész’s book are very different, but both remind us just how terrible and violent our recent history is. And each is written by fantastic writers.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The book begins when our narrator recites this line: “I am not complete in the mind.” The narrator highlights this line on his first day at his new job. The narrator is an author, like Castellanos Moya. And, like Castellanos Moya, he was forced to leave his country because of something he wrote. In this case, our narrator said that El Salvador was the first Latin American country to have an African President (by which he meant the ruler’s “dictatorial attitude,” not his race). To get by, the narrator has accepted a job from a friend. The job, which much to his distaste puts him in the service of the Catholic Church (he is a “depraved atheist”), is to edit ”one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages” that document “the genocide perpetrated by this country’s army against the unarmed indigenous population.” Though the book does not state it explicitly, “this country” is Guatemala. The lengthy report, several of the groups of people, and several of the violent events that occur in the book are part of Guatemalan history in the 1970s and 1980s.
Our narrator is a strange individual. He knew this job would be dangerous, yet he came almost on impulse. The people who committed the genocide are still very much in power, and now he is playing a role in ensuring ”that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure.” The line of testimony that he highlighted – ”I am not complete in the mind” – strikes him as a perfect statement about himself. This simple statement seems to explain why he is doing what he is doing, a discovery he does not necessarily want to make:
which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation.
He becomes increasingly paranoid. He was alcoholic and sex-obsessed before (our narrator is not the do-gooder you’d think would sign-up for this type of work), but now these are methods for evading emotion. The detail gives the book an unpleasant texture; however, any discomfort we may feel is well put.
Castellanos Moya emphasizes this evasion and paranoia with his style. The narrator speaks in long, rambling sentences (wonderfully translated by Katherine Silver) that search for an explanation where there is none – which is part of the point. I have pulled only one larger quote from this book because it was hard to find one that didn’t run, necessarily, for line after line after line. I was tempted to put at least one that went on for over a page, but, as you can see, I didn’t give in to that temptation; I believe the book is probably cumulative, so any such quote wouldn’t mean much out of context anyway. But in context, we get a ride through the narrator’s perturbed mind that is as thrilling as it is disturbing.
Is there an explanation for why the narrator – despite the distaste he has for his employer, despite the danger of being found by the military rulers, despite his own lack of attachment and ample cynicism – continues to edit these testimonies? If there is, it must be in the testimonies themselves. The lines that Castellanos Moya includes in this book (which, like the report, are real) are obviously not spoken by native speakers — the syntax is all off, the word choice is unfamiliar — yet these lines are poetic in the way they compact years of terror and violence into five or six words in a phrase. They haunt the narrator as he marvels at their perfection and trembles at their significance. He is pulled into the book even though it, combined with his appropriate terror, is driving him to paranoia.
Senselessness is a fascinating book. It’s thoroughly unpleasant in the best sense. As he did in The She-Devil in the Mirror, Castellanos Moya has created a paranoid narrator we can’t help but follow to the end. While I probably enjoyed reading She-Devil more for its story, Senselessness contains a great deal more gravity and is sticking with me still. It is worth more attention.