Another Year, In The Books

The year began with a novel about a dying newspaper and (just about) ended with a novel about the eternal sleaziness of newspapers.

According to the list of All The Books I’ve Read, I finished 32 books in 2011; several were re-reads, one was a Kindle Single, one was a play and another was a novella. I’ve decided that my year-end post should be a look back at those books, what I made of them, how I came across them, and any other recollections or observations I can make about ‘em.

First, I oughtta note that 32 books isn’t that much. I mean, all told, the Great List shows that I’ve finished around 600 books since I began keeping the list in the fall of 1989, when I started college. That puts me a little above the “average” of 27 books a year, and it sure makes me regret that 2-year run in 1997-98 when I couldn’t finished a goddamned thing. But with math like this, even if I up the pace to an even 30 books a year, there’s still no chance I’ll ever work my way through my library.

Which is why I’m glad I came across this page in Kevin Huizenga’s latest issue of Ganges last week; shows I’m not alone in thinking about The Math:

 

The year’s big reading project, as I wrote about earlier, was Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music of Time. I’d rather not write about those books individually in this post, since I’m still a bit muddled about the first half of the series. It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Powell’s writing, and I think the three WWII novels (books 7-9), plus their immediate successor (Books Do Furnish a Room), mark the high point of the cycle. But, like I said, I’m going to leave off writing about them, except in terms of where they fall in sequence, and focus on the other 20 books for this post.

Also, because of my prose-bias, I won’t go into the comics that I read over the year. However, there’s one comic I read in 2011 that trumps this entire list: Jaime Hernandez’s conclusion to The Love Bunglers, in Love & Rockets #4. I wrote about this a little during my heart scare in October, and I want to reiterate: what Jaime achieves by the end of that comic, capping off 30 years of stories of Maggie and her world, is a perfect piece of art.

On with the show:

The Imperfectionists – The year began with Tom Rachman’s 2010 novel about a dying, Rome-based newspaper patterned after the International Herald Tribune. Each chapter follows a different character in or around the paper, and it does a great job of delineating the various occupations and beats of that workplace. However, the only people I knew who’d appreciate that backdrop would also be terribly depressed by the newspaper’s demise, so I didn’t pass it on to anyone. I think it was recommended via Amazon, and the Kindle edition was only $5.00, so hey.

Shortly after finishing that book, I turned 40. I also began A Question of Upbringing, the first book in Powell’s series. I read one each month, so just mentally slot those in between the other titles listed here. I’ll put the full list & chronology at the end of the post.

The Age of Innocence – I decided to read this after New York magazine ran a “Greatest New York Ever” feature, and Sam Anderson selected Wharton’s book as the greatest New York novel. I was intrigued and gave it a shot (free on my Kindle). I had no idea Wharton was this good. Scorsese’s decision to adapt it made perfect sense to me, although I couldn’t bear more than 10 minutes of his adaptation, since it relied so heavily on voice-over of Wharton’s prose, rather than, y’know, adapting it into a visual medium.

Anyway, I loved it, thought it did a wonderful job working through the social mores of post-Civil War New York, and felt it would’ve been more awesome if Archer, at that pivotal moment, went hardcore, killed May and went on the lam with Countess Olenska in Europe. But then the book would’ve had a much different reputation. I got at least one other person to read this, and she enjoyed the heck out of it, too.

1959: The Year Everything Changed – I met the author, Fred Kaplan, at a book party in NYC, and told him how much I enjoyed his columns on Slate. I mentioned that I hadn’t read his 1959 book yet, and he was much less angry about that than Greill Marcus was when I once told him that I hadn’t finished reading Lipstick Traces. (I still haven’t.) After that evening, I picked up his book on the Kindle. I enjoyed his version of that history, even if it did trick me into giving On The Road another shot. (It still sucks.)

A lot of this literary year was spent trying to get out of my own historical moment. The Powell books, of course, cover a chunk of the 20th century, and Kaplan tries to get at the ways in which 1959 shaped who we became in the succeeding decades.

Arcadia – The next couple of books play fast and loose with the notion of time and history. In March, I read Tom Stoppard’s play for the bazillionth time. This reading was preparation for seeing it performed on Broadway (which I wrote about here). It’s such a beautifully constructed work, I can’t begin to do it justice.

Time’s Arrow – Martin Amis’ story of a Nazi war criminal who doesn’t realize that his life is unspooling backwards. It’s narrated by a nascent consciousness in the head of a man who is coming to life and being delivered to his house by an ambulance. It’s a sick experiment in how to write about atrocities and innocence, and Amis, of course, is up to the job. It’s a difficult feat, clueing the reader into what’s going on while the narrator itself has no idea. I can’t say I recommend it, but it kept me enthralled. I assume he wrote it after someone offhandedly remarked that you can’t write in a sympathetic voice about a doctor who worked the concentration camps.

(I once passed on Amis’ London Fields to a coworker who generally likes my pass-alongs. She gave it back to me unfinished and said that she hated all the characters and didn’t want to read about them anymore. I can understand that entirely. I think I’m going to read Amis’ Money sometime in 2012, and I’m beginning to wonder if he’s ever had any likeable characters.)

Slaughterhouse-Five – I figured Time’s Arrow‘s not-so-Bloomian precursor was Vonnegut’s novel about the bombing of Dresden, in which the reality of the war is so horrible that the lead character retreats into nonlinear time and a science-fiction world of alien abductions. I hadn’t read this in years, and didn’t enjoy it too much, this time around. I’m betting it falls into my category of Lowest College Denominator.

The Leopard – Then I read the book that I would trade all the other books on this list for. I bought Lampedusa’s novel around 10 years ago on God knows who’s recommendation. It was the reverse of a wine cellar; while the book stayed the same, I matured enough to read it. I read a lovely recommendation of Lampedusa’s work in The Wall Street Journal and decided it was time to give it a shot. When I finished the novel, after wiping away some tears, I thought, “I’m so glad I got to read this book before I died.” Perhaps I’m just mistaking literary achievement to my growing sensitivity to stories of men watching their lives pass by, but I think The Leopard has some eternal qualities to it. I reread it 3 months later and keep it on my nightstand as a fallback for when I’m not interested in reading my current book.

It’s “about” a prince in Palermo in the 1860s, when Italy is in the process of unification and the merchant class is on the rise. The prince understands that the nobility’s days are numbered, but must negotiate his family’s wellbeing as long as he can, while he comes to grips with the younger generation’s ascent. And he’s SO so human. Lampedusa evokes this entire world, with its nobility, its clergy, its militia, its tradesman, its upstarts, its cosmos. I hope you get to read it sometime.

Here’s what I read from it last night, before turning in:

Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jovelike brow, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move toward saving it.

A River Runs Through It – Maybe I spoke too soon about trading all the other books for The Leopard. I’d probably keep Arcadia and I think I’d also keep this one. This is another countless reread for me. I don’t remember why I decided to read it this past summer. It had just been made available on the Kindle, so perhaps that prompted it. More likely, I wanted to read something beautiful and familiar and see if it, too, affected me differently at 40.

(I don’t think any book changed for me so dramatically as my 2010 reread of the Iliad. It’s a little embarrassing that it took me four journeys to Troy before I finally developed a sympathy/understanding for Achilles, but there it is. This time around, I was transfixed by that notion of the epic hero, caught in the fate of being the center of the poem, giving up family, future and love to become the world’s first great literary subject. I wish I’d kept up with my idea of writing about Achilles & the Iliad throughout the past year, but I always let myself get sidetracked. Like now.)

Weirdly, Maclean’s novella about fly-fishing and grace didn’t change too much for me this time around. In some respects, it’s the book that helped shepherd me along into my “boring old fart” mode. Which isn’t to say that it’s a boring book; rather, its assuredness of voice and lovely-yet-stark depictions of the lives of the two brothers and their family helped me appreciate silence and the absence of literary pyrotechnics.

(It also helped me form some sorta background for trying to understand Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Emphasis on “trying”.)

Nemesis – A short Philip Roth novel about a polio outbreak in Newark in the 1940s. Roth belatedly tied this one to his recent short books and called them The Nemesis Quartet. I’m a huge mark for the first book in that run (which we’ll get to shortly), but the other 3 all feel like sketches more than real novels. But then, Roth’s nearly 80 and has achieved enough over the years that he’s earned the right to perform some minor variations.

What’s most interesting about this one is the narrator, who starts off as a first-plural “we,” but eventually shows up and plays a role in unspooling the later aspects of the tale. He also undercuts a lot of the simplistic thinking of the earlier pages, in a conscious reflection of the lead character’s mental limitations. It’s a neat trick, demolishing the lead’s earnestness and self-seriousness like that.

Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed – I read this memoir of Savile Row tailor Richard Anderson in one day. It was the first time I’ve read a book that quickly in years, and sure, it wasn’t Proust, but it was pretty fascinating. I’ve become interested in menswear in the last year or two, and one of the blogs I follows recommended this one. Anderson does a great job of conjuring up his apprentice days, while lamenting the lack of training in the contemporary scene. The best parts, as with many of the UK memoirs and novels I read this past year, involved the strange characters he worked with, and the oddball initiations he underwent.

One of my resolutions for 2012 is to have some shirts made for me by a tailor. I have the cash to do this, but I also have a bit of anxiety about sitting down and talking about fabrics, cuts and styles with someone who knows a bazillion times more about them than I do. Of course, that’s preferable to working with a tailor who doesn’t know that stuff better than I do, but I have Novice’s Worry. I’ll tell you how it works out.

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive – I wrote about this one earlier in the year, and my thoughts about it haven’t changed, so just check out that post. As noted there, I discovered it via an author interview on the Monocle Weekly Podcast. Sadly, Monocle changed its format a few months ago, as part of a move to 24/7 audio broadcasting, and I found the weekly podcast unlistenable. I’ll try to get back to it next year, since it did turn me on to some neat books and music, including the incomparable sound of W&Whale.

Everyman – Last summer, the dad of one of my best friends died suddenly, so I felt the need to return to this short Philip Roth novel about an old Jew and his illnesses. I wrote about it pretty extensively in my Man Out Of Time piece about my favorite books from the previous decade. I fear I’ll return to this one again and again, as death grows in stature around me. I only have it on my Kindle, but should probably get a print copy. You know, for the permanence.

Zero History – I saved William Gibson’s oddball new novel for my first trip to his stomping grounds in Vancouver. It was enjoyable enough, but seemed to eschew any real plot or stakes until maybe 25% from the end. It’s gotta be tough to integrate a plot with the sorts of observations and atmospheres that Gibson’s so good at making/evoking, but this one really felt like he forgot about the plot until he came up with a big synchronized set piece of a caper, then perfunctorily snapped it into place. Vancouver sure was pretty.

The Junket – This was a Kindle Single, a short e-only piece. It was written by Mike Albo, who co-wrote The Underminer, a kinda black comedy novel I read a few years back. This single was hyped by The Awl, a blog I follow, so I gave it a shot. In it, Albo chronicles the bizarre circumstances by which he was fired from the New York Times, where he was a freelancer writing the Critical Shopper column. The incident highlighted the Times’ self-serving, contradictory, disposable treatment of freelancers, and Albo’s relative poverty reminds me that I made a good decision to stick with trade magazine editing all these years.

I like the idea of Kindle Singles, in terms of being able to publish long-form (but not book-length) work at a lower price point. Non-fiction books often feel to me as though they’re padded to reach a certain page count, so I’m in favor of writers knowing when to stop.

The Leopard – I read it again, 3 months later. Still on my night-stand.

The Finkler Question – I’m dismissive of conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with another reason for this book to have won the Man Booker Prize in 2010. I mentioned in an earlier post about the circumstances in which I bought this one for my mom. It was only $5 on the Kindle, so I got it for myself. I know I’ve told people — and you, dear reader — on numerous occasions that “life’s too short for crappy novels,” but I really did think this was going to improve. It’s sad that I was so wrong.

Wise Blood – Who knew that droll comic Norm MacDonald and St. John’s College would have an overlap? Thanks to Twitter, I discovered that Norm is a voracious reader who holds contemporary fiction in even greater disdain than I do. For the book club that he hosts in the 140-character medium, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood was a recent selection. I’d never read her, and didn’t think I’d have time to read that one before the club started its discussion. Still, I filed her away with hopes of getting to her sometime in 2012.

Then I got a mailer from St. John’s about next year’s Piraeus continuing education program. Here’s the opening page:

The ancient port of Athens, the Piraeus, is a lively juncture of departures and homecomings. As in the days of Socrates, it represents the pulse-point of the community. A reunion, a chance encounter, a new beginning, an opportunity to reinvent one’s self — all these possibilities exist at the Piraeus.

Join Us.

St. John’s College, in cooperation with the Alumni Association, is pleased to offer Piraeus 2012, a continuing education program for alumni. We invite your participation, and we strive to awaken the curiosity that stirred Socrate to venture down to that port and led to journeys that shape our thoughts and lives today.

Among this year’s offerings? A four-day course in Annapolis on Wise Blood and six of O’Connor’s short stories, led by two of my favorite tutors (no professors at SJC) from the school. The brochure read

Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic stories and novels have the power, character, and plot of Greek tragedy. In Wise Blood, her first novel, and these six stories, which are poignant, often hilarious, and always disturbing, her characters have life-changing experiences that raise profound questions about grace, trust and the nature of the good. O’Connor is sensitive to the appearance of spirit in the world as she pursues the meaning of life, love, and destiny. [And serial commas.] Join us in reading this singular writer, as she searches the recesses of the human heart.

Yes, that’s my idea of a great mini-vacation. (There’s also a six-day course in Santa Fe in August on Thucydides, but I doubt I could get away long enough for that.) I stopped at that new & used bookstore where bought The Finkler Question and ordered the Library of America hardcover of The Works of Flannery O’Connor. I’m trying to be nice to that store and order a book every so often. I see it like this: if they’re brave/stupid enough to open a bookstore in this retail environment (it recently celebrated its first anniversary), then they deserve some sorta patronage from me.

That said, it’s like shopping with one hand tied behind my back, compared to using Amazon. I get to pay full price, wait several days for the book to arrive at the shop, and then drive 15 miles each way to pick it up.

So what did I make of Wise Blood? Well, I liked it more than Norm did, and think it was a much more accurate approach to life-with-religiosity-and-without-God than The Finkler Question. Can’t wait to talk about it next May/June!

This took me into December. After I finished the last book in the Dance, I thought I’d take it easy for the rest of the year. Then Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died, and I got drawn right back into devouring books.

Scoop – Hitchens had praised Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel of muckraking London tabloids several times, so I gave this a read shortly after CH’s death. I’ve long regretted that I had no journalistic background before I became an editor. I think it would’ve helped my news/feature writing immeasurably, instead of the nondescript style I’ve employed for years. It probably also would’ve helped me to ask the right/tough questions during interviews. But here I am, a 17-year vet of the trade rag biz, so I must be doing something right.

In Waugh’s book, a “country life” columnist who lives in quiet seclusion (in a typically demented old money mansion) accidentally gets sent on assignment to darkest Africa to cover a civil war. When I write “darkest Africa,” I mean that Waugh comes off racist as fuck. If you can see past that, it’s a very funny novel, and Hitchens maintained that the behavior of reporters hadn’t changed in the decades since Scoop was published. Given the phone-hacking scandals embroiling Murdoch’s newspapers, we can see that the behavior just adapted for new technologies.

The Trial – I’m embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read any of Kafka’s novels before this, just some of his shorter stuff. I cribbed some of my knowledge of his work from Introducing Kafka, a primer written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. Crumb’s adaptations of Kafka were gorgeous, but Mairowitz’s interpretations were a bit . . . pedestrian, I think.

I was prompted to start The Trial after I read this quote from Vaclav Havel in a New Yorker writeup:

“I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks,” he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. “Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake.”

As someone who’s always considered himself a fraud and is so convinced that he’s going to be ground down by larger forces that he’s saved them the trouble by grinding himself down, I appreciated Havel’s position. What I didn’t get from past readings of shorter Kafka (A Hunger Artist, The Metamorphosis, et al.) was the sheer humor of his writing. Midway through The Trial, I thought, “Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays make so much more sense now.”

Sure, The Trial is an “unfinished” novel, just like The Castle, but their very nature shows that no conclusion is possible. These all-encompassing bureaucracies perpetuate an unknowable notion of power, because knowledge would strip it of its authority. So, instead of rooting for a persecuted character to triumph, the reader is left to laugh uncomfortably at the increasingly bizarre tableaux in which he’s placed.

Hitch-22 – Which brings us to the end of the of the year. I’m glad I wrapped up with this one. Hitchens’ memoir came out shortly before he was diagnosed with the esophageal cancer that would lead to his death. Like many of the other books I read this year (including Keith Richards’ memoirs, which I have to get back to), it details post-war British life. Given that my mom was born in London during the war, I suppose there’s something meaningful about my interest in this period.

The book is written more loosely than Hitchens’ columns and book reviews. There’s more personal flair, more impression, more “I guess you had to be there”, less argumentation and less circumspection to the prose. It’s a refreshing style for the man who’s final essay collection is entitled Arguably.

The exception is the Iraq chapter, in which he brings his journalistic instincts to bear, likely to try to counter the impression that he was wrong about the invasion. He admits to not even thinking that the logistics of the post-war planning parameters, implications and possibilities would be so bungled by the Bush administration, and stands by his notion that it was correct to take Saddam Hussein out of power.

What I wonder about, and what I don’t think he wanted to address, was whether it would have been possible for this to be done “cleanly.” Just as he came around to understand that Stalinism was not an accident but a necessary result of Communism, is it true that any “regime change” operation by an outside power is necessarily going to become a godawful mess like we have in Iraq and Afghanistan? (The latter being more justifiable, since there wasn’t a real regime to change anyway.) Was it in the nature of Hitchens’ Trotskyism to believe in the viability of “imperialism for democracy”? I wish he’d have gone into this, because I do believe that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t happen without people seeing Hussein dragged out of a spider-hole and brought to “justice.” (Hitch-22 was written before aforementioned “Arab Spring,” of course.) But I also believe that other dictators saw that and doubled down on their own repressive forces, to try to keep such a thing from ever happening to them.

ANYWAY: outside of that chapter, I thought the book was fantastic. I enjoyed the literary scenesterism, the parlor games with Amis, Rushdie, Fenton and the like. The chapter about his late (1988) discovery of his Jewish roots was fascinating, inasmuch as he found himself somehow adopting Jewishness as a tenacious culture while remaining atheist and contending that Israel is essentially an outlaw state. (Which returns to those issues of religiosity, God/godlessness, and ethics, via Wise Blood and The Finkler Question, but in yet another direction.) I’m simplifying, but he doesn’t exactly get into the question of where Jews were supposed to go after the war. Except for the part about how Jews were co-opted into the ethnic cleansing practices of post-war Poland.

I found myself quite sad by the time I finished Hitch-22 (and this year), rent by the fragility of life, the voices that are stilled, the books left unwritten, the books left unread. I haven’t made any firm reading plans for 2012, certainly not on the scale of that Powell project, but I’m confident I’ll come up with something.

I hope you enjoyed this rambling recap, dear reader. I have a mild interest in other fields (sports, menswear, technology) but really, the only question I can ask to show that I care is, “What are you reading?”

Comments

6 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. This was a great piece, Gil. I linked on my blog. I’m stealing the idea of keeping my own list like this for 2012 and I’m also stealing “lowest college denominator.”
    -rfb

  2. Wow! What an incredible post! Thirty-two books a year is pretty solid–a little more than a book a month–for someone with a full-time job. I’m going to have to re-think Martin Amis now; I couldn’t bear the pretentiousness of THE INFORMATIONS. I did read his slim detective novel, NIGHT TRAIN, I think it was called, and found the writing glossy enough, but nothing to get overly excited about. But I simply must read A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT and I will renew my effort to get and read a copy of THE LEOPARD. Thanks for this incredibly ambitious, end-of-year wrap-up.

    * * *
    And by the way, this is a killer line about THE LEOPARD: “It was the reverse of a wine cellar; while the book stayed the same, I matured enough to read it.” Nicely done.

    * * *
    By the way, I happen to be making my way through WALDEN, and last night started on a section called “Reading.” As reading is your overriding interest, it might be worth perusing these five or six pages if you haven’t already read it.

    • Gil,

      Thirty-two books a year is pretty solid–a little more than a book a month

      Who taught you math? (to quote the awesome Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang)

      Oh, and give Amis’ London Fields a shot.

      • Since I’ve already shown my arithmetic skills are abysmal,let me add another sort of post script: “nondescript” is not how I’d describe your style. In fact, as a writer for whom style is close to everything, I’ve always admired and often envied yours–wit, irony, stick-and-move sentences (to borrow from boxing), colorful descriptions, humor, greyhound-like streamlining, and always–always–substance in abundance. I constantly tell people this is the best blog out there.

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