Unrequired Reading: Jan. 4, 2008

I finished reading 31 books (including long stories and plays) in 2007. This week, Unrequired Reading covers the best and worst and oddest of those books! Enjoy!

Most disappointing book: Under the Volcano – Malcolm Lowry

I know it’s a modern classic. I know that a ton of critics think it’s one of the finest postwar novels around. However, I found myself bored silly, after the first chapter or so. I mean, I (think I) got a ton of the references, and I appreciate the depth of the universe that Lowry tried to create in his evocation of Geoffrey Firmin’s last 12 hours, but I don’t think his intent was for the reader to pray for the character to just die already.

Dishonorable mention: Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser. A lot of people love this series, and I was prepared for a thrill ride of historical fiction set in an era I’d been researching (19th century Afghanistan), but I found the first book pretty lifeless. I feel bad because the author just turned lifeless yesterday, at the age of 82.

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Best second-chance: A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

When I read this back in college, I really didn’t know New Orleans. And, while I had read Boethius, I didn’t know many black people. I think I also didn’t trust all the people who thought it was a great book. This time around, I found myself charmed by Ignatius Reilly’s ride on the wheel of fortune. My wife thought the conclusion was a cop-out, but I thought it was perfect.

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Best lipogrammatic exercise: Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

It’s a charming, short, epistolary novel about a small town where letters of the alphabet are successively banned from use. The author cheats a little by using phonemes for some of his words, but it’s still an enjoyable read. You may notice that I didn’t use a “z” or an “x” in this writeup. Or you may not.

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Best novel to inspire a Chris Connelly song: London Fields – Martin Amis

My dislike of Martin Amis stemmed from a crappy article he wrote about the adult video business for Talk Magazine. Fortunately, a friend recently pointed out that a song I liked — Nicola 6 by Chris Connelly and the Bells — was inspired by London Fields. I have to admit, he’s a hell of a verbal craftsman. I was struck by how dated — as in, late-1980s — its apocalyptic vision was: all eco-disaster and nuclear armageddon. That doesn’t detract from how good the novel is, just as I still enjoy The Watchmen despite its very Reagan-Thatcher era mindset.

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Most surprisingly good novel: Seven Types of Ambiguity – Elliot Perlman

I didn’t pick this up when it came out in hardcover, because I thought the author was being pretentious by using the title of Empson’s literary criticism. Note that I never read Empson, but still thought Perlman was being a tool for using it as his title. On a whim, I picked up a remaindered paperback one evening, and found myself entranced. It’s quite an engaging novel, offering up a demented love story over years from a series of perspectives. I passed this one on to one of my not-so-literary friends, and she enjoyed the heck out of it. There’s a bit of a game in trying to figure out who each chapter’s narrator is, but it never becomes precious. Give this one a shot. I’ll try to read Empson sometime.

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Worst half-assed echo of a 20-year-old Tom Wolfe novel: Mergers & Acquisitions – Dana Vachon

A crappy coming-of-age novel about Wall St. that featured virtually no observation, cardboard characters, and a simplistic view of finance. Only saving grace: just as Bonfire of the Vanities came out shortly before the 1987 stock market crash, this one came out a little while before the subprime meltdown. (I guess you could wedge in Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century & the dot-com crash, too.)

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Best book about writing: Aspects of the Novel – E.M. Forster

When I started to think about writing fiction again, I read a couple of books on the subject. I found Forster’s book the most rewarding, in part because it laid bare the workings of a bunch of novels I’d go on to read during the year.

Honorable mention: About Writing – Samuel R. Delany

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Most clearly derived from E.M. Forster’s model of fiction: Saturday – Ian McEwan

The domestic ballet and the painful interiority of the lead character felt like they were a deliberate exercise at making fiction from Forster’s dicta. The utter formality of it all robbed a potentially good story (a man gets into a car accident in London during an Iraq war protest).

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Best airplane read: Amsterdam – Ian McEwan

Which isn’t to say that McEwan’s a bad writer. This one was twistedly entertaining. I read it in an afternoon, during a trip back from New Orleans. Still formal, but evil.

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Most now-now-NOW!: Spook Country – William Gibson

That’s not a criticism, even if it’s named after that idiotic ESPN “Who’s More NOW?” shtick. Gibson gives up any pretense of science fiction and tries to capture a little of our uprooted present moment. He’s still writing caper thrillers, but this offered me enough perspective on (and observations of) what we’re living through for me to overlook the fact that I guessed the secret mission earlyish on.

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Best Oedipal drama: Oedipus the King – Sophocles (tr. Grene)

Honorable mention: The Anatomy Lesson – Philip Roth

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Most egregious use of filler material to pad out a book: The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin

Maybe Chatwin was in the early stages of the mysterious disease that was to do him in (okay, he had AIDS) when he was working on this book, but surely there was a better way to integrate his lifetime’s thoughts on nomadism than to shoehorn them in as notebook entries after half a book of (relatively) conventional travel narrative. There are some gems among those notes, but they really feel like they’ve been shoehorned in to satisfy a book contract. Which is sad, because the Australia narrative can stand on its own.

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Second-best use of music to explore the death of a loved one: Love is a Mix Tape – Rob Sheffield

The author married young and his wife died of a pulmonary embolism before 30. Years later, Sheffield uses the mix tapes he and his wife gave each other (and a few mixes from outside their time together) to explore and mourn the relationship. It’s a charming and sad memoir; I only wish that their relationship didn’t span the indie-1990’s, since I don’t know some of the music that well.

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Best use of music to explore the death of a loved one: The End – Anders Nilsen
The “Since You’ve Been Gone I Can Do Whatever I Want, All the Time” series of panels in this comic — scratchily depicting “Me crying while doing the dishes,” “Me crying at the drawing board,” “Me trying to hold it together on the train in France” — were the most heartbreaking thing I read all year. Even if the title comes from a song by The Outfield.

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Best example of “write what you know”: An American Dream – Norman Mailer

Ron Rosenbaum praised this novel when I asked him if Norman Mailer was an overrated relic of the 1950s/1960s. It’s certainly got some amazing writing in it, even if it bogs down into a police procedural in parts. It gets this honor due to the fact that it’s about a drunken wreck of a man who strangles his estranged heiress wife to death. . . written a few years after Mailer drunkenly stabbed his wife in the chest with a penknife and went on to marry and divorce an heiress!

Honorable mention: Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels.

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Best alter ego: Rock n Roll – Tom Stoppard

What if Stoppard left England for his native Czechoslovakia? What if he lived through the moral choices of life in that country after the Soviet invasion in 1968? It’s a wrenching, personal play from a writer whom I tend to think of as, um, distant and impersonal. I’m hoping to see this while it’s on Broadway.

Honorable mention: Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels.

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Best book I read all goddamn year: Middlemarch – George Eliot

Make the time. You need to read this before you die.

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Here are the other books I finished, but couldn’t come up with an award for:

The One from the Other – Philip Kerr

Snow – Orhan Pamuk

Taliban – Ahmed Rashid

Then We Came to the End – Joshua Ferris

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka (r)

Oedipus at Colonus – Sophocles (tr. Grene) (r)

The Look of Architecture – Witold Rybczynski

79 Short Essays on Design – Michael Bierut

The Misanthrope – Moliere

Now let me know what you read last year, and come up with some equally goofy awards!

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