Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Year of Books: Best of the Backlist

Everything old is new again. That's certainly the case with my reading habits.  As I lamented earlier this week at the blog, I own more books than I'll ever be able to read in seven lifetimes.  Every time I get a new novel, it's added to the ever-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeverRest), pushing older books even farther down the queue and putting me years behind in my reading of "current releases."  It's a constant, agonizing stress for me.  First World problems.

In 2013, I'm sad to report that I didn't make much headway chipping chunks from Mt. NeverRest.  The bulk of my reading intake consisted of books published this year (and a few which will make their first appearance in 2014).  I looked longingly over my shoulder at older books by Stephen King, Victor LaValle, Stewart O'Nan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Barry Hannah and even going back as far as Carson McCullers and Thomas Hardy (I told you I was years behind in reading new releases, didn't I?).  I'll repeat what I always say around this time of year: I vow to do better next year.  Will 2014 be the year I finally crack open Donna Tartt?  Magic 8 Ball sez: "Reply hazy, try again."

Nonetheless, I valiantly soldiered on this year and did manage to sneak a few non-2013 books into the schedule.  These are my favorites of the "backlist books" I finally got around to reading in the past twelve months:

The Coldest Night
by Robert Olmstead
The 1950s conflict in Korea may be “The Forgotten War,” but once you pass through the pages of Robert Olmstead’s devastatingly real novel, it will be hard to disremember the Korean War.  Olmstead often turns his attention to historical military conflicts (see also: Coal Black Horse, his 2007 novel about the Civil War), but with 2012's The Coldest Night, he has reached a new level of gritty, unsparing literature that also floats like a lyrical dream, sentence by sentence.  The book is the saga of Henry Childs and is essentially divided into three parts: the years before Henry ships off to war which tells the beautiful love story between Henry and a girl named Mercy; the harrowing battle accounts in Korea; and Henry’s return from war and his troubled attempts to re-enter civilian life.  Olmstead’s descriptions of battle are deceptively simple in detail, but it’s been hard for me to shake them from my head ever since putting the book down earlier this year.  Like this sentence: “Then the flanks exploded with gunfire and grenades until there was no sound at all but the long unceasing sound of the world’s endless thunder concentrated in one place.”  Olmstead fills all of his pages with linguistic thunder.

National Treasures
by Charles Macleod
In this short story collection quietly released in 2012 by micro-press Outpost 19, McLeod writes of residents on the lunatic fringe: young male escorts, an Amish boy on rumspringa, a man who puts his life up for sale on eBay, and other off-kilter folks.  These characters are steeped in the tar and nicotine of Raymond Carver, and bathed in the crackerjack wisdom of Flannery O’Connor.  The "life on eBay" story ("National Treasures") is especially well-done--one of the finest in an already-fine collection.  I spent the entire book hypnotized by McLeod’s wordcraft.  Like a lion tamer snapping a whip at his cats, McLeod demonstrates tight control over the sentences in National Treasures.  And what beautiful sentences they are.  Consider this from "Individualized Altimetry of Stripes": "The first snowfall will feel like soft electricity."  Or this description of Ludd, one of the book’s scarier creatures in "The State Bird of Minnesota": "He was bearded and awkward, an oaf of a man, but in the water he was something to look at."  And a few pages later, talking about that same character: "His teeth were a mess, not aware of each other; they sprung from his gums at all angles."  I could go on and on, but I'll stop now.  You've got other things to do.  Like going out and buying yourself a copy of National Treasures.

Mayakovsky's Revolver
by Matthew Dickman
As I've mentioned before, I try to begin each day by reading a poem.  For a few, unsettling weeks in 2013, those daily poems came from Matthew Dickman's 2012 collection Mayakovsky's Revolver.  Reading these stanzas had the same effect on me as if you'd clanged an alarm bell next to my ear and threw scalding water on my head.  Brothers and sisters, these poems are alive.  Which is ironic considering the fact that they're mostly elegies to the dead—specifically, Dickman's older brother whose suicide forms the emotional nucleus of the collection.  Dickman's imagery is precise and suitably haunting.  In the title poem, he writes:
I keep thinking about the way
blackberries will make the mouth
of an eight-year-old look like he's a ghost
that's been shot in the face.
In "My Brother's Grave," he mourns his sibling, imagining him "in his ten-million particles/of ash."  And a few lines later, he concludes the poem with:
Outside of the graveyard
there is still some part of him
buried in the mysticism of his DNA, smeared across a doorknob
or brushed along the jagged edge of his car keys. Two kids
from the high school nearby
will fuck each other on top of him
and I won’t know how to stop them. Someone, sometime,
will throw an empty bottle of vodka over their shoulder
and he will have to catch it.
If you're like me, you will read those lines slack-jawed with admiration for an artist who can turn something so sad into something so beautiful.

by Brad Gooch
Regular readers of The Quivering Pen already know of my passionate adoration of Flannery O'Connor, so reading Brad Gooch's 2009 biography of F O'C was a given.  Flannery was the second volume in the ill-fated Biography Project, and though it appears she may have killed that reading plan, the truth is that I got overwhelmed by 2013 "must-reads" and never found the traction to start reading author biographies again.  Maybe in 2015.  At any rate, Gooch's examination of the great Southern writer's life may just be the definitive one.  The object of my literary affection was born Mary Flannery O’Connor at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah on March 25, 1925.  The one-word weather forecast in the local newspaper that blustery spring day, Gooch tells us, was: “unsettled.”  The author herself couldn’t have picked a more apt word to herald the arrival of someone who, I contend, was the most unsettling novelist of the 20th century.  At one time, O’Connor described herself as “a pidgeon-toed, only-child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.”  Even at an early age, photographers were capturing that boil-and-scald nature inside Mary Flannery.  Gooch writes: “A solo portrait of O’Connor, age two or three, sitting on an ottoman, brow furrowed, satin bow in hair, frowning with full concentration into the curled page of a book on her lap, reveals a remarkably self-possessed expression of adult intensity.”  That I'll-bite-you characteristic of O'Connor continued well into her all-too-short life (dead at age 39 thanks to lupus) and Gooch appropriately delivers her biography with the snap and no-nonsense she well deserves.

The Sensualist
by Daniel Torday
Daniel Torday’s 2012 novella (published by Nouvella Books) is small enough to carry around in your back pocket or Louis Vuitton handbag.  And you will want to have The Sensualist close to you, within easy reach, because once you start reading this story of 17-year-old Samuel Gershon’s rocky relationship with classmate Dmitri Zilber you are flat-out hooked, totally gone, my friends.  Torday’s story of adolescent life in 90’s-era Baltimore is so engrossing and precise with its details that there is no hope once you reach page 25.  At that point, you’ll tumble headlong into this book and become a resident of its world.  The book’s title refers to that school of thought in which sensations and perception are the most important form of true cognition.  Dmitri, a recent Jewish immigrant from Russia, is obsessed with the works of Dostoevsky whose novels like The Brothers Karamazov are steeped in sensualism.  Samuel, on the other hand, becomes obsessed with Yelizaveta, Dmitri’s sister—a cool, enigmatic beauty with “pumice-black hair and pale white skin.”   It’s only a matter of pages before we’re falling in love with Yelizaveta, too.  “When she laughed,” Torday writes, “the chirping sound rang like a clever song.”  While The Sensualist has Dostoevsky’s depth and heft, it also reminded me of another Baltimore writer and his love-triangle novel: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.  The Sensualist may be a short novel (at 177 pages, it pushes the definition of “novella”) but it leaves a long-lasting impression.

London Snow
by Paul Theroux
To my surprise and consternation, it turns out this is the first book by Paul Theroux I've ever read.  I "found" it when I was sorting through the more than 8,000 volumes on my shelves during a recent culling of the collection.  Since I was in the mindset to find a good book to read for Christmas, I pulled it out and added Theroux's 1980 novella to the Christmas reading list.  "Good book"?  Hardly.  I couldn't have picked a better book.  London Snow's plot is simple: at Christmastime, a candy shop owner and her two adopted orphans are threatened with eviction by a irascible landlord (he first shows up at the shop with "the wet wool of his shaggy coat dripping" and a face that was "all red lumps and bristles").  The ill-tempered bear of a man storms out, the candy-store kin ponder their future, and all looks bleak.  But then things appear to take a turn for the brighter when the landlord disappears during a heavy blizzard which strikes London the next day.  The mother, one Mrs. Mutterance with a heart as sweet as the candy on her shelves, decides they must go out in search of Mr. Snyder, much to the dismay of her adopted children Wallace and Amy.
      "But we don't like him," protested Wallace.
      "We have to like him," said Mrs. Mutterance.
      "Why, Ma?"
      "Because it's Christmas.  If we don't find him, we'll lose Christmas."
How you read that sentiment will depend on whether you're a Tiny Tim or an unreformed Scrooge.  Either way, there's no denying this short book is long on heart.  Though the ending is rather predictable (what Christmas story isn't complete without spiritual reformation?), I savored every line Theroux set down.  Like this description of London just after the storm:
      It was snow.
      It clung thickly to the rooftops where it was nearly blue.  It was mounded like white eyebrows above the windows of the houses, and it had blown against the brick walls and stuck, making beards hang from the sills.  It was piled against the doors and made caps on the tops of lamp-posts.  Each spike on the churchyard fence was encased in a fluffy sheath, and so far the only marks in the white street--what a beautiful street it seemed!--were the milkman's footprints.
Sentences like those are gifts to all of us.  I couldn't have asked for anything better under my tree this year.  And it was a beautiful way to end my year of books.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

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