Wednesday, December 21, 2011

My Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years

I am beseiged by books.  Every day (except Sunday, when my mail carrier is home nursing her aching back in an epsom-salt bath) my mailbox is stuffed with envelopes bearing the Next Great American Novel.  At least that's what publicists assure me.  That's all well and good, and I really am looking forward to quite a few new releases coming our way in 2012, but it leaves me little time stop and smell the roses of past years.

In 2011, I made a concentrated effort to hit the new-release Pause button every so often and find a previously-neglected-but-much-longed-for book on my shelves.  It told myself I shouldn't be driving so fast into the future that I forget about the old books.  And by "old," I mean anything published in 2010 or earlier.  There are many more books I wish I'd made time to read (poor Lolita, she's still sitting over there in the corner, just off the dance floor, looking all lonely and unread), but when I did go all retro with my reading, I found that, to quote the Jewish philosopher Felix Adler, "The past speaks to us in a thousand voices, warning and comforting, animating and stirring to action."

Here, in descending order of publication, are the voices I'm glad I stopped to hear:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
by David Mitchell

In The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet the titular character is a clerk in a Danish company deployed to Japan in 1799 to help keep trade running smoothly and to negotiate East-West politics with the xenophobic locals.  While there, he meets and is enamored by a female medical student who, despite her sex, is garnering a reputation for her skills as a midwife.  Things happen, the girl is sent to a remote mountaintop monastery where even worse things happen and Jacob is tortured by guilt over his inability to prevent tragedy.  Oh yeah, there's also a very robust naval bombardment.  (I'm being very circumspect to avoid spoilers.)  While the plot is wholly engaging, I found it was Mitchell's lively style which really held me tight to the page.  I read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet on my Kindle and through it all, my thumbs were kept busy highlighting sentences and entire paragraphs where Mitchell fully engaged all five of the reader's senses ("Wistaria in bloom foams over a crumbling wall.  A hairy beggar kneeling by a puddle of vomit turns out to be a dog," etc.).  This novel all but comes with a Scratch-n-Sniff strip on every page.  It's the soundtrack, however, that struck me the hardest (and loudest).  Throughout the book, cicadas sing, ship timbers grunt and sigh, snow falls from a pine tree with "a flat thud," and an artisan's loom goes "tack-ratta-clack-ah, tack-ratta-clack-ah."  One section begins: "Night insects trill, tick, bore, ring; drill, prick, saw, sting."  There's poetry, overt and covert, in a sentence like that.  Put another way:  as Akira Kurosawa was to color in Ran, so David Mitchell is to sound in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

by Lindsay Hunter

In the early pages of Daddy's, Lindsay Hunter's brain-blistering collection of short stories from Featherproof Books, a restless wife who endures frequent bouts of rough sex with her husband finds pleasure in their invisible electric fence.  Each day, after the husband goes off to work, she puts their dog Marky in front of the TV to watch Animal Planet then goes out to the edge of the yard:
I wind the vinyl part of Marky’s collar around my hand, holding the plastic receiver in my palm, and then I press the cold metal stimulator against my underwear, step forward, and the jolt is delivered.  Like a million ants biting.  Like teeth.  Like the G-spot exists.  Like a tiny knife, a precise pinch.  Like fireworks.  I can’t help it—I cry out; my underwear is flooded with perfect warmth.  I lie back in the grass and see stars.
Still with me?  If that paragraph shocks and offends, then trust me when I say it's one of the tamer moments in Hunter's squirm-worthy stories.  I'm not trying to push readers away from Daddy's—quite the opposite, in fact—but I did want to make you aware this book is not for everyone.  Hunter pairs latent sadness with the seamy details of her characters' lives.  The dog-collar orgasms, the pie-eating-contest barf, the forlorn chafe of masturbation, the fat fathers who wear bras: at times, Daddy's is the literary equivalent of a John Waters movie—and you may feel like showering after each story.  But where Waters shocks for shock's sake, Hunter uses the grotesque as a gateway into the loneliness that darkens many of our lives.  She takes us where we would not normally go willingly, but even among the sordid and grimy, there are moments of startling beauty.  In here, stars twinkle "white as little baby teeth," bits of cherry pie stick to the corners of a mouth "like blood under a neon light," a mother yearning for her baby has "nipples like lit matchheads."  Hunter can get away with heightened metaphorical language like this because the entire collection is bold and fierce.  Like a bottled hot sauce you're trying for the first time, there's always that first hesitant moment before you put it on your tongue.  Make no mistake: Hunter burns; oh brother, does she burn delicious.

American Salvage
by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Here's another contemporary female short-story writer (and accomplished novelist: Once Upon a River) who kicks down the door and pushes us inside to a rough, gritty world inhabited by people who, to put it bluntly, are scraping the bottom of society's barrel.  Like Lindsay Hunter, Bonnie Jo Campbell isn't always polite and rule-abiding in her fiction, but I think that's why I'm drawn to her work.  In this collection, she took me to the rust-flecked scrap yards of rural Michigan and introduced me to some unforgettable characters (some with teeth, some without).  I know it seems I'm inordinately drawn to the mean and gritty in fiction, but I find that writers like Campbell nearly always balance despair with hope.  All the stories in this collection are top-notch, but for me the centerpiece chandelier, all a-blaze and glittering with crystals, is "The Inventor, 1972."  It's an incredibly moving and intricately-plotted story of a man who hits a teenage girl on a dark road and he discovers--well, I won't tell you what he discovers...but I will say I love how Campbell fits all the various pieces of the narrative puzzle into one emotional whole by the last sentence.  I also like the sentences which open "The Inventor, 1972."  BAM!  We're in the middle of the action from Word One:
A rusted El Camino clips the leg of the thirteen-year-old girl, sends her flying through the predawn fog.  She lands on the side of the road and lies twisted and alive in the dirty snow.  Before the pain gathers its strength, the girl sees how her leg looks wrong against the asphalt.  In slow time, she notices a hole in her new jeans, a puncture made when the jagged end of her broken fibula stabbed through and retracted.
Bonnie Jo Campbell doesn't waste any time playing patty-cake with her readers.  American Salvage can be hard, mean and brutal....and she makes no apologies for taking us there.

Why Dogs Chase Cars
by George Singleton

Singleton’s collection of linked stories featuring young Mendal Dawes of Forty-Five, South Carolina, is funny, wistful, profane, funny, charming, funny, and—above all—funny.  Mendal’s father affectionately calls his only child “Fuzznuts” and “peckerhead” and is not adverse to going to great lengths to set up an elaborate practical joke months in the making in order to teach his son a valuable lesson about his place in the world.  Mr. Dawes loves his son, but can be a vexation and embarrassment.  A jack-of-all-trades, he is also a compulsive Burier of Objects.  Their entire property is filled with mounds and holes-in-progress as the elder Dawes hoards old metal gasoline-station signs, hardware-store yardsticks, and empty barrels labeled “Toxic Waste,” the latter with an eye to the future when it could be profitable to own a patch of condemned land.  Mendal grudgingly admits his father is “maybe the only man in all of Forty-Five with the ability to look past tomorrow.”  What Mendal wants more than anything is to escape from Forty-Five, “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’”  It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn't take a Dr. Scholl's insert to keep one’s soles dry.”  In the story “No Fear of God or Hell,” Mendal vows: “If we’d’ve had a travel agent in town, I would’ve booked a plane to Mississippi, or any of those other states where I could get lynched quickly and without notice—just so I could flat-out die without much fanfare.”  Every boy trapped in a small town believes he is not living in the real world, a place of normality that exists somewhere beyond the town limits and is surely filled with people completely devoid of eccentricities.  But, as in the best comic Southern literature like Singleton’s (and Lewis Nordan’s and T. R. Pearson’s and Eudora Welty’s and Flannery O’Connor’s), it is the weird, the off-beat, and the off-kilter which make the worlds of these stories more “real” than reality.  Through hyperbole, we approach the truth; through the weird, we find the sane; and through humor, we get down to the serious business of understanding life.

by Joseph Heller

This year marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of the meanest, saddest, funniest, truthiest novel ever written about war: Joseph Heller's Catch-22.  For five decades, people have been alternately holding their sides and scratching their heads as they read about the World War II bomb squadron stationed on the island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea.  It's not always an easy book to read.  As the best literature often demands, you have to work your way to the pleasures to be found here.  Catch-22 is a novel that flips the narrative structure of the novel on its head as sure as Yossarian is thrown upside down in his Plexiglas bombardier's compartment.  The same events are told multiple times, looping and returning to add another piece of crucial information.  Catch-22 is illogical and irrational...and that's just the way the author intended it to be.  Heller refused to play by the rules in this book, inverting expectations at nearly every turn: one minute slapstick, the next minute a hard slap of violence.  This was my second time through the novel; my first reading was started on a plane bound for the Iraq War where, as an active-duty soldier, I was preparing myself for combat by reading Catch-22 like it was an owner's manual.  It's unlike anything else I've ever read.  Slapstick on one page, horror on the next.  As I wrote earlier on the blog: "Anyone who thinks Catch-22 is merely a frivolity, a slapstick indictment, a howl at conformity, a circus of words (all of which it is), need look no further than the equally straight-faced scenes to be reminded of the bitter intent of the novel.  Joseph Heller could be spit-take funny in one paragraph, but chillingly sober in the next.  He had a point to make and he did it not only with jokes and circular repartee, but with convincing arguments for pacifism."  I love Catch-22 so much, I devoted an entire week of blog posts celebrating its acerbic, off-kilter, Borscht-Belt-y humor.  And I still don't think I exhausted everything I had to say about it. 

Mildred Pierce
by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce opens with the peaceful scene of a man doing yard work on a hot afternoon in Glendale, California.  He goes inside, takes a bath, gets dressed, then walks to the kitchen where his wife is icing a cake.  They talk about the weather and the husband casually mentions he might take a stroll down the street since he has nothing better to do.  Suddenly, the mood turns and the wife snaps at him, blades in her voice:
     "She's waiting for you, so go on."
     "Who's waiting for me?"
     "I think you know."
     "If you're talking about Maggie Biederhof, I haven't seen her for a week, and she never did mean a thing to me except somebody to play rummy with when I had nothing else to do."
     "That's practically all the time, if you ask me."
     "I wasn't asking you."
     "What do you do with her?  Play rummy with her a while, and then unbutton that red dress she's always wearing without any brassieres under it, and flop her on the bed?  And then have yourself a nice sleep, and then get up and see if there's some cold chicken in her icebox, and then play rummy some more, and then flop her on the bed again?  Gee, that must be swell.  I can't imagine anything nicer than that."
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Pierce, Bert and Mildred.  Don't get too cozy with them, however, because they're about to split up.  In fact, in a few minutes Bert will be storming out of the house and their marriage will be kaput.  As they argue about Bert's "flopping" with Maggie B., Cain writes: "They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to be cooled with spit."  It's a helluva gangbusters way to open a novel.  Cain doesn't take the time to stop and give much exposition about the adultery, he just brings you right in when the marital simmer has reached a rapid boil.  From this point forward, Mildred Pierce is a fast-moving, hard-hitting account of divorce, abandonment, unemployment, suffering, and humiliation.  Cain is brutal in what he says as well as how he says it--short, direct sentences that feel like punches clipping the underside of the reader's jaw.

Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis

Before the financial ruin, before the shame, before the suffering, before the world's slowest suicide, there was the sex.  And it was good--at least in the hands of Gustave Flaubert and Lydia Davis, the most recent translator of Madame Bovary.  Flaubert's novel, published in 1856 and dragged through the courts a year later, has long titillated readers with its ripe, non-explicit sex (e.g. "the joys of the night").  But now Davis helps make Flaubert even frothier for a new generation of readers.  As with Catch-22, this was my second trip through the novel (I rarely re-read books, so this turned out to be an unusual year).  The first, about fifteen years ago, was the competent but less-sparkly Paul de Man translation in the Norton Critical Edition.  In a brief essay at Salon, Davis somewhat uncharitably sniffs that the de Man--itself a revision of the 1888 translation by Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx Aveling--is the worst among the eleven translations she's read.  Perhaps it is; I only have my two versions for comparison, but in my opinion, Davis punches de Man to a TKO before the first bell has rung.  She proves, once and for all, that the work of a translator does matter.  It's not just swapping words between languages, it's investing that exchange with style and meaning.  The thing I remember most about my initial Norton Critical encounter with Emma Bovary was that she did a lot of walking.  I know Flaubert had an obsession with shoes, but come on.  Emma is on a perpetual treadmill throughout the book--that is, when she's not stretched out on her two deathbeds (the first, a false one, comes after her lover dumps her via a note hidden at the bottom of a basket of apricots and she is stricken with what she thinks is a grave illness).  But yeah, it's true, there are pages and pages of walking.  Emma hoofs it all around town, dragging the hem of her adulterous dresses through the muddy streets of Yonville, along the streambanks, across the wheat fields.  Walking, walking, walking.  You'd think she'd eventually wise up and get a bicycle or a pair of rollerblades.  But it's not Emma's Lusty Pedestrian Afternoons that I take away from the new version.  It's the striking way Davis makes Flaubert's words pop off the page.  Miniature fireworks.  Springs tight as mousetraps.  Sizzling sausages in a hot pan.  It's like we're reading a whole new book.  And in a way, we are.


  1. Thousand Autumns was a truly special read. A strange, beautiful book--one from which I stole some descriptive techniques (those short, poetic sentences were masterful).