Top Fives for 2012

December 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

I read a lot of great stuff in 2012, though a lot of it was canonical.  I hope to read more contemporary fiction in 2013, especially short stories.  As in past years, I have top fives of both non-canonical and canonical books.  Without further ado, the non-canonical list:

5. The Children’s Hospital, by Chris Adrian.  I read this on a September vacation to Ireland, and it was a fantastic book for the experience: long, immersive, very strange, very otherworldly.  The tale of another flood, an apocalypse overseen by four angels, the only survivors of which are those in a US children’s hospital.  The hospital is magically transformed into a floating ark, complete with “replicators” that provide any basic desire of the residents (but nothing too complicated, like a puppy, or a person).  Jemma, an exhausted med student, is pregnant with the supposed savior of the new world; flashbacks to her childhood with her complicated, fascinating brother, Calvin, who killed himself in a bizarre ritual, are the best parts of the book, especially the incredible Christmas chapter.  It falters a bit near the end, and some of the discussion on the reasons for the apocalypse are rather facile, but Adrian should be commended for the boldness of his vision, and for a book that can provoke discussions about American religion, concepts of sin, and childcare that might actually be interesting.

4.  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach.  See posts here, here, and here.  Terrific book; the opening fifty pages or so are some of the best baseball writing I’ve ever read.  As I said in one of the posts, if I hadn’t picked up and enjoyed a book about baseball, Melville, and a small Wisconsin college, American publishers may as well have stopped trying and shut down completely.  I am the target audience.  As an aside, the post on Aparicio Rodriguez has quickly become the most popular post on this blog by a very wide margin, so clearly people are reading the book, and clearly there’s a lot of confusion about whether Aparicio is a real ballplayer or not.  (He’s not.)

3. The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien. See post here.  O’Brien is criminally under-read, at least in this country.  He’s the trickster god of Irish literature.  This marvelous, hilarious, surreal book involves bicycle centaurs, hidden treasure, long footnotes on an eccentric inventor, an eternal labyrinth, and most of all, very funny dialogue.

2. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin.  See post here.  Borderline canonical, but no one to whom I mention it seems to have read it, and most have not heard of it.  Nevertheless: one of the great utopian novels of the twentieth century, and an essential book for the 21st.

1. The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.  See posts here and here.  One of the great works of literature.  Period.  Everyone should read it.  You: read it now.  This hit me like a bolt of lightning, especially as I really did not expect it.  I had heard of Sebald, and knew I should try him out at some point, but this was a book that was just sitting on my shelf for years.  Now I plan to read everything of his that has been translated in 2013.

Books that just missed the cut: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray; Talking Heads: Fear of Music, by Jonathan Lethem; Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.

The canonical list:

5. Mythologies, by W. B. Yeats.  See post above for The Third Policeman.  Utterly wonderful, even Yeats’s weird mystical/hermetic writings, some of which work beautifully as fiction.

4. The Emigrants, by W. G. Sebald.  It belongs on this list, too.  It hangs with the heavyweights.

3. Malone Dies and The Unnamable, by Samuel Beckett.  See post here.  Not quite at the level of Molloy, but damned close.  Masterpieces of language and, it should be emphasized, character.  The characters created through Beckett’s fabled control of language are just as vivid and memorable as the language itself.

2. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.  This was a rereading, and a deeply enjoyable one.  On my first reading, in college, I was floored by the plot pyrotechnics (some literal: spontaneous combustion, anyone?).  On this reading, I was more interested in the language, and the way in which this book can seem the Dickens novel least dominated by character (coming after the book most dominated by character, David Copperfield), especially because its main internal narrator, Esther, is rather boring herself.  This book is all Dickens’s eye and ear, roving across London, through the fog, into the slums, creating cinema.

1. Dubliners, by James Joyce.  See posts here and here.  Also a rereading; a book that I appreciated immeasurably more than on my first reading, in part due to reading Ellmann’s magisterial biography of Joyce, and Joyce’s early “Epiphanies.”  “The Sisters,” “Araby,” “A Painful Case,” “Grace,” and “The Dead,” masterpieces all.  “The Dead,” especially, was incredibly moving to me on this reading.


Belated Top Fives for 2011

January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have not one, not two, but three top five lists for last year, mostly because a read a whole lot of canonical lit in 2011, and a lot of the best of the rest of what I read was short stories, essays, and the like.  So herewith, three lists: favorite short pieces I read last year, favorite more-or-less contemporary lit, and favorite books including the canonical stuff everyone knows they should read.

Short pieces:

5.  “Pride and Prometheus,” by John Kessel.  This brilliant short story (verging on novella) speculates on what would happen if Victor Frankenstein (and his creature) showed up in the milieu of Jane Austen.  A brilliant mash-up.

4. “Skunk,” by Justin Courter.  I read this in an anthology of “fabulist and new wave fabulist” stories entitled Paraspheres.  I never expected to love a story about a perv getting addicted to skunk musk.  But I did.  The deadpan delivery of the over-the-top premise works beautifully.

3. “Declaration on the Notion of ‘the Future’,” by the International Necronautical Society (Tom McCarthy).  The best manifesto I’ve read in ages. (Not that I read all that many manifestos.)

2. Section 36 of The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace (printed under the title “Backbone” in The New Yorker).  This is a cheat, but TPK really is an unfinished assemblage including some finished, short-story-length pieces.  This is probably the best of those, about a boy obsessed with touching his lips to every part of his body.

1. “Retreat,” by Wells Tower.  A masterpiece of a short story.  See here for my comparison of it with Chekhov’s “Gooseberries.”

Contemporary lit:

5. Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.  I was a little down on this when I finished (see here), but it’s gotten better in my head since then.  The flashback descriptions of life in the Washerwomen cult, especially, will stick with you.

4. Eunoia, by Christian Bok.  Can I interest you in a wildly inventive work of conceptual prose-poetry, consisting of five story-poems which each use only one of the five vowels, and use over 90% of the possible words available in the English language fitting that criteria?

3. The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.  By no means a finished work, but I’ll remember reading it more than almost everything else I read in 2011.  See here, here, and here.

2. Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami.  For some reason I didn’t have high hopes for this particular Murakami — I guess it was the off-putting title — but it’s right up there with his best stuff (maybe one rung below Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland).  Love the ferris wheel scene.

1. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. A clinic in the American short story, destined to be the tailpiece to any creative-writing or American lit course featuring Hemingway, Carver, Coover, and Lorrie Moore.  Also, he’s from Chapel Hill.

Canonical lit:

5. Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar.  In retrospect, reading Beckett before this would’ve made sense.  A terrific synthesis of modernism and postmodernism, and one of the most successful experimental novels I’ve ever read in the gestalt of its structure, style, theme, and content.

4. The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.  Hilarious, heartbreaking, and absurd, at times all at once, in its depiction of Kiev under siege.  Bulgakov is just the best.

3. Molloy, by Samuel Beckett.  From this point on we’re dealing with three unspeakable masterpieces, and ordering is really a matter of what the weather’s like on the day you’re asked.

2. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

1. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.  Actually, Emily may always be at a different level for me.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #4: The Best of Matthew Sweet

May 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

“In a deceiving way, time is only a dream.”  -Matthew Sweet, “Through Your Eyes”

I gave myself the task of ranking my top 20 Matthew Sweet songs for my first playlist of the summer.  Sweet, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated, is one of the great American songwriters.  He is Nebraskan.  He writes shimmery pop songs, devastatingly sad songs, songs that are both, folk songs, hard rock songs.  Great songs, mostly.  Here’s my list, culled from a list of 50 songs I really and truly love: the best of the best.  I’d love to hear others’ favorites.  This world needs a Matthew Sweet revival.

20. “Back of My Mind,” from Sunshine LiesSunshine Lies is one of those albums that sneaks up on you, and you only realize it’s  good after four or five listens.  This song is the first example on this list of the central theme of Sweet’s oeuvre: inexorable, pliable, hateful, merciful Time, and the vast range of human reactions to the phenomenon.

19-17. “Millennium Blues,” “If Time Permits,” and “Beware My Love,” from In Reverse.  This three-song suite opens the album; its  bookend, the magisterial nine-minute “Thunderstorm,” was one of the toughest omissions from this list.  I love the horns in “Millennium Blues,” and that great transition from the sweetness of “If Time Permits” to the slightly psychedelic menace of “Beware My Love.”  This album, just by the way, was criminally overlooked.  Criminally.  It’s fantastic, and it’s not even one of his best three albums.

16. “Let’s Love,” from Sunshine Lies. In which Mr. Sweet displays his incomparable gifts for the Hook and the Harmony.  (Link to a live acoustic version.)

15. “Through Your Eyes,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. A great song about Buddhist cosmology, from Sweet’s album for his Japanese fans which finally got released in the US after word got out how great it was. The Girlfriend lineup is in full force here.

14. “Where You Get Love,” from Blue Sky on Mars. I have no explanation for why this wasn’t a massive hit, back in 1997.  I know I was psyched about it. I know it had a really rad video. I know it’s as propulsive as anything he’s written.  Seriously, someone tell me: why wasn’t this a hit, and why did this album tank?  Were keyboards really that uncool in 1997?

13. “Morning Song,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Quintessential Sweet: shimmery, sunny, gorgeous, beautiful, but with a touch of darkness in the lyrics. Plus it’s a helluva lotta fun to sing along with.

12. “What Do You Know?,” from Altered Beast. I am tempted to make all sorts of grandiose claims for this album — most underappreciated album in American pop music, one of the top ten albums of the ’90s, most expansive, genre-defying rock record of the decade, etc. — but I’m unqualified for all that.  So I’ll just say you really, really need to go listen to it if you haven’t, or even if you haven’t in a while.  And if you trash it, I will come after you like a spider monkey.

11. “Untitled,” from In Reverse. I have no words.  This song’s just gorgeous.  Instead, here’s a question: why haven’t these songs been covered more often?  Half of the songs here could be massive hits for a country star.  Or anyone, really.

10. “We’re the Same,” from 100% Fun. For me, like probably a lot of people my age, this is the soundtrack of the summer of ’95.  It’s a perfect summer song.  It sounds fantastic when you’re driving around at night with the windows down.  Here’s the thing: Matthew Sweet can write a pure, perfect pop song in his sleep.  Like Prince.  Like Paul McCartney.  There’s only a handful of these people.  It starts the top ten, then, but every song that I ranked higher than this takes that gift and does something extra-special with it.  At least to these ears.

9. “Sunlight,” from Living Things.  A really cool song, aurally, with an epic feel, and a lot of layers. There’s a lot of interesting nature and animal imagery in this album’s lyrics, as there is in much of Sweet’s work.

8. “Evangeline,” from Girlfriend. Girlfriend. Where to start here?  Like a lot of people, this is where I started with Sweet.  And on first listen, when I was 14, this was my favorite song.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs on this album (always a trademark of a classic album when it keeps up with your changing tastes).  In those pre-www days, I was really keen to find the Evangeline comics, and could not for the life of me, in small-town Nebraska.  Now I work at a library that owns them, and I’ve shown them to undergraduate students studying visual art, comics, and the like — mostly because it just makes me happy to be able to do so.  (Link to a live version.)

7. “I Don’t Want to Know,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu.  Love the kitty at the start.  And the tambourines — or are they sleigh bells?  And the chorus, one of his best.

6. “Smog Moon,” from 100% Fun.  It sort of kills me to leave this out of the top five.  I cannot be in the same room with you if you do not appreciate this song.  One of my favorite final tracks ever.  “There’s a smog moon/ In the amber sky/ Wavering and burning like a golden lie.”  Also, “We both know that staying young can take its toll.” (Link to hilarious Vampire Diaries fan video scored to this song.)

5. “Time Capsule,” from Altered Beast. Another song with a fantastic (and creepy!) video.  While I love the songs I ranked above this a tad more, I think this is probably the song I’d pick if I had to introduce someone to Matthew Sweet with only one song.  My second-favorite Sweet chorus, especially that last line, toe-tripping down the stairs.

4. “Winona,” from Girlfriend. The go-to song for wallowing in melancholic self-pity, as a teenager.  Because of that, and because it’s a song that just really sounds good as a duet, it is incredibly satisfying to sing along with a loved one, holding hands, having gotten past all that.  (Link to creepy Winona Ryder slideshow, but hey, it’s the only source on YouTube for the original song.)

3. “Sick of Myself,” from 100% Fun.  I know, I know: Nirvana.  But this was as close as I ever got to claiming an anthem.  Hell, realistically, the generation was never as idealistic nor as hopelessly fucked up as Nirvana would lead you to believe.  This song reflects that.

2. “Girlfriend,” from Girlfriend.  I would appreciate the opportunity to love somebody.  Oh, are you looking for someone whom you could love?

Seriously though: I suppose the key to this song, beyond one of the best riffs in history, is the Chorus of Angelic Matthew Sweets.  They’ve never sounded better.  That and the interplay of electric, steel, and acoustic guitars.

1. “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” from Altered Beast.  But this, right here, is the best Matthew Sweet song.  Stone cold perfect.  “I need someone to pull the trigger/ ‘Cause there’s a hole in my heart getting bigger/ And everything I’ll ever be I’ve been/ And I need someone to pull the trigger/ So if you’re what I think you’ll be,/ If you’re who I think I see,/ shoot.”  That, my friends, is as great a chorus as any of us will ever hear.

By the way, this needs to be available in a karaoke version.  (Kellyn, I’m looking at you.  Make it happen.)  You could really get a room full of drunks sobbing with this one.

Top Five for 2010

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:

5.  The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.  About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story.  It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas.   (That’s a good thing.)  I wrote a little about it here.

4.  Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list.  (Maybe even higher.)  That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it.  The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure.  See this post.

3.  Possession, by A.S. Byatt.  As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance.  Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.

2.  The Manyoshu.  (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.)  The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s.  (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.)  Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words.  I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan.  His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.

1.  At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise.  It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz.  Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds).  Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues.  It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.

Top Ten of the 2000s, and New Year’s Reading Resolutions

January 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

I don’t read a ton of hot-off-the-presses contemporary literature, but I suppose I read enough to have a top-ten list. Herewith, my top ten books of the past decade, as originally presented in our Christmas letter this year:

10. The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  A seriously entertaining mindbender, not the most original or avant-garde work I’ve ever read, but an extremely well executed piece of postmodern lit, with a ton of hidden goodies for obsessives to find online to continue the story if they so choose.  (Published in 2007, read in 2008; see four posts beginning here.)

9.  Pieces of Payne, by Albert Goldbarth.  I love Goldbarth’s poetry, and this lyrical novel of fragments, digressions, tangents, and footnotes is just awesome.  Goldbarth’s something of an alchemist, and his linking of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human to the natural, the high to the low, the tragic to the comic, are perhaps not unparalleled in American literature, but he does it better than anyone I know.  (Published in 2003, read in 2006.)

8.  Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace.  I am not one of the people who think DFW’s essays are superior to his fiction.  I think they are verifiably not as good, in fact; I just think people who are not passionate devotees of DFW set the bar of literary excellence lower for essays, and therefore think of his essays as “better” than other published essays in a way that they do not think of his fiction as “better” than other published fiction.  “Up, Simba” remains one of the great and most important pieces of creative nonfiction published in the 2000s.  It’s too bad his piece on Federer was published later; that is one of the great pieces of sports writing of the 2000s.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

7.  after the quake, by Haruki Murakami.  My favorite book by Murakami this decade, a beautiful set of stories.  “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is one of my favorite short stories, period, and is a good primer on what’s great about Murakami if you’re looking for a place to start (and don’t want to commit to a novel).  We were lucky enough to see an adaptation of stories from this book at Steppenwolf in Chicago.  (Originally published in Japanese in 2000, U.S. edition published in 2002, read in 2003.)

6.  Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link.  I am somewhat surprised to find four short-story collections on my list, because I’m always thinking that I don’t read enough short stories.  But this was a great decade for the short form, and also a great decade for playing with genre.  Link is the reigning champion of the “interstitial” or genre-defying or genre-appreciating-and-transcending story.  This is the best example of same which I’ve read yet, and I think the explosion of interstitial lit was one of the coolest trends of the decade.  Here’s hoping it keeps gaining momentum, and that Kelly Link writes a novel or ten.  (Published in 2005, read in 2006.)

5.  The Secret Life of Puppets, by Victoria Nelson.  I’ve raved about this before; there are at least 10 great books I’ve read since reading this just because they sounded so damned fascinating in Nelson’s book.  A great, great piece of literary and cultural criticism.  Caves, mannequins, automatons, and horror films will never seem the same to you.  An impassioned defense of the irrational, the surreal, and the uncanny in art and in life.  Seriously.  Pick it up.  (Published in 2001, read in 2004.)

4.  Pastoralia, by George Saunders.  Proud to say I’ve been a fan since the beginning.  The best satirist working today, and I personally think this is his best book so far.  Another writer who could do with stretching out and trying a novel; it’s time, isn’t it?  The title novella may be the funniest thing I read all decade, and an absolutely perfect snapshot of America at the turn of the century.  (Published in 2000, read in 2002.)

3.  American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.  The most entertaining book of fiction published this decade, period.  I will accept no other answers.  (And Gaiman’s got a good claim to Writer of the Decade status, when you stack it all up.)  A book that felt as though it were written as a gift to me, by a great friend who happens to be a genius, from a blend of transcripts of my dreams, short stories I’d written, and ideas I’d tossed out at 2 a.m. in dormitory bull sessions.  Of course, it made me jealous as hell, but at least it convinced us to go to the House on the Rock.  I am sure the inevitable movie franchise will be a gigantic success in 2015 or whenever it finally gets made. (Published in 2001, read in 2003.)

2.  Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace.  It will never cease to piss me off how this book was dismissed as DFW stuck in a rut, or a step backward, or whatever.  Total bullshit, written by lazy, conceited, and/or envious reviewers.  I think the fact that “Mister Squishy,” probably the most challenging story in the collection, is the first, had something to do with that: probably an editorial mistake, setting the wrong tone for said lazy reviewers.  “The Soul Is Not a Smithy” and “Good Old Neon” are masterpieces — not just of form, or execution, or craft: of feeling, of connection with the reader, the lack of which was the supposed knock on DFW.  You cannot read those stories and tell me he wasn’t progressing as a writer.  Whatever; the stories will live on in anthologies forever, if there’s any justice.  (Published and read in 2004.)

1.  House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  He’ll never top this, I’m afraid.  Hardly a week goes by that I don’t pull this off the shelf and think about rereading — but I’m a little scared.  The perfect storm of fear, paranoia, domestic turmoil, technological and textual overload: the book of the Horror Decade.

So that’s my list.  Now, looking forward: my friend Danelle is starting a project to read twelve books this year which she’s been putting off for years, and inviting others to join in.  I’m game!  So here’s my list of long-neglected hopefuls for 2010, in the order in which they occurred to me:

  1. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
  2. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
  3. GraceLand, by Chris Abani
  4. Everything and More, by David Foster Wallace
  5. The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
  7. The Ring and the Book, by Robert Browning
  8. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
  9. Mulligan Stew, by Gilbert Sorrentino
  10. The Divine Husband, by Francisco Goldman
  11. Poems, by Emily Dickinson
  12. Possession, by A.S. Byatt

My two alternates, should I give up on any of these, are South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami and Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl.

Top Fives for 2009

December 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just like last year, here are lists of my top five recent/lesser-known books read in 2009, and top five books read overall in 2009, including classics.

First, the recent/lesser-known list:

5.  Only Revolutions, by Mark Z. Danielewski.  A truly astonishing book/performance art piece.  I suppose I should really have it higher, but it’s like rating Finnegan’s Wake: it barely fits into the same category as other works of fiction.  Certainly worth experiencing, but not exactly a beach read.  (See my four posts beginning here.)

4.  The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño.  The second-most-exhausting book I read this year (see above), but much more readable.  Astounding and encyclopedic in the Melvillean senses.  It makes me both look forward to and dread reading 2666, which will surely eat up most of a summer’s worth of reading either this year or next.  (See three posts beginning here.)

3.  Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen.  A really cool book about doppelgangers, the weather, paranoia and other delusional states, marriage, and how these things all fit together.  It’s one of those books that doesn’t necessarily knock your socks off as you’re reading it, but sticks with you for weeks after you’ve finished.  (See two posts beginning here.)

2.  The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell.  I didn’t write about this for professional reasons, but speaking completely impartially, this book kicks ass.  A series of questions — odd and banal, rambling and terse, hilarious and deadly serious — addressed to the reader by either the author or a slightly unhinged narrator, depending on how you choose to read it.  It gets under your skin; you actually start pondering your responses to these bizarre rhetorical inquiries; you start examining your life, which is one of the things literature is supposed to help us do, after all.  (I actually considered posting my responses to every question until I realized that this would take me weeks to accomplish and I would be revealing some seriously embarrassing things.)

1.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum.  I’m not sure if Bynum is underrated or overlooked or what, but she should be getting press, after only two books, as one of the great writers working in America today.  This slim little book, a series of stories about the titular seventh-grade teacher, is moving like The Savage Detectives is never moving.  It is gorgeous and thoughtful and it says something that my favorite book of the year is more or less realist literature.  If only all realism were this well done.  (See post here.)

And now for my list including classics:

5.  The Interrogative Mood, see above.

4.  White-Jacket, or, The World in a Man-of-War, by Herman Melville.  Currently neck-and-neck with Pierre for second place on my personal list of Melville’s best books.  A dry run of sorts for Moby-Dick, but quite a successful book on its own terms, as Melville finds his rhetorical voice and rails against injustice in the Navy in some particularly effective passages.  The balance between narrative and digression is not quite there in the way it is in M-D, but it’s close.  (See three posts starting here.)

3.  Ms. Hempel Chronicles, see above.

2.  Villette, by Charlotte Brontë.  Just a fascinating work on every level, including its treatment of genres and its status as a post-Gothic feminist work.  Lucy Snowe is one of the great Victorian characters and one of the great Victorian narrators.  (See five posts beginning here.)

1.  The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki.  It amazes me that this incredible book, enveloped in layers of mystery in both the narrative itself and the history of its writing and publication, is not better known.  (Obviously that’s what happens when you happen to be a Polish nobleman writing in French.)  Exoticism, eroticism, colonialism, metafiction, writing within, across, and between genres, stories within stories within stories, secret societies — it’s tricky and weird and obviously too interesting to be taught in Lit classes though you can teach anything and everything from it.  It helps that I read a lot of it while on a fun vacation to the Pacific Northwest (thanks again, Spiff!); I always remember books I read while traveling.  (See six posts starting here.)

So those are the lists this year; perhaps I’ll post my top-ten of the decade in January.  In the meantime, here’s wishing you happy reading in 2010.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #2: My Top Five Songs of the Decade

December 8, 2009 § 3 Comments

It’s impossible to distill a decade’s worth of music into five songs; but here are the ones that seem most memorable to me, at the moment.  Ask me in a month and I’m sure the list will have changed.

Here’s my #5 song of the decade: “Rise Up With Fists!” by Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins.  (Sorry about the Hee-Haw laffs in the video, which can throw off the mood a little if you don’t already know the song.  But hey, you’re cool — of course you know this song already.)  The songs on this album (Rabbit Fur Coat) are straight-up incredible.  They nail a particular blend of deadpan humor, irony, and heartfelt emotion that is purely of the decade, for me at least.  Not to mention those perfect opening lines: “What are you changing?  Who do you think you’re changing?  You can’t change things.  We’re all stuck in our ways.”  Yeah, that’s 2006, all right.  But the best is when the Watson Twins chime in with “Not your wife.”  Soul/alt-country: in a lot of ways this was one of the two or three albums in the decade that felt made just for me, hitting that aesthetic sweet spot.

#4 comes from another: The Greatest, by Cat Power, far and away the best album of the decade to me.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs from this album: right now I’m on “Lived in Bars.”  (Two days ago, I had “The Moon” in this spot.)

God, this song is incredible.  Chan Marshall has always had this unbelievable voice, and I think on The Greatest she finally figured out what to do with it.  There always seemed to be something missing, in her previous work: say, a glimmer of hope, a ray of sunshine, or an inkling of a smile.  Here, she’s working with absolutely flawless Memphis session players (damn, those horns!), and the material, I think, is her best, too.  Frankly, to be against this album is to have given up on beauty in this world.  This song blows me away: it’s somehow epic and gritty and mundane and lyrical and joyful and sad all at once.  There must be a jukebox in a bar somewhere that always plays this at last call.  How could you not shimmy your way out the door to that, with a tear in your eye?

#3 is “Unless It’s Kicks,” by Okkervil River, from The Stage Names.  If you get a chance to see them live, do it: this song is fantastic in person.  Seeing them (at Cat’s Cradle, in Carrboro, NC) was probably my second-best concert-going experience of the decade.  Such an awesome riff.  Such a steady build.  When Will Sheff sings about “the ghost of some rock-and-roll fan,” and they launch into that solo… the roof could’ve come down.

#2 is “Hey Ya!,” by Outkast.

Flawless.  A perfect song about the impossibility of monogamy that is now an integral part of our national fabric — probably got played at the Republican National Convention at some point, it’s so omnipresent and joyful-sounding and universally loved.  The epitome of the decade’s hyperactive reworking of old styles, old genres, old techniques into something fresh.

#1 is “Black Tambourine,” by Beck.

This song grows… and grows… and grows on you.  Pretty soon it becomes the best thing you’ve heard in an entire decade.  I’d more or less forgotten about it until we saw Inland Empire at the Music Box in Chicago; it’s used in, hands-down, the best (and creepiest) musical montage of the decade.  And suddenly, you realize what a strange song it is; how it sounds old and new, digital and analog, folkloric and popular.  Mostly catchy, and eerie, as hell; and timeless, and mysterious.  I don’t even think Beck would think of this as his best work — in this decade, Beck has certainly become the closest thing to Dylan that this generation will stand for — but it’s the song I’ll remember most.

As a special bonus song: my favorite concert-going experience of the decade was Head of Femur at Schuba’s in Chicago, their CD-release party. Their cover of “The True Wheel” just barely missed this list; do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of Ringodom or Proctor, and listen to pure joy. This YouTube clip is from last year, and isn’t quite as awesome as when I saw them way back when, but it’s still pretty rad; they fill up that tiny stage, and it’s incredible when everyone starts jumping around.

Five Favorites, Five Mysteries from Only Revolutions

July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment

Just finished: Only Revolutions.

Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!

Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:

-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray).  The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message.  This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?

-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans.  I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies.  Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).

-HONEY.  I love honey.  When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff.  (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.)  Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love.  Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect.  (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)

-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center.  Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway).  And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.

-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing.  A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss.  Beyond stops we all/ toss.  Because we’re emergent.  Allways divergent./  Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.”  (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)

And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:

-The Creep.  The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him.  The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL.  He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative.  Interesting, but I remain baffled.)

-“Flash, searing lime to wide.”  Wha?  I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page.  But why lime?  Why wide?  And why the lightning/thunder at all?  I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids.  It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.

-The small circles in the corners of a few pages.  These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle.  Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.

-The Leftwrist Twists.  Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact.  Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.

-The marriage and consummation.  Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex.  It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage.  Why is this marriage necessary?  Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what?  I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.

Top Fives for 2008

December 30, 2008 § 1 Comment

Every year Jaime and I send out a Christmas letter listing our top five movies, songs/albums, and books of the year. My books list is the only one that’s not really accurate: I leave out things that people seem to already know they should read. But hey, why not show both lists — the top five of lesser-known books, and the top five including classics?

First, the Christmas-letter list of lesser-known books:

5.  Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.  A really funny book, perfect for bedtime reading or picking up over breakfast or lunch.  Mostly very short pieces, each named after a topographic feature of the moon: descriptions of art installations, linguistic flights of fancy, satires on pretension.  My favorite might be “Appennines,” with its “magenta neon” sign reading “ANOTHER NAIL IN THE COFFIN OF BOURGEOIS GENDER ROLES.”

4.  The Wet Collection, by Joni Tevis.  I wrote about this a while back; it’s really good, falling somewhere among nature writing, experimental fiction, and memoir.

3.  End Zone, by Don DeLillo.  Do people already know they should read this?  I don’t know, I love DeLillo and I overlooked it for a long time.  Turns out it’s a really good book, and important for understanding DeLillo, nuclear paranoia, and football in Texas.

2.  City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.  Because of travel, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about this much.  But, listen, it f’ing rocks.  It’s easy to underrate genres like fantasy lit because so many books are utterly derivative, and even if they’re not derivative they’re escapist or of interest only to a subculture you’re probably more comfortable not getting too deep into.  And it’s easy to overrate genre “classics” just because they are “influential”: sure, Tolkien’s inspired a lot of books, but how many good books?  But then you get someone like VanderMeer, creating a really compelling universe (the city of Ambergris and its environs) and using it to tell serious, interesting, complex stories, and you want to dive in, and never read anything else but books like this ever again.

1.  The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.  I am not messing around here.  Read it already.  And I want comments, dammit.

Okay, and now the list of the books I most enjoyed, classics included:

5.  The Decameron, by Boccaccio.  Only one of the most important books in Western literature.  Combines my loves of heavily structured fiction, stories within stories and framing devices, and lusty Italians.

4.  The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow.  The quintessential Chicago book; one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read on the basic level of language, with its wild idioms, jargons, fragments, soliloquies; a colossus of a text, which took me the better part of last December and January to read.  I’m convinced: I must read all of Bellow.  Could’ve included Ellison’s Invisible Man here, too: another American classic.

3.  A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster.  This was the year I caught up with the rest of the universe and discovered that, yes, Forster was a genius: I was just too lazy in college.  The scenes in the Marabar caves are utterly unforgettable.

2.  The Golden Apples, by Eudora Welty.  Just an unbelievable book.  I can’t imagine reading this when it was first published; my head might’ve exploded.  “Moon Lake” is probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read, and it might not even be my favorite story here, because “The Wanderers” is just that good.  Difficult, obscure, and complicated in the best, most marvelous ways possible.

1.  Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.  Not as a quality judgment, necessarily (although I think it belongs in this company), but because it’s the book I’ll always think of when I remember this year.  In a year of awful surprises (and a few good ones), DFW’s death was the worst for me.  It’s funny: I first read this in the summer of 1999, right before we elected GWB; and I read it again right before Obama’s election.  Damn, but it’s been a long eight years, ain’t it?  DFW was always ahead of the curve, and so much of the book makes so much more sense to me now.  We’ll be a while in catching up to him.

Here’s wishing you all happy reading in 2009.

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