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.

The Whale Collection

May 5, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Wet Collection.

Do yourself a favor and find this book. Many of us are brainwashed into thinking that small- or independent-press collections must be twee or regional or otherwise lesser, in one important way or another. ‘Tain’t always so, or even often so. This book is proof. It’s damn good.

Of course, this book happens to scratch one of my major itches. Tevis and I share a deep fondness for Melville. There’s only one overt reference to him here, but the book is (dare I say) Melvillean, in his Mardi and Moby-Dick style: digressive, allusive, concerned equally with the outer world of natural history, human history, religion, and the inner world of relationship, psychology, religion again, making the time to make important points you don’t quite notice until you’ve made a connection dozens of pages later. (Another alternate title for M-D: The Whale Collection.)

“Barefoot in a Borrowed Corset” is one of my favorites. It involves footnotes, in a good way. It pulls together stories about spelunking, Da Vinci, the Eucharist, the Old Testament leper Naaman, Crater Lake, and an underwater town in South Carolina. (The interplay of the very dry — the Last Supper fresco, leprous skin — and the very wet — bathing in deep lakes, watery towns — runs through the whole collection, and is used to great effect here.) But then there’s the footnotes, used here in an almost DFWian way, to create another layer of narrative, largely about the author, and about the construction of the story.

That story is largely one of armchair adventuring, the vicarious and allusive life most of us live. The first footnote, after the section-title “Spelunking”: “After reading, in a borrowed house, a stranger’s National Geographic.” And then the experience of spelunking is compared to insomnia, awake in a dark house, coming to grips with living with another person. Reference is later made to a “cave tour.” And later, there’s an extremely tangential reference to FDR, obviously one of the author’s personal heroes. His Civilian Conservation Corps recurs throughout this book: blazing trails, building cabins, creating parks and dams and roads. I suspect many nature books would heap scorn on this kind of work, cleaning and distancing and colonizing nature.  Tevis seems to consider it one of the great projects of the twentieth century, and genuinely appreciates the vantage points the work of those Depressed workers has given her on the land, the country, the world.

This would all make Mr. Melville smile, I think, the mixture here of lived experience and mediated experience and experience of others’ experience.  Oh, he sailed the seas, but then he cribbed so much of what inspired him from the books he voyaged in, as well, and from other adventurers’ stories. He took what he needed and was concerned with the deeper truth he saw in it, not primarily its supposed “authenticity.”

Anyway, this is a dangerous strategy: are you mythologizing or aggrandizing mundane life? Are you making specious, superficial, fragmented demands on decontextualized narratives? Are you, most important, boring me with your life? I think this story (and this book) avoids those pitfalls. So much here is about orientation: the self on the earth, the individual to the history, the human in nature. The wanderer to home. Way back when, we learned that the author wanted to “live a biblical life” (note that lower-case b) and a “prophetic life in conjunction with another.” Religion is very important throughout; the simmering Christianity of the South is all over this book, the relationship of earth to deity; but God does not seem nearly as important to Tevis as his cast of characters, and the lyrical words his prophets were inspired to write.

Bedrock concerns, all. The balance in the prose and the narrative between the colloquial and the heightened (pseudo-biblical) seems right, here. I don’t know: it’s silly to parse these things, sometimes. We’re talking art here. It works or it doesn’t. Here it works.

Cornellian Fictions

May 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection and Lunar Follies, by Gilbert Sorrentino.

Who doesn’t love Joseph Cornell? There’s something in his art that appeals to seemingly everyone. I suppose it’s partly that his work is just so ambiguously evocative that you can read just about anything into it; partly the toylike nature of his constructions, irresistible in their moving parts and mysterious rules; partly the deep veins of sadness and joy running through his work. Maybe there are Cornell haters out there; I haven’t met them.

TWC sports a picture of a Cornell box on its dust jacket. (Writers and Book Designers of the World, I can more or less guarantee that choosing such an image for your next project will guarantee you bookstore browsing time from yours truly.) Aside from just looking awful purdy, this choice dovetails very nicely with the construction of the collection as a whole: the title, the jacket, and the content (most of all) all lead you to see this book as a coherent construction made of disparate parts — a Cornellian box of specimens (natural historical, personal memory, social historical, etc.) There are all kinds of interesting ways the book works as this kind of construction; memoir here is much more than pretending you were once in a gang, and fiction is much more than ripping off some “true story.” But I digress.

“Ave Maria Grotto” was the first story that made me think of Cornell in its content, rather than in its form. It’s an imagining of the life of Joseph Zoettl, a real-life Benedictine monk in Alabama who created models of buildings (some religious, some not) out of found and donated “junk.” (More interesting echoes of The Art of Memory here, with its construction of memory palaces.) It’s a lovely story, and two passages stand out for me: “There could be no truly worthless thing; perhaps, he thought, it was a problem of transposing something into its next place of service.” And then, at the end, this interesting twist on Biblical exegesis:

Perhaps he thought, as he worked, of that old verse in Jeremiah: What has straw in common with wheat? Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks rock in pieces? Then it fit; he understood. Only what’s broken can fully be used. Nothing too humble; nothing too good.

The grace in everyday objects and quotidian memories, the importance of seeing the value in the used and broken as well as the rare and valuable, the hermetic (borderline creepy) devotion to work on a deeply personal, somewhat mystical art: these are Cornellian. Interestingly, the orientation Tevis displays toward her craft also seems to bear some resemblance to Cornell. He was always combining autobiography and fantasy, seeming to contain a bottomless well of nostalgia for things that he’d never known or knew only slightly. Dreams, daydreams, occurrences, relationships, world events: he used them all, he seemed to sense how they fit together.

So that’s one kind of Cornellian fiction. Another is displayed by Gilbert Sorrentino, in the book I’ve been reading before bed. This book, Lunar Follies, is wild, man. We’re talking short-short representations of art-gallery shows, performance art pieces, Joycean word associations, with each piece named after a feature of the moon. “Copernicus” is the Cornell piece, subtitled “A Collage.” It’s the longest in the book, eight pages. It’s a hell of a story, managing to combine Cornell’s obsessions with hotels, the stars, pop-culture stars, ballet, mythology, nobility, toys and games, and surrealism. He does so playfully, working the titles of and associations in Cornell’s art into a phantasmagoric surrealist story which highlights the overheated sexual longing running through so much of Cornell’s work. This is a dream-story: connections bounce off of one another, spinning a yarn that you can never quite unravel, once you’re done spinning it. There’s a great section on “Black Hunter, a version of the Korean board game of great antiquity, Box with Corks and Other Corks,” with mystical, obscure gameplay and rules: “It had reached that moment of transformation called Central Park carousel pavilion, a critical juncture that always nullified the effects of the aggressive gambit, American Gothic casement, even when that move was followed by the spectacular night sky and window facade.”

Hieroglyphics and Nostalgia

April 30, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Wet Collection.

A couple of brief notes here:

I read “Postcards from Costa Rica” right after my last post, which is too bad, since it fits so well there.  It’s a really well done piece: short sections focusing on a movement or vector, primarily of animals (ants, an iguana, a sea turtle, etc.)  There’s a focus on the hieroglyphics formed or left behind by these movements which linger in the memory.  In the final section, Tevis makes explicit the comparison of these tracks and the marks of language on a page.  Language as word-pictures, as an art of memory.

The next piece, “The Rain Follows the Plow,” is the longest in the book, and seems in many ways its core.  (I keep calling them “pieces” because they often blend elements of essay, story, and poem.  Belles lettres would probably be the closest designation, but it’s hard to drop that into a sentence.)  It threads together the story of a homesteading woman in the Oregon high desert and the author’s experiences as a ranger at the state park that’s been formed on that land by the damming of three rivers.

There’s a deep vein of nostalgia in this story, for me, and in some unexpected ways.  It’s very good on the wistful joy of new love kept at a distance and savored in a half-chosen solitude.  That’s part of it, the most obvious part, and the sweetest.  But there’s a bigger picture nostalgia here.  There’s a spur-of-the-moment cross-country car trip that would give anyone over sixteen a pang for a time when a trip from Texas to Oregon wouldn’t cost you approximately three gajillion dollars.  There’s mentions of folks in speedboats, RVs, campers.  Maybe it’s just me (actually, I’m pretty sure it is), but it already feels like a memo from a lost era.  How will teenagers be reading road-trip novels thirty years from now?

Memories and Specimens

April 27, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Art of Memory and The Wet Collection.

A serendipitous pair, these two. I’m enjoying bouncing back and forth between them. The Wet Collection, at least so far, is all about memory, nature, travel, personal codes of conduct, and the connections among these things. In more obscure and historical ways, The Art of Memory is about the same things, or at least how they were seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

The most interesting thread in TWC so far deals with memories and impressions of travel. “A Field Guide to Iridescence and Memory” records “specimens” found in nature: a damselfly “like a Christmas ornament,” a spider’s silky web encountered “One night, walking through the woods” (a nice mystery packed into that scene-setting), black opals owned by a couple in Oregon, retrieved from a mine in Nevada, a Costa Rican butterfly. There’s a nice paragraph then, transitioning to echoing memories of travel: “The iridescence of memory happens when one image (physical) illuminates another (imagined): not quite a reflection, but a refraction. These visions, these flashes of color come again and again. How then must I live?”

This juxtaposition, of memories and specimens, so nicely illuminates The Art of Memory. I’ve been reading about the art’s transformation by the thirteenth-century thinker Ramon Lull, often thought of as a magician, mystic, or alchemist (Yates disabuses me of most of my preexisting ideas of Lull, although he still seems something of a magus and was certainly seen that way during the Renaissance). As Yates explains it, Lull “introduces movement into memory.” He created this incredible system, intended to encompass all possible knowledge, based on Kabbalistic ideas of the names of god and medieval theories of the hierarchies of life and human knowledge. By linking God’s traits or “names” to the levels of being (angelic, celestial, human, animal, etc.) and the forms of human learning in mystical wheels-within-wheels which could be spun to match any of the three names with any of the levels, Lull devised a memory system he thought could be used to unlock the mysteries of the universe and, as a special bonus, reach out to Jews and Muslims and show them the truth inherent in Christianity, since aspects of his art drew on their own theological teachings.

(As a bookish aside: Lull’s books were among the first to use volvelles, those toy-like discs found in some early books, for a non-astronomical purpose.)

As Yates explains it, there’s a shift here from the eminently static art of memory encouraged in the ancient world and by rhetoricians, in which images were placed on sites to be recalled through the impact of the images and the familiarity of the sites, to Lull’s emphasis on memorization through repetition and the use of mnemonics which could be moved to keep one’s memory of the levels of knowledge sharp, and to move one up the “ladders” of the mystical Lullist art toward knowledge of the Trinity. Isn’t it interesting, then, how Joni Tevis contrasts the term specimen, with its connotations of pinned butterflies, taxidermied trophies, and precious stones, all eminently dead, with the fluidity of memories, always shifting as our perspective changes, as they recede or are “refracted” off of other experiences, other memories? (Interesting, too, but perhaps misleading, how Tevis also writes, in the section of this story entitled “What I Want,” “To know what it means to live a biblical life, uncloistered every day. This is my book of new ritual…”)

The arts of memory persist, in ways profound and banal. Since it’s so much on my mind lately, advertising occurs to me as an obvious (if lame) application. Aren’t most commercials intended to provide a mnemonic — a jarring, memorable image which carries a “message” embedded within it? There’s a truck campaign on the air now that is based on the placement of figures embodying one truck trait, like “smooth,” with a place that embodies another, like “rough.” (Here’s one example.) Perhaps this is one reason why Lull seemingly disapproved of the use of powerful mnemonic images, preferring memorization and contemplation of symbols: images are very, very powerful, but easily misused and misunderstood.

To return to TWC. Tevis is very good on Janus-faced travel. “Travelling Alone,” a very short piece, captures the time-murdering that happens in airports every day (I’m especially interested in this, having written a story some time ago setting a man’s personal purgatory in the Phoenix airport), but also the magic of air travel, the strange mixture of non-being and deification to be experienced in an airplane: “The moon burns cold behind my ear.” A couple of stories later, in “Everything but Your Wits,” revisits memories of past travel destinations, each marked as a “Gate/Platform.” There’s a gorgeous memory of growing up in South Carolina, cleaning up a movie theater after closing and watching a passenger train roll through town: “I wondered about the people on the train, where they were going, if they felt the excitement I did, whether any of them looked out their windows at the town, my town, that must have looked nondescript, to them.” This might seem pedestrian or boring to some readers, but if you grow up in a small town — mine was in Nebraska — you know the complicated texture of memory and emotion evoked by the sound of a night train rolling through town: its loneliness, its wanderlust, its nostalgia, and its promise. It is all a matter of perspective: likely none of those passengers have the memories to unlock the beauty and importance of that small town, likely a young girl in that small town does not have the experiences to know the feeling of being in transit, at the mercy of a train’s speed. But she will, we’ve already learned: she will. We are reading her own art of memory in this book.

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