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.

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 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.

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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