My wife and I welcomed a son into the world in November of 2011, which spelled a bit of an adjustment to my reading habits this year and — if I’m being honest — a bit of an amplification to my TV-watching. I had less total private hours, and for the first time in my life I therefore found myself planning what I would read — sometimes months in advance — instead of naturally drifting from book to book, tracing the threads of this or that conversation with a friend, recalling a review, or happening upon something entirely unexpected.
There is romance and intellectual gratification to such wandering; my 2012 way is a little sad and a lot less sexy, but I have also found that time restrictions this year have made me read with more care, and with more appreciation for writers who sacrifice so much of their personal lives and creative vitality just to make something.
Which is to say that I read books with added admiration in 2012, and I read with renewed marvel at how many different tones, and emotions, and forms, and kinds of stories are possible with text and language as a foundation. Here is a little something about three that I liked a lot:
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
My wife claims to be unable to deal with representations of violence in any medium since the birth of our son. I’ve heard about this phenomenon, which is apparently common, from a whole host of other parents over the last year, but I can’t say I’ve felt any changes in myself. Maybe I’m a sociopath?
I read and adored The Sisters Brothers in February and had virtually no reaction to its substantial bodycount, nor to murders perpetrated by either of the brothers, but I think (hope) that had more to do with their own sociopathic tendencies than mine, and deWitt’s wonderful control over the book’s emotional landscape, which unfurled inside of my imagination with perfect pacing and ever-increasing depth and sorrow. (I am haunted, still, by the image of Hermann and Henry holding hands beside the river, both of them crying out in pain, but together.)
It was one of those reading experiences that’s so difficult to find: I knew nothing about the book, had not read a single review, knew nothing about deWitt’s biography, and I started to read without looking at the copy on the back. I simply had a friend who kept saying, “You should read this.” And so I did, in the dead of winter, and I loved it. I found it to be hilarious, too, and I think my indifference to many of the deaths had a lot to do with deWitt achieving a quasi-comic tone that allowed him to drift into a cartoonification of the 19th century when necessary, but simultaneously allowed him to keep the emotional toils of its narrator, Eli, fully intact and real. Bringing up cartoons may sound critical, but I don’t mean it that way. Anyone who has ever tried to walk that tightrope knows it’s no small achievement to absolutely nail it, and deWitt absolutely nails it.
Minor postscript: Hermann Kermit Warm is one of the greatest character names ever invented.
The Elizabeth Stories, Isabel Huggan
A very long time ago, my first college creative writing teacher handed out a Xeroxed copy of “Sorrows of the Flesh,” a short story by a Canadian writer I’d never heard of: Isabel Huggan. “Sorrows of the Flesh” is about a young, naïve woman — Elizabeth, who is the central character in each of the book’s loosely linked stories — who falls in love with her teacher, and who goes on to have an unbelievably mediocre affair with him.
Even when I was 20, there was nothing particularly new about a story like that, but that said, I remember being utterly captivated by Huggan’s way of telling it, and so I promised myself that I would one day find more of her work, or at the very least read the whole book. It took me thirteen years of forgetting, but this year I finally bought a used copy of Huggan’s debut. So far as I can tell, it’s out of print; what came in the mail was a tattered, thin paperback.
The book is great like “Sorrows of the Flesh” is great. Nothing arch, nothing coy, and nothing formally outrageous, but a certain surprising and jagged hinterland harshness to the stories makes them all, in one way or another, referendums on adult life, despite the age of their narrator. I often have trouble with major characters who happen to be children, especially in film and TV; the delicacy and impermanence of young identities makes it hard for me to get involved, I guess, and without a layered narration — without the wisdom of the adult looking back, be it in the text or the subtext, and not in a Wonder Years kind of way — I struggle to care.
Huggan manages to keep alive a certain doe-eyed sincerity in Elizabeth, which is Danger Zone for me, but she also surrounds her with a boiling and chaotic world of interpersonal complexity that we can follow, oftentimes over Elizabeth’s head. In this way, the book operates a little like a sweeter, less drug-addled version of Jesus’ Son — we see what’s coming before the narrator sees what’s coming, and the pleasure is in watching, re-experiencing, and leapfrogging along with the tangential insights of adolescence, knowing that we’ll (probably) get somewhere eventually.
Safe from the Sea, Peter Geye
Finally, there is something terrifying about meeting writers and liking them — drinking with them, realizing you come from the same part of the world, realizing you are interested in similar things, and that you probably like the same books — and then having to go home, get their book, read it, and hope to fuck you enjoy it. Thank God I am not married to a writer; the intersection of taste, talent, and friendship is fraught enough as it is, and tossing sex into the mix would probably destroy me.
I have not had sex with Peter Geye, but I have read his debut novel, and it is fantastic. I met Peter in Minneapolis this summer, had a fun time with him and few other writers after a reading, and a few days later, he mailed me a copy of Safe from the Sea with a thoughtful, curse-laden inscription. What I liked immediately about the book is the crisp clarity of the prose and the unaffected narration telling the story of Noah, a young man with a dying father who’s come home to northern Minnesota to see him off, as it were. Geye is a stylist, at heart, but he’s a stylist operating in the folk tradition, and the unobtrusive surface of his prose belies the cumulative effect it has on the reader’s consciousness, and the space it creates for the emotional wallops of the book — emerging largely from the relationship between Noah and his father — to land.
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