We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. - 5 Year Diary 1 month 2. 1. Manhattan Beach 3 months 3. - Her Body and Other Parties 1 month 4. - Sing, Unburied, Sing 1 month 5. 6. Little Fires Everywhere 3 months 6. 5. The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel 5 months 7. 3. Exit West 6 months 8. 8. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 2 months 9. 2. The Changeling 5 months 10. - My Favorite Thing Is Monsters 1 month A Millions first: the top spot this month belongs to a book of blank pages. Is this an indictment of the modern publishing industry? Or are Millions readers a bunch of obsessive diarists who gleefully read Hannah Gersen's Gift Guide for Readers and Writers? I'm thinking the latter because reading Gersen's recommendation has my index finger hovering over the "buy now" button: The design is unique in that every page represents one day and is divided into five parts, with each part representing one year. So, when you write your entry for Feb 1, you can look back at Feb 1 of the previous year to see what you were doing/writing/reading/thinking/weathering. I think it’s especially useful for writers because if you use the space to track writing and reading projects (as I often do), it’s a great way to gauge your long-term progress. Elsewhere, there were major shakeups on our list owing to the success of our Year in Reading series, which recently wrapped up. As our series unfolds each year, one or two books become unmissable fixtures on our participants' lists. You can't open a contributor's piece without seeing these books listed. Years ago, such was the case with John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which was praised by almost every Millions staffer, including Elizabeth Minkel, Bill Morris, and Garth Risk Hallberg. More recently in 2014, Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation was shouted out by five participants. This year, that honor belongs to Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, which skyrocketed into third position this month on the strength of recommendations from six participants – including Louise Erdrich, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Jeff VanderMeer. Maria Machado's story collection is unlike anything else published this year. Her unsettling stories play with form and genre, weaving disparate influences together into unique threads. (One of my favorites in the collection reads like a blend of Susan Minot's "Lust" and Richard Matheson's I Am Legend.) Are these stories horror? Fairy tale? That's an argument for another piece. The takeaway here, as evidenced by our Year in Reading participants and our Millions readers alike is simple: the book is excellent. (Bonus: Carmen Maria Machado shared her own Year In Reading this year, too.) Another book benefitting from last month's series was Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. Also highlighted by six Year in Reading participants, Ward's novel now holds fourth position on our Top Ten. (Bonus: Jesmyn Ward shared her own Year in Reading this year, too.) Finally, a note on what's absent. Obviously, no books ascended to our Hall of Fame this month. Instead, the new titles on our list unseated books which hung around the Top Ten for the past few months. Those dropped books include Forest Dark and My Absolute Darling. Next month, will they pull their way back up onto our list? Let's find out soon. See Also: Last month's list. [millions_ad]
What I get to read is not necessarily what I want to read--research pulls me this way and that, and then teaching exerts its own gravitational force, and then there's book club, so I'm not exactly the captain of my reading list. But this year I finished a book, which opened some space for actual reading, rather than "research." The single most provocative book I read this year was The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Prum, one of those books that changes the way you look at everything, from the feathers of birds to the penises of humans (and ducks) to the ways female choice shapes evolution. Everything about this book is unexpected, including the prose--fine and often funny. I got through book two of My Struggle, which became my insomnia go-to; Karl Ove Knausgaard's account of becoming a father and at the same time a writer I found deeply affecting, especially as these bolts of bliss burst through his usual overcast of melancholy. I also loved Autumn, his book of short essays about the eruptions of wonder in everyday life. What's great about liking Knausgaard is you can be sure there's always more where that came from. The unexpected hit of our book club was Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, probably his best book but so scabrous it's hard to recommend. The voice of Teju Cole, in both his novel Open City, and his essays, has been great company this year and, while I try to stay off cable news and Twitter, Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland has given me a slant view of the news that makes considerably more sense of it than Anderson Cooper or Lawrence O'Donnell. Writers (I'm embarrassed to say were) new to me whose voices I found particularly striking were Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) and John Jeremiah Sullivan (Pulphead). More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
Welcome to what we hope will be a new (semi-regular!) feature, in which the Millions fam opens up about the books on our nightstands (and desks, and floors – seriously these things are like kudzu). As you might expect, it's an eclectic mix about which we have ~strong feelings~. From haikus to a macroeconomic treatise on American industrialism – with lots of novels and story collections in between, of course – here's what we're reading: Jacob Lambert: I just finished Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush, and hated it with the passion of a thousand fiery suns. What a pretentious disaster. Up next is Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, which hopefully won't make me want to stick my head in the oven. Tess Malone: I haven't read one book by a straight white man this year, but I'm breaking the streak for Rob Delaney's memoir, Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. Edan Lepucki: I recently finished The Barbarous Coast by pulp L.A. Noir writer Ross MacDonald and I am #blessed to be an early reader of Susan Straight's new novel (!!!)...editors can email me if they want deets on that masterpiece. Sonya Chung: A little past halfway through Jung Yun's Shelter [Ed. note: which was selected by our own Edan Lepucki as one of her most anticipated books of this year], I had to put to down. It's an important book, and I'm sad that it had to be written, and Yun writes skillfully and unflinchingly. All that. But, it's a hard story, and I needed a break. Will return to it surely. I am on to Mat Johnson's Pym and Sue Miller's The Senator's Wife for the long weekend. Yes, I started two novels simultaneously. Both take place in academic communities but could not be more different from each other; so somehow, it works to alternate between them. I also always have a book of essays going on the side. Currently, John Berger's The Shape of a Pocket. (Film Forum has a documentary about Berger playing now; don't miss it, New Yorkers! The final scene is priceless.) On deck: Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. Bill Morris: At the moment I’m reading two books that could not be more unalike, but which are fabulous in their own ways: James McBride’s exploration of James Brown’s life and its meaning, Kill 'Em and Leave; and Robert J. Gordon’s work of macroeconomics, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, which examines the astonishing burst of changes in everyday life from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. Janet Potter: I'm about to start To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, having recently given up on Here I Am after 200 pages. Anne Yoder: Unbeknownst to me 'til now, my to-read pile is afflicted by planetary influence. I’m currently reading Kyle Coma-Thompson’s Night in the Sun – its story "27-B" contains an appallingly beautiful description of death at 30,000 feet, the stewardess holding the body back upon landing and yet: “The head moving in the most grotesque way, a sodden sunflower crown wagging on its rigid tough stem.” Next in orbit: Julie Reverb’s No Moon and Black Sun Lit’s latest issue of its journal Vestiges, "Ennui." Nick Moran: I was in Florida this weekend, so I've been revisiting Jai Alai Books's essential poetry collections, Eight Miami Poets and Suicide by Jaguar. Amidst Miami's Zika outbreak, I've developed a fresh appreciation for Dave Landsberger's South Beach Haiku #3: "My legs fit perfectly in my pants. / My leg bones fit perfectly in my legs— / shorts are for tourists." Claire Cameron: I recently burned through Dear Mr. M, the new book by Herman Koch, who also wrote the international bestselling The Dinner. Dear Mr. M has an elegant structure that weaves together many strands, but one is about man named Herman who moves into the apartment below and stalks a famous writer, Mr. M. After spying, opening his mail, talking to his wife and kid, Herman finally approaches Mr. M under the guise of being a journalist wanting an interview. I just interviewed Koch. In my emails, I addressed Koch as "Dear Mr. K" and signed off as "Herman." I don't know if he finds it funny or creepy, but no cease and desist order yet. Hannah Gersen: the book on my nightstand that I have slowly been working through is Consolations by David Whyte, which is a beautiful book that gives definitions for everyday words, elaborating on their spiritual and philosophical meanings. It starts with the word "alone" and ends with "work." It's a quiet, thoughtful book, a really good way to start or end the day. Kirstin Butler: I've been on both an essay- and thriller-reading tear lately, probably because those are the two things i'm working on myself ! In the former category I've gone for contemporary classics – John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead and Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land – with one old standby mixed in, John McPhee's Annals of the Former World. I will read anything McPhee you put in front of me. As for the latter genre, I've discovered I'm a pretty tough customer; I was excited to read The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich (nom de plume for the writing team of Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment), but after one too many times of yelling 'oh my god don't fall for it' at the heroine, had to give it up. If any readers have good thriller recs please get @ me on Twitter! Nicholas Ripatrazone: I'm currently reading Ghostland by Colin Dickey, due out 10/4. It's a creepy, smart trek through America's haunted sites. He investigates how "ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can't talk about in any other way." Oh and by the way: What you're reading right now looks pretty awesome too. (Image via Alie Edwards)
1. Don Cheadle directs, co-writes, and stars in Miles Ahead, a new movie that strives admirably to slip the frayed straitjacket of the musician biopic genre. You know the drill. Person discovers he or she is blessed with an unusual musical gift, starts small, eventually rockets to stardom, learns it’s lonely at the top and turns to drink and/or drugs, suffers breakups and breakdowns, gets groove back, and then either (a) dies broke and alone, or (b) enjoys a career rebirth and lives happily ever after. The (a) sub-category is by far the less populous, probably because movie executives believe audiences have no stomach for dark endings. To understand how wrong they are, consider 1984’s Amadeus, which won eight Oscars and was a box-office smash even though it ended with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) getting tossed into an unmarked mass grave for paupers. The life and the music, not the death, turn out to be the things that matter. Don Cheadle yearns to enter the (a) sub-category with Miles Ahead. He does this through an ingeniously counter-intuitive artistic choice: he frames the story in the late-1970s, when one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time was not making music. To sweeten the conceit, Cheadle’s Miles Davis is not suffering from a conventional creative block, an artist powerless to express the things boiling inside him. With a scowl, he offers this refreshing explanation for his silence: “I didn’t have nothin’ to say.” That explanation is delivered to a Rolling Stone writer named Dave Brill, played by Ewan McGregor, who bangs on Davis’s locked door one day hoping to get an exclusive story about the great man’s silence and self-imposed exile. This insertion of a brand-name white actor smells of a studio decision to tone down the movie’s blackness in the interest of selling tickets. At the Berlin Film Festival, Cheadle acknowledged that “having a white actor in this film turned out to be a financial imperative.” When the remark caused an uproar, Cheadle added, “No one said specifically, ‘You must hire this one actor to make this happen.’ But there was a kind of list of actors that would make the money go.” McGregor does his best to turn this into a lopsided buddy movie, and he nearly succeeds. An uneasy bond grows between the ambitious journalist and the cynical musician, given a boost when the former helps the latter score some high-grade cocaine in a Columbia University dorm room, the movie’s funniest scene. To Cheadle’s credit, his Miles is no god; he may be a genius, but he’s also a chauvinist, a womanizer, a coke head, and nasty to go with it. Among the revelations Brill pulls out of Miles is that his heart is with the “innovators,” who he pointedly identifies as Frédéric Chopin, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky -- not Charlie "Bird" Parker, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Miles, we come to find out, has not been totally silent. He has recorded a tape that he refuses to turn over to his record label, and much of the movie is taken up with the maniacal protection, theft, and recovery of this MacGuffin. It would be a spoiler to reveal what’s on this coveted spool of tape, but it’s no spoiler to say that the movie’s incessant cutting between the 1950s and the '70s gets disorienting. Or that the movie’s soundtrack -- consisting of re-imaginings of Miles’s music -- will make you appreciate just how great Miles’s early recordings will always be. In the end, Cheadle succumbs to the rebirth cliché. Without any valid explanation, Davis is back onstage with a new band, his creative block vanquished, playing the funk- and rock-fuelled fusion that sounds, a bit anachronistically, like Bitches Brew from 1970. It may have been the only way for Cheadle to go, but it feels like a capitulation, a tacked-on triumphal ending designed to please those studio executives who insisted the movie needed a white star if it was going to succeed at the box office. They’re the same kind of studio suits who decided to cast the fair-skinned Dominican/Puerto Rican actress Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in Nina, then tricked her out with a prosthetic nose and blackface. Weren’t there any black actresses qualified to play an incendiary black artist? As usual, the studio suits got it wrong. Miles Ahead, for all its lofty intentions, wound up in safe sub-category (b), where it so far has failed to connect with audiences. 2. The title I Saw the Light says everything you need to know about the new Hank Williams biopic. It says that this treatment of one of country music’s most gifted and tortured performers will favor the sunshine over the shadows, the uplift over the appalling undertow of a life that ended at the age of 29, booze-soaked and pill-addled, alone in the back seat of a Cadillac on the way to yet another gig. I would argue that Hank Williams was country music’s only existentialist, a genius who was able to mold the everyday worlds of rural poverty and honky-tonk revelry into a vision that life offers neither meaning nor any chance of escape, only a promise of fleeting, bawdy, delirious respites -- always followed by more loneliness and pain and drudgery. He painted this vivid portrait with the simplest of tools: the whippoorwill, the distant freight train, the cotton field, the dancing spree, as in: We’ll do all the law’s allowin’, tomorrow I’ll be right back plowin’, settin’ the woods on fire... The English actor Tom Hiddleston works hard to animate lanky, jaunty, haunted Hank Williams, even singing the signature songs, but his earnest renderings sound thin and watery compared to Williams’s soulful yearning. The movie looks terrific but it sounds like cover-song karaoke. The tone of this two-hour slog is set during the very first frames -- a long shot of Williams seated on a stool in a hot spotlight, singing “Cold, Cold Heart” as the camera circles pointlessly around him. It’s meant to be atmospheric, a portrait of a man alone in a crowded room, but it’s just dull. What follows has all the narrative momentum of a mail train, a series of stops and starts as we watch Williams tear through a string of wives while drinking, womanizing, doing uppers and coke and eventually morphine for a painful case of spina bifida. When he gets to the top, he pines predictably for the good old days as an up-and-comer: “Sometimes I wish I was back at WSFA making $12 a week and knowing who my friends were.” And here’s Hank in what passes for a retrospective moment about his love life: “I’m a pro at making a mess of things.” The screenplay, by director Marc Abraham, is based on Hank Williams: The Biography, by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen. But the movie gives us no sense of Williams’s origins or the sources of his inspiration, from country radio broadcasts to gospel music to Rufus Payne, the black bluesman who taught him to play the guitar. Given the facts of Williams’s early death, Abraham had little choice but to make this a sub-category (a) movie. Even Hollywood can’t dress up a 29-year-old corpse in the back seat of a Cadillac. Some musician biopics are saved by the music. Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Doors come to mind, with Sissy Spacek and Val Kilmer doing their own singing while inhabiting the souls of Loretta Lynn and Jim Morrison. But I Saw the Light is not in that class. 3. Neither is Born to Be Blue, the new biopic of the gorgeous, doomed jazz trumpeter and junkie Chet Baker, played by Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, with music by the jazz trumpeter Kevin Turcotte and some pleasingly breathless singing by Hawke, this movie, like Miles Ahead, at least tries to break out of the genre’s straitjacket. It does this primarily by refusing to condemn Baker’s heroin addiction. “It makes me happy,” he says unapologetically. “I love to get high.” When he’s high, he adds, “the notes get wider, not just longer, and I can get inside of every note.” The movie jumps around in time, and back and forth between color and black-and-white. One moment we’re on the set of a 1960s black-and-white film biography of Baker -- a biopic within a biopic! -- then we’re at Birdland in the '50s, then we’re in L.A. in the '60s. Budreau manages to keep things flowing by turning the movie into a story of dual recoveries: after a vicious beating by drug dealers who knock out his front teeth, Baker must re-learn to play his instrument with painful dentures that keep slipping; and with his soul mate, an aspiring actress named Jane (Carmen Ejogo), he must try to overcome his inner demons and his craving for heroin. He nearly succeeds -- until the night of his comeback performance at Birdland. High as a Georgia pine, Baker knocks the house out cold, including a skeptical Miles Davis (Kedar Brown) and a supportive Dizzy Gillespie (Kevin Hanchard). The movie ends with a written coda, informing us that Baker went off to Europe after the Birdland gig, where he continued to shoot heroin and made some of his best music. (We’re not told that Baker fell out of a window in an Amsterdam hotel in 1988 and died at the age of 59, his veins humming with heroin and cocaine.) In the world of the musician biopic, this passes for a brave, non-judgmental and unconventional ending. 4. As I watched these movies, it began to occur to me that maybe the problem is not that people keep making clichéd movies about musicians; maybe the problem is that musicians keep living clichéd lives that can’t be made into anything but clichéd movies. Prince just died of an apparent opioid painkiller overdose at the age of 57. Arguably, the only people who lead more clichéd lives than musicians are writers, who discover early on that it’s lonely at the bottom, it’s worse in the mid-list, and, for the precious few who make it there, it’s even worse at the top. But with musicians, at least there’s music to leaven the loneliness and add some sizzle to the clichés. Which is why these biopics will keep getting made as long as the sun continues to cross the sky. The inevitability of this struck me when I got word that a Mötley Crüe biopic, in the works for years, is finally going to be released this summer. It’s called The Dirt, which was the title of the band’s salacious 2001 memoir. If the source material is any indication, the movie will be a non-stop mudbath of depravity. But the true depravity here is that men who are eligible for Social Security continue to wear Spandex while mounting a “retirement tour.” Then I stumbled on some YouTube videos of Guns N' Roses performing at the recent Coachella Festival. There on the stage, ensconced on a throne with his damaged left foot in a cast, sat a bloated Axl Rose, the original bad boy straight outta Central Nowhere, Indiana. This was not the priapic flame-haired dervish lionized by John Jeremiah Sullivan in his essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” from his collection Pulphead. The Axl Rose at Coachella was a caricature of his younger self, immobilized and squalling, a fat Elvis for the new millennium. Surely a biopic is in the works. Based on that Coachella show, there’s no way it will have a happy ending.
The title of Kent Russell’s smashing debut collection of essays, I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son, is a quote from Daniel Boone. The great frontiersman/exploiter was believed to have uttered the words as he was burying a son who had died having declined to volunteer during one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War. But the quote could also have come from the figure who animates this collection, for better and often for worse: the author’s impossible father. Before we get down in the Oedipal mud, it’s worth noting that this book has a blurb on its front cover that, for once, is not hyperbole. It was written by the brilliant essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it reads: “Kent Russell is one of the most excitingly gifted young non-fiction writers to have appeared in recent memory.” True. A very big part of the reason why it’s true is that Russell shares a gift with Sullivan (and David Foster Wallace) – the ability to empathize with wildly different tribes of people without ever condescending to them, without ever adopting the let’s-laugh-at-the-Clampetts pose common to inferior writers of inferior non-fiction. While Sullivan painted a surprisingly tender and sympathetic portrait of a Christian rock festival in his book Pulphead, for instance, Russell paints a similarly sympathetic portrait of a much less congenial tribe who call themselves Juggalos. These Midwestern, white, underdog misfits gather annually in rural Illinois for a four-day music festival that boasts “One hundred rap and rock groups! Helicopter rides! Carnival rides! Seminars!...And if you like midgets, we got midgets for you.” Oh, and there’s a shitload of skunk beer, and wrestling too. The Ur-group for Juggalos is Insane Clown Posse, which Russell describes as “a couple of white minor felons from the working-class suburbs of Detroit.” (I imagine that word “minor” will sting.) Other top acts are the Axe Murder Boyz, Blaze Ya Dead Homie, and Anybody Killa. The music is loosely called horrorcore, and I absolutely cannot listen to it. Here is some Axe Murder Boyz poetry, from their minor hit “Body in a Hole:” I got this hole in my backyard I’ve been digging it for a year I can’t cope with my own fear Voice I hear has all control, so I beat your head with a hammer And leave it stuck in your skull Then I put your body in a hole. Russell manages to listen to this stuff and, better yet, he listens to the Juggalos who love to listen to it. They are mostly young white people from the Rust Belt -- some people call them white trash -- and they told Russell insightful things about life in the under-class, outside and beneath the American Dream, where a kind of proud defiance sets in and hardens. Says one: “It’s like, we’ll never read what you write about us. You can write whatever you want about us, and everyone’s going to believe it. What difference does it make what I say? You’ve got the power. Plus, I give no shits.” “What you should write, though,” chimes in another, “is why do, like motherfuckers in New York or whatever -- how do those motherfuckers think they’re better than me if, like, making fun of me is still okay with them? You know what I’m saying? It’s like they think they know me. Motherfucker, not everyone wants to be you, you know what I’m saying?” Russell distills these rants into a crisp formulation: “[Juggalos] weren’t born into the respectable middle class and didn’t see a path that led there, so they said fuck it.” Russell finds something immensely respectable about disenfranchised people who have the courage to say that. And I find something immensely refreshing about a writer who has the courage to write that. This essay, “American Juggalo,” and six of the seven others in the book appeared previously in n+l, The Believer, The New Republic, Tin House and Harper’s. Their range is vast, from a buddy’s tour in Afghanistan to hockey enforcers, horror movie special-effects artists, people who self-immunize themselves against poisonous snake bites, Amish baseball players, a man who lives alone on a desert island off Australia, and, finally, a fraught road trip undertaken by the author and his father. Russell writes like a man in a fever dream. His sentences were forever jumping off the page and kissing me. Here are just few: On a fight between two hockey players: “Our guy’s in a corner of the rink, in a one-sided fight. His hands have shed their gloves and are flying about the face of some plugger like new moths around a sodium lamp.” On his mother’s miscarriages before his birth: “Before me, she’d miscarried twice. Imperious men who strode about converting their will into law, I think they would’ve been. Bizzaro-me’s, with a gift for languages, and thick cocks. They were never more than clouds, though; weather on a screen. They got washed from drain to sewer stem to deep blue sea.” On avian life in his native Miami: “After October, migrated midwestern vultures would roost in the trees, like committees of bald scholars blackly hunched.” On the South Pacific as seen from a promontory on a deserted island: “The water far below him was the bluish slate of fancy cats.” On a clunker imported from Detroit: “The chariot awaiting us was a 1997 Ford Taurus, dull silver...She looks sluggish, like the sort of thing that would live in the mud in a tropical river and make for your anus the second you dove in.” On a California sunset: “Beyond the Pismo Beach pier, the megaton yolk of the setting sun had broken and run into the Pacific.” Russell also has a facility for conjuring words, including the verbs plink, tunk and shink, which do not always appear in my dictionary but make perfect sense in context. (Compare with the great Charles Portis describing beetles the size of mice that got barbecued in the flares of a Texas oil field and then -- “At night their toasted little corpses pankled down on the tin roof.”) Curiously, Russell’s verbal dexterity points to one of the book’s problems, namely the strong whiff of grad school wafting from these pages. (The Acknowledgements section includes shout-outs to the journalism programs at the University of Florida and New York University.) There’s nothing wrong with journalism school, but instead of sticking with his strong suit, a loose-limbed, profane and very witty vernacular, Russell often backslides into inappropriate “big” academic words such as praxis, benthic (it refers to organisms living at the bottom of a body of water), homologous, and strabismic (two eyes that can’t focus together). Russell describes a moon as looking “Zambonied,” which I assume refers to the machine that scrapes and resurfaces the ice on a hockey rink. Is he trying to say that the moon looks as glassy as a sheet of freshly resurfaced ice? If so, why not say so? Russell also riffs at random on such things as Miami weather, Daniel Boone, and hockey player Theo Fleury, for no discernible purpose other than to show off his chops. Which brings us back to the Oedipal mud, a much more serious problem. This could have been two books -- Russell’s wise and sympathetic examinations of wildly varied subcultures; and his life-long, scorched-earth war with his father. The latter keeps invading, and deflating, the former. The problem is not that father-son warfare is an unworthy topic for a writer. The problem is that Russell’s father is an insecure, paranoid whinger who calls his son “Generalissimo Nibshit” and “Mr. New York Asshole” and “an assholing know-it-all,” then derides him for being a member of the “intelligentsia” who likes to take baths and read books. Dad served on a swift boat in Vietnam, and he can’t let go of his disappointment that his soft son never served in the military, a Russell family tradition that dates back to the Revolutionary War. Remember this book’s title. Russell defends his repeated returns to this internecine battlefield this way: “I am doing this for reasons beyond the personal. I have to unearth and drag into the light the hissing, congenital demons that are bleeding me dry. Yes. I have to stake them right in the heart. I have to, because I won’t allow them to sink their teeth into one more member of this family.” (One of the author’s sisters is the decorated novelist Karen Russell.) Well, maybe this motivation really is beyond the personal, and maybe it’s even noble. But all this daddy-wrestling grew tiresome for me. Every time dad showed up, I found myself yearning for more Juggalos and snake handlers and Amish baseball players. That said, there is one exchange between Russell père and fils that hilariously captures the chasm separating baby boomers from their Gen X and Gen Y offspring. Dad is delivering another gassy diatribe about the sunny good old days, when Detroit iron sported tail fins and America ruled the seas: Dad: “I would prefer to still be living in an America of a hundred fifty million people.” Son: “You, the Beav, and George Wallace should build a time machine.” Dad: “It used to be a hell of a lot better.” Son: “A lot more DUI deaths, for one thing.” Dad: “Absolutely. Who else can lay claim to drinking and driving? Russia?...Getting knee-walking drunk, and then venturing into the night, with a deadly weapon in your hands?” Son: “Now we’re talking. Fucking, refusing to surrender your freedom to pick up and go. Relinquishing to no man your right to kill your own fool self.” Dad: “And whoever gets in your way.” Son: “Back when you could whomp your kid a good one in public. When he deserved it. When he was being a shit in a restaurant, let’s say.” Dad: “Cruising for a bruising, in the restaurant’s smoking section.” Son: “Brings a tear to my eye.” Dad: “Goddam things were made of steel back then. Get those tubs of shit up to speed, and the tailfins started shaking off.” Yes, the man can talk and he can write. Don’t let my quibbles deter you -- read this wonderful book by one of our most excitingly gifted young non-fiction writers. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting, eagerly, to see what Kent Russell comes up with next. I’m hoping for a novel, but I’ll gladly settle for another book of essays -- provided Russell skips the daddy-wrestling and sticks to the Juggalos.
Most Revelatory Second Pass In January I finished rereading the Harry Potter series for the first time since the final book was released in 2007. My first readings of the series’s final books had all been feverish and nocturnal -- usually consuming the 24 hours after the book’s initial release. Pushing through the last 200 pages of the series at 4a.m. in July 2007, I was only interested in finding out who lived and died. When I reread Half-Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows in January, I couldn’t believe how much of the books I hadn’t retained. There was one character, who is introduced and plays a major part in the seventh book, whom I didn’t remember at all. The section of Deathly Hallows where Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in hiding, which felt ponderous my first time through, revealed itself to be a well-done study of the book’s central relationships, and my previous disgust with it was obviously just impatience for plot and clues. I thought rereading the series would be a fun, nostalgic exercise, but it turned out to be a singular reading experience, enriching in a way that was wholly distinct from my first read. Best Serendipitous Literary Connection There’s a new Little Free Library a block from my apartment -- one of those birdhouse-like structures full of donated books that you’re welcome to take, and encouraged to replenish with unwanted books of your own. I think of myself as its fairy godmother -- one of my secret joys has been stocking it with extra copies of new releases or review copies that I’ve received, like a hardcover copy of The Goldfinch I put in the library the day after its release (you’re welcome, lucky neighbor!). I rarely take a book out, except for the day I spotted The Cradle by Patrick Somerville and gasped with joy. Best Read of the Year I still think about Another Great Day At Sea by Geoff Dyer, which I reviewed here in May, all the time. It’s remarkable how openly delighted Dyer allowed himself to be by everyone and everything he came across aboard an aircraft carrier. It’s remarkable the depth of love and passion the carrier’s personnel shared with him. It’s remarkable that there are still secret worlds and books to introduce them to us. Most Life-Changing I took Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan on my summer vacation, and nothing will ever be the same. All of the included essays are exceptional, but it was “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” originally published in GQ, that really fascinated me. Besides a passing familiarity with their most popular songs, I didn’t know a thing about Guns N’ Roses, but after reading that profile I started watching their music videos on YouTube, which led to watching documentaries about them, which led to reading both Slash and Duff McKagan’s memoirs. Now I sleep in a Guns N’ Roses shirt and I listen to Live Era while I bake. Most Conflicting Cloud Atlas is my favorite book. I await the release of David Mitchell’s books with unmatched glee. But with The Bone Clocks I felt like I was going through the motions. That penultimate sci-fi section -- the one that all the reviewers either hate or concede is the book’s low point -- really unsettled me. It felt like realizing you need to break up with your boyfriend -- like, I still love you, David Mitchell, I just don’t think I’m in love with you anymore. Kathryn Schultz’s extraordinary profile of him went a long way towards repairing the relationship. Hearing about Mitchell’s master plan for his unwritten novels, and how The Bone Clocks pivoted his ouevre towards them, gave me a lot of hope for the future. Most Aggravating Historical Legend President William Howard Taft probably never got stuck in a bathtub. He was a stress eater, yes, and gained close to 100 pounds while in office, but I came to like him when I read William Howard Taft by Henry F. Pringle and I’m sad that the bathtub story is the only thing most people know about him. The story appears in exactly one place, a book called Forty-Two Years in the White House by Irwin Hoover, who was White House Chief Usher for most of his career. The book is full of anecdotes about the 10 presidents he served under, and a number of them have proved to be fictional, especially the ones about Taft, whom Hoover seemed to think distinctly undeserving of respect. The authenticity of the bathtub story is questionable at best. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Writing about reality television draws on two forms, the recap and the treatise. Recaps work like box scores, recounting the highlights from last night’s episode, from drinks thrown in faces to the number of occupants in a given hot tub, all of it in rat-a-tat language that any sportswriter would recognize. Treatises find their common ancestor in the Roland Barthes of Mythologies, the first word in close-reading bottle caps, laundry detergents, and other products of a consumer society as if they were poems. It is staggering to consider the thousands of commenters who, whether they realize it or not, owe a debt to a mid-century French theorist. The best writers are able to synthesize both forms. Right now, the favorite subject for these writers seems to be The Bachelor. Roxane Gay, Leigh Stein, Jennifer Weiner and many others pick apart the assumptions and nuances of this tragicomedy of contemporary mating rituals like Oxford dons parsing the meanings of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail. (Feel free to make your own joke about Catherine’s status as a sacred object of veneration.) My favorite entry in the growing corpus of reality television literature is “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” an essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan from his 2011 collection, Pulphead. Sullivan adds a wrinkle to the recap/treatise approach by making the essay a profile. Thanks to the patronage of GQ, Sullivan visits Mike “the Miz” Mizanin, an early star of MTV’s The Real World. He meets reality in the flesh, you could say, and the encounter makes him, for lack of a better term, a believer. “Here’s the surprising truth about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, the increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all—it made things more real. Because, of course, people being on a reality show is precisely what these people are. Think of it this way: if you come to my office and film me doing my job (I don’t have one, but that only makes the thought experiment more rigorous) you wouldn’t really see what it was like to watch me doing my job, because you’d be there watching me (the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, interior auto-mediation, and so forth). But now add this: What if my job were to be on a reality show, being filmed, having you watch me, interior auto-mediation, and so forth? What if that were my reality, bros? Are your faces melting yet?” I often thought of Sullivan’s essay while reading Arts & Entertainments, the new novel from Christopher Beha. It’s being billed as a media satire, which is inevitable when a novelist turns his attention to the machinations of fame. Not to say that it isn’t funny; my favorite zinger is the hit single of a Miley Cyrus-like celebutante, “Gettin’ My V Worked Up.” But when it comes to reality television, it’s clear that Beha is more interested in the reality than the television. As I reached the end, I felt the novel taking on an existential, almost religious feel. Arts & Entertainments follows Eddie Hartley, a drama teacher at a Catholic prep school in his early 30s. He used to be an actor, with a few appearances in off-Broadway productions and even on Law & Order. But what he didn’t know, and what everyone else did, was that he wasn’t talented enough to be successful. His wife, Susan, works at an art gallery, and their combined salaries are just enough to keep up with the professionals of New York City. But they want a child, or at least Susan does. Conceiving doesn’t go well, thanks to Eddie’s lazy sperm, and their only chance is an in vitro treatment that they can’t afford. Opportunity comes in the form of a class reunion. Eddie meets a web impresario who asks about his relationship with a certain TV star. When he was a struggling actor, Eddie’s girlfriend was a struggling actress who, unlike Eddie, was talented. Phenomenally so, to the point that she became the star of the most popular scripted drama on the air, a medical drama show that stretches the limits of credulity every week. If Eddie were to have a video of Martha, and the video were sufficiently, ahem, noteworthy, then there might be a lot of money in it for him. Eddie does, in fact, have a video. But he doesn’t want anyone to know that it’s him. He edits himself out of the footage as best he can, lies to his wife about residuals from a horror film that’s become a cult hit in Korea, and starts making plans for the best family that science can provide. It was here that I noticed a marked difference to Beha’s previous books, which are, in the very best sense, bookish. The Whole Five Feet, a memoir, chronicles the year Beha spent reading his way through all 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library, along with the personal crises that rose up in his own life. What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel, is a story of literature and faith that is sure to send the heart of any English major a-flutter. These books portray people who think of their lives as books, and themselves as protagonists. Eddie, however, no longer wants to be a protagonist. He simply wants to no longer feel like a failure, which is a pretty good definition of adulthood at this moment. Money in hand, he visits the fertilization specialist. Ben Lerner’s forthcoming novel 10:04, excerpted in The Paris Review, also features a character making the same kind of donation. One more scene of antiseptic ejaculation in literary fiction, and we’ll have a trend piece on our hands. The procedure is successful, to the point of excess: Susan is pregnant with triplets. And it is right at this point that the Martha Martin sex tape appears, demanding the culture’s unwavering attention. Though it’s a story of the digital present, Arts & Entertainments can remind you of a noir film in the meticulous way that it catalogs the consequences of a single, monstrously stupid decision. Eddie’s identity in the video is found out almost immediately, the media being even more diligent in ferreting out the secrets of a celebrity than an elected official. Eddie loses his job. Susan kicks him out. But they are still in the orbit of Martha Martin’s fame, and this presents opportunities. Needing money to raise her triplets, Susan accepts an offer from a mysterious producer to become the star of her own reality show. Unable to appear on her show, Eddie signs a contract for his own, aided by a young woman well-versed in the kabuki of reality TV, and who poses as his girlfriend for the sake of the show. But if their relationship appears on TV, and everyone thinks they’re together, then is it truly a pose? Are your faces melting, bros? Beha, and Sullivan, are asking what reality values in humanity. Certainly not beauty, whether physical or moral. “Hotness” would be the best term for the kind of beauty found on such programs, but there are any number of shows that feature personalities whose appeal doesn’t lie in how evenly their tanning spray is applied. Reality TV values watchability, a spectacle of the self that viewers can’t look away from, like a train wreck. With no choice but to play the role of himself, Eddie becomes, in effect, his own train wreck. To his surprise, and quite possibly to the reader’s, Eddie finds that being watchable has its advantages. “He’d worried at first about losing himself in the part, but the more committed he became to showing the camera what it wanted, the more persistently he felt the presence of an unseen self.” Reality TV allows the soul to grow, not wither? What kind of novelist would make such a point? Beha and Jennifer Weiner have carried on a friendly rivalry on Twitter; maybe Beha lost a bet? Gambler or not, Beha is the kind of novelist who believes that the term soul still has descriptive value. He has written movingly about Catholicism and the fencing match he’s carried on with it throughout his life. His earlier books looked to literature to imbue life with a sense of the religious, a tradition that stretches back to Augustine, if not further. But in his new book, Beha finds people talking about God in more unexpected places. Late in the novel, Eddie meets with Moody, the mysterious producer of Susan’s reality show, trying to make an appearance in his wife’s life before she gives birth to their triplets. We learn that Moody once attended divinity school, and the experience informed the way he does his job. “In the world I used to live in, good is whatever God wants. That’s it. There’s no other measuring stick. There is no good before God. When we say that God is good, all we’re saying is that God is God. In the world I live in now, it’s the same thing. There’s only one criterion. What does the audience want? Does the audience want you to be honest? Does the audience want you to be kind? . . . The audience has only one way of expressing its interest—by watching. They might watch because they love you. They might watch because they hate you. They might watch because they’re sick. Doesn’t matter. Is that good or bad? The question doesn’t make any sense. Good is whatever the audience watches.” The popular image of the reality TV producer is Christof, played by Ed Harris in The Truman Show. The producer as God, as his name helpfully informs us. Moody is saying the exact opposite. The audience is God, and he is its servant. What could such a reversal mean? The question reminds me of theology classes that went over the attributes of God. Omniscience was on there, meaning that God is all-seeing and all-knowing, followed by omnipotence, meaning that God is all-powerful. The two were the subject of many a term paper, students wrestling earnestly with the question of why God would let terrible things happen to his creations. If humans were omniscient, we thought, maybe we could do a better job. And now, thanks to the media environment we’ve created for ourselves, we are, in some sense, omniscient. We can know everything there is to know about the people on our shows and newsfeeds. But this omniscience hasn’t come with omnipotence. I’d imagine that being more informed is leading many people to feel less powerful, as if we’re comic book heroes whose superpowers are less of a gift than a liability. The only way we feel godlike is by watching. As Moody says, there is nothing else we can do. It’s under this half-divine gaze that Eddie feels, for the first time, that half-formed soul he has within him. Arts & Entertainments is ambiguous as to whether or not this mediated soul is the most we can hope for in this age. But there is, after all, another way of watching others, one that brings us closer to the inner realities of human beings. It’s what we’ve been doing all along. We can read novels.
Ever since Pulphead, we can't get enough of John Jeremiah Sullivan, so we're happy to hear he's at work on his next book, The Prime Minister of Paradise. Sullivan will tell the story of Christian Priber, a German American who tried to establish a utopia in 18th century South Carolina. "This man, he really represented the height of the enlightenment at the time," Sullivan said during a recent interview at Notre Dame. No word on an official release date yet, but it's already being optioned for film by Scott Rudin.
If we are, as Adam Kirsch writes, in the midst of a golden age of essays, we might want to ask exactly which essays are proof of this golden age. His first three picks -- My Heart is an Idiot, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and Pulphead -- are unsurprising choices, but then it gets a bit more interesting when he looks at Sheila Heti’s latest novel. (You could also check out a few of our pieces on these books.)
I know people who read all the hot young novels. And I’ll occasionally buy one or two (although after getting burned by The Corrections, I wait for the paperback). But mostly the past is too full of fiction I haven’t read: fresh green breasts of James, Beckett, Mishima, Woolf remain uncharted, and I’m going to spend my time with The Marriage Plot? 2012 was the year I got around to what proved to be my favorite novel, period. I’d been meaning to read V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas for years -- Naipaul was already the author of my favorite opening line: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” (I often say this to myself like a mantra; make of that what you will.) And Naipaul is possessed of a most delightful literary personality. But Mr. Biswas -- nothing could have prepared me for the breadth of this book. Everyone in these pages is weak, silly, utterly human. I’m not sure any postwar author has known his own character -- inspired by Naipaul’s father -- so thoroughly. (Bellow comes close, in Herzog, published a few years after Biswas.) It’s hilarious and sad and all the usual things we say a work of literature is when we mean it seems to contain all of life. Going to buy that gold brooch for you, girl. Other books that made my year -- besides some poetry titles I wrote about for the Chicago Tribune -- include John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead; Richard Hughes’s In Hazard; Haddawy’s translation of The Arabian Nights (except the verses -- it’s called meter, dude); David Graeber’s Debt (read if you have student loans and want to feel even angrier about them); Fantagraphics’s reprints of Carl Barks’s duck comics; Brian Michael Bendis and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil: End of Days (for those who preferred Frank Miller before he became a right-wing dipshit); George Herbert’s The Temple; and the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My year in reading has been a lesson in letting go. It began with the physical: when my apartment building was sold in January, I began a series of culls of my unwieldy book collection, of a set of shelves I’d so carefully organized when I moved in, now obscured by random stacks of cheap paperbacks, uncorrected proofs, impulse purchases, unwanted offerings from friends -- so many books I’d never read, would never read, and simply couldn’t bring myself to pack up and unpack again somewhere else. I’ve always tended towards nesting and collecting -- this is the kindest possible way to describe my perpetual state of clutter -- but for once, I did it, discarding without mercy, hauling big bags of books into the office and depositing them on our communal bench for the next unsuspecting hoarder. I found a new apartment, and I swore I’d do the same for all the other unwieldy piles of things in my life before moving day arrived, but in the end, I never did. They were unceremoniously dumped into boxes and trucked a few exits down the BQE, then shoved into closets and corners; I have yet to fully finish unpacking them all. But there was more to the great book giveaway than simple space: I have been slowly learning to let go of books on another level -- something less tangible, I guess, maybe intellectual, or emotional, or spiritual. I am learning (just now!) to shed the guilt that keeps me turning the pages of books I honestly cannot stand; I am working to tell the difference between a book that is worth the struggle and a book that simply isn’t for me. This is, I suppose, all part of growing older: establishing and developing taste, learning to define and hone it, and being careful not to let your mind narrow -- or to snap shut -- in the process. And even as I joined this site as a staff writer a few months back, I was busy practicing reading books not for work, brushing off a whole different subsection of guilt, where I read classics, or books that came out three years ago, or something trashy, or novels I’ve come back to more times than seems healthy, and that was all OK, because, after all, there was a reason I’d become an English major in the first place. But here, at the end of all this, I’m left with an incredibly scattered year in reading -- I’m scratching my head and looking back at the last 11 months and wondering what the hell I was thinking through all of this. In the spring, I took a course in literary theory, filling in a gap in my undergraduate education, I thought, which meant rereading Frankenstein and The Tempest and then sighing a lot through Jacques Derrida & Co. before picking my own book -- A Passage to India -- for the final paper. It was my third time around, and I found it so different to when I read it last -- five years ago -- that it was kind of astounding. Who knew there was so much nuance! (Most people.) When I later revisited Netherland, for an essay on cricket, my memory of it held up better. I read Cloud Atlas sitting at a sidewalk café, and marveled at the number of people who stopped in their tracks to talk to me about it. There was some great new stuff -- Adam Wilson’s Flatscreen, for one, around which I built an argument about modern-day slacker literature for my first Millions piece of the year. There was some not-so-great new stuff -- much of that gave me the chance to practice the whole “putting down and not feeling guilty” thing. It mostly felt like I was reading a bunch of the not-particularly-new-but-largely-wonderful, like John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead, followed by his earlier Blood Horses, part history, part mythology, part memoir, meandering and powerfully direct all at once. There was something slowly intoxicating about English, August, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, which I picked up for the aforementioned slacker lit piece and with which I easily fell in love. And then there was my favorite book this year, hands-down -- Shehan Karunatilaka’s The Legend of Pradeep Mathew, published elsewhere as Chinaman, a reference to the left-armed bowl for which Mathew, the elusive cricketer at the heart of the story, is known. It’s the sort of book that turns you into an evangelist, in an almost embarrassing way, like, reaching into your purse to wave a copy in peoples’ faces when someone casually mentions, “I hear you’re writing about cricket?” But even as books come and go, loosened and removed from the physical and metaphorical shelves, the ones that stay get stickier, and I’ve got a very sticky shelf full of the collected works of Stephen Fry. I started the year with Fry’s new memoir, The Fry Chronicles, which I enjoyed, though not nearly as much as the first installment, Moab Is My Washpot. When he came to America to promote it, I waited for hours to ask him to sign a copy of his first book, The Liar, which I have read approximately one million times. As I handed him the world’s crappiest, most yellowed paperback, dog-eared and spine heavily creased, already shamefully beat-up probably a decade before I paid £3 for it at that permanent used book sale under the Waterloo Bridge, I blurted out how many times I’d read it and how much I loved it. He looked utterly exhausted, but he smiled brightly as he signed the title page, exclaiming, “Oh, well, thank you!” More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 5. Train Dreams 5 months 2. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 2 months 3. 7. How to Sharpen Pencils 3 months 4. 8. New American Haggadah 4 months 5. 9. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 3 months 6. - The Patrick Melrose Novels 1 month 7. 10. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 3 months 8. - A Naked Singularity 1 month 9. - Binocular Vision 2 months 10. - The Flame Alphabet 1 month Four books -- John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet, Nicholas Carr's The Shallows, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift -- decamp for our Hall of Fame this month. The former three were brought to the attention of our readers during our Year in Reading series in December, while the latter anchored a holiday gift guide for writers. With all those books departing, our new number one is Denis Johnson's Pulitzer finalist Train Dreams. It also makes room for three newcomers on the list and a returning title, Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision. The debuts are Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels (reviewed here in February), A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava (profiled by Garth Hallberg) and The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus (we reviewed the book in early January and interviewed Marcus later in the month). Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, Open City, The Great Frustration, 11/22/63, and Gods Without Men. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. Pulphead 6 months 2. 3. The Book of Disquiet 6 months 3. 2. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 6 months 4. 4. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 6 months 5. 6. Train Dreams 4 months 6. - Bring Up the Bodies 1 month 7. 10. How to Sharpen Pencils 2 months 8. 5. New American Haggadah 3 months 9. 7. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 2 months 10. 9. Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 2 months Our one debut this month is one of the most anticipated books of the year: Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, her sequel to Millions July 2010 Hall of Famer Wolf Hall. The arrival of the Thomas Cromwell juggernaut bumps Binocular Vision from our list. David Rees' How to Sharpen Pencils is the other big mover on our list, jumping three spots. Our in depth, hilarious interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Next month should be very interesting as we'll see the top four books on our list move to the Hall of Fame, opening four new spots. Near Misses: Binocular Vision, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and 11/22/63. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. Pulphead 5 months 2. 4. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 5 months 3. 5. The Book of Disquiet 5 months 4. 6. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 5 months 5. 9. New American Haggadah 2 months 6. 10. Train Dreams 3 months 7. - The Swerve: How the World Became Modern 1 month 8. - Binocular Vision 1 month 9. - Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language 1 month 10. - How to Sharpen Pencils 1 month Last fall, the book world was abuzz with three new novels, the long-awaited books 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well as Chad Harbach's highly touted debut The Art of Fielding. Meanwhile, Millions favorite Helen DeWitt was emerging from a long, frustrating hiatus with Lightning Rods. Now all four are graduating to our Hall of Fame after long runs on our list. This means we have a new number one: John Jermiah Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, which was discussed in glowing terms by our staffer Bill Morris in January. The graduates also open up room for four new books on our list. A Pulitzer win has propelled Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern into our Top Ten (fiction finalist Train Dreams by Denis Johnson has already been on our list for a few months). Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision is another recent award winner making our list for the first time. Don't miss our interview with her from last month. In January, author Reif Larsen penned an engrossing exploration of the infographic for us. The essay has remained popular, and a book he focused on, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, has now landed on our Top Ten. And then in the final spot is David Rees' pencil sharpening manual How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening. Our funny, probing interview with Rees from last month is a must read. Near Misses: Leaving the Atocha Station, The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk, 11/22/63, The Sense of an Ending, and The Great Frustration. See Also: Last month's list.
Today, April 30, marks the twentieth anniversary of my last day in the newsroom of a daily newspaper. In truth, my newspaper career was neither long nor particularly illustrious. For about four years in my early twenties I worked at two small newspapers: the Mill Valley Record, the decades-old weekly newspaper in my hometown that died a few years after I left; and the Aspen Daily News, which, miraculously, remains in business today. Still, I loved the newspaper business. I have never worked with better people than I did in that crazy little newsroom in Aspen, and I probably never will. I quit because it dawned on me that, while I was a good reporter, I had neither the skills nor the intestinal fortitude to follow in the footsteps of my heroes, investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and David Halberstam. What I couldn’t know the day I left the Daily News and began the long trek that led first to graduate school and then to college teaching was the sheer destructive power of the bullet I was dodging. The Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2012” report offers a sobering portrait of what has happened to print journalism in the twenty years since I left. After a small bump during the Clinton Boom of the 1990s, advertising revenue for America’s newspapers has fallen off a cliff in the past decade, dropping by more than half from a peak of $48.7 billion in 2000 to $23.9 billion in 2011. Thus far at least, online advertising isn’t saving the business as some hoped it might. Online advertising for newspapers was up $207 million between 2010 and 2011, but in that same period, print advertising was down $2.1 billion, meaning print losses outnumbered online gains by a factor of 10-1. But as troubling as the death of print journalism may be for our collective civic and political lives, it may have an even more lasting impact on our literary culture. For more than a century, newspaper jobs provided vital early paychecks, and even more vital training grounds, for generations of American writers as different as Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Joyce Maynard, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tony Earley. Just as importantly, reporting jobs taught nonfiction writers from Rachel Carson to Michael Pollan how to ferret out hidden information and present it to readers in a compelling narrative. Now, though, the infrastructure that helped finance all those literary apprenticeships is fast slipping away. The vacuum left behind by dying print publications has been largely filled by blogs, a few of them, like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, connected to huge corporations, many others written by bathrobe-clad auteurs like yours truly. This is great for readers who need only fire up their laptop – or increasingly, their tablet or smartphone – and have instant access to nearly all the information produced in the known world, for free. But the system’s very efficiency is also its Achilles' heel. When I worked in newspapers, a good part of my paycheck came from sales of classified ads. That’s all gone now, thanks to Craigslist and eBay. We also were a delivery system for circulars from grocery stores and real estate firms advertising their best deals. Buh-bye. Display ads still exist online, but advertisers are increasingly directing their ad dollars to Google and Facebook, which do a much better job of matching ads to their users’ needs. Add to this the longer-term trend of locally owned grocery stores, restaurants, and clothing shops being replaced by national chains, which draw more business from nationwide TV ad campaigns, and the economic model that supported independent reporting for more than a hundred years has vanished. Without a way to make a living from their work, most bloggers are hobbyists, and most hobbyists come at their hobby with an angle. So, you have realtor blogs that tout local real estate and inveigh against property taxes. Or you have historical preservation blogs that rail against any new construction. Or you have plain old cranks of the kind who used to hog the open discussion time at the beginning of local city council meetings, but now direct their rants, along with pictures, smart-phone videos, and links to other cranks in other cities, onto the Internet. What you don’t have is a lot of guys like I used to be, who couldn't care less about the outcome of the events they’re covering, but are being paid a living wage to present them accurately to readers. The debate over the downsides of the Internet tends to focus on the consumer end, arguing, as Nicholas Carr does in his bestseller, The Shallows, that the Internet is making us dumber. That may or may not be true – I have my doubts – but as we near the close of the second decade of the Internet Era, we may be facing a far greater problem on the producer end: the atrophying of a central skill set necessary to great literature, that of taking off the bathrobe and going out to meet the people you are writing about. I mean to cast no generational aspersions toward the web-savvy writers coming up behind me, but having done both, I can tell you that blogging is nothing like reporting. Just about any fact you can find, or argument you can make, is available online, and with a few clicks of the mouse, anyone can sound like an expert on virtually any subject. And, because so far the blogosphere is, for the great majority of bloggers, quite nearly a pay-free zone, most bloggers are so busy earning a living at their real job, they have no time for old-fashioned shoe leather reporting even if they had the skill set. But in the main, today’s younger bloggers don’t have those skills, because shoe-leather reporting isn’t all that useful in the Internet age. Reporting is slow. It’s analog. You call people up and talk to them for half an hour. Or you arrange a time to meet and talk for an hour and a half. It can take all day to report a simple human-interest story. To win eyeballs online, you have to be quick and you have to be linked. Read Gawker some time. Or Jezebel. Or even a site like Talking Points Memo. There’s some original reporting there, but more common are riffs on news stories or memes created by somebody else, often as not from television or the so-called “dead-tree media.” When there is an original piece online, often it comes from an author flacking for another, paying gig – a book, a business venture, a weight-loss program, a political career. Clay Shirky, the NYU media studies professor and author of Here Comes Everybody, has suggested the crumbling of economic support for traditional print media and the original reporting it engendered is a temporary stage in the healthy process of creative destruction that goes along with the advent of any new game-changing technology. “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place,” Shirky is quoted as saying in The Pew Center’s “State of the News Media 2010” report. Maybe Shirky is right and online news sites will discover an economic model to replace the classified pages and grocery-store ads, but as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier points out in You Are Not A Gadget, we’ve been waiting a long time for the destruction to start getting creative. Lanier, who is more interested in music than writing, argues that for all the digi-vangelism about the waves of creativity that would follow the advent of musical file-sharing, what has happened so far is that music has gotten stuck in a self-reinforcing loop of sampling and imitation that has led to cultural stasis. “Where is the new music?” he asks. “Everything is retro, retro, retro.” Lanier writes: I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines: Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the track for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance. I am certainly not the go-to guy on contemporary music, but, like Lanier, I fear we are creating a generation of riff artists, who see their job not as creating wholly new original projects but as commenting upon cultural artifacts that already exist. Whether you’re talking about rappers endlessly “sampling” the musical hooks of their forebears, or bloggers snarking about the YouTube video of Miami Heat star Shaquille O’Neal holding his nose on the bench after one of his teammates farted during the first quarter of a game against the Chicago Bulls, you are seeing a culture, as Lanier puts it, “effectively eating its own seed stock.” Thus far this cultural Möbius strip hasn’t affected books to the same degree that it has the news media and music because, well, authors of printed books still get paid for having original ideas. (If you wonder why cyber evangelists like Clay Shirky keep writing books and magazine articles printed on dead trees, there’s your answer. Writing a book is a paid gig. Blogging is effectively a charitable donation to the cultural conversation, made in the hope that one’s donation will pay off in some other sphere, like, say, getting a book contract.) The recent U.S. government suit against Apple and book publishers over alleged price-fixing in the e-book market, which would allow Amazon to keep deeply discounting books to drive Kindle sales, suggests that authors can’t necessarily count on making a living from writing books forever. But even if by some miracle, books continue to hold their economic value as they move into the digital realm, the people who write them will still need a way to make a living – and just as importantly, learn how to observe and describe the world beyond their laptop screen – in the decade or so it takes a writer to arrive at a mature and original vision. Try to imagine what would have become of Hemingway, that shell-shocked World War I vet, if he hadn’t found work on the Kansas City Star, and later, the job as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star that allowed him to move to Paris and raise a family. The same goes for a writer as radically different as Hunter S. Thompson, who was saved from a life of dissipation by an early job as a sportswriter for a local paper, which led to newspaper gigs in New York and Puerto Rico. All of his best books began as paid reporting assignments, and his genius, short-lived as it was, was to be able to report objectively on the madness going on inside his drug-addled head. In 2012, we live in a bit of a false economy in that novelists and nonfiction writers in their thirties and forties are still just old enough to have begun their careers before content began to migrate online. Thus, we can thank magazines for training and paying John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose book of essays, Pulphead, consists largely of pieces written on assignment for GQ and Harper’s. We should also be thankful for Gourmet magazine, which, until it went under in 2009, sent novelist Ann Patchett on lavish, all-expenses-paid trips around the world, including one to Italy, where she did the research on opera singers that fueled her bestselling novel, Bel Canto. In a quirkier, but no less important way, we can thank glossy magazines for The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who supported himself by writing for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Details during his long, dark night of the literary soul in the late 1990s before his breakout novel was published. Those venues – most of them, anyway – still exist, but they are the top of the publishing heap, and the smaller, entry-level publications of the kind I worked for twenty years ago, are either dying or going online. Increasingly, my decision to leave journalism to enter an MFA program twenty years ago seems less a personal life choice than an act guided by very subtle, yet very powerful economic incentives. As paying gigs for apprentice writers continue to dwindle, apprentice writers are making the obvious economic choice and entering grad school, which, whatever its merits as a writing training program, at least has the benefit of possibly leading to a real, paying job – as a teacher of creative writing, which, as you may have noticed, is what most working literary writers do for a living these days. Perhaps that is what people are really saying when they talk about the “MFA aesthetic,” that insular, navel-gazing style that has more to do with a response to previous works of fiction than to the world most non-writers live in. Perhaps the problem isn’t with MFA programs at all, but with the fact that, for most graduates of MFA programs, it’s the only training in writing they have. They haven’t done what any rookie reporter at any local newspaper has done, which is observed a scene – a city council meeting, a high school football game, a small-plane crash – and then written about it on the front page of a paper that everybody involved in that scene will read the next day. They haven’t had to sift through a complex, shifting set of facts – was that plane crash a result of equipment malfunction or pilot error? – and not only get the story right, but make it compelling to readers, all under deadline as the editor and a row of surly press guys are standing around waiting to fill that last hole on page one. They haven’t, in short, had to write, quickly, under pressure, for an audience, with their livelihood on the line. It is, of course, pointless to rage against the Internet Era. For one thing, it is already here, and for another, the Web is, on balance, a pretty darn good thing. I love email and online news. I use Wikipedia every day. But we need to listen to what the Jaron Laniers of the world are saying, which is that we can choose what the Web of the future will look like. The Internet is not like the weather. It isn’t something that just happens to us. The Internet is merely a very powerful tool, one we can shape to our collective will, and the first step along that path is deciding what we value and being willing to pay for it. Image via Wikimedia Commons
She doesn't look like white trash. The author photo on the back of her debut book makes Lacy M. Johnson look more like an actress, or maybe a model, with that waterfall of golden hair, that porcelain skin, those bee-stung lips and -- her words, not mine -- "the bluest eyes you've ever seen." But the book, Trespasses: A Memoir, leaves no doubt about its author's white-trash bona fides. Johnson grew up on a farm in north central Missouri, where her people have lived marginal lives for nearly two centuries, managing to fail at nearly everything they try. A farm goes into foreclosure, a fireworks stand goes bust, a restaurant burns to the ground, her parents' marriage shambles toward divorce. When she's a young girl, Johnson's family moves into the nearest town, Macon, and town life provides the petri dish in which her white-trash DNA will buzz and bubble to raunchy, full-blown life. The girl becomes aware of a social pecking order, codified by a litany of slurs townfolk use for country people: appleknocker, cletus, clodbuster, cracker, dirt eater, hayseed, hick, slue foot, yahoo, yokel and, of course, white trash. Despite her insistence that "we are not that," by the time she's a teenager Johnson is a member of this loathed tribe. Not that her mother didn't try to prevent it. As Johnson tells it: Anytime I tried to leave the house wearing dark lipstick in high school, my mother would send me straight back to the bathroom to wash it off. That makes you look trashy, she'd say. Also: cut-off jean shorts, bleaching my hair too blond, letting my roots show, swearing, wearing a dirty t-shirt to the grocery store, wearing shoes without socks, wearing skirts without pantyhose, wearing pantyhose with runs, dirty fingernails, painted fingernails, chewed fingernails, mascara, eye shadow, overplucked eyebrows, underplucked eyebrows, dangly earrings, low-cut shirts, high-cut skirts... That's too many rules for this girl to follow, and soon she's shoplifting, vandalizing, getting drunk, having sex, piercing her own navel, giving herself a Mohawk, and -- do you need to be told this? -- getting her arms and back paved with tattoos. She will work as a cashier at Wal-Mart and she will sell steaks door-to-door, but first she must survive high school in a small town in the Midwest. It isn't easy: You walk to high school every day and you smoke cigarettes and cough down the peach schnapps your mama keeps hidden in the very back of the highest kitchen cabinet and even though it burns your stomach like hellfire you follow the kids to the one-block downtown and drive your truck in circles because it's the only thing to do. You make friends with a girl your same age and she lets you spend the night at her place sometimes and you sleep real soundly in the AIR CONDITIONING. Sometimes she sneaks her boyfriend in and they have sex in the bed right next to you. One night he brings his friend over and he kisses you and claws your clothes off and you just want to sleep but his breath is stale and sweet like the beer your daddy drinks and when you try to push him off and tell him to stop he puts a pillow over your face and jams himself right up inside you and you can hardly breathe it burns so bad but there is nothing God will do. Somehow, Johnson survives and manages to break from the tribe -- one of the acts of trespassing that gives the book its title. She becomes the first member of her family to attend college, winds up earning a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of Houston, teaches, starts getting published, produces this book. In doing so, she breaks the first commandment in the White-Trash Bible: Don't try to rise above your raising. Because of this programming, she feels like an outsider, a fraud. "I've become a fluent speaker of standard American English," she writes, "though I tend to lapse into dialect when I go home for a visit. I've also changed my clothes and my teeth and my hair -- a slow and gradual process. I cover my tattoos any time I need to be taken seriously. I own a house in an affluent suburb and teach writing at the university. No one knows I don't belong here." I came away from Trespasses full of admiration for its gritty passages, frustrated by its lapses into precious lyricism, and wishing we had more clear-eyed depictions of this neglected subculture. But then I caught myself. Are poor rural white people really neglected in American literature? Hardly. They might be routinely scorned, marginalized, misunderstood, and reduced to caricature, but they're not neglected. In fact, the canon is larded with writers who've put the riches of white trash culture to wondrous use, including Twain, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Zora Neale Hurston, Erskine Caldwell, W.J. Cash, James Ross, Flannery O'Connor, and James Agee, to name a few. More recently, we've been blessed by unflinching explorations of white-trash worlds by the likes of Pete Dexter, Dorothy Allison, Cormac McCarthy, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell and the recently departed Harry Crews. There has even been humor that rises far above such cartoonish tripe as L'il Abner and The Beverly Hillbillies and Jeff Foxworthy's You know You're a Redneck If.... In The Redneck Manifesto, Jim Goad manages to be funny, angry and in-your-face politically incorrect while defending his white-trash brethren against prevailing media stereotypes. "Multiculturalism," Goad wryly notes, "is a country club that excludes white trash." The term itself came into use before the Civil War. When the English actress Fanny Kemble visited a Georgia plantation in the 1830s, she reported, "The slaves themselves entertain the very highest contempt for white servants, whom they designate as 'poor white trash.'" The term was also in use at that time in the Washington, D.C., area, where blacks and Irish immigrants competed, viciously, for the same lowly jobs. I experienced a similar three-tiered social system while living in North Carolina in the 1970s. There was still a strong after-taste of the state's three pre-integration school systems: one for whites, one for blacks, one for Lumbee Native Americans. The fiercest fighting was never about who would reach the top because it was understood that white people, the non-trashy ones, would always run the show. The fiercest fighting was about staying off the bottom. I even saw this expressed by some unknown poet on the wall of a toilet stall in Lumberton, North Carolina: Black is beautiful. Tan is grand. But white is the color of the big bossman. I've traveled around the world, but nowhere -- not in the hills of Burma, not on the streets of Detroit, Singapore, Havana, Hamburg, Hanoi, or the New York barrio where I now live -- nowhere have I encountered people more foreign, forbidding, and fascinating than American white trash. Maybe this is because of the obvious things -- their weird food and weirder religion, their nasty drinks and drugs, their lawlessness and rococo bursts of violence. Or maybe it's because they're so familiar they can't help but seem exotic. I am, after all, a white Anglo-Saxon with Southern roots. My father's father was a shabby-genteel Virginian who made a modest living as an academic in Georgia, and my mother's father came out of the moonshine hills of southwest Virginia to become the town doctor in nearby Bluefield, W.Va., where he delivered coal miners' babies and died broke, racked by arthritis, which he treated with self-prescribed, self-injected doses of morphine. Exotic maybe, and not too far from the trailer park, but not quite pure-T trash. I grew up in the solid middle class in Detroit and made it through college, but I've always been drawn to my Southern roots and the outer precincts of the white trash world. I've baled hay with its denizens in Vermont, pounded nails with them in North Carolina, picked apples and cut grapes with them in California. I've slept with a few, gotten drunk with more than a few, had one shoot a rifle into my house, watched another (a jealous female) yank out a fistful of my sister's hair. The closer I got, the farther away I felt. In his sometimes gassy book Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, Matt Wray writes, "White trash names a people whose very existence seems to threaten the symbolic and social order. As such, the term can evoke strong emotions of contempt, anger, and disgust. This is no ordinary slur." While it was undoubtedly coined as a slur and is usually used as one, I've always seen it as a badge of honor for people who have chosen or been forced to live outside the chalk lines of middle-class respectability. In a sense, these are the purest American outlaws, which is to say they are the purest Americans. They're people who announce, in everything they say, wear, eat, drink, think, and do, that they are not one of Tom Wolfe's "Vicks Vapo-Rub chair-arm-doilie burghers." They are, on the contrary, the poet Philip Levine's people, "the ones who live at all cost and come back for more, and who if they bore tattoos -- a gesture they don't need -- would have them say, 'Don't tread on me' or 'Once more with feeling' or "No pasaran' or 'Not this pig.'" Which brings us back to the fact that many American writers -- journalists, novelists, poets -- have mined the riches of white trash. While it would be impossible to list them all, here are a half dozen of my personal favorites, along with short samples of their prose: Marshall Frady The journalist and biographer Marshall Frady published a non-fiction collection in 1980 called Southerners. It included "The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford," in which Frady tells about the peculiar travails of a writer in a small Tennessee town who had the effrontery to publish a novel called The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones in 1965, at the height of the civil rights movement, that dared to condemn the racial attitudes of the Jim Crow South. Jesse Hill Ford was promptly ostracized by his outraged white neighbors. Then, in a weird twist, he shot and killed two black people who were trespassing on his property. As part of his tortuous campaign to win back the sympathy of his fellow whites -- and thus acquittal for his crime -- Ford travels to a junk yard one day to plead his case to a man named Sonny Waldrop, who has a side line raising fighting dogs. Frady paints the harrowing scene: (Waldrop) was himself strikingly evocative of some overgrown bulldog, with the same brutal impacted massiveness, the clamp of his lower jaw like the prow of a tugboat. His hair was oil-combed back to fat black locks on the nape of his neck, and he was wearing corduroy trousers that drooped below his billowing belly, his thumbs hooked in the pockets. "Hell, yeah, I got a dog out back there now," he offered in his amiable wheeze. "Ain't even full-grown yet, but the goddam meanest dog I ever had -- I mean, two German shepherds jumped on him both at once while he was tied up to the doghouse, and he killed both their asses, by God. Wanna see 'im? C'mon back, I'll show 'im to you..." Beyond a battered sheet of corrugated tin roofing, they saw, still chained to his hovel of a doghouse, the form of a half-grown bulldog with a hide the dull gray of old dishwater, lying on top of the small rise in the cold sunlight -- a third of his neck gnawed away. Still, an instant or two passed before the realization registered, as Waldrop idly nudged the dog's stiff flanks with his boot, that it was a carcass -- had been lying out here a carcass, chained to the doghouse, for at least a whole day. "Greatest goddam little ole dog I ever came by," Waldrop whooped, and for some reason, no one seemed able to bring himself to note out loud that it was actually dead... James Ross Some of the best -- and funniest -- sketches of white trash come from white characters of the "better" classes trying to distance themselves from all that shiftless, inbred, violent, ignorant riffraff. In his only published novel, They Don't Dance Much, James Ross puts these words in the mouth of a wealthy small-town Southerner who's explaining the local problem to a visitor from the North: "The main problem down here is the improvidence of the native stocks, coupled with an ingrained superstition and a fear of progress. They are, in the main, fearful of new things.... I think they merely dislike the pain that is attendant to all learning." You can almost hear the man straining to keep those "native stocks" at arm's length. Walker Percy Like James Ross, Walker Percy understood that white trash offers the novelist a way into that most taboo of American topics: class. Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, contains what might be the greatest soliloquy on class in American literature. The novel’s disaffected hero, Binx Bolling, has a blue-blooded aunt in New Orleans who gives him this blistering lecture after he breaks the codes of his class: “I’ll make you a little confession. I’m not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people belonging to my class think they’re better than other people. You’re damn right we’re better. We’re better because we do not shirk our obligations either to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a minority group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity’s sake. Oh I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your common man -- you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content so to be called, because that is what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will not be remembered for its technology or even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization in history that has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal.” Daniel Woodrell In today's Ozarks, as conjured by the wildly gifted Daniel Woodrell, meth is the new moonshine but there's really nothing new under the pitiless sun. It is, always and forever, about family, tribe, and the violence that comes with operating on the margins of society’s rules and laws. Here is a chilling thumbnail sketch from the novel Winter’s Bone: Uncle Teardrop was Jessup’s elder and had been a crank chef longer but he’d had a lab go wrong and it had eaten the left ear off his head and burned a savage melted scar down his neck to the middle of his back. There wasn’t enough ear nub remaining to hang sunglasses on. The hair around the ear was gone, too, and the scar on his neck showed above his collar. Three blue teardrops done in jailhouse ink fell in a row from the corner of the eye on his scarred side. Folks said the teardrops meant he’d three times done grisly prison deeds that needed doing but didn’t need to be gabbed about. They said the teardrops told you everything you had to know about the man and the lost ear just repeated it. He generally tried to sit with his melted side to the wall. Elmore Leonard Most of Elmore Leonard's crime novels take place in cities: Detroit, New Orleans, Miami, Las Vegas, Los Angeles. But his Detroit novels, in particular, make room for characters who've migrated from the country, in this case the white Southerners who've traveled the "Hillbilly Highway" (originally U.S. 23, now I-75), which runs from Appalachia right up to the all-devouring mouth of Henry Ford's River Rouge plant and other Detroit infernos. Leonard's white Southerner outlaws have names like Clement Mansell and Ernest "Stick" Stickley, Jr. (His black Southerner outlaws have names like Virgil Royal and Sportree and Marlys.) These white guys take a pass on the rich local music offerings, from John Lee Hooker to Aretha, Motown, The Stooges, Bob Seger, and The White Stripes. Instead they stick with Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Reed, the Alabama Wild Man. Here's "Stick" doing a little down-home cooking before a big night on the town: "He fixed himself some greens with salt pork and ring baloney and Jiffy Corn Bread Mix, fell asleep watching the late movie, woke up, and went to bed." And here's Leonard, a master at picking the perfect detail, describing a Motor City street scene in Unknown Man #89 from 1977, when Detroit was on its long steep slide: He had a wonderful job taking care of the Mayflower, the actual carved-in-stone name of the apartment building on Selden, in the heart of the Cass Corridor, where he could sit in his window and watch the muggings in broad daylight and the whores go by and the people from Harlan County and East Tennessee on their way to the grocery store for some greens and cornmeal. We know Leonard' s characters by what they eat, what they wear and how they talk, as much as by what they do. Therein lies his art. John Jeremiah Sullivan While Walker Percy, Elmore Leonard, and Flannery O'Connor frequently use white-trash behavior -- and those who imagine themselves above it -- as a way to inject sly humor into their writing, John Jeremiah Sullivan goes a different route. In "Upon This Rock," the lead essay in Pulphead, his superb non-fiction collection from last year, Sullivan falls in with a group of buddies from West Virginia who have come to a Christian rock festival in rural Pennsylvania called Creation. Their names are Bub, Darius, Jake, Ritter, Josh, and Pee Wee, good country people who strum guitars, eat frog legs, and have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. Many writers would dismiss them as white trash and treat them with condescension or outright disdain. Sullivan treats them with such unblinking candor and respect that it seems like a small miracle: In their lives they had known terrific violence...Half of their childhood friends had been murdered -- shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves. Darius's grandfather, great-uncle and one-time best friend had all committed suicide. When Darius was growing up his father was in and out of jail; at least once his father had done hard time... But in addition to knowing violence, these young men know, and love, the natural world: It came out that these guys spent much if not most of each year in the woods. They lived off game -- as folks do, they said, in their section of Braxton County. They all knew the plants of the forest, which were edible, which cured what. Darius pulled out a large piece of cardboard folded in half. He opened it under my face: a mess of sassafras roots. He wafted their scent of black licorice into my face and made me eat one... And: "It's fixin' to shower here in about ten minutes," Darius said. I went and stood beside him, tried to look where he was looking. "You want to know how I know?" he said. He explained it to me, the wind, the face of the sky, how the leaves on the tops of the sycamores would curl and go white when they felt the rain coming, how the light would turn a certain "dead" color. He read the landscape to me like a children's book. "See over there," he said, "how that valley's all misty? It hasn't poured there yet. But the one in back is clear -- that means it's coming our way." Minutes later it started to rain, big, soaking, percussive drops... So there you have it: peach schnapps, rape, dead dogs, fearful native stocks, angry bluebloods, disfigured crank chefs, ring baloney, the Alabama Wild man, and people who can read the natural world like a children’s book. It is any wonder my fascination is boundless? We would love to hear about your own favorite writers, along with brief passages from their writings on the riches of white trash. Feel free to include them below, in the Comments Section. Image Credit: Flickr/edenpictures
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. 1Q84 6 months 2. 3. Pulphead 4 months 3. 4. The Marriage Plot 6 months 4. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 4 months 5. 7. The Book of Disquiet 4 months 6. 5. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 4 months 7. 8. The Art of Fielding 6 months 8. 9. Lightning Rods 6 months 9. - New American Haggadah 1 month 10. 10. Train Dreams 2 months Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life has graduated to our Hall of Fame, and Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 slides back into the top spot. Debuting on our list is Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's New American Haggadah, just in time for Passover. We reviewed the new take on an ancient religous text last month. Next month should see a lot of movement on our list as we're likely to see four books graduate to the Hall of Fame, meaning we'll see four new titles debut. Near Misses: Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, The Sense of an Ending, Leaving the Atocha Station, The Great Frustration, and The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk. See Also: Last month's list.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 6 months 2. 1. 1Q84 5 months 3. 4. Pulphead 3 months 4. 3. The Marriage Plot 5 months 5. 8. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 3 months 6. 6. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 3 months 7. 9. The Book of Disquiet 3 months 8. 5. The Art of Fielding 5 months 9. 10. Lightning Rods 5 months 10. - Train Dreams 1 month Ann Patchett's Kindle Single The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life lands atop our list, unseating Haruki Murakami's 1Q84, and another Kindle Single, Tom Rachman's short-story ebook The Bathtub Spy, graduates to our Hall of Fame. (Rachman's book The Imperfectionists is already a Hall of Famer.) Debuting on our list is Denis Johnson's novella Train Dreams, which won mentions from Adam Ross, David Bezmozgis, and Dan Kois in 2011's Year in Reading series. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was a big mover again this month, and Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World also jumped a few spots. Near Misses: The Great Frustration, The Sense of an Ending, Visual Storytelling: Inspiring a New Visual Language, 11/22/63, and The Sisters Brothers. See Also: Last month's list.
Geoff Dyer endorses Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station , John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead --our own Bill Morris loves it too!--and a generalized aversion toward seafood in his interview with Morten Høi Jensen for Book Forum. While they ostensibly met to talk about Zona--reviewed on The Millions here--it’s perhaps unsurprising that they managed to digress so liberally: “we chatted about his review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: the Biography, and by the end he was giving me advice about which David Markson book I should read first. Our interview, in other words, assumed the shape of a Geoff Dyer book.”
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 4 months 2. 2. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 5 months 3. 3. The Marriage Plot 4 months 4. 6. Pulphead 2 months 5. 4. The Art of Fielding 4 months 6. 8. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 2 months 7. 5. The Bathtub Spy 6 months 8. 7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 2 months 9. 10. The Book of Disquiet 2 months 10. 9. Lightning Rods 4 months It was a quieter month for our list, with no new titles breaking in and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1. The big movers on the list were John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead, which received a glowing write-up from our staffer Bill, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which Jonathan Safran Foer called a book that changed his life. With an array of hotly anticipated titles coming in February, we'll see if any newcomers can break in next time around. Near Misses: Train Dreams, The Sense of an Ending, Leaves of Grass, The Great Frustration, and A Moment in the Sun. See Also: Last month's list.
The finalists for the annual National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award have been announced. The fiction list includes one of the biggest fiction releases of last year, but all five of the finalists got a fair amount of ink. No huge surprises. In fact, as we've noted in the past, the NBCC seems to do a better job of catching the zeitgeist than other major prizes like the National Book Award and the Booker, which like to play kingmaker by annointing less well known titles. Here are the finalists for fiction and non-fiction with excerpts and other links where available. As a side note, the NBCC award is particularly interesting in that it is one of the few major awards that pits American books against overseas (usually British) books. Fiction Teju Cole, Open City (our review, excerpt) Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Write The Marriage Plot, our review, excerpt [pdf]) Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child (our review, The Millions Interview: Alan Hollinghurst Answers his Critics, excerpt) Edith Pearlman, Binocular Vision (excerpt) Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (our review, excerpt) Nonfiction Amanda Foreman, A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War (excerpt) James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Ben Marcus on The Information, excerpt) Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (excerpt) Maya Jasanoff, Liberty's Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary War (excerpt) John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (Staff Pick, excerpt [pdf]) For more on the NBCC Awards and the finalists in the other categories, visit the NBCC.
Mushy book reviews may be a breach of faith, as the late Wilfrid Sheed maintained, but in this case I can't help myself. Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection of essays, Pulphead, turns instantly to mush. Yes, he's that good. He has that rare ability to make me care deeply about things that held little or no interest before I picked up the book, including Christian rock festivals, the very real unreality of reality TV, the last surviving Southern Agrarian, Native-American cave paintings, Michael Jackson, country blues, Axl Rose, the Tea Party, and how to kill a frog and cook its legs. Sullivan has a vast range, obviously, but his success comes from something much deeper and subtler. The book's opening essay, "Upon This Rock," is a good place to begin illustrating the point. The essay tells the story of what happens to Sullivan at the biggest Christian rock festival in all of Christendom, the Creation Festival, "a veritable Godstock" held every year in rural Pennsylvania. Many reporters, wise to the ways of the world, would have helicoptered in from the coast and delivered yet another predictable let's-laugh-at-the-Clampetts bulletin from the hinterlands. Not Sullivan. He's too smart and too honest to go this lazy route. He's above being above his subjects. Instead, he opens his eyes and his heart to the people who have come to the festival, particularly a group of guys from West Virginia he falls in with – Darius, Jake, Ritter, Bub, Josh, and Pee Wee. Sullivan's empathy is made easier, he notes, by the fact that he was born in Kentucky and as a teenager went through his own "Jesus phase," which ended when he started reading books that "didn't jibe with the Bible" and caused him to question his faith. Books will do that to you. Yet Sullivan admits that he still loves Jesus Christ. "His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness," Sullivan writes. "Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what's fragile and what suffers – there lies sanity. And salvation." Sullivan uses such bits of personal history to great advantage in his reporting and writing. Once we know about his "Jesus phase" – and his subsequent loss of faith, and his unwillingness to dismiss believers as fools – we see the thousands of people at the Creation Festival with fresh eyes. Such insights could come only from someone who has done the reporting and has an eye for something that lives way deeper than the much-ballyhooed "telling detail," way down in the darker sediments of the American soul. Here's Sullivan's description of something he didn't witness at the Creation Festival: "I've been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird complicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen." It addition to such gem-like observations, Sullivan gives us humor. Here's his description of the 29-foot whale of a rented RV he drove to the festival: "The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun." Here's a cute country girl: "Her face was as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs." Here's delicious food: "She made rum cakes you could eat yourself to death on like a goldfish." And here's what he hears: "There was music that sounded like a rabbit's heartbeat in the core of your brain." Sometimes the humor comes with wisdom, as in this verdict on the meaning of an entertainment phenomenon that started way back in the Paleolithic 1990s and long ago went kudzu: "My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows in the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights." Yes, this is indeed us. Is it any wonder I go all mushy when I read this guy?
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. 1Q84 3 months 2. 3. The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life 4 months 3. 2. The Marriage Plot 3 months 4. 5. The Art of Fielding 4 months 5. 4. The Bathtub Spy 5 months 6. - Pulphead 1 month 7. - The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World 1 month 8. - The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains 1 month 9. 6. Lightning Rods 4 months 10. - The Book of Disquiet 1 month While the top of our final list for 2011 included the same familiar names and 1Q84 still enthroned at #1, our year-end coverage helped push four eclictic new titles onto the lower half of our list. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead was one of the most talked about books of 2011 and our own Bill and Garth offered glowing comments on the book in our Year in Reading. Jonathan Safran Foer touted Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows as a book that changed his life. (Our own Emily Mandel also wrote a fascinating essay inspired by the book over a year ago.) Colum McCann said of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, "It was like opening Joyce’s back door and finding another genius there in the garden." Finally, Hannah Gerson came up with "12 Holiday Gifts That Writers Will Actually Use" but only one of them was a book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. With all these new books showing up on our list, four titles got knocked off: Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending, John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, and Whitman's Leaves of Grass Other Near Misses: Train Dreams and The Great Frustration See Also: Last month's list.
This was the year my son became a toddler -- which is to say, the year I surrendered the keys to my attention span to a traveling companion by turns delightful, dilatory, and insane. Among the casualties of this shift was an essay I had planned to write, called "How Having a One-year-old Will Change Your Reading and Writing Habits" ... along with several hundred other essays, reviews, articles, and epic poems that got interrupted partway through. But the kid has just gone down for a nap, which should buy me an hour or two, provided all goes well. And I do have my notes. (My notes! How optimistic that phrase now sounds!) What follows, then, is a kind of museum of my failures, an atlas of incompletion, a tour of the ruins of a future that never came. I call it "Reviews I Did Not Write This Year." 1. Game-Changer The single best thing I read in 2011 was Steps to an Ecology of Mind, a career-spanning nonfiction collection from the late anthropological polymath and proto-hippie genius Gregory Bateson. This may sound forbidding -- and it is, in a way. Bateson is an artist of abstraction on par with Derrida or Kant. (What the hell is an "Ecology of Mind", e.g.? Something like a way of thinking about thinking. Or thinking about thinking about thinking...) But Bateson's method is inductive; each essay builds lucidly from some specific subject -- alcoholism, Balinese art, the conversation of porpoises -- toward a larger concern with form, communication, complexity, and how they inform systems of all kinds. After 400 pages of this, "Systems Theory," which is another, uglier name for "Ecology of Mind," comes to look like the great Road Not Taken of Western Thought. Or maybe a road gone partway down, backed out of, blocked off, and erased from the map, in favor of the road that got us to where we are today. In short, this book changed my brain. I don't think it's too strong to say that it changed my life. 2. Novels Of the novels I read this year, my favorite was probably Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, but I've written about that elsewhere, so I guess there's no room for it here. Equally captivating were a pair of books from that nebulous period just before Joyce and Eliot and Woolf arrived to put their stamp on literary history. The first was Lucky Per, the magnum opus of the Danish Nobelist Henrik Pontoppidan. First published in 1904, it's either a late masterpiece of 19th century Realism, or an early masterpiece of 20th century Modernism ... or maybe the missing term between them. Pontoppidan gives us both a Balzacian examination of a society on the cusp of cosmopolitanism and a Kierkegaardian x-ray of the vacant place where we once imagined the individual soul. Filling that vacancy is the hero-journey of the eponymous Per, and it culminates in one of the great, strange endings of world literature. But don't take my word for it. Take Fredric Jameson's. (Inexplicably, by the way, Lucky Per remained untranslated into English until a dear friend of mine took this mitzvah upon herself. In a just world there would be a nice Oxford World Classics edition of this available for $10, but as it stands, it's a pricey import.) The Forsyte Saga, which I read this summer, covers some of the same historical territory, but in England, rather than Denmark. You won't catch me saying this often, but I think Virginia Woolf and V.S. Pritchett missed the boat on this one. Galsworthy's style -- his "port-wine irony," as Pritchett puts it -- looks pretty tasty a hundred years later, when the cultural palate tends to run either to near-beer or Jägermeister. And though he lacks the psychological penetration of a Pontoppidan (or a Woolf, for that matter) Galsworthy's astuteness as an observer of the bourgeois mores that formed him is unimpeachable. You can almost read The Forsyte Saga as a spy novel, the work of a double-agent that both informs on and sympathizes with his class. 3. Addendum I'd be remiss, too, if I didn't mention David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress, which is just as amazing as everyone says it is. This had lingered on my list for years. If it's done the same on yours, promote it to the top, post-haste. 4. Best New Fiction As far as newish fiction, my favorites were David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods, Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow, and Haruki Murakami's IQ84. The first two I wrote about here and here, so: disqualified on a technicality. But that's a good thing, because it gives me more space to talk about The Pregnant Widow. This one struck me as a hetero version of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, only set in the go-go '60s rather than the go-go '80s. (If that description had appeared on the jacket, it would have been enough to get me to buy the book, as there are few things I love more than Hollinghurst, the '60s, and books about sex.) Amis being Amis, the writing is fantastic. More importantly, though, this book shows off the heart everyone says he doesn't have. It's a wistful little f--ker, at that. In fact, The Pregnant Widow would be Amis' best book ... were it not marred by an abominable coda. (Trust me on this: just stop on page 308. Bind the rest of the pages shut with glue, if you have to. Rip them out. Burn them. They never happened.) IQ84 is, similarly and just as surprisingly, also full of heart (though Murakami's temperament here runs more toward Tin Pan Alley than Let it Bleed). And, now that I think of it, IQ84 could likewise have used a nice strong edit at the end. But who's going to complain about a thousand pages of assassins, "simple meals," crazy religious cults, and "little people"? There are a million billion holes I could poke in this book, but for me, IQ84 bypassed questions of good taste entirely, en route to being often within shouting distance of the great. Just in terms of the massive tractor-beam effect it exerted on my attention, it was the most pleasurable reading experience I had all year. Away from it, I couldn't wait to get back. 5. Brief Books With European Pedigrees A wonderful new discovery for me was Lore Segal, whose Lucinella couldn't be more unlike IQ84. It's short, for one thing -- I read it back during the time I thought I would read only short books. It's wickedly funny, for another (writers' colonies may be easy game, but it takes chutzpah to make sport of the gods). Also: it's just exquisitely written. Here, the pleasure is less in the narrative burlesque than in every beautifully turned sentence. A New Year's resolution: I will read more Lore Segal in 2012. Another short, funny, weird novel I loved this year was Ludvíc Vakulíc's The Guinea Pigs, now back in print in English. Vakulíc is like Bohumil Hrabal without the soft-shoe, or Kafka without the metaphysics. Here he writes about (in no particular order), bureaucracy, family, totalitarianism, money, and guinea pigs (natch). These emerge as aspects of the same phenomenon -- an idea that struck me as weirdly apposite in America, circa 2011. At any rate, Vakulíc's comedy is relentless, disconcerting, clear-eyed, and strange. The last in my troika of great short books was Imre Kertesz's Fatelessness. This is simply the best novel about the Holocaust I have ever read: the most meticulous, the most comprehensive, the most beautiful in its scruples, the most scrupulous in its beauty. To say that it, too, is disconcerting doesn't mean what you'd think it means. Basically, you just have to read it. 6. Omissions Somehow I've gotten through the "shorter books" section without mentioning Skylark, Never Let Me Go, or The Elementary Particles, as I somehow managed to get through the last decade without reading them. I hereby rectify the former error, as I rectified the latter in 2011. You should read these, too. 7. Nonfiction Earlier this year, the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides inspired me to pick up John Lewis' memoir Walking With the Wind. This seems to me the very model of the as-told-to book, in that you really feel the cadences of Lewis' voice and the force of his insights. That this book is morally stirring is obvious. A couple things that often get lost in the narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, however, are what brilliant tacticians its leaders were and how widely their visions varied. You feel both here, powerfully. Occupiers, and for that matter Tea Partiers, could learn a lot at the feet of John Lewis. 8. Pulphead Finally: everyone is required to read John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. I know a lot of other people are saying this, but it's true. The debt to Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again will be obvious even if you haven't read Sullivan's beautiful essay on Wallace, but the subtle subterranean orchestrations of these pieces, the way they press on and palpate the things they're really about without ever naming them, remind me more of the great Joseph Mitchell. Most of them are practically perfect on their own, and collectively they comprise something greater. If you ever feel like the breach between journalism and anything of lasting consequence is getting wider and wider, let this book be your balm. I should also say, it being the holidays and all, that Pulphead is a perfect stocking-stuffer, perfect to read on airplanes (also on subways and on park benches in cold weather), perfect for dads, perfect for moms, perfect for musicians, perfect for college kids, perfect for people with small children and a concomitant inability to concentrate. In short, a perfect gift. Oh, crap. I didn't get to talk about The Gift! But the child is stirring in the next room, the laundry is almost done, I have apparently forgotten to eat lunch. Given that my pile of half-written essays now rivals the size of my pile of half-read books, I can't say when you'll next hear from me. Next December, probably, when it's time for another Year in Reading piece. I promise that one will be shorter and more disciplined. Comparatively, haiku. But I hope this mess above will, if nothing else, give you some books to check out in the meantime. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
This year I read a book that was so good it gave me that sick-sweet feeling of envy-awe when I finished the last page. Damn, I thought, I wish I'd written that! It's a book of essays called Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan, a young writer I had never read (this is only his second book). The essays originally appeared in substantially different form in GQ, The Paris Review, Harper's, Oxford American, and Ecotone. As that roster implies, Sullivan's range is vast. But what distinguishes these essays is the way Sullivan made me care about things I don't normally give much thought, including Christian rock, the Nashville Fugitives, reality TV, Michael Jackson, the Tea Party, Axl Rose, Native American cave paintings, and country blues. The trick, I now realize, is that Sullivan makes the reader care about these subjects because he cares in a deep, soulful, and utterly non-judgmental way. The maraschino on this delectable, multi-flavored sundae is that in addition to being perceptive and wise, Sullivan can also be piss-your-pants funny, as in this description of a rented RV: "The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun." Or this: "She made rum cakes you could eat yourself to death on like a goldfish." Yes, I wish I'd written Pulphead, every last singing word of it. This writer, not yet 40 and well on his way to greatness, is not to be missed. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I’ve always loved recommending books to people. At parties, I’ve been known to hold hostages in front of my bookshelves. I have, however, always preferred to let the books speak for themselves. I like sharing passages more than impressions, and I think that’s the best route to take. I read some great books in 2011. Below, I’d like to share some with you. Think of this as me standing in front of my bookshelf, pulling out some titles as I ramble on, and then opening to pages I think you should read. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your drink. The Orange Eats Creeps, Grace Krilanovich -- A book that grew in my mind after I finished it. I remember opening my mouth a lot as I read it, nodding unconsciously, losing focus on the narrative to admire the prose. To read Krilanovich’s book is to be hypnotized. Now, months later, I recall bits of phrases, such as how one drug-addled punk’s eyebrows fluttered and raised like a manic toilet flusher. That’s the language she used. Excerpt: Our town is doomed. We’re just hanging out waiting till it turns into the next thing, then we’ll go to sleep. Just build your shit around us, we’ll only go out at night anyway… The town slipped in and out of consciousness, depending on where you went. All the little twigs scraped at the ground like lace fans spread at the sun. Buckdancer’s Choice, James Dickey -- Dickey’s best known work is the film adaptation of Deliverance. In particular, his best known work is that one scene from Deliverance. Less known but nonetheless incredible is the man’s verse. A true American master, Southern or otherwise. These poems will inhabit you, and you’ll return to them often, and be better for it. Excerpt from “The Firebombing”: But in this half-paid-for pantry Among the red lids that screw off With an easy half-twist to the left And the long drawers crammed with dim spoons, I still have charge -- secret charge— Of the fire developed to cling To everything: to golf carts and fingernail Scissors as yet unborn tennis shoes Grocery baskets toy fire engines New Buicks stalled by the half-moon Shining at midnight on crossroads green paint Of jolly garden tools red Christmas ribbons: Not atoms, these, but glue inspired By love of country to burn, The apotheosis of gelatin. The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley -- Everyone knows Brave New World, but few have read Huxley’s historical nonfiction. Primarily about a French Jesuit priest’s sex scandal turned witch hunt turned public execution, The Devils of Loudun is also an interesting glimpse into Huxley’s ruminations on religion and mysticism before he experimented with mescaline. The work he wrote immediately after this one was The Doors of Perception, and you can see the beginnings of those thoughts here. Excerpt: Sex can be used either for self-affirmation or for self-transcendence -- either to intensify the ego and consolidate the social persona by some kind of conspicuous “embarkation” and heroic conquest, or else to annihilate the persona and transcend the ego in an obscure rapture of sensuality, a frenzy of romantic passion or, more credibly, in the mutual charity of the perfect marriage. If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino -- This book will hurt your head in the best way possible. Excerpt: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice -- they won’t hear you otherwise -- “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything; just hope they’ll leave you alone. The Avian Gospels, Adam Novy -- A man and his son can control birds. A judge is out to get them. War is perennial. If you’ve watched this video of a murmuration of starlings, you understand the beauty of bird swarms. If you read the book’s opening passage, you’ll want to read more. Excerpt: So many buildings had already been destroyed, the solitary walls like ruins submerged in flames, the city like an ocean of flames. Circles of maniacs prayed in the middle of the streets, and flapped their arms like birds. Teenage conscripts lay trapped beneath rubble, crying for their mothers, while comrades tried to get them out. Cats hauled their kittens through the ruins, and vultures swooped to seize them; a donkey gave birth inside a restaurant where dogs sipped at puddles of champagne, and cut their paws on broken bottles. Explosions shook the Earth; Katherine hardly kept her balance. Cobblestones zoomed past her head. A girl tried to carry a newborn foal on her back. Whoever won the war would rule ruins, be the king of stones and buzzards. Fires hurled themselves against the sky, as if in rapture, the city a cathedral of flame, flames like penitents to the sky. An elderly man thought his beard was in flames, and slapped at his face as he ran, calling, It burns! It burns! Men writhed on spears which had been rammed into the ground in perfect rows, a field of pain. Women carried infants like footballs. Birds choked on smoke and died mid-flight, raining in a deathstorm. Blood-Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son, John Jeremiah Sullivan -- When I read the much-deserved hype pieces about Pulphead, I was disappointed by their failure to mention this book. Blood-Horses is, like most of Sullivan’s writing, a memoir that feels like it’s about you. It’s about horses, yes, but it’s also about a young man and his father, about the concept of bloodlines, and about the pursuit of beauty and perfection in the natural world. Excerpt: There is a passage on the tape [of Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont win] that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the camera inexplicably stops tracking the race and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness -- the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image -- with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absences -- the gaps in Sappho’s fragments, Christ’s tomb, the black panels of Rothko’s chapel -- this is among the most beautiful. Packing For Mars, Mary Roach -- I’m a sucker for well-written science books. Susan Casey’s The Devil’s Teeth explained scientific fact in a way I could grasp: she has a line about sharks predating trees. Roach writes like she taught Casey everything she knows. This book was a delight. Excerpt: You never think about the weight of your organs inside you. Your heart is a half-pound clapper hanging off the end of your aorta. Your arms burden your shoulders like buckets on a yoke. The colon uses the uterus as a beanbag chair. Even the weight of your hair imparts a sensation on your scalp. In weightlessness, all this disappears. Your organs float inside your torso. The result is a subtle physical euphoria, an indescribable sense of being freed from something you did not realize was there. Orientation and Other Stories, Daniel Orozco -- I wanted to dislike this book. I always feel cheated when a publisher releases a collection of stories I’ve read before, and I feel doubly cheated when the author is mostly famous for a single story he wrote more than a decade ago. (“Orientation,” by the way, is only the second most depressing thing about office life I read this year. Early in January, I found Theodore Roethke’s “Dolor.”) The point is that I went into this book hating it. I was proven so, so wrong. Read “Shakers” and you’ll know why. Excerpt: When they hit, rats and snakes hightail it out of their burrows. Ants break single-file ranks and scatter blind, and flies roil off garbage bins in shimmering clouds. On the Point Reyes Peninsula, milk cows bust out of feed sheds and bolt for open pasture. Inside aquariums in dentist offices and Chinese restaurants and third-grade classrooms, fish huddle in the corners of their tanks, still as photos of huddled fish. Inside houses built on the alluvial soils of the Sacramento Delta, cockroaches swarm from behind walls, pouring like cornflakes out of kitchen cabinetry and rising in tides from beneath sinks and tubs and shower stalls. Crows go mute. Squirrels play possum. Cats awaken from naps. Dogs guilty of nothing peer guiltily at their masters. Pigeons and starlings clatter fretfully on the eaves and cornices of buildings, then rise en masse and wheel away in spectacular rollercoaster swoops… Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors -- Reading this book was an exercise in personal restraint. Resisting the urge to read too rapidly, as I wanted to savor the experience. Restraining my jealousy for Connors’ apparently marvelous life. Resisting the urge to drop what I was doing, pack my bags, hit the Gila Forest, and embark on a career in fire watching. Excerpt: As in Frisbee golf, so in hiking: the movements of my limbs help my mind move too, out of its loops and grooves and onto a plane of equipoise. I have been followed all my life, in the chaos of my thoughts, by a string of words: song lyrics, nonsense phrases, snatches of remembered conversation, their repetition a kind of manic incantation, a logorrhea in the mind, and all of them intermingled with sermons and soliloquies-- the spontaneous talker weaving his repetitive spell. At other times, tired of words themselves but intrigued by their internal mechanics, I find myself unconsciously counting syllables in sentences, marking each one by squeezing the toes on first my right foot, then my left, back and forth in order to discern whether the final tally is an even or an odd number. (Eighty. Even.) Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov -- This book is one everyone knows but few have actually read. (Moby-Dick is the exemplar of this type.) I’m actually glad I put off reading this one for as long as I did. I feel like its significance was built up so high-- my expectations were built up so high -- that when the book met and exceeded all of these things, it was all the more impressive. Much is said about Nabokov’s linguistic acrobatics, and his artistry is a highlight of this book, but less is said about Nabokov’s ability to wax terrifying and then suddenly hysterical within a few pages. This book is wickedly funny, but it’s also just wicked. Excerpt: We came to know the curious roadside species, Hitchhiking Man, Homo pollex of science, with all its many sub-species and forms: the modest soldier, spic and span, quietly waiting, quietly conscious of khaki’s viatic appeal; the schoolboy wishing to go two blocks; the killer wishing to go two thousand miles; the mysterious, nervous, elderly gent, with brand-new suitcase and clipped mustache; a trio of optimistic Mexicans; the college student displaying the grime of vacational outdoor work as proudly as the name of the famous college arching across the front of his sweatshirt; the desperate lady whose battery has just died on her; the clean-cut, glossy-haired, shifty-eyed, white-faced young beasts in loud shirts and coats, vigorously, almost priapically thrusting out tense thumbs to tempt loose women or sad-sack salesmen with fancy cravings. 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December 15th. New York City. Mark your calendars. John Jeremiah Sullivan and Wells Tower discuss "the art of the essay in light of Sullivan's new book, Pulphead."