Tuesday, December 31, 2013

One of the drawers in Donald Westlake's filing cabinet was labeled "Are you still here?" Which, I trust, is where, were he still with us, he would right now be filing 2013.

From Henry David Thoreau's journals, the entry for December 31, 1851:
Ah, beautiful is decay!
Or, as Timothy Hallinan in his crime novel Crashed put it,
Hope, the slut, always springs eternal.
Happy New Year, folks--and the gods bless Damion Searls for bringing us the NYRB Classics edition of Thoreau's journals, which are guaranteed to while away many a future day.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve

To carry us into Christmas, a letter from Katherine Anne Porter, sent to Albert Erskine on December 14, 1937:
I’ve been thinking about your Christmas present. It occurs to me that I never heard you say you wanted anything. I know things that you don’t want, for example, a book. So I shan’t give you Audubon’s Birds of America simply bursting with pictures. . . . You’ve got a radio. (Don’t give me one, by the way.) . . . What about a valet rack? It says: ‘The gift of gifts for a man, exclamation point. It saves time and temper by having his clothes all assembled for the morning rush.’ And then shows a picture with sure enough everything assembled. It’s one of the ugliest things I ever saw, though.
And then, for those of you more concerned with a seasonal mood than with shopping, here's Iris Murdoch writing to Frank Thompson on Christmas Eve, 1941:
It is Christmas eve & I in Blackpool. There is the hell of a wind blowing over the house & I feel a bit withered away already. I have just received a box of expensive Turkish cigarettes from Michael. Dear old Michael. A lost soul too. (The problem is, I have been reading Virginia Woolf, the darling dangerous woman, & am in a state of extremely nervous self-consciousness. The most selfish of all states to be in.
Woolf or no Woolf, let us all leave selfishness aside for a few days. Happy Holidays, folks.

Friday, December 20, 2013

My other favorites of 2013

When rocketlass and her team won two (2!) Webbys for their redesign of the University of Chicago's main website earlier this year, she described their place at the awards ceremony as being sort of like that moment on the Oscar telecast where the announcer-voiced announcer says, "In a special ceremony earlier today, Academy Awards were given out for Best Sound Design in a Norwegian Documentary about Fjords."

You'll just have to trust me when I say that, after Monday's and Wednesday's posts about my favorite fiction and nonfiction of the year, today's mish-mash of categories doesn't represent any lesser loves. These are all books I'd vouch for just as powerfully as the ones on the more traditional lists. So here goes.

Favorite poetry of 2013

As Ed Park put it in the San Francisco Chronicle the other day, "If you buy one book of poetry this year - well, you should probably buy more than one, right?" Here's a pair.

Carrie Olivia Adams's Forty One Jane Doe's: I would quote more from this one but I gave my copy to an old bookselling friend, pressed it fervently upon him. It's that sort of book. Carrie--who, like a few others on this week's lists, is a friend--surprises with her images, searches for knowledge in antiquated sciences, and wafts over all a hint of menace. Her lines break unexpectedly, jaggedly, pull to a stop defiantly, even breathlessly. Her Jane Does are like noir heroines, seductive and dangerous, even when (possibly?) dead. "I don't know why this one or that one. But I know desire." "I don't know how to close / a door, but I am sending / the sound of it latching."

Ernest Hilbert's All of You on the Good Earth: Aside from a shade of shared noir sensibility, Hilbert's poetry couldn't be less like Carrie Adams's: where hers is fractured and fragmented, his is regimented and formal. He's that rare thing these days, a sonneteer, but he brings a conversational vibrancy to the form that continually pushes against its constraints even as it draws strength from them. And, oh, the pleasures he takes in sound and rhythm and rhyme! "Taped up, damp now, smeared photo of the stray / On each scratched steel lamppost along the way."

Favorite comic of 2013

Though I greatly enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's wondrously cosmic storyline in the Avengers titles this year, it probably requires far too much knowledge of the Marvel Universe to be a sensible recommendation for outsiders. Matt Fraction and David Aja's Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon, on the other hand, requires only that you be willing to countenance the idea of a superhero . . . and then to watch that superhero remain heroic while dealing with the ordinary failures of daily life. It's funny and clever and surprising and beautifully drawn. (For those of you who do know the Marvel Universe, I should also recommend Fraction and Michael Allred's FF, the goofiest take yet on the meaning of the Fantastic Four.)

Favorite letters collection of 2013

Oh, J. F. Powers. What more can I say about him? His fiction is funny, moving, perceptive, worldly yet aware of grace. Because his output was relatively meager and he's thought of as "that guy who wrote about priests," he's given short shrift, but there are few writers of the last half of the twentieth century whose work I cherish more. So the arrival of Suitable Accomodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 felt like a gift, a wholly unexpected chance to engage once again with Powers's inimitable voice. And what is grace but an unearned, unexpected dispensation? If you've not read Powers, start with Morte D'Urban or the short stories; if you have read Powers, pick up this book. You won't be disappointed.

Favorite daybook for the bedside table

Tom Nissley's A Reader's Book of Days: Opening pages of this calendrical collection of anecdotes at random just now, I found that on July 6, 1953, Michael Straight in the New Republic wrote of Colette that her "preoccupation is of course with women, and she despises all of them but one." And that on August 8, 1920, Katherine Mansfield wrote of E. M. Forster,
So aware is he of his sensitiveness, of his sense of humour, that they are become two spectators who follow him wherever he goes, and are for ever on the look-out for a display of feeling.
And that on October 11, 2007, Doris Lessing, on being told by reporters on her doorstep that she had won the Nobel Prize, sighed, "Oh, Christ." And there are entries for Anthony Powell and Donald Westlake and Barbara Pym and Iris Murdoch and Penelope Fitzgerald and Rex Stout and Norman Maclean and M. R. James and Samuel Johnson, and oh, have you not gone to buy this book already?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

My favorite nonfiction of 2013

Philip Hoare's The Sea Inside: Hoare's book is ostensibly about the sea, the creatures found there, and our relationship to them. But it's as much about Hoare's mind, and the places its questing takes him, as it is about those subjects. So we learn about St. Mark the Wrestler, who "cured a hyena whelp by spitting on his fingers and signing on its eyes." And about the bad rap that ravens get. And about Hoare's ice-cold ocean swims, and his quiet home, and his memories of family. And of course about whales. It's a meandering, byways and backroads book, and it's mesmerizing.

Lucy Lethbridge's Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times: A richly anecdotal history of servants in twentieth-century Britain. What more do you need to know? Seriously: it's hard to imagine any fan of twentieth-century British literature who wouldn't enjoy this, if for no other reason than to help them understand the mostly unspoken background to the fiction of the period.

Lee Sandlin's The Distancers: An American Memoir: Lee Sandlin's memoir of a number of his ancestors (great-aunts and uncles, mostly) achieves something admirable: it brings ordinary people from generations before ours to life, locates them in their place and time, and, without setting ourselves or our own times up as better, or more advanced, shows us just how different they were, how truly far away from the familiar you get as you walk back through the decades. At the same time, he tells a moving story of ordinary people (if strange, and even in some cases damaged--driven, as Anthony Powell put it, by their own furies) living quiet lives, destined to disappear from memory were it not that they had a descendant who became a writer, one who cares about what we lose when memories fade.

Terry Teachout's Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington: In a lean year for me for biographies, Duke was a treat. I already knew that Ellington was famously elusive and hard to get to know; what I didn't know is that not that much happened in his life: he formed the band, and while there were ups and downs afterwards, that was basically it. In a certain sense the band was his life. Despite that Teachout manages to keep the narrative compelling, primarily by reliably bringing it back to the music and the players. Maybe no one really knew Ellington, but by the end of Duke we understand his genius, and admire his contribution to our culture all the more.

Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead: A perfect accompaniment to autumn's annual serving of ghost stories, Watkins's book is packed with details of how the English related to their dead--restful and walkabout alike--in past centuries. From it I learned more about the ghost-story-hunting monk of Byland Abbey, discovered that the dead buried beneath the flagstones of churches did indeed sometimes disrupt services with an olfactory reminder of the whole dust to dust bit, and of a nineteenth-century druid who was an early advocate of cremation. I've learned to trust the Bodley Head's sense of a good history--they're always rich in quotation, anecdote, surprises, and analysis--and this is the best of the year of the type.

Monday, December 16, 2013

My favorite fiction of 2013

I don't usually do anything resembling a best-of-the-year post, but because this year I

1 Read more new books than usual


2 Disagreed with the critical consensus more than usual (really disliking a lot of the books that are making best-of-the-year lists),

I decided to go ahead. Today will be my favorite fiction, Wednesday my favorite nonfiction.

Favorite fiction of 2013

Carlene Bauer's Frances and Bernard: A brilliantly realized, wholly convincing epistolary novel. I wrote about it back in February when I first read it, and I've continued to recommend it in the months since.

Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors: I happened to take this brilliant debut novel with me on a work trip to Prague this summer, only to discover when I opened it that it's about young American expatriates . . . living in Prague. Over the course of more than 400 pages, not much happens--except that Crain manages to takes us back to that moment in life when we're poised between youth, with its structures and deadlines, and adulthood, with its terrifying wide-openness. Our time horizons then were so short, our experience (despite what we told ourselves) so limited, that every single thing, person, and event seemed of outsized, at times monumental, importance, and Crain--with neither too much irony nor false naivete--makes us feel that again in all its self-involved glory. It's an incredible achievement.

Gaito Gazdanov's The Spectre of Alexander Wolf: It seems like an extra treat when you happen upon a favorite book of the year in early December--and you find it because the single line on the back cover convinces you to pick up:
Of all my memories, of all my life's innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.
A young man who killed an opposing soldier during the Russian Civil War happens upon a book of short stories in which one of the stories tells of the killing--and which could only be the work of the dead man. That sets him off on an investigation, and along the way the story turns and shifts, interpolating other stories with a narrative confidence and storytelling fecundity that reminds me of nothing so much as Roberto Bolano. The book was first published in 1948 in Russia, its author a taxi driver, but it feels as fresh as any of the new books on this list. Pushkin Press seems to have increased their presence in the States substantially this year, which is all to the good for readers, and this is the best yet.

A. L. Kennedy's The Blue Book: A novel that tries to wrong-foot the reader from the very start, full of tricks and misdirections, appropriate for a story of people who work in the borderlands between magic and con artistry. It's clever, engrossing, funny, dark-hearted, and ultimately moving. I'd not read Kennedy before, but this book will send me to the rest of her work.

Sam Lipsyte's The Fun Parts: With the possible exception of my friend Ed Park, there's no comic writer working today whose sentences I enjoy more. Not every story in this collection is wholly successful, but even the lesser ones offer finely honed sentences--sonically and rhythmically rich and brilliantly funny.

Matthew Specktor's American Dream Machine: I wrote about this one very briefly in the summer, calling it a cousin to Steve Erickson's Zeroville. But it's better than Zeroville, trading Erickson's distance for empathy. Specktor tells a story of Hollywood success (and the problems it brings), and it's that relatively rare multi-generational story where both generations are wholly believable, their different worlds and worldviews fully realized.

Thursday, December 05, 2013


Work leaves me behind-hand this week, and possibly next, so blogging may be spotty. Today, though, I've at least got this photograph, kindly taken for me by rocketlass.

The book on the right? It's Carl Watkins's The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead. Well played, Bodley Head. Well played. {P.S. All three of these books--the other two being Jerry White's London in the Eighteenth Century and Emily Cockayne's Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours--are quite good and well worth your time.}

Monday, December 02, 2013

Christmas crime

{Photos by rocketlass.} I've become a big fan the "Big Book of" anthologies that Otto Penzler (and, one presumes, his small team of Oompa-Loompas) has been editing the past few years for Black Lizard. The Big Book of Ghost Stories has whiled away October nights for two years now, with many more to come, while The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps makes great reading to accompany Donald E. Westlake's reflections on the history of the private eye in "The Hardboiled Dicks." (What's that you say? Oh, right, sorry--you'll have to wait until next September to read that, when The Getaway Car comes out to read that essay. It's a present for next Christmas. Meanwhile, however, the Big Book of Pulps is, as its name suggests, big, so you can get started now without qualms.)

This year brings the volume that is at the same time the most unexpected and most useful: it's The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries. As a fan of holiday episodes--there's nothing like Jack Benny shopping, or trimming the tree with bubble gum bubbles--I've always appreciated a seasonal story, but in these fallow days for magazine stories, I'm unlikely to run across a Christmas mystery. Otto Penzler has solved that problem with 650 pages of stories from the past century. Like Penzler's other anthologies, it's a nice mix of old chestnuts and less-expected names: Agatha Christie stories bookend the volume, and Conan Doyle, G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Ellery Queen, and Rex Stout all make appearances, but so do Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Max Allan Collins, Thomas Hardy (really--that Thomas Hardy), Stanley Ellin, Isaac Asimov, and John Mortimer. The stories are a mix of charming and hard-boiled, and while I expect that none of them will change your life (even your reading life), the ones I've read thus far have all offered the unmatched pleasure of a well-told tale.

I'll close tonight with the beginning to the Ellery Queen story, "The Adventure of the Dauphin's Doll" (1948). I'll quote at a bit more length than usual to get you through the whole opening:
There is a law among storytellers originally passed by Editors at the cries (they say) of their constituents, which states that stories about Christmas shall have children in them. This Christmas story is no exception; indeed, misopedists will complain that we have overdone it. And we confess in advance that this is also a story about Dolls, and that Santa Claus comes into it, and even a Thief; though as to this last, whoever he was--and that was one of the questions--he was certainly not Barabbas, even parabolically.

Another section of the statute governing Christmas stories provides that they shall incline towards Sweetness and Light. The first arises, of course, from the orphans and the never-souring nature of the annual Miracle; as for Light, it will be provided at the end, as usual, by that luminous prodigy, Ellery Queen. The reader of gloomier temper will also find a large measure of Darkness, in the person and works of one who, at least in Inspector Queen's harassed view, was certainly the Prince of that region. His name, by the way, was not Satan, it was Comus; and this is paradox enow, since the original Comus, as everyone knows, was the god of festive joy and mirth, emotions not commonly associated with the Underworld. As Ellery struggled to embrace his phantom foe, he puzzled over this non sequiter in vain; in vain, that is, until Nikki Porter, no scorner of the obvious, suggested that he might seek the answer where any ordinary mortal would go at once. And there, to the great man's mortification, it was indeed to be found: On page 262b of Volume 6, Colbe to Damasci, of the 175th Anniversary edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. A French conjurer of that name--Comus--performing in London in the year 1789 caused his wife to vanish from the top of a table--the very first time, it appeared, that this feat, uxorial or otherwise, had been accomplished without the aid of mirrors. To track his dark adversary's nom de nuit to its historic lair gave Ellery his only glint of satisfaction until that blessed moment when light burst all around him and exorcised the darkness, Prince and all.

But this is chaos.

Our story properly begins not with our invisible character but with our dead one.
And off it goes. I'd actually never read Queen before, and I was so pleasantly surprised by the light, even effervescent tone of the opening, the obvious fun that Queen was taking in the crafting of sentences that while the rest of the mystery can't quite live up to the fun of its entrance, that was a small matter.

I think I may adopt "But this is chaos!" as a refrain in all sorts of writing.