(We're always excited to run a rave review on the rare occasion that one is deserved. Here's Garrett Kenyon on the latest work by a rising talent. -- Levi)
In 2005, while Americans of every stripe anxiously watched distant lands suffer the disastrous whims of our previous president, a minor miracle occurred stateside, right under our noses. That year, a young Russian-American writer named Olga Grushin published that rarest of literary accomplishments: a debut novel bearing the undeniable redolence of a modern classic. The Dream Life of Sukhanov was everything a first-novel shouldn't be: tight, timeless -- confidently executed with the subtlety and depth of a seasoned master. Some critics were so stunned by Sukhanov, they jokingly questioned whether it could really be the work of a novice. Another admitted he "felt like buying 10 copies and sending them to friends." He probably didn't. Which is unfortunate, because, by 2005, the firmament of American lit had become so reliably unremarkable that too few sets of eyes were paying attention when Sukhanov punctured the darkness and streaked across the sky.
A few years ago I was bowled over by Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Wizard of the Crow, a bitter satire about an African dictator whose corruption has reached surreal heights and a few ragtag rebels who combat his regime. I joined in an extensive discussion of Wizard of the Crow at the Litblog Co-op, which chose the novel as its Winter 2007 selection.
Dreams in a Time of War, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's new memoir, shares an attractive cover concept with Wizard of the Crow, but otherwise could hardly feel more different. Sarcastic anger was Wizard's top note, but Dreams captures the author as a child, observant and innocent, devoid of hatred even as the emerging independent nation of Kenya dissolves into civil war around him.
I've been feeling down about literary fiction lately, so I'm glad I checked out an unassuming novel called Buffalo Lockjaw by Greg Ames, a Brooklyn writer who grew up in Buffalo, New York. With a frothy winter beer on its cover and a title that recalls Vincent Gallo, the novel appears on first glance to be about the quirky people of a small cold American city. In fact Buffalo Lockjaw has a different purpose, though its Buffalo charm is a hit as well.
We glimpse the purpose on page 4, when the book's slacker hero reveals that a copy of Assisted Suicide for Dummies is in the back seat of his car. He's returned to Buffalo (from Brooklyn) to spend time with his family and with his mother, whose mind has been completely destroyed by early onset Alzheimer's disease.
There are biographies, and then there are psychological biographies. The fallacies and hazards of the psychobiography form are easy to name, but the form can produce miracles when used well. Donald E. Pease's Theodor Seuss Geisel, a brief, spirited new study of the life and work of the great Dr. Seuss, provides a satisfying and surprising look at the motivations and half-hidden meanings behind classic children's books like Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
The biographer brings out the heavy psychological equipment to analyze the first Dr. Seuss children's book, And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street, published in 1937 when the author was 33 years old. The book depicts a child with a vivid imagination facing off against a stern father who rejects his son's artistic spirit. Pease argues convincingly that young Theodor Seuss Geisel's moral battle with his strict father shaped everything about his work, and that it was the very intensity of this father-son battle that gave the early Dr. Seuss books their power and energy.
You may be wondering why someone would write a top ten of 2009 list three months into 2010. Well I have two excuses. One: I didn't want to write a list until I was absolutely certain I had read every book that had a chance of making it on the list. All that reading takes a lot of time. Now, with my eyes blurry and my dreams dark, I can honestly say that I've read every book worth considering (with one exception, which I will admit to later) for the top ten.
Reason two is a tad more subjective: I've noticed with horror that nearly every Top 10 of 2009 list on the internet picks Michael Connelly's mediocre thriller The Scarecrow as one of the best of the year. Come on, folks! We can do better than that! I trust that anyone who included that one (not to mention some of the other stinkers I saw) on their list didn't have a chance to read the following titles. So, I finally decided to break my silence. 2009 was a banner year for crime fiction, and the following books deserve to be talked about. Enjoy.
Reality Hunger is a book-length essay about literature and culture by David Shields that's getting a lot of attention for its provocative key argument: we are wrong to think of fiction as the most exalted form of literature, because as readers we mostly value writings that bring us reality and truth -- which are, by strict definition, beyond the scope of fiction. Shields presents today's literary community as blind and confused, trained to pine after the ideal of the perfect novel, the sublime work of art, when in fact we crave something more primal than artistic excellence when we read.
Here's the first great book of the new decade. Just Kids by Patti Smith is a major work, an act of creative discovery, and a surprising new step in its author's riveting career.
Was there every any doubt that Patti Smith could write? She wrote before she sang, actually, publishing rock criticism in Crawdaddy, Creem and Rolling Stone and several poetry chapbooks before ever entering a recording studio. But it's rare for a musical artist to master the memoir format, and when I heard that Patti Smith's first book would focus on her early friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989, I was worried she'd phone in a Valentine.
In the prolific years since The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster's writing has tightened to such a perfect pitch it's become almost inaudible to human ears. His issues -- identity, language, truth or reality -- weave into such a seamless harmony, it must be what one hand clapping sounds like. He's even added, to this perfect mix, a hint of global awareness. It's beautiful mind candy, but what does it all amount to?
The first narrator in Invisible, Auster’s fifteenth novel, is Adam Walker. He is aging, sick, dying. He is sharing his life story, one with mundane realities as well as incest and murder. While he seems to be a reliable narrator, the larger-than-life characters he encounters strain belief. The conundrum here is: what is real? Of course reading a novel requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but in the case of Invisible, what is the reader supposed to believe? Did Adam have a wild affair with his sister? Do we care? Is Auster just a big tease? In day-to-day reality, we sometimes hear stories that are "so crazy they must be real". We look the storyteller in the eye and toss the dice, trusting them or not. Invisible is like a late night phone call from an old acquaintance now halfway around the world. You don’t know what to make of it while you’re on the line, and when you wake up in the morning, the conversation seems like a dream.
Here's Alice Ziplinsky, troubled hero and narrator of Katharine Weber's wild new novel True Confections, telling us about the job search that ultimately led her to a leadership position at a family-owned candy factory in Connecticut:
My next interview was for a receptionist position at a big law firm on Church Street, but when I met with the human resources lady, before I could say a word about which job I was applying for, she took one look at me and shook her head, and then she quickly told me the job had been filled and then she started typing really fast and didn't look at me again. I stood on the sidewalk in front of the building in my dowdy interview outfit feeling waves of shame as office workers on their lunch hour brushed by me. I had just been intercepted attempting to pass myself off as a regular person.
Nineteen years ago, a French translator and one-time publishing industry insider began writing a memoir of her time as Jack Kerouac's girlfriend in the mid 1950s. Helen Weaver had been affectionately immortalized by Kerouac (who, of course, wrote about every significant person in his life) as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels. Weaver spent a long time preparing her side of the story, and in the meantime many of Jack Kerouac's other lovers published memoirs: Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, You'll Be Okay by Edie Kerouac-Parker, Nobody's Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats by Joan Haverty Kerouac.
But The Awakener by Helen Weaver turns out to be worth waiting for. When the book begins, Weaver is a cheerful editorial assistant at Farrar Straus whose parents wanted to spoil her with luxury and good manners, but who instead chose to spoil herself with wild experience, cheap wine and bohemian style. She meets Jack Kerouac about a year before On The Road made him famous, and is immediately knocked out by his good looks. They bond easily but she can't endure his alcoholic inconsideration and eventually kicks him out of her apartment, at which point he hooks up with Joyce Johnson and the book's direct connection to Kerouac ends. But the story goes on: Weaver becomes briefly involved with Lenny Bruce, works with Susan Sontag on a groundbreaking edition of Antonin Artaud's poetry, finds peace as an astrologer, Buddhist and occasional activist. A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.
Some facts that surprised and pleased me as I read this book: that the original Broadway cast recording of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady played a big role in Weaver and Kerouac's romance; that both Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, despite their much-documented excesses, managed to be sensitive and tender in her presence; that as a respected literary translator Weaver made it a game to find a way to place the title of a rock and roll song into every book she produced. The primitive rock and roll scene of the mid-1950s is a touchpoint for Weaver's life, and for her book: she was in her early 20s when Elvis Presley hit the scene, and most of her peers were too sophisticated for the new fad. Weaver, pointedly, was not.
The Awakener includes a funny later scene at Allen Ginsberg's apartment with ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, and an enjoyable account of the 1994 Beat Conference at New York University, where she reunited with many of her former friends and rivals for the last time. There's also much commentary on Buddhism, the Beat religion, which she only comes to accept later in life but seems to understand well.
The Awakener (the title refers indirectly to Kerouac's posthumously published Buddhist text Wake Up) is also valuable for calling attention to the often forgotten novel in which Weaver is fictionalized. The five Jack Kerouac novels that form the great core chronology, in my opinion, are On The Road, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur. Desolation Angels may be the most life-affirming of all Kerouac's works, and The Awakener nicely echoes this all-embracing and positive tone.