I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
1. A favorite baseball player of mine died last week.
2. Here's a fun literary site that's been making the rounds: police sketches based on descriptions of fictional characters, by Brian Joseph Davis. I'm particularly impressed by his Emma Bovary and Humbert Humbert, but I sense subconscious influence in the Daisy Buchanan: this sketch does not have the requisite bright ecstatic smile, and looks exactly like Mia Farrow in the movie.
3. Katy Perry says her song Firework was directly inspired by Jack Kerouac's On The Road. I still don't like the song but this helps a little.
1. Ann Beattie's new novel is Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, an exploration, in Beattie's signature glancing style, into the mind and voice of Pat Nixon, President Richard Nixon's first lady. A few fragments have been published in the New Yorker. Mrs. Nixon is likely to be compared to Curtis Sittenfeld's similar projection a few years ago into the soul of Laura Bush.
2. I don't know what to do with Nicholson Baker's new metaphysical sex romp, House of Holes, which apparently shows off the great author's infamous "randy side" yet again. I absolutely love Nicholson Baker's work, except when he writes about love or sex. I wasn't too impressed by Room Temperature or Vox, and quit The Fermata after a few pages. House of Holes appears to take Baker's obsessions with bodily humor to a new level, and I could find nothing to like in the first few pages. Does this mean I'm a prude? I don't think so; I'm simply turned off by the obsessive anality, by the intense delight Baker seems to take in the awkwardness and repulsiveness of physical intimacy. This is a concept of sexuality that I just don't relate to at all. Baker reminds me of a guy I once worked with who became a father for the first time. Whenever anybody in the office asked about the baby, this guy only wanted to talk about the experience of doing diapers. He began obsessively using the word "poopy" around the office. "How's the baby?" someone would ask. "Poopy!" he would exclaim. It finally dawned on me that this guy had been wishing his entire life for a situation in which he was allowed to say the word "poopy" in mixed company, and becoming a father had finally placed him in this situation. Well, that's fine for him, but his concept of fatherhood could not have been further from my own. Likewise, Nicholson Baker's concept of sexuality could not be further from my own. I still consider Baker one of the most wonderful writers of our time, without a doubt (start with The Mezzanine, if you haven't started yet). I don't even mind that he writes books like House of Holes every few years. But it's sad to think that he might lose some potential readers who pick up House of Holes or The Fermata, put it down, and never discover how good Nicholson Baker can be.
(Yeah, we know that everybody's talking about the Football World Cup and the Celtics/Lakers NBA Finals right now. Well, here at Litkicks we've never cared what anybody else was talking about, and baseball remains the greatest American literary sport. Here's an extensive roundup of the classic legacy by Alan Bisbort, author of Beatniks: A Guide To An American Subculture, who last played the game competitively when he was 14. Enjoy! -- Levi)
Baseball is the cruelest sport. How else to explain its tug upon the heartstrings and psyches of so many good writers?
Other sports, of course, have attracted their own forest-leveling share of books and even a few classics. Football, for example, spawned Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz (which, for some reason, is better upon rereading), Run to Daylight by Coach Vince Lombardi, I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Paper Lion by George Plimpton. Basketball has A Sense of Where You Are by John McPhee (about a young Bill Bradley) and more recently To Hate Like This Is to be Happy Forever by Will Blythe, about the rivalry between Duke and UNC men’s college basketball teams. Boxing has its own cottage writing industry, of course; Norman Mailer and A.J. Liebling being the heavyweight chroniclers of the “sweet science” (I never understood that nickname), while Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston biography and Thom Jones’ collections of short stories, Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine and A Pugilist at Rest, at least deserving of a title shot. Soccer, known as football everywhere else, has spawned Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford (though this wasn’t so much about the sport as it was about the “hooligans” whose sociopathic off-field behavior recalls Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) and Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby. David Foster Wallace writes about tennis in Infinite Jest, and some consider Andre Agassi's intense autobiography Open to be a future classic. Fishing has hauled in some whoppers, too -- Trout Fishing In America, A River Runs Through it, The Old Man and the Sea, Far Tortuga -- but this is only if you count fishing as a sport.
As the newspaper business shrinks, the hazard of insularity increases. Three weeks ago the New York Times Book Review put Christopher Buckley's rave review of the roman a clef The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman of the International Herald Tribune on the cover, ignoring the fact that 99% of the NYTBR's readers have no need for a winking tell-all about newspaper office shenanigans. The "Up Front" column in today's Book Review features Lloyd Grove of the New York Daily News sharing gossip about Rupert Murdoch, subject of War at the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Ellison. One wonders if this type of thing might be better handled by internal email.
But a broader insularity emerges when Graydon Carter (yawn) reviews The Pregnant Widow (yawn) by Martin Amis (yawn) on this week's front cover (yawn). Sex jokes and alcohol jokes abound. Replace the name "Martin Amis" with "Christopher Hitchens" and you've got a ready-made review of Hitch-22, which will surely be lauded as a major work on the cover of the New York Times Book Review very soon (yawn). Here goes the shoveling:
Amis is one of the true original voices to come along in the last 40 years. The fizzy, smart linguistic fireworks, with their signature italicisms, riffs on the language and stunningly clever, off-center metaphors are certainly evident in "The Pregnant Widow".
I've spent this weekend reading David Shields' exciting Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, a book that urges us to reject the notion that fiction is artistically or philosophically superior to nonfiction. This impressive book is empowering me to accept and embrace for the first time the dread and boredom I have always felt when I pick up a new issue of the New York Times Book Review and see a bunch of articles about novels and short story collections I've never heard of and have no clear use for.
1. In honor of the Knack's lead singer Doug Fieger, who passed away on Valentines Day, here's Sherman Alexie's tribute to "My Sharona". It was a pretty good song, and the best use of an octave in a riff since Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze".
2. I'm enjoying watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics on TV, but I often sense something basically unwholesome about the amount of buildup and tension that underlies this approach to competition. How is it good for an athlete to train for four years to lead up to a performance that lasts, in many cases, less than a minute? This leads to an emphasis on perfection, a dreadful and unnatural fear of error. This doesn't strike me as a mentally and emotionally healthy approach to sport, and I hate to see the look of shame that follows an excellent achievement marred by a single mistake. Personally, I prefer a more organic, holistic attitude towards competition. Maybe that's why baseball is still my favorite spectator sport. With 162 games a year and three hours per game, we get to know and appreciate the whole athlete, mistakes and quirks and all. Perfection, in my opinion, is rarely worth pursuing. That's what I think.
Don DeLillo's been on my mind lately. I dug up his 1985 classic White Noise two weeks ago after finding my youngest daughter listening to an indie band called, of all things, Airborne Toxic Event. Rereading from the beginning, I was surprised how quickly White Noise drew me back in, how fresh, wise and witty this book was. Fun, even. But I've never had a similar experience with any other DeLillo work, and I find many of them (such as, for-instance, Game Six, his film about the 1986 Mets/Red Sox World Series) too incomprehensible to bother with.
The act of puzzling over a late Don DeLillo novel and trying to appreciate its rare essence has become almost a keystone of modern literary hipster life, and Geoff Dyer's review of the new Point Omega in today's New York Times Book Review smartly focuses on the experience and the mystique as much as on the work:
He has reconfigured things, or our perception of them, to such an extent that DeLillo is now implied in the things themselves. While photographers and filmmakers routinely remake the world in their images of it, this is something only a few novelists (Hemingway was one) ever manage. Like Hemingway, DeLillo has imprinted his syntax on reality and -- such is the blow-back reward of the Omega Point Scheme for Stylistic Distinction -- become a hostage to the habit of "gyrate exaggerations" (the phrase is in The Body Artist) and the signature patterns of "demolished logic."
Just what are we supposed to do with a new Don DeLillo novel? Like a Richard Serra sculpture, it is simply there. You look at it, or you walk around it. If somebody pays you to write a review, you read it.
Leah Hager Cohen fills us in today on Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag, a fictional snapshot of a bad marriage, and crosses the line to explain the correspondence between the pained marriage in the book and the real-life drama involving Erdrich and her husband Michael Dorris, who killed himself in 1997. The question of whether or not a writer's real life is relevant to that writer's books underlies this piece, and many will question Cohen's decision to review fiction as biography. I think Cohen made the right decision. We read literary criticism to help us understand aspects of a work we might otherwise miss, after all, and in this case the correspondence between reality and fiction clearly helps us understand the book.
I like Amy Bloom's book titles: Even A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, and the new Where The God of Love Hangs Out, hungrily reviewed today by Francine Du Plessix Gray. I don't know if I'll ever find the time to read this novel, but I'm glad I read the title.
Call me unfashionable, but I'm not as interested as I should be in Will Blythe's coverage of a new Roberto Bolano, Monsieur Pain. Sure, I like Bolano, but the market's been just a little saturated with his books lately. At the rate I'm going, maybe I'll get around to reading Monsieur Pain by the year 2666.
The market for Lee Siegel's articles on everything that's wrong with modern culture has been saturated for a while too (in fact, it doesn't take much to saturate this demand). I'd be interested in almost any writer's take on the legacy of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, published 30 years ago, but as usual Siegel's harumphing tone of superiority is a turnoff, and there's something just too ironic about a columnist famous for posting comments to his own articles critiquing the culture of narcissism.
I leave you today with one more clue -- a LitKicks exclusive, I believe -- towards the ultimate meaning of DeLillo's new novel (which I haven't read, and don't plan to). One of the main characters in Point Omega is named "Elster". The above-linked film Game Six, based on Don DeLillo's screenplay, concerns the 1986 Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. The backup shortstop on the 1986 New York Mets was Kevin Elster. You do the math.
1. Welcome to Literary Kicks's new look. This latest redesign (the previous version is above, just for old times sake) takes advantage of some cool Drupal capabilities -- real-time tracking of popular and highly commented articles, a custom-built taxonomy-based "Explore Related" box on every article page -- and also includes improvements I've been jonesing for like share boxes and a liquid layout (finally!) that takes advantage of the full browser page size. I also tweaked the design specs a bit (I'm using a custom variant of the Fervens theme), and created a new version of the Paul Verlaine logo (just for fun).
Website redesigns often trigger the "Wow Effect", named after the word people say when a favorite website suddenly changes. This is often followed by the depressing realization that it's the same old website with different colors and fonts. Personally, I like to avoid the whole "Wow Effect" ordeal by releasing changes gradually, and you may have noticed some of the changes leading up to this redesign going up in the past few weeks. I'm still far from done, and will also be experimenting with Semantic Web features as well as some custom database algorithms I've been dreaming up for the various "featured article" lists.
I'm also going to completely reinvent the Action Poetry pages, but that'll take another month. Please bear with me as this proceeds, and please email me or post a comment if the pages do not display correctly on your browser or device -- thanks.
2. J. D. Salinger. Hmm. By any rational calculation, I'd be very drawn to J. D. Salinger, a brainy New York Jew who emerged in the 1950s, became a superstar, became a Buddhist, and retreated from the world. I admire Franny and Zooey, Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and most of the short stories, though I never understood the gigantic appeal of Catcher in the Rye. On the other hand, my two daughters both like the book very much, and Elizabeth even wrote about him for LitKicks when she was 15.
Still, his work never fully grabbed me. What I can't relate to about J. D. Salinger is that joylessness, that dread of life. I can't relate to that at all. His Buddhism is clearly very different from mine.
As far as classic writers from the 1950s and 1960s go, I'll take the ecstatic Jack Kerouac over the morbid J. D. Salinger any day. Still, I salute an American original who certainly, if nothing else, stuck to his principles. I'll pay some attention if unpublished manuscripts come out. Till then, the New Yorker has a nice tribute display of several of his short stories originally published in that magazine. The Onion, meanwhile, must have had this ready in advance.
3. Somebody went to an art museum and fell into a Picasso. And not one of those late period Picasso lithograph cartoons that you see all over the place -- this was a serious Picasso, from the "Rose Period" just before Cubism. I always wanted to go to an art museum and do something like that.
4. Words Without Borders, which also has a new look, is highlighting Georges Perec.
5. Bookslut's Michael Schaub on the new Patti Smith memoir, about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
7. Sure, I got some Beat Generation links. The movie Howl is coming out soon. This is a big deal and I wish the filmmakers would let me see a preview already. Then: Ginsberg's photographs, Gary Snyder communing with hardware, Jack Kerouac in Detroit, Ginger Eades's blog. Okay.
8. What the Los Angeles Lakers are reading. Nice to see 60s classics Edward Abbey and Eldridge Cleaver on this list!
10. Is somebody making money off of slush piles? Why shouldn't they?
11. Okay, I had something cool planned for today's redesign launch: an interview with Up In The Air novelist Walter Kirn. We talk about technology, careers, literature and how it feels to become a George Clooney movie. I decided to devote the day to Bananafish instead, so I'll be presenting this exciting interview (really) on Monday. Friday is hiphop day again.
It's ridiculous, of course, to suggest that fiction is "done". But I do share Yagoda's enthusiasm for the memoir format. A good memoir is a structured argument, a confessional, a reckoning and a coming-to-terms. I can't even begin to list the countless great memoirs that have enriched me, though the first few that randomly leap to my mind are Emmett Grogan's Ringolevio, Katharine Graham's Personal History, Johnny Rotten's No Irish No Blacks No Dogs, Michael Korda's Another Life, Davey Johnson's Bats, Kieth Hernandez's If At First, Bob Dylan's imaginative Chronicles, Augusten Burroughs' Running With Scissors, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man, Linus Torvalds's Just For Fun, Andre Schiffrin's The Business of Books, Philip Roth's The Facts, Jean-Paul Sartre's The Words, Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road, Meredith Willson's But He Doesn't Know The Territory, Gandhi's Autobiography, Chuck Berry's Autobiography, J. M. Coetzee's Youth, Marlon Brando's Songs My Mother Taught Me, Patty Hearst's Every Secret Thing, Dee Dee Ramone's Poison Heart, Theodore White's In Search of History and the many Watergate memoirs I once greatly enjoyed reading in tandem. Looking back at this weirdly varied list, it occurs to me that I don't need better literature, better inspiration or better life lessons than these types of books can provide.
Of course fiction is not dead, but the memoir is an awesome format. I wish Judith Shulevitz's review of Ben Yagoda's book in this weekend's New York Times Book Review had a little more "oomph" to it, though, and I wish she didn't focus so much on the rather boring question of truth in memoir. This topic has made the news a lot in recent years -- yeah yeah, James Frey, whatever -- and Shulevitz almost makes the question interesting by focusing on Yagoda's point that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was a faked memoir (though this point has already been emphasized by J. M. Coetzee and is therefore rather old news). I wish the article focused more on memoir as literature and personal philosophy, and I wonder if Yagoda's book points out that both Jack Kerouac's On The Road and Henry David Thoreau's Walden are memoirs.
I'm surprised to see that Yagoda considers the words "memoir" and "autobiography" interchangeable. They certainly are not: an autobiography should be an account of an entire life, while a memoir can feature either an entire life or any meaningful segment of one, and can emphasize something other than the life story itself as its central motif (Thoreau's Walden was a memoir, but it was not an autobiography).
Fittingly, this article appears along with several memoir reviews in the current publication. NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus assigns himself to cover Andre Agassi's Open: An Autobiography and produces a rather thrilling summary that includes the surprising news that Agassi deeply resents being forced into stardom by an overbearing father and that he "loathed the game" his entire life. I watched Agassi play often and never saw this on his face. It's less surprising, but fairly amusing, to learn how badly his marriage to Brooke Shields worked out. Yeah, I guess I'll have another memoir to read. And, having handled this review very well, I hope Sam "Conservativism Is Dead" Tanenhaus will now tackle the just-released memoir that's likely to show up as the #1 bestseller next week, Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. That's a matchup I'd love to see.
Stephen King's piece on Carol Sklenicka's Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life is on the cover of this Book Review, though King focuses too much on the question of Gordon Lish's involvement in Carver's career, a topic already as overplayed as the question of truth in memoir. Just once, I'd like to read an article about Raymond Carver that doesn't talk about Gordon Lish.
Since fiction is not yet actually dead, today's Review also features Brenda Wineapple on a historical novel, Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell, who must have thought there weren't already enough books about the American Civil War.
At least Will Self has a more original concept for his new novel, Liver: A Fictional Organ With a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, which Geoff Nicholson seems to like. This book contains four stories about human livers. I suspect I'll never read it, but I'm pretty amused that it exists.