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I’m not much into New Years resolutions, but I am into best-of end of the year lists. I mean, really into them. Not only do I keep detailed lists of what I read and listen to each year, but I also read everyone else’s top-ten lists and make my own. What’s the greater purpose of this, you ask? Well, I say, let’s not run around asking questions.
Since I don’t read brand-new published-in-2007 books all year long, I’m just going to highlight some of my favorite books and mention a few books you should stay away from at all costs. The complete list of what I read this year is down below – it’s shorter than most years because I spent a solid three months at the beginning of the year reading nothing but short essays. Not that I’m making excuses.
This might also be a good time to tell you about my favorite book website, GoodReads. If you’re on it, you should be my friend. And if you’re not on it and like reading (and making exhausting lists) you should join.
Also – if you read something awesome this year, leave me a comment about it so I can get my hands on it.
Without further delay…
The best book I read in 2007 that was published in 2007: Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard.
Runner up: No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July. So I thought the movie that she wrote and directed You, Me, and Everyone We Know to be completely unwatchable. And I found her author photo to be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. And when I was feeling cynical, I found her stories to be trying too hard and a little too focused on some sort of weird Daddy issues she might have. HOWEVER (and this is a big however) she has an unbelievable ability to describe small moments and tiny emotions. It is amazing and it is worth reading through all of the other stuff for these alone. Ignore the Aimee Bender weirdo quirky Hipster-Realism stuff and focus on the little bits of humanity.
The best book I read in 2007 regardless of when it was published: A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. I had read most of Hemingway’s popular stuff over the years but hadn’t ever picked up this one. I read it while Ben was gone on a business trip and it might have been the most intense, weirdly isolating three days of my life. His writing style makes me want to give up. I sobbed while reading the last page – and I don’t usually sob over anything. I’m more of a whimperer.
Runner up: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Ben and I have been nothing less than evangelical about making our friends, family, and strangers read this book. I’ve talked to weirdos about it on the train. Ben has mailed copies across the country. We should really make a pamphlet that outlines the major points about why this book will make you love the people you love just a little bit more than you thought you could. I don’t know anyone who has taken more than 48 hours to read it.
The other runner up: West With the Night by Beryl Markham. I love reading about totally badass women and I love adventure stories. And I love beautifully written prose. I just wish I had read this book when I was 12 – it might have formed me into a better person. Buy it for your daughters and nieces. Hell, buy it for your sons and nephews.
The worst book I read in 2007 that was published in 2007: Flower Children by Maxine Swann.
The worst book I read in 2007 regardless of when it was published: The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. This is also the runner up. That’s how bad it was.
The complete list (highlighted books link to my blog reviews of them)
- Money by Martin Amos
- Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
- Leviathan by Paul Auster
- March by Geraldine Brooks
- My Antonia by Willa Cather
- O Pioneers! By Willa Cather
- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
- The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
- But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz by Geoff Dyer
- The Ongoing Moment by Geoff Dyer
- The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- Modern Love edited by Daniel Jones
- No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
- The God of Animals by Aryn Kyle
- West With the Night by Beryl Markham
- No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Atonement by Ian McEwan
- On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
- Fooling With Words by Bill Moyers
- Despair by Vladimir Nabokov
- Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessel
- Three cups of Tea by George Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- Like You’d Understand Anyway by Jim Shepard
- Great Dream of Heaven by Sam Shepard
- Caucasia by Danzy Senna
- The Best American Sports Writing edited by Glenn Stout
- Flower Children by Maxine Swann
- If the Creek Don’t Rise by Rita Williams
In World War II England, 13-year-old Briony Tallis misinterprets her older sister’s love affair with their family’s gardener to be something much worse than what it is. Her innocence and partial understanding of the world begins a chain of events that tears the family apart and alters the course of the rest of the girl’s life.
Sounds a little dry, right? Wrong! I guess I forgot to mention that the book was written by Ian McEwan, the king of uncomfortable moments, weird sex stuff, the rotating third-person close perspective, and – I’ll say it! – writing about the human psyche. While I’ve found some of his earlier books to be a little too uncomfortable (or, rather, too uncomfortable without good reason) or a little too sexually deviant (again, in the way that it seemed for shock value rather than for a reason), this was a freaking masterpiece. My definition of a masterpiece: I was jealous while reading it and cried while reading the last page.
I think the one thing that makes this book so wonderful is McEwan’s eerily accurate understanding of how a 13-year-old girl’s mind works – her understanding of the world and her emotional reaction to it. Briony is trapped between childhood and adulthood. She’s old enough to recognize the dark and startling behind-the-scenes facets of her proper British family’s life, but not old enough to properly analyze or judge them. She’s old enough to impose her will and her ideas on others, but not wise enough to know when to act or when to question herself. It’s a frustrating and fascinating (and uncomfortable) time, and he has it down pat.
McEwan also experiments with structure in ways that are truly innovative and new without being gimmicky. Briony is an aspiring writer who grows and develops her style throughout the 60 years that the novel covers, and McEwan’s novel mirrors her literary growth. Part One of the story is extremely traditional (broken into chapters, with a clear rotation of perspectives and a uniform chronology). Parts Two and Three are much more modern – the story, which switches gears to follow the gardener into WWII France and Briony to her experiences as a nurse in London, loses structure and fluidity and uses more modern storytelling techniques. Finally, the last section is utterly contemporary – the story becomes even more abstract, with unreliable narrators and more conceptual writing favored over simple narrative.
And yet these games with structure and story and perspective in no way take your focus from the story and the characters. Instead, they add to the experience of watching the main character grow and develop.
If the book suffers from anything, it might be a little slow in some places and move too fast in others. Since McEwan tends to be very thorough when it comes to interior thought, the story often slows down a bit more than it should so that he can explain how every single person felt about a certain moment in time (although the story spans 60 years, the first 200 pages span a single afternoon and evening). The slow story is a necessary evil, though, if we want to keep the detailed character studies in place. And we do. And the action-filled second half of the book, which covers the British retreat from the Germans in 1940 and the over-capacity army hospitals of London, makes up for the sometimes austere and rigorous first half. It just takes a while to get the story rolling.
Overall, if I were you, I’d get this book and read it over Thanksgiving break.
Jim Shephard is often called a writers’ writer. I was never sure what that was supposed to mean, exactly, except that he seemed to be extremely popular in MFA program curriculums, but not an author you would often see someone reading on the subway – kind of like a cool band that you’ve never heard of. Except replace “cool band” with “nerdy writer.”
A year or two ago, Ben and I were lucky enough to drink a few tumblers of whisky with Jim Shepard and talk about writing. His body of short stories has had a huge influence on Ben’s writing and he is, in all respects, an enormously great teacher and contemporary writer. When the students in our MFA program got a chance to pick a visiting writer, Ben jumped on the chance to meet the guy in person – to attend a workshop, to listen to a lecture, to share some whisky.
When we asked him about what being a writers’ writer might mean, he took a nice long sip from his glass and told us he thought it was equally as baffling as we did – and then said that it might just be a polite way of saying he wasn’t all that popular. But here we are, a little over a year later, and Shepard’s newest book of short stories, Like You’d Understand Anyway, has just been short-listed for the National Book Award and gotten glowing reviews from everyone and everywhere you can think of. Finally, he seems to be on the radar. And I couldn’t be happier.
Like You’d Understand Anyway is a collection of all first-person short stories, though the similarities between them end there. The settings and time periods range from the site of Hadrian’s Wall during the late Roman Empire, to present day Alaska, to Chernobyl during the nuclear meltdown, to gothic France, to summer camp in 1960s America.
In these stories, Shepard does something that very, very few contemporary do these days: he uses his imagination and has fun. No, you won’t find stories here about a struggling writer in New York City wrestling with ennui or a writing professor who longs for his younger days in Europe. You’ll find adventure stories of failed expeditions in the Australian outback and totally awesome hunts by lackluster Nazis for evidence of the yeti in Tibet during World War II. Each story is lovingly researched and each narrator has such surprisingly authentic and passionate voices that you’ll often slip into simply believing what you read. The acknowledgements section for the book is a list of about 50 non-fiction books – if anything, Shepard is a readers’ writer.
Throughout the book, Shepard proves so many of his writing peers wrong: contemporary literature doesn’t have to be boring, and writing from experience doesn’t mean that you have to write about yourself. You can write a self-reflective story that has a lot of action. You can take thoughts and feelings that you’ve had and transfer them to different places and times.
And that’s the real beauty of the stories: Shepard has a genuine, almost scary handle on the human condition. Think you won’t relate to a Nazi yeti seeker or the first woman in space or a rage-filled defensive end on a high school football team? You’re wrong. As far as you’re being a hopelessly flawed human, Shepard’s got your number. He has that rare writer’s talent – to find combinations of words for feelings we can’t normally find combinations of words for. He’s simply a great storyteller.
I really don’t know what else to say except that you should read the book. If you still aren’t convinced, I’ll link to the shortest story in the collection, “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian” which originally appeared online at Fail Better. It takes about five minutes to read. Ten if you read it twice.
Recently I’ve been talking to Molly, a friend from college who now lives in Chicago. We share a lot of the same interests (writing, improv, reading, complaining about our jobs) and are in a similar place in our lives. She’s just re-started her blog, Bittersweet, and we thought to share some of our correspondence (this one’s about writing, non-fiction, and the internet), split between our two blogs. You can read the first half at Bittersweet and then come back over here for the second half.
Sarah, speaking of writers, over at Geek Buffet there was a post that quoted Milan Kundera as saying, “One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.” How does the culture of blogging and social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook affect our generation of writers and thinkers? Has the age of universal deafness and incomprehension arrived?
Sarah: Since I moved to New York, everyone I’ve met has claimed to be a writer. Everyone’s working on a novel, everyone’s scribbling in a journal on the train, everyone either went to an MFA program or applied or is going to apply next year. To be honest, I was bothered by it — it doesn’t you feel very special.
But then I started to see past it. Everyone has this idealistic image of what a writer does: they don’t work, they go to book parties and readings and spend their huge advances and smoke cigarettes. But like I mentioned a few weeks ago, I went to a reading recently where a person in the audience said that they were a writer, except that they didn’t write. And she was being serious. It cleared a lot of things up for me.
There won’t be a day when everyone wakes up a writer. Just like there won’t be a day when we all wake up painters or politicians or Martians. I write all day and it isn’t fun, but it’s all I know to do. We don’t go to literary events and we don’t smoke cigarettes and we don’t talk about the novel we’re working on (after work, at lunch,
during work) because we’re embarrassed by this problem we have: writing.
As for being deafened by the sheer volume of people writing words these days, I’ll bring back the painter metaphor. Anyone can cover a canvas in paint, but I will never, ever be able to paint a picture that moves someone. I read an article recently in the New York Times about a woman who found a priceless painting leaning against a dumpster in New York. She said that when she saw it she didn’t want to carry it, didn’t have room for it in her apartment, and she knew it was worthless. But it spoke to her and she couldn’t help but carry that painting home, against all of her logic. We’ll always be able to hear the best, real writing over the din.
(the painting is pictured above, “Tres Personajes” by Rufino Tramayo)
Molly, I’ve just talked about the writing community in New York and how I find writing to ultimately be a solitary and lonely act. What parts of your writing life do you share with a community and which do you keep to yourself? Is being a writer something you can teach, or is it innate?
Molly: Writing is such a strange and contradictory practice, because it isolates you in the very act of reaching out to communicate. We write to share our stories, to add our voices to the global discussion, and yet to do so we must separate ourselves from the world. And not only are you physically apart from people as you sit with your notebook or your computer screen, but you’re also mentally apart; while the rest of your friends are laughing over beers together, you’re planning your next essay or story in your head. It can be incredibly lonely.
I’m currently taking a writing workshop through Story Studio Chicago, which has been a great experience simply for the opportunity to talk with other writers about all the boring writerly questions that don’t interest my friends and family very much. It’s been interesting, too, workshopping the first chapters of my new novel with them, when with my first novel maybe one person got to see it before I had a working second or third draft of the entire manuscript. Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to find a few fantastic people willing to read my work and give me incredibly thoughtful, detailed feedback about that. So I do feel that I’ve created a good little community of support and critique for myself, but it took me a long time to do so. I spent a lot of time writing in the dark, writing by and for myself, and I think that was just as critical as the community is now.
As for whether being a writer is something you can teach, yes and no. I think you can absolutely teach techniques and ways to focus your writing, ways to strengthen it, to sharpen it. In my writing group, I’m seeing a lot of manuscripts that could benefit from attention to some very simple elements: setting, dialogue, pacing… things easily covered in a class.
However, what can’t be taught, I think, is the sheer will – the need – to write. Can you be taught to keep going after a million rejections? Can you be taught to ignore the people who laugh at you or tell you to grow up and get a real job? Can you be taught to – after any success or failure, no matter how small or large – come home and set the pen once more to the page? Probably not. It’s a cliché, but I really can’t imagine anyone becoming a writer unless some deep, hidden part of them tells them that they have no choice. That they must.
How strange, again, that as I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about poetry and literary readings the last week or so (you can read the original post here), that my poet coworker would lend me a book about just that. Fooling With Words is a collection of interviews of poets conducted by television journalist Bill Moyers at the Dodge Poetry Festival.
The Dodge Poetry Festival seems enormous and a bit weird – audiences in the thousands show up to hear some of the best poets in America read, and they clap and cheer and whoop as if they were at a rock concert. Reading about it – hearing the poets talk about their craft, about readings, and sharing their favorite poems – did a lot to restore my faith in good poetry and the existence of interesting and un-icky readings.
I think the problem comes down to how hard it is to make great poetry and how easy it is to write something that looks like a poem. More than one poet in the book compared the art to jazz, which I liked – anyone can improvise on a saxophone, but you have to learn to play before you can start making things up that are beautiful and meaningful. Sure, I can put a bunch of words on a page in a poem-like shape, but only the true poets know how hard writing poetry is.
The biggest difference I saw between the poems in this book (which, almost without exception, I loved) and the poems that I often hear at readings, are that the poems in the book were about things. While most of the poems I’ve heard at readings are vague images and words that are pretty strung together (reeds-the ocean-lilacs-etc.) and have introductions like, “this poem is about sex and death,” the poems in this book tended to be about ordinary things (gardening, marriage, taking your granddaughter to the circus) and used clear, narrative language. Yes, these poems also had deeper meanings, but they were not heavy-handed and they were not out to impress.
One poet, Jane Hirshfield, was asked about her religion. Although she almost never explicitly writes about it, she is a Zen Buddhist who spent several years in a monastery. She describes herself as a “Teahouse Buddhist” – one who never overtly writes about Buddhism, but one whose poetry is filled with it. She explains: ”It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse on the side of the road. Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea. She’s not known as a Buddhist teacher… all she does is simply serve tea – but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it. No one knows about her faithful attentiveness to her practice, it’s just there, in the serving of her tea and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups.”
Although Hirshfield is talking about the tacit religion in her poetry, I think that the idea can be expanded to all of poetry – great poets must be teahouse poets. No, there’s no way to tell on the surface which poems have that attentiveness, which poems are filled with real subject matter, faith, and compassion. But, reading them aloud, it’s there – hidden, but obviously affecting each word and line.
For example, while most amateur poetry readings I’ve been to focus on traditionally poetic subjects – love, death, nature, and of course, writing poetry – the poets in this book make contemporary subjects poetic: office conflicts, television, adopting a dog. Sure, all of the latter poems have a deeper layer concerning the former subjects, but the latter poems also tell a story and the latter poems are not afraid to be subtle or even a little commonplace.
The poems in Fooling With Words don’t have to hide behind flowery language or the shock of private subject matter. They are simple. They sound beautiful because the poets have toiled over word choice and rhythm and meter, and then they have worked even harder to make all of their hard work hidden – to make it look clean and easy and natural.
I’m still not sure if I want to go to any more literary reading and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be one of the 4,000 people doing the wave for Kurtis Lamkin at the Dodge Poetry Festival. But it is good to know that there are some wonderful contemporary poets out there, working away quietly in their teahouses.