Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: My Best Reads

In March, I had a month long calamity. The apartment above mine had a flood, which severely damaged my abode. The repairs, clean up, dealing with the subcontractor to compensate my losses, basically meant I wasn’t able to read books for a few weeks. But I had some interesting reading experiences so as a first, thought I would try a best of list. These books are worth noting. These are the books that come to mind when I ask myself, what were the best books I read in the, rather arbitrary, period of 356 days. It’s not quite a third of the books I encountered 2011. 

My favorite new book of 2011 was Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson. It was one of the few “new” books I read this year. One of the greatest living American writers, I’ve been following his work since Angels, his first novel. Train Dreams is a novella, a gnarly tall tale of America and an individual. He works for a time as a railroad man in the upper Midwest, marries and has a son, but soon die and he lives out his life mostly as a recluse. With sensitivity, intelligence and a sense of wonder, he explores American individuality it a way that makes you feel that it is a new discovery. What a fine writer.

In a review I read of Train Dreams, Seek, Johnson’s collection of reportage and nonfiction pieces, was heavily praised. I had a read a couple things in Esquire or was it GQ, and wasn’t impressed for whatever reason and never picked up this work. Train Dreams was short, I read it twice through first time. I have a collection of his poetry, which was good but the collected poems – and apparently all his collections – are now out of print so I did pick up Seek as well as Shoppers, which is a play, actually two plays. Anyway, the plays were seriously, barely readable yet Seek was also one of the best books I read last year. He reports on the wars in Liberia and a Rainbow Tribes festival where he tries to revive some of his druggy hippie day; a series of essay looks at different deserts. All brilliant writing, as brilliant in their own way as Jesus’s Son. An obvious antecedent might be Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer, but this novelist nonfiction dabbling I think is superior. Word for word, he’s a better writer than Mailer – I love Mailer – also the pieces are more eclectic; who the heck wasn’t writing about the anti-war pieces in the 60s; when was the last time you read an essay on Liberia? That’s what I’m talking about. Well, as far as I can tell, except for one collection of poems, I’ve read all of Denis Johnson. Poetry gets no respect and as far as a serious readership of literary poetry goes – the very phrase and its apparent redundancy, literary poetry makes me sick but in our Spoken Word era what is one to say? – There are too few of us to count. It makes me sad.

Speaking of Mailer, I finally read Tough Guys Don’t Dance and loved it. It’s out of print and wasn’t really trying very had to find a copy, but in the library at my mom’s assisted living facility, which are just donated books, I found a copy. I dug it, better than the weird movie with Ryan O’Neil. Mailer adapted his style to the demands of noir as aptly as McCarthy did in No Country for Old Men, although Mailer was giving props to Raymond Chandler yet Mailer’s weird obsessions with Freud and sex and the failures of the American dream would not be tamed. Best noir, perhaps my favorite genre, I read all year. It’s more than 20 years, that’s sad. Underrated in Norman’s oeuvre, probably his best short novel, and made me want to read the rest of the oeuvre. I miss having Mailer around.

I haven’t read Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, where he lays out his main literary theory, which looks at literature as a whole with Shakespeare at the center, but I picked up his latest, Anatomy of Influence, where he furthers his theories. I’ve read enough of Bloom, particularly the Western Canon, so I’m hip to his jive. This may be his last major book; he hints as much, the man is in his 8os. The chapter on the poetry of D. H. Lawrence was illuminating, I used to love his poetry in high school but he has fallen out of favor and is known primarily for the novels. Bloom loves Hart Crane and the Montaigne. I soon picked up Hart Crane again; I was mainly familiar with The Bridge, now I went for his collected works – introduction by H.B. himself. I’m not sure, he’s a difficult read. Am I too far gone for poetry? I still read Whitman, not much else though and while I’ve written some rough things, I haven’t been encouraged to flesh out and make a poem again. I don’t know. Montaigne though, I had never read and I got a collection of his essays and found them quite brilliant and familiar, mainly because his influence is so dominant, the guy invented the essay practically, that nearly everyone in his wake owes a debt.

Bloom mainly led to my central reading experience of the year and also perhaps, my life. Shakespeare, perhaps you heard of him. I loved Shakespeare in High school and one of my most memorable College Courses was a Shakespeare class. I have always tried to include classics in my reading and would read a Shakespeare here and there, and figured I would get through them all, eventually. I recommend the Folgers editions, which feature definitions for all the words and phrases that need definitions – yes, just about every other line – as well as brief scene by scene synopsis and an interesting essay about the specific play. They are also cheap, five bucks and easy to carry, small, reasonably plump paperbacks. Perfect reading for the PATH and NYC subway. Huh? You say. Subway reading is filled with distractions and at best, you only get a 10-15 minute batch, the thing with Shakespeare is that the language which is beautiful but inverted, archaic – he anticipates Melville and Joyce, who are probably harder to read – so to really absorb what he has written, small but consecutive doses work best. Reading the plays in clusters – and aside from newspapers, magazines, websites and BLOGS! Shakespeare was my reading. It was my Summer Shakespeare, more than six weeks I reckon. Shakespeare wrote 38 plays and prior to my Shakespeare, I had only read or seen 20. Once I got rolling, I found that I could read about three per week, reading them back to back made the reading faster and easier. Whether reading or see a stage or film production, there is always an initiation period with Shakespeare, your mind has to adapt to not just the language but the way of thinking. With Shakespeare, anything could mean everything. It’s not really a double entendre or taking things more than one way, but everything about the human experience is taken into consideration.
The Merry Wives of Windsor and the Two Gentlemen of Verona are rubbish, but Titus Andronicus was a phantasmagoric nightmare. Anthony & Cleopatra, probably the only major play I had yet to read, seems to anticipate the femme fatale in Cleopatra, more so than Lady Macbeth, a woman the desire for whom drives men to extreme yet is not without love. Pericles had a real yarn about it. The Noble Kinsmen was a thoroughly, unabashed entertaining read. Richard II, the man ill suited to be king, was quite moving. What was really funny that about a week after reading Timon of Athens, I saw it performed in Van Vorst Park. I was able to talk to young actors and their not so young director, in depth, about the play.  

Reading the plays in a cluster of about two months was an exercise I recommend. As a guide, I read Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom, where he analyzes each play, enabling me to get the most of out each reading. Also, he gives history of the criticism of each play, so you get an idea of how it was interpreted and where it might stand in the Western Canon. But where does it stand within Shakespeare? This is a fun question. I remember my college Shakespeare teacher saying how Titus was a bad play; it was one we didn’t read. There was always an acceptance that not all of Shakespeare is good. Yet, beyond a core (Hamlet, Lear, etc.) what is the best. It is an open question, one that has to do with trends of fads of any era. Bloom doesn’t like Titus, but admits that he might be wrong, yet I consider Titus, well maybe not Hamlet or Lear but as interesting, entertaining and well written as Macbeth, better even. Bloom says that 12 to 15 of the plays are great, so even he admits to an inconclusive answer. My Shakespeare summer not only was about the plays I read, but, with the help of Bloom, I thought about the plays that I have had previously read as well. The idea of bad Shakespeare started to bug me, Merry Wives not withstanding. Bloom and my College professor were wrong about Titus. I’m not sure what to think of the term Minor Shakespeare, except that it is misleading. Hamlet and Lear are simply incomparable works of genius. Those aside, I guess I would put it, there is a lot more major Shakespeare than is generally agreed upon. Lastly, Bloom writes about how Shakespeare reads us. He talks about the categories of Tragedy, Comedy and History and how Shakespeare actually evades them. So true, all the plays have elements of Drama and Humor, they are a complete experience. Humanity is a funny thing, a mix of comedy and tragedy as we all, together and individually struggle with our fate – we can never chose our parents, the decisions we make within the context of our fate and endure the defining component of humanity – the burden of mortality. As the summer wore on, Shakespeare was reading me.
Looking back now, I realize, it was weeks, probably a month, before I read anything that recall as of value. A prejudice lingered. I did not want to give up that world.

Anyway, for the record, these were the plays in my Summer Shakespeare Festival: Love's Labour's Lost, Measure for Measure, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Taming of the Shrew, Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsmen, Richard II, Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3, Henry VIII, Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus , Timon of Athens , Troilus and Cressida, and Cymbeline.

 William Trevor is a contemporary Irish writer, known mainly for his short stories. Love and Summer was one of the better novels I read this year, it’s a few years old, and while it takes place in Ireland it has a real universal flavor. Takes place in a rural setting, a farmer’s wife has an affair with a man who has returned to the town to pack up his dead father’s house. Just a superbly sensitive portrayal of desire, how we cope with loss and how happiness is not just out of reach, but more complex than we realize, especially when we don’t want to admit we have it.
Just Kids by Patti Smith. This literary memoir will move you regardless of how you feel about Patti Smith. She’s a major hero to me, I’m a huge fan and this book filled in a lot of gaps about her life. She’s a true believer in literature too. Mainly it’s about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer. There have been friendships and relationships between artists before, both within the same medium or in different mediums. Patti Smith redefined music and Mapplethorpe redefined photography. They were both major and game changers in their individual mediums. I don’t think there is another example of such a close relationship between two artists of such comparable stature. But it’s not about their celebrity, or really their work, it’s about a deep, loyal relationship, against a backdrop of the 60s became the 70s until Mapplethorpe became another victim of the AIDS pandemic of the 80s. Really accomplished writing too. Right on sister!

 Cheri by Collette. I had read her short stories, which did not move me. I like French literature (in translation) a lot, but mainly 19th century. A recent film was made of this novel, I haven’t seen it but I read the book instead. Cheri is a young man who is kept by a courtesan twice his age. Early 20th century French society was filled with contradictions, Lea while a kept woman for her youth and unmarried, is accepted to a degree by society. Cheri is pampered and a narcissist. Everything is just below the surface in this novel. The two fulfill each other sexually but they make the fatal mistake of falling in love, the man being the one admired – the descriptions of his body are feverish – the woman being the one who keeps him reverses the more typical man/woman dynamic. They must part because he must marry for money, a woman his own age and because love, true love, is the biggest threat to society. The edition I had included the sequel, the Return of Cheri, takes place after World War I and there is an uncomfortable reunion between Lea and Cheri. The world has changed – more so than Collette cared to admit I think – and love remains, insistent yet neither former lover dare not speak its name.
 The Way We Live Now. England is a very odd country, I sort of like Trollope, I mean, I’ve read him, he’s sort of fluffy and while not as gnarly as Dickens or Hardy– who are not as gnarly as Zola or Melville – there’s something honest and infectious about him. He seems to celebrate the Victorian era he lived in more than he criticizes it. I only read this book because it is one of the few classics I still had left of the bucket list, but I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. An undercurrent in the book – the instigating event that sets the plot in motion is an American coming to London to solicit investment in a railroad company that soon goes bust and wreaks havoc in the lives of some brits yearning to remain, at least in appearance, aristocratic – struck a contemporary chord. Europe’s current crisis can reasonably be blamed on the corruption under the Bush administration of our financial system. I don’t know how much I like Trollope, but I enjoyed reading this plump 19th century tale. The realism was more in the story than the writing, which is not always the case, especially as realism became more the standard in literature post-Trollope.
 Grand Oaks Books, which I think is a publisher on demand with a deal with Amazon came out with The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola, which may be the first translation of this novel, the first in the Rougon-MacQuart Cycle, which they are calling Zola’s great 20 works of fiction that follow members of a French family in the 19th century. I love Zola, he is one of my favorite writers, although I always thought Theresa Raquin started the series. I’ve read all I can find in English, which is about 17 or 18, as well as some of the ones he wrote after this, his life’s work. The action takes in Plassans, where the peasantry rise up against the forces of Napoleon III; a young peasant couple, Miette and Silvere meet and fall in love and join in the uprising. Dr. Pascal makes a cameo, his story is the last novel in the series where he sums up the previous 19 or so books and their characters. Trains, Farms, Restaurants, Department Stores, Banking, Artists, Mining, Prostitution, Clergy, just about every facet of 19th century French life, falls under Zola’s scrutiny. This lively translation was seamless, the book itself well made, a large photograph adorns the simple cover, large typeface that fills the page, it’s a beautiful paperback. The company claims they are going to publish, for the first time in order, new translations of the Zola cycle. I couldn’t be more excited. They said four a year for five years, but I haven’t seen another edition since this debut, so who knows. Finding a new Zola to read is pure pleasure.
The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz, first and foremost, is a great read. I could not put it down. In 2010, I read his book, Dylan in America, which is the best book on Dylan, which isn’t saying all that much because all the biographies stink. He’s a historian and places Dylan within the context of America, really original and insightful work. This book came out the year before, and is essentially a political history of the 80s and 90s, even though he illuminates the strain of conservative politics as it emerged mid-20th century. It’s non-polemical, to such an extent that it may be a flaw; it’s an objective look with telling details, such as Clarence Thomas, never a judge before his objectionable appointment to the Supreme Court, who was an Education Department official in the Reagan administration, gaining popularity by blocking any educational initiative. Another insight I think about was the white flight in the cities and those WWII and Baby Boomer folks who lost allegiance to the City Machine Politics. They voted Reagan in for sure, but a lot of them different vote. Barely 60 percent of the country voted in 1980. The Age of Reagan is marked by drastic drops in voting. Scary and illuminating, this is a well written book entirely about politics in America during basically the era where I grew up. It was published in 2008, I bought it was a cheap remainder at Barnes & Nobles cause it isn’t out in paperback, wasn’t in the J.C. library and I refuse the Kindle. Reading this book the same year the Occupy Wall Street movement began gave me nearly as much new perspective as the immortal Bard.

Best Re-Read of the year: As I lay Dying. It’s been more than 20 years since I did a college paper on this Faulkner. I love Faulkner, I estimate between the college Faulkner class and the reading since; I’m about 80 percent through. Spotted Horses is still my go to, but his multiple narrator work in a stream of consciousness style was fun to revisit. I read Intruder in the Dust right after cause I didn’t want to let ole Bill go so fast. I hadn’t read it before, it was fun, the writing seemed a tad forces, I got impatient. A black man is falsely accused of murder and a lawyer, Gavin, who appears in the stories in Knight’s Gambit, Faulkner’s brand of who dunnits, proves his innocence. Faulkner had progressive views of Civil Rights for his milieu, but could never imagine a world different than Jim Crow south. Unlike To Kill a Mocking Bird, where the black man’s innocence is incidental to his fate under the apartheid system of the American South through most of the 20th century, I didn’t believe it for a second. Yet, it was a full explanation of Southern Mentality of the era, unvarnished and without apology.

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