A random selection of volumes from my shelf. Some I’ve read, some I eventually will — here’s looking at you, Hazlitt — and others I probably never will.
Here are two takes on the question, “What was the best thing you read in 2012?”
Up for Grabs
By Scott Dickensheets
The best book I read last year was a book of poetry. I have no idea how that happened. I mean, for 50 years I barely touch the stuff, and then almost always in school; otherwise, I don’t know many people who read or even give a damn about it. Of the little I do read, I’m never in danger of understanding it. Not its occluded meanings or opaque symbolism — wtf with the white chickens and red wheelbarrow, William Carlos Williams? — and, while we’re at it, why am I irritated by the twee poesy of the name “William Carlos Williams”? — not its aura of silkworm delicacy, and certainly not the idea that it’s some kind of purer, more piercing mode of expression. I suppose my mind is too A —> B —> C for that.
But I said almost always in school. An exception: A few years ago, suckered by the title “Alien vs. Predator” atop a stack of lines in The New Yorker, I read, loved and understood not a word of my first poem by Michael Robbins. Sample line: “Where’s the whale on stilts that we were promised?” And, “I translate the Bible into velociraptor.”
Since I didn’t get it, I can’t say my mind was blown; that implies a cataclysm of clarity. But it was tickled. I’ll take a whale on stilts over a chicken with a wheelbarrow every time — if they’re both unintelligible, I know which sounds more fun. The poem is full of lines like that. Say them yourself:
“That elk is such a dick.”
“Hell, if you slit monkeys for a living, you’d pray to me too.”
“I’d eat your bra — point being — in a heartbeat.”
They fizz in your mouth like Pop Rocks, don’t they? Sure, I could probably translate those lines into velociraptor before I could tell you what they mean. I can’t even grasp how they could mean: “He’s a space tree making a ski and a little foam chiropractor”? Where do you insert the key to unlock that? And yet I could sense the deep lurk of something new and possibly important — to me, at least — under those zippy lines. I reread the poem often. (Besotted, I actually wrote a poem in the Robbins mode. Unheard of!) I followed a blog Robbins contributed to, in case he dropped any clues to his sensibility. He didn’t.
This May, half past Treyvon and a quarter to Aurora, with the election getting ugly and Newtown still far beyond our imagination — I don’t need to tell you what a genuinely horrifying year 2012 was, and more about that in a minute — Robbins finally released Alien vs. Predator, the whole collection. Dozens of poems like the title piece. Each dizzied with its wily non sequiturs, repurposed song lyrics, pop culture references and headlong, zeitgeisty energy.
I read it three times.
I can’t stress this enough: I still don’t get it. Despite a polar bear plunge into poetry — post-Robbins I read Terrance Hayes, Bob Hikok, Karen Finneyfrock, Philip Levine and others — I’m no less the hopeless newb, forever confounded by poetry’s reluctance to just say what the fuck it means. What a virtue that would be in these foul times! (Of course, some poets are more translucent than others, Levine, for example.) Yes, sure, I found little internal rhyme schemes in Robbins’ poems, and there’s meaning of some kind, or perhaps just a stance toward the world, to be divined in the cadences, in the mad spazz of the phrasing — but after three readings, that elk is still such a dick and I still can’t tell you what’s up with that. Clearly I ain’t about to blow your mind, either.
So I’m not sure why this thing lit up the ganglions; I mean, the workings of my mind are as inscrutable as anyone’s, even — maybe especially — to me. That’s probably some of what I like about the book: I sense there’s some there there, but I don’t know where. I do love a tease.
More important, though, in nearly every way that mattered, 2012 seriously sucked. Not always, or even often, for me personally: I lost no one in Newtown, Aurora or the other rampage sites — as one smug dick assured me on Facebook, “There’s nothing to process; it didn’t happen to you.” But it did happen to my country, in my time, and there’s such a thing as a psychological blast radius. So there was something to process. From the shootings to the vile slither of corporate money through our already ruined politics, to the income gap, to the daily assaults on the stability of truth and meaning, to, finally, the staggering fault lines between so many of us that were exposed by these deep shifts. I have an uncle who commanded me never to speak to him again because I pushed back against his paranoid anti-Obama ranting. (Dude, my pleasure.) It left me with an unease I couldn’t shake. These days, what doesn’t seem up for grabs?
So maybe, for me, Alien vs. Predator was the right book for these very wrong times, aggregations of atomized meaning — tantalizingly close to saying something new and illuminating, frustratingly refusing to give it up — for this disintegrating moment. And somehow, unless I’m totally full of shit on this, and I could be, a sense of reversed polarity: As the centrifugal forces of 2012 spun us farther away from real understanding, these poems seemed like one small bit-torrent rush toward meaning, scraps and fragments pulled in from everywhere in an attempt to piece together a new energy, a pastiche worldview — and some good, loopy fun, and I suspect that’s what finally sealed it for me.
I’m not saying Robbins is the only poet who does these things; I’m not saying that of those who do, he’s the best. As should be clear, I sure as hell wouldn’t know. But he’s the best I read last year.
A novel idea
By Geoff Schumacher
I read 45 books in 2012, and a bunch of them were really good. But if I had to pick one as my “best read,” it would be John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists, a book so big and heavy that calling it a “doorstop” would be an insult.
Sutherland, a Brit who has spent a lot of time in the States, embarked on a ridiculously audacious task: to write a history of the novel by profiling its best and best-selling practitioners through time. But, being just one mortal human, he knew he had to set some parameters, and so he limited his scope to novelists writing in English. This, certainly, leaves out a lot of novelistic history — a few French, Spanish and Russian scribes, for starters — but Sutherland nonetheless had to read more novels than most individuals have done . . . ever.
In the end, Sutherland’s achievement is encapsulated in the subtitle: “A History of Fiction in 294 Lives.” Of course, your first question is, why 294? Why not go ahead and profile an even 300 scriveners? Sutherland answers this question, sort of, in his brief preface: “Isn’t this book big enough?”
A fair point: Even six novelists short of 300, it’s 797 pages not including the index.
Sutherland acknowledges his “story of fiction” is “almost as idiosyncratic as the subject itself.” With so many novels published over the past 400 years, especially over the past century, it would be impossible for Sutherland to read them all, let alone ponder their historical significance. “A single book and one person’s reading career (however obsessive) cannot contain or cover this richest of literary fields,” he writes.
And yet Sutherland manages to cover a great deal in this book. He hits all the major genres, and he doesn’t discriminate: The good, bad and ugly of the novel are all represented with equal vigor. Sutherland notes often that the literary classics still in print today are not necessarily the books that the masses were reading in their day.
But the reason this book is such an engrossing read — why it should not be regarded as a musty encyclopedia — is Sutherland’s obsession with the childhood traumas, destructive vices and aberrant sex lives of the novelists he profiles. If one of his subjects was a drunk, you’re going to hear all the gritty details. Even more attention is devoted to each writer’s sexual preference, prowess (or lack thereof) and dangerous liaisons. Sutherland is a relentless gossip, a predilection to which he tries to give legitimacy by his genuine belief that “literary life and work are inseparable and mutually illuminating.” Regardless of what the novelists themselves would say, Sutherland sees deep connections between novelists’ personal lives and the fiction they write. At times, this feels like a bit of a stretch, but Sutherland pursues these connections with such relish and confidence that you can’t help but to be entertained and, often, persuaded.
Sutherland starts with John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress in the seventeenth century, and ends with Rana Dasgupta, best known for Tokyo Cancelled, published in 2005. In between, he gives roughly one and a half to three pages to the 292 others.
He hits most of the big British and American names of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including Henry Fielding, Walter Scott, Jane Austen, James Fenimore Cooper, Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Mark Twain, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson. He does a particularly thorough job covering nineteenth century female novelists, who sold a ton of books during the Victorian era while guys like Herman Melville struggled to find an audience.
The twentieth century is covered admirably, although there’s a handful of big names who are curiously omitted. For one example, J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings, is mentioned several times in profiles of other authors, but he doesn’t merit one of his own. If I had to guess, it’s because Tolkien’s personal life was rather boring — no brain-mushing vices, no sexual misadventures that we know of. Rest assured, if Tolkien had had a thing for little people with hairy feet, he’d have been in the book.
Neither does Sutherland dwell long on Ernest Hemingway. Although Hemingway technically is among the 294 lives, he is written about only in the context of his relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Hemingway had plenty of adventures, I suspect Sutherland passed on a full profile because he felt more than enough already has been written about the big fella.
As Sutherland gets closer to the present, his omissions become a little more difficult to understand. He writes about Alice Sebold but has nothing on David Foster Wallace? He profiles Bret Easton Ellis but not Michael Chabon? Fantasy writer Robert Jordan but not Games of Thrones guru George R.R. Martin? And how do you ignore one of novel writing’s all-time mystery men, Thomas Pynchon? At various times while reading the book, I pondered what six novelists he could have added to fill the gaps and hit the magic 300.
Throughout the book, I jotted down a handful of novels I learned about and now want to read. One that I picked up recently is Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, which was turned into an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Two others: sci-fi writer Frederik Pohl’s The Space Merchants and Lost Generation expat Louis Bromfield’s The Farm.
Having read Lives of the Novelists, I now possess a great store of knowledge about the careers and sex lives of writers over the past three centuries. I don’t know if this will ever be useful to me, but the same could be said of just about anything we read except an instruction manual. But I do know this: If Sutherland’s approach to literature were applied to high school English classes, they would be a lot more interesting, and we’d have a more literate populace as a result.
In which Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher discuss books they have liked and loved at different times and for different reasons.
Most cherished or influential in youth
As a preteen, my primary interest was sports: professional football, basketball and baseball. On family outings to the bookstore, I invariably would pick out a book such as Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. I relished the saintly portraits of Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton and Norm Van Brocklin.
While sports remained an interest, upon entering teenhood my reading took a turn into heroic fantasy. Heading the list was Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. I devoured every story of swords and sorcery by those authors, and the ones by a host of subpar copycats as well.
I probably was around 16 when I began to venture into more challenging literary territory. We’re not talking the Russian or French giants — still too much of a small-town hick for that — but certainly books a step or three above pulp adventure stories.
1. The Lords of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
During a summer break in high school, I remember being so entranced by The Two Towers that I stayed up all night reading it. I don’t remember nodding off, or even wanting to nod off. I was IN Middle Earth, man, on the journey, and I wanted to see the story through to the end. This was a major turning point in my reading life — the attacking and conquering of a big book.
2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This probably was the first major work of literature that I read, and I think I selected a proper one to start with. Steinbeck’s masterwork surely triggered my interest in human affairs beyond sports and magical lands. It also played a major role in steering me in a political direction opposite of my parents.
3. Walden by Henry David Thoreau
This book helped to expand my awareness of the larger world, and the philosophical questions that accompany its contemplation. I am far from alone in this, but there many lines from Walden that still regularly echo in my brain. I’m not much of a rereader, but I do like to occasionally dip into this book for a taste of its grace, wisdom and humor.
4. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway
Reading heavily in the fantasy and horror genres naturally spawned efforts on my part to write fantasy and horror stories. This did not go well. I actually submitted some very poorly conceived and executed stories to small magazines, and received a number of polite rejections. (Honestly, I was just thrilled that somebody had taken the time to send a rejection slip.) But reading Hemingway’s spare style in this collection of his earliest stories, I recognized that this was more the kind of thing I might be able to do. Not that I could equal Hemingway, but I could document life as I actually saw it rather than conjuring fantastical lands and plots of high drama.
5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
This book, more than any other, fueled my decision to pursue a career in journalism. It’s a common story among journalists my age, I know, but it’s absolutely true. Thompson gave the profession a wild, romantic edge that sticks with me to this day, even as I fail miserably to live up to it.
Older or classic novels
1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
I can’t imagine an aspiring writer who could do anything but fall under the spell of this story of American writers in Paris in the ’20s. Even if it turns out Hemingway was full of shit about some things in this memoir, it paints a picture of an undeniably beautiful era in creative history. Hemingway makes poverty sound like a worthwhile sacrifice for art. A classic excerpt:
“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.”
Along with Thoreau, this is really the only book that I reread from time to time.
2. Ask the Dust by John Fante
Fante’s masterpiece is short, odd and utterly entrancing. Consider the first unforgettable opening paragraph:
“One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”
I’ve never read a better first paragraph.
3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Is Richard Yates bleak? Hell yes, he’s bleak. Most people are losers and fools, and they know it. Life is wretched and then you die. Terrible things happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. No, we’re not talking beach reads here. But Yates is a truth-teller about the human condition, about the hard, cold fact that there really are very few heroes walking the earth. Revolutionary Road is his best and best-known novel. His other novels have great pieces in them, but few are fully realized from beginning to end.
4. The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren
Algren was another dark writer — grittier than Yates, more class conscious and street savvy. This novel about a drug addict was his best novel, so effective in depicting a time and place (Chicago during the Depression). Algren had a distinctive but odd writing style, perhaps jarring to some readers expecting the crisp syntax of a Hemingway or Steinbeck. Not to be emulated, perhaps, but it worked for him.
5. Norwood and Dog of the South by Charles Portis
Portis is an oddball out of the ’60s and ’70s, but I love him. He’s best known for writing True Grit, but these two novels are my favorites. Both are hilarious. Norwood is about as simple as a novel gets, following a Southern hick named Norwood Pratt who has some mild adventures on a road trip from Texas to New York to collect a $70 debt. He secures a fiancée along the way, and also has a dozen fascinatingly bizarre conversations with people. Here’s part of one:
“This stuff is cheap but it’s very nutritious.” He picked up the can and read from it. “Listen to this: ‘beef tripe, beef hearts, beef, pork, salt, vinegar, flavoring, sugar and sodium nitrate.’ Do you know what tripe is?”
“It’s the gut part.”
“That’s what I thought. I suspected it was something like that.”
“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?”
“No, how are they?”
“About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it. The bad part is cracking the little skulls open. One thing I won’t eat is hog’s head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she’ll eat a pound of it before she gets up.”
Recently read fiction
1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
The best and most entertaining novel I’ve read this year. The section featuring Richard Burton — yes, the actor — is genius.
2. These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson
Why isn’t Steve Erickson better known to the general reading public? This is a really fine novel, deftly written and thoughtfully conceived.
3. Under the Dome by Stephen King
After his 1999 accident, King announced that he would be slowing down, not writing so much, perhaps retiring. He probably was sincere at the time. But he obviously couldn’t help himself, and has been practically as prolific after his near-death experience as he was before. But he’s been more consistent, better overall than his largely uninspired production during the ’90s. Under the Dome is a terrific read, pondering what might happen if a giant dome suddenly covered a town. How would the people act? How would the environment inside the dome change? What would people outside the dome do?
4. The Great Leader by Jim Harrison
I like every novel by Jim Harrison, but some of them don’t hold together so well. You read them more for the language and philosophy than for the story. But this 2011 novel, about a detective’s cross-country quest to track down a cult leader, holds together just fine.
5. Zone One by Colson Whitehead
A literary zombie novel? You know it was coming. Somehow, Whitehead pulls it off.
Recently read nonfiction
1. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
This is how a person today should write about a writer-philosopher who lives during the 1500s. Bakewell does a wonderful job of making Montaigne interesting and relevant for a modern reader.
2. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell
Essays and articles by one of the top literary journalists working today. The article on Jim Harrison (mentioned above) is outstanding.
3. The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker
Frankly, I like Baker’s nonfiction better than his fiction. These essays just reflect a really smart take on the world.
4. Reading for My Life by John Leonard
This posthumous collection of Leonard’s best works does justice to his genius as a critic of popular culture.
5. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
This collection of articles and essays is a fine companion to Bissell’s (above). If you’re a magazine editor and you want to hire a writer to capture the essence of a particular cultural subject, Sullivan is your man.
* * *
Most Cherished or Influential in Youth
Rocket boy Tom Swift was my first real childhood jam, but it wasn’t until the Encyclopedia Brown books that I started having conversations like this: Mom: “Scott, your friends are here.” Me: “Tell ’em I can’t play.” These books about a youthful Sherlock established an enduring love of cleverness and stories involving flagrant displays of brainpower.
So it was no surprise that I graduated to the Hardy Boys mysteries. A neighbor gave us a long shelf of these books, and I read every one of them — sometimes two a day (“Still can’t play, ma!”) — plus every new one. Periodically I begged Mom to drive me down to the Boulevard Mall, this being back when the B. Dalton there was the only decent bookstore in town, to buy whatever new Frank and Joe mystery was available. It’s like Franklin W. Dixon, whoever they were — it was the pseudonym for several hired pens — could see right into this reader’s head.
The Mudhen is so obscure it doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Hell, it was forgotten when I read it back in the early ’70s, and it would be so anachronistically out of step with today’s YA fiction that I’m not surprised this book and its two sequels have fallen entirely out of print. Mudhen Crane is a brilliant but lazy student at a private boy’s boarding school. He bends his intelligence toward two ends: avoiding work, and helping his fraternity (the Eagles) beat its rival (the Bears). The books reflect their era: the sort of hopelessly innocent time in which guys unself-consciously go by nicknames like Mudhen, Froggy, Noodle, Cheese and Skunk, and all rivalries are genial; also, and this escaped me at the time, it was an era of retrograde gender and racial politics. What I cared about was that, in the Mudhen, I had an early premonition of myself: if not brilliant, at least decently brainy, an indifferent student who’d rather use his brainwaves for fun and work-avoidance.
Lest I come off like some undescended testicle of a kid, let me hastily note that I also read all the Conan the Barbarian books, in sequence, and then again, in no particular order. Swords. Picts. Snake gods. Wenches. I mean, you tell me. Conan turned out to be a gateway barbarian, ushering me into a blur of sword and sorcery nonsense, including the Fahfrd and Gray Mouser series by Fritz Lieber, and the Elric of Melniboné books by Michael Moorcock — but not, oddly, any Tolkien. I tried The Hobbit. Meh.
Old or Classic Novels
Melville, yes; Moby-Dick, no. (So far.) For an English class, I did read Herman’s Pierre; or The Ambiguities. It is magnificent and infuriating, and 500 adjectives in between. Despite the antique language, it feels in many ways rather modern — in its mix of humor and tragedy; in the way it changes tone, perspective and style at will, sometimes parodying the form (romance, picaresque, philosophical novel) it had, a few pages earlier, been an earnest example of.
Same class — shout out to UNLV prof Darlene Unrue! — also required Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland, or the Transformation. Brown was one of America’s first novelists (this book came out in 1798) and, again, the prose is too florid for modern taste. The narrative is an okay gothic tale of disembodied voices, psychological terror and murder. So what about it appealed to me? The way it was pulpy with the anxieties of life on this new, young continent, so much of which was dark and mysterious, unknown, uncivilized, not at all like Europe. It was one of the first purely American novels.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. Because who among us hasn’t been stranded up that crazy river, baffled and terrified about what happens to our souls when the illusion of civilization is stripped away? Or is that just me?
I’m name-checking The Old Man and the Sea because it’s the point at which, for me, Hemingway, ahem, jumped the shark. Maybe you knew it by Across the River and Into the Trees or whenever, but this is when I, at any rate, first grokked that his formal strategies of minimalism, stoicism and simplicity seemed more the product of a fetish than of a useful aesthetic. So I moved on and never looked back.
Is Thomas Pynchon’s V. old enough to be considered a classic? I dunno. Since I read it 30-odd years ago, I’m going with Yes. It contains a scene that’s stuck with me all that time, too, in which a character recalls something he witnessed on Malta: a gang of feral children disassembling a mysterious priest, who, as they pitilessly strip away the priest’s many prostheses, is revealed to be a woman. Sad, haunting.
Recently Read Nonfiction
I’ve had this book on a slow-drip feed for a couple months now, little bits of it when I can: Glimmer, by Warren Berger, a book about design thinking that’s far less wonky than that description suggests. Because design, the pleasing and useful arrangement of [graphic elements, objects, functions within an organization, anything else], is fundamental to civilization, the questions it addresses go well beyond How does this look?
Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful is a terrific read. An account of three long walking pilgrimages undertaken by this nonbelieving writer, it’s funny, thinky, self-lacerating and personable.
Descanso for My Father, by a writer I’d never heard of before taking a chance on this book — Harrison Candelaria Fletcher — is a quiet, thoughtful book of essays by a writer coming to terms with what the loss of his father meant to his family. A descanso is the point at which a funeral procession rests; a cross is placed to mark the spot where the coffin was set down. That perfectly describes this book.
I know this is probably hastening the demise of the printed volumes I love so much, but I’m thrilled by the advent of the Kindle Single. I just finished James Wolcott’s nifty farewell to Gore Vidal (which bequeathed me a false nostalgia for the glamorous era of writers as cultural figures); I’m reading Michelle Herman’s Dream Life, an excursion into family memory; and I’ll eventually reread The Codex, by Oliver Broudy — a long, unconventional and absorbing essay about investigating the meaning of beauty by tracking down a fabled book of vagina drawings used by a cosmetic surgeon in Prague, it’s the sort of thing magazines don’t publish. If not for the Kindle Single format, stuff like this might never see print.
Wild Card: Weird or Random Stuff I’ve Read
P.S. 1 Symposium: A Practical Avant Garde, a pamphlet put out by the people who publish the rarified n + 1 literary magazine. It’s the cleaned-up transcript of some talks given during a panel discussion on the state of the avant garde — in art, literature, whatever — and the conditions necessary for it to thrive. Ridiculously specific and not exactly useful in a daily way, I know. But sometimes my brain likes to drill down deep into an unfamiliar topic like this.
In the last year or two, I’ve taken what for me is a major interest in poetry, spurred largely by the work of Michael Robbins. His poem “Alien vs Predator” received crazy attention when it appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. I read it, loved it and utterly failed to understand it, but it got me curious about a form I’ve always ignored. Robbins’ first collection, Alien vs Predator, is out now, and it’s stunning, even though I still utterly fail to understand it.
In the process of trying to puzzle out why I was so taken with Robbins’ work, I came across two other books of poetry that I’ve also found myself returning to: Insomnia Diary, by Bob Hikok, and Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, by Karen Finnyfrock, whose “What Lot’s Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn’t a Pillar of Salt)” should be force-read to every busybody on the right who wants to regulate people’s private lives because they think God wants them to:
“Because any man weak enough to hide his eyes
while his neighbors
are punished for the way they love deserves a
Partial List of People to Bleach is . . . well, it looks like a 60-page, handmade chapbook, although I ordered it from Amazon. It’s a handful of bizarre tales by Gary Lutz, who I gather is a cultish writer of short fiction. They’re bleakly comic, slightly surreal (“I owned no furniture; I was afraid of heights”), enigmatic fiction riffs filled with people who act bizarrely and think nothing of it. “Home, School, Office” ends with a guy dragging Scotch tape around his office, trying to pick up a stray public hair left by the officemate he dislikes. He quickly gives up “because I did not know up to what point, to what extent, I was supposed to keep going along with my life.”
In the May 28 issue of The New Yorker, the excellent essayist Arthur Krystal (see his recent collection, Except When I Write) offers a pre-summer discussion of guilty reading pleasures, which he roughly summarizes as genre fiction in contrast to literary fiction. Back in the day, he notes, literary fiction was considered “good for you,” while genre fiction “simply tasted good.”
“Basically, a guilty pleasure is a fix in the form of a story, a narrative cocktail that helps us temporarily forget the narratives of our own humdrum lives,” Krystal writes.
But the fact that a book qualifies as a guilty pleasure need not mean that it lacks literary value. Krystal charts the gradual crumbling of the barriers erected by stuffy book snobs of the past, noting that sometimes even intellectuals “yearned for a good story.” Raymond Chandler was perhaps the first crime/detective fiction writer to gain the respect of lit crits, paving the way for the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, P.D. James, John le Carre, Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane and Lee Child. In other genres, writers such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur Conan Doyle, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King have in recent years elicited newfound admiration from more than their diehard fans. “Writers we once thought of as guilty pleasures are being granted literary status,” Krystal writes.
But Krystal warns that writers of detective and other genre novels should beware of too much praise, and respond by trying to turn their page-turners into something deeper and more meaningful, a k a literary. “Skilled genre writers know that a certain level of artificiality must prevail, lest the reasons we turn to their books evaporate,” he writes. “It’s plot we want and plenty of it.”
George Orwell admired good genre novels, which he called “good bad books.” But while Orwell maintained a distinction between guilty pleasures and literature, thriller writer Lee Child recently sought to turn the whole discussion on its head: “The thriller concept is why humans invented storytelling, thousands of years ago. It’s the only real genre, and all the other stuff has grown on the side of it like barnacles.”
Child’s characterization of biblio-history seems a tad simplistic, leaving out a few undeniable literary triumphs that could hardly be called “barnacles.” What’s more, he hardly needs to worry about his place in the literary pecking order, considering he’s sold more books than five thousand confirmed literary novelists.
(Krystal’s New Yorker piece prompted Time magazine book critic Lev Grossman to issue a response that is equally appealing on this subject. Find it here.)
Any discussion of guilty reading pleasures prompts one to ponder what his or hers happen to be. (This assumes, of course, that you’re someone who reads widely, including, primarily, literary works.) Here are the guilty pleasures of two avid readers.
Fast and Furious
By Scott Dickensheets
The form of these things usually requires participants to feel defiantly not guilty about their guilty pleasures. It may not be quote-unquote “literature,” but humankind needs stories! Well, I’ll admit it: I’ve chugged a lot of genre crap in my time. A lot of flimsy characters, spun through mechanical plots, typed by largely interchangeable authors — Vince Someone, Steve Someone, Eric Van Somebody Else. My colleague in this endeavor dismisses most of it as “airport fiction,” the kind of thrillers you grab from a gift-shop spinner rack when you’re facing a long layover and your phone doesn’t stream Netflix. I can usually tell from the first two or three pages that it’s going to be a piece of hackwork.
And yet I’ve read every thriller David Baldacci has written.
Now, I’ve never been a major-league consumer of fiction. Mostly I’ve read nonfiction of the kind I wanted to write, but when I did, I usually tried to read the good stuff. I mean, hell, I lugged Gravity’s Rainbow like a brick into the Sav-On breakroom when I worked there in my early twenties, my mind alternately blown and baffled by that thing. Three-quarters of it was half-understandable, but every so often I’d flash on an insight so crystalline — Pynchon’s somehow created a voice that can communicate everything, from philosophy to gutter humor! — it was almost like being on drugs. Sure, I’d done the genre thing as a kid, sci-fi and fantasy, every word of every Conan book, but none of it ever lit me up like that. I liked the way it felt. So, other than the odd Chandler novel, I mostly shunned genre books, even the stuff that was reputed to be hot shit, like Elmore Leonard or Walter Mosely, until …
(Fast forward a lot of years)
… until one day, and I mean one day, I tore through The Da Vinci Code. (Hey, I was curious about the hot fuss.) It didn’t actually take a day, just seven hours of not leaving the couch except to pee. (I took the book and sat down.) Imagine my surprise, nailed to the couch by genre fiction. I knew from the first two or three pages that it wasn’t a great book. Or even a particularly good one, for every reason you’ve heard. Unconvincing characterization, clunky writing, cheesy theology. But the pace! The story pushed relentlessly forward, and I learned something about myself: I have an innate craving for fast, cheap narrative. Also, that it takes me seven freakin’ hours to read a Dan Brown novel. Damn, that’s slow.
After that, I read a lot of mostly forgettable stuff: books by Steve Berry, the Jason Bourne novels by Eric Van Lustbader, Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp novels, still more Dan Brown, that long row of Baldaccis (tip: even if you’re a fan, his latest, The Innocent, isn’t worth it). I couldn’t tell you a single thing about almost any of those novels.
To be sure, I encountered something close to what I would call real literature in these genre pathways. Lee Child’s series of Jack Reacher thrillers, for example. Not just because the characters are sturdier, or the insights into human nature considerably less trite (even if the action is sometimes unbelievably over the top). But also because the writing, the basic carpentry, is better. His sentences aren’t purpose-built merely to deliver plot. They’re organic to both the character and the narrative.
His protagonist, Reacher, is a huge, tough, ex-Army cop who wanders America with no possessions, no fixed address, no phone, just a bank card, a passport, a toothbrush and a keen understanding of violence. Basically, he’s a high-functioning homeless man who lucks into trouble everywhere he goes. Terrorists, drug dealers, corrupt officials with hired muscle on speed dial. People invariably die, property gets damaged.
Reacher’s rootlessness is part of Child’s genius: A totally competent man with a weightless life, under no one’s control but his own — no ties equals total freedom — Reacher taps into a deep strain of American yearning.
I should also mention crime writer James Crumley. The Last Good Kiss, featuring a broken-down alcoholic investigator named C.W. Sughrue, is a marvel. The writing has a durable, creased, worn-leather quality — inhabited is the word I’m looking for, and the plot, a missing-persons tale, has enough twists to seem plausible but not O. Henry-ish.
But, finally, the point has never really been to ferret out literature, or even quality. (Did I mention I’ve read twentysomething Baldacci novels?) Indeed, Child and Crumley notwithstanding, I think — and I’ve only recently started puzzling this out, so bear with me — that what I want is the flimsy characters, mechanical plots and largely interchangeable authors. Sometimes, I don’t want the benefits of literature, to sink into a different reality, to deeply identify with a fictional character. Look, I’m a husband, father, grandfather and am employed in the newspaper business. There are enough things already demanding a willing suspension of my disbelief. Very often, all I need is something hot, fast and shallow. So I guess I’m defiantly non-guilty after all.
Thrills and Chills
By Geoff Schumacher
One of my main guilty pleasures is the crime novelist John D. MacDonald, who published in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. MacDonald started in the pulps, and cranked out several paperback novels per year, each one about 160 tightly plotted pages. A few of these stand-alone stories were particularly noteworthy, among them 1957’s The Executioners (which became the twice-made movie Cape Fear) and 1960’s The End of the Night, which Stephen King recently called one of the “greatest American novels of the twentieth century.” I don’t know about that, but it is a very good read.
But while MacDonald’s dozens of novels are worth a look, his crowning achievement is a series of twenty-one novels, published from 1964-85, featuring Travis McGee, one of the more compelling protagonists in the history of crime fiction. McGee lives on a houseboat docked in a Fort Lauderdale marina. McGee tries hard not to work for a living, preferring the sun and surf — and the companionship of good friends and beautiful women — to any sort of nine-to-five obligation. He’s able to pull off this lifestyle by collecting an occasional fee serving as a “salvage consultant.” He’s gained a reputation as someone who can lend a hand when a person has gotten screwed out of some money or a precious object. If McGee is able to retrieve what has been lost, he gets half for his trouble.
McGee is a clever, athletic and durable hero. In the first few books, he’s a bit too smart and invincible. The series improves as McGee’s blind spots and vulnerabilities come into clearer focus. He’s no longer Superman. Things don’t always turn out perfectly when he takes a case.
The McGee books occasionally veer from the storyline as MacDonald shifts temporarily into essay mode. It’s not uncommon for McGee and his sidekick, the fellow boat-dwelling economist Meyer, to go on for several pages discussing the social and political issues of the day. For some readers, these diversions probably are annoying, especially when the subject matter is decades old. But even now, I find most of them interesting and relevant. It’s clear that MacDonald was a thoughtful man, with social and political views he could not resist incorporating into his fiction. I might not be so amused if MacDonald were an ideologue, but he was a moderate pragmatist, exploring the issues of the day as objectively as possible.
I read about one Travis McGee novel per year. I’m savoring them, I guess. I’ve now read 17 of the 21, so I’m getting toward the end. McGee is getting older now. When he’s injured, it takes longer to heal. He’s thinking more about settling down with a good woman, though each time he gets serious, the woman seems to end up in the line of fire. Where I once admired McGee’s freewheeling lifestyle, now I kind of feel sorry for him. I really enjoy that McGee is more than a never-changing cardboard figure.
(One of the better pieces about MacDonald was written by longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley in 2003. It can be found here. Another good piece was written by Roger Ebert in 1976. Check it out here.)
When I was a teenager, I launched into books through the fantasy and horror genres. In the horror field, Stephen King occupied a lot of my time (partly because he wrote so many thick books). He was very good during the ’70s and ’80s, then not too great for a while, and more recently very good once again (Under the Dome, 11/22/63). But reading King did not necessarily lead me to lesser contemporaries such as Dean Koontz and John Saul. Though they have their admirers, I can’t really say whether they are any good.
King led me instead to the genre’s old guard: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood — nineteenth and twentieth century masters of the “weird tale.”
Occasionally, I enjoying dipping back into these writings. It’s similar to reading Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, but with more supernatural twists.
I just finished a Penguin Classics collection of Blackwood’s stories, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I particularly liked “The Willows,” “The Wendigo” and “The Man the Trees Loved.” While Blackwood certainly wanted to give his readers a good scare, he had higher ambitions as well. Many of his stories are founded on philosophical premises about the relationship between man and nature. His protagonists often discover an acute sensitivity to or awareness of natural forces beyond the recognition of other people. For example, in “The Man the Trees Loved,” a man develops a strong affinity for the trees in the forest behind his house. He spends more and more of each day in the forest, rather than at home with his wife. He comes to believe that trees have consciousness of a sort, and he has tapped into it: They love him, and they jealously see his wife as an impediment to his total immersion in their world. No violence ensues, as you would expect in a Hollywood production, but the story is suspenseful and eerie nonetheless.
Another of Blackwood’s stories, “Ancient Sorceries,” published in 1908, inspired the movie Cat People, released in 1942 and remade in 1982. In this story, a man on a train disembarks in a small French town, only to find that the residents turn into cats at night. It turns out he has some past-life connection to these feline folks, and they want him to rejoin them.
Blackwood’s prose is easy to read, but he definitely takes his time unfolding a story. This might be frustrating for some modern readers seeking immediate gratification, but the leisurely pace is something I enjoy about his work. He forces the reader to fully engage, to set aside all distractions and plunge into the narrative. And Blackwood’s horrors are rarely bloody. His carnage tends to be psychological and menacing rather than physical. He outlines frightening ideas, but they don’t lead to some sort of chaotic chase scene or killing spree.
(A great website to get a taste of Algernon Blackwood’s work is located here.)
Now that I’ve had my fill of Blackwood for a while — he wrote quite a lot, so there’s room for another incursion when the mood strikes down the road — I think I’ll delve into Machen’s stories, which offer another perspective on the mystical storytelling of a bygone age.
Editor’s note: Stephen Bates is an assistant professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV. He is a contributing editor of the Wilson Quarterly, a magazine of ideas published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
By Stephen Bates
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl. A Beijing-based writer for Science, she cites a demographer who estimates that Asia is short 163 million girls and women — more than the total female population of the United States — because of sex-selective abortion. It’s a huge issue in China and India, but it’s happening in the Caucasus and the Balkans too. In nearly every country, people want boys. (The great exception is the United States, where fertility clinics that do sex selection report that parents strongly prefer girls.) It’s a smart and deeply alarming book, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why this isn’t a front-page problem. Part of the answer, the author says, is that it’s entangled in abortion politics here. Christian Right groups hope — and abortion-rights groups fear — that sex-selective abortion may be a wedge for restricting abortion rights in general.
Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay. A book about conspiracy theories and their adherents, by an editor of Canada’s National Post, that manages to be both richly anecdotal and cleverly analytical.
The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir (forthcoming in July). Includes an amusing account of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which was hugely popular — and frequently stolen — despite the fact that most bookstores wouldn’t carry it and most newspapers would neither review it nor publish ads for it.
Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America by Paul Hollander. A cultural historian’s mildly crotchety look at today’s ways of wooing. One chapter analyzes the self-inflated personals ads from the New York Review of Books and other upscale American publications, and compares them to the self-deprecating, often hilarious personals that appear in the London Review of Books.
Still ahead are a couple of books from last year:
Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. When I was literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, he wrote several reviews for me. He came to a couple of my writing classes in D.C., too, and we went to dinner a half-dozen times there and once in Vegas. The smartest, best-read and most prolific person I’ve ever met.
Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty, and the State by James L. Buckley. When he was a federal appellate judge in D.C., I clerked for him. Formerly a senator from New York (Moynihan beat him), he’s a conservative environmentalist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold and a principled, courtly, old-fashioned gentleman.
And, for a class I’ll teach in fall 2012 in Prague, I’m reading a lot of travel writing. Suggestions welcome!
By Scott Dickensheets
Here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of suggesting books you should read this summer, because how would I know?, I’ll tell you what I plan to read — hope to read — foolishly believe I’ll actually read — in the next few months. (It’s hard, people; the heat messes with my brain.) Since I haven’t read any of ’em yet, I can’t recommend them on any basis except that something about each has goosed it toward the top of my to-read pile.
Okay, I’m mildly contradicting myself first thing, because I have read 10 or 15 pages of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I was relieved to discover is not, in fact, about a pregnant widow. It is about sex, but that’s not why I want to read it; it’s also about rich, textured language, which is why. (Also, it’s about sex.) Newly out in paperback, its story involves randy young Brits experiencing a hot, wet Italian summer back in the 60s, when sex was still incredible and filled with meaning. If that’s not enough British fiction for me, I have a copy of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot idling at the ready, although I fear it might actually be about Flaubert’s parrot.
Flaubert was French, which I mention solely because it transitions smoothy into Disaster Was My God, Bruce Duffy’s forthcoming (July 19) novel about that other great French literary prospect, Season in Hell poet Arthur Rimbaud. Duffy is an acclaimed and brainy writer — he previously novelized upon the life of Wittgenstein — and Rimbaud is a notorious figure (transformed poetry by age 20, then quit literature for African gun-running), who inspired such great performers as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and Eddie and the Cruisers. So it should be heavy duty.
When I want some light duty, though — and I surely will, summer being the season of escapist reading — I’ll turn to Death Likes It Hot, one of the mystery novels Gore Vidal wrote under the name Edgar Box back in the 1950s. It stars a dashing PR man, which is how you know it’s fiction.
No one noticed this book when it came out late last year: The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans. In it, journalist Mark Jacobson tries to learn the origin of a lamp with a shade made of human skin. It screams Nazi, of course, and Jacobson runs down that angle, but he also uses the occasion to investigate death, hatred and evil. Jacobson’s a good reporter and a great stylist, so I expect the book to be filled with terrific place descriptions and nicely drawn characters. I’ll probably augment that by reading Rescuing Evil: What We Lose, Ron Rosenbaum’s 22-page essay, available as a Kindle Single, about the pitfalls of trying to ameliorate the concept of evil.
My pal Steve Friedman’s memoir of life and bad behavior in the trenches of romance and the Manhattan media world, Lost on Treasure Island, comes out any minute and will show you a good time: breezily self-lacerating one moment, bleakly revelatory the next, and funny throughout.
A trio of books coming out in late August or the first of September will let me end the season in a blurt of — I trust — quality reading. Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably collects a batch of his essays on politics, which I don’t always agree with, and literature, which I don’t always understand. But I almost always enjoy watching his mind work. Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is a collection of essays about about America, music and, if I’m reading the title correctly, New Orleans, about which he’s written before.
And the book I’m most curious about: Colby Buzzell’s Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey. Expanding on a transcontinental ramble he took for Esquire magazine, Buzzell’s book should be a ground-level look at our country, through the haunted eyes of a former soldier wracked by his service in Iraq and wondering what America is all about. Some quality about Buzzell’s prose, something I can’t pin down and analyze, has stuck with me since his Esquire days. Can’t wait.
By Geoff Schumacher
I don’t buy the longstanding assumption that “summer reading” must be breezy and escapist. First of all, the image of the woman in bathing suit and floppy hat on chaise lounge under umbrella on beach engrossed in book is something you almost never see. Perhaps a few people read on the beach — I’ve done it — but sadly, most modern-day vacations don’t offer enough time for that sort of leisurely activity.
Plus, even if that image held true, it’s not clear why the beachgoer must necessarily read a murder mystery or international thriller. It feels more like a device to sell airport books than an actual reflection of American life.
And so, I offer a somewhat unorthodox list of summer reading recommendations. These are not “difficult” books by any means, but I would contend that they are more challenging and satisfying than the typical summer fare, while still bringing the pleasure commonly associated with a summer vacation.
The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. This 2010 novel is a combination of so-called literary fiction and suspenseful crime/adventure story. Although Percy’s literary efforts are evident in the nuanced characters and vivid settings, the novel actually works best as a fast-paced narrative. Three generations of men go hunting in the mountains of central Oregon and encounter a range of threats to their very survival. A separate menace threatens the wife/mother who stays behind. Along the way, Percy does a brilliant job of portraying the flora and fauna of central Oregon, where he is from, and exhibiting his knowledge of the practices of fishing, hunting and camping. The novel falls down in its unconvincing portrayals of a troubled marriage and a near-miss act of infidelity, but the gripping narrative is ample compensation.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. This 2011 history of anti-war protesters and soldiers sent to slaughter during World War I is as eye-opening as history books get. By almost all accounts, World War I was an unmitigated disaster, from its absurdly unjustified causes to its horribly bungled execution on both sides to its wholly unsatisfactory conclusion — a conclusion that ultimately and inevitably led to the even more destructive World War II and still reverberates in the Balkans and the Middle East to this day. Hochschild does a brilliant job of telling the stories of those relative few who opposed the war and paid a price for it, and the millions of soldiers who walked into the buzzsaw of warfare in which they were doomed to death before they ever stepped on the field of battle. If you don’t know much about World War I, start with this brilliant book.
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer. I’ve written about Dyer elsewhere on this site, so I would refer you farther down the page for more information on why I think this is such a great book. But suffice to say here that Dyer’s reviews, essays, and articles all possess his distinctive, fascinating, and at time annoying voice. This Londoner is the ultimate slacker. He has managed — no doubt through a combination of writing talent and persistence — to carve out a freelance life in which he writes about whatever he wants whenever the fancy strikes him. Fortunately for us, Dyer can make just about any subject interesting.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. Bryson is a fun and endlessly informative writer on many nonfiction topics. In this 2010 book, he strolls through the history of domestic life, using the rooms of the very old house in which he lives in England as the foundation. This is far from an academic or comprehensive treatment of domestic history, and that’s what makes it so engrossing. Bryson covers the interesting stuff — the advent of glass windows, the Victorian reluctance to bathe — and leaves the rest of it for somebody else. This is a history of how daily life developed into everything we take for granted today. Hard to imagine a more entertaining beach read.
Here are a few other books I heartily recommend:
Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Beautifully wrought 2010 novel of a boy and a horse, by the author of Motel Life, soon to be a major motion picture.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Easily one of the best — and funniest — novels of 2010. Shteyngart’s visions of a near-future dystopian world is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Engrossing exploration of the life and practical philosophy of the great French essayist, perhaps the first “modern man.”
The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories by Debra Marquart. Short stories about life on the road for rock ’n’ roll bands that are a long way from the big time. These stories have the flavor of authenticity, as Marquart writes from firsthand experience. First published in 2001.
Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser. Touching and beautiful prose sketches and essays about the grit and glories of country life in the Midwest by the nation’s former poet laureate.