Book Review asked a number of writers about the most surprising new book they encountered in 2005. Their responses, in no particular order, offer yet another reminder of the varieties of literary experience.
Brendan Mullen’s “Whores: An Oral Biography of Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction” (Da Capo) is a wonderful portrait of a musical Los Angeles in that often overlooked period between the first wave of Southern California punk and the rise of grunge. The moment was marked by a surprising inclusiveness, a cross-pollination of musicians and musical ideas that coalesced most vividly in the band Jane’s Addiction. Combining firsthand accounts, interviews and writings from the period, Mullen chronicles this important transition in rock and sketches the people -- famous and otherwise -- who took part.
To write about love is the duty stamp on every author’s license. But to write a work that, like Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” (Alfred A. Knopf), invites the reader to experience love is the greatest act an author can perform. When love dies in the course of living, it is a heartache, but hardly fatal. When a loved one dies in the midst of love, it is a tragedy beyond imagining.
When my marriage to Salman Rushdie failed, the experience fell into the former category. I wrote to Joan Didion in the wake of that despair. I got it in my head that, if I could write it out, I could control it and survive it. I got it in my head that I would write a book about writing couples -- Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Mary McCarthy and Edmund Wilson, Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, Didion and John Gregory Dunne. I got it in my head that if I could ask Didion and Dunne how they held their marriage together as two writers, their answers might heal my scars.
Didion responded with a kind letter, explaining that “we don’t give interviews.” Their marriage, she wrote, was “private.” And it still is. Although she writes about John using the word “love” to their daughter, Quintana, Didion never uses the word to describe her feelings toward her husband. She never writes, “I loved him.” Never writes, “And he loved me.” But their love, in all its imperfections, is there, page after page.
The best book published this year, in my opinion, is “The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch” (Alfred A. Knopf), which gathers all 10 collections printed in the lifetime of this marvelous American poet, who died in 2002. Koch sought to reinvent American poetry by letting in “fresh air,” eliminating mythic solemnity and styling a conversational vernacular ablaze with wit and linguistic surprise. He was by far the funniest of his contemporaries, which may have cost him the full regard of the academy because of a puritanical prejudice that the comic is a lesser mode. Believe me, he is a major poet -- the equal of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, as this generous volume proves. He is also full of sincerity and feeling when he wants to be. He can break your heart; he can do it all.
Luis J. Rodriguez
Inga Muscio is a blue-eyed devil. In her “Autobiography of a Blue-Eyed Devil: My Life and Times in a Racist, Imperialist Society” (Seal Press), she uses wit, intelligence, insight and plain orneriness to show us what’s wrong with racism in a time of empire. (Not for the squeamish -- or anyone in the Bush / O’Reilly / Limbaugh frame of mind.)
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, and her “The Old Child & Other Stories” (New Directions) arrives here translated flawlessly by Susan Bernofsky. The title novella describes the stark economy and mystical landscape of a homeless girl’s interior life as she tries to survive in a children’s home where she’s been placed by the police.
In this and Erpenbeck’s stories, the brutality of her subjects, combined with the fierce intelligence and tenderness at work behind her restrained, unvarnished prose, is overwhelming. I haven’t read anything this good -- this bracing, unflinching and alive -- for a long time.
There aren’t many novels about war that one can call hilarious. But Phillip Jennings’ debut, “Nam-a-Rama” (Forge), marries searing satire with bone-on-bone despair. It’s hard to tell the difference between madness and truth here, and perhaps that’s the most memorable aspect of the book: It is born from chaos and never attempts to moralize the horror or the hilarity. Rather, Jennings tackles the absurd aspect of armed conflict and comes away with a novel that is the “Catch-22" for our most (or, perhaps now, second-most) misunderstood war.
Anyone who still insists on lecturing us about “high” culture and its superiority to “mass” culture should be made to read John Carey’s “What Good Are the Arts?” (Gardners Books) -- ideally as the educational component of a whole range of corrective measures, some of which would be much more painful. Carey (who wrote the equally brilliant and valuable “The Intellectuals & the Masses: Pride & Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939") defines art, tells us what it’s good for and has enormous fun dismantling the claims of aesthetic theorists, from Kant onward. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a saner book.
“Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou, and Civil Strife in Haiti” by Kathie Klarreich (Nation Books) is a memoir filled with humor, personality and cultural richness. Klarreich, an American journalist with a keen eye for foibles across national lines, married a Haitian musician during a time of trouble in Haiti and had his baby during a coup d’etat. When else to have a proper, patriotic Haitian child? She chronicles with deep affection and understanding the troubles in Haiti before, during and after the rise of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and does so in the great humanistic, border-breaking tradition of Isak Dinesen and Graham Greene. Her portrait of the complicated Aristide is precise and dead-on. Despite the “Vodou” in the subtitle, this book transcends the usual foreign tropes about Haiti’s evil and exoticism and plunges through to our common humanity.
Elena Ferrante’s “The Days of Abandonment” (Europa Editions) makes an old story new. The narrator is Olga, a 38-year-old Roman with two small children and a husband who has run off with someone younger and hotter. Olga is a woman scorned, a hardy perennial of fiction. But Ferrante’s painfully self-aware voice makes the book’s well-worn plot into something haunting. It’s as if you were in the room or out on the piazzas with Olga as she ricochets from anger to grief to self-abnegation while her children grow obstreperous, then distant and cold. As Olga is overwhelmed by circumstance, the reader is drawn into her agony.
When my husband gave me a copy of Phil Lesh’s “Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead” (Little, Brown) for my birthday, I turned up my nose. I may be a Deadhead, I told him, but I don’t read memoirs by bass players. Those are words I’ve had to eat twice. Lesh brings to rapturous life a lost period of innocence in the counterculture and gives a compelling view of how things turned dark and fatal for so many. Not long afterward, I read the riveting “Never the Same Again: A Rock n’ Roll Gothic” (Ten Speed) by Jesse Sublett, bass player for the Austin, Texas-based Skunks. Sublett’s book starts with the murder of his girlfriend when he was 22, ends with his battle with throat cancer a couple of years ago and goes to some wild punk shows in the middle. Hard to put down.
Jill Ciment has been my friend for more than 20 years, yet I entirely forgot our personal connection as I read her latest novel, “The Tattoo Artist” (Pantheon). It’s a sure sign of artistic success when those readers close to a novelist are so engaged by a book’s characters and events, so transported by its language, that it seems to spring from an independent source. To say that a work of literature is “fully imagined” is to recognize its autonomy.
“The Tattoo Artist” is about Sara Ehrenreich, a surrealist in the 1920s who leaves the New York art world to travel the South Seas. On the island of Ta’un’uu, after a series of tragic mishaps, she begins the process of tattooing her body from head to toe. Given my friendship with Jill, it would have been easy for me to see autobiographical aspects in her book; she has no tattoos, but like Sara, she has devoted herself to painstaking narrative art. As I read, however, my friend temporarily disappeared into another body and another voice and I found myself in another time and place, immersed in a powerful fable about the all-consuming nature of a life in the arts.
A riddle wrapped in an enigma, with the form of a Greek tragedy, John Vaillant’s “The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed” (W.W. Norton) kept me up and haunts my dreams. To protest the clear-cutting of British Columbia’s old-growth forests, a messianic and deeply misguided environmentalist kills the thing he loves, felling a one-of-a-kind giant golden spruce. Vaillant weaves a suspenseful tale with writing so vivid that you feel the soaking rain and taste the tears.
“Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature” by Lewis M. Dabney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) confirmed my conviction that Wilson remains a model of accessible discourse. Thirty years ago, I read Wilson’s “Patriotic Gore” and was converted to broad-based inquiry. Since then, I have acquired and read a near-complete collection of Wilson’s works, most of them first editions. Dabney’s biography prompted me to revisit these books, to browse their pages and to savor -- whatever the subject -- Wilson’s commitment to public intelligence and to English prose as only an American can write it: with the dignity and grace of a building by Bulfinch and the syntactic strength of Latin and Greek read by firelight.
Francine du Plessix Gray
Camille Paglia’s “Break, Blow, Burn” (Pantheon), in which our foremost intellectual provocateur explores 43 poems of the Anglo-American tradition, is the first book I’ve ever bought two copies of for my own enjoyment. One is for my Connecticut home; another is shelved in my New York pied-a-terre, where I would be terrified to be bereft of Paglia’s solace during a bout of insomnia. I’d never been a fan of Paglia -- her bellicose attitude to mainstream feminism particularly riled me -- until I picked up “Break, Blow, Burn” (the title is taken from John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV). It is her first major work since “Sexual Personae,” and it blew my socks off. The writers she’s chosen include Shakespeare and Blake as well as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and poets we may be less familiar with -- Rochelle Kraut, Ralph Pomeroy. Profound, daring, tartly incisive, passionately engaged, equally sensitive to each work’s socio-political context and to the details of its prosody, “Break, Blow, Burn” will renew and deepen any reader’s engagement with the Western poetic tradition.
I’m an inveterate reader of serious detective novels, particularly when I’m deep in my own work and tired at the end of the day. This summer, I picked up a copy of “36 Yalta Boulevard” by Olen Steinhauer (St. Martin’s Minotaur), a detective novel set behind the Iron Curtain. Steinhauer is a young American writer who spent time in Romania on a Fulbright listening closely to old stories of the worst of times, and he has now fashioned a precinct house all his own out of that world. What he’s created is a group of detectives, all with secrets and vulnerabilities, at work in an Eastern European country in the early 1950s, dealing with the political burden of the Stalinist years. Some of the names are Hungarian, some Polish, some Czech, and the setting feels like Budapest. His people are real, the crimes genuine, and he is telling larger truths about that era, making it unusually accessible.
In “Six Bad Things” (Ballantine), Charlie Huston combines an original voice, beautiful characterization and a neck-snapping plot in one of the most entertaining novels I’ve read this year. File this under “Blew Me Away.” After “Six Bad Things,” I immediately read the prequel, “Caught Stealing.” You will too.
When a hairy, tranquil-looking Bigfoot stares at you from a field of leafy vines, flowers, lizards and mushrooms as dual rainbows stream out of his head, you ask yourself: “Who is responsible for this psychedelic book cover?” The culprit is Los Angeles’ very own Trinie Dalton, the book, “Wide Eyed” (Akashic Books). I read this collection frozen in my tracks, utterly transfixed. Dalton mixes harsh, comic, horror-movie gore with a naturalist’s feeling for the environment. As the title suggests, the voice is candid, something that reaches deep inside. This is fiction sprinkled with magical love dust -- wise, full of the oddest research and knowledge.
For decades now, James Salter has been one of the hidden treasures of the literary universe -- worldly, immaculately sensual and able to make a light-and-shadow shimmer out of all the silences and missed connections of daily life. But in his recent collection of short stories, “Last Night” (Alfred A. Knopf), Salter rises to something more: a man of the world’s elliptical, fugitive thoughts as he draws closer to his death. What will you remember when you dissolve is the unflinching question behind these beautiful, heart-breaking stories of love and regret, set now in Bangkok, now in the most brittle salons of Long Island.
Dora Levy Mossanen’s opulent “Courtesan” (Touchstone) leads the reader on a vivid journey from the gaudy bordellos of 19th century Persia to luxurious chateaux in France, following three generations of women shaped by one courtesan’s dangerous affair with the shah of Persia. The lush prose enhances the sense of those exotic, erotic times.
Hugh Nissenson’s novel “The Days of Awe” (Sourcebooks Landmark) changed my life this year. It’s set in New York, during a period of about two months before and after Sept. 11. But that is only one of many grimly ominous events. The point the author makes is that everyone is going to die, and THIS MEANS YOU! Thanks to Nissenson, for about a month I was afraid to go into a parking lot or walk through my own house at night or get in a car and drive. He did a wonderful, terrifying job of restating the real terms of the human condition.
The book is what art should be.
Georges Simenon is a recent discovery for me -- not the Maigret books, but what Simenon called his romans durs, such as “Dirty Snow” and “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” -- and hard they are indeed. The latest of these New York Review Books reissues, “Tropic Moon” (translated from the French by Marc Romano) is a dark masterpiece set among French colonials in heart-of-darkness Gabon in the early 1930s. Cruel, erotic, frightening and superb.
My primary reading experiences in 2005 have involved plowing through pulp novels of the 1960s and obscure Freemasonic and American history volumes for various publishing projects. But I did get a chance to devour Jimmy McDonough’s fascinating look at the life of Russ Meyer, “Big Bosoms and Square Jaws” (Crown), a book that goes far beyond most biographies of pop culture legends in its ability to revel in both the disparaged man’s genius and his sad personal issues. Tender voyeurism with a purpose.
“Visions of Heaven and Hell” by Clive Barker (Rizzoli) is a glorious art book awash in bold color and design, covering his entire career -- from fantasy to homoerotica. Many of the images highlight the dichotomy of being a member of a modern society, yet also being restrained by the guilt and emotional consciousness of the past.
Like anyone who spends several years writing about a particular period -- in my case, World War II -- I set the bar very high for anything related to that topic. That’s why I was so surprised to find myself consumed by Charles Peters’ “Five Days in Philadelphia: Wendell Willkie, Franklin Roosevelt & the 1940 Convention That Saved the Western World” (PublicAffairs) Frankly, it was out of duty that I picked up the book. I worked for Charlie at the Washington Monthly, and he remains a great friend.
But I loved it from the start. The brilliance of Peters’ book lies in its clear storytelling and its sure-handed portrait of a man largely lost in the mists of popular American memory, Wendell Willkie. Focusing on the 1940 GOP convention in Philadelphia, Peters brings Wilkie back to life and makes a convincing, measured case that Willkie’s essential internationalism enabled FDR to go further than he otherwise could have to help Britain prior to the election. Since campaign politics and war seem to be with us always, there are wonderful lessons in this lean, amusing and warm narrative.
When living in interesting times, as the old Chinese curse has it, I find that peace of mind is promoted by consulting works that delve into current events without abandoning the long view. Among those I’m reading these days are Akhil Reed Amar’s “America’s Constitution: A Biography” (Random House), a detailed study of how the Constitution was written, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s “Active Liberty: Interpreting Our Democratic Constitution” (Alfred A. Knopf), a counter to the “originalist” arguments of the court’s right wing. For the latest on monsters of the far left, I’m enjoying -- if that is the word -- Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s “Mao: The Unknown Story” (Alfred A. Knopf) and Jasper Becker’s “Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea” (Oxford University Press). Dick Taverne, a member of the British House of Lords, takes on the religious right in “The March of Unreason: Science, Democracy, and the New Fundamentalism” (Oxford University Press); if a bit fusty at times, he’s a good man to have on the ramparts.
Just when you thought nothing new could be done with the crime novel, a Frenchwoman, Fred (it’s short for Frederique) Vargas comes out with “Have Mercy on Us All” (Simon & Schuster). The story begins with front doors daubed with upside-down “4s” and deliciously evokes the characters and texture of an entire Paris neighborhood before introducing a downbeat detective and a nutter who wants to launch a chemical plague. The effect is as if Georges Simenon had been shoved into a shotgun marriage with Georges Perec (and why not?), but it’s Vargas’ voice that really does this business: spry, ironic, yet fully engaged with the horror of contemporary reality. An eccentric and invigorating book.
I spent a lot of this year on a book tour, so the last thing I wanted to do was add any weight to my bag. Still, when I saw Nick Hornby’s novel “A Long Way Down” (Riverhead) in an airport bookshop, I snapped it up. The story of four people who meet on a London rooftop on New Year’s Eve with the intention of killing themselves, it sounds grim, but it’s wickedly funny.
All of Hornby’s signature traits are here -- asides about music, musings on the British class system and uniquely wrought characters. I found myself laughing out loud on airplanes as I crisscrossed the country.