2011, A Reader’s Year in Review

December 22, 2011

Being by nature really quite modest, I’m hesitant to spotlight The Best Blog Post of 2010. True, it’s mine, but a virtuous performance cares not one jot who the performer is. The rendition is what really matters. I don’t even have to cite Foucault to bask in the glow of this certainty. The glory of The Best Blog Post of 2010 is that it breathes life into an exhausted form, you know, the obligatory year in summary reading list. Everyone has one. James Wood’s got one and Coetzee does too. Ends up, however, that innovating on a form even as piddling as a blog post takes time. Which is why I happily follow in the steps of Wood, Coetzee and others, here, here, here, here and here. Theirs are very good lists by the way. Much better than mine so please pay them a visit.

As for my favorite reads of 2011, here they are:

Farmer by Jim Harrison, a slim novel filled with beautiful descriptions of rural life. A cowhide rug is to Farmer what liver is to Portnoy’s Complaint. Except only a wee bit different.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates explores inauthenticity without employing this jargonistic term. Thankfully.

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. As I said in a comment to Karyn on her very fine blog, Whitman’s poetry is so grand I don’t care if it’s verse and not prose fiction. It can even be termed statistics for all I care.

Herzog by Saul Bellow solves the problem of existence. This can’t be shown. Only felt.

The Dog of the South by Charles Portis is an American odyssey rife with humor. Portis’ storytelling voice is his great, abiding gift to anyone who cares to read him.

Embers by Sándor Márai is simply exquisite. Five, 10, 15 years from now, I will remember 2011 as the year I read Embers. Just fantastic.

Paradoxically Foe by Coetzee and Vanity Fair by Thackeray make honorable mention precisely because I only enjoyed them retrospectively and well after the fact.

Although I haven’t mentioned non-fiction on Interpolations before, Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes is a very fine book. He argues that a low-fat, high-carb diet is unhealthy because it leads to insulin resistance, obesity and the diseases of civilization. For brief articles by Taubes, I direct you here and there.

Have a great holiday season!

“If Rawdon Crawley’s blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art.”

September 28, 2011

When Robert Louis Stevenson, author of a famous little novella, one of my favorite books I’ve read in the last five years, states an opinion, although exaggerated, one had better listen. Show some deference. Now, I’m not a big fan of Vanity Fair. That’s clear; it’s unregulated. Tactically flawed. Thackeray’s conceit from the start is that people aren’t nearly as kind and friendly and selfless as they appear. Problem is, because his characters are so transparently foolish, naive, and calculating, they’re exactly as they appear. Straightaway, then, the reader is robbed the opportunity of rending deceptive masks. More damaging, Thackeray’s technique is at odds with his central theme. Duplicity is but poorly served by caricature, and satire and irony can sustain a reaction to surface play for only so long. In any event, Stevenson thinks Vanity Fair a very fine work of art. He identifies a single incident that makes the whole thing cohere. One incident. You can count it on your fingertip. One. I’m wary. The scene occurs in chapter 53, when Rawdon Crawley, a block-headed boob, catches Becky, his saucy minx of a wife, with another man. Rawdon thrashes him proper. Here’s Stevenson, “If Rawdon Crawley’s blow were not delivered, Vanity Fair would cease to be a work of art. That scene is the chief ganglion of the tale; and the discharge of energy from Rawdon’s fist is the reward and consolation of the reader.” Really, the chief ganglion? It’s a delicious scene, to be sure, as gratifying as young Becky Sharp tossing her copy of Dr. Johnson’s dictionary out the carriage—but the ganglion? I doubt it. Structurally, the novel has two main currents, one that follows Amelia and Becky’s changing fortunes, and the other that bumps up alongside, despite many gaps in chronology, Major Dobbin and his selfless love for Amelia, his best friend’s widow. Stevenson has confused a lovely, pleasant waterfall — a diversion from the main current — for a ganglion. Do you agree or disagree with Stevenson?


Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip in the Rain,” Memories and Portraits, 1887.

the vanity of thackeray’s fair

September 26, 2011

Vanity Fair tips the scales at 700-plus pages; unlike some of my favorite behemoths—Look Homeward, Angel; Moby Dick; Anna Karenina; David Copperfield; Don Quixote; and beast of beasts In Search of Lost Time—Vanity Fair is filled with every conceivable vice; I’m not referring to the selfish hordes that people its pages, either; no, Vanity Fair is filled with excessive semicolons, for one, and a profusion of minor characters who appear for no other purpose than to be named and quickly forgotten, disappearing in a snuff like a match that flares and dies in its flaming (Woolf?). The novel is marbled with the phrase “pure, artless, and innocent” or some slight variation thereof, and bulges with unnecessary incidents, as if Thackeray, highly distractible, simply can’t decide whether to sketch a memorable scene or portrait, or advance the bloody storyline. Thackeray’s prose is plump about the middle, that’s for sure. There are simply  too many references to Vanity Fair and Vanity Fair. Huh? Yeah, get this—Vanity Fair is one thing; Vanity Fair, another. (Now that’s a judicious use of a semicolon!). Vanity Fair the book derives its subject matter from Vanity Fair the reality, you know, from the primping, scheming, preening, and calculating antics of us all, we comic-tragical mammals. Whenever he can, Thackeray sagely reminds us how the world really works behind the surface of kindness and the facade of friendliness, and that we’re not really all that different from the good-foolish people and the bad-selfish people he presents. He’s a bit sententious, that Thackeray, precisely at the moment when he thinks he’s being funniest. Although my Canadian muse finds “the way Thackeray constantly either draws attention to the bookishness of the book or addresses the reader directly” both “distracting” and “compelling,” I find it mostly distracting, annoying, tiresome. If I were to choose a character in Vanity Fair that best represents the peculiar faults of the novel, it’s Joseph Sedley hands down, a fat, unevenly drawn nincompoop, who is intended to be comic but is mostly ludicrous.