The Best Books of 2010
In its General Index,
we give stars to those books
we consider to be the best of the best.
Here are a baker's dozen from 2010.
Twelve Days in Persia
Across the Mountains with
The Bakhtiari Tribe
< Vita Sackville-West
(Tauris Parke)Sackville-West --- great name: and she's a Vita, too --- calls this a travel book, but we mostly get to ramble through her mind, for on this ancient road, outside of the startling vistas, there are but a few hundred herdsmen, a few thousand goats, and the huts of the desperately poor. Vita spends a chapter, as she soldiers on through Qaleh Madrasseh, contemplating what it would be like to live a life of seclusion here:
Glutted and weary with information, confused with creeds, the old words knocking against one another in the brain and producing no more than a tinny clatter, one would settle down either to a stagnant repose or else to a concentrated readjustment of values.
We have to recall that this is a time with little to entertain one outside of one's own companions. There are no telephones, certainly few radios, and that only in the big cities (she tells of two Englishmen who come together once a week in Tehran to but listen to the gong of Big Ben on an ancient receiver).
There is no internet, no movies or CD players, and certainly no blustering Americans invading from the west. Oil? That there is, at the end of Vita's journey ... in a smelly, smoky camp of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, later to become British Petroleum: but this outpost is quite bleak in comparison with the mountains and valley we've just been through.
It goads her to speculate on the sights along the 150 mile Bakhriari Road we've just journeyed: gorgeous valleys, noisy rivers, wild mountain sides ... and now, just past the ancient city of Persepolis, "the greedy, inquisitive importunities of man." She thinks some on the oil fields: "Did trees or did millions of fish perish to light our boarding-houses and drive our motors?"
Dead End Gene Pool
(Gotham)Wendy Burden's early life was, according to her, a bummer, filled with drunk, drug-infested, vain, overpampered, hag-ridden great-grandparents, grandparents, and uncles. She had two depressed brothers who got lassoed by their own habits, and her mother, according to her, was a sodden, drunk, capital-C cynic. Her father? One day he drove "down to the DC city morgue, parked in front, and blew his brains out all over the back seat of the family car."
Despite these sour memories, Burden has a captivating way with words. She says her grandmother had the "IQ of a pull toy." Her grandfather "looked like an Edward Lear drawing of an old secretary bird wading around in a marsh." When she was thirteen, she found herself gawking at her first boyfriend, and "an unfamiliar worm would flip around in my future uterus, and when the golden hairs of his forearm accidentally brushed against mine, I'd envision our dogs mating."
On her first date with him, "I concealed my glasses in a fringed shoulder bag,"
along with a hairbrush, three pots of No. 19 lip gloss, and a tube of spermicidal jelly I was forced to shoplift from Boots the Chemist because I was too embarrassed to buy it.
The Bird of Dawning
Or, The Fortune of the Sea
< John Masefield
(National Maritime Museum)I guarantee you, The Bird of Dawning won't leave you alone ... and you won't want it to. It's like that black shark that hounds the clinker-built, and soon enough you know, along with the sixteen sailors, that after a few days, the lack of water will get to you. The old salt, Kemble, says of his previous time adrift on the sea,
"We were four days before we got ashore somewhere on the East of Cape Horn, and eleven days living there on shell-fish and sea-weeds and trash. But the thirst before we got ashore was the thing that killed us. We chewed buttons, and the eyelets from a sail we had. But we used to look at each other and think, 'My God, that fellow is full of blood and I could drink it.' The third day, the day before we got ashore, a young fellow said he'd as soon die one way as another: he drank the sea; and he did die: it made him mad first."
After a few days, the crew comes to a clipper known as the Bird of Dawning. When Rodmarton and Cruiser venture aboard the abandoned ship, Rodmarton said that to him it had apparently been taken over by "a giant squid." It had obviously come up "and picked all hands off and ate them.
"What, and the boats too?"
"Yes, sir, pulled the boats down.
"You can tell that to the marines, not the deck department," says Cruiser, tartly, but he knew that "somewhere down in the darkness was something evil which had driven nearly forty men in a hurry out of the ship."
Whatever it was, he had now to "find and face" it.
A Woman's Journal of
Struggle and Defiance in
< Agnès Humbert
(Bloomsbury)Every book of survival comes with a Moment of Truth. It is the moment one learns what it will entail to survive. In this case, it's that moment when Humbert realizes that despite her good-humor and wit, she is faced with something truly grotesque: jailers that are capable of great and appalling cruelty. It's the moment when she realizes that she is without recourse, that she's in a place of no escape, and those running the show are dyed-in-the-wool, no-kidding, without-a-doubt beasts --- capable of any and all violence, to the body; to the soul.
She (and the reader) get transported to a nightmare world where there is no escape, a world manned by brutes --- the women jailers are equally brutish --- who will deprive you of food and water; who will beat you and kick you if you do not follow their exact (and often insane) orders; who will work you hard for eight or ten or twelve or twenty-four hours. Worst of all, no matter how sweet intelligent or gentle their charges, the enforcers don't give a toot if they live or die.
La Cuenca de
Y Otros Natural Disasters
< Susana Chávez-Silverman
(University of Wisconsin)Chávez-Silverman is no lightweight. She's not only been all around the world, and all over the United States, her Cuenca de Los Angeles is literate --- loaded with references to writers like Bolaño and Faulkner and Derrida and Lacan and Proust and Dante and W. H. Hudson.
The charm is not only the language, and the easy fun of puns, but the amor de la vida that fills her with anxiety attacks ("o anguhtia, como dicen en Argentina"), coupled with sudden vulnerabilities, like when the pods of a bottlebrush plant bring her tears because her mother used them for Christmas decorations. Then there's an unsettling conviction, bien loco, that a stroll in the hills above Saratoga (she's at the Montalvo writers' colony) might be interrupted by the attack of a cougar ... which haven't been seen in the area for years. It's the passion for words and life that rules Cuenca --- even though she thinks it's more celestial: "Aires sun en la fourth house, ruled by hermetic Cancer."
These diverse passions --- trees, men, perfume, astral signs, chronic panic attacks, an all-abiding love for friends and the sounds of the streets of San Francisco ... all make her so endearing. After the alarums and diversions, it is these passions that drive her story ... drive her ... make it hard for those of us on either side of the border to ever be able to forget her y su poder.
Or, With Elvis in Mexico
(New Directions)It's a driving plot-line, great writing (wonderfully translated here), along with a compelling ambiance (the set of a tacky movie in Acapulco with bored bit players) ... and the final big paradox, "the pessimistic thought always coexists with the optimistic, the daring idea with the fearful, and vice-versa, nothing goes alone and unmixed." Especially when we and the narrator finds ourselves kidnapped, forced to live and move with these dangerous, unpleasant, toxic, self-indulgent men. "The abyss," Berry tells us, "would become or had already, immediately, become larger and the territory much more remote."
Marías worked for years as a translator. He weaves the perils and pleasures of translation into all his works. In one book, he shows us how a translator for a head of state can come to have immense responsibilities, possibly can change the world (in a meeting of heads-of-state, would the president know if his words are being changed faithfully into French or Russian or Japanese or N'khosa?)
The portrayal of Elvis and his buddies is believable, but becomes, finally, for the narrator, even for the reader, too good to be true: "He spent the whole day singing or crooning, even when he was under no professional obligation to do so, you could see he had a passion for it, he was a singing machine ... if conversation hadn't set in, it wouldn't be long before he started humming and the rest of us would join him ... it was an honor to sing with Presley."
The Long Song
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)What we have here is a powerful (and, often, mischievous) study of blacks and black slavery, with whites lording it over the slaves; and, too, there is here a meditation on how blacks come to mirror the values imposed on them by their owners. July is no dummy, but she recites impeccably the order of acceptability according to skin color with Biblical precision: "Only with a white man," she says, "can there be guarantee that the colour of your pickney will be raised. For a mulatto who breeds with a white man will bring forth a quadroon; and the quadroon that enjoys white relations will give to this world a mustee; the mustee will beget a mustiphino; and the mustiphino ..."
Oh the mustiphino's child with a white man for a papa will find each day greets them no longer with a frown, but welcomes them with a smile, as they at last stride within this world as a cherished white person.
§ § §
It's a tricky world Levy is offering so artfully. It's a world of miscegenation, whippings, and hidden passion ... littered with dialogue that, I suspect, would not have been permitted two decades ago. In one scene, Goodwin seeks to have his field hands punished for not working hard enough to suit him --- mostly, because, after they've been freed, they are no longer willing to work as slaves. The Falmouth townspeople whom he hires to terrorize the blacks think of him, as the author suggests, as "Not long out from England ... still a bit green ... his dad's a parson back home ... believes we should be nice to niggers."
Ms. Levy knows how to polish the words and knows (well) the history of Jamaica of two centuries past. It was a place of musical speech and sugar cane and heat and absurd poverty of the blacks and absurd freedom for their Church of England masters. Ms. Levy writes all this with such a delicate irony that one might, like me, be unwilling to part with the book for even a moment before getting to the end.
(Grand Central)Certainly there is no more loving picture of a good man's mind disintegrating with age. Calmer's dementia is one with purpose, and by the end of Spooner we cheer him on for what he does, so fatally, to a neighborhood bully.
Dexter is daffier than Tom Robbins, and twice as much fun. This on Spooner's gay neighbors there on Whidbey: "The fact of the matter, as Spooner had already gleaned from the Sunday Styles section in the New York Times, was that same-tool love wasn't very much different or more preposterous than love by the prong-and-socket style nature designed,"
and after the boys next door finished with the part of it that was different --- and Spooner counted on the Times to leave this last bit of uncharted territory uncharted --- the grandson and the bodybuilder most likely cuddled and promised each other never to fight again, just like any other couple making up.
A Novel in Nine Episodes
< Daniel Kehlmann
(Pantheon)These stories are a lurid mix of Donald Barthelme and Franz Kafka. On top of that, there are people who roam about from one chapter to the next, like Ulysses' man in the mackintosh. Here, it's a man in the red hat. And everywhere, there are "self-help books" by one Miguel Auristos Blanco.
Then there's the matter of Kehlmann himself popping up in Rosalie's story, in "Rosalie Goes Off to Die." Her doctor has just told her that she has pancreatic cancer, and that it's "incurable." So she books a flight to Switzerland, to seek assisted suicide, where people can "hasten things along." The author assumes that we might want to know more about this, but,
If you haven't heard of it until now, pay attention; you can learn things even from a short story.
But not completely. "I'm not going to name it because my lawyer said not to." At one point, she appeals to him, "begs for mercy." He responds,
Rosalie, it's not within my power. I can't.
Of course you can! It's your story.
But it's about your last journey. If it wasn't, there's be nothing for me to tell about you. The story ---
Could take a different turn!
It's the only one I know. There is nothing else for you.
Over Autumn Rooftops
< Hai Zi (Zha Haisheng)
(Host Publications)Was he zonked? Was he suffering from a broken heart? Was he anguished by the politics of China? Was he, like Keats, embittered by a bad review of his writings? According to Murphy, in his last years, Hai Zi suffered from hallucinations. It's believable: the poetry is hallucinatory, reminding one of Baudelaire's Le Spleen de Paris, the Tamarit Poems of García-Lorca, Dame Edith Sitwell's startling imagery ("the allegro Negro cocktail shaker") ... or, perhaps, Paul Celan:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents
The most obvious clue about Hai Zi's final decision --- every day we must choose to live; we can choose but once to part --- turns up in his poem "On Death," dedicated to Van Gogh. It contains all the elements of a suicide note: the dark sleep; the holy hands of doves (clumsy in the field); the flowers blooming over him; his body being taken by "the empress of death." Only a schizophrenic could join what most would think as dissonant (flowers, cows, sleep), tie them to "I think I am beautiful" and ultimately spirit us up and away with,
on a rainy night a cow thief
climbs in my window
and on my dreaming body
I remain deeply asleep
and on my dreaming body
colorful sunflowers bloom
those picking hands
like beautiful and clumsy doves in a field of sunflowers...
Architectural Relics from
A Vanishing Past
Jim Heimann, Editors
(Taschen)The miracle is not that they got built at all --- entrepreneurial America knew no bounds --- but that they lasted long enough for Margolies to immortalize them. The mayors and planning commissions and zoning boards are, as they say in England, "putting paid" to our eccentric past. We all knew that before long the Spindle Parking Lot Sculpture (eight cars impaled on top of each other) in Berwyn, Illinois, or the huge plaster jackrabbit (with saddle) in Texarkana, Texas, or the "Ghost Ship" (a hulking fall-apart wooden sailing boat) in Nags Head, North Carolina, or the fetching sign ("$10,000.00 Reward if not Alive! See Her Change from Girl to Gorilla") in Atlantic City, or the "Dinosaur Slide" in Valle, Arizona will all --- before you can say "Urban Renewal," be long gone --- but memorialized, thank god, by an artist with a camera who was willing to capture rare America before the stone-faced building commissions could lay them to waste.
In his lively "Introduction," Phil Patton reports that Margolies always "got up early to capture blue skies" along with the strange and wonderful objects for his camera. He did his work in the morning. "I love the light at that time of day; it's like golden syrup ... Everything is fresh and no one is there to bother you."
Margolies was evidently born with a passion for the garish and out-of-favor. He was an assistant editor at the august "Architectural Record" in 1970 when he scandalized everyone in the profession by mounting an exhibit in appreciation of Morris Lapidus, the flamboyant architect who designed three Miami Beach hotels ... the Fountainbleu, Americana, and Eden Roc, with their painter's palette shapes, floating ceilings, and sweeping curves.
The Colossus Of Maroussi
(New Directions)Miller was so infamous for his earlier works that people continually missed the point. They probably still do. For he jammed all his raucous lust in those earlier books because he jammed in everything else as well ... his love affair with all things French: the food, the wine, the bums, the streets, the doorways, the art, the hunger, the angers, the loves, the senses. There are serene passages about wandering the streets, broke and happy. These tend to make the reader happy as well; it certainly makes us wish we were there with him.
In all his works, he repeats the same anti-bourgeoisie refrain: I am poor as a tramp, I have no possessions, no responsibilities, no job, no assurance of anything, and --- because of that --- I am the happiest man alive. Joy is at the core of all of Miller's major works.
Here he is on a boat, taking him to Corfu, to visit with his friend Lawrence Durrell: "There was no time any more, just me drifting along in a slow boat ready to meet all comers and take whatever came along. Out of the sea, as if Homer himself had arranged it for me, the islands bobbed up, lonely, deserted, mysterious in the fading light. I couldn't ask for more, nor did I want anything more. I had everything a man could desire, and I knew it."
When reviewers spoke of him as a "pornographer" (as did, for example, a writer who should have known better: George Bernard Shaw) --- they were shortchanging Miller. He was in the American tradition of towering and unsightly tall-tales, exaggerated figures thrown about to make a point.
It was hot during his first few months in Greece in May of 1939, but instead of saying, "God, it's hot," he writes, "I have never been so hot in all my life. To sit near an electric light was torture."
The energy, the passion are all set down on the page in a moil. By day the Greek town of Nauplia "is all red tape, lawyers and judges everywhere, with all the despair and futility which follows in the train of these blood-sucking parasites.
"I don't like Nauplia. I don't like provincial towns. I don't like jails, churches, fortresses, palaces, libraries, museums, nor public statues to the dead."
The Fall of
The Soviet Empire
(Pantheon)There are some surprises here, and not all of them are pleasant. In November of 1983, all of us who were alive at the time almost didn't make it. The reason: Yuri Andropov, the Russian leader, was convinced that the United States and NATO "were about to mount a surprise nuclear attack against them and ordered the Soviet military to begin a countdown." It was just as bad --- maybe worse --- than the Cuban Missile Crises (worse because hardly anyone knew it was happening; thus, there were no countervailing forces inside or outside the Russia and the U. S.)
It started with the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 and a heavier than usual series of NATO maneuvers --- called the Able Archer exercise --- and included the unwillingness of Reagan and his advisors to believe or accept the fact that the Russians had gone into full red alert. Sebestyen says convincingly that "through a series of misunderstandings and miscalculations, Armageddon was averted more by luck than sound judgment towards the end of 1983."
He also believes that the crises "radically" changed Ronald Reagan into a covert peacenik, that many of his efforts in his second term in office were aimed at dousing the nuclear fuse. "The realization turned him from a harsh Cold Warrior into a far more emollient statesman."
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A Gift of Angels
The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac
Bernard L. Fontana
Edward McCain, Photographer
(University of Arizona Press)The Art of Mission San Xavier del Bac is not only heavy on detail, it is heavy, weighing in on my scale at 350 pages and several tons. That's O.K. by me, though: A Gift of Angels is crawling with facts and figures and more than 175 photographs --- and is gorgeous to boot.
Each part of the Church --- from Façade to Nave, Drum and Crossing, is described in minute detail, each detail drawing on such obscure facts as the history of Spanish Church architecture in the Americas, the original colors, and how the pigments were fabricated: "red ocher, yellow ocher, burnt ocher, carbon black and copper resonate." (The blue is called "smalt," which now is another of my favorite words from this book, along with "narthex," "pendentive," and "squinch.")
The author knows his stuff. As an example, take the particulars of the Visitation which is pictured on two of the walls in San Xavier. In 1670, a nun, Mother María Jesús de Agreda, wrote her version of it in a book Mística Ciudad de Dios, inspired, it is said, by direct communication by the divine. Pope Innocent XI, in keeping with the sourpuss tradition of all Popes named Innocent --- viz, the Crusades --- condemned innocent María's version of heavenly conjoining ... and she was forced to burn all her writings on the subject, if not herself.
It was too late, The Mystical City of God became the Danielle Steele hit of the 17th Century, and the good mother nun's take on the Visitation inspired the artists at San Xavier del Bac to paint a scene of Joseph appearing with a fedora on head and a run-away-from-home stick-&-sack on his back --- along with Mary, their Cousin Elizabeth, two plump angels, a merry burro and a sagaro cactus ... as befits a hot Visitation in the hot Sonoran Desert. The whole is supported by a bediapered angel hovering there in the sanctuary, smiling at us all at his or her sacred mission to keep the Visitation floating merrily before our very eyes, perhaps forever.
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Molly is part tart, part romantic, and all actress. Her memories crowd the pages: Irish playwright John Synge and his peculiarities, their days and nights in the deserted cottage in Wicklow, his promises, aborted by his sickness and dying. He wants to take her to America, "You and I shall truly feel we are come home at last. There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly.
"It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Lilliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress."
O'Connor has presented her whole ... and raw: there are echoes of Molly Bloom, hints of Joyce throughout Ghost Light. The ashplant in Molly's apartment, her mother's favorite saying, "Bloom Where You Are Planted," the cat that speaks with a Joycean accent ("Mkgnao.")
But Molly is old now, and hungry; lonely, and fearing madness. "Lately you have caught yourself grumbling to the walls, to the turrets of broken-spined paperbacks that stand sentry about the floorboards, to the lamp with its ripped shade, its disheveled aplomb, the pegs on the coatless hatstand.
"The night-thoughts are the hardest. You cannot talk to the night. If you do, it might start talking back."
In her youth, Molly also comes alive for us ... in their cottage near Annamoe, the glorious Irish backcountry: "Every blade of snipegrass can be heard as it grows or is mown into sweet-smelling death. Larks and blue linnets arise from the furrows as she walks into the streamlet in the morning."
Synge seems a little more misty. "They speak to one another like characters in one of his plays," says O'Connor, and perhaps that is one of the problems. She wants to marry; he demurs. "What is marriage," he says, "but the final admission that one's parents were right? It is the dreariest way imaginable for society to regulate the natural impulse." They part; he follows her; she is adamant; he dies.
She, not Synge, is the center of our care and exasperation. She may lose him, but we are grieved as much by her burning herself to death in 1952, in her small flat, where, it is said, she set fire to her precious books merely to keep warm on a cold, hungry, loveless October day.
The Daring Spectacle
Adventures in Deviant Journalism
(Rapture Machine)He uses every trick in the English language to stretch our mother tongue so that you find yourself stuck in his diabolical pickle sandwich: one word paragraphs, long funny lists, endless variations on repeating and clauses, and sentences crammed with so many adjectives that the reader might go balmy trying to separate the thickets of them.
Example: a Kansas State Court decided to send a young man to jail for twenty years for consensual but illegal sex, so Morford quotes the decision --- the act was "offensive to traditional Kansas sexual morality" --- and concludes: "therefore such sex cannot be tolerated under any circumstances and yadda yadda hate hate gargle spit angry old white men ptooey." Conclusion: "It's enough to make you gag on your leather whips."
§ § §
It reminds me of the palmy journalistic days of Westbrook Pegler, Walter Winchell, and most of all, H. L. Mencken. When we read Mencken's collected columns, (a) we wonder at his astounding vocabulary, his multifaceted literary tricks, and his wry wit; then, (b) we wonder where in hell he was able to find a newspaper who would present to the general public his elegant, bile-filled columns. In Baltimore, no less.
The same with Morford. Who would dare print him? The San Francisco Chronicle, that's who. He went from being a mere blogger to going on-line at "SFGate," even appearing for a while there in the Datebook section of the Chronicle itself. (Some of the articles deemed by his editors to be just a bit too edgy are included in this volume).
Jeff in Venice,
Death in Varanasi
(Pantheon)The crowds, the filthy kids, the monkeys, the river, the bodies, the smoke, the shit, the driving, the traffic, "the rickshaws, tuk-tuks, cars, bikes, carts, rickshaws, motor-bikes, trucks, people, goats, cows, buffalo and buses were all herded together," along with the gods, and the ways they get about. Much better than the people stuck in Varanasi traffic.
The gods "all have their consorts, and the gods and their consorts all have their own private form of transport:
Vishnu travels by eagle (Garuda), Shiva by bull (Nandi), Kartikeya by peacock ... The list and the permutations of the list are endless...
"Garunda occasionally rides an owl or a tortoise. And Ganesh, the elephant, how does he travel? By mouse, of course."Life along the
A Naturalist's Guide to the
Sounds, Inlets, Rivers
and Intracoastal Waterway
from Norfolk to Key West
<Robert and Alice J. Lippson
(University of North Carolina Press)A casual reader can dote on the elegant and whimsical names, the "blackcheek tonguefish," the "lookdown," the "longwrist hermit crab," the "eastern pipistrelle," the "fluff-headed seaweed," the "yaupon holly," as well as the "interrupted trunicate" ... also known as the "Bermuda sea squirt."
After a few hours with Life along the Inner Coast, one could want to be there, especially when coming face-to-face with the likes of fish like the "Atlantic Croaker." I recall them with great fondness. I pulled Croakers alive from the nearby waters, using only bamboo pole, kitestring, fishhook and wriggly worm ... I so content there in the sun, listening to them lying about me, croaking out their little lives on the worn and sun-cooked decking.
Here we can study the lives and habits of the common pigfish, the lovely beaded periwinkle, Doubleday's bluet, the simple fiddler crab, Uca minax, which, when I was a tad, used to entertain me mightily --- the dozens of males waving their enormous purple claws at me while I threatened them there at the edge of Seymour's Creek in North Florida.
The female fiddler, says author Robert Lippson, fares well. They eat algae, the female with two normal sized (tiny) claws who has it over the male because she doesn't have to show off. As the author puts it, "The large claw of the male is virtually useless for feeding. [This] gives the female the advantage in processing the stew of algae, bacteria, and detritus."