The books beside my bed, stacked like bricks laid by an addled mason, suggest that I possess either a broad curiosity or an inability to focus. Where were we? Oh yes. The books on my nightstand. Here is a Wallace Stegner, a Colum McCann, a history of the National Lampoon. The Iliad, an Alice McDermott, and a love letter to the old New York Knicks. An Edith Wharton, a Thomas Merton, and a mug-shot collection of nineteenth-century New York City pickpockets, con artists, and thieves that I peruse like a family album, with good reason.
This lack of focus, coupled with a dislike for “best” lists, makes it impossible for me to choose three favorite books published over the past decade. Instead, I am citing books that are utterly different, yet united by a kind of New York grace. You might have heard of these books or you might have missed them entirely; either way, in my storm-tossed mind, they have provided anchored moments of pleasure, challenge, and recognition.
First, there is Branch Rickey: A Life (Penguin, $14, 160 pp.), a slim but provocative biography of the famed Brooklyn Dodgers general manager by Jimmy Breslin, the one and only. This is not the definitive Rickey history. Instead, Breslin has written a polemic: the argument that Rickey—through his determination to sign Jackie Robinson and break the color barrier of major league baseball in the late 1940s—played a significant and underappreciated role in setting the stage for the 2008 election of the nation’s first black president.
As Breslin describes the resistance and racism encountered by Rickey and Robinson, his gift for melding anger and humor is everywhere; in describing a sportswriter known for imbibing, he writes: “His breath requires corking.” But the outrage that informs his every word returns the edgy import to an American moment dulled by time and familiarity. The spinelessness of the baseball establishment, the fat contentment of most sportswriters, and the race-baiting of other ballplayers are all encapsulated in a typical Breslin sentence:
Robinson caused the gravest of all fears: what if this black man makes it and then there is another one after him and soon a third and fourth and more, then what will happen to our way of life, this national pastime, if these players take everything and the whites we applauded turned out not to be so great and wound up working in Southern gas stations?
As Jimmy Breslin would say: Beautiful.
A related book, when you think about it, is The Submission (Picador $15, 352 pp.) by Amy Waldman, a former colleague of mine at the New York Times. In the numb aftermath of September 11, she and I co-authored an account of the Hill: a grim Brigadoon, established on the top of an old Staten Island landfill, where authorities sorted through 1.6 million tons of World Trade Center debris for body parts, personal effects, and items to preserve for posterity.
Waldman later left the Times—after reporting from Afghanistan, among other ports of call—but she never stopped writing, thank goodness. In The Submission, her exquisitely written first novel, she applies a sharp eye and uncommon empathy to a premise that might have been conjured by Tom Wolfe: What if a contest for a 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan were won by a Muslim architect, and a non-practicing Muslim at that?
Of course, we needn’t tax our imagination to visualize the resultant hysteria, given the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy of a couple of years ago that in some ways informed Waldman’s often-satirical narrative. A familiar gaggle of New York types play out their roles in the farce that follows tragedy, from the aggrieved brother of a dead Irish-American firefighter to the New York Post reporter whose ambition leaves a trail of factual and contextual casualties. Keeners and opportunists are not spared.
In the end, though, what elevates Waldman’s novel is her compassion. Here is but one of her many gorgeous sentences, describing a young boy set emotionally adrift by the loss of his father: “His sadness, too big for his tiny frame, was like a shadow stunting a plant’s growth.”
Lastly, I cannot shake the power of an epic novel that I read a few years ago in preparation for a reporting trip to Kaluapapa, the remote Hawaiian peninsula that, for more than a century, served as a colony of forced isolation for those with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. The book is Moloka’i (St. Martin’s, $14.99, 416 pp.) by Alan Brennert.
Combining deep historical research with a fired imagination, Brennert charts the lifelong journey of Rachel Kalama, who, at the age of seven, develops a small rosy mark on the back of her leg. Soon she is taken from her family in Old Honolulu and banished to a place so frightening that its name is only whispered: Kaluapapa.
Through the affecting character of Rachel, and through this place called Kaluapapa—in the coldest light, a land of disfigurement and death—we see fear and horror and shame transformed into acceptance and community and, yes, joy. We come to understand what one of its patients, Olivia Breitha, meant when she wrote: “Even if my skin is insensitive, my heart and soul are not.”
Along the way, we meet, in full, complicated dimensions, two Roman Catholic saints: Fr. Damien de Veuster, the missionary, and Mother Marianne Cope, the nun, who moved to Kaluapapa to live among and care for those with Hansen’s Disease, in defiance of another of its names: the separating sickness.
Fr. Damien was from Belgium and Mother Marianne was from upstate New York (by way of Germany). So there is your New York connection. And here, in these three books, is the grace to help focus the mind.
Every once in a while, a book appears as if out of nowhere, uncanny in its authority, combining the shock of the new with the shock of recognition. Michael Robbins’s Alien vs. Predator (Penguin, $18, 71 pp.) has given me a sense of what early readers of The Waste Land must have felt in 1922, what it must have been like to pick up a copy of Wise Blood at the bookstore in 1952.
For such works, the usual terms don’t apply. You don’t necessarily “like” or “dislike” them; rather, you circle them warily, marveling, curious, seeking to understand. Truth be told, I never “liked” Eliot’s great poem, but I felt its fascination (even more than forty years after its first publication) from the beginning—not because I had been told it was a great poem but because the words on the page commanded attention. Here are the first two stanzas of the title poem in Robbins’s collection, opening the book:
Praise this world, Rilke says, the jerk.
We’d stay up all night. Every angel’s
berserk. Hell, if you slit monkeys
for a living, you’d pray to me, too.
I’m not so forgiving. I’m rubber, you’re glue.
That elk is such a dick. He’s a space tree
Making a ski and a little foam chiropractor.
I set the controls, I pioneer
the seeding of the ionosphere.
I translate the Bible into velociraptor.
If you had told me a year ago that I would be poring over poems by a swaggering, abrasive jerk named “Michael Robbins” (distinguishing the poet’s persona from the man behind the mask), with titles such as “Alien vs. Predator” and “My New Asshole,” I would have raised a very skeptical brow. But then I began reading: “Somehow I sidle, I kick-start, / I hot-wire my monkey heart. / I take my walking slow.” God has a strange sense of humor.
Too often, talk about America and the sweep of American history follows a predictable script, either idealizing (yes, yes, there have been some blemishes, but what a glorious saga!) or of the Howard Zinn variety (how capitalism, nationalism, racism, sexism, etc. have run rampant, and how the People have valiantly fought to assert their rights). Amy S. Greenberg’s A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 Invasion of Mexico (Knopf, $30. 342 pp.) is something different, and more interesting.
Greenberg’s sobering title comes from Ulysses S. Grant, who wrote in 1879, “I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign.” Not much wiggle room there.
Greenberg tells this story because she believes that the significance of the Mexican War has been greatly underestimated. “Though both its justification and its consequences are dim now,” she writes, “this, America’s first war against another republic, decisively broke with the past, shaped the future, and to this day affects how the United States acts in the world.”
She focuses on the involvement of the three figures listed in her subtitle but also on two more, now forgotten, John J. Hardin and Nicholas Trist, fleshing out the political narrative. And she writes (implicitly but unmistakably) to give heart to Americans today who are deeply troubled by this or that exercise of American power, holding up the example of the “vibrant and widespread antiwar activism [that] ultimately defused the movement to annex all of Mexico to the United States at the close of the war.” Readers will differ—that’s an understatement—on how to apply the lessons of Greenberg’s book here and now, but it’s a story we all need to hear.
In 2003, a book called The Air Loom Gang appeared and disappeared. I didn’t see it at the time. Its author, Mike Jay, was busy writing other things. But in 2012, it was reissued in the United Kingdom by a different publisher and under a different title, The Influencing Machine: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom (Strange Attractor Press, Kindle $6.99, 283 pp.). As of this writing, the book has not been published in the United States, but a Kindle version is available, and it’s easy to acquire the printed book online.
What drew my attention to Jay’s book was a recommendation (on Twitter, as I recall) by the novelist William Gibson, who is quoted on the front cover of the 2012 edition: “One of the greatest books you’ve never read.” In a foreword, Oliver Sacks writes, “I have never seen the logic of madness, of a particular delusion, presented so clearly and convincingly.” Neither Gibson nor Sacks, I can now attest, was guilty of gushing.
But Jay’s book is not only a study of “a particular delusion,” haunting as that is, nor is it limited, more broadly, to an account of the treatment of “the mad” in England during the late eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century (though this too is compelling). “A tale of the madness of politics and the politics of madness”: that’s the epigraph for The Influencing Machine, and the book certainly lives up to it, tracing the stranger-than-fiction course of wholesale tea dealer James Tilly Matthews’s involvement in backdoor negotiations between Great Britain and France (after the revolution) in hopes of averting war.
Since I read The Influencing Machine earlier this year, I have been praising it far and wide—without much effect, so far as I can tell. But if you take it up, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
The “rise of the memoir” (the usual descriptor, making autobiographical writing a monster lunging from the deep) has been vexing critics for the past quarter-century. Why are all these nobodys writing about themselves? And, come on—are they telling (or even capable of knowing) the truth?
Yet memoirs and personal essays keep winning readers who trust such narratives in a way that baffles those who believe only fiction (especially the novel) constitutes real literature. It may not be the genre that troubles critics so much as the authority of the voice that fires such works. That first-person voice seems inevitably indulgent. It beguiles—or it bores. Yet, at its best, it brings news of the self perceiving and experiencing the world. That proves irresistible.
Such works are inevitably retrospective, looking for something back there that retains the power to touch life now. The most entrancing work of literary nonfiction of recent years has been, for me and apparently for many readers, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16, 368 pp.). It’s the kind of book people press on the uninitiated like a secret handshake. In this way, it has become a sleeper bestseller.
Like the best memoirs, de Waal’s is not about himself, but about the history that surrounds him. His family, the Ephrussis, as rich and culturally prominent as the Rothschilds, were Jewish players in the highest ranks of French and Viennese society, from the Belle Epoque until the Anschluss. A great-uncle was Proust’s model for Charles Swann—that’s just one glinting strand in the intricate tapestry that weaves the family into European history and art. The book is a detective story, a search that moves from Japan through Europe and England and back to Asia as de Waal seeks to trace the mysterious migration of a collection of miniature Japanese carvings left to him by a great-uncle. These exquisite objects are heartbreaking relics of “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss,” as the book’s subtitle aptly puts it.
To call this a “Holocaust memoir” would be all wrong; yet the destruction of European Jewry and its immense cultural influence reign over the book in a way both subtle and penetrating. De Waal’s prose is without sentiment, but drenched in the grief and radiance of history.
The great historian Tony Judt, lost too soon to a form of ALS, has left us a lyrical book of personal history to stand beside his magisterial works of European history. The Memory Chalet (Penguin, $15, 240 pp.) is a collection of brief memory pieces, written in the dead of the night during the final paralysis of his illness.
Or rather not “written”—Judt couldn’t move his body by the time he was composing these crystalline evocations and meditations; he had to dictate them to an assistant the next day. He formed these recollections in the dark night of his immensely humane intellect; they radiate the kind of attention that is the only way literature can evoke love. Many of the pieces were first published in the New York Review of Books, where they formed a serial of eagerly awaited essays. Collected now, they form a book of great valor and beauty. “If you must suffer thus,” Judt writes in an almost jaunty salute to his horrific disease, “better to have a well-stocked head.”
But at the end of a year’s reading, there is work already winking at us from the future. If you’re asked to write “endorsements” (a.k.a. “blurbs,” that ugly word), you see some of what’s ahead. I’ve recently received a book that answers wonderfully the questions that so often bedevil contemporary memoir and essay. Those questions—and frustrations—receive a full-court press response from Phillip Lopate in To Show and To Tell (Free Press, $16, 240 pp.), a sparkling book due in February.
The subtitle, “The Craft of Literary Nonfiction,” suggests a how-to guide for writers. There is some of that. But this is really a book for readers with tough questions. It’s a gallivant across turf too many writers have surveyed, from Parnassian theoretical heights or with the earnest trudge of “craft” considerations.
Lopate addresses the “rise of the memoir” with engaging brio. He knows the territory as practitioner and critic. He understands that the question is not about how writers write in the first-person voice, but how readers train themselves to read that voice. His tour of literary nonfiction includes helpful considerations of the essay and memoir, placing them in cultural context. He provides a reliable guide to the signature genre of the age. A lively exploration for anyone wondering why on earth personal nonfiction has become so popular.
But really, don’t we all want to curl up with an entrancing novel this time of year? And after all, some of the most indispensible fiction borrows the first-person voice to narrate what is in effect a faux memoir. Great Expectations, Moby Dick, Huck Finn, The Great Gatsby, even the threshold work of our narrative heritage, The Canterbury Tales.
Just this week one of my students (in a nonfiction course) confessed shyly that her favorite first-person book was Jane Eyre. Me too, I wanted to cry. And now that novel, published one hundred sixty-five years ago and inspiring shy ardent girls for generations, has a noble companion. The Flight of Gemma Hardy (Harper Perennial, $15.99, 480 pp.), published this year, is a wonderfully winning and inventive novel by Margot Livesey, remodeling that heroic tale for our times, retelling it afresh with depths of spirit. Reader, I loved it.
Since I am lucky enough to spend a lot of time as a teacher rereading long classic novels like Middlemarch, I often turn for pleasure to shorter contemporary takes on the human condition. The short-story form is arguably more congenial to the postmodern attention span, and fictional reflections of the known world have a particular charm. Books of short stories, furthermore, evoke the structural pleasures of novels. Savoring a succession of separate dips into a new sensibility, I recall George Eliot weaving people and situations into—her image—a web; in defense of one of her big novels, she wrote that everything in the book was related to everything else there. The image of the web seems anachronistic in a time when selves, relationships, societies, and the world itself threaten to shatter, but it haunted me while I read three newish collections of fictions that explore old-fashioned questions of relatedness. Shrewd, witty, sometimes poignantly lyrical, these stories are the work of authors who are not quite stars; I was delighted to find them kindred spirits.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning Olive Kitteridge (Random House, $15, 270 pp.), by Elizabeth Strout, offers a novel-in-stories set in a Maine village. It begins with quiet authority, portraying a mild-mannered man who enjoys the slant of morning light as he drives along the ocean, headed for work at the pharmacy he owns. Soon this pleasant mood is destroyed by desire, envy, tensions, and an appalling accident. The man’s wife, the eponymous Olive Kitteridge, initially looms darkly in the background, a woman with ungainly feelings, difficult, intelligent, and angry. Soon we move in close to her. I liked watching Olive go in and out of focus throughout the collection, watching other people’s lives impinge on hers while she stubbornly remains Olive. Not quite the protagonist of Strout’s book, and certainly not its heroine, peculiar but implacably there, she is strange and familiar by turns, central and also peripheral—more like an odd neighbor of mine than like Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch.
The woman at the center of Edith Pearlman’s 2011 collection Binocular Vision (Lookout Books, $18.95, 373 pp.), is not a fictional character but rather what Henry James might have called the central intelligence, whose point of view flickers in and out of the stories. The title story, about a little girl who watches the neighbors she thinks are just like her family until the scales fall from her eyes, spoke to me personally: I have wanted to write it for years. Most of Pearlman’s stories are about families, and marrying in and out of tribes—the heavy weight of family ties and the ironic yearning for them. Familiar and strange, they are palpably not autobiographical—as Olive Kitteridge also is not—and yet they have the feel of stories about people the author actually knows. Threading through these stories are basic human questions: how are people alike and unlike others? How well can we know and love one another? To whom are we related, and how? Binocular Vision is the work of an author who, like George Eliot, believes that sympathizing with fictional people exercises and strengthens the muscle of human sympathy.
The awkwardly titled In Other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton, $13.95, 247 pp.) by Daniyal Mueenuddin portrays the very extended family of the powerful landowner K. K. Harouni, which includes his servants and tenants, daughters and hangers-on. The poverty of rural Pakistan and the global system that sustains it becomes ever more painfully real as we share the lives of victims of a corrupt feudal society who are stuck on the margin of a world from which their masters can freely come and go. These men and women—their vulnerable bodies and comical dignities, their poignant aspirations and injuries, and their casual cruelties—are parts of an implacable big picture that’s as vivid as the new cheap red plastic sandal cutting into the naked foot of a pretty young woman fated to be stepped on. The author, half-Pakistani and half-American, knows that K. K. Harouni is only part of the problem, and that any solution must be a huge undertaking. As in Middlemarch, geography shapes character—both within this rural fictional world, and by extension in the distant modern world of Islamabad and America. Everything is connected to everything else, and to feel sympathy with these characters whose lives are determined by an unjust system—as one does—does not make one sanguine about being human. Mueenuddin is a gifted writer; his book is strong medicine, good for us.
It is hard to imagine two more exotic, enchanting, difficult, and yet different childhoods than those described in Alexandra Styron’s Reading My Father (Scribner, $15, 285 pp.) and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight (Random House, $15, 301 pp.). Styron, the daughter of the acclaimed novelist William Styron (author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner), grew up in Connecticut’s bucolic Litchfield County. At various times her parents’ neighbors and friends included Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, James Jones, and a host of other prominent artists and writers of the World War II generation. Christmas Eves were celebrated with the Leonard Bernstein family in their palatial Manhattan apartment. Summers meant Martha’s Vineyard, where the list of visitors predictably expanded to include the Kennedys. William Styron was a proud liberal Democrat, a Virginian with a deep commitment to civil rights. His devoted wife Rose, a poet and human-rights advocate, was a consummate hostess, and their daughter took in all the talk, laughter, and glamour with wide-eyed interest. Exposure to this dizzying world of fame and power was, of course, as much a curse as a blessing. Reading My Father focuses on the former, offering an absorbing account of a daughter’s fitful efforts to understand the enigma that was her father.
Alexandra’s schooling was expensive but haphazard. The youngest of four, she was often left alone with the TV or in the care of the family’s housekeeper and handyman. Her father was, in ways both impressive and intimidating, a larger-than-life character obsessed by his work and both neglectful and indulged when it came to everyday family responsibilities. He was also afflicted with clinical depression. His brave memoir, Darkness Visible, published in 1990, is credited with finally prompting a frank discussion of that condition as a serious illness, not a shameful character flaw. William Styron struggled with his demons until the end of his life, enduring long periods of hospitalization. Yet even before the acute onset of the disease, he could be a scornful and volatile presence in the family. Alexandra Styron does not hide her resentments, yet as a gifted writer herself she remains in awe of her father’s talent and accomplishment. Did William Styron’s depression destroy his ability to write? How much did his failure to finish the big war novel he worked on for the last decades of his life contribute to that depression? His daughter suggests that there are no neat answers to such questions. “You can’t really write without confidence,” she quotes her father. “And somewhere along the line, my father lost his confidence entirely.” Reading My Father is a poignant story of a daughter’s earnest efforts to make sense of her profound ambivalence toward her father’s towering legacy.
Alexandra Fuller also grew up in the shadow of two strong-willed parents, one of whom was, like William Styron, afflicted with mental illness. In Fuller’s case, her mother’s descent into madness came after losing three of her five children. Her surviving children, Alexandra and her sister Vanessa, grew up on a hardscrabble farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during the guerilla war in the 1970s that would eventually bring an end to white minority rule. Their mother had grown up in Kenya, and was proud to consider herself a white African who believed in white rule and, like her husband, was prepared to fight for it. She was a passionate and self-mythologizing figure who romanticized her Scottish heritage. Alexandra does not try to explain away or apologize for her parents’ racial politics, although her views on Africa’s colonial history are clearly different. Instead she describes, in incandescent prose, what it looked, sounded, and smelled like to live in a place where the beauty and danger of nature presses in from all sides. Her descriptions of the African landscape are both spare and pious, conveying a deep love of the land. Depending for survival on what hard work can coax from the earth creates a powerful sense of connection with the natural world. “Mum is living with the ghosts of her dead children,” Alexandra Fuller writes. “She begins to look ghostly herself. She is moving slowly, grief so heavy around her that it settles, like smoke, into her hair and clothes and stings her eyes. Her green eyes go so pale they look yellow. The color of a lioness’s eyes through grass in the dry season.”
Don’t Let’s Go is an extraordinary—and often amusing—book about a fiercely independent family set down in a tumultuous and dangerous, yet somehow magical place. In telling more of her parents’ story in Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness (Penguin Press, $25.95, 235 pp.), Fuller has a written a two-volume memoir that makes a safe, well-provisioned American childhood seem narrow and impoverished.
Place and character also define the novelist Shirley Hazzard’s Greene on Capri (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $15, 149 pp.). This is a beautifully written book set on the much-storied Italian island that sits across the bay from Naples. During their annual stay on Capri, Hazzard and her husband Francis Steegmuller, the Flaubert translator and scholar, shared many dinners and countless hours of conversation with their neighbor Graham Greene. Hazzard has a high regard for Greene’s novels and for his professionalism, and this memoir is filled with canny observations about writing and writers. Yet Hazzard’s respect and affection for Greene do not stop her from presenting an unvarnished portrait of a difficult man. Greene’s sympathies, she writes, were “innately mercurial and unbiddable, and ever more dispassionate with age.” In the end, Greene was “disinclined to solidarity or to any sustained ‘position.’” It was literature that was “the longest and most consistent pleasure of Graham’s life.”
William F. Buckley Jr.’s temperament was different. In Losing Mum and Pup (Twelve, $24.99, 251), satirical novelist Christopher Buckley, the son and only child of the famed conservative polemicist, describes the difficult last years of his parents’ lives. Like Alexandra Styron’s memoir, Losing Mum and Pup is the befuddled yet grateful tribute of someone who grew up in the shadow of a brilliant and irascible father. Christopher Buckley loved his parents and deeply admired his father, but he does not pretend it was easy living with two outsized personalities, let alone living up to their expectations. His father remains an intellectual and moral hero to many Catholics. In Losing Mum and Pup it is revealed that the senior Buckley, a tireless defender of privilege, took his own privileges quite seriously. Among other eccentric habits he imagined himself immune from ordinary traffic laws, whether driving a car or sailing a boat. Passengers beware! He also sought to be exempted from the Catholic prohibition against suicide. Patricia Buckley, a great beauty and prominent socialite, seems to have passed on a talent for fabulation to her satirist son. Christopher Buckley’s parents, like Styron’s and Fuller’s, asked their child to stay close and put up with a great deal. As these books remind us, we are driven to make sense of our parents in an effort to make better sense of ourselves.