Even so, 700-something is a big number. As vituperative and well-meaning as these 'Top 10'-style lists are, they can only cover so much ground - a great many titles I loved in 2010 are inevitably left out. I read a small pile of paperback romance novels, for instance, and an equally-big pile of murder mysteries. This was a very good year for military history, and a very bad year for Star Trek fiction - and I read a lot of both. Even with both Stevereads and Open Letters Monthly as regular outlets, there's just no way to cover it all while still tending to my basset hound full-time. So just like last year, I'm offering these few additional books as a Stevereads Honor Roll - they're all really really good, they all deserve your money and your attention!
Rich Boy by Sharon Pomerantz - this panoramic novel about a handsome young working-class Jewish boy from Philadelphia and his rise to the heady world of Manhattan's moneyed elite is remarkable for many things, but what struck me most was its texture - it's one of those fictional narratives stretched over many decades that really conveys a sense of the time passing in the story. The main character is by far the most interesting part of the novel, but even so the story wouldn't get far without Pomerantz's sure-footed knowledge of what makes a good story. I was disappointed that more people didn't try this book.
Taroko Gorge by Jacob Ritari - Two feckless Americans decide to take a side-trip to Taiwan's Taroko Gorge and encounter a trio of Japanese schoolgirls who've likewise taken a side-trip away from their visiting school group. When they go missing, this slim, vastly readable debut novel takes off. Ritari's characters are all memorable individuals, even the students in all their vapidity. The point of view shifts all throughout the novel, but Ritari's control of what he's doing is never in doubt, and the climax of the thing is refreshingly well-0rchestrated.
King, Ship and Sword by Dewey Lambdin - Ive praised Lambdin's ongoing chronicle of the adventures of his rascally main character Alan Lewrie before (maybe even here at Stevereads - I'll have to check), and it's no slight to this slam-bang thrill-ride of a novel to say it's no different from its predecessors. Peace has broken out between England and France, which throws Captain Lewrie on his own considerable resources for a while, but the plot's twists and turns are twisted one extra time when the war resumes and Lewrie is given a fighting command. Thrills abound, and they're all the more delectable since Lewrie shares none of Hornblower's honor nor Jack Aubrey's scruples.
The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman - this dark fantasy novel (the first in a trilogy, for no discernible reason) owes more than a few debts to Gene Wolfe - and repays them amply by being so grabbingly good on its own merits. It's the story of 16-year-old Cale and his friends, who escape from the grim Sanctuary of the Keepers and find themselves embroiled in the ferment of a coming war. The action sequences are low-key and memorably intense, and the ending definitely leaves you wanting more. I thought this was a fairly weak year for fantasy and science fiction, but I'm fairly certain this novel would have stood out even in a strong year.
Nesting Season by Bernd Heinrich - Any book by this author is a cause for celebration, and this one follows the splendid pattern he himself established with such classics as Ravens in Winter. This is a long, personal, fact-filled, utterly captivating study of the mating and nesting habits of birds, and woven throughout its many examples is Heinrich's valiant call for a change in the way we think about the wildlife we study, a questioning of whether or not the strident anti-anthropomorphizing stance of a century ago is all that wise or does all that much justice to the commonality of living things.
The Lost Peace by Robert Dallek - This was one of the most thought-provoking works of history I read this year, a book bursting with new readings of familiar events in postwar 20th century. Dallek's fascinating insights into how virtually all the world leaders blundered into the aftermath of the Second World War certainly wouldn't play as a Tom Hanks movie: it's his contention that the best chances the world had for lasting peace were squandered by Western powers hell-bent on fighting the war they'd just won. Again, I was disappointed by how little attention readers paid. Every serious student of history should read this book.
Three Armies on the Somme by William Philpott - The apocalyptic Battle of the Somme, with tens of thousands of casualties happening in a single afternoon, has long been a used as a symbol of war's utter futility and waste. Philpott challenges that characterization - holding that the Somme, however bloody, deserves to be remembered as a victory for the Allied powers - and he does it in the best way a historian can: with masterfully assembled facts and a very winning prose style. Books on the Somme are incredibly numerous, but Philpott here has managed a rarity: he's written one that's indispensable.
Habeas Corpus by Paul Halliday - I'm a big fan of legal history and constitutional scholarship, but to put it mildly, this book towers over its competition. As an examination of its core principle - that people accused of crimes have a basic legal right not to resist simply disappearing under the weight of those charges - this book is the best of its kind ever done, but its merits go well beyond that. The crystalline quality of Halliday's prose sneaks up on you, and the quiet work he's done to make his prodigious research amicably readable is everywhere apparent. This is the kind of magnum opus most authors deliver only once in their careers - I'm hoping that isn't the case here! I enjoyed this book far too much for it to be one of a kind!
As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth by Lynne Rae Perkins - a breezy and quite funny episodic account of 16-year-old Ry's various misadventures on his way to camp, this is a spirited teen version of life being one damn thing after another.
A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker - the improbably-named Walker crafts a wonderful, warmly inclusive story out of those dumb fake-marriage exercises that used to be popular in some high school civics courses. She has the requisite spunky heroine, cool jock, and unlikely romantic interest, but she infuses it all with a more palpable tinge of nostalgia than you usually find in teen novels. It's a winning combination.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride - Main character Sam is an ordinary young college drop-out killing time and hanging out with his friends when one day he learns that he has the potential to be a Necromancer, a sordid class of sorcerer capable of communing with the dead. Sam is no happier about this revelation than are Seattle's other Necromancers, and a fast-paced, funny, and ultimately oddly charming plot quickly develops. I expected the titillation and teen-speak (although I didn't see either done better in 2010 than here), but what surprised me about this book was its fine ear for the various meanings of friendship. Much like its main character, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer has some interesting depths underneath its too-cool-for-school exterior.
Great Moment in Comics
And we'll end things with a bang here as Stevereads signs off for 2010! The best payoff scene for me in any comic this year happened at the conclusion of Marvel's violent, problematic, and ultimately kinda-sorta uplifting mini-series "Siege." Some of you will know the story behind this moment: psychopath Norman Osborn, decked out in super-powered armor and calling himself "Iron Patriot," has finagled his way into control of S.H.I.E.L.D., the US government's most powerful covert paramilitary organization. And after months in control, Osborn's old megalomania has begun to reassert itself, and he's decided to dispense with that 'covert' part of his job description in the most dramatic way imaginable: by leading an armed assault on the mystical city of Asgard, which at the moment is hovering over Broxton, Oklahoma (it's a long story, of course). Osborn leads his super-powered shock troops in an all-out attack, and the city is defended not only by a whole mead-hall of ticked of Norse gods but also by Thor and the Avengers.
The fight seems to be going badly for the good guys when suddenly one of Osborn's lieutenants warns him to look up. He does, and somehow artist Oliver Coipel manages to work arrogance into the inexpressive lines of "Iron Patriot"'s armor. At first, we see nothing:
Then in a delightful quick sequence of panels, we see what's coming: the best, most satisfying reinforcement the good guys could ever get:
Watching that sequence unfold, you just known that when Captain America's shield finally hits its target, Norman Osborn's reign of terror in the Marvel Universe is about to come to an end.
Another thing coming to an end this time around (though hopefully not a reign of terror! Ulp ... walked right into that one, didn't I?) is Stevereads for 2010, but I couldn't sign off without extending my thanks once again to my dear darling colleagues at Open Letters Monthly for giving the autobiography of my reading a new home on the Internet, to all my readers far and near, and to all the dogged members of the Silent Majority who let me know that despite the bleak and empty wasteland of my Comments fields, my play here is read and appreciated. 2010 was an extremely odd and awful year for me - sudden and prolonged homelessness will take the starch out of anybody's collar - and I can honestly say Stevereads played a big part in keeping me tethered to the dock. And that was because of you readers - so my deepest thanks. See you all on the other side.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
Worst Fiction 2010:
10. The Three Weissmanns of Westport - Cathleen Schine
9. The Scent of Rain and Lightning - Nancy Pickard
8. How to Read the Air - Dinaw Mengestu
7. Hester - Paula Reed
6. All That Follows - Jim Crace
5. The Instructions -Adam Levin
4. The Privileges - Jonathan Dee
3. The Four Fingers of Doom - Rick Moody
2. The Passage - Justin Cronin
1. Freedom - Jonathan Franzen
Worst Nonfiction, 2010:
10. The War Lovers - Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise - James Bradley
9. Washington - Ron Chernow
8. You Are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier
7. Reality Hunger - David Shields
6. George Eliot in Love - Brenda Maddox
5. Hitch-22 - Christopher Hitchens/Life -Keith Richards
4. The Last Boy - Jane Leavy/The Last Hero - Howard Bryant
3. Between Two Worlds - Roxanna Saberi/Porait of a Drug Addict as a Young Man -Bill Clegg
2. Courage and Consequence - Karl Rove/Crisis & Command - Johh Yoo
1. Decision Points - George W. Bush
Best Fiction, 2010:
10. Witz -Joshua Cohen
9. You Lost Me There - Rosecrans Baldwin
8. Calendar of Regrets - Lance Olsen
7. Skippy Dies - Paul Murray
6. Easy for You - Shannan Rouss
5. Eddie Signwriter - Adam Schwartzman
4. Eight White Nights - Andre Aciman
3. Under the Small Lights - John Cotter
2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe - Frances Hunter
1. The Unnamed - Joshua Ferris
Best Nonfiction, 2010:
10 Denys Wortman's New York
9. Dickinson - Helen Vendler
8. Ratification - Pauline Maier
7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years - Diarmaid Macullough
6. The Book in the Renaissance - Andrew Pettegee
5. Cleopatra - Stacy Schiff
4. Americans in Paris - Charles Glass
3. American Caesars - Nigel Hamilton
2. Lost Dogs - Jim Gorant
1. The Emperor of All Maladies - Siddhartha Mukherjee
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Of course you all know where I stand: I have a very large, very roomy space in my heart reserved for nonfiction, so I've left Best Nonfiction of 2010 for last. This, too, was a crowded field - I read 97 works of military history alone this year, for instance. Books on every time period came to me, books on a host of historical figures major and very minor, books on trends, ideas, technology, science, nature, computers, business, gardening, and a dozen other things. And in all cases my criteria were unchanging - and stricter here than anywhere.
Nowhere is the insufficiency of mere Wiki-writing more evident and more merciless than in the writing of fact-based nonfiction, and these writers all seemed to know that; they went well beyond the staked borders of their topics and delivered of themselves as well, or delivered their subjects with much-needed clarity. I recommend all the wonderful books here in the 'Best of' section of our year-end roundup, but I recommend these particular books with just a sliver more enthusiasm than the rest.
10. Denys Wortman's New York - The great artists who did their work quickly, under deadline, to supply the exploding periodical market of the early 20th century have never been given their due. Retrospectives on big advertising names like J. C. Leyendecker have made moves in the right direction, but of the men working in quick pencil-strokes to capture the zeitgeist, the book-buying public has seen comparatively little. This magnificent volume honoring the enormously talented Denys Wortman would thus be a cause for joy even if Wortman's work weren't so great. Luckily, it is - in scene after scene, he perfectly captures a now entirely vanished world of stoops and water-towers and fire escapes and an endless array of people, and he limns it all with a gentle, knowing humor. The reproduction quality here allows every minute decision of Wortman's to be scrutinized and enjoyed, and that's all the more amazing since he seems never to have made a bad one.
9. Dickinson by Helen Vendler - It's a match made on Olympus: one of America's greatest 19th century poets, a crafter of dreamily jagged verse badly in need of explication, gets a whole book's worth of explication from one of the world's greatest poetry critics. It's signature Vendler work: she pours over the poems line by line, word by word, lavishing as much care and attention as the poet did herself (perhaps more? I've long had the impression that she found significances in Keats that he himself didn't see) and yielding a multi-faceted reading richer and more rewarding than any Dickinson has ever had. If I had my way, Vendler would live forever and do a volume like this on every major poet in the world's canon.
8. Ratification by Pauline Maier - In a book-market sludged to the eyeballs with sticky Founding Fathers pap, how refreshing it is to read this long, satisfying book about the state-by-state ratification of the Constitution, written (the book, not the Constitution! Our author isn't quite that old!) by our greatest authority on the American Revolution. Bracing complexity is everywhere on display in this invigorating book, Meier's best, and when you're done reading it, you're struck by how marvellously unlikely it is that the process worked at all. Many books have dealt with this subject, but none nearly so well as this one.
7. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid Macullough - As far as opuses go, they don't get much more magnum than this (included on a technicality because I read it this year!). Macullough tackles the whole incredible breadth of his subject with the gusto of a twenty-something graduate on his first book-contract trip to the Widener, and the result is a work of massive scholarship that's nonetheless immediately approachable an even occasionally lighthearted (not an easy feat when dealing with a religion as soul-crushing and bloody as this one). I've had the stomach to read only four comprehensive histories of Christianity in my life, and this one is the only one of its caliber in English and may well be the best one ever written in any language. Certainly the wit, the perspective, and the erudition expended here are worlds better than their subject deserves.
6. The Book in the Renaissance by Andrew Pettegee - The modern reading world, caught in the revolution of the digital marketplace, is closer to the world Pettegee so spiritedly excavates than any previous era. Then, as now, established formats of books were under assault from a variety of new technologies and viewpoints, and then, as now, the universe of the written word seemed to be expanding in all directions faster than readers could adapt. Pettegee shows that they of course ultimately did adapt (he fills his pages with lively descriptions of all the geniuses, hucksters, and misfits who did the adapting); in addition to this book being first-rate history, it's also quite accidentally (or is it an accident?) encouraging.
5. Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff - How much more clearly can the paramount importance of execution be demonstrated than in Schiff's fantastic biography of Cleopatra, a subject who's received, by a conservative estimate, one million previous biographies? The facts of the last Egyptian queen's life are well-trod - and yet Schiff makes it all feel new and fresh, almost solely through the sparkle and vigor of her prose. There's a thought-provoking re-evaluation on virtually every page of this book, and the whole of it is about as entertaining as ancient history gets.
4. Americans in Paris by Charles Glass - This book matches a great subject - the thousands of Americans who for one reason or another were trapped in Nazi-occupied Paris for the duration of the Second World War - with a really talented writer of nonfiction, and the result is an absorbing examination of what incredible daily pressure does to people, how it forces them to be sometimes completely different from their usual selves, or sometimes heavily concentrated versions of themselves. Again, many previous books have covered this subject - but none so thoroughly, or with such a good ear for yarns.
3. American Caesars by Nigel Hamilton - The simplest temptation with this book would have been to treat it only as a high-spirited hoot: a modern version of Suetionius' "Twelve Caesars," substituting postwar American presidents for Roman emperors but keeping most of Suetonius' angles and obsessions. And that level of entertainment is here in abundance (this is the most enjoyable book on American presidents you're ever likely to read), but Hamilton delivers more than that, a surprisingly more passionate, heartfelt book, very much including his mandarin assessment of George W. Bush.
2. Lost Dogs by Jim Gorant - Really, this is probably the only worthy book anybody could write about the whole story of unrepentant coward and asshole Michael Vick's dog-torturing ring - it's the story of the dogs who survived and thrived with loving families, and it's the story of those families, heroically patient and giving, who opened their homes and hearts in an effort to heal these dogs Vick had ordered tortured and fought. Reading this book isn't quite as satisfying as would be reading a morning news report of Vick's sudden and violent death, but it's the next best thing.
1. The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee - In the celebrated tradition of Zinzner's Rats, Lice, and History, but at once grander in scope and more empathetic in tone, Mukherjee's 'biography' of cancer utilizes dozens of patient profiles and interviews to shape a full-scale portrait of this most personal and devastating of all families of illness. The author's dogged research and fieldwork is matched by the earnest grace of his prose. The combination creates a book of remarkable power and pathos, the single best work of nonfiction I read in 2010.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
If cynicism was the besetting sin of the Worst Books of 2010, we're all the more fortunate that cynicism has a counterpart in literature as well as life. The counterpart, of course, is truth, and just as a novel born of calculation and greed can never be anything but a weak little lie, so too a novel forged of faith, a work of fiction born of the author's best groping attempts to be true - to their own heart while writing, to the world as they see it or would like to see it, even to their neuroses - is the only thing that stands a chance of being truly great.
I read a great many novels in 2010 - far more than I usually do. The world of self-published work blossomed open for me this year to an extent hundreds of times greater than last year. When I add to that all the mainstream novels I read, all the online fan fiction I read, and the handful of manuscripts I was privileged to see, I can honestly say, for the first time in my life, that my reading now encompasses all of fiction out there being written in English. I see all kinds of it, and I work hard to maintain that spring in the mental knees, that openness that readers of fiction need. The genre has conventions, after all, and as pusillanimous critics have been pointing out for nearly 400 years, those conventions are very nearly as narrow as a sonnet's. Things must happen, they must mean something to each other, and they must work together to move the reader. If they don't, the book is no good. If they don't because the author considers himself too smart to worry about it, the author is no good.
No, these are common conventions here, and they are gloriously relevant to human life, and the writers who take them seriously and excel at their manipulation can look upon 'open-form' avant-garde poseurs with well-earned pity. This is the game as Chaucer played it, and Cervantes, and Fielding and all the other immortals we read today, and it's in the mastering of the game that they became immortal. Mark my words: the names here listed have a clear, certain shot at that immortality, if they don't weaken. Some of these novels are more stylistically challenging than others, but that's not a disqualification. I myself helped in the making of two of them, but that's not a disqualification either - good is still good, and all these books are very, very good.
10. Witz by Joshua Cohen - Some of you were surprised that I would so enjoy Cohen's massive, discursive novel about the Last Jew in the World, especially since on some levels (its non-stop riffing, its intentionally bratty prose, its length) it appears to resemble Adam Levin's The Instructions, which I hated (indeed, Cohen himself wryly pointed out the similarities in a review of Levin's book). As stated, though, the execution is everything, and Cohen's work here is everything The Instructions could only dream of being: smart, controlled, thoughtful, and genuinely funny. This is about as bitterly wry a minority as I've read in fifteen years.
9. You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin - The first of the explosively good debut novels on our list, Baldwin's story is an elegant double helix in the nature of The GoldBug Variations: middle-aged flailing memory researcher Victor Aaron is confronted after his wife's death with a series of index cards she wrote about their life together - descriptions that are tauntingly different from his own recollections. Even the book's occasional flaws are not born of arrogance or timidity, and the strengths are freakishly strong.
8. Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen - A tangled and gorgeous John Cage symphony of a novel, Olsen's book is a virtuoso interweaving of twelve separate narratives, done much in the manner of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas but without that book's occasionally empty grandstanding. This is another one of those novels most people would assume I wouldn't like, until they actually read it.
7. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray - Like Witz, this is a genuinely funny novel that will make you laugh out loud at the least appropriate things - in this case starting with the single funniest death-scene since Hamlet's. The novel is set in an all-boys Catholic prep school (in Dublin), and as a parolee from just such an institution (in America), I was perhaps destined to love this book, but the acid-yet-tender writing would have guaranteed it anyway.
6. Easy For You by Shannan Rouss - This assured, very well-written debut story collection is everything I should hate: it's completely contemporary (it's set in, ecch, L.A.), it's entirely domestic (pregnancies, infidelities, divorces, etc), and it's a story collection instead of a novel. But none of that matters in the face of prose this good and narrative this intelligent. I was surprised and wholly captivated.
5. Eddie Signwriter by Adam Schwartzman - This riveting story of a murder, an exile, and an eventual reunion has a cipher at its heart (the eponymous main character), and you'd imagine that would be fatal, but no: again, this is a fiction debut (the author is a published poet) that knows what it's doing with a certainty and beauty that sweeps all objections away. This story of a young man who flees Africa with a cloud hanging over him could easily have turned maudlin in less talented hands, but instead it's spellbinding.
4. Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman - Even Aciman's wondrously good Call Me By Your Name was no preparation for the sheer heft of this story of two affected young New Yorkers in love. There are huge swaths of brilliant prose here, some of the best evocations of love's deliriums to be written in the last hundred years.
3. Under the Small Lights by John Cotter - The pitch-perfect dialogue and fine descriptive brush-strokes of this debut novella (the author is a published poet) are only its two strongest recommendations., This story of four affluent, feckless Connecticut young people in love and lust also brims with the kind of interlinear intelligence worthy of Burgess and a handful of walk-on characters worthy of Horton Foote.
2. The Fairest Portion of the Globe by Frances Hunter - As a sage critic at the Historical Novels Review Online wrote of this frontier story of Meriwether Lewis, "The characters here leap off the page, vibrantly living their lives, reading their books, worrying their worries, and the end result is nothing less than wonderful. Urgently, wholeheartedly recommended."
1. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris - This second novel by Ferris - the haunting story of a man who's occasionally compelled (by a disease? by a mania? nobody knows for sure) to walk and keep walking until he physically collapses - is a pure demonstration of the American can-do spirit. Not that the American can-do spirit has much to do with The Unnamed (although Ferris' portrait of his main character's desperately coping family is the best thing in the book), but it has everything to do with the open-mindedness of Stevereads, where an author whose debut was featured one year on the Year's Worst could later feature on the Year's Best solely by dint of writing a ferociously good novel. Is there similar hope for the wretched creatures on this year's Worst list? Tune in next year to find out!
Tuesday, December 21, 2010
If cynicism was the underpinning animus of the Worst Fiction of 2010, it was the emblazoned fife and snare drum coronation anthem of the Worst Nonfiction. I've been reading books a long time now, and I can't remember a lineup of nonfiction this bad since the 1970s. Not bad in terms of literary quality, although ye gods, would it have killed these people to run their flyblown manuscripts past a copy editor, or even a desperate English major who'd perform rudimentary sentence touch-ups for tobacco-money? But no, the rot runs deeper than shoddy execution; each of these books is not only shoddy in its conception but outright mendacious. And lest you reply that all texts ar to some extent fabrications, let's be clear: I'm talking about a much worse kind of mendacity than just hope-nobody-catches-me lying. These books are brazenly lying, telling their blasphemies in bloomers, just openly daring the gullible reading public to point out the emperor's new soiled shorts. And these, also, were eye-opening for me: until this year's blasphemies, I wasn't fully aware of how merciful I'd been to all the previous years' blasphemies, how trusting I'd been in the face of what now, in retrospect, were obvious, bold-faced lies. Shamefully late in life, I've learned the truth of the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
10. The War Lovers by Evan Thomas/Imperial Cruise by James Bradley - We'll start with simple mendacity, then, and work our way down to the cold bit of truly unholy cynicism. 2010 saw two more-or-less coordinated attacks on the legacy of President Theodore Roosevelt, part of a cynical publishing strategy to always be saying something controversial about some pillar of American history, or to appear to be (see the last four books by Gary Wills, or P. J. O'Rourke on Adam Smith). The gist of these two crappy books is the same: that TR was a racist, a fraud, and a war-monger. The more serious offender of the two is Bradley's execrable hatchet-job, which lays the blame for pretty much every subsequent 20th century ill at Roosevelt's feet, mostly on the basis of poorly-read sources and flimsy conjecture. Thomas' book is scarcely better; both ultimately find TR, at most, of being a man of his time. his reputation is too great to worry about such flea-bites, but they still irritate me.
9. Washington by Ron Chernow - This big block of hagiography is more mystifying than something like Evans or Bradley, where the writers intentionally obscure the facts that deny their theories; Chernow actually supplies those facts, over and over, all throughout the course of his book - and simply doesn't seem to care that he's drawing all the wrong conclusions. He goes into his mammoth task determined to like - to venerate - his subject, and that's exactly what he does, right in time for the holiday book-buying season. It's the black reverse of what historians are supposed to do, which makes its inevitable National Book Award all the more depressing.
8. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier - Referring to the brief rash of 'manifesto's that broke out in 2010, a wise critic commented that the manifesto itself is good, that it naturally propagates thought and response. This is certainly true, but it only applies if the manifesto-writer actually believes what he's professing. If their manifestos are put-up jobs designed to sell books, then the only thing propagated is self-aggrandizing deceit. Hence, another vile phenomenon of 2010: the shamifesto. Prime case in point: Lanier, a computer pioneer and one of the architects of virtual reality, in 2010 produced a shamifesto about how the pre-packaged categories of the Internet are cramping the inner lives of the people who habitually use them. Lanier knows this is a silly straw man - the people who use heavily-packaged templates like Facebook or Twitter also laugh over those limitations - he's just barking about it in his book to get attention. The essence of the shamifesto isn't simply that the author doesn't believe his own screed, however - it's that he believes exactly the opposite; Lanier has fourteen working computers in his home, plus a footlocker full of gadgets. Physician, shut thyself up.
7. Reality Hunger by David Shields - This book is yet another shamifesto, every bit as fraudulent as Lanier's but far more craven. Shields' book is a plagiarist's commonplace arguing that the traditional structures of fiction - plot, dialogue, Aristotle's unities, etc. - ar all utterly, pathetically useless and false, and like Lanier, he himself doesn't believe a word of what he's writing. But his motivation isn't only to sell books - it's also to justify his own abject laziness. The traditional novel is no more useless and false than the sonnet or the groined vault or the no-hitter - it just takes discipline, work, and talent to do it it well, and who wants to bother with that when moronic mud-slinging is so much easier?
6. George Eliot in Love by Brenda Maddox - With friends like these, feminism sure as hell doesn't need enemies. Maddox takes readers on a shallow, Cliffs-notes tour of George Eliot's life and works (the latter tour being particularly listless - I actually expected her to mention "man's inhumanity to man") and works in sixty different insinuating laments that her subject wasn't prettier. Instead of completely ignoring the question of physical appearance like she should have done (and would have done, if her subject had been, say, Tolstoy), Maddox returns to it repeatedly, turning the life of the 19th century's greatest novelist into a reality TV show in which the plain girl ends up being kinda interesting. Maddox should chronicle Paris Hilton next and leave the deep end of the pool to the grown-ups.
5. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens/Life by Keith Richards - The dogmatic egotism with which Hitchens narrates this airbrushed version of his own life - a string of money-fishing deadlines and crapulous mornings-after paraded like the Labors of Hercules - is exceeded by the arrogance of Richards - the drug-addict #2 man of a rock band, for Pete's sake - since at least Hitchens wrote his own book - and remembers his own life. Not so Richards, who's surely put his name to the longest amnesiac's reconstruction ever written. In both cases, smoking, drinking, and whoring is elevated to a life's vocation and then larded with intimations of depth, and in both cases, the authors come off looking more than a little ridiculous. It was an exceptionally poor year for autobiographies, but these two would have stood out in any year for the stinkers they are.
4. Mickey Mantle: The Last Boy by Jane Leavy/"Henry" Aaron: The Last Hero by Howard Bryant - This gambit has by now become familiar as baby-boomers approach retirement, reflect on how embarrassing they were in the 1970s, how evil they were in the 1980s, and how into "Friends" they were in the 1990s. They crave legacies, even ones not their own, because they secretly suspect themselves of being a failed generation of whining underachievers. It's this fauxstalgia that animates virtually all current histories or biographies that have the word 'last' in their title, and these two books are especially bad cases-in-point. Bryant's phony elevation of his subject is obvious even in his sanctimonious book's title, which solemnly rejects a nickname that's known from here to the Carpathians - readers would be within their rights to ask 'who the hell is Henry Aaron? Is he related to Hank Aaron, the baseball player?' And the embarrassingly starstruck Leavy's book is even worse, cranking the fauxstalgia engine to such a pitch that readers are encouraged to overlook how unpleasant Mantle could be and often was, especially after he stopped being a 'boy.' As with Thomas, Bradely, Chernow, and Maddox, so too here: this is not what historians are supposed to do. Those who forget the past are doomed to sugar-coat it in time for Father's Day.
3. Between Two Worlds by Roxanna Saberi/Portrait of a Young Man as a Drug Addict by Bill Clegg - Here's where that 'too good to be true' adage comes in, but I'll make up for lost time by all the more adamantly adhering to the literary equivalent: from now on, if somebody's memoir has all the drama, suspense, dialogue, and pat happy endings of fiction, that's because it is fiction. In fact, the whole sub-genre deserves its own mocking distinction: the memnoir. And the guilty phenomenon that spawned it comes from outside the book-world entirely: ten years' of 'reality' TV have created in countless thousands of people a ravenous hunger for quick-bought fame and fortune that renders them nothing less than functionally insane (before he wrote his own memnoir, publishing's Saint Dave Eggers wrote an incredibly long and passionate plea to be a participant on "The Real World"). The problem is that James Frey's Million Little Pieces debacle proved the dangers inherent in simply fabricating your own memnoir, but this hardly impeded the insane for a moment: if fabricating wild, exotic, dangerous acts was troublesome, these writers wouldn't fabricate anything - they'd just do those wild, exotic, dangerous things. But since all these fame-whores are also cowards, they made certain their acts were ultimately either livable or entirely revocable. Even while they were writing about hitting 'rock bottom,' somewhere in their back-pack or sock-drawer was a phone number, a lifeline to a lawyer, a parent, a UN delegate. In every case, that back-door was triple-checked before the guilty parties took off, ready to risk their bodies and their time in order to emerge with a book deal, a string of speaking engagements, and a James Franco movie. And since those things - and the material comfort they provide - were always the point, the experiences themselves are rendered the most insulting dumb-show imaginable. Saberi got herself arrested and imprisoned in Iran ("I knew it was illegal to write a book about life under the dictatorship," wide-eyed blink, wide-eyed blink, "but I never dreamed it was illegal to research such a book. In public. With a tape recorder."), spent a couple of months in confinement while the US government, the UN, and the United Federation of Planets worked around the clock to free her, and then had the shameless gall to write a self-serving book about her 'ordeal' while all her fellow-prisoners continue to serve their life-sentences without benefit of Connecticut legal services. She provoked her own arrest - she went to Iran specifically, insanely, to roll the dice and hope they came up 'book deal,' and, noxiously, it worked. Same thing with Clegg, who 'descended' into crack addiction before opening that sock drawer and making his do-over phone call, and who did it all so he could have a book deal and watch Emil Hirsch play him in the movie. The memnoir's chief sin is its degradation of the very concept of truth, its validation of insane self-centeredness, and these were by far the worst offenders in 2010. Both these attractive young authors deserve the same thing: for the 'ordeals' they so blithely wrote about to actually happen to them, without the magic back-door escape.
2. Courage and Consequence by Karl Rove/Crisis and Command by John Yoo - It's almost the very depth of cynicism, you're almost there, to parade your own evil under the banner of doing what you thought was right - to know you were doing evil and gamble that 'I was doing what I thought was right' will fool most of the people most of the time. It wouldn't be cynicism if you really believed it, but neither Rove nor Yoo has had a real belief unconnected with personal avarice in many decades. Only a step less loathsome than tyranny are those careful intellectual men who seek to justify tyranny, to itself and the world, as these two filthy books so brashly attempt. Rove is the architect of all that is rotten in 21st century American politics - the proud re-creator of a type of Tammany political viciousness that annihilates all nuance and debate and wants to. And Yoo is the Grima Wormtongue who squirts delusions of godhood into authority's ear merely so that he himself gets to be authority's footstool. These books share the same black heartbeat: that doing anything at all to your enemies - even the things that made them your enemies, especially those things - is somehow now the cost of doing business, that lies are honorable and might makes right and that all of this is a sign of real-world adulthood, of seeing things like they are. The fact that both Rove and Yoo are writing these books as free men only shows that they are the beneficiaries of far more legal lenience than they ever recommended for others. Both books are nonetheless criminal testimonies.
1. Decision Points by George W. Bush - This is it, then, the cold bottom of cynicism, a presidential memnoir. This is a petty, stupid man who never wanted the presidency for anything more than bragging rights spinning the most cruel work of fauxstalgia imaginable. The alternate reality is a great American story: an ordinary man, a screw-up in life, hits rock bottom, turns his life around through the love of a good woman and the light of a renewed spiritual faith, and arrives at his Presidential destiny just at the dark moment when his country needs him most. There isn't a single person in the world who doesn't wish they'd lived in that alternate reality for eight years, who doesn't dream of how different the world would be if that alternate reality had somehow happened. And the thing that makes this book not only the worst work of nonfiction in 2010 but also hands-down the worst book of any kind so far written in the 21st century is heartbreakingly simple: it's spoken in the voice of that alternate history and wants us to believe it really happened. This is a final insult of such an exquisite devastation that only an imbecile could wreak it.
at 1:05 AM