“Ae Fond Farewell”: Looking back at reading in 2017

Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
                                           Robert Burns

I cannot think of a year to which I am more ready to say “fareweel.” As I wrote to a friend recently, it has been a bizarre and exhausting twelve months. And too often, it seemed that the constant barrage of news and reactions took time away from the pleasure of reading–so much of my reading was taking the form of newspapers and blogs, tweets and news crawls.

And yet, it ended up being a relatively good year. Not counting the books I need to read for work–things like Shakespeare, Huxley,  Atwood, and Ellison–it has been productive.

In breaking down my “for pleasure” reading, I completed

22 works of fiction
15 works of nonfiction
7 collections of poetry.

I have read 22 male authors and 22 female authors. And more than half of what I read was by non-American writers.

It was a good year for writing. Among the fiction, there were many, many memorable works: from veterans like Ali Smith and Michael Chabon to new discoveries like the Irish writers Catriona Lally (Eggshells) and Jess Kidd (Himself); new discoveries in poetry included Dylan Krieger (Giving Godhead) and Rebecca Lindenberg (Love, An Index); and the range of subjects in non-fiction is inexhaustible and enlightening.


If I had to choose three (which I don’t, but … )

Laurent Binet’s The 7th Function of Language is a fun “murder mystery” involving the philosophical stars of the late 20th  century. (Many of whom are still living.) The 7th function of languageactual death of Roland Barthes, who was killed by a laundry van, is determined to be NOT AN ACCIDENT and the suspects include everyone from Mitterrand to Foucault, from Umberto Eco to Noam Chomsky. It is a bold and nervy novel that merges the modern detective story with outrageous flights into semiotics.

George Saunders’ experimental novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, features over a hundred characters, all but one of them who are dead. Lincoln’s son has died and the residents of the cemetery where he rests try to ease his transition to the other lincolnside and compete with each other for the boy’s favor. Meanwhile, the grieving president continues to visit. It is an extraordinary, emotional and satisfying read.

And finally, The Nix by Nathan Hill. I don’t remember how I found this novel, but I am glad I did. Hill is like a Zelig in his uncanny ability to capture the reality of certain, disparate scenes: the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention; patrol duty during the second Iraq War; teaching college in the 2010s; the brain functions of an addicted gamer.  These set pieces are mesmerizing and propel the story to its complicated and enlightening ending. Dealing with self-realization, maternal bonds, political the nixmanipulation, war, the classical musical world, gaming, and academic integrity, Hill seems to have bitten off far too much. But he brings it all together to serve up one extraordinary and satisfying novel.



My readings in non-fiction were not purposeful, but often connected in a string of related ideas. Early in the year I read the wonderful, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs by Elaine Scillonian. What started out as a food piece for the New York only streetTimes ended up to be much, much more–a wonderful peek into a Parisian street and neighborhood that has resisted progress and gentrification and tourism, and which continues in much of its uniqueness and tradition.
Scillonian’s book then led me to Lauren Elkin’s FLÂNEUSE: Women Walk the City. It is an entertaining and erudite discussion of women flaneuse–particularly writers and artists and herself– walking in world cities, though with a concentration in Paris. I am grateful for its  introducing me to the marvelous artist Sophia Calle, whose one amusing art work involved walking around Venice while following a strange man. (It also introduced me to Georges Sand, of whom I knew  very little. Two of her enormous novels sit next to my bed, waiting for 2018.)

It is only natural to go from the  “entertaining and erudite” musings of The Flaneuse to perhaps America’s finest intellect, a-field-guide-to-getting-lost-paperback-cover-9781786890511.1200x1200nRebecca Solnit, whose “invisible cities” books have given me much enjoyment in the past. This year I turned to her Field Guide to Getting Lost, a wonderful meditation on the usefulness and growth achieved in being lost somewhere. Like all of Solnit’s work, the main thesis is simply a jumping off point for all sorts of insights and reflections.


Undoubtedly, it’s been a tough year around the world. But at least there was a raft of books–too many to list here–to help me navigate the rough seas.  I am looking forward to 2018.

Happy New Year to all!




Book Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

To be truthful, I was put off by all the hype that surrounded Tenth of December when it was released back in January. Articles about the short stories and their author, George Saunders, were everywhere. All the major papers, magazines and blogs were praising, lavishly, both the collection and Saunders himself. All of sudden I was seeing articles about or by Saunders from years past, all floating to the front, all becoming part of this giant group-hug! He was compared to Twain and Flannery O’Connor, to Vonnegut and Pynchon, to Bartheleme and Welty. Even the late David Foster Wallace was corralled in for a blurb on the inner covers.

And now, I can say, all the hype was legitimate and deserved.  Tenth Of December is something special. 10thdecemberbookcover

The longest story in the book “The Semplica Girl Diaries” begins with a father, in the near future, starting a diary. As he begins, he recounts his fears and worries for his children, fears that they are growing up with so much less, materially, than their classmates. He also reveals his own anxieties about his failure as a provider of these consumer necessities. During the course of his journaling, the family is teased with a windfall and then pushed towards ruin. Oddly enough, strung throughout the story, literally, are third-world women who sell themselves in America as lawn ornaments, putting his own focus on material success in a very skewed light.

Other fathers–or father figures– appear throughout the stories. In the first story, “Victory Lap,” a young boy saves a girl who is being abducted. But he second guesses all of his heroic actions in terms of what his father would say about his getting involved and not completing his chores. At the same time, the perpetrator keeps worrying about his own father–and while carrying out his violent abductions–worries whether his father would be proud of the way he is doing things.

In a very short piece, “Sticks,” an aloof, mean-spirited and inaccessible father dresses a crucifix-like contraption for every holiday: Santa for Christmas, a groundhog for February 2nd, a soldier for Veterans Day, etc. When his wife dies, he dressed the pole as Death and makes a memorial to her. His own–and the sticks’–ending is seemingly inconsequential, but full of pathos nevertheless.

George Saunders

George Saunders

On the whole, Saunders’ stories are full of dysfunctioning families trying to succeed in a world of plastic values and overwrought commercialism. It is filled with simple people having difficulty coping in an increasingly complicated world. This world he describes is a bit off-kilter, but it all seems unnervingly familiar.  And his telling of these tales is enjoyable and unforgettable.

Life and death, hope and despair, pride and self-loathing: these are the topics that Saunders addresses but in a way that is funny as often as it is heart wrenching, a way that is wryly observed, emotional and thought provoking.

All that hype was well deserved after all.