Ottessa Moshfegh begins her new novella, “I wake up,” and spends the next 118 pages exploring what awake means. It’s McGlue who wakes drunk, head split open, and he’s spitting teeth that “scatter across the deck like dice.” He’s bleeding and looking for a place to puke when he hears other men on the ship say that he killed Johnson, who was his friend, his close friend, and had saved McGlue’s life more than once. When they first met, Johnson had scooped McGlue out of the snow where he would have happily died drinking. This is the Johnson who funded McGlue’s booze habit and led them around the world, who woke McGlue in the middle of the night to share his “life words.” But now Johnson is dead and McGlue is stuffed in the hold of the ship where he tries to remember what happened. But memory, as Moshfegh writes it, is a lot like rolling the dice. On one toss you win and on the next there’s nothing—you get something somehow less than zero. So you keep rolling and rolling until it’s the rolling rather than the results that mean anything.
The story takes place in the 1850s. Moshfegh creates a world of ships and ports, drinking and fighting that is vivid and steady. But it’s McGlue’s voice, in first person, that makes the story compelling and holds my interest. He is brutal and tender. He can talk about anything and I listen, even when I know he’s lying. Moshfegh, who has previously written and published short stories and was awarded the Plimpton Prize for her work in The Paris Review, brings a trusty ear for words to this slightly longer form. Her language moves. On page after page are turns of phrase like, “He hands me the pen and points. I make a puddle of my name,” which are unique, even pretty, but aren’t just for show. They speak to McGlue’s consciousness. He is making a puddle of himself with booze, or by smashing his head and drinking his own blood when there’s no rum around.
Foreground: Baby. Background: Books.
I became a parent in the Spring of 2014. Which is a wonderful thing, but it means that I spent my severely reduced reading time with books like The Happiest Baby on the Block Guide to Great Sleep (useful, but a pretty excruciating read); Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads (useful, and an enjoyable read); and The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree (still a classic).
I did manage to pull off one half-assed review about a book I hadn’t finished reading, but for the most part my 2014 was spent dreaming of all the cool looking books I had no time to enjoy. Needless to say, this has left me woefully underqualified to make any kinds of judgments, even subjective ones, about the Best Books of the last 12 months.
And yet, I remain undeterred — what is the end of a year without a list of things? And while I may not have a top 10, I’m sure I can come up with something that fits our habit of doing odd and unorthodox year-end lists.
So here is my list of
Top Ten Books [I had Time to Read] This Year. Continue reading
Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to bang a teacher.
For as long as I can remember I fantasized about screwing an educator, but every year I was foiled. My teachers were either kindly old lesbians or profusely sweating heavy-set men with tobacco-stained teeth. Excellent educators and wonderful people, all of them, but not a sexual prospect in sight. I didn’t get my first attractive teacher until my last year of grad school. He had a full head of brown hair with a sprinkle of gray at the temples, wore elbow-patch blazers like Indiana Jones and smelled of pine cones and wisdom. I was newly married and not looking to mess that up. I graduated a year later without ever giving a blowjob during office hours.
The teacher is an enduring fantasy, like the librarian or the cheese guy at the deli (that just me?). It is this fantasy that makes us want to read works like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. As adults who have made their way past AP Algebra, we can see both sides of the equation.
1) Banging a high school teacher would have been the ultimate conquest and made for a shocking story to tell at cocktail parties in my thirties.
2) Banging a high school teacher would have made me the victim of a sexual predator and would have caused irreparable damage to my psychological well-being.
Which witch is which? Nutting’s Tampa, the story of a twenty-six-year-old eighth grade teacher who screws her fourteen-year-old male students, takes us inside the question. Continue reading
“Russian novelist” is a weighty phrase.
When I hear it, I brace for war, love, history, the high church, and earth-shaking politics; for an epic story that feels intimate. The names of the great Russian writers are like monuments: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Nabokov.
But literature is not a dead man’s game; it’s a living conversation. And I prefer today’s Russian writers to the old masters. Have you heard of Victor Pelevin, who writes trippy satirical novels about werewolves in Siberia and little old ladies in Moscow? I have read every English translation of Victor Pelevin that I have gotten my hands on. And Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who writes “scary fairy tales” with titles like There Once Lived a Woman who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby? She’s an international treasure. Not to mention Masha Gessen, whose fiercely independent journalism about civil rights in Russia has made her one of the most admirable public figures in the world.
All I’m saying is, today’s Russian writers are crushing it.
That’s why I was excited to get an email, a few months ago, from Andrea Gregovich. She’s a translator in Alaska, and she had recently completed an English translation of USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid by Vladimir Kozlov. Andrea was looking for a small press like Fiction Advocate to help her publish USSR as an e-book. I didn’t know Andrea, and I had never heard of Vladimir. But I printed the manuscript and started to read it on a plane. Before the flight attendants came down the aisle with beverages, I already knew that we were going to publish USSR as more than just an e-book. Continue reading
I see baseball everywhere. It’s almost a curse. I can’t help but associate everything that happens to me with some fleeting statistic or apocryphal anecdote.
Playing baseball has taken me many places—to pristine ball fields in Egypt and to the diamonds of Breezy Point that Hurricane Sandy later destroyed. I exhibited some small modicum of athletic prowess on the field, and now I spend countless hours dissecting those memories. Recollecting, my past experiences become legend. Nostalgia grips me tighter as I drift farther and farther away from the time in my life when I actually played the game.
Many writers have explored this wistfulness. The table of contents of Baseball: A Literary Anthology from The Library of America makes it clear that baseball writing is as much a national pastime as the game itself. From Don Delillo to Roger Angell, Phillip Roth to Bernard Malamud, a certain type of author—he tends to be a man—can’t help but address the performance of baseball when making sense of the American experience.
Looking for something to read over the holidays? Hey, the New York Times 10 Best Books is a great place to look!
Pour yourself a nice mug of hot cocoa and get cozy to read about everything from, oh…uh, a collapsing marriage (Dept. of Speculation, Jeny Offill) or a family’s disintegration after a horrible tragedy involving a child (Family Life, Akhil Sharma), or a story collection about the devastating impacts of the Iraq War (Redeployment, Phil Klay).
Hmmm. Okay, well how about the one about the blind girl and the Nazi (All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr)? Or, uh, maybe the one about a female novelist who didn’t publish anything until she was almost 60 (Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, Hermione Lee)? Okay, okay — here’s a “spellbinding blend of memoir, science journalism and literary criticism” about….oh….vaccination (On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss). Probably don’t want to bring that up at dinner. Same goes for the one about Israel and peace in the Middle East (Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin and Sadat at Camp David, Lawrence Wright).
What about the one titled Euphoria? That sounds nice. Oh, looks like it’s about another marriage breaking up. Alright.
I guess it could be worse. We could be among the irreplaceable habitats and species whose destruction has been chillingly documented by Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinction. Jeez. What else is there? Oh, perfect, Roz Chast’s graphic novel about her parents’ decline into infirmity and old age: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Lindsay Hunter’s debut novel isn’t just about ugly girls. It’s about ugly people, ugly places, ugly lives—“ugly” being used on the deeper, moral level. Hunter presents a host of unlikeable characters living in a box-store world, Denny’s and Circle K and Payless and McDonald’s, trailer parks and cul-de-sacs, where alcoholic mothers suck on brown bottles and oversexed adolescents find that the only fun to be had lies in the back seats of cars and doing doughnuts in a Walmart parking lot. Hunter’s America may be shocking, a place without hope, upward mobility not even a glimmer in her characters’ eyes. But it’s vivid, visceral, and engrossing.
Hunter’s ugly girls are two best friends, Baby Girl and Perry, who are, in many ways, the archetypal teenage duo. Perry is the pretty one, who resembles “some kind of garden fairy, only tall. Bright green eyes, black eyelashes, blond hair. Tanned legs. Smallish boobs.” All the boys and men desire her, and some have had her. Baby Girl is the wannabe thug, the one who radiates I-don’t-give-a-fuck. Since her brother Charles got into an accident, leaving him in a helpless, mentally deficient state, she has made it her mission to be as unattractive as possible: she is the girl with the shaved head, her brother’s saggy jeans, a “sports bra to tamp those fuckers down. Work boots she’d stolen from Payless,” plump lips outlined in liner and shined with gloss, her lips her favorite feature. She considers herself a “tough bitch.” She is the virgin.
Sometimes you just want something beautiful. Here are the 5 most sumptuous, indulgent, stunning books to give (and receive) this holiday season.
5. The World of Ice & Fire
by George R. R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
To be honest I haven’t read this book yet, because I’m so excited about it that someone has insisted I wait and receive it as a Christmas gift. But good lord, it’s everything I want in a George R. R. Martin book, which is to say, less plotting and more world-building. The World of Ice & Fire includes histories of the major houses of Westeros, deep background on memorable details from the series like the Sword of Morning, and plenty of original, full-color illustrations. It is going to sell a billion copies. Don’t be surprised if 6 of these turn up in your stocking.
4. The Best American Infographics 2014
edited by Gareth Cook
The Best American Infographics 2014
“The visual display of quantitative information” as the godfather of infographics Edward Tufte calls it, is finally getting its due. This book celebrates — and reproduces at full size, in lavish color — the best charts, diagrams, maps, and graphics of the year, from the mechanics of a professional pitcher’s arm rotation to the particular musical keys that classical composers favored. It will make you wish you could subscribe to a monthly magazine that offers nothing but really great bar graphs. Introduction by Nate Silver.