Year-End Roundup

This was a slow year for me. Most of what I read, though, was golden. I’ll take that over a thicker year of mediocre books.

I started the year off with George Saunders’ Tenth of December, which has plenty of insight and quirk, though I think maybe a bit too much of the latter. I got around to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, finally, which I couldn’t seem to put together into the classic everyone makes it out to be. I also read Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I enjoyed much more. I still found it disconcerting, in a way. Those inner truths and behaviors can be more frightening than the ones more readily expressed—the ones I tend to write about. Maybe the little inhumanities are harder for me to understand.

Then, there was a long stretch of re-reads. I brought The Sun Also Rises to work with me, and read it while I was on thirds. I also brought Suttree, which for me is always being re-read. Each time I pick up the book I see it in a light less glossy, but always more pleasurable. I would love for McCarthy’s next novel to be as good, but I don’t think he’ll ever rise to that height again.

Finally, free of full-time employment, I started the summer reading a bit late with The Sisters Brothers, which was excellent. DeWitt’s voice here is so completely the protagonist’s, so in the world, that finishing the book was like coming up out of that era itself. I’m reminded of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, in that way. There are no fantastic leaps of verbiage. Nothing is ever showy. But every sentence is right on the money, never dropping, never ducking out.

Somewhere in here, I read Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, and Justin Lawrence Daugherty’s chapbook, Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise. I’m really excited to see what these two come out with next.

I read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which will open up wounds in you. One of the best and hardest things about this novel is how unflinchingly she conveys her non-recovery, the time before her time on the Pacific Crest Trail. Full of those little inhumanities I mentioned.

Philipp Meyer’s The Son was as epic as expected. Paul Harding’s Enon was a disappointment in a few ways—not living up to his hype from Tinkers, nor from the first ten pages of the sophomore effort, itself. Following that was Ron Rash’s Serena, which was great, but a little gaudy. (We need a term for “this guy’s written enough books by now we’re just gonna let him do his thing and not edit for tics.”)

“I picked up The Round House and was swept up in the whirlwind of community and of character and history she manages to set down on the page.”

I ended the year with Louise Erdrich. I picked up The Round House and was swept up, as I often am with Erdrich, in the whirlwind of community and of character and history she manages to set down on the page. With Round House, though, Erdrich pulls these things together into a single narrative, a single voice, which I hadn’t seen her do before. Love Medicine and The Plague of Doves both take turns, going back and forth from voice to voice, building the world a stick at a time. Round House puts it together all at once. Around page 300, I had one of the most visceral reading experiences of my life. In a paragraph of Erdrich’s I’d written a different ending in my head, knowing it wouldn’t come true, but wishing all the same.

After that, I went ahead and picked up Erdrich’s Shadow Tag, which is powerful in a completely different way. Every page was cold and hard, subsumed in an icy blue. The things the protagonists do to each other are so understandable, yet terrible. It was hard to read, often, knowing what was coming, because Erdrich so skillfully lays things out for the reader that we can put everything together just a word or two ahead of time, so that every one acts as a blow that we have time to flinch for.