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London calling New York

The Brits are obsessed with nostalgia. And the loveliest thing? Waking up on Christmas Day to a BBC Radio 4 program about Christmas on the radio through the years, including a transatlantic call from parents to young sons residing in America during the war. "It's so very good to hear your voice!" They were thrilled to have received defense air stamps as Christmas presents. "I think it's the best present they could think up!"


I Can't Get That Didion Out Of My Mind

I will be out of the country for several days, and not knowing when I might next see an internet connection, I thought it might be appropriate to sum up my year now rather than later. I wasn't exactly sure how I could begin to do this, until I was looking back over the list of books I read this year, and realized that there really was only one way. Like bookends she is there: Run River on one end, Slouching Towards Bethlehem on the other. This has been the year of Joan Didion.

I came late to the party. It was like discovering "Alone Again Or" and then someone telling you that they had been listening to Arthur Lee since the sixties and they were through with all that, yet you want nothing more than to listen to that trumpet line for days upon days. I hopped onto a very crowded bandwagon. Still. After Run River, I devoured The White Album in January, Democracy in March, April found Play It As It Lays, and November A Book of Common Prayer. If I had not felt it important to read other writers, I would have read nothing but Joan Didion this year.

It begins, of course, in what we remember.
In February, I ordered Mahi Mahi ("flown in fresh from Hawaii this morning") at a West Side restaurant because I thought it was what Joan might do.

In April, I went with a friend to see her speak with poet W.S. Merwin, where they mused on indigenous migratory birds of the Hawaiian islands. Mr. Merwin suggested that they didn't stop flying until they reached the southern tip of Alaska, and Joan broke in: "Do we know they don't even stop once?"

Afterwards, she signed books, and I was shy to approach her, but did anyway, and mumbled something about how I had discovered her at just the right time in my life. And my memory has wiped away anything she might have said in reply. In my memory, she just smiles, and says: "Name?"

In June, I took other friends to see her read in Central Park, where she read "Goodbye To All That" and an excerpt from The Year of Magical Thinking. We cried where she couldn't, wouldn't: one of the two. Philip Gourevitch sat opposite her in a chair and asked mildly probing questions about her own obsession with words. "Yes, words and rivers. They're the only things that seem real to me." And the sky felt ripples of thunder, before finally breaking into the most glorious and powerful rains we had seen that summer. "Run for cover!" She shouted as we darted through trees and benches, flapping the weighted capes of wet sheets behind us, tossing aside useless umbrellas. Wet and inspired, I came home to find my husband napping, and I remember thinking that the world seemed too perfect for words and rivers, so prone to meandering.

It sounds like an unreasonable and wild obsession, possession even (as I thought to myself today on the bus, panicking, before I was exorcised by a woman who kindly told me to "have a blessed day"). But what more perfect writer could I have discovered on the early teetering edge of my thirties? Who has more to say about the condition of a woman's mind as she feels out the world, starts to finally realize who she is, and who she is not? And who can say it without sounding dogmatic? I cannot think of anyone else who so well describes this condition, this joy, this affliction.

It was the year when I realized the power of thirty, how it frees one to be as confident as one wants, without suffering the embarrassment of the misplaced and naive arrogance of one's twenties, and at the same time, I discovered thirty's shaming vulnerabilities, when one is still young and feeling fears with sharpened awareness. The year when I picked up my notebooks again after years of empty pages, the year when I decided to listen more and talk less (though I'm unsure if I succeeded here). The year when my own imagination several times got the better of me, the year of impossible scenarios played out months ahead in my mind. And these things were all there, mirrored on the page.

Every now and then I think I hear a rattlesnake, but my husband says that it is a faucet, a paper rustling, the wind.
I have pried her voice into my writing, hoping to sound more fluid (as, apparently, have others), and, in the end, I just feel slightly creepy. Seeing all of this bared on the page, I know that I have said too much. But it is what Joan might have done. And so I bare my soul and order Mahi Mahi flown in from Hawaii, look towards thirty-one and fear that my year has been not mine at all, but hers.

(If now you are tired of hearing me ramble on about Joan Didion, go watch Lloyd Cole & The Commotions do it: "Rattlesnakes")



Syntax of Things presents: Underrated Writers of 2006. Some interesting inclusions:

  • Jeff Noon, whose works I read widely in the mid-90s. I would argue that his work is slightly dated to be added to this list, and I would disagree with the statement that Falling Out Of Cars is his best work, but I do think he deserves more attention.

  • Scarlett Thomas, whose book is still haunting me with an unscratchable itch-like feeling.

  • Elizabeth Bowen. I recently acquired a collection of her short stories, and I have a beautiful old hardcover of The Heat of the Day I keep on intending to read past the first chapter.

  • Benjamin Kunkel. I love n+1, but Indecision still remains on my list of half-finished (audio) books, if only because on a long drive through Pennsylvania, my brother fell asleep in the middle of it, and when he woke up, he wanted to listen to something else. I still haven't felt the urgent need to return to it, though.

  • Halldór Laxness, who has been on my shelf for years. Perhaps it's time to bend the spine.
I hope to look into some other authors on the list (I've been eyeing Richard Powers and Iain Banks for a while now, and, more recently, Brian Evenson and Dana Spiotta).

My own additions:

  • Shirley Jackson. Spooky and evil and delicious. All of her books should still be in print. ALL of them.

  • Louis Bromfield. I thought I was simply enchanted by his connection to my own history, but now that I've enjoyed one of his works of fiction, I find it sad that this Pulitzer Prize-winning author has fallen largely (but not wholly) out of print.

  • Victor Pelevin, whose short stories are fantastical and meaningful, and who brings a new species of Russian literature with him, though he is starting to feel overrated with works like Homo Zapiens, which was a bit too Robert Anton Wilson for my tastes.

  • Henning Mankell, who is worshiped in the crime genre world, but largely ignored in the literary world, and of whose work I haven't read nearly enough.

  • Rupert Thomson, who was on last year's list, and who I think should be listed again and again until he has as much recognition as many of his British contemporaries.

  • Andra Neiburga, Nora Ikstena, Gundega Repše, Pauls Bankovskis, and Inga Ābele, all Latvian authors whose works, unfortunately, remain largely untranslated.



Years ago, I was a person who would see a book through to the end. Then one day, I counted how many books I had left to read in my life (based on how many I am capable of reading in a year, subtracting a sizeable chunk for the distractions of having children and/or going blind). The number shocked me so greatly that I vowed not to waste it reading books that weren't enjoyable to read. And so I became a quitter. I started quitting left and right. The books in our apartment with bookmarks a quarter or even half of the way through are many: Donna Tartt's Little Friend. Nick Laird's Utterly Monkey. Yuri Rythkeu's A Dream in Polar Fog. Tom Bissell's Chasing the Sea. George R.R. Martin's A Clash of Kings. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is The Night has a bookmark in it, somewhere just after one of the hotel room freak out scenes.

It's not always easy to pinpoint why these books have let me down. There are aspects of each that I love, but they failed to call to me to pick them up at every spare second. Perhaps it was down to an off-season pick: Rythkeu's book, set in an Arctic region of Siberia, was something I had started in June. I am sure I thought it would wisk me away to some unimaginable climate, but the pulsating New York sun surely distracted me from imagining the pain of frostbite. Perhaps it was the temptation of some other book I would rather be reading, as was the case with the Fitzgerald, which was what I had in my bag when Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler arrived in the mail, and who could resist that?

The most recent addition to the list of abandoned books is A.L. Kennedy's Everything You Need. As much as I loved the Uncles and Mary Lamb, as much as my curiosity was piqued by Nathan Staples' self-torture, I couldn't keep my eyes on the page. Perhaps it's down to distractions in my own life, but the timing of what I was reading in front of me seemed all off, and I felt compelled, on my way in to work today, to remove the book from my bag and replace it with something familiar and comforting, even though that something originally came all the way from Sacramento via London via Ballarat, Australia: my autographed, half-read 1969 Andre Deutsch copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

This is one of the lucky few I actually return to. (The only other I can immediately think of is Orhan Pamuk's Snow, which got a second chance a year after I had set it aside in the first place.) Didion's first book of essays was one I had begun to read earlier this year, but had deemed far to precious to waste in one sitting, and so I left a few of the essays unread, a lonely bookmark sitting somewhere between chapters, quivering with anticipation. Now is the time to find it again.

And so I have replaced a "can't read" with a rarely tackled "re-upped read." Peter Carey's Theft or possibly PD James will be hitching a ride in with me tomorrow as backup. And Ms. Kennedy will have to sit on the shelf, Three Lives & Co. bookmarking her somewhere near page 100. Just in case.

I cannot feel guilty. After all, there are only 1489 books left to read, if I make it to 80, eyesight intact...

(Everything You Need was one of the books in my From the Stacks Reading Challenge, and by quitting the book, I'm afraid I've had to quit the challenge as well. Apologies to the organizers; you inspired, but my insatiability won over.)


Sunday Zen