Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Books of the Decade

Strange, it seems, that this December we must consider not only the best books of 2009 , but the best books of the decade, and shudder at the thought that the last ten years have gone by so quickly. Or have they? Thinking back on the events gone by, personal, political, economic, literary, through each bit of bad news, good news and indifferent reports, one does realize, finally,that it's been a full decade in the passing. It's as though one had fallen asleep in the backseat during a long, tedious trip , only to be woken up with a start when the car finally stops. Coming out of the fog, one hazily asks "Here already?"

But we are here, ready or not for the next decade, ready or not in one's attempts to secure a sound employment ( too much detail, perhaps, but I was laid off my job last week, but I'm in noble company). My best guess to that matter is that we are ready; there have been some terrific books written over the last ten years , some brilliant writing, intriguing tales, illuminating accounts of emotion and fancy, all of which serves the central purpose of literature, to help us think about ourselves in the world.

These books have kept me out of the vacuum of merely sitting in front of a computer grazing off the headlines --they have kept me engaged with the world for the last ten years and have given me ample reason to talk to old friends and make new ones. We have something to talk about, and that seems to be the point of reading books and sharing what one enjoys with others; books are the grounds through which our different lives find a common set of metaphors , through which we can discuss surmount of differences and frame our similarities.

My best books of the Last Decade. These remarks, of course, are culled from previously posted reviews.


My Vocabulary Did this To Me

poems by Jack Spicer

Spicer is an interesting poet on several levels, all of them deep and rich with deposits that reward an earnest dig. He is , I think, on a par with Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams with the interest in grilling the elaborating infrastructure of how we draw or are drawn to specialized conclusions with the use of metaphor, and it is to his particular brilliance as a lyric poet, comparable to Frank O’Hara (a poet Spicer declared he didn’t care for, with O’Hara thinking much the same in kind) that the contradictions, competing desires and unexpected conundrums of investigating one’s verbal stream are made comprehensible to the senses, a joy to the ear. No one, really no one wrote as distinctly as the long obscure Spicer did, and editors Gizzi, Killian and publisher Wesleyan Press are to be thanked for restoring a major American voice to our shared canon.

Bear v. Shark
a novel by Chris Batchelder


Bear V. Shark
by Chris Bachelder is post-modern hoot. Don't let the tag "post modern" put you off, because Bachelder gets it exactly right as he skews his target, television and the culture of Total Media Saturation. Bear V.Shark is a great, wild read for anyone who enjoyed Pastoralia or the work of Mark Leyner. There is a vaguely described though loudly trumpeted Big Event forthcoming that's precisely what the title suggests, in a future time when TVs have no off switches and whose soft ware can sense a viewers boredom and flip the channels for them: TVs are everywhere in this world, in the kitchen, the furniture, bus stops, train stations, and in such a society, the idiom of everyday language is subverted by commercial patois and jingles. America, here, is subtly insane and in a constant state of distraction.This is the America that Baudrillard absent mindedly ruminated about, only much funnier, edgier, and smarter in the evisceration


Cosmopolis

a novel by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers around the events of an eventful day in Manhattan. Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it. The brillance here, as with White Noise and especially Mao ll is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authortative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas , notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose. It's a hallmark of DeLillo's mastery of language that he gets that psychic activity that constantly tries to reinfuse the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck. His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negoiation with death. His imagistic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the the hydra-headed strands of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself.

The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers

This amazing novel by Richard Powers. an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there.

Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles
a memoir by Kate Braverman

Frantic Transmissions to and From Los Angeles is a memoir, of sorts, about growing up in Los Angeles, and then the eventual moving away from that famously center-less city. Writing in a high poetic and semiotically engaged style that recalls the best writing of Don DeLillo (Mao ll) and Norman Mailer (Miami and the Seize of Chicago), Braverman deftly defines isolated Los Angeles sprawl and puts you in those cloistered, cul-de-sac'd neighborhoods that you drive by on the freeway or pass on the commuter train, those squalid, dissociated blocks of undifferentiated houses and strip malls and store front churches; the prose gets the personal struggle to escape through any means , through art and rage, and this makes Frantic Transmissions not unlike Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the prodigal son or daughter deigns to move up and away from a home that cannot keep them, with only raw nerve and the transforming elements of art to guide them. What Braverman confronts and writes about with a subtly discerning wit is the struggle of defining the place one calls home, and what roles one is obliged to assume as they continually define their space, their refuge. All through this particularly gripping memoir there is the sheer magic and engulfing power of Braverman's writing; I was fortunate to receive an uncorrected proof of Frantic Transmissions a couple of months ago, and I was knocked out by what I beheld. Sentence upon sentence, metaphor upon simile, analogy upon anecdote, this writing is rhythmic and full of stirring music. There is poetry here that does not overwhelm nor over reach; this is an amazing book, and it is one of the best books about life in Los Angeles , quite easily in the ranks of Nathaniel West, Joan Didion, and John Fante.


HIP:The History

non fiction by John Leland


John Leland's Hip:The History is the sort of book I like to read on the bus, the portentous social study of an indefinite essence that makes the reader of the book appear, well, hip. This is the perfect book for the pop culture obsessive who wonders, indeed worries and frets over the issue as to whether white musicians can become real blues musicians or whether Caucasian jazz musicians have added anything of value to the the jazz canon besides gimmick.

Leland, a reporter for the New York Times, has done his research and brings together the expected doses of cultural anthropology, literature and, of course, music to bear on this sweeping, if unsettled account as to what "hip" is and how it appears to have developed over time. Most importantly he concentrates on the lopsided relationship between black and white, each group borrowing each other's culture and suiting them for their respective needs; in the case of black Americans, rising from a slavery as free people in a racist environment, hip was an an ironic manner, a mode of regarding their existence on the offbeat, a way to keep the put upon psyche within a measure of equilibrium. For the younger white hipsters, in love black music and style, it was an attempt to gain knowledge, authenticity and personal legitimacy through a source that was Other than what a generation felt was their over-privileged and pampered class. Leland's range is admirable and does a remarkable job of advancing his thesis--that the framework of what we consider hip is a way in which both races eye other warily--and is sensitive to the fact that for all the attempts of white artists and their followers to cultivate their own good style from their black influences, the white hipsters is never far from black face minstrelsy. For all the appropriation,experimentation, and varied perversions of black art that has emerged over the decades, there are only a few men and women who've attained the stature of their African American heroes, people who, themselves, were the few among the many.

The Silver Dazzle of the Sun
poems by Paul Dresman

The speakers are shaped by language that accommodates the vastness of region, The West, both as a physical place and collective social construction, looms large in a good deal of the present poems(as it is in Dorn's long lines), and it is the marriage of voice and location that gives the poetry in The Silver Dazzle of the Sun a life that is absent from too much published poetry. The world climbs through the language and appears through deft description fresh as a moment of first perception; style is content, to beg an old question, but it's a worthwhile distinction to make clear. Dresman's work brings us a world of felt experience that can be addressed in useful ways. There are no epistemological quandaries here, no rueful mediations on malformed vowels. There is , though, plenty of wit, anger, flights of lyric speculation, writ with a sure composing hand.There is something of a medley of voices at play in these works, where a terrain on which innumerable generations of have written on emerge in a layered and subtly orchestrated music. The poetics of wonder, rage, joy and sorrow are harnessed with extraordinary skill. Above all else, the poems come from a voice that is speaking to you;
there are moments when the candor and unreticent wit of the writing makes you ponder again the incidents in your own experience that you might not have regarded for years. The poetry is that good.


Big If
a novel by Mark Costello

This is a superb comedy of contemporary American life involving a low-level Secret Service agent who finds she must get reacquainted with her computer-genius brother when she takes a respite from the paranoid turns and twists of her job. This is a book of richly skewed characters doing their best to make sense of their lives. Costello's prose is alive with the things of our life, and is superb at demonstrating the clash between happiness material items promise and the world that denies such rewards. He is the master of setting forth a metaphor and letting it travel through a storyline just beneath the surface, operating silently, almost invisibly, always effectively.

Their father, in the first portion of the book , is a moderate Republican insurance investigator of scholarly reading habits who happens to be a principled atheist. You cannot have both insurance, the practice of placing a monetary remuneration on unavoidable disaster, and assurance, which has religion promising protection from evil and disaster. The children, in turn, assume careers that seem to typify the dualism their father opposed, son Jens becoming a programmer for the Big If on line game for which he writes "monster behavior code" that attempts to outsmart human players and have them meet a hypothetical destruction. Daughter Vi, conversely, becomes a Secret Service agent, schooled in the theory encoded in The Certainties, a set of writings that lays out the details, nuances and psychology of extreme protection. These are world views in collision, and Costellos' prose is quick with the telling detail,the flashing insight, the cutting remark. On view in Big If are different models on which characters try to contain , control, or explain the relentless capriciousness of Life as it unfolds, constructs through which characters and the country and culture they serve can feel empowered to control their fate in a meaningful universe. The punchline is that Life goes on anyway, with it's fluctuating, undulating, chaotic dynamics that only occasionally seem to fall into place. Costello wrests a subtle comedy of manners from the small failures of anyone's world view to suitably make their existence unproblematic. This is a family comedy on a par with The Wapshot Chronicle, but in an America that is suddenly global, an air that makes even the most familiar things seem alien and fantastic. Costello is a modern master, and fans of White Noise and The Corrections will enjoy the emergence of a master.


It's Go In Horizontal: Selected Poems 1974-2006
poems by Leslie Scalapino

Laying out a poem like it were a trail of bread crumbs a reader would to the bigger feast of The Point Being Made is not how writer Leslie Scalapino writes. As we find ourselves in a time when the popular idea of the poet and their work they compose seems slanted toward the lightly likable Billy Collins and others witing poems that can be grasped, shared, written out in a fine hand on perfumed paper and preserved between the leaves of a dictionary of quotations. Scalapino requires not the casual gaze but the harder view, the more inquisitive eye. Scalapino brings a refreshing complexity to her work, a sanguine yet inquisitive intelligence that is restless and dissatisfied with the seemingly authorized narrative styles poets are expected to frame their ideas with. The framing, so to speak, is as much the subject in her poems and prose, and the attending effort to interrogate the methods one codifies perception to the exclusion of details not fitting a convenient structure, Leslie Scalapino has produced a body of work of rare and admirable discipline; the writing is a test of the limits of generic representation.Her work as well is an inquiry in how we might exist without them. In as series of over nineteen books over published since the seventies, she has been one of the most interesting poets working , an earnest inquisitor of consciousness and form blurring and distorting the boundaries that keep poetry, prose, fiction and auto biography apart.It's Go in Horizontal is a cogent selection from three decades of writing. The distinction blurring is not a project originating with her, but there is in Scalapino's work the sense of a single voice rather than expected "car radio effect", the audio equivalent of Burrough's cut up method that would make a piece resemble an AM dial being moved up and down a distorted, static-laden frequency. Leslie Scalapino's writing is one voice at different pitches responding to an intelligence aware of how it codes and decodes an object of perception. The work is fascinating , interrogations that wrestle with the act of witnessing.

The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan
poems by Ted Berrigan

It's not enough that we have the same first name and the same Irish second initial, my attraction to Berrigan's poems was the rather unbelligerent way he ignored the constricting formalities in poetry and rendered something of a record of his thoughts unspooling as he walked through the neighborhood or went about his tasks. "Where Will I Wander" is the title of a recent John Ashbery volume, and it might well be an apt description of Berrigan's style; shambling, personal, messy, yet able to draw out the sublime phrase or the extended insight from the myriad places his stanzas and line shifts would land on. The world radiated a magic and energy well enough without the poet's talents for making essences clear to an audience needing to know something more about what lies behind the veil, and Berrigan's gift were his personable conflations of cartoon logic, antic flights of lyric waxing, and darkest hour reflection , a poetry which, at it's best, seemed less a poem than it did a monologue from someone already aware that their world was extraordinary and that their task was to record one's ongoing incomprehension of the why of the invisible world.

The Age of Huts
poems by Ron Silliman

The Age of Huts brings together several books he's published as a long standing project. It makes for alternately exhilarating and exasperating reading. Those who stay with Silliman and his task are rewarded with what is really the most thorough on going examination of the American vernacular since William Carlos Williams composed and assembled his central epic poem Paterson in 1963. Silliman’s is the language of a place, and there is a logic as the streams and eddies of unassigned sentences the blended variations at once rich, dissonant.

The Time of Our Singing
a novel by Richard Powers


This is an amazing novel byRichard Powers. an ambitious generational tale of an American family with a mixed heritage of African-American and German Jew, and covers the travails, triumphs and tragedies of this family. There are three children, one with a beautiful singing voice who opts for a classical music career, a daughter who becomes involved with the civil rights struggle,and a second brother who, though gifted as well, buries his ambition to bridge the gap between his siblings. Not a perfect novel--sometimes Powers' superb style turns into a list of historical events as a means to convey the sweep of time-- but the central issues of race, identity, culture are handled well within the story. The writing is generous and frequently beautiful, especially at the moments when the description turns to the music. Powers, as well as any one, describes how notes played the right way can make one believe in heaven and the angels who live there. 

The Plot Against America
a novel by Philip Roth

Novelist Philip Roth, always a spiky and unpredictable story teller, creates an alternative history for America, a fascinating and troubling fantasy of "what if": Charles Lindbergh, aviation hero and Nazi-sympathetic isolationist, is nominated by the Republican Party in the 1940 presidential election, and handily defeats FDR. Using his own family as the center of this fable, Roth has written a novel with the impact of a memoir of hard and terrible times,speaking to how easily a homegrown fascism could take root and grow. The power of Roth's novel lies not only in the impressive historical research he brings to the novel, but especially in how creeping Totalitarian persecution effects the lives of characters who are complex, sympathetic, argumentative. This is not a dry recital of dates, events, names from fading ledgers and indexes, because the novel is a family saga among its several formations, and what Roth has done is highlight a family's struggle between each other and their inner lives while the nation prepares to give in to its worse fears and lay the land for fascism. Several instances -- the family listening the radio during the convention, a hapless father become less powerful in the children's eyes as political forces move against American Jews, the subtly advanced symbolism of the fictional Philip Roth's stamp collection-- gives a reader an vivid accounting of the things that disrupted, destroyed, lost by systematized evil.

The Plot Against America is a masterpiece of the first rank, as relevant as morning headlines, timeless as great literature, qualities that place him, unexpectedly, in the same league with Sinclair Lewis.This is art as a form of truth-telling, of an acute paranoia made comprehensible through a focus of literary skill that gives voice to the unspeakable. Roth was obliviously raised to revere democracy , and this work, tempered by experience and the history of human kind to go wrong and become complicit in evil, sounds off a warning for the reader that is hardly an original thought but meaningful resounds even still: the price of freedom is constant vigilance because the enemies of our rights as citizens are snakes sleeping with one eye open.


The Body Artist
a novel by Don DeLillo


DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork Underworld made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritualized , obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband. The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption , slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold , lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud. A short, haunted masterwork.

Crackpots
a novel by Sara Pritchard

Brief, beautifully written book about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist.

Half Life:Poems
poems by Meghan O'Rourke

Meghan O'Rourke,poetry editor for The Paris Review and a cultural editor for Slate,is also a poet with unique ability to get a nearly intangible notion, an inexlicapable sensation into words. Giving voice to hunch, making the half-idea a textured, tangible thing, hers is a poetry that completes sentences we cannot finish ourselves. Precision and morphological accuracy aren't the point, and the words themselves, the images they create or suggest, are more like strands of half remembered music that is heard and triggers an intense rush of association; any number of image fragments, sounds, scents, bits of sentences, suggestions of seasonal light in a certain place, race and parade through the mind as fast as memory can dredge up the shards and let them loose. Just as fast, they are gone again, the source of quick elation or profound sadness gone; one can quite nearly sense that streaming cluster of associations that make up a large part of your existence rush onward, going around a psychic bend, scattering like blown dust in the larger universes of limitless life. All one is left with is memory of the sudden rush, the flash of clarity, and the rapid loss, the denaturing of one's sense of self in a community where one might have assumed they were solid and autonomous in their style of being, that nothing can upset the steady rhythm of a realized life.

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