It's especially appropriate that I am writing this post today, given that yesterday I got more page views in a single day than I ever have before. That makes me really happy. This blog has been one of this year's biggest successes.
You know, ever since high school I've wanted to be a blogger. I like to opine. I have tons of thoughts. And I have a fairly charming confessional style. But sometimes it has felt like my efforts were doomed. The heyday of blogging is, admittedly, over. And even if it wasn't, I really have no idea how to find an audience.
However, if you look at the following graph, you can see that I must be doing something right:
What you're looking at is a roughly 3x increase increase in monthly pageviews between this year and the equivalent month in 2011. The absolute numbers are still very low (I doubt that I have more than 100-200 actual readers, even if I include people on RSS feeds [who wouldn't necessarily be counted in these statistics]). But there is a hugely upwards trend!
As you can see, this blog has been on WordPress for four years. And, in each of those years, traffic has at least doubled. No longer do I make jokes about how the only people who read this blog are my friends. That's just not true anymore (though I am surprised, and gratified, by how many of my real life friends do read it).
The biggest reason why traffic has spiked recently is that I have been posting much more frequently. Early this year, I got tired of losing readers due to non-activity, so I decided to commit myself to writing three posts every week. And, to a large extent, I've been able to meet that goal.
But, by itself, increased posting volume would only account for about half of the roughly 250% increase in traffic this year. The rest of it is either due to new readers or more dedicated readers (ones who read more pages per visit). And I feel like it's probably the former. God knows where you come from, but I am very happy to have you. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm trying to consciously grow the readership of this blog. That's one reason I've become so much more active on Twitter and Facebook lately. I've also been commenting much more often on other blogs. However, if I'm been doing this right (and I kind of feel like I am) you probably haven't noticed this. And if you have, then you haven't interpreted it as self-promotion activity. (And I don't think my social networking activity is really that self-promotional. It's mostly just an extension of what I've been trying to do with this blog, which is have fun and form connections with people.)
Anyway, I don't know whether my traffic will continue to grow exponentially, but...err...I really hope it does?
(Yes, I do realize that these statistics are woefully inadequate. Up until recently, WordPress only measured pageviews, not unique visitors. Now that I have Google Analytics, I should start getting much better data).
I dunno. Let me ask you. How did you find this site?
December 20th, 2003 was the day when I completed (and submitted) my first short story. I was eighteen years old. Which means that today is the end of my 9th year of writing. That is a lot of years. And ever since about August of 2004, I've been keeping the kind of daily word counts that enable me to write year-end blog posts like this one:
Word counts became substantially less important to me this year. Last year, I hit the magical "one million words" marker that Isaac Asimov (or somebody) said would make me a real writer. That did not happen. Or maybe it did. When I sit down to do my writing, I definitely don't feel more masterful than I did last year. But I'm pretty sure that no writer ever reaches the point where they're like, "Shit, yeah, I got this..."
So I didn't worry as much about word counts this year as I did last year. Actually, this was the first year where I experimented with measuring the amount of time that I spend both writing and reading. For reading, this is a great measure, and it's much better than the last indicator I used, which was simply logging the number of books that I read. Book-logging encourages a person to read shorter books (since your "score" is how many books you read). Measuring the amount of time you read removes this incentive. I found, this year, that I was significantly more willing to read longer books, like Trollope's novels.
For writing, I am not so sure. I started measuring writing time because it felt like my old target (hitting 1,000 words a day) had gotten relatively easy, but simply increasing my daily target felt like it would be exhausting. Measuring writing time felt like it would begin to get at the heart of the matter, which was time management. However, measuring writing time does feel like it, to some degree, encourages procrastination, since I get "credit" for sitting down without producing things. This fear might be overblown, however, since it seems like my per-minute productivity hasn't varied much from month to month (highest was 16.41 wpm in June, when I was finishing a novel and lowest was 14.29 wpm in August). Anyway, that's why I still measure word counts. You know, just keeping myself honest. The end result of all this effort is, after all, to produce something.
On a sidenote, the last day on which I didn't write something was July 7th, 2011. That means that every day this year I've produced something. Now, plenty of those days (48 of them) were <250 word days. And many of them (14 of them) were just 50 word days. But that counts! Or at least it does for me. I've also met my personal weekly goal (5000 words) for 47 of the last 50 weeks. Guys, I have, like, a real work ethic now.
This year I produced one novel (which I've yet to revise) and 26 short stories. I also revised and submitted 20 short stories (ten of which were written last year). I sent out a ton of short stories and, as of today, have received about 183 rejections. I also sent out a bunch of novel queries, but I'm not going to talk about exactly how many (dear agents: my novel is very much in demand; please respond post-haste, thank you).
There's a simple reason why I've written fewer stories than I did in 2012, despite writing more words. I've started to do a significant quantity of rewriting. Whereas I rarely used to go to even a second draft, now it's not uncommon for me to write five or six (or, in some cases, more than a dozen) drafts of a story. Also, I stop writing stories when I realize that they're bad. Furthermore, this year I wrote two novellas (ugh, I guess I'll get around to revising them someday, even though the odds of selling them are soooooooo low).
There's so much delay, even in short story writing, and it always leads me to the same feeling: this sense that I am becoming a worse writer. Last year, I sold five stories written in 2010 and only 2 stories written in 2011. Of this year's eight stories, only one ("Next Door") was written in 2012. Logic tells me that next year I will probably sell a bunch of stories written in 2012 and relatively few stories written in 2013.
So, yes, writing-wise, it's been a good year. I abandoned one novel. And the next novel that I wrote wasn't very good. But I learned a lot about novel-writing! And I entered the novel submissions game for the first time and I learned a lot about that too! I sold a lot of stories. And I wrote a lot of stories too. I've done a lot of thinking, this year, about the kinds of things I want to write and the ways in which to write those things...and I think I'm slowly starting to put some of that thinking into practice. I'm probably--almost certainly--not a worse writer than I was a year ago.
Notes On Table
I only started keeping daily wordcounts halfway through 2004, which is why those numbers don't quite match up w/ the yearly wordcount.
I define a "pro" sale as one which pays over 5 cent a word
I started keeping "Writing Time" statistics on 5/16/12
I started keeping "Reading Time" statistics on 5/31/12
My "Goal" for each week is 5000 words
2012 statistics are only current as of 12/20/12
Fractional novels (unfinished novels) are included in the yearly count, but not in the overall count of novels completed
Daily word counts are based either on words produced (whether or not they will appear in the final draft of a story) or on revision time, with some set number of words (currently 900 words) given as credit for every hour of revision time.
Since February 15th, I've been reading submissions for a venerable SF magazine, Strange Horizons*. According to my email client, I rejected about 850 stories. If I include the stories I passed up (which get rejected by the actual fiction editors), I read and reviewed about 900 stories. Which means I was reading about three stories every day.
And now I'm done. I can't say that the experience was a bad one. Reviewing the stories didn't take long. And I learned exactly what I wanted to learn. I got an intuitive sense of what's out there and what doesn't quite work. And I think it's helped my own stories. Sometimes I'll think of an idea for a story and realize, "Ugh, it's just going to be another story in a slush pile" and I'll back away and do something more creative. And that's a good thing.
Nor was I particularly aggrieved by the quality of the slush. Most of it wasn't terrible and almost all of it is clearly written by people who are intelligent and well-spoken. Personally, I've written and submitted worse stories than almost everything I've rejected. Although I'd like to think that nowadays my stories tend, more often than not, to drift to the top of the slush, they still get rejected by slush readers and editors all the time. So, no, nothing in the slush really bothered me. In fact, I feel like authors spend way too much time worrying about whether something is good enough or whether it'll fit a particular market when they should really just be sending it out to whichever market excites them.
That having been said, I am glad to be done. I could never get over the feeling that the authors had worked really hard to write these stories. They'd slaved over them for days or weeks or months and they really cared about them...and I was glancing over them in five minutes. Of course, that limited time expenditure is exactly why I didn't resent them, but still...
Well, anyway, that's all over now. Never again! If there's anything that I feel no desire to do, it's editing. It feels too much like work.
*Alright, it's only like 12 years old...but that's pretty venerable for an online magazine, right?
The most bittersweet part of compiling this list is looking at all the books that I didn't blog about. As always, these included many of my most favorite books of the year. Sometimes you read something, and you just don't have anything to say. Or you do have something, and then the moment passes. Out of all the books that I didn't blog, perhaps my favorite was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. What a thoroughly excellent book. Here are twenty books that I enjoyed but did not write about.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain - This book is kinda racist. And it’s not because of the N-word; it’s because of the horrible portrayal of Jim--an adult man who is depicted as a bumbling idiot who is deathly afraid of witches and ghosts. Especially in the first third of the book, I cringed during most of the sections with Jim. There’s an entire chapter just devoted to laughing about how silly it is that Jim believes a witch is haunting him. Honestly, I am kind of surprised that this book is taught in school. It’s clear that while Twain might have sympathy for Jim, he has no empathy for him. Whereas Huck has a very multi-faceted character, because of his upbringing, he’s unable to question the morality of slavery, but he still, out of some kind of base animal pity (a feeling he’s ashamed of!) agrees to help Jim escape from slavery. Jim doesn’t get nearly this kind of complexity. He’s a plot element who also comes in as occasional comic relief whenever Twain needs to round out a chapter. That having been said, there is a fair amount of good stuff in the novel. I thought it picked up once they started rafting down the river and Huck started getting into some hijinx--dressing like a girl and hooking up with a pair of con artists and the like. But even aside from the racism, the book has structural defects. The last sections, where Tom and Huck engage in an interminable plot to break Jim out of prison are just really dull. The novel ends up kind of sputtering to a close.
Best American Essays (2011), ed. by Edwidge Danticat -- So I’ve been thinking about getting into the essay business. In order to see what that might involve, I read this anthology. My conclusion is that it involves a whole heap of dead parents and troubled childhoods. Actually, that’s unfair, I skipped a bunch of the essays, so the dead parent ones were actually not the worst. I don’t know what it is. I guess I just expect more craziness in my personal essays, whereas most of these essays seemed to be about explicating prosaic things using beautiful language. That’s not what I want. The best essays were, for me, the stranger ones. For instance, there was an essay by Victor LaValle in which he describes how, as a very fat college student, he used to pay 99 cents a minute to have phone sex with a 52 year old woman who lived in Upstate New York. They had, like, a regular, ongoing thing. Or a piece of reportage by Charles LeDuff about the murder--by the police--of a young black girl in Detroit. Oh, wait, the absolute craziest of the essays was one by Bridget Potter’s attempt, as a 19 year old in 1962, to get an abortion. She ends up flying to Puerto Rico and doing all kinds of shady things. I loved it. I would read a book of essays like that. But most of the essays were not like that. I mean, I like the prosaic as much as anyone, but if you’re going to describe the prosaic, you gotta bring the big guns, and these essayists just did not do that
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe -- I really loved Journal Of A Plague Year and Moll Flanders, and I enjoyed this one a lot too. However, I did have issues with it that I didn’t have with the other two books. For one thing, it’s super racist. Examples: Crusoe escapes from captivity with the help of an Arab boy and then he sells the boy into slavery; after twenty years of isolation on his island, Crusoe finds another person, and the first thing he does is teach the other man to call him “Master”; Crusoe has no problem with slavery and murder, but when he discovers that nearby islanders are cannibals he goes totes crazy with godly outrage and starts plotting to murder them all. On the other hand, all of this was a lot more palatable than the racism of Huckleberry Finn because at least Defoe is not trying to dress himself up as an anti-racist. No, Crusoe hates non-whites (and Spaniards!) and nothing in the book even hints at trying to say that maybe those are not good things to do. And, other than that, the book is really fun. It’s totally unrealistic, of course, and is nothing at all like what being shipwrecked would really be like, but it is sort of the original “I am stranded on an island and am master of all that I survey” fantasy, and it’s charming in its simplicity
Tender Is The Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald - I love The Great Gatsby and the short stories, and I’d long heard people say that this is Fitzgerald’s best novel. I would have to disagree with that assessment. It’s a good novel, an interesting novel, and even a gripping novel, but it’s also thin. All the settings feel understaffed and empty. The narration is bare-bones and dry and doesn’t have the lovely voice that characterized Gatsby. And it’s astonishing the degree to which Nicole Diver--the Zelda Fitzgerald character--is elided. She hardly gets to speak. We only get the vaguest glimmers of the form and nature of her madness. I think the novel could’ve benefited from considerably less coyness. Still, it has many strengths, particularly in the first section and last sections. The portrayal of glamorous Jazz Age couples (and, later, wrecked, dissipated Jazz Age couples) is something that Fitzgerald can do in his sleep.
Independence Day by Richard Ford - I remarked earlier in the year about how I loved The Sportswriter. And I did. I would recommend it to absolutely anyone. I am not so sure about its Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, however. The Sportswriter had this amazing voice, you could sense the suppressed craziness in every sentence spoken by its narrator (the eponymous sportswriter--a man whose marriage broke up following the death of his youngest son). And over the course of that Memorial Day weekend, some real crazy shit goes down! Here, Ford basically does the same thing. You’ve got the same narrator. The same ersatz, jagged family dynamics. The same struggle to find his place. The same compressed time frame. And all of that is good. But the craziness is gone! The Sportswriter was a meditative book, but things also happened--the book gripped me. In Independence Day, fewer things happen and, dare I say it, the book skirted the edge of becoming tedious. But maybe if I hadn’t read the first novel, I would’ve enjoyed the second novel more. And I definitely still enjoyed Independence Day, but I would say that if you’re thinking about reading one of them, then you should go with the first one.
Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger – Catcher In The Rye is another of those books that I hated in high school (where, due to a change in schools, I had to read it in both 9th and 10th grades), but loooved when I re-read it in college. I also really liked Franny and Zooey and even Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (you know you’re a Salinger fan when you enjoy 70 pages of Salinger rhapsodizing about the utter perfection of one of his Mary Sues). I can’t say why it took me so long to read Nine Stories. I think I was just put off by the first story: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” I mean…it’s a great story, but there’s just something about it that’s so wrong. There is no reason why it should work. Anyway, once I got over that (which took about two years), I loved this collection. Salinger has such a warm, comfortable voice. You can just read it for hours, even when he’s talking about Buddhism and crap. Which he mostly doesn’t do in this volume! There’s so much good stuff in here. In “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” an 18-year old kid becomes arts instructor at a correspondence college and starts to obsess about the beautiful paintings of one of his students (who’s also a nun). In “The Laughing Man,” a narrator talks about the scoutmaster of the “Comanche Club” that he belonged to in his youth and how the scoutmaster used to tell him thrilling Lone-Ranger-type stories about a figure called the Laughing Man—eventually we see how the spiritual disintegration of the Laughing Man is paralleled by that of the scoutmaster. Just good, intricately-structured, warmly-written stuff. I’ve only rarely read short stories that were as purely enjoyable as this.
It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth – This Canadian graphic novel frequently makes those lists of best graphic novels ever. And it deserves it. I have to say that I was up in the air about this one for most of the time that I was reading it. There was something about the art style—very pale blues and reds and simple figures without much depth—that put me off. And the story is a bit slow. It’s about a modern-day cartoonist who becomes interested in the creator of a few New Yorker strips way back in the 70s. All he knows about the creator is his pen-name: Kalo. From there, the cartoonist slowly delves into Kalo’s history. But, at some point, everything clicked for me. The sparseness and colorlessness of the art meshed with the loneliness of the storyline. And the ending is so understated and so perfect.
Drinking At The Movies by Julie Wertz – I don’t think I ever write about graphic novels that are not mopey autobiographical comics…in truth, that’s mostly what I enjoy. You can keep your Walking Dead and I’ll busy myself with comics about a cartoonist who moves from San Francisco to New York and spends a year just…I dunno…being miserable…drinking a lot…doing mid-twenties stuff…fighting roaches…quitting terrible jobs…squabbling with roommates. It’s just good times.
House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I love Edith Wharton, even if I can never remember which of her books is which. All of her books have such totally forgettable and similar-sounding titles: Custom Of The Country; Age of Innocence; House Of Mirth. But whatevs, this was my favorite of them all! It’s about a woman, Lily Bart, who is super beautiful and somewhat poor and lives by sponging off her rich society acquaintances. From her girlhood, she’s been trained to marry money. But…although she doesn’t lack for offers, she keeps putting it off. Every time she comes close to making a match, she swerves and turns away. And every time she comes close to falling in love, she swerves away from that too. What I love about Lily is that she’s not brilliantly self-actualized. She’s brave and she’s ingenious, but she doesn’t know what she wants. She needs money and she needs love and she can’t find both. There are no good solutions for her.
Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – I wish that me and Oscar Wilde could’ve been friends. I wrote a few years back about how I think “The Importance Of Being Earnest” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And I love his essays. I’m not sure how right they are (“The Soul Of Man Under Socialism” seems, to me, very fuzzy and aristocratic), but he always words things so beautifully (and you can tell that he’s given a lot of thought to what he says). Oh yeah, and his only novel is the bomb. And, it’s kind of a fantasy novel! As you probably well know, it’s about a handsome young fella whose portrait is painted by a well-known artist. And then, for the rest of the life, the portrait ages instead of Dorian. Anyway, roughly 80% of this book is talking. A lot of it is witty, highly-mannered, vaguely philosophical talk. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered what exactly they were talking about, but I do remember that it was exceedingly funny, but that it had these undertones of despair. It’s a portrait of a place and a time and a people (a gay people, one might note); in many ways, I suppose it’s the depressing autobiographical comic of the 1890s. Anyway, it was an experience. I read it in one sitting, while on an airplane.
I feel like there’s no way to say “Pride and Prejudice was really good” without somehow indicating that you know it’s supposed to be good and that you’re not surprised it’s good. And that’s why this entry is titled “Predictably good books.”
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – I love Jane Austen. Before reading P&P, I’d read literally every other Jane Austen novel. But I had a mental block about the big P because it was the very first assigned-reading class (I was supposed to read it way back in 10th grade) that I just gave up on reading (beginning a long association with Cliff Notes). I really can’t say why I found this to be soooo boring when I was 16. But at age 26, I can tell you that this book is the bomb. It’s the only novel of hers, other than Emma, that’s reliably funny. Aside from the main triangle (Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy) everyone in this book is hilarious, from the Liz’s overserious suitor Mr. Collins to her silly and clueless parents. And the book is well-plotted, too. The structure is interesting and interesting things happen. I don’t think there is anything about this novel that is not perfect. Well, except for Liz Bennett’s priggishness. Seriously, Jane Austen, I don’t understand why you hate dancing and joking around and having fun so much. Not since Mansfield Park (where the main character throws a huge fit because her cousins are putting on a play in their living room) have I been so mystified about what an Austen character’s problem is. Seriously, why is she down on her parents and her sisters? I guess that’s the curse of creating delightful comic characters—no one will believe you when you try to tell people that they are actually terrible and immoral people.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – Yet another book I was supposed to read for class (during my junior year of college I took an English course called Visions of Ecology where we were assigned a ton of SF novels…the course probably would’ve been better if I’d actually done the reading…) But anyway, this is a really masterful document. Of course, you probably all know that this is a long tract about how pesticide spraying is killing tons of animals and probably causing cancer and stuff too. But, aside from the wonderfully ominous language, the interesting thing is how it’s structured. It doesn’t start off at the beginning, like most nonfiction books, by telling you, “This is the case I’m going to make.” And it doesn’t go from specific to general and then back to specific again. Instead, it’s this free-flowing impressionist mass of detail—die-offs and sprayings and extinctions are listed by the dozens—that are grouped in chapters according to some very intuitive progression. It’s a page-turner.
Middlemarch by George Eliot – This is a tome. I read it in Madrid and it took me a solid week. But it wasn’t difficult to get through. Each page is delightful. It doesn’t have the super-tedious stretches or the absurd plot elements that I’ve come to expect from Victorian novels, just page after page of good solid observation (and slightly outsized characters). Structurally, this novel kind of resembles Anna Karenina in that it’s about three pairs of lovers and contains one love triangle. The main love story, where Dorothea suffers through a marriage to the tedious priest Mr. Causubon was (while still interesting!) not the most fun part of the book. The other two plots, where Doctor Lydgate slowly has to sacrifice his intellectual ambitions in order to please his wife and where the feckless ne’er-do-well Fred Vincy has to shape up so he can marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth were, for me, the heart of the story. But there’s just so much stuff in here! It’s kind of amazing. For instance, it’s treatment of politics (all the characters have some interest in politics, and the capstone of one of its books is a very rough Parliamentary campaign) is one of the best I’ve seen (although it helps to do some Wikipedia reading so you know what bills and such they’re talking about). It’s kind of unbelievable how good this book is. I kind of want to reread it now.
Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King, Jr – This is King’s account of the Birmingham Bus Boycott. It’s a wonderful document—a whole book written in that morally powerful voice that Kind perfected. The centerpiece of the book is King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail” and a fairly large portion of the book is dedicated to taking down the black and white moderates who are urging him to wait and to proceed slowly in his crusade for justice. Personally, I love this kind of squabbling, especially when it’s set as such a historical remove that I can imagine myself on the right side.
The Blind Side by Michael Lewis – I feel like I’ve mentioned this one a few times in the last few weeks. It’s Michael Lewis book about Michael Oher, an NFL tackle who came from a very rough background and was adopted by a white family whose mother was later portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the Oscar-winning film of the same name, etc. etc. This was the most purely enjoyable reading experiences that I had this year. There was nothing difficult about this book. It was the perfect mix of narrative and analysis. It’s like Malcolm Gladwell meets Tobias Wolff. The story of the movie The Blind Side actually forms maybe only about one third to one half of the book (and it’s much more fleshed out in the book, too, of course, especially since it contains much more of Michael Oher’s own voice and own story). The rest of the book is about the changes in the game of football that made someone like Michael Oher into such a valuable property. Now, I don’t know anything about football and I don’t really care about football at all, and I still loved this book. Sports are driven by numbers and economics in a way that’s different from almost every other field of human endeavor. And I love reading about that.
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green – This year, I’ve read a fair number of YA novels with contemporary settings, but this was one of the first of them. It was also the best. The novel’s triumph is its self-aware voice. The narrator is a teenager who’s suffering from cancer. And she’s a teenager who’s also read a ton of novels about teenagers who are suffering from cancer. As such, she knows exactly where and how her story is beginning to sound like the tear-stained narrative of a “cancer girl”. But, underneath the playful metatextuality, this novel is actually about a young girl who has cancer, and one who is mostly likely going to die quite young. Its playfulness allows it to avoid sentimentality and the typical easy answers, instead, it proceeds along in a jagged but very satisfying way. If you cry when you read books, there’s a not insignificant chance that this book will make you cry, but there’s more to it than that. There aren’t very many contemporary YA novels that rise above the formulas that they embrace. This one has so many of the formulas, but it also treats each page as something interesting and important. There’s a fullness in this book that you don’t find in many novels.
Escape From Camp 14 by Shin Dong-Hyuk and Blaine Harden – Alright, yes, there are two trashy nonfiction books about North Korea in this list. Didn’t I tell you that I loved NK in a way that is probably beginning to seem a bit creepy and perhaps problematic? So, in North Korea there is this huge network of prison camps in the northern mountains. Hundreds of thousands of people live in these camps. People are born in these camps and they die in these camps. You can get beaten to death pretty much whenever the guards in these camps feel like it. You gotta work all day doing horrendously dangerous stuff. You don’t get nearly enough food and the only way to survive is to suck up to the guards and inform on your friends and such. And only like ten people have ever escaped from the camps. This book is the memoir of one of those people (the memoir was narrated to Blaine Harden, a journalist, and Harden does considerable work in arranging and laying out the memoir, so I am crediting him as one of the authors). Shin Dong-Hyuk was born in Camp 14 and the camp was his whole world. When he escaped, he had only the vaguest conception of geography: he knew nothing about the United States or the Korean War. He’d never even been in the rest of North Korea. The tiny town near his camp looks, to him, like a bustling metropolis. But, nonetheless, he slowly makes his way to China, then to South Korea, then to the United States. And, meanwhile, he struggles with the things he had to do to survive. If you’re anything like me, you will feel like a terrible, exploitative person for enjoying this one. But it is soooo enjoyable.
The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Robert Fitzgerald) – Yes, I know, it makes me sound like a goober to say that the Odyssey was surprisingly good. But, check it, The Iliad is gooood, but it has also has numerous very boring parts: pages and pages and pages where “Hexachimeles, son of Xardes, of the mountains of Illymaches” lashes out with his spear against “Porythribes, son of Kallybdis, of the fair island of Scythinivax”. For whole chapters! And don’t even get me started on the processions and on the lines of long, black ships. I mean, all that stuff might’ve been interesting back in the day, when perhaps Porythribes was, like, your legendary great-great-granddad. But for modern people, it gets a bit much. But, there’s none of that in The Odyssey: It’s all story. And it’s fascinating to see how the story differs from our popular conception of it. Most media depictions of The Odyssey focus on the events of the sea voyage: encountering the sirens; fighting Polyphemus; captivity at the hands of the witches, Circe and Calypso. But that’s really only about 1/4th of the book. Most of the book is concerned with what happens after he comes home (hint, he kills a ton of people). And there’s also this fascinating counter-narrative, where his son sails around Greece and faces dangers and we learn how Agammemnon was killed by Clytemnestra. The book isn’t about adventures. It’s about homecomings. It’s filled with these strange homecomings that overshadow and parallel each other. All in all, it’s pretty fun times. Shorter than The Iliad too.
Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis – You know, a lot of books on this list are memoirs. I understand why nonfiction sells so well. Memoir is just so satisfying. It doesn’t need to have quite as much thematic resonance. It can focus on the details of how things work. And then, at the end, you don’t necessarily need any big lesson other than, “Welp, that’s how things work.” This one is the first book by Michael Lewis (who went on to write Moneyball and The Blind Side and such). It details his four years as a bonds trader for Salomon Brothers in the 80s, during that flashy cocaine and yelling era so ably depicted by movies like Wall Street. I kind of feel like the primary reason that this book is popular is that it validates the lives of those of us who decided not to attempt to get a finance job (in my case, because I’m not willing to work 100 hours a week on anything [and that includes writing]). This book makes finance jobs seem terrible. Which is exactly what I like to believe about all high-status, high-paying professions. Is there a book out there that makes doctoring look terrible? I’d read that in a second. But aside from that, the book is a lot of fun. It also contains much technical (albeit probably out of date) detail on bond trading and the structure of financial firms. And a ton of interesting characters. This book started me on a Michael Lewis kick, and I have to say that I’ve enjoyed his books a lot. Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short are all well worth checking out.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno – Several blogs started talking about this book right as I was starting to feel a bit mopey about my writing career. After seeing Nick Mamatas’ review of it, I bought the book. It’s the memoir of a woman on the fringes of academic life. She leaves New York to follow her husband, a rare books librarian, to Akron and then to Raleigh-Durham. She does a bit of adjuncting here and there (mostly in Women’s Studies), but has no chance at getting a real appointment. She’s a writer of fictions, but her works are small-press and not terribly successful. She spends her days lying around the apartment and reading and not really doing much of anything else. And, woven through the above story, she free-associates about the women of modernist literature: Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Leigh, Jane Bowles, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf. She examines how their lives were shaped by their marriages and how their writing ambitions to suppressed by the cultural milieu. It’s a really fascination performance, and one that it’s difficult to describe in one paragraph. Throughout, the book reminded me most often of David Markson and the way that he can write entire books composed of one-paragraph facts about artists: the facts are carefully chosen, and they resonate in interesting subtextual ways.
Okay guys, I had to restrict this list to books that I haven't already blogged about. It was the only way to reduce it to manageable size. So these are not the most "surprisingly good" books I've read this year. They're simply the most "surprisingly good" books that I haven't already written about. I chose ten books, so hopefully I'll post about five today and five tomorrow.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe -- Okay, yeah, the goodness of this book should not have surprised me. It's one of the classics of English literature. It gets taught in school and everything. But somehow, I'd categorized this Nigerian village novel alongside the Indian village novel and, let me tell you, the latter can often be a pretty mopey bunch of books: they're just sooo full of tragedy. And I guess TFA is full of tragedy too, but the thing that no one tells you is that it's also hilarious. At its core, this is a comedic novel. It's more Dickens than it is Faulkner. And it's legitimately laugh out loud funny. At times, it almost seemed like a fantasy novel, since it's a novel that takes seriously the beliefs of its characters. They come together and enact their rituals and propitiate their gods, and there is never that little sneer that so often pervades colonialist novels--the sneer that says, "Oh, they enacted their silly little traditions". It was one of the best novels that I read this year (also surprising was its length--you can finish this one in an afternoon!)
A Provincial Celebrity In Paris by Honore De Balzac -- I really like Emile Zola, who was very influenced by Balzac, but I never gave much thought to HB. What I like in Zola is the social critique, but I felt like maybe there wasn't so much of that in Balzac. This is the second Balzac novel I'd read, and I'd already realized that Balzac has a very antiquated style: everything is a lecture. Either the characters are lecturing you or the narrator is lecturing you. For god's sake, he'll go on for ten pages about how they went about making paper from wood-pulp and rags. But I really enjoyed this novel. It's a send-up of literary society in 1830s Paris. You see newspapermen and poets and novelists and playwrights and society people all fighting against each other and using their tools in quite unsavory ways in order to make or destroy reputations. There was just something about it that was very fun.
The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And The People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman -- I read this one after a recommendation from a friend. It's basically a collection of literary essays by a comparative literature graduate student (I think she was a PhD candidate at Stanford) where she makes fun of the silliness of academia and of her own life in particular. The first essay, by far the best, is about organizing an Isaac Babel conference where the author's legitimate and illegitimate daughters come in and snipe at each other. Meanwhile, the essay weaves in all these facts about Babel's life and about Batuman's personal life. It's a melange of awesomeness. The longest essay is an extended description of a summer studying in Samarkand (the capital of Uzbekistan), which is a destination apparently chosen by Batuman just because there was money available. I just...I don't know...there's really no way to describe this book. It shouldn't work, but it does. If you love Russian literature and/or hijinks, then you will love this book.
Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy DeLisle -- Okay, so, like everyone else with an internet connection, I'm kind of obsessed with North Korea. It's just the weirdest place on Earth. It combines the messianism of Nazi Germany with the advanced bureacratization of the Soviet Union and leavens in some of the decadence of the late Roman Empire. Well, I mean, let's just take this graphic novel for example. A French animation company has outsourced some of its drawing to North Korea. Because of some obscure government initiative, there's a working animation studio in a country where like half the people are starving to death. This graphic novel was written by a French animator who was sent to help the North Korean studio get off the ground. It's such a strange, lonely comic. The narrator walks around in a solitary bubble. He's accompanied everywhere by political officers. He lives on an entire island that's been set aside solely to entertain and house foreigners. He glimpses North Korean life through windows and knows that there are a million secrets he'll never uncover (like where all the elderly and disabled people went, or whether the North Koreans really do love their leader). It was a beautiful, startling, and darkly humorous book.
Mill On The Floss by George Eliot -- I read two Eliot books this year: Mill On The Floss and Middlemarch. I loved them both, but I was surprised by how much more I liked this one than Middlemarch. I felt like Middlemarch was somehow...incomplete or unrealized. It started to hint at all these themes but it sometimes failed to get there in the end. Whereas Mill On The Floss felt perfect. It's basically an autobiographical novel about a young girl from an impoverished home who's trying to find some use for her abilities. Eventually, she falls into disgrace and is rejected by her family. Of course it's a Victorian novel so roughly a zillion things are happening at once, and there's some hella funny stuff, too, like the slow downfall of the girl's family because her father is simply unable to keep himself from suing people, but mostly it's this very lonely book, about a girl who's trying to grow up and to realize her talents. It also has a completely insane ending that, weirdly, kind of works.
I am unapologetic in my love of all the yearly roundups that people post on their blogs at around this time of year, and ever since 2010, I've conducted my own month-long navel-gazing extravaganza called Wrap-Up Season. Typically, I begin by talking about the books I've read in the year. I divide these books into four categories: Predictably Good; Surprisingly Good; Books About Which I Have Mixed Feelings; and BAAAAAAAD (although somehow I never seem to get around to posting about the last category...that sort of thing just doesn't enthuse me). Then I usually conduct some kind of blog round-up, looking at what kind of stuff I've posted in the last year. And finally, around December 20th (the day from which I date the beginning of my writing career), I write about the year's writing statistics and accomplishments. Then, at the very end of the year, I post some personal stuff.
This year, I'm also thinking about posting a little (in a very nonspecific way) about my slush-reading gig (which is coming to a close), about my first semester of teaching, and about the MFA experience. So, yeah, that's that. Here are links to my previousWrap-Up Seasons. I think that this one will be the biggest and most complete of them all!
In other news, I watched The Blind Side yesterday. It was ermazing. And kind of a milestone for me, since it's the first movie that I've completed in well over a year (I think the last time I watched a whole movie was when my brother and father and I made a family outing to Santa Barbara last Thanksgiving). Somehow, I've just lost the attention span for long-form audiovisual entertainment.
But I'd read the The Blind Side (by Michael Lewis) earlier in the year, and found it to be extremely excellent: one of the finest books I've read this year. And I love Sandra Bullock and tear-jerkers and inspirational sports movies. In fact, I love everything about sports (except watching sports games). Watching Sandra Bullock impersonate a gun-toting super Christian millionaire do-gooder was hilarious.
The Blind Side is my favorite kind of movie: the kind with no antagonist. There are no bad people in The Blind Side. There's very little conflict of any sort, actually. The whole film is just about well-meaning people trying to reach out to this very closed-off young man.
I understand why people see this movie as having weird racial undertones. There is some really weird stuff going on here. For instance, the subject of the film--Michael Oher--is literally silent throughout most of the film. He does not speak. He is mostly ventriloquized by Sandra Bullock's tough (but empathetic) character. Obviously, this is kind of a problem. Additionally, he's portrayed as something of a tabula rasa. He's a Lenny--a huge child (in fact, his deepest connection is with the Bullock character's 9 year old son)--who is slowly filled up with knowledge and manners and even athletic skills by the savvy people who surround him.
In the book, these elements were not quite as overwhelming, because the primary story of the book was about how a person with little-to-no football experience can suddenly, after just a few high school games, come to be seen, by virtue of his outstanding physicality, as one of the year's hottest recruiting prospects. That's not really how it's supposed to work: big guys are supposed to be a dime-a-dozen; it's the training and the mental game and the discipline that're supposed to raise them above the herd. But at least as it's written in the book, it seems like being really big and really strong and really fast is enough, by itself, for Oher to be really exciting to a whole bunch of coaches.
Anyway, that's not really what the movie is about. The movie is kind of poverty porn. It's about how crazy it is that there can be a kid who no one cares about, who doesn't even have a foster family, who has completely slipped through every crack, and who is completely adrift at age sixteen. Oh yeah, and it's about exploiting the sheer visual craziness of his adoption by a family of white millionaires.
But...umm...well...it's kind of impossible to justify this movie.