Monday, December 24, 2012

New Yorker Fiction 2012

This year the New Yorker published 50 pieces of fiction. I read 34 of them. 

Here were my eight favorites:

A Brief Encounter with the Enemy (Jan. 16), by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. 

Sayrafiezadeh is becoming one of my new favorite writers. A previous story of his, "Paranoia," was on my list last year. This one, with its titular echo of Flannery O'Connor, was a disturbing war story that felt utterly true despite its obvious inventedness.

A Prairie Girl (Feb. 27) and The Casserole (Sep. 10), by Thomas McGuane

In the past twelve years, McGuane has been among the ten most frequently published writers of fiction in the New Yorker. Unfortunately, I typically find his work uninteresting. But this year he had two stories in the magazine that I thought were quite good. "A Prairie Girl" was a piquant tale of a determined heroine unbowed by conscience or sentiment; "The Casserole" a very brief story with a great ending.

The Proxy Marriage (May 21), by Maile Meloy 

I'm planning on teaching some stories from Maile Meloy's most recent story collection this coming semester. I'm tempted to bring in this story as well—one of the sweetest I've ever read in the magazine.

An Abduction (July 9), by Tessa Hadley 

Over the past twelve years, only Alice Munro has had more fiction published in the New Yorker than Tessa Hadley. Whereas I love Munro (a frequent flier on my year-end lists of favorites, though not this year), I find Hadley to be spottier. Sometimes I skip her stories; sometimes I like them a lot. This particular story was rather Munrovian, now that I think about it: a story of a young woman put into a situation in which she behaved differently than she would have expected, with an ending that leaps far into her future and reflects back on the episode's significance.

The Third-Born (Sep. 24), by Mohsin Hamid 

Told in the second person, this piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a book I definitely want to read. The story grippingly puts us into a world of poverty and desperation.

The Semplica-Girl Diaries (Oct. 15), by George Saunders 

Saunders is always on my year-end lists, but this story, I think, is one of his best of all time, a chilling tale of parenting, materialism, and today's economy.

Ox Mountain Death Song (Oct. 29), by Kevin Barry 

This tale of crime and punishment won me over with its narrative voice, tinged with Irish vernacular.

The sixteen stories I skipped were mostly by writers that I've grown tired of. Occasionally I would start a story and find it so uninteresting that I wouldn't finish it. For some reason I didn't read any of the fiction in the Science Fiction issue. I read every story published from August through December, and half of the ones published from January to July.

Did I miss any stories that you thought were great? Let me know. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Year in Reading

This year has not been a very productive one for me as a writer (as witnessed by the relative paucity of posts to this blog), but it has been productive as far as reading goes. And I suppose the two trends go hand-in-hand: the more you read, the less time you have to write, and also, at some level, the less drive you feel to write. There's so much that's already been written—does the world really need one more voice clamoring for attention?  

Last Christmas break, I got embroiled in William Faulkner’s Collected Stories, which I ended up reading about three-quarters of over the course of the year, along with a number of Faulkner novels: The Hamlet, If I Forget Thee Jerusalam (aka The Wild Palms), Light in August (which I re-read with a couple colleagues while one of them taught it to his juniors), and Absalom, Absalom!, which I read and discussed with a group of my colleagues over the summer. My reading of Faulkner inspired a couple blog posts about Faulkner and race, which you can read here and here.

I read Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic pair of science-fiction classics, The Sparrow and Children of God, recommended to me by a colleague and friend. I also read two books by the great cartoonist Alison Bechdel, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For and Are You My Mother?

I read a couple books about literary heroes of mine—Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America and D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Ghost Story is a Love Story—along with a number of memoirs by writers and musicians: Dylan’s own Chronicles, Volume One; Gil Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday; Haki Madhubuti’s YellowBlack (recommended to me by a reader of this blog in response to one of my Faulkner posts); Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s gripping When Skateboards Will Be Free; and Jay-Z’s Decoded, which came in handy when I taught hip-hop in the final week of my senior African American Voices class.

I’ve long been interested in residential segregation and the fate of the American city, and this year I read a number of books that added to my understand of those issues: Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier; Stephen Grant Meyer’s As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door; Beryl Satter’s amazingly good Family Properties; two plays, both overrated, in my opinion: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and its more recent companion piece, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park; Jeffrey Copeland’s Olivia’s Story, a novel about St. Louis and the Shelley v. Kraemer case; and, lastly, a series of very interesting guidebooks by local historian John A. Wright: Discovering African-American St. Louis; Kinloch; The Ville; St. Louis: Disappearing African American Communities; and African Americans in Downtown St. Louis.

In addition to segregation in housing, I also read about mass incarceration, in Michelle Alexander’s troubling and informative The New Jim Crow. I read Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? I read Nigger and Sellout, both by Randall Kennedy, whose prose's clarity I greatly admire; and a fascinating work of history and political theory, Robert C. Smith’s Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They are the Same.

As for other African Americana, I read Eddy Harris’s travelogue South of Haunted Dreams  and Arnold Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. In search of some material to use in class, I dipped into The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I also read a gripping account of King’s assassination and its aftermath, Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail.

I read a number of collections of short stories: Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s updating of Sherwood Anderson, brutal but not heartless; Tobias Wolff’s early, Chekhovian collection Back in the World; Alice Munro’s early collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, which I’m planning on teaching from this coming semester in my Reading and Writing Fiction class; James Alan McPherson’s groundbreaking Hue and Cry; along with some of the stories, including the brilliant title piece, in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.

Most recently, I read Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic tale, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a devastating work of journalism by Christopher Hedges and Joe Sacco which at times put me in a rather apocalyptic mood.

Before this Christmas break is over, I’d like to read a couple more books, at least: Danielle Evans’s short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful StruggleAnd in the next couple of days I should be getting to the end of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I’ve been reading to my middle daughter, intending to finish up in time to watch the movie with the whole family over vacation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Care?

The final paragraph of Robert Fitzgerald's postscript to his 1961 translation of The Odyssey:

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views. But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts—cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace—these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer's words and in mine.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Coates on Jefferson

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Thomas Jefferson:

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.