There is more fiction than non-fiction on this list, but that’s only because my non-fiction reading this year has been dominated by a succession of esoteric obsessions. I encountered some very good books that way, but the mini-reviews for all of them would have gone something like “A good book if you happen to be interested in Albania/imperial Russia/Japanese fiction/the British Raj/post-colonial Africa.” I have chosen instead to concentrate on books that appeal to the general reader. I have also omitted books already reviewed on this blog, otherwise The Adventures of Sumiyakist Q, Letters from Russia, The Stammering Century, An Ambiguous Adventure, and Mike Hoare’s Congo memoirs all would have made the cut.
1. An African in Greenland, Tété-Michel Kpomassie (1981): The main attraction of this book is its remarkable premise: A teenage West African tribesman becomes fixated on Greenland after seeing a picture of it, and through herculean effort makes it there and turns himself into a seal-hunting, husky-driving honorary Inuit. For me there is something perversely funny about just how closely his description of the natives of Greenland resembles some of the most notorious cliches of Western writing about Africa. The natives in the cities live off welfare from their colonizers! They would rather get wasted and screw indiscriminately than do an honest day’s work! The people out in the hinterlands are the only ones who have preserved the nobility of their ancient way of life! Their virtues are all of the peasant variety—honesty, simplicity, hospitality, et cetera! I hate to think what would have befallen the author in the literary press if the races had been reversed.
2. The Bevin Boy, David Day (1975): Beginning in 1943, one in ten British draftees were picked at random to be sent, not to the front, but down t’ mines, coal having become more valuable than soldiers. They were called “Bevin Boys” because the program was the brainchild of Ernest Bevin, the minister of labor, who thought that sending white-collar boys to work the coal face would yield some salutary mixing of the classes. The thesis of this memoir, written by a middle class Bevin boy, is that no such life-long friendships across the classes were formed and no such revelations of their shared humanity were forthcoming. Mostly the classes still avoided each other. If social engineering can’t prevail in such circumstances, when the subjects literally have to go wherever you tell them and do whatever you say, there can’t be much hope for the concept.
3. About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), Ben Yagoda: A charismatic young man of recognized genius launches a totally new kind of magazine, partly by gathering an Arthurian round table of talented writers under its masthead but mostly through sheer force of his own larger-than-life personality. After some illustrious decades under this founder, the magazine passes to a far less charismatic successor who modestly declares himself a mere caretaker, the formula having been perfected in his estimation. In practice this caretaker mentality results in some not entirely welcome changes. Longtime contributors are treated like members of the family, which would be nice if coddling didn’t allow their writing to become lazy in some cases and self-indulgent in others. An overly conscious sense of being heirs to the great tradition pushes the magazine too far into professorial, multi-part-series-on-grain seriousness at the expense of the write-about-anything exuberance that characterized the Golden Age. The atmosphere at the office begins to take its lead from the self-effacing man at the top, becoming a zone of morgue-like silence where once it was full of energy and ferment. This slide into mediocrity has little impact on the bottom line, since subscribers keep coming in on the strength of the name the founder built up, but resentment begins to fester in the hearts of a few employees, one of whom writes a book-length memoir not so subtly blaming the caretaker editor for ruining the franchise. These detractors insist that his shy, almost minimomaniac tendencies are just a cover for Napoleonic ambition. They prophesy purges and rumors of purges. It’s true that when a talented person begins to threaten the EIC’s dominance, that person tends to be expelled to the margins (or further) and replaced by someone with either no talent or no leadership potential. Most tellingly, he has made the organization’s chain of command so fragmented—“the way Algerian terror cells were organized in the Battle of Algiers,” according to one observer—that no one knows what anyone else is doing except himself. His very reticence is deployed too manipulatively to be anything but a passive-aggressive management tactic—so say the carpers, anyway, but then their accusations do rather smell of personal bitterness. (“One of the most manipulative people I’ve ever met, far and away,” says one—really, can that possibly be true?) And indeed, when such complaints are voiced, they are vehemently denied by magazine stalwarts eager to leap to the defense of their leader who, whatever else you can say about him, is certainly skilled at cultivating loyalty. This, of course, is the story of The New Yorker, first under Harold Ross and then William Shawn.
4. Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?, Edward Behr (1978): The memoir of a foreign correspondent who dined with Mao, saw Algeria fall, and covered the civil war in the Congo in the 1960s, which is when he heard a colleague deliver, in all earnestness, the title sentence. It’s a reasonable question in context, sort of. Journalism does to a man’s morals what war does to his nerves. The book was retitled Bearings for its American release by Viking Press, the cowards.
5. Rouse Up, O Young Men of the New Age, Kenzaburo Oe (1983): The novel’s plot (which is autobiographical) is that a writer has a son with brain damage and mental disabilities, and he finally makes emotional sense of their relationship by reading very closely the poetry of William Blake, in particular the prophetic works, which, like his son, tend to be unfairly written off as freaks. Oe has written several autobiographical novels about his disabled son Hikari. A Personal Matter is more harrowing—it deals with the hours after his son’s birth, when our narrator has to decide, first, whether to tell his convalescing wife that there is something wrong with their firstborn son, and second whether to tell the doctors to let the infant die or to go ahead with a risky operation that would leave him brain damaged if it didn’t kill him, as it was highly likely to do. But as someone who knows from experience what an accurate depiction of day-to-day life with a mentally disabled family member looks like—especially from the point of view of someone who, being brainy, is inclined to confuse intelligence with personal worth—I can tell you: this book is better. Oe is one of only two Japanese novelists to have won the Nobel prize.
6. The Radiance of the King, Camara Laye (1955): Most Westerners imagine that African literature consists entirely of straightforwardly written stories about the conflict between tradition and modernity, possibly because their only point of reference is Things Fall Apart. They should read Radiance of the King, which is like Kafka but with human characters. The white narrator comes to Africa to escape a dissolute life, ruins his fresh start by gambling away all his money again, and then pins his hopes on getting an audience with the native king and finagling a job from him. This plan doesn’t quite work out, and he ends up serving as stallion for the harem of a minor chieftain who, for some reason, wants to populate his town with mixed-race children. The author resists the urge to make his white hero a buffoon or a racist.
7. Overqualified, Joey Comeau (2009): The man behind the comic A Softer World wrote a novel, in the form of a series of cover letters. Hilarious and disturbing, and available cheap on Kindle.
8. Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown(1798): The book opens with a spontaneous combustion and ends in murder and madness, and in between there is religious mania, sexual disgrace, and an evil ventriloquist. There are many reasons to think that a nation as pragmatic and businesslike as America could never go in for Gothic fiction. This book refutes them all. On par with Hawthorne’s best. I was amused to learn that the author mailed a copy of the manuscript to Thomas Jefferson during his vice presidency, because arch-rationalists love Gothic fiction, as we all know.
9. The Straight and Narrow Path, Honor Tracy (1956): A satire of rural Irish Catholicism involving a naïve British journalist, an obstinate priest, a devious lawyer with a flair for blarney, and a libel lawsuit over whether the nuns really did prance at midnight. The most interesting character is a local aristocrat from a Protestant Ascendancy family who joins the Catholic faith out of deep conviction but who can’t quite get his head around the locals’ approach to the faith he now shares. Flannery O’Connor found the book hilarious. She also said that if the author was a believing Catholic (she didn’t know whether Honor Tracy was or not), then the book was more serious and more interesting than most people thought. Tracy—whose real name was Lilbush Wingfield—was indeed Catholic, which I suppose makes her the female Evelyn Waugh, considering she’s at least as funny as he is. Terry Teachout chose The Straight and Narrow Path as his book of the year last year.
10. The Hack, Wilfrid Sheed (1963): A writer for Catholic periodicals loses faith in his craft (aren’t I just peddling cheap spirituality to little old ladies?) and half-loses faith in his church. Sheed’s parents owned a publishing house specializing in middle-brow Catholic literature, so he knew what he was talking about. The book gives an especially accurate depiction of the plight of the freelance journalist, who can’t help feeling that however much people might appreciate him (for now), there is no one really looking out for him—he is responsible to, and for, other people, but no one feels any responsibility towards him. I have spent the last eleven months in a similar situation while I look for a proper job, so I know what I am talking about. When I ponder the ruins of my journalism career, and consider the towering successes that some of my peers have built with the most meager starting materials, I am comforted by this line from The Hack: “A million tons of stupid words had to be manufactured every year by somebody; but getting mad at those was like getting mad at New Jersey.” D.G. Myers wrote a good review of this book on his blog in 2009.