This post features lists by five fine writers: Vincent Czyz, Darby Larson, Brad Listi, Dawn Raffel, and Andrew Zornoza. And when you get a chance, check out part one, part two, and part three of “Best of 2010.”
Events have their own gravity. Imagine—instead of drawing up philosophical blueprints that rely on girders of rational thought—imagine that intuition, chance, and the field generated by human endeavors are the governing principles. To uncover the vectors running like invisible axes through history, you’d have to sift through related letters, diaries, photographs, film clips, newspapers, even poems, and, most difficult of all, you’d have to follow all the footsteps leading to and away from the proverbial scene of the crime.
Welcome to Rose Alley, an infamous street in London, the eponymous novel by Jeremy Davies, and the fictional film at the center of Davies’s novel, whose narrator is obsessed with everything and everyone linked to the making of this movie. The crime in this case was the 1679 assault on Poet Laureate of England John Dryden. Set upon by cudgel-wielding thugs hired by the Lord of Rochester, Dryden was left battered and bloodied on Rose Alley’s cobbles. To echo the violence of the May 1968 unrest in France, Davies finagles a Paris—rather than a London—shoot for the screen version of the Rose Alley Ambuscade.
The novel consists of a baker’s dozen portraits of people connected, however tangentially, with the movie. In this respect the novel is reminiscent of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales … except that each character sketch is also the tale. The novel’s opening is a tad unconventional and may have you, like a stumped Vulcan, frequently raising an uncertain eyebrow. Once you settle in, however, you’ll see Davies has put together a wonderfully sophisticated farce grounded in tragedies both personal and societal.
What makes Rose Alley glitter irresistibly in the generally dull heap of new books being churned out by the hundreds this summer is the writing itself. The voice is so assured, evinces such original and brilliantly apropos metaphors, is so meticulous in its construction, it’s hard to believe this is Davies’s first novel. Describing a film director’s displeasure, Davies writes, “Everyone could see he was expecting a disaster: he telegraphed it like a maiden aunt, sighing, sniffing, rolling his eyes.” This is visually dead-on and comically astute to boot. Davies bullseyes again with this description of a woman’s blank expression: she looked as though “she’d stared too long at an eclipse.” Even a simple sentence—“World War II arrives then like astigmatism, and we lose Prosper Sforza for six years.”—is turned by a subtly humorous simile into a minor triumph of wit. A mother lamenting her son’s unresponsive mien believes “She’d given birth to furniture.”
His vocabulary prodigious without being pretentious, Davies has an unrelenting eye for the odd detail—“a bird whose hateful call was akin to a reel-to-reel rewound at speed,” a day so hot insects “buzzed you for the privilege of being fanned away.” I should also mention his eccentric erudition, which veers off into asides of the magic realism variety but doesn’t require the trampling of natural laws; they’re like picturesque arcades in a crowded downtown.
Rose Alley was my favorite novel of 2010. At the risk of being reductive, I’m reminded of Cézanne’s comment on a famous peer: “Monet is only an eye, but what an eye!” Davies is more than a voice, but it is his voice that overshadows everything else in Rose Alley. Be that as it may, this book is a fragrance you’ll want your room to smell of. It’s the ambiance of a favorite bar or café. It’s music that alters your mood the way you hoped it would. And if his literary debut is any indication, Davies is likely in coming years to join the ranks of those authors we read not for what happens next, but for what they’re going to say next.
My second favorite book of the year is Lance Olsen’s Calendar of Regrets. Lance had me from the opening scene, a vividly imagined and spectacularly rendered description of Hieronymus Bosch—you know, the Early Netherlandish painter, renowned for those horrifying, mesmerizing, surreal panoramas of Hell, the Last Judgment, and other similarly uplifting subjects. Written in a dozen or so distinct voices, each admirably mastered by Olsen, Calendar is an interweaving of 12 narrative strands corresponding obviously enough to the months of the year. Things that perhaps should have been forgotten, things that you were never aware of—a stranded angel (and what a beast it is), podcasts from a Salton Sea pirate station, randomly mailed VCR cassettes made by a lonely school teacher, the journal of an American novelist who disappeared in Burma—are out there still; like souls in Hindu philosophy they are still circulating, still being recycled. There is a certain beauty, a poetic beauty I would argue, in recognizing them when they reappear and in discovering their points of intersection. This, in large part, is what Calendar does: locates the connections, spotlights the forgotten, magnifies the unnoticed until we find that there in the first scene, Bosch was on the money: “Look closely: everything is webbed with everything, existence an illuminated manuscript you walk through.”
In third place for book of 2010 honors is Passes Through by Rob Stephenson. As Lance Olsen warns us in the introduction, we “find no real plots, no full character, no full scene, not even many paragraphs or much white space…” It’s what we’ve come to expect of the avant-garde—literary and otherwise—a stripping down and stripping away of the conventional until no one is quite sure what we are left with. In the case of Passes Through, the narrative is fragmented, somewhat rambling, and strains everything through the relationship between the narrator and his photographer boyfriend. An exceptionally talented writer, Stephenson has constructed his sentences so that many work only within the context of the surrounding lines—not unlike the punch-line in a joke. Evincing admirable wit, insight, and humor (“I’ve been tired of living, but not tired enough to finish the job.”), he offers a quirky brand of eloquence that is the result of the sort of meticulous intention rarely found in contemporary prose. His gift for analogy and metaphor thrives on subtle connections, and the sentences—many no more than a word or two long—have been clipped down so there’s nothing superfluous, and the resulting rhythm is as solid as masonry. The only real problem is that reading Passes Through sometimes feels like watching the pieces of a city wiped out by a tsunami float by: you’re desperate to see what the city looked like before disaster struck. That said, Stephenson puts on quite a one-man show.
Vincent Czyz is the author of Adrift in a Vanishing City.
Of the books I read in 2010, these were ones that stuck with me…
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, by Lawrence Sterne
Witz, by Joshua Cohen
Collected Fictions, by Gordon Lish
Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein
The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, by Christopher Higgs
Ghost Machine, by Ben Mirov
I Looked Alive, by Gary Lutz
Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson
Poor People, by William T. Vollman
Eat When You Feel Sad, by Zachary German
The Way the Family Got Away, by Michael Kimball
Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by David Lipsky
Travesty, by John Hawkes
Scorch Atlas, by Blake Butler
Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, by Patrik Ouředník
The Evolutionary Revolution, by Lily Hoang
The Difficult Farm, by Heather Christle
Watt, by Samuel Beckett
Correction, by Thomas Bernhard
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
In 2010, my music listening habits veered heavily toward Philip Glass’s works. Almost exclusively. A lot of Einstein on the Beach at the cubicle and a lot of Twelve Parts to dream to. So outside of this, like, narrow genre of modern, meditative classical, I have little knowledge of the music that happened in 2010. So that’s my top music from 2010. I went to see his new Violin Concerto #2 at the Mondavi Center a few months ago and enjoyed it, though Robert McDuffie has maybe a bit of an ego, I thought, or maybe he’s just too tall. It’s an interesting concerto anyway, Glass is sounding more and more traditional as he gets older. Also discovered and have been exploring the works of Nico Muhly. Also have been listening to Monsters of Grace. A strange interest in opera is brewing in me.
Didn’t watch many new movies or tv. I was impressed with the new Futurama season though, but my expectations were low from those crappy movies they tried to do a couple of years ago, but the season was great, some really well-thought-out plots. Movies I saw in a theater I think I can count on one hand. The Social Network. It was okay, typical Sorkin. Sherlock Holmes, but we were late and it was packed so we sat in the front row and at the far right side, so my memory of that film has this distortion to it. Up in the Air? Is that what it’s called with George Clooney? The fam wanted to see it. I remember liking the ending of that one, but mostly annoyed by a lot of the acting. Was that 2009 actually? Toy Story 3. So those are my top movies from 2010 since those are the ones I saw or can remember.
Video games. Lego Harry Potter definitely. It fits the lego game mold nicely. Guitar Hero Warriors is impressive, so far; it always kills me that the corniest, most sentimental songs end up being the funnest to play–“Cryin” by Aerosmith is amazing. “Money for Nothing” also. Robot Unicorn Attack, which I think is not getting the attention it deserves in terms of innovative speed play. I’ve been playing a lot of chess on Facebook also, trying to get a little better. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was really fun, really innovative use of gravity.
Darby Larson is the editor of Abjective.
Best piece of technology #1: Bose noise-canceling headphones. Worth every penny. I can’t believe I ever lived without these things. They’re glorious. I wear them during 75 percent of my waking hours. When my infant daughter cries out for food, I can barely even hear her. It’s amazing.
Best piece of technology #2: Sirius satellite radio. It’s worth it for Howard Stern alone. I’m a huge Howard fan. I find his show to be very comforting. It makes me feel warm inside. I think he’s really misunderstood, and I think he’s in his prime right now. The best interviewer in media, hands down. I listen to him on my noise-canceling headphones.
Best book of 2010 that I was terrified to read: Half a Life, by Darin Strauss. We featured Darin’s memoir in the TNB Book Club last November, and I read it in one sitting, from 4am to 6am, after waking up in an insomnia fit. I had been putting off reading it because I knew that it would cause me to feel genuine human emotions. And it did!
Best political audiobook that plays like really good horror fiction: Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, by Barton Gellman. Gellman is a two-time Pulitzer winner for the Washington Post, and the audio version of this book is read by a guy who sounds like he has committed homicide at least twice. Plus, there’s this really creepy interstitial piano music that plays in between chapters. The perfect audiobook to listen to while on a road trip through Anbar province.
Best daily writing practice: Postcards. I bought a collection of postcards several months ago — 100 classic Penguin book covers from days of yore. I try to write a few postcards every week, and I try to make them as entertaining as possible. Often I’ll send them out to close friends. Other times, I’ll send them to old friends who I haven’t spoken to in ages. It’s a really original way to reach out to someone from your past. Much more invasive and unsettling than a Facebook friend request.
Best new music of 2010: I’m terrible at this, but my buddy Timmy is great at it. He always knows what the best new music is, so I’m going to go with his favorites and claim them as my own. The best new album of 2010 is Ariel Pink’s Before Today, and the best new band of 2010 is So Many Wizards. Thanks, Timmy.
Best spiritual guru who I quietly hope might somehow be able to end my psychic pain: Thich Nhat Hanh. The Vietnamese Buddhist monk. He’s one of the rare spiritual guys who’s actually a great writer. He’s clear. And he has an amazing voice, too. He talks like a Muppet. It’s awesome.
Best toxic chemical ingestion that I think will make me live longer: I’m extremely susceptible to health-related fads, and as such I’ve become a devoted red wine drinker, because red wine contains a chemical called resveratrol, which is rumored to make you live to be 110. I saw it on 60 Minutes, and ever since then I’ve dedicated myself to drinking at least two glasses of red wine everyday. It goes great with breakfast. And Vicodin.
Best podcast #1: This American Life is so damned good. It’s a really good thing for writers to listen to, I think. It’s like food. It inspires. It gives you ideas. Ira Glass is one of our best storytellers. I also really like Radiolab, Fresh Air, Bob Edwards Weekend, and The Marketplace of Ideas. I’m a podcast nerd.
Best movie of 2010: I have an infant daughter, so I don’t get to see many new movies. But if I had to pick one that I did see in 2010, I’d go with Winter’s Bone. It was note perfect. I loved it. Jennifer Lawrence and John Hawkes were amazing. I also really liked Exit Through the Gift Shop, the Banksy documentary. I know it’s trendy, but I love Banksy. His work is so wonderful. I often ask myself: What is the literary equivalent of Banksy? I’m not sure if we have it. (Do we have it?) Maybe we do have it. And if we do have it, I hope someone tells me about it. And if we don’t have it, I hope someone creates it.
Brad Listi is the author and founder of The Nervous Breakdown
Best old book I re-read: Dubliners.
Best old book I read for the first time: 18 Stories, by Heinrich Boll
Best old book I promised to read in 2010 but still didn’t: Middlemarch
Best book I read on a plane to Barcelona: Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Best bookstore I set foot in this year: Unnameable Books, Brooklyn
Best bookstore I have never set foot in: Powell’s
Best interviewer: Michael Kimball at The Faster Times
Best provocateur whose debut book I’m looking forward to in 2011: Meg Pokrass
Best font: Geneva
Best literary partnership: The Brothers Grimm
WOLD at Matthew Barney’s studio August 15th, 2010.
The suicide of Alexander McQueen.
Jaron Lanier. I am not a Gadget: “Liars have to have the best memories. The most egregious modern liars therefore need computers. . . .”
Andre Geim and Konstant Novoselov discover Graphene.
Detroit byAri Marcopoulos at the Whitney Biennial.
Glee, A Very Glee Christmas. Brittany: “I don’t understand the difference between an elf and a slave.”
Thom Yorke at Cambridge.
Andrew Zornoza is the author of the novel Where I Stay (TarpaulinSky Press). His short fiction and essays have appeared in Gastronomica, Sleepingfish, Confrontation, CapGun, and Matter Magazine, among many others. He is a contributing editor to the arts journal Helping Orphans Worldwide (H.O.W.).
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.