Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Books We Read 2011

In the Poetics of Space, one of the most achingly perfect books I read this year, Gaston Bachelard writes the following, which applies almost exactly to the best book I read in 2011:
Every good book should be re-read as soon as it is finished. After the sketchiness of the first reading comes the creative work of reading. We must then know the problem that confronted the author. The second, the third reading... give us, little by little, the solution to this problem.
Although I haven't found the "solution" to the problem that inspired Stanley Crawford's Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, each voyage--I read the book three times in succession this summer, after reading it initially, and a little skeptically, in 2008 when it was first reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press--brought me closer to some essential truth about the prickly dilemmas inherent in human relationships and cohabitation.

The plot of Unguentine is as deceptively simple as a creation myth and has the flavor of one as well: Mrs Unguentine (always Mrs) recounts her seafaring adventures--which are simultaneously her domestic adventures--with her husband, Unguentine (never Mr), a man who "grew nauseous upon land" and so took his wife to sea, fitting out a barge with increasingly elaborate gardens and mechanical devices. In time, the pair become famous in port cities across the world, their home in turn a curiosity, a place of ill-repute, a smuggler's ship. The notoriety eventually dissipates, leaving their self-contained ecosystem a world unto itself; all the better as far as Mrs Unguentine is concerned--even if her good riddance has something wistful to it.

Into deeper and lonelier waters the Unguentines then sail. In an episode that will resonate with anyone who has found him or herself in a relationship that seems to have gone off course, Mrs Unguentine discovers a blank map by which, it seems, her husband is steering. (A map that alludes, possibly, to another.) Silence grows between the couple just as the trees Unguentine has planted grow to render clear navigation impossible. Ages pass, time stops; the barge becomes more and more isolated. Unguentine and everything familiar disappears, then possibly reappears.

What Crawford has managed in this slim and perpetually overlooked book (of just over 100 pages) is marvelous. As with the best allegories, those that lend themselves to multiple and endless interpretations, Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine can be read literally--as a seafaring tale, a creation myth, the story of an unusual marriage--and rooted around in for deeper meaning, each reading revealing just how dense, under its reflective surface, the novel really is: an amalgam of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Ulysses' journeys, Ahab's quest...

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1977 (graphite on paper)

Near the end of the book, Mrs Unguentine wonders, "what would it be like to live without the presence of the sea?" which seems to me a question that perfectly embodies everything I love about this novel. It's a straightforward, if complicated, question and one that brings a reader to a similar precipice: what would it be like living without the presence of a book like this?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best Books We Read 2011

2011 was, for whatever reason, a year of literary obsessions for me. On a few occasions this took the form of re-reading the same book over and over (which I did with this one, this one, and this one. Don't ask.) Themes have also taken hold, like my current curiosity about the mythology and impact of the Brontes, which has resulted in a reading stack consisting of this, this, and this.

But the most surprising and wonderful literary fixation I developed this year hadn't happened to me for quite some time: I discovered and developed a voracious appetite for the works of a single author, and for a few months straight, every time I put down one of her books, my fingers itched for another. I would entertain the idea of reading something different, pull a book from the shelf and place it next to my bed with the best of intentions, but when it came time to open one I'd find myself grasping for that distinctively orange Penguin spine. For this is the year I became an Angela Carter addict.

I'd been reading around Carter for a while, despite knowing that she was up my alley. Then one day I finally picked up the short story collection Saints and Strangers and, leaning against a shelf at Red Hill Books, read the opening paragraph of the opening story: a description of the oppressively humid summer weather which some say resulted in the famous Lizzie Borden axe murders. The subject matter alone hooked me, but it was the breathtaking sentences, each one draped atop the previous in a featherlight perfection that downright chills even as it makes you sweat, that really made me weak in the knees. And so my summer of Angela began.

Those that I loved most were her short stories, some collections of which have gone out of print but are all available in Burning Your Boats: The Collected Short Stories of Angela Carter. If this body of work has a theme, I could only describe it as hauntings. In The Bloody Chamber, the eeriest qualities of fairy tales are expounded upon to the point where they resonate with an uncanny familiarity that is nothing like the Beauty and the Beast you consciously know. My two favorite collections, Saints and Strangers and American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, echo with distinctively American mythologies of tragedy, piousness, fate and ruin -- a particularly unruly set of ghosts to pin down. Even the collection Fireworks, unique in the fact that most of the stories therein are narrated in the first person by a contemporary voice that could be Carter's own, wrestles with the phantoms of self -perception and the narratives constructed in day-to-day loneliness. What's truly remarkable is that despite the familiar terrain of her subjects -- fairy tales, well-known lores, and the most basic struggles with personhood -- almost every sentence in this book astounds.

Having devoured Burning Your Boats, I moved on to her novels, which feature writing just as impeccable as their immersive, magnificent plots. My favorite of these was Wise Children, the story of stage sensations Dora and Nora Chance and a hilarious and clever nod to good old Shakespearean comedy ("tragedy that happens to other people"), which probably contained hundreds of winks to the Bard of which I understood like four. But that was okay, because I like books that make me want to be smarter (why else read?) and because the story has every great premise and lives up to them all: fiercely independent and quick-witted old ladies, multiple generations of twins, cases of mistaken identity, paternity mishaps, a real wedding, a fake wedding, revenge, a donkey costume, births, deaths, and everything in between -- and it all takes place in one day (with many a dive into murky memory). It was Carter's last novel before her death in 1992, and it's the literary equivalent of high-kicking off the stage to a fireworks show, hook and fat lady be damned.

I can think of no better end to a hell of a year than on that note.