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My Best Books of February

My reading schedule, by necessity, tends to be organized around months: around our Best of the Month picks, to be exact. I read around as much as I can, going on first dates as it were, looking for books I might love enough to make our list. Some months the search for love is not as easy as others, but for February I was overwhelmed: it seemed like I found a new crush everywhere I turned. I was able to shoehorn a couple of them into what turned out to be a very crowded Best of the Month lineup, but while we still have just the tiniest bit of February left, I wanted to pass them all along to you here, since I liked the two that didn't make the cut nearly as much as the two that did.

To start with, the two that did make our Best of February list:

Townie by Andre Dubus III
I had never read Andre Dubus III--not even his NBA-nominated, Oprah-picked, Oscar-contending House of Sand and Fog--or, as far as I remember, his father, the Carver-era short story writer Andre Dubus, but something made me hungry to pick up Townie, the younger Dubus's memoir, and it wasn't just the gorgeous, matte cover. And I loved it from the beginning. Dubus is not what I usually think of as my kind of writer--I like funny, and ironic, and even vicious, in a dark and chilly Muriel Spark kind of way, and Andre III, at least as a memoirist (and I'm guessing as a novelist too), is none of those things. He is dead earnest, and full of empathy (which, I'll admit, I like too). The cliche of modern memoir is revenge taken on a miserable childhood; Dubus's story fits the latter (after his father ran off with a young student, he and his three siblings were pretty spectacularly neglected, if not unloved), but not the former. It's a story about anger, but not an angry story, and it's full of compassion even for those who treated him the worst (and for those he treated badly himself). And it's that compassion that led him to writing, which for him grows--in a path whose clarity is actually rare in the memoirs of writers--out of his empathy for the lives of others. His memoir embodies that quality, and now I want to go look for it in his fiction too (and his father's).

Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
I've come late to Edward Hoagland, but I don't feel that I've missed the best of him: he seems hungrily attentive in his eighth decade as few writers are. I've gotten to know him through the essays of his that appear in Harper's once in a while: long and deliciously meandering, tied to some ostensible topic but really just chances to write and think out loud, with every paragraph packed with the kind of insights and elegance you'd search through whole books to find. I think of the essays as chapters snipped off from an ongoing autobiographical observation, and Sex and the River Styx collects them, along with pieces from other sources from the past decade or so, in what doesn't turn out to read as a memoir but rather the record of a fascinating, well-weathered mind. You can get a sense of his approach from the title alone: unabashedly earthy but not afraid to be learned too, and unafraid also of age. He has the honesty and willingness to contradict himself (and others) that the best autobiographical essayists like Montaigne share, and a style that to me is pretty much the height of beauty: not lyrical but thick with thought and meaningful digression. I compare his sentences to Monk's piano lines in my review on our site, and by that I mean that in both of them there's a rhythm, but not a mindless one--you can feel, almost physically, the thinking behind each press of the finger on the keys, and you sense an openness, even in the midst of something well-composed, to following any fruitful or necessary direction that presents itself. I also compare him to Emerson, which is really unavoidable, and I mean that in the best way. I don't know Hoagland enough to be sure how consciously he's modeled his thinking and writing on Ralph Waldo's, but it seems impossible he hasn't, and I can hardly think of a better, and more authentically challenging, model to follow. As with Dubus, I want now to read backwards, and see if Hoagland has always been this way, or has grown so.

And two more that I hope will find readers in this and coming months:

Open City by Teju Cole
Speaking of good and unavoidable models, it's equally difficult to talk about Teju Cole's first novel, Open City, and not mention W.G. Sebald. When Sebald's thrillingly unclassifiable books, like The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn, started coming out in the late '90s, it felt like something new had been brought into the world. (But since the books were so haunted by history, what was new was the way we could look at our past.) They were so obviously and intriguingly innovative that I'm surprised I haven't really noticed the traces of their influence in other works as much as I would have expected (except in the increased incidence of cryptically unexplained photographs). But from the first line of Open City--"And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city"--which is so Sebaldian you have to think it's intentional, you can't escape his echoes. And like Hoagland with Emerson, I think that heavy influence is actually a very good thing. The reason Sebald's writing was (and is) so exciting is not only its freshness, it's that it's a good way of thinking--and one hard to pull off: a kind of wandering but intense attention that is both rootless and almost unbearably tied to the past, drawn especially to the stories of those caught in history's implacable gears. Open City is a novel, told by Julius, a Nigerian-German doctor living in New York City, and part of its appeal is seeing the perspective of the late Sebald turned to the New York of the past decade (and watching through the eyes of a character who doesn't share Sebald's background, although Julius's reflections turn surprisingly toward Sebald's own dark center--the Nazis of his youth--at times). Julius sees psychiatric patients, visits an old professor, walks through the city, remembers Lagos, visits Brussels. More or less nothing happens, in the usual novelistic sense (and, like Miguel Syjuco in the NYT, I thought the most traditionally plotted "revelation" was the least satisfying element in the book), but I found it riveting, beautiful, and gratifyingly cosmopolitan. I look forward to wandering with Cole in books to come. [Update: I just saw, via Old Media Monday--actually posted on Monday! Thanks, Darryl--that James Wood, unsurprisingly, is more articulate than I about the Sebaldian beauties of Open City, and has more room to show where he goes beyond that influence. It's a lovely review.]

House of Prayer No. 2 by Mark Richard
It's not many months when you read two excellent memoirs by novelists of Cajun extraction who took unlikely paths to writing after childhoods of exceptional unhappiness (well, see above: the latter is pretty much a modern memoir requirement), but along with Dubus's Townie I loved Mark Richard's new House of Prayer No. 2. (You pronounce "Richard" like you did for Maurice "The Rocket." "Dubus," meanwhile, is, apparently, "dub-YOOSE.") I was reading Dubus and Richard at the same time, and often their similarities caused them to mix in my mind, among them absent but not evil fathers, and lots of time in subcultures of more or less full-time partying (Dubus when he was too young, Richard when he was old enough to know better). But outside of those commonalities (and the ones above), the stories could hardly be more different. Dubus's style is straightforward and self-effacing; Richard's is front-and-center, and self-effacing in a different way: he tells his story in a showily clipped voice that begins in third-person (speaking of himself as the "special child") and moves to second-person, in which "you" become that child. And while Dubus is earnest, Richard's a bit of a scamp. If Townie were fiction, it might be, I don't know, Thomas Hardy with a happy ending? If House of Prayer were, it would be a classic picaresque like Tom Jones or Augie March, in which the hero is at various times a deformed cripple, the youngest deejay in the United States, a beach shack-squatting deckhand, and a rogueish military news reporter, before finding God (pay attention to that title) and marrying into the American version of royalty (his bride is the daughter of Redskins coach George "The future is now" Allen and the sister of Virginia governor George "Macaca" Allen). His book suffers for me just a bit in the comparison with Townie, which carries a gravity throughout that the second half of House of Prayer can't quite match, but it really is deeply enjoyable and brilliantly stylish; the inhuman (and terribly human) scenes of Richard's lengthy stays in a hospital for crippled children are indelible and would be worthy of a book of their own. I adored Richard's first collection of stories, The Ice at the Bottom of the World, two decades ago (I still remember seeing him read at Chapters in D.C., one of the first readings I ever went to), but had mostly lost track of him since (apparently he's been doing a lot of Hollywood work), and I'm very happy to have made his reacquaintance.

Check in tomorrow to see what we loved in March, which turned out to be an equally rich month. --Tom

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