The books I stayed up for
There are three kinds of books in the world. First, the ones you’ve got to read, either because they’re critically acclaimed or everyone else is reading them or there’s going to be a test on them. Second, there are the books you want to read: They’re good, but they’re sometimes work.
And finally, there are the books you stay up all night to finish. These are the books that grab you by the amygdala and give your consciousness, your morality and your pleasure centers a good shake.
Here are the 10 books I stayed up late for this year:
1. Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems; Mark Doty (Harper). This collection has covered all the bases for fans of Doty, and I’m a big one. The new poems, many of them “theories” of almost everything, are wonderful; packaged alongside a selection of the best from Doty’s previous collections, this becomes a volume worthy of slow reflection. Several favorites are included here, among them “Days of 1981,” from the last truly innocent time before HIV and AIDS, and “Fog,” about learning to live in world that includes sickness, death and grief.
2. Infected: A Novel; Scott Sigler (Three Rivers Press). OK, I’ll admit it; I stayed up to finish this one because it creeped me out so badly, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless the hatchlings were defeated. Because the novel was originally a podcast serial, it’s got that incredible cliffhanger thing going on at the end of each chapter, which forced me to read on. It also has the grossest, freakiest, scared-me-half-to-death alien-invasion mode I’ve ever run across: Think Alien meets poison ivy. The bad news: Sigler, a master of self-promotion, is addictive in the crank-is-addictive way. The good news: A sequel to Infected is due out later this month.
3. The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Own Life—His Own; David Carr (Simon & Schuster). Consider Carr the anti-James Frey. Instead of believing his own crap, Carr goes out and checks the facts. That’s right; Carr, a media reporter for The New York Times, had been telling his recovery “story” for years. Then he decided to check his own story out, and once he put his journalistic skills to work, discovered that he didn’t know as much about himself as he thought he did. This is not only a great memoir, it’s a great ethical lesson for would-be memoirists: Don’t trust your memory.
4. Dear Darkness: Poems; Kevin Young (Knopf). How many times can I say it? Young is an amazing poet, with a musicality in his line to match the intellect. Dear Darkness is obsessed with food, love and death, and Young has the skills to make it uplifting as well as grief-ridden. Eat up.
5. Lady Lazarus; Andrew Foster Altschul (Harcourt). Altschul’s first novel is packed full of pop culture (the protagonist is the daughter of a suicided rock icon not at all unlike Kurt Cobain), serious poetry (she’s capable of writing poems that are less parodies than tributes to the greats of the 20th century, like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath); a deconstruction of celebrity culture (imagine Britney Spears trying to go to school); and illumination of the fanboy world (an alt-weekly music writer is our obsessed narrator). On top of that, it’s a well-written narrative with a snarky sense of humor. What more do you want?
6. Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World; Samantha Power (Penguin). Power won Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle prizes for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Her latest book is a look at Vieira de Mello, a U.N. diplomat who spent his career attempting to prevent genocide, only to die in the 2003 bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters. Vieira de Mello is a problematic hero, and Power’s book shows what a mess the United Nations’ system is, relying as heavily as it does on individual’s skills to solve institutional problems.
7. Pandemonium; Daryl Gregory (Del Rey). The premise of Gregory’s debut novel is that demonic possession is, at least since the end of World War II, so commonplace that no one doubts its existence. Del Pierce, the hero, was possessed as a child by the Hellion and now he thinks the demon has returned. His quest to get to the bottom of his possession leads through Jungian archetypes, a road trip from hell that includes a stop at a Comic Con-turned-demon-palooza, an exorcist who’s a dead ringer for Sinéad O’Connor and the uncomfortable news that Del must look within for his answers.
8. The Lyncher in Me: A Search for Redemption in the Face of History; Warren Read (Borealis Books). Read’s great-grandfather helped lynch three young black men in Duluth, Minn., in 1920. It was the family secret. But as Duluth starts to come to terms with the lynching (the city dedicated a monument to the victims in 2004), Read does as well. This memoir shows how violence and racism twist human relations at so deep a level that it is passed on to descendants who may not even know about the original cause. Read’s journey to honesty and accountability in his family history is both worthy and necessary; it is, quite simply, the story of a great many white Americans.
9. Red Rover; Susan Stewart (University of Chicago Press). Stewart, who won a National Book Critics Circle Award for her prior collection Columbarium, has turned to the ways in which language transforms consciousness. These are profound poems, taking as points of departure literary and mythic precedents, full of reversals and wordplay, but as immediate as the evening news.
10. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America; Rick Perlstein (Scribner). Even though I remember the Nixon years, Perlstein’s book has made more sense of them than I ever could. The political career of Tricky Dick, which seems to be a well-known story of reinvention and rebirth, in Perlstein’s hands is turned into an explanation for how we got to a nation divided between some murky “elites” and “regular folks” like Joe the Plumber. The roots of resentment politics were burrowed deeply into Nixon’s psyche; he sent it scurrying throughout the American zeitgeist. This is the best political history I’ve read in a long time.