Books of the Year 2010, Nos 2-5

After the rather astonishing success of my post on David Foster Wallace, I feel like the runners-up of my book-of-the-year derby are going to fail to get much attention. So I’ve backloaded this post by saving the best for last. If you quit reading now, this is what you’ll be missing: “there are more names for the racket that has kept wrinkles out of the lining of my interior for a good eight years than there are fleas on a cat’s ear when he’s being dipped to his whiskers in insecticide.” Yes! But first:

Book 2. The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley. This is not a book you like because you love it and agree with it; it’s a book you like because it makes you think. Two of Matt Ridley’s chapters are about contemporary issues on which he thinks we can be optimistic, and his claim that global warming isn’t all that bad should arouse skepticism. But the main point of the book is something far more reassuring – and something far more true.

His thesis is this: the world just keeps getting better and better, and it has good reasons for doing so. Basically, the natural human realization that cooperation is good is driving us into greater prosperity, greater shared cultural understanding, and greater prospects. Part of the argument, as you might expect, is that the free market helps things along with principles like trade, specialization and division of labor, and competition (which fosters improved products and prices). Ridley had front-row seats to the recent economic crisis, though, as a bank executive, so he’s not betting everything on the markets.

Luckily that’s where human nature comes in. The argument here is that, at the bottom of it all, we’d all really rather be buying each other sweet Christmas presents than whacking each other with battle-axes. Ridley amasses a huge wall of evidence to this effect: crime’s been dropping literally since history began, human rights have been increasing, all sorts of good stuff.

This isn’t a book that totally convinces – but debating its ideas with yourself is half the point. If I’d agreed with every word The Rational Optimist would have been useful to me. At any rate, I know I must be an optimist, because when a lot of Americans, especially Glenn Beck viewers, go on rants about how the world is going to hell, everything is awful, we’re all doomed, and boy do things these days ever stink, I have a pretty good handle on why they’re probably wrong.

3. Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin (trans. James Falen). Okay, it’s cheating to put a total classic on a list like this, especially after a book that actually was published in 2010. But the next one’s a 2010 book too, so I’ll indulge myself.

Eugene Onegin is one of those classics that vindicates its status on nearly every page. It’s funny, wickedly critical of its characters, elegant in its descriptions, and starkly beautiful in the big moments. It has a couple things in common with David Foster Wallace, actually: first, even the digressions are good (especially the digressions are good!), and second, every so often there’s a line that just knocks me out with simple expressiveness.

Part of the credit has to go to James Falen, who’s taken basically a gigantic Russian poem and turned it into a gigantic English poem that not only sounds natural, but has its own great poetic moments, and awesome rhythmic snap. I devoured Eugene Onegin in two days. I can’t wait to read it again.

By the way, another old classic in new translation I read this year was Don Quixote. Edith Grossman’s new(ish) version not only helped me get through the whole book (with the old Penguin version I managed only Part One), but it actually let me enjoy nearly every minute. A comedy like no comedy since. The humor is pretty cruel, though, stuff novelists would never do to characters today, which made me think maybe Matt Ridley is right.

4. The Case of the Pope, by Geoffrey Robertson QC. Apart from the whole “Is the Pope guilty of crimes against humanity?” thing, this is a master-class in argumentation. Usually when you say “he writes like a lawyer,” you mean, “I couldn’t understand a word.” The Case of the Pope reveals what it means to say “he writes like a really freaking great lawyer.” Robertson writes in numbered paragraphs, each paragraph containing one and only one idea. The paragraphs follow each other like steps of a proof, or dominoes being knocked over. It’s like being trapped inside an extremely logical brain. It’s exhilarating. I wish all lawyers wrote like this, because writing like a good lawyer means giving your argument the weight, urgency, and unstoppable force of a speeding freight train.


Pictured: Geoffrey Robertson's mind.

And there’s the whole Pope thing, too. Robertson’s conclusion is, “Yeah, he’s almost certainly guilty of violating international law, but loopholes mean he can’t be charged.” One such loophole is the fact that the Vatican is, rather improbably (and thanks to Mussolini), a sovereign nation. Basically, imagine if Glenn Beck became President and granted the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City its own government in exchange for telling all Mormons to do Beck’s bidding forever, and you’ll know why the Vatican is a country.

The arguments are devastating. The book rehashes a lot of all the old stories of sex abuse by priests, though there were many I hadn’t heard. And it adds to the list of charges new legal affronts right up to a decision published in summer 2010 defending the church’s right not to report sex offenders to local governments.

There is a certain type of person who will want to read this, and a certain type of person who will not want to read it. I was the type who wanted to, and I thought it fascinating. The great writing was a bonus.

5. When Thief Meets Thief, by Harry Stephen Keeler. I’ll be honest: I’ve only read 16 pages of When Thief Meets Thief. But that was enough to get it on this list. Harry S. Keeler is instantly unforgettable, and quite possibly unforgivable.

Harry Keeler is the Tommy Wiseau of fiction. He’s the greatest bad writer in American history. He’s not quite as putridly awful as the Englishwoman Amanda McKittrick Ros, but her books were actually unreadable. For example, this is the opening sentence of an Amanda McKittrick Ros novel:

Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern
and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?

Told you so. Harry Keeler’s bad writing is bad in a different way: gloriously, refulgently bad, with a carefree exuberance that makes it instantly lovable. Harry Keeler had an absolutely stupendous imagination coupled to a total lack of judgment. Here is the cover of one of his books:

This is real, folks.

Here is a plot synopsis of the first half of his novel Stand By–London Calling! (which I’m reading, in its first edition, at the British Library): a circus-master named Angus MacWhorter is offered $1000 to sell his diorama of a fish being hanged, while one of his employees runs away to Cleveland in order to prove that the girl he loves is not his biological sister, after having a dream induced by Hindu drugs in which he saw that a train wreck decades ago led to toddlers being switched and a case of mistaken identity, and all he needs to do to prove it is get his real birth certificate, which will have his footprints on it, but the only person who knows where the certificate is, is his astrological soul-mate, whom he’s never met and who has just the day before this accidentally married into the English royal family. Yes.

Now. Here is a sentence from the first page of When Thief Meets Thief: “I know how to get to the inside of a chilled-steel receptacle with no more noise than a cockroach, drunk after emerging from an uncorked gin-bottle in a garbage can, would make as he sneaked back to Mrs. C., waiting up to biff him on the beezer for leaving her to mind the youngsters while he went skyhooting.”

Needless to say, Harry Stephen Keeler is both totally demented and totally a genius. And the fact that his unclassic novel When Thief Meets Thief is available online for free, in Word file format, is a great boost.

Inside you’ll find this: “Whoa! I’m getting ahead of myself.” And: “I was a prisoner. Being locked up incommunicado. Incommunicado plus!”

The thing that truly sets Harry Keeler apart is that every so often, he throws in a couple tolerable pages to remind you how special and perverse his gift really is. For a moment of When Thief Meets Thief, I started thinking “this isn’t that bad! Where’s the hilarious awfulness?” And then, Blam! This happened: “the only man after whose name I can tack the words “Real Friend” is describable only by the words “ignorant, uncouth, illiterate Negro.” In short, one Laughing Sam – from Alabam’!”

Yes, the narrator’s best friend is “Laughing Sam from Alabam.” When Thief Meets Thief is that kind of novel. Harry Keeler is that kind of writer. I am hopelessly and permanently addicted.

P.S. Apparently When Thief Meets Thief is also available as an audiobook. I have no idea how anybody could have been able to more than a page without snorting, table-pounding laughter.



Filed under Art

6 responses to “Books of the Year 2010, Nos 2-5

  1. Caitlin

    How do you manage to find such wonderful books?

  2. Caitlin,
    Wasn’t tough! As an English major I’d heard things about David Foster Wallace forever; then found his first novel at the U of London Library. (They don’t have any of his other stuff, though.) I actually bought “The Rational Optimist” for my dad for his birthday, after going to Barnes & Noble intending to get him something else. Pushkin was read for class last spring at Rice; “Case of the Pope” made a splash in fairly anti-Pope England at the time of his visit here; and Roger Ebert re-tweeted a Harry Stephen Keeler quote which led to a Google search which led to hopeless infatuation.

  3. Caitlin

    Gah… so what you’re saying is that you are clued in to the academic book reading elite in ways I never managed to glean while at college… you have the bizarre ability to pick good books out of the confounding myriad at the book store… and you actually read things written by people you Google. I’m so inferior!

  4. Anyone who relates to drunk cockroaches is friend of mine.

    Excellent reviews, Brian. You are the best kind of critic.

  5. Caitlin – aw, now you’re making me feel bad. How I pick out books at the bookstore is usually…
    (1) does this sound really interesting?
    (2) is there a praisequote from someone I know/respect?
    (3) are the first couple pages amazing?
    But especially No 3… so much stuff fails the First Couple Pages Test.

    And Harry Keeler was really easy to discover via Google because the Harry Keeler Society ( has essays, quotes of his style, and free editions of some of his books!

    ctort – 🙂 I’m not sure what the best kind of critic is, but it is the kind I want to be!

  6. Pingback: Books of the Year | bgreinhart

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