People pick up a pen for a number of reasons. Some do it professionally; others do it for a sense of accomplishment or to work through their own thoughts. One constant is the nagging sense that the story you just sent off is trash (if you don’t have an editor, right after you’ve clicked WordPress’s ‘publish’ button). I couldn’t tell you the psychology behind this phenomenon: it’s likely some combination of how writers’ brains work alongside the loss of total control over a story.
For that reason, I always try to mention it to someone when I’ve enjoyed their work. Considering few writers make enough to survive just on the pages they’ve written, those thoughts can make the difference between someone continuing their brilliant work and setting it down. There are likely others I’ll add to this list via social media, but here are a few of the stories and books I’ve enjoyed over the course of the year. Thank you all.
Stories and Essays
For the past few years, a tide of optimistic thinking has held that conditions for human beings around the globe have been improving. Wars are scarcer, poverty and hunger are less severe, and there are better prospects for wide-scale literacy and education. But there are newer signs that human progress has begun to flag. In the face of our environmental deterioration, it’s now reasonable to ask whether the human game has begun to falter—perhaps even to play itself out.
Outside, under an endless blue sky, a parade of trucks bore the trappings of former homes from as far away as Hawaii, Canada and El Salvador to sorbet-colored dwellings with emerald green lawns. At the entrance to the gated enclave, past a “Barkaritaville” dog park, beeping excavators moved dirt around what would soon be a town-square for concerts and dancing, surrounded by a state-of-the-art workout center, a restaurant and a walk-in pool with cabanas and a bar. It was impossible to stand on their cement foundations — which I had, in fact, done that morning — and not see a frontier settlement being carved into an expanse of subtropical wetland. The real frontier here, though, was not the surrounding wilderness but a hitherto uncolonized stretch of time: the multiple decades that more and more Americans can expect to live in better and better health after they retire.
Once it became known that you were covering this shadowy world, sources would sometimes appear in mysterious ways. In one case, I received an anonymous phone call from someone with highly sensitive information who had read other stories I had written. The information from this new source was very detailed and valuable, but the person refused to reveal her identity and simply said she would call back. The source called back several days later with even more information, and after several calls, I was able to convince her to call at a regular time so I would be prepared to talk.
When the doors were closed, Beard reached into his coat pocket. I thought to myself, Is this guy about to off me in a Mickey D’s parking lot? My pistol was tucked into the right-side waistband of my jeans and covered by my old Carhartt work coat. I watched Beard’s hands and leaned toward him a bit in case I needed to draw my gun.
But I didn’t. Beard pulled out a small envelope that I noticed was addressed to the Lake East chapter of the Hells Angels — Beard’s chapter. He handed it to me and said, “Take a look.”
Franz’s anti-bear arsenal included firecrackers. “I also think we should get bottle rockets,” he said one day, talking loudly to be heard over the constant buzz of a generator. Guns were a given; they were as much a staple in Grafton as picket fences are in the suburbs. Franz had recently traded his .357 Magnum for a Taurus Judge .410. The Magnum was more accurate, the owner of his favorite gun store had told him, but if a bear got too close for comfort, the Judge would do more damage. Though it looked like a six-shooter, its bullets were so big that it held only five.
My Struggle, Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
The Summer Book, Tove Jansson
The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson
Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
That Thing I Hinted at Earlier