John Lingan wrote on concert films for the Fall 2012 issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
Little, Big by John Crowley and The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer: The former is an epic, almost gothic contemporary fantasy set mostly in a shape-shifting New England mansion that’s inhabited by fairies. The latter is a dark, two-character parable set in 17th-century rural Poland. But in their final pages, Little, Big and The Slave both ultimately expand into powerful metaphors for how myths arise and endure. Crowley’s prose is lush while Singer’s is hard and sparse, but both of these novels contained the most impressively realized worlds of any book I read this year. They are also superlative romances. These are the books that I wanted to press into the hands of every reader I know.
Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I hadn’t read Bellow in years, and had somehow never read this one, the last of his agreed-upon masterpieces. There’s actually a fair amount of plot, though you wouldn’t know it. Narrator Charlie Citrine buries the “present” story in waves of flashbacks and remembrances, philosophical asides, and hilarious descriptive riffs. His inability to tell a linear story mirrors the book’s larger concerns about the ways in which people depend on and disappoint each other through selfishness. My most-underlined book of the year.
James Agee: A Life by Laurence Bergreen. Dwight Garner is working on a new biography of my increasingly favorite writer, which I await hungrily. But this out-of-print book from the late ’80s is a masterful life, full of quotations from Agee’s many unfinished and rare works, like a long story about the disintegration of his first marriage and the science fiction script he wrote for Charlie Chaplin. Agee is a hard character to love or sympathize with, but Bergreen’s interpretations of his subject’s doomed life and scattered work are absolutely engrossing.
My Life by Isadora Duncan. Here we have over-writing elevated to an art form–or rather “Art form,” since, as Dorothy Parker noted, Ms. Duncan invariably capitalizes the word. I know nothing about dance but read this on my wife’s recommendation. I plan to push it on my daughter around age 13 or so, in hopes she might be inspired by Duncan’s vaunting self-esteem and feminine pride. I could literally quote any page, but let’s go with this description of the first time she had sex with the love of her life, Gordon Craig:
So must Endymion, when first discovered by the glistening eyes of Diana, in tall, slender whiteness, so must Hyacinthus, Narcissus and the bright, brave Perseus have looked. More like an angel of Blake than a mortal youth he appeared. Hardly were my eyes ravished by his beauty than I was drawn toward him, entwined, melted. As flame meets flame, we burned in one bright fire. Here, at last, was my mate; my love; my self — for we were not two, but one, that one amazing being of whom Plato tells in the Phaedrus, two halves of the same soul.