Those of us who are forever pushing books onto friends harbor few illusions about the practice. We know we may never get the books back and that, if we do, they'll bear scars of their journey — rings of dried coffee on the frontispiece, a spine so badly cracked it cries out for orthopedic surgery.
But that's fine. We inveterate book-lenders are not collectors. And while we value the solitary experience of reading, we relish the act of passing a book along, of becoming a vector for the author's language, characters, imagery and arguments.
Below, a short list of books I've pressed into other people's hands over the past year. On the surface, they've got little in common. Obsession figures largely in several — and meteors, too, weirdly enough. But the thing that truly unites these books is the urge they spark to send them out into the world so that they might sink their hooks into someone else.
Of course, this is the season of giving, not lending, so even if you haven't devoured these books yourself, know that any of them would make a fine gift. But be prepared: In a week or two, the recipient might just show up at your doorstep breathless, eyes blazing: "Man, you gotta read this thing."
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog, hardcover, 306 pages, Ecco Books/Harper Collins Press. List price: $24.99
The hero of the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo becomes obsessed with transporting a steamship to a remote Peruvian village, even if it means having to pull that ship's 320-ton bulk over a mountain. Director Werner Herzog spent three hellish years in the Amazonian jungle making the movie, eschewing special effects to pull an actual steamship over an all-too-real mountain using only enormous pulleys — and the sweat of hundreds of indigenous people. (Read about a woodsman who amputated his own foot with a chainsaw after being bitten by a poisonous snake.) The infamously ill-fated production, beset by delays, disease, death and no small amount of dementia, was detailed in the documentary Burden of Dreams. But where that film offered a faithful chronicle of the chaos that surrounded cast and crew, it could only hint at the mysterious motivations of Herzog. In the pages of Conquest of the Useless, we are privy to his darkest thoughts, his often disquieting waking dreams, his fascination with the natural world, and his complicated, deeply conflicted feelings for the jungle around its people. Herzog captures all of this in lyrical, feverish prose that offers an intimate portrait of an artist whose life's work explores the place where determination shades into madness.
Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli, hardcover, 344 pages, Pantheon. List price: $29.95
David Mazzucchelli's boldly ambitious, boundary-pushing graphic novel is remarkable for the way it synthesizes word and image to craft a new kind of storytelling, and for how it makes that synthesis seem so intuitive as to render it invisible. The book, about a pompous middle-aged architect who sets out on a quest that forces him to rethink his worldview — and himself — employs deliberately clashing styles: Take, for example, the way its protagonist is drawn with a crisp, exacting blue line, while his wife is constructed out of rough red shapes; during their courtship, Mazzucchelli allows man and woman to take on shades of each other's color and aspects of each other's form. (See Mazzucchelli's figures in a gallery of pages from the book.) Asterios Polyp is a fast, fun read, but it's also a work that has been carefully wrought to take optimum advantage of comics' hybrid nature — it's a tale that could only be told on the knife-edge where text and art come seamlessly together.
The Short Story, Reduced To Its Essence
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, hardcover, 733 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. List price: $30
Many of Lydia Davis' short stories never even make it to the bottom of the page. Some consist only of a sentence or two. (Read some of Davis' short short stories.) To read her assembled works — and the bricklike Collected Stories includes some 200 of them — is to turn her crystalline prose over in your mind and allow its flashes of mordant wit to glitter and dazzle. But even at their most spare, Davis' stories never seem slight — like Grace Paley, she has mastered the art of crafting sentences that carry the allusive, stand-alone power of poetry even as they service the demands of narrative.
Despite a long career writing what she calls her "eccentric little stories" (Davis' first collection appeared in 1976), a 2003 MacArthur "genius" grant, being a National Book Award finalist in 2007, and her well-received translations of Foucault, Proust and others, Davis remains one of those writers not enough people know about. Here's hoping this collection — a quiet, witty, thoroughly absorbing read — may finally change that.
Of Satin Tights And Equal Rights
The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines, by Mike Madrid, paperback, Exterminating Angel Press. List price: $16.95
A thoughtful, comprehensive history of women in comics is long overdue, and if Mike Madrid's Supergirls offered only this and nothing more, it'd still make a welcome addition to the growing canon of works exploring the cultural relevance of that singularly American creation, the superhero. Decade by decade, Madrid offers an encyclopedic overview of the origins and exploits of the few female crime fighters that have graced comic pages, pointedly calling out the reflexively sexist attitudes that have dominated the medium since its inception. (Read about Mike Madrid's first introduction to Supergirl when he was just 6 years old.)
But the book really comes alive in later chapters, when Madrid moves from precis to analysis, arguing that these characters must be understood as products of the times that birthed them, and that they — much more than their comparatively static male counterparts — continue to be shaped by shifting cultural attitudes in fashion, sexuality and, especially, pop music. But even as it delivers its clear-eyed critique of the way mainstream superhero comics have alternately eroticized or deified female characters, The Supergirls gleefully celebrates the medium itself, in all its goofy, glorious excess. One quibble: Given its subject, the book's lack of illustrations is disappointing.
Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., hardcover, 302 pages, Viking/Penguin. List price: $25.95
While still in the womb, Junior Thibodeau is informed by a dispassionate and slightly officious voice that the world will end in 36 years, 168 days, 14 hours and 23 seconds. (Find out what else the voice tells Junior while he's in utero.) As the protagonist of Ron Currie's high-wire act of a novel grows to manhood, that fact, and that voice, remain his constant companions. The novel's driving question — can the young genius do anything to forestall or escape doomsday? — is the one that will keep you greedily turning pages. But it's the larger questions Currie poses — about how, or if, to live in a universe without meaning, and the place that love might play in it — that cause this book to linger in the memory.
Everything Matters! is a hugely imaginative novel loaded with narrative tricks and set pieces that let the author proudly show off his clever clockwork, but Currie keeps things thoroughly grounded in the messy, mysterious business of human interaction. A beautiful, sad and haunting book.