This Was a Year of Very Good Books
And also: Happy Arthur Schnitzler Szn
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I don’t celebrate Christmas. I like Christmas because it’s cozy, the songs are pretty good, and the whole people being nice to each other thing resonates with me. But it’s not my holiday. I’m more of a Christmas observer. I love Charlie Brown complaining about it being too commercial of a holiday, partake in a glass or two of eggnog, and appreciate the early-1990s Ralph Lauren Home take on decorating for this time of year (something filled with pine cones, lots of Scotch plaid, big pillows that are simply for decoration).
But my favorite thing is the spooky side of Christmas, something I’ve found that the British do far better than we do here in America. Luckily for me, my earliest memory of being exposed to Christmas was a very American take on a quintessential English story. If you were young when you first saw the 1983 Disney take on Charles Dickens, Mickey's Christmas Carol, then I assume you might have a similar outlook. There’s something sad and forbidding about the cartoon that maybe you weren’t used to when Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were involved, but then, towards the end, you get Scrooge getting tossed into a grave that seems to be a portal to hell, and, dear God, it was terrifying to witness as a kid.
Years later, somebody hipped me to a tradition that the BBC has been doing on and off since the 1970s that hit me in a somewhat similar way. A Ghost Story for Christmas is a series based on an old English tradition of telling spooky stories during the holidays which is a tradition I wish we’d take on over here in the States. One of the closest things we have is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, which, ironically, was shot in the U.K. where Kubrick had moved to in the 1960s. But the whole “Eyes Wide Shut is one of the best Christmas movies” crowd that I’m proudly a part of has grown over the years while the author of the work it was based on, Arthur Schnitzler, is largely unknown over here.
I think there’s no better time than December to change that. Welcome to Schnitzler Season, my friends.
A couple of things about Schnitzler. First, yeah, the guy was a smoke show in his younger years. Timothée Chalamet is a mustache away from playing him in some small-budget movie he makes because he wants to show off his artistic side. Also, Schnitzler was a Jew from Vienna, so you’re not getting any actual Christmas stories from him. You do get some great psychological fiction that will immediately appeal to anybody who is a fan of fellow late-19th-century Viennese coffee shop haunters like Stefan Zweig or Sigmund Freud. I’ve seen his work described as “dealing with psychological themes,” which seemed redundant to me at first, but then I thought about how that was sort of a new thing back then, and German-speaking writers were especially good at it.
I’ll admit that I decided to recently reread Schnitzler because I was thinking of another Eyes Wide Shut rewatch. I grabbed the copy of Night Games I had on my shelf and headed into the city intending to only read Dream Story, the short novel that Kubrick turned into his last film, but I decided to do the whole book. It was while I was reading The Widower, a perfect story with one of my favorite twists, that I realized there’s something so perfect about reading somebody like Schnitzler during this time of faux hope and cheer. Schnitzler didn’t care about the ideas of good and evil. Instead, he was more interested in what made people tick, their impulses, transgressions, and how other people reacted to them. That’s exactly what I want this time of year when I can’t escape Paul McCartney or Mariah Carey Christmas songs no matter how hard I try.
And since I’m on the topic of books, here’s a quick rundown of my favorite books that came out this year:
The Slip: The New York City Street That Changed American Art Forever by Prudence Peiffer
Just when you think every stone in Manhattan has been overturned and every scene to come out of New York City has been made into some corny biopic, a book like this comes along that focuses on artists that aren’t maybe considered huge names, but still changed so much through their work and their lives.
Chain Gang All Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
It takes so much to get me to read anything labeled dystopian in the Year of Our Lord 2023, but enough people told me I had to read it that I eventually gave in. I was a little apprehensive since the jacket copy compared it to 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale like those are the only two dystopian future novels anybody has ever written. So I was a little surprised when I started reading the book and started thinking about how it reminded me of the ‘80s dystopian stuff I grew up on., like a very masterful, modern take on John Carpenter films like Escape From New York or the film version of The Running Man. Masterful stuff.
Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson
I love the whole thing about how reading fiction can make you a more empathetic person. But I feel like we don’t talk about how, when done well, non-fiction like Hendrickson’s book can have you reconsidering everything you thought you knew about something. I didn’t know much about what people who stutter go through, and I honestly wouldn’t have given it much thought, but Hendrickson is a writer I read regularly at The Atlantic, and whose 2020 piece on our current president’s stutter is one of the most humanizing pieces I’ve ever read on a politician. So I picked it up and I truly felt like I learned so much. I think I thanked John the last time I saw him. If I didn’t, thanks for writing this book.
Users by Colin Winnette
I read everything by Winnette. His fiction is somehow totally original while also a bit familiar. Not familiar in a repetitive way. I wouldn’t dare say he’s going for the voice of [Insert any big-name writer here]. Instead, he plays around with certain tropes and genres, twisting them into these fascinating books that I’m always reading in one sit. Like Chain Gang All-Stars, this one could get lumped into dystopian fiction. But also like Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s novel, it’s just far superior to most other recent books I’ve read that fall under that umbrella. The Severance comparison is apt. I could also call it “Kafka writing Office Space.”
Crook Manifesto by Colson Whitehead
Normally, I wouldn’t feel the need to put a book by Colson Whitehead on a list because, yeah, you’re probably going to read it. But I’ve found that his Harlem books don’t seem to get the same sort of love the ones that win Pulitzers do, and I think that’s too bad. I loved Harlem Shuffle, and I’m glad he’s still exploring that world and using some of those characters, building a little universe the way any good crime fiction might—except it’s Colson Whitehead doing it.
I'm a Fan by Sheena Patel
This book fascinated me and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for a few days. It’s a fast read, but I had to go back and read it again partially because I was interviewing Patel at Brooklyn Book Fest, but also because I needed to understand how she did what she did. I’ve been waiting for a novel like this, something that takes our social media-rotted society and turns it into something equally unsettling and emotional. Also shades of Bret Easton Ellis for the way it handles consumerism and the way we decorate our dreams with images we copy from the media we consume.
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