Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is a supreme literary stunt: a short “novel” composed only of questions, each of which seems to implicate the reader in a narrative conspiracy as serious and absurd as his or her own life. Ultimately, Powell’s little book can be seen word-machine designed to induce unprecedented states of interior monologue, or narrative drug.
When I think of all the books I read and loved this year -- and there have been so many -- I think the one I found most striking was Patrick deWitt's The Sisters Brothers. It was the sheer originality of the thing, the absolutely unique style and voice. It might fairly be described as a western for people who think they don’t like westerns. Two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, make their living as hired killers in the employ of a shadowy man known only as the Commodore, on the Gold Rush-era western frontier. But while Charlie enjoys killing, Eli, the narrator, is troubled by their ever-rising body count, and finds himself beginning to question the Commodore’s explanations for why the men they’re hired to kill have been marked for death. It’s a mesmerizing, precisely-written, sad, and very violent tale, with unexpected flashes of humor. Others: Susanna Moore's The Life of Objects was a marvel of clarity and beauty, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I'd somehow never read The Great Gatsby before this year. I almost wrote "I don't know why it took me so long," but obviously I do know what took me so long: I was busy reading other books. The elegance of the work stays with me, its clockwork plot. I've been reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald's life this year, thinking about talent and dissipation. Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis was profoundly beautiful and disturbing and continues to haunt me. Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker was a delight. It's hard to imagine two books less similar than Necropolis and Angelmaker, but the common thread, I realize, is that both writers are willing to take considerable risks. They walk their respective tightropes successfully. I loved Lauren Groff's Arcadia. Her novel is impressive in the way that The Great Gatsby is impressive: you recognize, reading it, that you're in the presence of a writer with absolute command over her material. It's a beautifully written book. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
It's always hard for me to choose the best book I've read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I've read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year's included Matthew Kneale's wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro's quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa's masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield's eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen's Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?). But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the "most printed original English book." It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, "What if you reversed that? 'It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.' Doesn't work at all, does it?" And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: "It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done..." Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses. A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first--or, perhaps, the second--sentence--and I wept over the last. Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about the story, in case you've waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away. Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction--eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader--the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man's shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did. For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor). Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page. More from A Year in Reading
In a year in which some remarkable books found me—Anne Carson’s weird, exquisite Autobiography of Red; Brad Watson’s hallucinatory, radioactively-good story collection Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives; Siddhartha Mukherjee’s massive, massively interesting biography of cancer The Emperor of All Maladies--no book afflicted me with such jealousy as Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will. What is it? It’s a blue hardcover containing hand-drawn maps of fifty super-isolated islands, paired with a page of text about each. It’s also a collection of fifty prose poems. And a quest for the loneliest places in the world. And a testament to the transformative power of maps. You can read it in an hour. Or a month. It contains lots of lines like: “Here in Neptunes Bellows, at the gates of hell, in the jaws of the dragon, the waves crash interminably” (128). Or, “ They soak the rock-hard leather in the sea for four or five days to soften it, fry it on the coals, and force it down their throats” (70). “It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts,” Schalansky argues in her introduction, “and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrus orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world” (23). Atlas of Remote Islands is a celebration of what can still be accomplished with imagination, paper and ink. Holding it, you feel as if you’ve stolen the composition book that dreamy girl in the back row of your high school English class is always scribbling into. You page through it and think: Oh my God. She’s a genius. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
● ● ●
● ● ●