I don’t know about “best,” but the funniest, saddest, most interesting, and most (oddly) inspiring book I read this year was Jonathan Coe’s Like a Fiery Elephant: The Story of B. S. Johnson. Johnson wrote seven extraordinary novels between 1962 and his suicide in 1972. Coe, a novelist himself, tells the story of Johnson’s life through 160 “fragments” from Johnson’s own writings. For all his flaws, Johnson’s energy, humor, and passion come blazing through. I loved this book.
Elfriede Jelinek belongs to that select group of writers (Imre Kertész, Gao Xingjian and Herta Muller would be other recent examples) who remain relatively unknown to the English-language reading public, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Much of Jelinek’s work has yet to be translated, and even those of her novels which appear in English seem to have found few readers. This is a mystery to me, as she has all the makings of a cult figure a la Roberto Bolaño. Unlike Bolaño, who’s safely dead and available for mythologizing, Jelinek is still alive, if in seclusion because of her avowed “social phobia,” which prevents her from engaging in most forms of public activity.
Her 1980 novel Die Ausgesperrten (Wonderful Wonderful Times) was my book of 2009. The story of a group of nineteen-fifties Viennese teenagers who assault a man in a park, it’s a bleak and brutal tale, which skewers post-war Austria for what its author perceives as a kind of willful blindness to the fascist tendencies still at work in its society. I found the book remarkable for a particular tone, whose implications for my own writing I’ve yet to follow through. Jelinek’s characters are complex and compellingly drawn. She understands their desires and motivations, yet draws them without the slightest trace of sympathy. More than that – she eviscerates them without mercy. She is absolutely unforgiving of their many faults, their self-delusions, their pettiness. This gives a kind of doubleness to the writing. It’s simultaneously a broad (and sometimes very funny) satire and a piece of realism. Most satirists sacrifice realism; most realists deal in “sympathy,” which draws the reader into collusion with the characters and offers some kind of explanation or excuse for their actions. Jelinek’s writing, even in English translation, is compressed, blunt. Her observations are frequently cruel. I don’t want to live in her world, but suspect that in fact I do. This is what makes her a great writer.
It was a slow year for me as a reader. I’m not sure if it’s because I moved cross-country again, or because I was getting married, or because there were so many pictures of celebrities exposing themselves on the Internet, but I just didn’t get around to reading very many books. I had trouble starting new books, quit several books midstream, which is something I rarely do, and felt bored by the majority of what I read.That isn’t to say that there weren’t a few standouts in the field. Robert Baer’s terrific CIA memoir See No Evil, the first book I read this year, was excellent, in spite of having several key passages blacked out by CIA censors. My main man Somerset Maugham came through again with The Moon and Six Pence, his examination of the choices and sacrifices a man must make to become an artist. And Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson, was good enough to make me wonder why I hadn’t read it back when I was living in Iowa City (Also, the edition I bought, which is the only one I’ve seen, fits in my pocket, literally. Isn’t that great? Shouldn’t more books fit in our pockets?).The best book I read in 2006 was Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan examines three different modes of food production and distribution. His critique of industrial agriculture, and its reliance on corn (which he points out is present in nearly everything in the supermarket, including beef, gossip magazines, even the walls of the market itself), is damning if not all that original (many of the points are made in Fast Food Nation), but the rest of the book, which examines organic farming, self-sustaining grass farming, and modern hunter-gathers, is truly eye-opening. He takes Whole Foods to task for their somewhat misleading labeling, spends a week working on a grass farm in Virginia, and cooks a meal entirely from foods that he hunted, gathered, and grew himself. What’s great about Pollan’s writing is his ability to take pages of statistics and endless lists of ingredients and turn them into something that is not only fun to read, but fun to discuss. I can’t remember reading a book that gave me more cocktail party ammunition that the The Omnivore’s Dilemma. While this review on Slate points out some of the flaws in Pollan’s approach, I still highly recommend the book to anyone who is interested in what they eat, and how they’ve come to eat it.Some non-book related best and worsts of the year:Best Movie: Brick (IMDb) It actually came out in 2005, but in 2005 I lived in Iowa, and movies don’t get to Iowa very quickly, so I didn’t see it until 2006. It won’t win any awards, which is surely a mark of its greatness.Worst Movie: Rumor Has It (IMDb) edging out Loverboy (IMDb). Both of these movies left me wondering not only how they got made, but how I was duped into seeing them.Worst Trends: Baseball general managers giving ludicrous contracts to borderline ballplayers. Juan Pierre? Gary Matthews Jr.? I’d be worth more money to a baseball team than either of these two out machines.
With the year drawing to a close, so too is our Year in Reading series. We at The Millions would like to thank all of those who contributed to the series as well as those who helped us put together such a great group of people to participate.We’d also like to thank all of our readers for a great year at The Millions – the best ever in terms of visitors, but also in more qualitative respects. We touched on many great books and many great topics and our readers were always there to offer their insights. We hope to make The Millions even more of a “must read” destination in 2008, so stay tuned.Meanwhile, we’re going to take a break around here for a couple of days, but, in the spirit of the Year in Reading, we invite all of you to finish this sentence in the comments: “The best book I read all year was…”