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.
This year brought me the work of Elena Ferrante, and reading her reminded me of that child-like excitement when you can’t look up from the page, when your eyes seem to be popping from your head, when you think: I didn’t know books could do this! But there is nothing child-like about Ferrante’s work. It’s adult stuff. The Days of Abandonment deals with the fracture of a marriage, and it takes it straight on. There is a profound thrill in witnessing such honest ferocity on the page. What followed for me were the first two books of her trilogy, My Brilliant Friend, and then The Story of a New Name, and finishing the latter, I had to stumble around the apartment before I could re-enter my own world. The world she creates in these two books is a world of poverty and harshness and childhood friendship that is deep in its love and envy. These scenes take place mostly in Naples, with some excursions as the narrator gets older, but all of this barely scrapes the surface of what Ferrante really does. Which is to keep your face pressed into the realities of class and sex and violence, and make you grateful to be there. I absolutely loved it.
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