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.
My year in books was, uh, bookended by two very different volumes — one that I devoured on New Year’s Day, and one that I polished off yesterday. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common, but I found them both transporting.
Stan Sakai’s comics epic Usagi Yojimbo is more than a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan. It’s a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan starring a rabbit with his ears tied in a topknot. Sakai’s been writing and drawing these clever, sweeping tales for more than 25 years, and the two-volume Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition collects the first decade of Usagi’s story. For someone like me who had somehow never gotten around to reading Sakai, the collection is eye-opening: Sakai is a fluid, thoughtful adventure writer, and his artwork is sharp-edged and impeccably balanced, like the honorable warrior it depicts.
Train Dreams, Denis Johnson’s slim story first published in the Paris Review, is but 116 pages, but in its way it’s as sweeping a tale as Usagi’s. By capturing the life of Robert Grainier, a railroad worker in the early 20th-century Pacific Northwest, Johnson also paints a picture of the last pre-modern world in America, a place of wildfires and wolves, Model Ts and silent movies, lives lived alone and families lost forever. It’s a small masterpiece, funny and sad, and though I read it in under an hour I feel it might stay with me forever.
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Rachel Fershleiser is the co-editor of the New York Times Bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three forthcoming books of Six-Word Memoirs. She has written for The Village Voice, New York Press, Print, Los Angeles Times, National Post, Salon.com, and several amazing print and online publications you’ve never heard of. She day jobs happily at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.I don’t think there’s one best book I read this year, but looking back over my emails, facebook status updates, and oh-so-tolerant friends, there is clearly one I was most evangelical about.Have you ever read King Dork?I asked everyone who crossed my path – working on the sales floor of a bookstore, that’s an awful lot of readers – and no one had. When it was published in 2006, Time called it “Impossibly brilliant,” Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, and virtually every other review was a rave, but somehow, Frank Portman’s young adult geek-rock opus still needs some hyping.It’s as funny and filthy and filled with the inhumanities of high school loserdom as everyone has said (“pitch-perfect… realistic, self-aware” – The Oregonian, “cutting satire… smartly skewers.” – The Plain Dealer). But for me, the true brilliance lies in the complex questions of our antihero’s dead father and the coded messages left behind in his library of classic books. King Dork is the only book I’ve ever read in which the mystery is never resolved, and I finished feeling completely satisfied anyway. For that near-impossible feat, this story is as sophisticated as it is scatological.In 2008, I also reread the always-wonderful Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis, fell in love with Elizabeth McCracken, sublimated my political obsession into Stephen Elliott’s Looking Forward to It (I tried to tell Stephen how much I liked it at parties on both coasts; each time he would not hear my praise, instead turning his prodigious rave-dancing abilities in my direction), and enjoyed beautiful minicomics by artists like Gabrielle Bell, Ken Dahl, Alec Longstreth, Liz Prince, and Jon Chad.More from A Year in Reading 2008
For some reason, I’ve decided to organize my book recommendations around the season in which I read them:
Fortune by Joseph Millar: Heaven knows I’m not the type to go around recommending poetry to people, but I feel a little evangelical when it comes to the work of poet Joseph Millar. I read his first collection, Overtime, a few years ago, and was duly floored, but for some reason didn’t get around to his second collection, Fortune, until early this year. Like Philip Levine, Millar writes poems about the American working class, whose concerns have gone largely unaddressed in contemporary literature. Millar’s poetry is full of gritty detail, alcoholic fathers, bad choices and grim compromise, and it couldn’t be more lovely.
Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish: How refreshing to read a memoir that rises above the whining, rationalizing and self-indulgence that characterizes most memoirs these days. Kalish, a sassy octogenarian with a sharp eye and even sharper tongue, charmingly details how to domesticate raccoons, shock oats, and draw boils with a sugar beet. It’s like listening to your grandma recount the good ol’ days, only a lot more interesting.
The Terror by Dan Simmons: I read this one, a historical horror story about the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic, while sitting on a beach in Mexico. The Terror is harrowing, relentless and, yes, terrifying in all the right ways. And, hey, there’s nothing quite like reading about blizzards, cannibalism, frostbite and giant murderous snow-beasts while sipping iced drinks and cooling your tootsies in the Pacific ocean.
Stiches by David Small: While I haven’t read a whole lot of graphic novels, I can say unequivocally that this is the best one I’ve ever read. It’s baldly honest, sad and somehow redemptive. It’s been in my head for weeks.