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.
Reading is seeking; it doesn’t just happen to us. We move our eyes from word to word, we move our hands to turn the pages. I’ve always treated reading like an all-encompassing quest that will never end, a riddle without an answer. But at its most basic level, books are about want. We desire to know — or at least to consume — what has been put down inside the pages. Reading is the act of satiating your own heart.
I used to read for escape. I grew up in a dusty Southwestern town where the most exciting activity on a Friday night was to cruise down the main drag in your parents’ station wagon, just to see other people your age doing the same thing. I dreamed of cities and steam tunnels and pop bulbs. They happened. So much happened. I am lucky to say that many of the things I used to read about and deeply want — girls running through the Plaza, reporters chain-smoking on a deadline, secret affairs with innominate troubadours, big sumptuous meals gobbled down with an adopted family of misfits — they all happened to me. And then this year rolled around.
This year, I read for stasis. I moved three times, changed jobs twice, had a tremendous stroke of luck that I mainly struggle to believe before I go to sleep, fell out and into love, found mice in too many cupboards. I read many books, but I kept searching for a new Bible, or at least a text that I would find soothing and steady in a period of such turbulence. In September, someone slipped me a copy of The Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler, and I felt my world slow to a crawl. Adler’s book may not be the “best” book that I read this year, but it was the one that made me feel the most sane. In day-to-day terms, that can’t be underestimated.
Adler is equally a writer and a chef, a kind of kitchen poet from the school of M.F.K. Fisher or Elizabeth David. The Everlasting Meal (subtitle: Cooking with Economy and Grace), is technically a cookbook, but there are few recipes. Instead, Adler leads the reader through a naturalistic look at one’s kitchen: starting with eggs and running through protein, produce, grains, dairy and dry goods, explaining how to wring the most life and flavor out of each ingredient. In the process, she explains how to tie your cooking life into a happy life; to understand that the most simple meals are often crafted by complex and active minds. It takes a lot of patience and stability to create a warm dish of comfort from just a few handfuls of rice, some spices, an old hunk of parmesan cheese, and the tops of radishes. But it’s all you need — in Adler’s world, less is still less. But we don’t need more.
If this is sounding kind of magical or dippy, it is only because I have trouble capturing this book without adding my own syrupy inflection. Adler’s writing is as sparse and economical as her kitchen, and the only time she veers into the mystical is when she speaks about what the vegetables may want out of a dish. (i.e. Beans “like to be soaked.”) She meditates for twelve chapters on how to live, how to eat, how to make something out of nothing. She advocates for saving every recipe no matter how bad it turns out, calling liquid cake “molten or pudding cake,” or scooping it all up into parfait glasses with whip cream. There are no mistakes. And when there truly are blunders, Adler writes, “there is the art of letting go…Being moved to surrender is an act of grace.”
This book is just what I wanted.
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The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis was the first book I read in 2007, mainly because more than one Millions contributors had celebrated it in 2006. This lovely novel, about the residents of a small New England town, opens with three girls coming across a dead man on the beach. One of the girls, Mees Kipp, uses her powers to coax him back to life. Davis writes this moment beautifully: Like reaching your arm into a box you can’t see inside of except – guess what? – you’re already there. Like the man who put his arm in a jar of mosquitoes in the filmstrip about yellow fever to test his hypothesis, even though he knew he would die. So easy to die here, squashed under a landslide of fat and blood. Quick. Quick. Ship in a bottle. Harp strings.A more traditional novelist might have centered the story on Mees’s powers, but not Davis, whose narrative eye follows many residents of the town, including a few dogs. Everyone’s consciousness is rich and distinct, even those of the animals, and the wisdom of this omniscient narrator is a thing to marvel. Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy should not be read in high school. From my unscientific poll, I’ve learned that anyone who tried this book as a teenager found it unbearably boring. Thankfully, I read this novel as an adult (or, okay, as a twenty-six year old), and loved the story of Tess, a “pure woman” as the original subtitle asserts. It was not only deliciously tragic, it was also readable – I devoured this in less than a week, and mourned its end for twice that long. The narrator’s unrelenting compassion for Tess, his assertion that she is pure and moral, despite her society’s view of her as a “fallen woman,” felt quite bold, and the descriptions of nature, “…the seasons in their moods, mornings and evenings, night and noon, winds in their different tempers, waters and mists, shades and silences, and the voices of inanimate things,” made me want to go milk some cows in the English countryside. The End of Vandalism, which depicts the lives of Midwesterners in fictional Grouse County, was one of three books by Tom Drury that I read this year. It was certainly the best of the three, although all were stunning in their comic yet compassionate treatment of their characters, and their crisp prose, not an extraneous word anywhere. Drury doesn’t write for plot, but it doesn’t matter – these characters’ lives are strange and mundane, hilarious and tragic. This was a book that made me slap my knee with laughter (really), and then, an hour later, weep. I’m so glad I discovered Tom Drury this year. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a glorious, hilarious, heart-wrenching, and sometimes even terrifying novel, and Diaz’s exuberant prose, packed with Spanish and nerd-cult jargon and lines like “the sexy isthmus of her waist,” thrilled me again and again. I love the risky point of view here: the great authorial omniscience of a narrator who’s simply a guy who knew Oscar and his family, these chapters interspersed with sections narrated by Oscar’s sister. I loved the ranting footnotes about the Dominican Republic, the unflinching accounts of Trujillo’s cruelties, and the book’s focus on the corporeal – titties everywhere, and Oscar’s fatness never forgotten. What a novel! More from A Year in Reading 2007