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.
The other night, at a party, someone asked if I consider my writing to be political. I said no, but also yes, always, what else can it be, since I’m an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color, living in a time and place in which more or less every aspect of who I am has been politicized.
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Brian from Los Angeles, one of the most prolific readers I have ever known, sent along his to favorites for 2004 (as we continue The Millions End of Year Extravaganza)Non-Fiction: The Fall Of Baghdad (excerpt) -- It is to our great benefit that Jon Lee Anderson was one of the very few journalists to remain in Baghdad throughout (and after) the attack. Anderson remains (mostly) apolitical, to record, with ferocious accuracy and color, what he saw, heard, smelt and felt throughout those turbulent weeks. All those self-important and partisan-hack talking heads and politicians who profess to know what's best for iraq and america are infants next to Anderson. Fiction: Elizabeth Costello (excerpt) - J.M. Coetzee is primarily known for one of his weaker books (Disgrace") as opposed to one of his masterpieces (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K) -- Elizabeth Costello falls somewhere in between. And, Coetzee knows this, even seems to integrate this into the book itself. Elizabeth Costello perfectly captures, through a series of an old woman's digressions and lectures, the confusion inherent in existence. Proceeding through life with the knowledge that all information has a flip side, that every belief has a counter-belief, that everything one does is both super-charged with meaning and also meaningless, one must... proceed. As does Elizabeth Costello (and Coetzee). A book that intentionally wallows in human fallibility, confusion, flawed logic, and shortcomings, but elevated way beyond most 'perfect works' -- Coetzee is one of our best contemporary prose stylists, novelists, and essayists.--and a shout-out to the new centennial edition Graham Greenes with cooler covers than the Penguin editions and introductions by the likes of Coetzee, Christopher Hitchens, etc... The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair must be read by all! Look for more great end of year reviews as the Extravaganza continues.
Lydia Millet's sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, is coming out in January from Counterpoint; a previous book, My Happy Life, won the PEN-USA Award for Fiction in 2003. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.I fell in love with a woman this year. It was a first for me and a novel called Jesus Saves is what did it - I fell in love with the author, Darcey Steinke. Jesus Saves was published in 1999 but I found it just this summer, at the back of a tiny library in Silver City, New Mexico, a town of roughly 10,000 souls where I spend my summers, and read it in a couple of dreamy, lying-in-bed days. There's a child being tortured in the book, which is painful, especially for someone like me, pregnant and with a three-year-old little girl. There's torture in there, and there's religion; there's sex and drugs. There's a lot of garbage, a lot of litter in the woods where teenagers sneak off to be sordid. There are also unicorns and rainbows, though they don't make you feel good. Finally it's deeply beautiful, beautiful in the way of some of Denis Johnson, maybe, or various poets. Also the author's photo, which you're never supposed to notice if you're reading books for the right reasons, was alarmingly beautiful, almost criminally, wrongly beautiful. All in all I fell in love. Since then I've read two of her other books. Still loving.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Tim W. Brown is the author of three novels; his latest, Walking Man, was published in April 2008 by Bronx River Press. He serves on the board of the New York Center for Independent Publishing, and he regularly reviews small-press books as a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His next novel is American Renaissance, due in 2010 from Gival Press.I have pretty circumscribed habits when it comes to reading, which generally consist of (1) reading books as part of research for my writing projects and (2) reading books I've been assigned to review. 2008 was a typical year for me.My current writing project is a novel set in the 1930s, and I've spent about two years thus far reading background material for the book. That's not to say the books I've read don't have contemporary relevance. Given the current economic climate, two histories I've read are eerily prescient. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes focuses on FDR's experiments to turn the economy around during the Great Depression. She argues that his administration's policies hurt as well as helped the cause. Her discussions of the freezing of capital markets and deflation, two terms we read in the newspapers today, explain what potential dangers loom ahead of us. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor traces the history of FDR's extremely ambitious Works Progress Administration, which put millions of unemployed Americans to work. Harry Hopkins, WPA's head, is the book's hero; an incredibly bright and scrupulously honest man, he worked harder than anyone to keep workers from all walks of life afloat during the nation's worst economic downturn. Incoming president Barack Obama, who has announced economic stimulus measures of his own, could learn much from Hopkins' example.Two notable poetry collections I read for review purposes in 2008 were the National Book Award-nominated Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and Annoying Diabetic Bitch by Sharon Mesmer. Smith's book is a highly moving account of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it visited upon New Orleans in 2005. Her book is truly heart-wrenching when describing the plight of the storm's many African-American victims, capturing in dialect their faith in a doubtful deliverance. Blood Dazzler tells a supremely tragic story, but a powerful one, too, affirming that human will and the language expressing it are equal to the worst havoc that Nature can wreak. Mesmer's book owes its genesis to "flarf" methodology, wherein outrageous and/or inappropriate terms are entered into the Google search engine and poems are composed from the results. In less-practiced hands than Mesmer's, flarf-derived poems could easily lapse into nonsense. The particular genius of this book lies in how Mesmer draws on the universal Id that is the Internet and creates poems with strong speakers baring their deepest thoughts and desires. Her book is lewd, crude, politically incorrect - and hilarious.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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I recently finished reading another one of Bernice L. McFadden’s masterpieces, The Book of Harlan. McFadden took me on a melodious literary journey through time and place -- complex, real, beautifully raw, and necessary like jazz and blues arrangements accompanying a #BlackLivesMatter protest. Harlan, McFadden’s main protagonist, is a solidifying fixture in her novel, spanning almost 60 years from his pre-conception in Macon, Ga., slightly before 1917, to his migration with his parents to Harlem as a child, to Montmartre where his musical talent and the Parisian women are both free and indulge him, to Buchenwald where the Nazis enslave him, and eventually back to his once joyous roots that struggle so desperately to engage him beyond the torturing soul wounds that consume him. Harlan, while singular in nature, is that collective link that introduces us to a cast of characters, like his parents Emma and Aubrey; best friend and musical confidante whom he refers affectionately to as his brother Lizard; a Barbadian lover Gwen; a nationally-perceived martyr John Smith; and others, who, like Harlan, are forced to confront almost existentialist-like questions about agency, destiny, purpose, freedom, sanity, and survival. And, of course, given the historical and sociological literary genius that McFadden is, she intricately and purposefully juxtaposes her characters’ lives with the motile backdrop of Blacks from America and abroad at the time, along with their intersecting paths. An example of her unapologetic and timely prose that unites the diaspora is evident in the following passage: In the South, black Americans, sick of centuries-long maltreatment from a country built on their backs, launched boycotts, freedom rides, and sit-ins. Across the waters, inspired by their American cousins, South Africans also took to the streets to demand civil rights. As a result, blood was spilled on both continents. Rivers of it flowed through the gutters, seeped into the core of the earth, and came together in a thick, red knot. Justice was blind, and God was deaf. The Book of Harlan is undoubtedly one of the best books I have read this year. And while I still try to wrap my mind around the current divisive political climate in the U.S., McFadden’s prose lingers, giving me courage to stay committed to telling authentic stories that, while revealing of unspeakable truths, serve to unite us all. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005