The book that comes most immediately to mind is Andrew Holleran’s Grief, a slim, restrained, beautifully rendered novel about a gay man whose mother has just died and who relocates to Washington, DC, after having cared for her for years. Holleran does so much so well, but perhaps most striking is how compellingly he writes about solitude; many a writer has tried to do that, only to succumb to inertia and solipsism. Another writer who writes wonderfully about solitude (and just about everything else) is William Trevor (if you want brilliant, heartbreaking solitude, take a look at Trevor’s short story “After Rain”), and his new book of stories, Cheating at Canasta, is terrific. So is Donald Antrim’s memoir The Afterlife, which, speaking of grief, is about his mother’s death, but also about many other things, including the purchase of a mattress. I loved Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, the best of the 9/11 novels I read this year. This novel, too, is about grief (are we sensing a theme here?) – political and cultural grief, of course, but also about family grief: the novel is a domestic drama about a marriage in trouble, with 9/11 as the backdrop.
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like. Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India is, well, a fascinating portrait of the “New India”: a country being transformed (at least superficially) by a gigantic influx of investment and the rise of a small but very visible wealthy class. My favorite chapter tells the riveting tale of a self-made business guru with a goofy smile, a million-pound Bentley, and a string of private business schools that may or may not amount to a pyramid scheme. Philip Connors’ Fire Season describes his decade of summers spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Forest — five months a year of off-the-grid living in a 7-by-7-foot tower, far from the modern world. Solitude and fire management would make dull fodder for a lesser writer, but Connors' memoir reinvigorates the whole concept of nature writing; it's deeply thoughtful, deeply poetic, and quietly angry at what we're doing to our world, without the sentimental bullshit. And one more: Sheila Heti’s novel-from-life, How Should a Person Be?, was published in Canada in 2010, but won’t be out in the US until next June. Watch for it – it’s great. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Joan Silber, a finalist for the National Book Award and the Story Prize for Ideas of Heaven, teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York City. Her most recent novel is The Size of the World.My two favorite books this year were a new and an old. I loved Margot Livesey's new novel, The House on Fortune Street. Like all of Livesey's work, it has a mystery to it that is dark and yet has elements of beauty. Here four characters tell separate tales, united by their connection to a suicide and by their own jagged family histories. I heard Livesey on NPR, just after the book came out, and she said she thought what kept people from "free will" was not "pre-destination" but what we now call "baggage," the remnants of the past we drag with us. The fates of these characters stayed with me - it's a haunting book.This year I also re-read Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. First published in 1979, these are wild re-tellings of fairy tales, with all the blood and sex and cruelty brought to the surface. Carter got amazing mileage out of feminist re-envisionings of wolf tales and Beauty and the Beast. In all of these, the woods are dangerous, our own animal natures lie in wait, and sex is not for sissies. Carter. who died much too young at 51, forged her own path, and her boldness still sends sparks.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days. He is a founding editor of The Believer and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.Reviewing two very good rock and roll novels - Martin Millar's Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me and John Darnielle's Master of Reality - I finally cracked open Lewis Shiner's Glimpses (1993), an amazing, sustained performance, which I savored over the course of a month or two - the chapter as nightcap. In contrast, I basically inhaled the University of Chicago Press's three republished Parker books by Richard Stark. They came in the mail one day; I opened up The Outfit, just to see what it was like (I was very busy and had no time for pleasure reading), and read into the wee hours. A few chapters in, I realized I'd started with the second book in the series, but it didn't matter. There was simply no stopping me. After it was over, I read The Hunter and The Man With the Getaway Face. Now I'm just waiting for spring and the next batch of reissues.More from A Year in Reading 2008
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Laura Miller is a journalist and critic. She is a cofounder of Salon.com, where she is currently a staff writer, and is the editor of The Salon.com Readers Guide to Contemporary Authors. A regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review, her work has also appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, Time, and other publications. She lives in New York. You can read more about her and her new book The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia at www.magiciansbook.com.I review books for a living, so reading anything that's not new is a luxury (in time) that I could seldom afford - until I began downloading audiobooks to my iPod. This year, I did all my holiday baking to Anthony Trollope's delectable Barchester Towers, read by Simon Vance. The ironic, discursive authorial voice so deplored by modernists, the novel's frank, almost metafictional discussion of its own merits and likely reception by various types of readers - I gobbled it all up with as much gusto as I licked the batter off my spoon. Apparently there is no fancy experimental "trick" that hasn't already been tried by someone writing for a general audience a couple hundred years ago. None of these inexcusable devices made the scheming of Mr. Slope, the seductions of Signora Neroni (who is carried everywhere on a small sofa) or that sublime battle-axe, Mrs. Proudie, anything less than perfectly believable and almost physically painful to part with at the end. Everything about Trollope is so, so wrong according to the dictates of one or another austere literary critic, so why does it feel so, so right?More from A Year in Reading 2008