I suspect there might be something inherently unfair in asking about best books any year that J.M. Coetzee has a new novel out. He is truly sui generis and seems to operate at a level that the rest of us can only sort of admire from afar. After the interesting misstep that was Slow Man, he’s returned with the extraordinary Diary of a Bad Year. The book consists of three narratives that share each page: At the top of the page are, in a nod to Nabokov, the protagonist’s “Strong Opinions” – essays on subjects ranging from political life in Australia to al-Qaida. In the second thread, the protagonist “JC”, who bears a striking resemblance to the author, describes his obsession with his beautiful young amanuensis. And the third voice tells that same story from her point of view. The result is an alternating comic and tragic aria for three voices that asks questions no less fundamental than what is it we require of our writers and novels? A painter friend once told me that any serious painter needed to contend with Picasso and Pollock. Anyone who cares for literature must do the same with J.M. Coetzee.
V.V. Ganeshananthan's first novel, Love Marriage, was published in April by Random House. She lives in New York.Edan Lepucki recommended it last year; I'm going to recommend it this year. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao astonishes me more every time I think about it, every time I discuss it with a friend or a student, every time I flip to a favorite passage again. What delightful nerdery to see how many of the references I get! Beyond that, I enjoy the incredible feat of craftsmanship and passion. The novel does a number of remarkable things. At the moment, I'm appreciating how its structure allows it to deal with ideas of community and belonging. The story, juggled between protagonist Oscar and narrator Yunior, simultaneously acknowledges and undermines stereotypes - as Yunior generalizes (sometimes carelessly, but often affectionately) about his own Dominican communities, he also tells the tale of their singular, beloved misfit: Oscar, who has to constantly insist on his own Dominican identity. I love this epic and I'll read it again next year, I'm sure.A Perfect Man, by Naeem Murr. When I picked this gorgeous book up, I was stunned by the depth of its world. Murr's canny, sharp, sympathetic portrayal of children and adolescents kept me riveted.I'm finishing off the year reading A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. I'm not done with it yet, but I suspect it won't take me long - the take on the Bangladesh War is great, and telling the story from the widow Rehana's point of view gives the story a different freshness and sympathy.More from A Year in Reading 2008
I read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time this summer. I'd never read any Margaret Atwood before that. I picked up a used hardcover at a bookstore in Philadelphia, and it sat around before I finally decided to take the plunge. I don't know why I waited so long. It is perhaps the most moving book I've ever read. It is dark, funny, poignant, frightening. Margaret Atwood writes with such fierce poetry that I found myself running my fingers over the words, trying to absorb the book's magic in every sense I could. It doesn't happen often, that kind of magic. I saw a picture of Atwood writing it in Berlin, and it is just her at a table in an otherwise empty room. The novel's magic is all her. It is quite the feminist novel, too, and what blows my mind is that it is almost 30 years old but feels as of the moment as I'm sure it did back then. Women are still fighting for their rights. We are still fighting for our personhood, for our right to total equality. We are still Offreds in many ways. When I finished the book I felt depressed for days, mourning the loss of such a gorgeous and enveloping companion. Then, recently, I was given an advance copy of Laura van den Berg's novel Find Me, out next year on FSG. It felt like the response to The Handmaid's Tale's call. The characters are very different, the worlds in which the novels are set are different, but the yearning of both characters, the driving grief, feels very much of a piece. Both novels offer precision of language and metaphor and scene even as what is being constructed feels messy, chaotic, sad, hopeless. Find Me's joy is speaking in parallel with The Handmaid's Tale's Offred. Both orphaned and alone in the world, both so completely real, both telling a story that feels important and exciting to read. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon these books this year, and challenged by them to be better. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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