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.
Charles Bock was born in Las Vegas, Nevada. He has an MFA from Bennington College, and has received fellowships from Yaddo, Ucross, and the Vermont Studio Center. He lives in New York City and is the author of the runaway New York Times bestseller Beautiful Children. Visit his website at www.beautifulchildren.net.After I turned in my list, the editor of this blog asked for 100 words on one or two of the books. I was resistant because the request immediately would place that book as my fave or as better than the others. Which it would not be. The books on this list all thrilled and impressed me. They all deserve attention, would be a treat for your eyes. Seriously, If you are looking for something to read, you can’t go wrong with anything on my list. Still, I decided to be agreeable. A hundred words is not a lot.So: the book with the lowest profile. The Hammer of God: The Art of Malleus Rock Lab. Malleus actually refers to a trio of Italian rock poster artists; this anthology of the work they’ve done in their six years together as a poster collective. Fucking amazing. The art in this book is sensuous and dreamlike and tinged with erotic dread and longing. Most of the posters cannot be done justice by words (at least not by me). But here’s an attempt at describing what’s inside, or a taste of it, anyway: A Queens of the Stone Age poster. A renaissance-era, very sexy looking Mary Magdaline-type woman. Her head is surrounded by rays of sunlight. She looking to heaven, and is crying. We see her robe opened; her chastity belt. We see her standing knee high in keys that don’t work.That, my friends, is genius.Okay, now to the other genius-ey works I was exposed to in 2008:A Person of Interest by Susan ChoiThe 19th Wife by David EbershoffBlindness by Jose SaramagoStoner by John WilliamsSlash by SlashSick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis by Jonathan CohnLush Life Richard PriceGo With Me by Castle Freeman Jr.Black Flies by Shannon BurkeState by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland and Sean WilseyBloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures: short stories by Vincent LamFarewell Navigator stories by Leni ZumasMore from A Year in Reading 2008
Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. They released their fourth record You & Me this fall. He lives in Manhattan.A few books that I really enjoyed this year were:Roger’s Version by John Updike. The novel follows a weathered, sour divinity professor (Roger) who surprises even himself with some over-compensating good will toward two youngsters who energetically barge in on his life. He gets in pretty deep, and even stomachs an affair between the young squirt (Dale) and his own wife. Roger’s monotonous social life (cocktail parties, fantasizing about neighbors’ happiness) is funny the whole time. This was a fantastic book.The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht. It’s so hard to write about why I like these poems. It’s just incredible how much he can cover in so little space, and how effortless it all seems when everything has such a formal structure. I would also recommend his Flight Among the Tombs and The Venetian Vespers.American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I was surprised at how much I didn’t like Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but I figured I should give him another shot so I picked up American Pastoral and enjoyed it. The main action centers around a guy named Swede – a high school sports superhero who eventually married Miss New Jersey and ran a very successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. The first half of the book paints them as an entirely boring family, but after Swede’s daughter sets off a bomb in a nearby convenience store things take a nasty turn for the family. The narrator then dissects the family’s history to uncover what may not have been such a boring story.The Comedians by Graham Greene. Three men meet aboard a ship to Haiti. They’re all traveling for different reasons and you definitely begin to wonder immediately who’s telling the truth about anything. After they arrive, they’re all assaulted by Papa Doc’s corrupt and violent regime, and each man’s character and intentions reveal themselves. This was one hell of a story. I loved it.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. This year, his work appeared in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best of the Web.When it comes to books, I’m less a gourmet than a gourmand. It’s not that the slim, perfect novel doesn’t excite my palate, but when I’m in the middle of a sensational meal, I want it never to end – or at least to give the illusion of infinitude. And so I hunger for big books – thousand-calorie entrees I wrap rubber bands around to keep the bindings intact.This year, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, these big books appealed to me with even greater urgency. At some point soon, the demands of family life and the writing life are going to leave me with less time for “loose, baggy monsters,” and so I’ve been trying to get the important ones under my belt. After all, there are only so many behemoths out there, right? Well, it turns out that big books share certain Hydra-like properties with books in general. This year, I knocked off ten enormous tomes; I added about twenty to my “to-read” list.The best of the best – the book that came closest to being everything I want in a novel – was Mortals (712 pp), by Norman Rush. It’s a funny book, in that it forgoes the immediate pyrotechnics of Rush’s first novel, Mating (a mere 474 pp), which I also read this year. Still I’m convinced that, once you’ve acquired a taste for Rush’s penetrating yet hugely compassionate voice – his astonishing negative capability – you will find Mortals to be one of the two or three best American novels published this decade. And it just gets better as it goes along: the 100-page climax is almost literally explosive.A close second was Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (893 pp), a novel I’m still thinking about, half a year after first reading it. As with Mortals, I hesitate to recommend diving straight into it; you might want to learn to trust Bolaño, as I did, by first reading his more trenchant performances (Nazi Literature in the Americas (227 pp including epilogue) (review), then Distant Star (149 pp), and then The Savage Detectives (still comparatively lean at 577 pp) (review)). But 2666 is a cabinet of wonders, and a landmark in contemporary letters.Inspired by Joshua Ferris’ 2007 Year in Reading entry, I went on a late-period Henry James bender this year, which (to return to the food metaphor) is sort of like gorging on lobster with a heavy cream sauce. In its rich evocation of human subjectivity, The Wings of the Dove (711 pp) is a dazzling technical achievement, but it’s James’ deep feeling for his characters that makes this my favorite of his novels. Of course, if the representation of subjectivity is to your taste, I should also recommend Under the 82nd Airborne (230 pp in The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg) (review), in which our finest short story writer refines into deft turns of phrase what James took pages and pages to do. I think of Eisenberg and James as two-thirds of a triumvirate: Discoverers of the American Mind. The third third is Saul Bellow, with whom I spent most of June. Of the several books I read, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (260 pp) struck me as the most surprising, courageous, and challenging.Ms. Eisenberg’s advocacy, at a PEN World Voices panel, persuaded me to sate my appetite for German-language literature with Robert Walser’s Jakob van Gunten (176 pp), a bewitching (and blessedly brief) evocation of adolescence. I also marveled at Alfred Döblin’s pitch-black Berlin Alexanderplatz (378 closely printed pp). Then I turned back to the big American novel. Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1192 pp) is the longest book I have ever read, by a good 150,000 words. It took me six weeks to finish, at least, and, python-like, I’m still digesting, but the achievements in sections like “Larry,” “the future,” and “Alias Missing Conversation” rank with the best of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace.Speaking of Wallace, the best book I re-read this year was Infinite Jest (1079 pp with footnotes), which was fresh in my mind when news of the author’s death reached his readers. IJ still looks to me like the fictional high-water-mark of a generation. I welcome debate on this point, but revisiting the book debunks claims that Wallace is too intellectual, too indulgent, or too stylized; here, he does everything the ten next-best American writers can do, and does it better (see, e.g., pp 851- 981). That we’ll never get to see another novel from him is an incalculable loss.Fortunately for us, the reservoir of literary talent in his generation runs deep; following other writers as they advance the cause of fiction forward is a kind of consolation. Trance (505 pp), by Year in Reading participant Christopher Sorrentino, was the book by a young American that most impressed me this year (review). The writing – tough, funny, elegant, jive – really astonished me, as did the way the novel mobilizes the 1970s in service of the now. I guess all history really is present history.The work of nonfiction I most enjoyed in 2008 was Janet Malcolm’s Gertrude and Alice: Two Lives (224 pp). Malcolm is at least as good a critic as she is a journalist; her approach to literature is refreshingly humble, nimble, curious, and delighted. (I’m reading her Chekhov book now (205 pp.)) I only made it halfway through Gertrude Stein’s novel The Making of Americans this summer (it’s an annual endeavor; 925 pp), but Gertrude and Alice, which I devoured in a single, lovely July day, was a welcome substitute. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Timothy Donaldson’s book on the development of alphabets, Shapes for Sounds. Reading it is like sitting in on a lecture by the most brilliant professor in the department. It is also – not incidentally – a triumph of design on the order of David Macauley.Finally, I have to say something about political books, which functioned this year as quick, bitter palate-cleansers. For eight years, a small corps of investigative journalists – Hersh, Wright, Mayer, Packer – has been working to keep our government honest. I’d like to nominate Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman for inclusion on this honor roll. In addition to being a riveting, lively, and infuriating read, his book, Angler (384 pp), introduced me to one of the most fascinating literary characters I’ve yet encountered: Richard B. “Dick” Cheney. For pure, mysterious “lifeness” (to borrow the most useful term from James Wood’s How Fiction Works (248 pp)), Cheney rivals Wallace’s Don Gately, and Rush’s Ray Finch, Bellow’s Artur Sammler, and Eisenberg’s many protagonists. We’ll be chewing over (or choking on) his legacy for years to come. It’s a good thing we’ll have good books, large and small, to nourish us along the way.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Brian Evenson is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently The Open Curtain, which was a finalist for the Edgar Award and the International Horror Guild Award, and was named by Time Out New York as one of the best books of 2006. He is the recipient of both an O. Henry Award and an NEA award.I’ve decided I should exclude books I blurbed (like Peter Markus’ Bob, or Man on Boat or Michael Kimball’s Dear Everybody or Atilla Bartis’s brilliant but harrowing Tranquility), books by my colleagues (such as Forrest Gander’s As a Friend), books I reread (ranging from Beckett’s Molloy to Peter Straub’s Koko), and books that I loved but will have forgotten about until just moments after this is posted. Of books that came out this year I genuinely enjoyed Kelly Link’s Pretty Monsters. It contains a couple of stories published in her earlier collections (including one of my favorites, “The Specialist’s Hat”) as well as a number of previously uncollected stories. Link walks the boundary between literary and genre (including YA) fiction in way that draws on the strengths of both and always surprises. Check out “The Wizards of Perfil” and what she does with shifting narrative attention or the way she handles dialogue in general. And the storytelling is always good.In terms earlier books, I read Wyndham Lewis’s The Revenge for Love (1937) for the first time this year. It’s a beautifully written and sophisticated book, often very funny, quite uniformly vicious toward all groups and factions. It’s an utterly original and unjustly neglected novel, and Lewis’s style is unlike that of anyone else.And finally, the story that has stuck with me most this year is Yu Hua’s hard to find “One Kind of Reality” (I found it in Henry Zhao’s anthology The Lost Boat but it’s in at least one other anthology), which does things with violence, lack of affect and family relationships that I’ve never experienced before. It’s a truly terrifying story, and well worth reading for anyone interested in transgressive fiction.More from A Year in Reading 2008