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.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Year in Reading at The Millions. It was great fun. The Millions will be dark for a week or so while the holidays are celebrated. Hopefully, upon its return in early January, the blog will have a new and improved look. In the meantime, here is an index to all the great contributions we got this month:Writers:George SaundersCharles ShieldsCharles D’AmbrosioSandra ScoppettoneBloggers:Conversational ReadingPinky’s PaperhausThe BibliosphereLanguagehatTwo UmbrellasEmerging WritersThe Elegant VariationSlushPile.NetEd ChampionCorey VilhauerCondalmoTabula RasaBookdwarfMillions Contributors:AndrewPatrickGarthBenReaders:DerekEdanExtras
I began 2010 in Provincetown reading J. M. Coetzee’s latest book, Summertime. Though published as a novel, Summertime can be read as a sequel to Coetzee’s two volumes of memoir, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II, both of which Coetzee wrote in the third person. In Summertime, a famous writer named John Coetzee has died. The book is made up largely of a young biographer’s interviews with various people (all but one female) who once knew the writer. Much of what these people have to say is unflattering, at times contemptuous and even cruel. When their words are put together with excerpts from the writer’s journals, a fascinating—if less than lovable—portrait of “Coetzee” emerges. This is a strange, poignant, and often very funny hybrid of a book, though, for me, not quite as haunting as the earlier autobiographical works, particularly Boyhood.
The end of 2010 finds me in Marfa, Texas, reading Coetzee again. Coetzee has long been a favorite writer of mine, the restraint and asceticism of his short books making so much other literary writing seem undisciplined and turgid by comparison. I had read almost all his work, but in the house where I’m staying I found two novels I hadn’t gotten around to yet: The Age of Iron and Life and Times of Michael K. The bleakness of the characters’ lives (hopelessly sick, poor, friendless souls crushed by South African society’s brutal systems) makes for almost unbearable reading. Yet Coetzee seems to me one of the few contemporary writers whose work can be called “necessary” without fear of overstatement. And who else could have written Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace?
For years people have been urging me to read James Galvin’s The Meadow, and this year I finally did. The Meadow is the story of a particular piece of land in a mountainous region on the border of Colorado and Wyoming over a period of a century. It is both a natural history of the place and a portrait of the various people—ordinary in some ways, utterly extraordinary in others—who have struggled to make their lives there. As the meadow lies on the border of two states, so The Meadow lies between fiction and nonfiction. Not like any other book I’ve ever read, almost a new genre, it contains passages as beautifully written as anything in American literature. When I read work as fine as that of either of these two wonderful writers I think: I’ll write like that in heaven.
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At the end of the year lots of newspapers and media outlets release “best of the year” lists. It’s nice to have a record of the year’s literary highlights, but the lists do not represent the experience of any real readers. Sure, we may read handful of brand new books each year, but these are likely to be outweighed by older books – books that we are finally getting around to or books that we have just discovered, books two years old and books 200 years old. All these books taken together represent a year in reading, and as a counterpoint to all of those “best of” lists, I’ve asked authors, bloggers and readers to send along the best of from their year in reading.For today, I asked Pete from Pete Lit to share with us the best books he read this year and he sent back a nice list. Chicagoans may notice that Chicagoans are well-represented here. Says Pete:My top choice is An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. The writing is just beautiful, and Just wonderfully evokes a bygone Chicago era.Runners-Up:William Trevor, A Bit on the SideJoe Sacco, PalestineAlex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children HereHonorable Mention:Stuart Dybek, I Sailed With MagellanKirby Gann, Our Napoleon in RagsIan McEwan, SaturdayDavy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, KansasNick Hornby, The Polysyllabic SpreeJohn McNally, The Book of Ralph