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.
Hello and thanks to The Millions for having me back. The most engrossing book I read this year was Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. It's the story of the financial collapse of the 1920's, which precipitated the Great Depression. It focuses on four central bankers whose collective efforts pretty much wrecked the global economy. These guys were incredibly smart, and incredibly powerful, and it's fascinating how things went wrong, and the ways in which their financial policies dictated all major global events from World War I to World War II. Also, it resonates pretty well with all of today's financial problems, and gave me a much better understanding of what these guys are capable of doing. The Recognitions by William Gaddis. I had heard for years that this was great, so I went into it expecting a lot, and it delivered. It's a huge undertaking...it's about 1,000 pages, but it requires such strict attention that often you find yourself reading a page several times. Somewhere about 500 pages in I realized I just had absolutely no idea what was going on, so I started consulting an online guide, which was very helpful in understanding the plot, but I guess may have disrupted the original rhythm, and messed up some important surprises. So I guess I'd advise reading without a guide...or at least trying... The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I was surprised how funny this book was. I only bought it because it was the single English-Language book in an entire store in Utrecht, and didn't really know what to expect. It's a sprawling 19th-century saga (a-la Charles Dickens) with a huge cast. Everyone owes everyone else money, and no one's paying up. There's a lot of cowering behind a mask of dignity. If you were to change a few details it really could all be happening right now. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. I thought it was funny the whole time. It's a very quick read. I read it on tour with my band, where there is a lot of "hurry up and wait," which is a major theme. Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump. Wow what an asshole Ty Cobb was! A very entertaining read. Sharpening his spikes was nothing..."The Georgia Peach" was a violent and notorious racist and murderer, who once beat up a disabled heckler. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.
I had the good fortune of writing, for a week this past year, at a place called the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. On the trip, I wanted to read something Irish. I wandered around a bookstore in Dublin, paging through the possibilities, trying to predict the perfect book, which I would have with me on buses, at the residency, in pubs. I considered Samuel Beckett, William Trevor, and Colm Tóibín -- then saw Flann O'Brien. I chose his first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). To begin describing this book, it seems I have to use the words metafiction and parody, words bound to elicit as much alienation as interest in prospective readers. If those terms don't appeal to you at all, you probably shouldn't try it. But if they do, or if you're not the type to rule books out on the basis of "what you are and are not interested in," you will have a reading experience almost impossible to define through comparison. I read the book under a tree in the Irish countryside, laughing out loud at rhyming couplets about the undying friendship of a pint. I read it in a pub in a seaside village, marveling at a climactic 20-page stretch in which fictional characters physically torture their creator (himself a fictional construct) in a tone of slapstick horror that suggests a Buster Keaton movie directed by Eli Roth. And as I sat under that tree and rain fell suddenly from what had just been a sunny sky, or when I'd had one too many beers and the words began to blur, I would realize that the book -- more than pyrotechnically crafted and darkly entertaining -- was making me sad, too: reminding me (even as it had been making me forget) that the writing life is a cruel and painful one. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 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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I'd like to stand up and suggest Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque to any reader looking for some reading. The novel's Portuguese title (which sounds gorgeously like what spilt milk looks like) is "Leite Derramado." It's under 200 long and yet crams in a century of Brazilian history, dozens of characters, formal inventiveness, tropical heat, racial tensions, old aristocrats, infidelity, drug violence, dramatic monologue, and a singer-songwriter’s mastery of oral cadence. It also oozes braininess and sex. If you aren't intrigued, you're a hard, hard soul. Ease up. Slip in. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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.
Yannick Murphy's latest novel is Signed, Mata Hari, published this November by Little, Brown & Co. She is also the author of Here They Come, The Sea of Trees, Stories in Another Language, the forthcoming In a Bear's Eye, and Ahwoooooooo! a children's book. More information about Yannick Murphy’s writing can be found at www.yannickmurphy.comMy mind isn't screaming after the first sentence, that's when I know a book is going to be a good one. If the first sentence isn't predictable and I wish I had written it myself, that's also how I know. Then, if I feel scared, it's a sure sign the book is a good one. I'm scared to keep reading because all of the sentences are good and I know I'm going to have to start writing better if I even want to come close to being as great as that writer is. And, really, I'm always in a fight against laziness and I don't want to have to work so hard at being a great writer and so then I become mad at the writer because they've ruined the perfectly comfortable zombie state I was in, and now this, now beautiful sentences that engage me and overwhelm me and challenge me. Finally, if I'm reading and I can't help but keep reading because the sentences keep pushing me headlong into their rhythms and glottal stops and playfulness so that I'm so far into the book that I then say, "Oh, my god, what's going to happen next?" then I also know it's a good book. After that I forget all about the mechanics of individual sentences because they become part of the entire deep and complicated event of the story. That is what happened when I read the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I stopped analyzing and criticizing and I gave in and it was delicious and I became wholly entertained. It's what always happens when I read his work.More from A Year in Reading 2007