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.
Jess Walters’s novel Beautiful Ruins is a lovely story in which a handful of likable characters wend their disparate ways across nearly a half of the last century, from an obscure Italian coastal town to an array of locales on the shores of America, to resolve an unlikely but plausible narrative. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor make appearances.
Gods without Men is a sprawling high-powered multi-threaded story that diverges into some rarified and elevated subjects — parents flailing at the near impossible task of raising a seriously autistic child, a stock trader searching for and believing he has found an algorithmic formula for trading that in its Kabbalistic form is the Holy Grail, recondite anthropologists studying southwestern Native American culture, hippy cults, and more, spark a steady forward fugal motion. Reading this story sometimes feels like a breathtaking roller coaster ride as it shoots from one dissimilar point of view to another. It’s an exciting read with some brainy and amusing digressions.
Andre Gregory’s blurbs on Joan Wickersham’s collection of stories The News from Spain asserted that the stories were sufficiently weighty that they could be read twice in succession — an unusual notion, methinks. And yet I found that the stories were so engrossing and rich with thoughtful characters that I easily followed Gregory’s suggestion. And was indeed rewarded with another pleasurable read. Not linked stories, but bound by the author’s conceit of having the phrase The News from Spain appearing in each — without, I must say, an appearance of contrivance or showiness.
I volunteered to participate in this exercise because it required me to focus my attention on my own reading habits — which I otherwise wouldn’t do, as I am not usually interested in the meta-gesture of thinking about or reading about reading (though I do recommend Andrew Piper’s Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times).
What did I learn? Looking over what I read in the past 12 months, the list confirmed what I already knew — that I am a literary omnivore and any litany of books tells more about the reader than individual the books listed. No big surprise there.
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Lydia Millet’s sixth novel, How the Dead Dream, is coming out in January from Counterpoint; a previous book, My Happy Life, won the PEN-USA Award for Fiction in 2003. She lives in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona.I fell in love with a woman this year. It was a first for me and a novel called Jesus Saves is what did it – I fell in love with the author, Darcey Steinke. Jesus Saves was published in 1999 but I found it just this summer, at the back of a tiny library in Silver City, New Mexico, a town of roughly 10,000 souls where I spend my summers, and read it in a couple of dreamy, lying-in-bed days. There’s a child being tortured in the book, which is painful, especially for someone like me, pregnant and with a three-year-old little girl. There’s torture in there, and there’s religion; there’s sex and drugs. There’s a lot of garbage, a lot of litter in the woods where teenagers sneak off to be sordid. There are also unicorns and rainbows, though they don’t make you feel good. Finally it’s deeply beautiful, beautiful in the way of some of Denis Johnson, maybe, or various poets. Also the author’s photo, which you’re never supposed to notice if you’re reading books for the right reasons, was alarmingly beautiful, almost criminally, wrongly beautiful. All in all I fell in love. Since then I’ve read two of her other books. Still loving.More from A Year in Reading 2007