Two books come to mind. One is Richard Powers’ novel The Echo Maker, probably the book I have thought about, talked about, and quoted from the most this year. It concerns, among other things, a guy whose trauma-induced brain damage prevents him from recognizing his own sister. Powers manages to dramatize humanely and poignantly how the postmodern notion of the self as a series of fictions, which might appear to be quite anti-scientific, is actually supported by recent neurological research into the nature of consciousness. The other book is a collection of poems called All You Have to Do Is Ask, by Meredith Walters, which I discovered a few weeks ago, and many poems of which I have already returned to more than several times. The poems are wide-ranging in their subjects (death, airplanes, soldiers, art, starfish, ecological depredation, love), elegant in their forms, exhilarating in their leaps from thought to thought, often funny, and in any given line one senses a mind on an urgent quest to discover what it believes and knows.
The Radiance of the King, by Camara Laye, arrived in my mailbox one day, courtesy of some benefactor. Its unaggressive length (279 pages) enticed me just to pick it up and read it, and now I’m eager for time to allow me to read it again. The story concerns Clarence, a shiftless and fairly useless white guy, adrift in Africa. Blinded and befuddled by haughtiness, ensnared in gambling debts, Clarence demands to be brought to the King, into whose service Clarence assumes he will be taken. Several roguish African guides conduct Clarence south, where the King is expected to appear, some day. And in the village where Clarence is parked to wait for the King, Clarence is sold, for a use - historically hilarious - that we come to understand much sooner than he himself does. Justice, humility, self-deception, degradation, grace, the acquisition of some small wisdom, and the complex relationships between them are among the matters that are explored, with great subtlety, over the course of Clarence’s journey, but no description of the book’s content nor speculation on its purposes can begin to suggest the pleasure of reading it. This resides in the author’s wit, charm, finesse, and originality, and in his elegant, vividly imagistic prose, gorgeous even in translation from its original French, shining and breathing with vitality. Camara Laye was 26, we learn from Toni Morrison’s introduction to this New York Review of Books reissue, when he wrote Le Regard du Roi. It is his only work of fiction, though he wrote autobiographical works, journalism, and plays. He was born in Guinea, studied automobile engineering in France, and died at the age of 52. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
At the start of 2009, I reread Norman Rush’s Mating, as I have each year since 1995, when I received the book as a birthday gift. My well-worn paperback no longer has the front cover, a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s eerie sixteenth-century triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the endpapers are ragged and the yellow flags I used to mark treasured passages have faded, but Rush’s story of a brilliant anthropologist at large in Botswana, observing the ways and means of blacks and whites while she makes her erudite way in the world as a woman, an academic and an American, is as vivid and thrilling now as it was upon my first reading. Even the first part of the dedication, to Rush’s wife, incites me, and I imagine countless others, to work much, much harder: Everything I write is for Elsa, but especially this book, since in it her heart, sensibility, and intellect are so signally – if perforce esoterically – celebrated and exploited. My debt to her, in art and in life, grows however much I put against it. The novels I reread over the years take on different meanings, they change and deepen, my favorite sections shift. Sometimes a book that once held great meaning doesn’t quite reach me anymore and instead I’m reminded of other stories, themes or styles that are of more present interest. Mating only reminds me of its bold, breathtaking and impressive self. Each year, as Rush’s unnamed protagonist sets out from Gaborone to walk one hundred solitary miles across the Kalahari to Tsau, an allegedly utopian community organized by another American anthropologist, I feel this author’s powers afresh and recognize my own goals in his novel’s pages: to live honestly, ambitiously and fearlessly. More from A Year in Reading
The first half of 2007 was a Dark Age of reading for me. Virtually every time I sat down with even the most promising book, my mind would float to the massive Redesign project headaches we were having at the newspaper. I couldn't relax, I couldn't get drawn in. I was in the wrong frame of mind to read. I was in the frame of mind to brood.And then, as things do, the darkness cleared, and a new age of enlightenment began. And I began to read and absorb as if I'd just regained my sight. I began with Michael Chabon, an author I'd only heard of at that point. Very quickly I devoured two collections of short stories and three of his novels. His first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the collection A Model World introduced me to his storytelling and Wonder Boys and, especially, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay showed me the full depth and breadth of his writing.Other highlights of the year include George Saunders' Pastoralia, a fiction collection brimming with wit and insight, and A Field Guide To The North American Family, the illustrated novella from my Millions cohort Garth Risk Hallberg, whose intertwined tale of the Hungate and Harrison families, with its tight prose - somehow simultaneously economical and gloriously open, and its shifting point-of-view and tone, and thematically-linked photos, is nothing short of fascinating, both in concept and execution.And capping the year, on the heels of my Hemingwayesque sojourn in Paris, was a re-read of A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway's memoir of his formative years in 1920s Paris. Each vignette reads as a precise, evocative short story, and the collection is not only my favorite memoir of that era, but also my favorite Hemingway book. And my top read of 2007.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Not to be too contrarian, but sometimes I like people to be wrong. Is that terrible? Maybe it’s terrible. Either way, when everyone I knew said, "just try reading Elena Ferrante, she’s amazing, incredible, you’ll love her, you won’t even look up until you’re through, how lucky are you the fourth book is out, you didn’t even have to wait, I wish I was reading them for the first time again," I decided I didn’t want them to be right. Ferrante? Not my style, I said. Alas, 2016 was the year I finally read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and got just as swept up as everyone said I would. I made the mistake of beginning My Brilliant Friend on a plane, headed out to visit friends in San Francisco. Rudely but predictably, I spent the rest of the trip curled up on somebody else’s couch, far more engaged with the novels than I was with my real-life companions and hosts. Day outings were almost painful; I practically had to be dragged out of my imaginary Naples to drive out to a vineyard or to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. Dramatics aside, the Neapolitan novels stunned me. Lila, Lenu, the reality and complexity of their world, and the incredibly insightful, moving, and painful female friendship at its heart, were more than enough to knock me over. I’ve rarely been so glad to be so wrong. After recovering from my obsessive tear through Ferrante -- and it did require an actual recovery process, it felt like weeks before the novels really left me -- I took up The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s biography of Joan Didion. Since this was also the year I went back to school for a master’s in journalism, Didion’s biography was both an interesting, inspiring read and a welcome relief from the AP Stylebook and The Elements of Journalism. As far as literary biographies go, it’s difficult to imagine much better than The Last Love Song, a writer’s take on a writer’s writer. And, in an election year that seemed to make less sense with every passing day, Didion’s fascination with the flaws in the national narrative seemed somehow appropriate, disheartening, and bracing, all at once. Political Fictions, indeed. But my most impactful and longest-lasting read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s essay collection, The Givenness of Things. I thought it would be a light read, something I could pick up and set down again and again, the way I often read collections. An essay while I’m waiting at the doctor’s office, while I take an evening bath, while I wait for dinner to finish, while I wait for a friend to call. Something to pass the time, to broaden the horizon but not too much. I quickly realized my mistake; I should have known better. These are not essays to read when you have a spare minute, they're essays to wrestle with. Robinson has never written anything “light,” really, but this collection is particularly heavy. The essays are almost meaty, thick with her usual intelligence and insight, quiet and calm on the surface but deep in both feeling and meaning. I couldn't walk away from these and come back to find them unchanged. This is the best kind of reading, and the slowest. I’ve been digesting Robinson’s collection on and off all year, coming back to think through each piece one more time, uncovering another bit of wisdom and then another. I found Robinson’s essays most comforting and challenging this November, for reasons that are probably obvious. One piece in particular stuck with me, and I revisited it again and again. Simply titled “Fear,” it served as a much needed reminder that, though “contemporary America is full of fear,” “we owe it to [each other] to be calm and clear, to hold fast to what is good, and to hate the thought that we may leave behind an impoverished or a lethal heritage.” That’s the thought that will carry me through 2016 and that has me ready for whatever 2017 brings. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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My favorite book this year was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This is one of those books I carried around with me all the time in hopes I'd have a few minutes to keep reading. I don't usually read historical novels, but this one was so luscious and unsentimental that I could not put it down. It's the story of the Anne Boleyn crisis from a fresh point of view: that of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and fixer for Henry VIII. I love Mantel's intimate point of view, and her unsparing portrait of Cromwell, who is a pragmatist, to say the least. He's a ruthless politico and yet you feel for him as well. Mantel couldn't fit everything into this book, so she's writing a sequel. I can't wait! More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
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Americans live in a dream. It’s mostly a “media” dream at this point, a benumbing i.v. drip straight to the brain of TV, movies, pop music, video games, news “product,” and of course that enormous expanding plastic inevitable collective mind-dump that goes by the name of advertising—are we still exposed to approximately 5,000 ads each day, or has the number gone up since I came across this amazing statistic some years ago?—most of which is worse than worthless when it comes to trying to live an authentic life, i.e., one that might lead us to some functional level of self-knowledge, to some working awareness of what it means to be a human being in the world. Not even 9/11 could shock us out of the dream, and as Susan Faludi shows in The Terror Dream, the dream is such a fixed condition of American existence that it swallowed 9/11 whole. If that catastrophe didn’t shock us awake, what will? Faludi’s dissection of the national id is even almost funny in a twisted, cringe-and-shiver way, until you remember just how much death and ruination have come of America’s years-long wallow in “Hollywood heroism.” It seems that our country became confused—we mistook the characters that John Wayne played in movies for real people, which led us to “Rumstud,” “the manly virtues,” the grotesquerie of President Bush—AWOL for how many months from his National Guard unit in 1972?—being described in Newsweek as a “fighting machine” thanks to a new exercise regimen and a buffed-up physique, Cheney—six deferments for Vietnam!—bemoaning American “weakness” and “vacillation,” self-professed Christians shrugging off “collateral damage” and on and on. At a certain point hypocrisy crosses over to schizophrenia. Are we there yet? Faludi doesn’t flinch. Nor should we. Read this book and maybe we’ll start to understand the country we live in. More from A Year in Reading
If I’m not reading at least two books at a time I’m failing somehow. And yet, my to-read pile this year never seemed to dwindle. There’s no real strategy to what I will read. I’m not a snob about it. I’ll read everything from speculative fiction to young adult to poetry. When a book I’m reading strikes a chord, I feel it so violently that I want to throw the book across the room. The selections below are just a sample of what moved me to extreme emotions this year: The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera When I finished reading this slim novel, I immediately wanted to read it again. Then, I wanted to read it in its original Spanish and locate all of Herrera’s works. The Transmigration of Bodies is bleak, hilarious, and so full of grit. Herrera is one of Mexico’s most exiting novelists and I eagerly await his next. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma “We went wild that hot night. We howled, we raged, we screamed.” The first two lines of this young adult novel pulled me right in. The Walls Around Us is a ghost tale with prose so beautiful and images so visceral I wanted to protect the young girls from the pain depicted on the pages. Certain Dark Things: A Novel by Silvia Moreno Herrera How do you subvert the vampire story? You set it in Mexico City and replace the stereotypical bloodsuckers with feuding families of vampire narcos. This is an exciting new world of gangster vampires that’s full of suspense and emotion. Kendra by Coe Booth I love flawed characters that make questionable decisions. Kendra is such a character, a 14-year-old who desperately wants to connect with her very young mother. Sexuality is handled with brutal honesty in this young adult novel. Booth also depicts the Bronx, New York, my hometown, with such love and authenticity. The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee This book came with me on my vacation to Hawaii. The island was the perfect setting to get lost in Chee’s lush world. Every single detail transported me to 19th-century France with its lavish costumes and baroque drama. In between novels, I usually turn to poetry. These collections sit by my nightstand. Right before I go to sleep, I randomly open a page and read with the hope that the images evoked by these poets will seep into my dreams. Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia De Burgos Burgos is one of the most important Puerto Rican poets. Her work is revolutionary. She has such a strong influence on me that her writing makes an appearance in my young adult novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez. Reliquaria by R.A. Villanueva Villanueva’s poems seem like prayers, calling out to the past. I’m also attracted to how he plays with Catholicism and its colonial nature in language. Our Lady of the Crossword by Rigoberto González González has such a way with words. His poetry is packed with sexuality and culture. The chapbook is also small enough for my purse and travels with me. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
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I shouldn't be answering this question because my answer is the most boring answer in the world because the best book I read this year was 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. The second best is a book you probably never heard of, We Did Porn by Zak Smith. But it would be a lie to answer anything other than 2666 to this question. I know it's lame to name a book that's already received such accolades. Still, I wake up thinking about this book. It took me six months to read it. I put it down several times to read other books including Zeitoun, which is also one hell of a runner up, the best thing Dave Eggers has written, I think. One of the weird strengths of this book is that you can put it down and pick it up a month later and not miss a beat. But really, the part about the murders, is there anything like that in literature anywhere? And what about the part about Fate, where you have this page that struck me so hard I typed the whole damn thing out: What’s sacred to me? thought Fate. The vague pain I feel at the passing of my mother? An understanding of what can’t be fixed? Or the kind of pang in the stomach I feel when I look at this woman? And why do I feel a pang, if that’s what it is, when she looks at me and not when when her friend looks at me? Because her friend is nowhere near as beautiful, thought Fate. Which seems to suggest that what’s sacred to me is beauty, a pretty girl with perfect features. And what if all of a sudden the most beautiful actress in Hollywood appeared in the middle of this big, repulsive restaurant, would I still feel a pang each time my eyes surreptitiously met this girl’s or would the sudden appearance of a superior beauty, a beauty enhanced by recognition, relieve the pang, diminish her beauty to ordinary levels, the beauty of a slightly odd girl out to have a good time on a weekend night with three slightly peculiar men and a woman who basically seems like a hooker? thought Fate. Do I really know enough about Mexican hookers to be able to recognize them at a glance? Do I know anything about innocence or pain? Do I know anything about women? I like to watch videos, thought Fate. I also like to go to the movies. I like to sleep with women. Right now I don’t have a steady girlfriend, but I know what it’s like to have one. Do I see the sacred anywhere? All I register is practical experiences, thought Fate. An emptiness to be filled, a hunger to be satisfied, people to talk to so I can finish my article and get paid. And why do I think the men Rosa Amalfitano is out with are peculiar? What peculiar about them? And why am I so sure that if a Hollywood actress appeared all of a sudden Rosa Amalfitano’s beauty would fade? What if it didn’t? What if it sped up? And what if everything began to accelerate from the instant a Hollywood actress crossed the threshold of El Rey del Taco? I wish I could recommend an undiscovered gem, and I am when I say you should read We Did Porn. But 2666 is more than a book, it's an experience. And if that sounds cliche it's because it is, but I'm trapped there. More from A Year in Reading