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.
I want to leave 2005 behind, but I keep getting great stuff to post, so I hope you don’t mind. I got this great e-mail from Laurie who wanted to share her favorite books from amongst her considerable reading last year. I’ll be following this up with another e-mail Laurie sent me about what makes a book really good for her:I just read your Jan. 5th entry about “year’s best” choices by various people. I thought about sending you my list, but then figured you only wanted to post the lists of people you knew [Max: Not true! I welcome e-mails from anyone and everyone!]. I don’t blog, but kept a reading journal this past year and totaled 60 books (some of them children’s books). It was fun looking at it at year’s end and figuring out what I enjoyed the most. I began reading your blog about midyear, I think, and your posts probably influenced some of those book choices.For what it’s worth, the three top titles on my list were Cold Skin by Albert S. Pinol (Catalan 2002, English 2005), War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells (1898), and Knee Deep in Blazing Snow by James Hayford (2005). Of those, my enjoyment of the last surprised me the most, because it’s a poetry collection. It’s also the only book of all 60 read this year that I’d recommend to just about anyone, kids and poetry-hating adults alike. The poems are short, unpretentious, mostly rhyme and are illustrated. Washington Post accurately called it “quietly lovely”. It precisely captures the minutiae of the seasons and farm life that even a sheltered city-dweller can recognize with a smile. Also in my top ten were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (chilling), Travels With Mr. Brown by Mark Twain (Letters to the Alta California 1866-1867), and Diary of a Spider by Doreen Cronin. The latter is a fun kids’ book.29 of the 60 were first published in 2005.For some idea of what those “top choices” were chosen over, the 29 first published in 2005 are:From Sawdust to Stardust – Terry Lee Rioux (biography)The Bradbury Chronicles – Sam Weller (bio)Bradbury Speaks – Ray Bradbury (nf, essays)Pinhook – Janisse Ray (nonfiction, nature)Beware of God – Shalom Auslander (short stories)Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (novel)Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land – John Crowley (novel)Storyteller – Kate Wilhelm (nonfiction)Science Fiction: the best of 2004 – ed. Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan (ss)Year’s Best SF 10 – ed. David G. Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (ss)Blue Dog, Green River – Brock Brower (novel)Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – J.K. Rowling (novel)Cities in the Wilderness – Bruce Babbitt (nf, environment)Dahlonega Haunts – Amy Blackmarr (allegedly nf)Wonder’s Child – Jack Williamson (updated autobiography)Cold Skin – Albert S. Pinol (novel)Beasts of No Nation – Uzodinma Iweala (novel)The March – E.L. Doctorow (novel)Diary of a Spider – Doreen Cronin (kids picture book)Don’t Be Silly, Mrs. Millie – Judy Cox (kids picturebook)Whales on Stilts! – M.T. Anderson (short kids novel)Best American Science Writing 2005 – ed. Alan Lightman(nf)The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch (novel)Knee Deep in Blazing Snow – James Hayford (poetry)Travels With My Donkey – Tim Moore (memoir)Animals in Translation – Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (nonfiction)From Another World – Ana Maria Machado (short kids novel)The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion (memoir)Confessions of a Recovering Slut – Hollis Gillespie (memoir)Funniest were:Diary of a Spider by Doreen CroninTravels With My Donkey by Tim Moore (Bill Bryson meets Monty Python)Grimmest were:Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma IwealaThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan DidionHardest to put down were:Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. RowlingCold Skin by A.S. PinolThere. More than you wanted or needed to know.Thanks, Laurie!
I burst into 2014 all guns blazing, with a new year’s resolution to read all of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time by the end of the year. In part, I was provoked into action by a friend of mine casually informing me, in response to my laments about parenthood sucking up all my reading time, that he’d squared away all seven volumes of Proust in the six months following the birth of his son. I was further emboldened by another friend setting up a Proust reading group, which was going to involve Skype-based participation from her nonagenarian grandfather, a retired Oxford professor of French. For reasons too numerous and banal to recount here, the whole thing never panned out, and I went ahead under my own steam — which limited vapor I predictably and depressingly ran out of somewhere between the end of the first volume and the first third of the second. My reasons are these: I have a child, and a thing called the Internet persists in existing.
What did I actually succeed in reading? Well, let me tell you, I read seven shades of shit out of Peck Peck Peck by Lucy Cousins, a delightfully illustrated picaresque romp about a baby woodpecker who goes around pecking a lot of household items under the tutelage of his father, also a woodpecker, before finally settling down to sleep. I read Yasmeen Ismael’s Time for Bed, Fred! — or “Fred,” as my son calls it in his fondly shrill requests to have it read to him — which is about a dog who wears everyone’s patience extremely thin before finally settling down to sleep. I read Buster’s Farm by Rod Campbell, a pop-up book about a small boy called Buster who goes around pointing at, and sometimes petting, an array of farm animals, before finally finding a haystack in which he settles down to sleep. I also read a lot of other books in which children and animals get up to all sorts of adventures before finally settling down to sleep, none of which were even slightly effective as propaganda, but which I nonetheless think of with real fondness, and which no honest account of my year in reading could leave unmentioned.
I also read quite a lot of books which were more appropriate to my own reading age. I wanted to read Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, but I felt I lacked the fortitude to commit to an 850 page novel at just that juncture, so I instead read The Rehearsal, her debut novel about a sex scandal in a girls’ secondary school; but unfortunately that was so brilliant that it left me wearily resigned to having to read The Luminaries as well. (I haven’t, so far, but I will, I will.) I read Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel about a world in the aftermath of a devastating epidemic and societal collapse, which somehow managed to be haunting and distressing and urgently entertaining all at once. I re-read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I only vaguely remembered having read the first time, and was deeply affected by its poetic portrait of perversity and loneliness and its dark ambivalence about the technological ingenuity of Homo Sapiens. And I loved the stories in Donald Antrim’s The Emerald Light in the Air, all of which were appalling funny and lovely in their evocations of loneliness and sadness and middle-aged frustration.
Most of my reading this year — and this is a personal trend that’s been developing for a while now — was non-fiction. One of my favorite new books of 2014 was Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, which I praised intemperately and lengthily in The Slate Book Review earlier in the year. It’s a terrific book about the complexities and confusions of various types of pain; it’s audacious and elegant, ruthless and compassionate, and an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the creative possibilities of non-fiction. As 2014 wore on, I was starting to worry that people might think I was getting paid off by that book’s publisher, Graywolf, because it seemed like they were putting out a weirdly high proportion of the non-fiction books I most admired (and raved about). I loved On Immunity, Eula Biss’s formally resourceful and intellectually invigorating exploration of the mythologies and anxieties surrounding the practice of vaccination, and had an enjoyably enlightening time of it with Geek Sublime, Vikram Chandra’s book about the history and culture of computer programming.
I also relished every sentence of Objects in This Mirror, Brian Dillon’s new collection of critical and personal essays. The range of topics here is a testament to his versatile curiosity as an observer of culture. Whatever he’s writing about — 19th-century illustrated guides to hand gestures and cravat tying, the aesthetics of ruins, his relationship with the work of Roland Barthes, the Dewey Decimal Classification system, the poetics and politics of slapstick — the casual exactitude of his prose and his formally playful approach to his subjects makes him one of the most consistently interesting and elegant of contemporary essayists.
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