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.
Nam Le’s debut collection of short stories, The Boat, was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize and the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” Award. It was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Le is currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.It might seem unadventurous to nominate a book recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, but in fact, when the list came out, some people may remember that an immediate, insidious backlash began against the winner, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (accusing it, among other things, of being the obvious and politically correct choice), and I’ll confess that I, too, found it all too easy to get swept along – especially given my one-eyed barracking for two of the runners-up, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Due to no fault of its own, the book – which I’d last read in high school – sank in my sheeplike (and sheepish) estimation. Then, this year, more than two years later, I finally returned to it. What I rediscovered stunned me: Beloved was a work of incomparable moral and aesthetic focus, in which structure, the actualised “intricate patterning” toward which Fitzgerald strove all his life, had elevated itself into ethical argument; in which memory-play, slippage and narrative deferral guided the reader – as all great books do – to a new mode of reading. It was a book planted deep in dirt and human muck, in a history where nothing – not feeling, nor language – remained uncompromised. And yet – and yet – it contained the sternness of heart and steadiness of will and stoutness of authority to claim this piece of history and completely possess it – to render it into testimony and prophecy both. Truly, I realised, Beloved was one of those rare works that remakes the whole enterprise; that marks, with one cruel stroke, beginning and epitome.More from A Year in Reading 2008
In her poetry collection The Pedestrians, Rachel Zucker writes of a woman who is reading a novel about another woman: “The voice gets into her head” and “her thoughts have become inflected and unfamiliar.” That’s the extraordinary intimacy of reading, the penetration of one consciousness by another. “This is now the only way she leaves her city,” writes Zucker. The opportunity to think with another mind is also my preferred mode of travel. I like where I go, for instance, when I read David Trinidad’s Peyton Place, which is composed of one haiku for every episode of the soap opera. When my thinking is inflected by his wit, television is transformed into poetry and bad hair and tight slacks become the stuff of art. And I like where I go when I read Maggie Nelson’s forthcoming essay The Argonauts – I like it so much that I keep reading it again and again so that I can keep going there. Nelson offers a philosophical stance, an ethical posture, an attitude toward life that is joyous to inhabit. When I leave her meditations on family-making and queerness, I feel buoyed in my own efforts toward family-making and radical difference.
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Brian from Los Angeles, one of the most prolific readers I have ever known, sent along his to favorites for 2004 (as we continue The Millions End of Year Extravaganza)Non-Fiction: The Fall Of Baghdad (excerpt) — It is to our great benefit that Jon Lee Anderson was one of the very few journalists to remain in Baghdad throughout (and after) the attack. Anderson remains (mostly) apolitical, to record, with ferocious accuracy and color, what he saw, heard, smelt and felt throughout those turbulent weeks. All those self-important and partisan-hack talking heads and politicians who profess to know what’s best for iraq and america are infants next to Anderson. Fiction: Elizabeth Costello (excerpt) – J.M. Coetzee is primarily known for one of his weaker books (Disgrace“) as opposed to one of his masterpieces (Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K) — Elizabeth Costello falls somewhere in between. And, Coetzee knows this, even seems to integrate this into the book itself. Elizabeth Costello perfectly captures, through a series of an old woman’s digressions and lectures, the confusion inherent in existence. Proceeding through life with the knowledge that all information has a flip side, that every belief has a counter-belief, that everything one does is both super-charged with meaning and also meaningless, one must… proceed. As does Elizabeth Costello (and Coetzee). A book that intentionally wallows in human fallibility, confusion, flawed logic, and shortcomings, but elevated way beyond most ‘perfect works’ — Coetzee is one of our best contemporary prose stylists, novelists, and essayists.–and a shout-out to the new centennial edition Graham Greenes with cooler covers than the Penguin editions and introductions by the likes of Coetzee, Christopher Hitchens, etc… The Heart Of The Matter and The End Of The Affair must be read by all! Look for more great end of year reviews as the Extravaganza continues.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, both from Random House. Currently, he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and can be reached on the web at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.I know this is heresy, but I’m going to recommend a book that was published this year. (If it helps, the story itself is centuries old.) Of all the books I’ve read this year, regardless of publication date, genre, or form, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is the best. What’s more, I haven’t even finished it yet.But it’s so, so good. Kind of like a thinking man’s, adults-only, Islamic Harry Potter. (The original Urdu text, born out of oral narratives that had been circulated for hundreds of years, appeared in the late 19th century, but English translations have always been censored.) Amir Hamza was the prophet Muhammad’s uncle and he got into all kinds of cool trouble. Hamza’s soulmate is the daughter of the Persian emperor, but there’s a chasm of conflict keeping them apart – Frodo had it easy – and so the book follows, in utterly readable and downright addictive prose, Hamza’s struggle to return to her. Did I mention that he rides a winged demon-steed? That his posse consists of a wickedly cool wizard (thinking man’s Gandolf) and a funny trickster partner (thinking man’s Sancho Panza)? That he has to fight an honest-to-God demon? That his sons turn against him? That, in service of getting back to his one true love, he seduces a good many women? It’s a terrifically good and captivating story, bawdy and violent and occasionally poignant and often funny, and it reads just as well as a long odyssey as it does individual short stories. Speaking of, I need to get back to the book: We’re just about to rout Muhlil Sagsar and Malik Ajrook!More from A Year in Reading 2007