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.
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
In November 2009, my wife gave birth to our first child. At the time, I was working on a book which I was planning on handing in three months hence. I didn't actually finish until the following October, and for most of that time I was writing for between twelve and fourteen hours a day. It was not fun for anyone. I can count the combined number of restaurants my wife and I ate at and movies we saw in 2010 on one hand -- but I filled three pocket-sized notebooks keeping track of the books I read. Most of those were mysteries, with authors from the UK (Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, P.D. James) and Scandinavia (Sjowall & Wahloo, Jo Nesbo, Hakan Nesser) especially well represented. It was two American writers -- and their very American main characters -- that I'll remember the most: The Parker novels of Richard Stark. Fifteen years ago, I got turned on to Parker after a thread-pulling expedition led me from Jim Thompson's nihilistic noir to the 1990 film adaptation of The Grifters to screenwriter/novelist Donald Westlake to Westlake's pseudonym Richard Stark to Stark's Slayground, a dimestore shiv of a book about what happens when corrupt cops tip off the mob about a car accident in which an incompetent wheelman flips a getaway car next to an amusement park called Fun Island. (Hint: Master thief/antihero extraordinaire Parker survives; lots of other people die.) Then, earlier this year, I chanced upon Darwyn Cooke's The Hunter, a brilliantly disturbing graphic novelization of Parker's debut. Four weeks later, the combination of a Kindle and my deadline-induced insomnia had led to my tearing through another ten books in the Parker canon. Stephen King once said reading the Parker novels was like getting a PhD in crime. John Banville called Parker "the perfection of that existential man whose earliest models we met in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky." For me, he was the most enjoyable way to spend those dozens of nights when I was too tired to write and too anxious to sleep. The Nero Wolfe novels of Rex Stout. In October, I was telling a friend about my recent Parker obsession when he asked me if I was a Rex Stout fan. On the surface, his question made no sense: Parker is lean, instinctive, dangerous, alluring; Wolfe is obese, erudite, possibly alcoholic and obsessed with orchids. Parker has no real home and at one point had reconstructive plastic surgery to disguise himself; Wolfe almost never leaves his Manhattan brownstone and delights in outsmarting cops. Parker is a stone-cold killer; Wolfe is a genius detective. They're both awesome. My friend told me to start with Fer-de-Lance, Stout's first Wolfe book. I took his advice, if only because I had no other idea about how to start a series that includes something like 80 novels and novellas. 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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I am hard-pressed to remember the last time I encountered a work of fiction that captures the interior lives of its characters, in addition to the land itself, with as much complexity and brutality and love and guts and beauty and strange, piercing insight.
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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: I thought this was a gripping, big-hearted book about a family’s falling apart after a young daughter is sent away. Who – or what – the young daughter is can’t be discussed without revealing a major spoiler, suffice it to say it is a whopper. The book is far deeper and more ambitious, however, than its central conceit would lead one to think. Through the tender voice of her protagonist, Fowler has a lot to say about family, memory, language, science, and indeed the question of what constitutes a human being. 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.
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