The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.
Mark Sarvas is the host of literary blog The Elegant Variation and author of Harry, Revised, to be published by Bloomsbury in May 2008.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.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Auther Charles D’Ambrosio has written two collections of short stories, The Point and, this year, The Dead Fish Museum. He also has a collection of essays, Orphans. D’Ambrosio’s stories regularly appear in the New Yorker and other notable magazines. The best book D’Ambrosio read this year was the autobiography of a jazz musician. “Maybe this copping out,” D’Ambrosio says,but the book I’ve loved the most this year is Art Pepper’s autobiography, Straight Life, which was revised and reissued by Da Capo Press in 1994. I know next to nothing about jazz, haven’t listened to a lick of Art Pepper, but a smart guy in a bar in Portland told me I had to pick up the book – we were drinking – and it is, as drunkenly promised, really good. It makes me wish I were an aficionado. Art Pepper lived through all kinds of hell, which may be standard stuff for jazz greats, I don’t know, but what makes Straight Life an excellent read isn’t the sexual compulsion, the heroin, the crime, the brutal life in San Quentin – all juicy reading, for sure – but the intimacy, the way you get inside the dreamy logic of being Art Pepper. With a reality like that, who needs dreams, I guess, but Pepper’s story is, from beginning to end, so sad and soulful it’s like he never happened on our frequency – and this book (along with the music, which I plan to hunt down) is the vibrant record of the peculiar sound he existed in.Thanks Charles!