Life is impossible; it can’t possibly continue; and then it does. Existential despair accretes; time passes; the color of one’s despair changes. Time seems to change its velocity, its direction. Suddenly everything is different. The title story in Twilight of the Superheroes describes this problem so gently and bravely: “And yet, here he is, he and his friends, falling like so much landfill into the dump of old age. … Yet one second ago, running so swiftly toward it, they hadn’t even seen it.” Deborah Eisenberg’s stories remind me of William Maxwell’s; they are wise, kind, careful, benevolent.
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When I discovered W.G. Sebald, I read Vertigo first, and then The Emigrants and The Rings of Saturn. Minutes after I read the final page of The Rings of Saturn, I flipped it over and began again. I read that book six times, maybe seven, and taught it once. Still I avoided Austerlitz. Maybe I was saving the finest chocolate for last or maybe it was fear: fear of the subject matter, fear that the book would fail my expectations, fear that it would be so good that I would never write again. When finally I read it (nearly straight through, though its complicating visual interruptions give less relief than its scanty paragraph breaks), I understood it to be Sebald’s greatest work of art. My description implies that the novel is breathless but in fact it is calm and wise, its terror subtle, creeping, accumulative. In its layered explorations of the limitations and possibilities of the narrative I and the narrative eye, Austerlitz changed how I read and how I think. The novel offers evidence that silence not the only decent response to atrocity, that art can carry a fiery, gentle intelligence to our hardest questions, that the human heart can be reached—broken—through the intellect. Read an excerpt from Austerlitz. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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As we had hoped, our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" poll stoked a fair amount of conversation around the web last week. List-making, as we've argued in the past, is an imperfect enterprise, and reactions ranged from "Great picks" to "Why didn't you mention x?" One of the difficulties of reaching consensus on books is that there are so many of them; The Corrections' appearance at #1 in our poll may reflect the likelihood of our panelists having read the book as much as it reflects inherent excellence. In our survey of 56 panelists - who had, collectively, 280 votes to allocate - something like 160 titles were mentioned. And so, as we sifted through the ballots, what struck us was not a "unified sensibility," but an exhilarating diversity, which we plan to share with you in the coming days. As we continue to discuss our "Best Fiction of the Millennium" results - and the heuristic value of list-making in general - we'll announce the rest of the titles that received votes, and maybe some of those that came up in the comments. We hope that you discover some pleasant surprises on these lists, as we did, and we hope you'll continue the conversation about what books from the last decade were worth your reading time. First, though, we thought we'd post an "Honorable Mention" list of 15 books that received multiple votes in our poll but didn't crack our Top 20. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon. This massive - and massively popular - novel follows two comic book creators in the World War II era. Any Human Heart, by William Boyd. A series of journal entries documents the life of an Englishman and his century. (See our review.) By Night in Chile, by Roberto Bolaño. A Catholic priest embroiled in the hothouse of Chilean politics delivers a riveting dramatic monologue. The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian. A flood of possibly divine provenance turns the titular hospital into an ark in this, the second novel from a hugely ambitious young writer. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus. Paired disasters - a divorce and a terrorist attack - mirror each other in this novel set in New York in 2001. The Feast of Love, by Charles Baxter. Stories of love knit together a community in Ann Arbor in this novel by a critical favorite. The Golden Compass/The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman. The first and third installments of the His Dark Materials trilogy open up a parallel universe of daemons and Dust. The Great Fire , by Shirley Hazzard Traveling East Asia after World War II, an English war hero finds love among the ruins. (See our review.) HomeLand , by Sam Lipsyte. Class notes from a ne'er-do-well form the spine of this comic novel. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Samantha Clarke. Two magicians spar in this novel, which is long and erudite in the Victorian manner. (See our review.) The Master, by Colm Tóibín. Tóibín, an Irishman, recreates a pivotal period in the life of Henry James. The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall. A half-Apache youth matriculates at the school of hard knocks and various other failing 1960's institutions. Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace. Wallace's final collection of short fiction is dark and dense, bleak and exhilarating. Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. McCarthy bends the legacy of the Gallic avant-garde in the direction of pop perfection in this novel of memory and forgetting. Still Holding, by Bruce Wagner. The final entry in Wagner's cell-phone themed trilogy explores the glitter and emptiness of Hollywood.
Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is a book I return to for sustenance, for instruction, and for pleasure. The title story is a masterpiece, a miracle of structure, character and plot, in which two teenage girls write prank letters to a housekeeper and thus set off a chain of events that changes and creates lives. Munro is a realist of profound and subtle comprehension whose great subject is women's lives. She is not a romantic, not sentimental, nor does she work the other end of authorial power and put her characters through excruciations and misery simply because she can. Instead, she writes with the clear, rigorous dispassion of a spiritual master. Because literary convention so often nudges narratives toward familiar outcomes--happy endings, redemption, tragedy--Munro has retooled form to suit her nuanced purposes. Her stories have the range and depth of novels; their structures are intricate and unusual but completely lucid. Her pace is leisurely; she lingers on physical descriptions of trees, geology, and faces, and on gradations of emotions. Yet somehow the stories often span years, even decades, and cover vast tracts of ground. She makes all this seem effortless. Alice Munro has taught us to find literary pleasure in leaping over time, in the odd swerves life takes, in the unexpected sources of comfort and sustenance, and in the idiosyncratic arrangements made for human happiness. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, she is at the top of her powers, each story, one after another, a stalwart, shimmering beauty. Read an excerpt from Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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