I fell in love with Kelly Link’s writing from the first page of the first story in Stranger Things Happen. That was some years ago, but I go back to the book often, and often I find I’ve misremembered something, even as I fall in love with the stories again. I have even had the just-for-a-second delusion, faster than reason, that Link has snuck into my home and rewritten stories to dazzle me differently this time, because that’s just the sort of thing she’d do. She’s funny and bookish, charming and ghoulish, original even when she’s referential. She’s one of those writers I always tell people about, but worry how to describe her: yes, she writes ghost stories and fantasy, but not really. But, really, she does: aficionados of both should love her, but so should people who never stray from the strictest lit-fic. I admire imagination and craft, in equal measure. Link is one of the very few who have both in seemingly limitless quantity.
The Bourdieuvian posture - I've come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism - may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art.
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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.
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The intellectual history of modernity is in one sense the story of specialization. In the 16th Century, Descartes imagines writing a magnum opus called The World; by the 21st, it takes 500 pages just to cover Salt. Nor has the novel, that mirror dragged down the road of the culture, been immune to the proliferation of specialties and subspecialties. James Wood may posit two novelistic bloodlines, extending from Clarissa and Tristram Shandy, and Zadie Smith may see two paths going forward, but to stand before the Barnes & Noble fiction tables circa 2009 is to be asked to choose among thrillers and literary fiction, psychological novels and novels of ideas, novels driven by plot and novels driven by language, novels hailed for their imagination and those hailed for their accuracy. What the fiction writer in me loves about Mortals is that Norman Rush writes as if none of these distinctions exist. He does all of the above not just well, but wonderfully. The story of hapless CIA functionary Ray Finch's midlife unraveling in Botswana is uproarious and deadly serious, ruminative and suspenseful, psychological and philosophical. Think Graham Greene as written by Saul Bellow. Or Thomas Mann as written by Jonathan Franzen. Yet Mortals doesn't feel like a mere showcase for the various novelistic virtues. Rush is downright radical in his refusal to pass judgment on his characters or to let the reader settle into a comfortable ironic distance. You have to learn, in the first 100 pages, to read through Ray's blustery self-presentation; as with people in real life, you have to learn to love him. And the reader in me loves that. More than any other fictional character to appear in the last 10 years, Ray Finch is alive. Read an excerpt from Mortals. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
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I read Cloud Atlas with two contradictory impulses: first to let loose a yodel, dance a fandango, wrestle an alligator, seize strangers by the hair and hold them firmly until they, too, read this shockingly beautiful Matryoshka doll of a book; second, to pout alone in the darkness under my desk. My first reaction was as a dazzled reader who saw each movement of the book as David Mitchell one-upping himself with his genre-bending (historical, mystery, science fiction), his sublime prose, his broad and breathtaking ideas. The other was as a writer who was intimidated almost to petrification by the mere idea that such a book exists and was written by someone of my generation. It is hard not to make sweeping pronouncements after having lived this book, and, still under its spell three years after I read it, I would say: yes, yes, yes, this is the way novels should be written, with such electric ambition, with such exhilarating sweep. Read an excerpt from Cloud Atlas. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers