I was going to say that the books I found most striking in 2009 were nonfiction, but as I think about it, that’s not completely true. Yes, I would say that the “best” books I read this year (whatever that means) fall into this category: William Vollmann’s Imperial and Dave Cullen’s Columbine, both of which used a combination of reporting, reflection and narrative to undercut pervasive myths about their subjects and get at the more complicated stories underneath. But equally compelling were a trio of small books — B.H. Fairchild’s poetry collection Usher, Lydia Millet’s short story collection Love in Infant Monkeys, and Ted Kooser’s brief memoir Lights on a Ground of Darkness — that each in its own way reordered my inner world. What connects all of these books, including “Imperial” and “Columbine,” is the depth of their observation, their tendency to nuance and detail, the way they have of slowing down the moment so that we can see it fresh.
Matthew Rohrer is the author of four books of poems, of which the most recent is Rise Up. The former poetry editor at Fence, he has been shortlisted for the International Griffin Poetry Award, and has appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “The Next Big Thing.”The most marvelous book I read in 2008 was undoubtedly Captives by my friend Todd Hasak-Lowy, though it had nothing to do with our being friends and everything to do with the book being simply amazing. I’ll try to elaborate. The book comes right out of the heart-capsizing horror that was living in the United States for the past 8 years as a person with even a smidgen of conscience. The protagonist, Daniel Bloom, is just such a person – he has a smidgen. He’s a successful Hollywood screenwriter. The immorality and mendacity of the Bush administration has become so overwhelming a part of his life that he finds himself writing a screenplay in which an assassin begins killing corrupt CEOs and politicians, and an FBI agent charged with tracking him down finds that he just might not want the assassin to stop. To his surprise, Daniel finds out that big-time Hollywood producers are nuts for it and can’t wait for him to finish it so they can capitalize on the nation’s anguish. And more and more, Daniel sees the screenplay as his own wishes fulfilled. This freaks him out, like it did me when I wore a shirt around my Brooklyn neighborhood that said “shoot Cheney first” and everyone congratulated me on it; it just starts to feel wrong. Daniel seeks advice from the least appropriate rabbi ever, who recommends psychedelic drugs and a trip to Israel. The dialog is some of the best I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. You will be riveted by the humor and immediacy of it. The book tackles huge issues through the lens of one schmoe: it’s an instant classic. The fact that suddenly and against all odds the political climate has changed since November 4th doesn’t pull the rug out from under the book, it instantly cements its place in our collective guilt and atonement. But I’m not sure I’ve expressed enough how truly funny it is. That’s part of its irresistible charm; it implicates you and entertains you.More from A Year in Reading 2008