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.
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India is, well, a fascinating portrait of the “New India”: a country being transformed (at least superficially) by a gigantic influx of investment and the rise of a small but very visible wealthy class. My favorite chapter tells the riveting tale of a self-made business guru with a goofy smile, a million-pound Bentley, and a string of private business schools that may or may not amount to a pyramid scheme.
Philip Connors’ Fire Season describes his decade of summers spent as a fire lookout in the Gila Forest — five months a year of off-the-grid living in a 7-by-7-foot tower, far from the modern world. Solitude and fire management would make dull fodder for a lesser writer, but Connors’ memoir reinvigorates the whole concept of nature writing; it’s deeply thoughtful, deeply poetic, and quietly angry at what we’re doing to our world, without the sentimental bullshit.
And one more: Sheila Heti’s novel-from-life, How Should a Person Be?, was published in Canada in 2010, but won’t be out in the US until next June. Watch for it – it’s great.
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Dustin Long is the author of Icelander (McSweeney’s). He’s currently working on his Ph.D. in 18th-century literature at Indiana University and recently completed a novel about Jesuits in 17th-century China.This year, I read a good deal of “literary fantasy,” although as Gene Wolfe points out, “All novels are fantasies. Some are more honest about it.” I just finished Wolfe’s epistolary two-volume Wizard Knight, which manages to create something entirely fresh and vital out of the most familiar and overused of fantasy elements. It reminded me in some ways of the 1748 picaresque novel The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett, which I also read this year, and which I also recommend. The first two books of Edward Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet (brought to my attention by the writer Jeff VanderMeer, whose hallucinatory City of Saints and Madmen I did not read this year, but nonetheless recommend) were a lot of fun: fabulist Middle Eastern history and all the variety of old-fashioned tale cycles woven into character-driven novels. And finally, Darconville’s Cat, by Alexander Theroux, was infinitely impressive: Theroux’s daunting vocabulary and classical erudition are balanced out by his broad humor (southern stereotypes abound) and his emotional acuity.More from A Year in Reading 2008
With the year drawing to a close, so too is our Year in Reading series. We at The Millions would like to thank all of those who contributed to the series as well as those who helped us put together such a great group of people to participate.We’d also like to thank all of our readers for a great year at The Millions – the best ever in terms of visitors, but also in more qualitative respects. We touched on many great books and many great topics and our readers were always there to offer their insights. We hope to make The Millions even more of a “must read” destination in 2008, so stay tuned.Meanwhile, we’re going to take a break around here for a couple of days, but, in the spirit of the Year in Reading, we invite all of you to finish this sentence in the comments: “The best book I read all year was…”
My good friend Derek is deep into his first year of law school. He reads not for pleasure but for salvation.Eight Secrets Top Exam Performance in Law School performance by ___ Whitebread: Yes, it’s depressing that a law school book with a cheesy name is one of my top books of the year but it helped me stop worrying and learn tolove the first year of law school. By love I mean not lose all my hair.or/andLove Is a Dog from Hell Charles Bukowski: He’s a dirtbag, but his poems are like what Richard Brautigan would have written if Brautigan wasn’t such a stinking hippie.