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.
My longtime friend and former roommate Derek Teslik is the guy who got me into blogging. He was once an avid blogger himself but has long since left the fold, and believe me, the blogging world is less for it. Luckily he has consented to send me a once yearly post from his undisclosed location:The Psychic Soviet by Ian Svenonius. The former frontman of Nation of Ulysses and The Make-Up, now singer for Weird War (aka The Scene Creamers), finally delivers a theoretical tome to back up the agitative manifestos he places in his liner notes. Svenonius, who I have called the “kool keith of indie rock,” expounds on some of the great questions of rock and roll (e.g. Beatles or Stones?) while drenching the whole thing in pseudo-socialist theory and protecting the pocket-sized book from beer and sweat stains with a handsome pink plastic cover.State of Denial by Bob Woodward. The most influential largely-unread-but-published book of the year. Woodward’s modern history provided the nation with the Geraldo-in-the-Superdome moment of the Iraq war, allowing the nation to come out and say what they knew in their guts but tried to hide in their brain. Because the most damning revelations of the book (the Bush inner circle was dismissive of the al-Qaida threat in the months before 9-11, etc.) had long been lunatic fringe allegations, they were dismissed as “old news” and somehow didn’t have the staying power and impact they should have. But the book’s publication shifted the American psyche on the war. Proof? After it’s publication, even Chris Matthews grew a pair, at least on the subject of the war. I only read the first fifth or so, but MAN, is Rumsfeld a dick!Stephen Colbert’s Alpha Squad 7: Lady Nocturne: A Tek Jansen Adventure by Stephen Colbert. This unpublished work has already spawned a cartoon series and a late night talk show. From the galleys I’ve had a chance to read, it’s a real page turner! Colbert picks up the pace a bit after the darker Alpha Squad 6: Death Be-comes Her, Or Does It?, returning to what fans of the series love the most – sex and gut-gripping fantasaction. This will make many best-of-2007 lists as well.If I Did It by O.J. Simpson. State of Denial for the Dr. Phil set. And Chris Rock called it years ago.Thanks Derek!
The new book that dazzled me the most this past year, and that I loved the most, was The Essays of Leonard Michaels. The essays range from meditations on literature (Shakespeare), religion (Bible stories), language (metaphor, psychobabble), painting (Edward Hopper) and film (Gilda, Hollywood screenwriting) to personal matters, but as the author says, with him everything he writes is personal.
The pieces about his mother and father, various teacher mentors and the Yiddish language are some of the greatest essays I know; they will break your heart and excite your thinking at the same time. Michaels had a trenchant, elegantly forceful style that cut to the bone; what impresses me the most, as a fellow essayist, is that he always tried to get to the bottom of what he knew and understand. He had a brilliant mind and, unlike the tough guy streetwise swagger adopted in some of his early stories, here he stands unashamedly before us as a cultivated intellectual, a man who lived through and in language. He was especially sensitive to certain mature, subtle, courtly distinctions in word usage and manners that are passing out of existence, to our loss. We think of Michaels as a cutting edge modernist, but this collection reveals how deep was his appreciative grasp of older traditions. He expressed gratitude again and again in these essays for all those he learned from; and gratitude is what I feel for all we can learn from him.