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.
I've been a fan of Patricia Highsmith for a long time, but somehow I'd managed to skip Strangers on a Train. This year I finally got around to it, and unsurprisingly, it's wonderful. When up-and-coming young architect Guy happens to meet directionless rich boy Charles Bruno on a train, the encounter sets in motion a series of events that will take over both their lives. The terrible pressure Bruno puts on Guy, and the way Guy's mind twists and disintegrates under that pressure, make the book an incredible study of psychological torture and how fine the membrane is between normality and the underlying darkness. I love Shakespeare, I'm fascinated by Elizabethan England, and I love small everyday objects from the past, so Shakespeare's Restless World: An Unexpected History in Twenty Objects by Neil MacGregor has it all; he does a lovely job of using quirky, often mundane objects as windows into that world. A brass-handled iron fork found in the Rose Theatre leads into an exploration of what a day at the theatre was like in Shakespeare's time; a rapier and dagger illuminate the urban violence that was widespread; an apprentice's cap becomes a springboard for insights into social hierarchy and unrest. Anyone who's interested in Elizabethan England should have this book. I also loved Lauren Owen's The Quick, which is a great debut novel set in a darkly tangled version of Victorian London. A lot of the reviews spoiled the surprise twist that comes about 100 pages in, but I got a sneak early read, so I had no idea, and I practically dropped the book when I got to that moment. You think you're reading an atmospheric coming-of-age story -- until, all of a sudden, the ground falls out from under you and you land in a much more intricate and more sinister world. Owen manages to explore familiar territory and give it whole new levels of emotional depth and poignancy. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
If you’re ever feeling unsteady, longtime and legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland’s memoir, DV, is as bracing as smelling salts. You should keep a copy in your bag or next to your bed or wherever you manage to read. It’s extravagant, impractical, intimate, and an interest in couture is by no means a prerequisite (the closest I get to fashion is walking past Century 21 on my way to the train). Vreeland’s friend Truman Capote famously dismissed Jack Kerouac’s writing as “typing”; Capote died the year DV was published, so who knows whether he’d have dismissed it — or embraced it — as “talking.” Since she was losing her eyesight, the book was dictated to George Plimpton, and is peppered with such admonitions as “You really should be talking to Joseph, my masseur.” Open to any page and you’ll find over-the-top and quotable gems — she’s just there, and her enthusiasms and excesses are totally beguiling, whether she’s reminiscing about sumo wrestlers, the King of England, or her love of rouge. Strangely, or not so strangely, I see lots of similarities between Vreeland and one of my other favorite autobiographers, Gertrude Stein. Here are some: their openness, their contradictions, their love of gossip, their independence, the inimitability of their voices, and of course their absolute certainty that their own extraordinary visions of and for the world were the right ones. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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Mickey Hess is an English professor at Rider University and the author of Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory and a bunch of books about hip hop.The best thing I read in 2008 was Richard Brautigan's Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel. It is one of my favorite books that begin with a sombrero falling to earth from outer space, and it's one of those books that makes you feel kind of stupid for not having been reading this author all of your life.With the resurgence of interest in Donald Barthelme, people seem to have forgotten his West Coast contemporary, Richard Brautigan, who was doing similar experiments with prose and form out in California. Or it may not be that people have forgotten to include Brautigan among the pantheon of great 20th-century literary experimenters so much as he never really was included.Brautigan had the mixed luck of becoming a countercultural hero and seeing his fame peak too soon. Someone called him the last of the Beats, and his popularity among the hippies (whom truckers hated) led to truck stops not stocking his novels, which led to the literary establishment thumbing its nose at his stories. This is the way it works.Brautigan's style of humor, while it made him a star among hippies, did not see the same response from the critics as Bartheleme or Kurt Vonnegut, two other writers whom I'd chisel into my literary Mount Rushmore. Critics, for some reason, seemed to think that Brautigan's writing was something like jacking off.Brautigan jokes about being a hack in his short story "1/3, 1/3, 1/3," in which a novelist who can't write teams up with a typist who can't type and an editor who can't spell. The story contains one of the best lines ever in a short story: "You sur like veel cutlets don't you Maybel said she was holding holding her pensil up her mowth." It ends with the three of them "sitting there in that rainy trailer, pounding at the gates of American literature." Man.Sombrero Fallout: A Japanese Novel was published in 1976, simultaneously in Japan and America. Brautigan dedicates the book to Junichiro Tanizaki, and he draws from the terse prose style and short chapters employed by Tanizaki in The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man. Around this same point in his career, Brautigan wrote novels in a series of different weird genres: a gothic western, an historical romance, and a perverse mystery. They're all good books, but they don't all feature sombreros.Sombrero Fallout begins with a sombrero falling from the sky onto the Main Street of a small American town. Then, the very brief chapters alternate between the bizarre story of how the mayor and the townspeople deal with the sombrero (spoiler alert: they kill a librarian), and the heart-wrenching story of an American humorist who has broken up with his Japanese girlfriend, Yukiko.Just as Kurt Vonnegut depicts Kilgore Trout's gravestone in Breakfast of Champions, Brautigan offers an epitaph for his own alter-ego in Sombrero Fallout. The American humorist was expected to live longer than Brautigan did (he killed himself in 1984, twenty-five years too soon). As 2008 - the year I discovered Richard Brautigan - comes to a close, it seems fitting that he marked this upcoming year as his projected date of death:An American Humorist1934-2009Rest in PeaceHe's Not Jacking Off AnymoreMore from A Year in Reading 2008
Meghan O'Rourke is literary editor of Slate and author of Halflife, a book of poems.The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l'oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone's childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author's attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child - and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn't here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing - almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn't like the original all that much.More from A Year in Reading 2007
V.V. Ganeshananthan's first novel, Love Marriage, was published in April by Random House. She lives in New York.Edan Lepucki recommended it last year; I'm going to recommend it this year. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao astonishes me more every time I think about it, every time I discuss it with a friend or a student, every time I flip to a favorite passage again. What delightful nerdery to see how many of the references I get! Beyond that, I enjoy the incredible feat of craftsmanship and passion. The novel does a number of remarkable things. At the moment, I'm appreciating how its structure allows it to deal with ideas of community and belonging. The story, juggled between protagonist Oscar and narrator Yunior, simultaneously acknowledges and undermines stereotypes - as Yunior generalizes (sometimes carelessly, but often affectionately) about his own Dominican communities, he also tells the tale of their singular, beloved misfit: Oscar, who has to constantly insist on his own Dominican identity. I love this epic and I'll read it again next year, I'm sure.A Perfect Man, by Naeem Murr. When I picked this gorgeous book up, I was stunned by the depth of its world. Murr's canny, sharp, sympathetic portrayal of children and adolescents kept me riveted.I'm finishing off the year reading A Golden Age, by Tahmima Anam. I'm not done with it yet, but I suspect it won't take me long - the take on the Bangladesh War is great, and telling the story from the widow Rehana's point of view gives the story a different freshness and sympathy.More from A Year in Reading 2008