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.
Bonny Wolf is the author of Talking with My Mouth Full: Crab Cakes, Bundt Cakes and Other Kitchen Stories (St Martins, 2006), the host of Kitchen Window, NPR’s food podcast; a commentator for NPR’s Weekend Edition; and a food columnist for The Washington Post. More information is available at www.bonnywolf.com.Julia Child and Judith Jones both went to Paris for the first time in 1948, beginning a journey that changed their lives and the way Americans cook.”It’s quite possible that we passed Judith and Evan (her husband) on the street, or that we stood next to each other at a cocktail party, for we were leading parallel lives,” Child writes in her memoir My Life in France. “But we never met in Paris.”They didn’t learn of each other until the summer of 1959 when a huge manuscript on French cooking by Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle landed on Jones’ desk at Knopf where she was an editor.”I was bouleversee, as the French say – knocked out,” Jones writes in her memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. “This was the book I’d been searching for.”My Life in France was published in 2006, two years after Child’s death at age 91. Her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, put together the story of her formative time in France from conversations with her, letters, notes and photographs, many taken by her husband Paul.The two memoirs make a lovely couple. Together, a clear picture emerges of the somewhat appalling food scene in the U.S. after World War II and how much these two women – after a few years in Paris – effected change.Their voices are different: Jones is reserved and private while Child is exuberant and forthright. Their stories, however, are similar. Both grew up in homes with hired cooks and were educated at eastern women’s colleges (Smith for Child, Bennington for Jones). Both married older men who they considered soulmates and neither couple had children. Both women fell in love with France and its food, and both believed home cooking could be excellent.Jones went on to bring out books by many important food writers including Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, Edna Lewis and Marion Cunningham. She was also the editor of literary figures such as John Updike and Anne Tyler.Her publishing career began when she pulled from the reject pile Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. All of this is part of the story told in The Tenth Muse. (The 19th-century French gourmet Brillat-Savarin called food the 10th muse.)Julia Child, of course, went on to become Julia Child. My Life in France is a wonderful window through which to look at how she went from, in her words, “a six-foot-two-inch … rather loud and unserious Californian” to the meticulous cook who taught Americans how to cook like the French.More from A Year in Reading 2007
One thing I’ve learned in grad school is that journalists love to talk about journalism. My friends couldn’t go out to Irish dive bar near campus without discussing the latest New York Times article, so after I finished my last drink I would escape into fiction. I devoured more John Green novels this summer than I should admit (Paper Towns is my favorite) and carried around Dave Eggers’s The Circle along with my text books to sneak in a few minutes of reading between classes. Yet ironically, the best books I read this year were about journalism.
Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation tells the story of how the press shaped the Civil Rights Movement. Reading the book for a class opened my eyes to a lot of truths — how whitewashed my high school education on the Movement was, that objectivity never really existed (and that’s probably for the best), and how powerful good journalism can be. I’m not just talking about how influential good reporting can be, but how important the writing of it is, and it applies to the authors of this book as much as their subjects. Klibanoff and Roberts treat the journalists like characters in a novel, complete with what suits they were wearing when they reported the integration of the Little Rock Public Schools to what they drank afterward. The Race Beat could have been a dry list of forgotten bylines and protests, but these personal details made it a sweeping narrative with heroes and villains, tragedy and victory, and even nuance. Ultimately, Klibanoff and Roberts show that good reporting takes us back to the individuals because they are the story.
Tom Rachman follows a similar ideal in The Imperfectionists. This stories-as-novel focuses on a dwindling English-language newspaper in Rome. We learn about the newsroom through its beleaguered staff as each chapter centers on a different journalist from the paranoid copy editor Ruby Zaga to the naive Cairo stringer, Winston Cheung. Each story is so strong it could stand alone, but Rachman interweaves them in a similar fashion to A Visit from the Goon Squad with unsettling surprises revealed as the stories intersect. Eventually, we realize that the protagonist was the unnamed paper all along. Yet what unites the book is its economical but sharply observed prose. Rachman cuts to the bone like a good reporter would, but he writes to almost Joycean epiphany and parses people better than the corrections editor can parse a sentence. As one character notes, “Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males;” and that’s what makes this book so striking. Although any journalist can appreciate a caricatured view of a paper (I certainly did), fundamentally The Imperfectionists is a story of loners, misplaced ambition, and what it’s like to be an underdog, which is something we can all relate to — newsroom or not.
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The indefatigable Dan Wickett is the hardest working man in book blogging. He is a tireless advocate for “emerging” writers, small presses, and literary journals. How he found the time to compile this post for us, I’ll never know, but I’m glad he did.I divided my thoughts about authors that I read in 2006 into three categories. First up would be (what else from my end) Emerging Writers. Writers that fell into that category that I can’t wait to read more of would have to include:Dag Solstad – His Shyness & Dignity is not his first novel, but it is the first available in English, and it was the best book I read all year. Graywolf Press took the chance on bringing this Norwegian’s work to those of us without the skills to read his books in their original language, and they should be thanked.Benjamin Percy – His debut story collection, The Language of Elk, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the middle of the year and shows readers a new vision of the current west, with most of the stories set in Oregon. Percy’s language crackles with masculinity and humor and the bizarre. Watch for him – he put a story in both BASS and Pushcart this year, has one coming in January’s Esquire and his second collection is coming from Graywolf Press in 2007.Robert Fanning – Are you kidding me? Wickett lobbed a poet into this list? Absolutely. Fanning’s The Seed Thieves is his first full length collection of poetry, thanks to Marick Press, and it is beyond just being solid. Fanning has a fantastic way about his phrasing and observations that work both on page, and if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear him read his work.Second up would be those writers who I already thought pretty highly of, that confirmed for me, once again, just how talented they were:William Gay with his novel Twilight from MacAdam/Cage. He follows up his previous two novels and short story collection with possibly his best yet. A frighteningly gothic near fairy tale about a young brother and sister combination and their efforts to expose a rather sordid mortician.Daniel Woodrell and Winter’s Bone, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun. Anybody reading this far into Max’s post has probably visited my site. Enough said as I’m pretty sure searching my blog for 2006 will show these two names and titles coming up way more than anything else.Tom Franklin with Smonk. The fever Franklin had that induced this story to come oozing out must have been 104 plus.Steve Yarbrough and Ron Rash with The End of California and The World Made Straight, respectively. These two gentlemen deserve accolades for not writing with any flash, or verbal pyrotechnics, but instead delivering captivating novels, time and time again by simply telling a great story, and doing so with, while excellent writing, not the need to make you notice it.Michael Ruhlman has once again delivered a fantastic book about cooking with his The Reach of a Chef. If you have ANY interest in the art of cooking, his books are all a must. And even if you don’t, you have more than half a chance at becoming enthralled anyway.Charles D’Ambrosio and Lee K. Abbott just may be the two best short story writers around and readers were fortunate enough to enjoy a new collection by D’Ambrosio (The Dead Fish Museum) and a Collected collection of Abbott (All Things, All at Once). There isn’t a mis-step in either, and above and beyond that, there are probably close to a dozen stories between the two works that are prize winning, year end anthology worthy.Lastly would be those writers that I found myself embarrassed to realize I’d never read their work prior to 2006, and in many cases had not even heard of them:Colson Whitehead – I had the opportunity to see him read in Ann Arbor earlier in the year and bought a copy of The Intuitionist, which I promptly read and loved. His other three books are high up in my TBR pile.Magnus Mills – I don’t know why I bought his The Restraint of Beasts – I thought I remembered his name from Jeff Bryant’s Underrated Writers Project from last year, but his name is not there. Whatever the case – I loved it and the follow up novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express as well. The rest of his novels and a short story collection reside in my TBR pile at this time.Rupert Thomson – Thanks to Megan for nominating his latest, Divided Kingdom, as an LBC nominee. Another one who I immediately began looking for his backlog of many novels to pad my TBR pile.Richard Powers – Oh well, at least I waited for a decent book to hop aboard – The Echo Maker – NBA winner. Thanks to Ed Champion for inviting me to the roundtable discussion of this wonderful title. There’s approximately 2100 pages of unread Powers’ novels on a shelf here now.Peter Markus – Even more ridiculous when you find out he resides less than 30 minutes from my house. Went to see the aforementioned Robert Fanning read earlier this year and Markus read some unpublished work from what should be his fourth book of short fictions that deal with brothers, mud, fish, and the moon. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his first, Good, Brother, which was reprinted by Calimari Press earlier this year. I read it that night and had ordered both The Moon is a Lighthouse (from a store in Japan – the only one I could find online) and The Singing Fish (also published, last year, by Calimari Press). The man is a unique writer, an amazing writer, and one I highly recommend you try to find. Plenty of his work is available online.Thanks Dan!
Sarah Manguso is the author of four books, most recently the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay, due out in paperback this spring. A 2008 Rome Prize Fellow, she lives in Brooklyn and teaches at the Pratt Institute.Kyril Bonfiglioli’s 1970s art-heist trilogy – Don’t Point That Thing at Me (1973), Something Nasty in the Woodshed (1976), and After You with the Pistol (1979) – was described by none other than Stephen Fry (Jeeves!) as “P. G. Wodehouse, but with sex and violence.” Hero Charlie Mortdecai’s catastrophically intoned condescension provides foreground; a blackly indifferent universe provides background. The ensuing laughter is complex – Charlie’s wit holds vast pain and fear. It should come as no surprise that Bonfiglioli drank himself to death.Laughlin’s fragmentary recollections (The Way It Wasn’t edited by Barbara Epler and Daniel Javitch) demonstrate soundly that memoir isn’t reportage but a form built by a guiding intelligence. That’s the reason why in a Wodehouse novel everyone at the table shuts up when one of the aunts announces that “Mr. Wooster is telling an anecdote.” It’s a made thing, a crafted thing. It’s a rescue from the tedium of what happened.More from A Year in Reading 2008