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.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, both from Random House. Currently, he is the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and can be reached on the web at www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.I know this is heresy, but I’m going to recommend a book that was published this year. (If it helps, the story itself is centuries old.) Of all the books I’ve read this year, regardless of publication date, genre, or form, The Adventures of Amir Hamza is the best. What’s more, I haven’t even finished it yet.But it’s so, so good. Kind of like a thinking man’s, adults-only, Islamic Harry Potter. (The original Urdu text, born out of oral narratives that had been circulated for hundreds of years, appeared in the late 19th century, but English translations have always been censored.) Amir Hamza was the prophet Muhammad’s uncle and he got into all kinds of cool trouble. Hamza’s soulmate is the daughter of the Persian emperor, but there’s a chasm of conflict keeping them apart – Frodo had it easy – and so the book follows, in utterly readable and downright addictive prose, Hamza’s struggle to return to her. Did I mention that he rides a winged demon-steed? That his posse consists of a wickedly cool wizard (thinking man’s Gandolf) and a funny trickster partner (thinking man’s Sancho Panza)? That he has to fight an honest-to-God demon? That his sons turn against him? That, in service of getting back to his one true love, he seduces a good many women? It’s a terrifically good and captivating story, bawdy and violent and occasionally poignant and often funny, and it reads just as well as a long odyssey as it does individual short stories. Speaking of, I need to get back to the book: We’re just about to rout Muhlil Sagsar and Malik Ajrook!More from A Year in Reading 2007
The book that has left the greatest impression on me in 2010 is not, surprisingly, a novel. It’s Tony Judt’s heartbreaking collection, The Memory Chalet. Judt died, far too young, in August from ALS. Imprisoned in a failing body, his mind turned to memories of his youth in Europe, and he wrote a series of unbearably moving essays, the majority of which were published in The New York Review of Books during the last months of his life. Judt poignantly bids farewell not just to his own life, but to a way of life that leaves us all markedly poorer for its loss. An impassioned, independent, alert thinker full of healthy skepticism and wry humor, Judt was the result of particular kind of European education, and we are unlikely to see the likes of him again.
Other memorable books this year: Saul Bellow’s Letters is everything you have heard and more, an essential text for any writer, aspiring or published. I was directed to James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime, a marvelous, haunting rendering of an erotic affair in France (sex, Paris, what’s not to like?), and now I am feverishly reading all the Salter I can get my hands on. And I returned to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer this year as the core text for my UCLA novel students, and was amazed at how much I’d missed when I’d first read it years ago. It’s very much a novel of ideas, and it works brilliantly, distilled through the unforgettable voice of Binx Bolling.
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I asked Michelle Richmond to share with us the best books she read this year. Michelle is the author of The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress and Dream of the Blue Room. She also keeps a blog, Sans Serif. She put together a really great post for us.The Death of a Beekeeper, by Lars Gustafsson – “Kind readers,” this novel begins. “Strange readers. We begin again.” And so I began this book, again, for probably the fifth or sixth time. Like Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, The Death of a Beekeeper is a book I return to every couple of years when I am in need of something quiet and beautiful. The protagonist is one Lars Lennart Westin, who once taught at “the local elementary school in Ennora on the northern shore of the lake.” By the time this narrative comes into our hands, Westin is dead, but during the writing of the three notebooks that comprise the novel, he is very much alive. The Yellow Notebook is concerned with beekeeping and household expenses; the Blue Notebook is a commonplace book of sorts, containing “newspaper clippings, excerpts from Westin’s readings, and his own stories;” the Damaged Notebook contains telephone numbers and brief notes about the progression of Westin’s cancer.The physical and mental impact of pain, the intricate lives of bees, the frozen landscape of North Vastmanland, and the mysterious workings of a fictional galaxy called Aldebaran are detailed in equal and exquisite measure. I admire the gentle precision of Gustafsson’s prose, the author’s eye for odd and interesting trivia, the novel’s meditative nature. This is a book of ephemera that cannot be easily categorized, a book of lists. For example, page 106 features a “Table of art forms according to their level of difficulty.” Art form number one (the least difficult) is eroticism; at the other end of the spectrum is artillery (number 28). The art of the novel (number 8) is, according to our protagonist, less difficult than squash, weight lifting, high trapeze, bicycle acrobatics, and the building of fountains, but slightly more difficult than surfing and significantly more difficult than poetry, which weighs in at a humble 3.Also on my list for the year: Here is Where We Meet by John Berger; A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator by Ludvic Vaculik; Writing in Restaurants by David Mamet; Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz; Total Fears by Bohumil Hrabal; and Summertime Waltz by Nina Payne and Gabi Swiatkowska (illustrator), which I’ve been reading to my son Oscar.As always, some of my most rewarding reading experiences have been stories and essays found unexpectedly in magazines big and small, most notably a gorgeous exploration of the secret lives of New Orleans’s hardy termites, published in Harper’s pre-Katrina. (The essay by Duncan Murrell warned of the devastating effects of the termite infestation on the city’s historic buildings. Interestingly, the flooding may have saved the city from the worst the termites had to offer).Which brings us back, sort of, to The Moviegoer, that most perfect of books: “To become aware of the possibility of a search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”Thanks Michelle!
When I moved to L.A. in August, my books were not with me. They didn’t arrive for another six weeks. While I was staying in Los Feliz for a month, I went to a bookstore in Atwater Village called Alias. I bought one obscure Russian novel, Sergei Dovlatov’s The Suitcase, and a book published in 1949 about cinematography, John Alton’s Painting with Light.
The Suitcase is about someone who is only allowed to emigrate with two suitcases. He ends up bringing just one suitcase because he doesn’t seem to need more. The chapters are then structured around each item he’s brought with him. I came to L.A. with two suitcases, and a friend suggested I buy this book and use it as a template for my memoir, which I am having a hell of a time writing. The items I brought with me — an Ugly Doll that reminds me of my sons, one LP by Lou Johnson (produced by Allen Toussaint), a piece of DJ gear — do say something about me, but the conceit didn’t work for describing the lifetime I had back in New York.
In Painting With Light, Alton describes physical tricks that produce visual effects. I can’t imagine anybody now would bother doing something involving boxes and curtains if they could do it digitally. There is a dislocation in reading about a medium that is still with us, but sort of not. I guess the equivalent for writers would be a book about how best to use a manual typewriter: tricks for sticky keys and how to store Wite-Out. (I bought an electric typewriter about five years ago. I used it only once and found it incredibly embarrassing — it was so loud. I sold it when I arrived in L.A.)
Everything else I read recently was something I printed out and left by my bed. I have a PDF of Ottessa Moshfegh’s story collection Homesick for Another World, which comes out in January of 2017. It’s sort of douchey to talk about something that isn’t out, except you can easily find about two-thirds of the book online, in the places that first ran the stories: The Paris Review, Vice, Granta. Her name is very Googleable.
It was strange getting into bed (literally) with characters who were doing unpleasant things, like buying drugs from homeless people who look like zombies or dealing with some terrible actor boyfriend addicted to meth, but I didn’t ever dream about these people or get stuck with their problems. Moshfegh’s sentences are so clean and they don’t come in the order you expect. The rhythm of the stories became soothing, and I cycled through this one pile of paper several times.
In the same stack was a story called “The Preoccupants,” by a writer from Canada I love, Paige Cooper. This one is in the Michigan Quarterly Review, a findable thing. Her stories often pit bodies against natural stuff that probably makes more sense in Canada — mountains, predatory birds, floods — but this one is about a couple who fly? rocket? to an unnamed planet. Their only company is each other, and two other couples who apparently work for the same company? country? planet? Everybody has to worry about bodily fluids and there are no mirrors. Many things are never entirely identified or explained. It made me very happy to have a bed with traditional sheets that is not floating.
The last thing I printed made me feel like a murderer. It is a digitized edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours. I downloaded a scan of the original, which is beautiful, and apparently some OCR word salad version. After every few paragraphs, these words appear:
Digitized by Google
Then some other weird technical language will pop up a few sentences later. It’s awful. I can’t believe I printed out hundreds of these pages. Even using them as scrap paper feels criminal.
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