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.
Sarah Vowell, The Wordy Shipmates: Reading a Sarah Vowell book is like getting the coolest, smartest and funniest person in the world to take you on a tour of the kind of places you’d go to if you weren’t held down by a nagging wife, whiny kids, and demanding cats*. Sarah Vowell is like that commercial “where history comes alive.” In The Wordy Shipmates, as she does in all of her other books which you should read, too, she writes about the Puritans or Early Americans or whatever you want to call them (I think of them as non-Jews) with dishy intimacy and poignancy. Ms. Vowell is monstrously entertaining and there’s the added benefit that you walk away knowing some obscure historical facts that would be a hit at the cocktail parties you’d go to if not for the wife, and kids and cats.
(*this is not me as I have a husband, only one child and dogs, not cats)
Hyatt Bass, The Embers: Who wants to read a book about a dead kid? Not me! I have depressing-book-a-phobia, especially one where a child dies. I’m glad I didn’t know that before I picked up The Embers, because I never would have found out that that isn’t what the book is about at all. It’s the story of a family – complex, dysfunctional, totally normal characters, except they’re insanely engaging. Ms. Bass is the rare kind of storyteller whose lush, elegant prose keeps pace with her riveting page-turning plot. The one thing I had a hard time believing was that this was Ms. Bass’s first book.
The Books of Kate Christensen: At an introduction at a reading, Maud Newton said, “If you haven’t read Kate’s books, well you must read them all.” I always listen to Maud so I read The Great Man first. I gobbled it up and went on to The Epicure’s Lament, In The Drink, Jeremy Thrane, and Trouble. This was where I became convinced her talent was otherworldly. Who is this writer who inhabits every character so absolutely? Never for a minute do I doubt that each book is being told by an aging man, a twenty-something assistant, a young gay guy, or a middle-aged divorcee, respectively.
In 2009, I also loved (lerved, loaved, luffed): Fly-Over State by Emma Straub, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Dog Years by Mark Doty, The Melting Season by Jami Attenberg, Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner and Queen Takes King by Gigi Levangie Grazer.
I’ve been reading Megan’s blog Bookdwarf for a long time now. I met Megan amidst all the crazy book folk at BEA this year and was surprised to find her not as short as one might have expected. While the name of her blog may be misleading, however, her taste in books can be trusted. As such, here are Megan thoughts on the best books she read this year:I love reading the lists you collect because they give me a chance to reflect on what I’ve read this year. I feel lucky – I read a lot of great books this year, some old and some new. One of my favorites was Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, which I was glad was nominated for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction. Hessler, who has lived in China for over ten years and speaks Mandarin fluently, writes about the changes occurring in China today. Not quite a travelogue nor a memoir, it’s a cultural portrait of a rapidly changing world. What makes it so great is Hessler’s ability to disappear from the narrative and paint a vivid portrait of everyone he meets and everything he sees. He shows us a big picture view with enough complexity and contradiction that we see all nuances.Another favorite this year was Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City, part of the NYRB Classics series. First published to great acclaim in Hong Kong in the 40s, Chang’s short stories are being published in English for the first time. She writes about men, women, and the ways even the smallest actions or words can transform relationships. The cultural divide in Chinese society between ancient patriarchy and the tumultuous modernity forms the vivid background. The stories seem to be about how life never works out. They’re bleak and yet you can’t help but be enchanted by the characters.Other books I enjoyed this year were Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Aidichie, whose talented writing enchants this novel about the war in Biafra, and Random Family by Adrian Leblanc, who spent 10 years researching this finely written portrait of an extended family.PS I also second Mark’s love for Gregoire Bouillier’s Mystery Guest and Ed’s love for Echo Maker, not to mention Cormac McCarthy’s haunting The Road. I think I’ll try to read more older stuff in 2007. It’s part of my job to read the new stuff, but there’s so much out there already that needs reading.Thanks Megan!
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic), came out in September 2007 to much acclaim from The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others.This year’s reading list gets the theme The Year of the Guiltiest Pleasures, which I felt was much needed as I embarked on the scary roller coaster ride of debut novel launch. As usual my #1 New Year’s Resolution of the past 15 years – read (and love) George Eliot’s undoubtedly-masterpiecical Middlemarch – didn’t happen, so I turned to a book I really should have read when I was an undergrad at that bastion of preposterously-privileged art-snobbery, Sarah Lawrence College. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History had been recommended to me for years, but I always had the wrong idea about it – I thought it was like The Odyssey for a particularly precocious YA set. Boy, was I wrong – Tartt is a brilliant writer and she writes one of the most engaging novels about early adulthood that I have ever read. The book centers around a secret society/humanities clique at a rather Sarah Lawrence-ish small private college (I think it was based on Bennington) and chronicles their rather deadly fall. I’m sure it’s no Middlemarch, but I must say I could not put it down and was so depressed when it was over.Also in embracing my Eliot avoidance, I read two memoirs (a genre I usually hate) by two controversial artists I usually love: 50 Cent’s From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens and Tracey Emin’s Strangeland. The latter is a really raw, almost unreadable look at a very tormented British visual artist’s sexual history and the former is the coming-of-age tale of a true NYC “G” who went from living like a kiddie-range clay pigeon (he was shot nine times!) to a huge artist who now sells over 20 million records worldwide and has a Vitamin Water named after him. Even if you hate hip hop, how could you not be interested in a story of a kid who loses his drug-dealer mom at age 8 and then takes on her vocation before he’s in junior high? I admire 50. One day I will write the best novel before a Post-It bearing the bold Sharpied mantra: “get rich or die tryin.”More from A Year in Reading 2007
One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time is Eric Lundgren’s debut, The Facades. It’s hugely imaginative, brilliantly written, funny, and sad. What else would you want from a novel? I can’t improve upon this New Yorker review of it, so I’ll link to that.
For nonfiction, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, about the mass incarceration of men of color, was eye-opening in its synoptic analysis of how predatory and ruthless the entire criminal justice system is, from the War on Drugs to the near-impossibility of repairing one’s life as an ex-convict. It’s also extremely accessible; Alexander avoids sociological and academic jargon in her swift, upsetting, and important book.
I don’t read much poetry, but I’m glad I read Caki Wilkinson’s Circles Where the Head Should Be: it’s completely unpretentious yet lyrically gorgeous, wry, and plaintive, and about subjects as varied as basketball and TV weathermen.
Her second collection, tentatively titled Wynona Stone, comes out in 2014, and follows the titular fictional character. An example:
The plot unfolds, backwater roman-fleuve:
hand-shaking husbands, wives who say make love
as in “When Doug and I were making love,”
or “Doug made love to me,” or “Doug, that love
we made was really something.”
It promises, like her first book, to be really something, as well.
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