Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood is a supreme literary stunt: a short “novel” composed only of questions, each of which seems to implicate the reader in a narrative conspiracy as serious and absurd as his or her own life. Ultimately, Powell’s little book can be seen word-machine designed to induce unprecedented states of interior monologue, or narrative drug.
Here’s a list of my favorite covers of 2009. The best way for me to pick some favorites was to break them up into categories. I feel that when a designer has the task of designing, say, a nonfiction book, the parameters are very different than when designing a book for one of the most popular fiction authors in the world, and so it felt most natural to split things up this way.
Best Nonfiction Cover
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, Cover design: Rodrigo Corral Design: Rodrigo Corral is my favorite designer, period. I love everything he does. Fordlandia is a great example of a cover that really feels like what’s inside. The painting is perfect, and the type is beautifully rendered. I love the palm frond hanging over the F. It draws your eye to the title instantly.
Best Big Book Cover
Under the Dome by Stephen King, Cover design: Rex Bonomelli, illustration by Ray Brown: This cover is amazing for so many reasons. First of all, even though it’s a no-brainer in terms of concept, they really did a brilliant job illustrating the town. Secondly, the jacket has no flap copy. Nothing! Just barcode and title. This is something only Stephen King can pull off, but it really adds to the clarity of the cover to not have anything else on it. Thirdly, Amazon wrote a piece about the cover, describing its origins on the product page. This is something you never see. It shows that this is truly a unique jacket.
Best Fiction Cover
The Way Through Doors by Jesse Ball, Cover design: Helen Yentus: It’s hard to pull off (or get approved) a cover where the title is obscured. In this case, however, Yemtus has done such clear work that the title reads right away, despite the fact that it never actually fully appears.
Best UK Cover
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem, Cover design: Miriam Rosenbloom: My wife and I recently designed and screenprinted a poster for Jonathan and his marathon New York readings around the city last month. When we were brainstorming for the poster, I saw this cover and thought, “Damn! I wish I had thought of that.” This is a cover that would never fly with an author as popular as Lethem in an American market because the type is small and the image is big. The result is powerful, toothy, and original.
Early in 2015, I was lucky enough to do an event with Joan Wickersham at a new indie bookstore in Boston, Papercuts JP. So her memoir The Suicide Index was one of the first books I read this year, and at year’s end, it’s still haunting me. It’s a painful book but also a beautiful one, in which Wickersham tries to make sense of her father’s unexpected suicide — but it’s also a meditation on loss, the secrets kept within a family, and continuing to live and find meaning even in the face of unimaginable grief.
2015 was also the year I caved in and read Elena Ferrante. Her novels had been recommended to me so many times — by so many people — I was sure they couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But the first page of My Brilliant Friend sucked me in, just like everyone said it would. How is it possible that a novel about two girls living in mid-20th-century Naples can be so relevant to lives in the 21st century — especially the lives of women? I’ve never read novels like this and am so glad they exist. Don’t be put off by the list of characters at the beginning; just dive in and let the voice carry you. And when you hit that gut-punch of a last line, be prepared to run out and get the next book.
I don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Alyssa Harad’s memoir Coming to My Senses — it’s been out for a few years and is squarely in my wheelhouse, as I’m fascinated by scent — but once I did, this fall, I sank into it like a warm bubble bath. Harad tells the story of her growing obsession with perfume, in luscious language that will have you shivering with delight. I mean: “Bal à Versaille eau de parfum is famously rich and dirty: huge, overblown roses and rotting cherries smoked with incense and mellow, rotting manure. The eau de cologne is just plain dirty and is best worn by very wicked old women.” How can you not want to keep reading after that?
Finally, last year I read Heap House, the first book in Edward Carey’s middle-grade/YA Iremonger Trilogy; this year, the last two volumes (Foulsham and Lungdon) came out. The best description I have is if Edward Gorey and Joan Aiken collaborated on a novel, which I mean as high praise: it’s weird and wonderful and thought-provoking and just plain fun. Clod — not a typo, there — is a scion of the Iremonger family, who live in a garbage-filled wasteland called the Heaps, outside an alternate Victorian London. Every Iremonger is given an object at birth, from which they must never part — but Clod can hear something the others can’t: each object has a name, which it repeats over and over. Add a spunky housemaid heroine named Lucy Pennant, a mysterious disease that turns people into objects (and vice versa), and Carey’s own evocative black-and-white drawings, and if you aren’t intrigued enough to run out and treat yourself to this series, please check for your pulse.
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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