All three of these books, from the past year, are similar only in that each wrestles with daily existence in ways that have startled me, made me rethink everything I had done up to that moment, and made me reevaluate how I want to move forward. Reading each of these books is an active, rather than a passive, experience. In each I have found moments—several moments—where something I’ve never seen conjured in language before somehow rises up, before my eyes. How each writer—a poet turned essayist (Biss), a poet channeling Ginsberg with long, rangy meditations (Zucker), and a novelist arriving at his first memoir (Elliott)—arrived at these moments is both mysterious and seemingly simple—each picked up a thread of thought (racism, motherhood, murder), an image (telephone poles, zapruder films, adderall), and followed them, or, rather, allowed themselves to be led, into an unknown place. Each of these books is thrilling, in their plainspokeness and in their brilliance.
One favorite book I’ve read all year? Impossible. But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010. This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances. These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts. Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year. I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing. My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.” Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways. Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men. Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.) With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis. The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically. Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year. This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child. I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience. What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages. McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking. There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia. I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son. It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories. And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them. Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy. Who hasn’t been unmoored? Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning. It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss. Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011… More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 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
Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, and is a contributor to The Millions....And what a year it was: the manic highs, the crushing lows and no creamy middle to hold them together. In this way, my reading life and my other life seemed to mirror each other in 2007, as I suppose they do every year. As a reader, I try not to pick up a book unless there's a good chance I'm going to like it, but as an aspiring critic, I felt obliged to slog through a number of bad novels. And so my reading list for 2007 lacked balance. It's easy to draw a line between the wheat and the chaff, but harder to say which of the two dozen or so books I loved were my favorites, so grateful was I for their mere existence.If pressed, I would have to say that my absolute greatest reading experience of the year was Howard's End by E.M. Forster. Zadie Smith inspired me to read this book, and I can't believe I waited this long. Forster's style seems to me the perfect expression of democratic freedom. It allows "the passion" and "the prose" equal representation on the page, and seeks the common ground between them. Forster's ironies, in writing about the Schlegel family, are of the warmest variety. I wish I could write like him.A close runner-up was Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives. It's been years since I reacted this viscerally to a novel, as you'll see if you read my review.Rounding out my top three was Helen De Witt's first novel, The Last Samurai. Published in 2000 and then more or less forgotten about, The Last Samurai introduced me to one of my favorite characters of the year, a child prodigy named Ludo. Ludo's gifts are ethical as much as they are intellectual, and I loved De Witt's rigorous adherence to her own peculiar instincts; her refusal to craft a "shapely" novel in the M.F.A. style.Other favorite classics included Balzac's Lost Illusions and Fielding's Tom Jones - each the expression of a sui generis authorial temperament - and Anne Carson's odd and arresting translation of the fragmentary lyrics of Sappho. Every year, I try to read at least one long, modernist novel from my beloved Wiemar period; in 2007, Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers reminded me why. And from the American canon, I was smitten with Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (essay) and Joseph Heller's Something Happened (review).Three books by short-story writers whom I'd nominate for inclusion in the American canon: Excitability: Selected Stories by Diane Williams, Sylvia by Leonard Michaels (review), and Transactions in a Foreign Currency by Deborah Eisenberg, one of my favorite contemporary writers.Of the many (too many) new English-language novels I read, the best were Tom McCarthy's stunningly original Remainder, Mark Binelli's thoroughly entertaining Sacco & Vanzetti Must Die, Thomas Pynchon's stunningly original, thoroughly entertaining, but unfocused Against the Day (review), Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (review), and Don DeLillo's Falling Man. This last book seemed to me unfairly written off upon its release. I taught an excerpt from it to undergraduates, and for me, DeLillo's defamiliarized account of September 11 and its aftermath deepened with each rereading.The best book of journalism I read this year was Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower (review). And my two favorite new translations were Gregoire Brouillier's memoir, The Mystery Guest (review), and Tatyana Tolstaya's novel, The Slynx (review).Thanks for reading, everybody. See you in '08!More from A Year in Reading 2007
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Tim W. Brown is the author of three novels; his latest, Walking Man, was published in April 2008 by Bronx River Press. He serves on the board of the New York Center for Independent Publishing, and he regularly reviews small-press books as a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His next novel is American Renaissance, due in 2010 from Gival Press.I have pretty circumscribed habits when it comes to reading, which generally consist of (1) reading books as part of research for my writing projects and (2) reading books I've been assigned to review. 2008 was a typical year for me.My current writing project is a novel set in the 1930s, and I've spent about two years thus far reading background material for the book. That's not to say the books I've read don't have contemporary relevance. Given the current economic climate, two histories I've read are eerily prescient. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression by Amity Shlaes focuses on FDR's experiments to turn the economy around during the Great Depression. She argues that his administration's policies hurt as well as helped the cause. Her discussions of the freezing of capital markets and deflation, two terms we read in the newspapers today, explain what potential dangers loom ahead of us. American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA by Nick Taylor traces the history of FDR's extremely ambitious Works Progress Administration, which put millions of unemployed Americans to work. Harry Hopkins, WPA's head, is the book's hero; an incredibly bright and scrupulously honest man, he worked harder than anyone to keep workers from all walks of life afloat during the nation's worst economic downturn. Incoming president Barack Obama, who has announced economic stimulus measures of his own, could learn much from Hopkins' example.Two notable poetry collections I read for review purposes in 2008 were the National Book Award-nominated Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith and Annoying Diabetic Bitch by Sharon Mesmer. Smith's book is a highly moving account of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it visited upon New Orleans in 2005. Her book is truly heart-wrenching when describing the plight of the storm's many African-American victims, capturing in dialect their faith in a doubtful deliverance. Blood Dazzler tells a supremely tragic story, but a powerful one, too, affirming that human will and the language expressing it are equal to the worst havoc that Nature can wreak. Mesmer's book owes its genesis to "flarf" methodology, wherein outrageous and/or inappropriate terms are entered into the Google search engine and poems are composed from the results. In less-practiced hands than Mesmer's, flarf-derived poems could easily lapse into nonsense. The particular genius of this book lies in how Mesmer draws on the universal Id that is the Internet and creates poems with strong speakers baring their deepest thoughts and desires. Her book is lewd, crude, politically incorrect - and hilarious.More from A Year in Reading 2008