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.
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and three books of short stories, the most recent of which, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. (A version of this recommendation appeared in Esquire.)2007-2008 was announced to be the International Polar Year, or something like that, and we might as well have done what we could to celebrate, given that, as Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in her introduction to The Ends of the Earth (Volume 1: The Arctic) the polar regions are being wiped off the planet, and given that when they go, they're going to take our status quo with them. Volume 2 is The Antarctic, edited by Francis Spufford, and together they're a very cool anthology, top-heavy on just that combination I love: misery and awe. The whole thing ended up leaving me open-mouthed with its jaw-dropping early explorers' accounts of otherworldly spectacle and suffering. What's not to like in a collection that includes Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, H.P. Lovecraft, Andrea Barrett, Barry Lopez, and Tete-Michel Kpomassie?More from A Year in Reading 2008
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This time of year there is a media stampede for lists. They are seemingly suddenly everywhere, sprouting like an odd breed of December weed. In a competition to write the first draft of our cultural history, all of our "bests" are assigned, duly praised once more, and then archived as the slate is cleared for another year. That fresh feeling you get on January 1, that is the false notion that you no longer have to think about all those things that happened a year ago, that you can start building your new lists for the new year.But books, unlike most forms of media, are consumed in a different way. The tyranny of the new does not hold as much sway with these oldest of old media. New books are not forced upon us quite so strenuously as are new music and new movies. The reading choices available to us are almost too broad to fathom. And so we pick here and there from the shelves, reading a book from centuries ago and then one that came out ten years ago. The "10 Best Books of 2007" seems so small next to that.But with so many millions of books to choose from, where can we go to find what to read?If somebody hasn't already coined this phrase, I'll go ahead and take credit for it: A lucky reader is one surrounded by many other readers. And what better way to end a long year than to sit (virtually) with a few dozen trusted fellow readers to hear about the very best book (or books) they read all year, regardless of publication date.And so we at The Millions are very pleased to bring you our 2007 Year in Reading, in which we offer just that. For the month of December, enjoy hearing about what a number of notable readers read (and loved) this year. We hope you've all had a great Year in Reading and that 2008 will offer more of the same.The 2007 Year in Reading contributors are listed below. As we post their contributions, their names will turn into links, so you can bookmark this page to follow the series from here, or you can just load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day. Stay tuned because additional names may be added to the list below.Languagehat of LanguagehatSarah Weinman of Confessions of an Idiosyncratic MindJoshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the EndBen Ehrenreich, author of The SuitorsLydia Millet, author of Oh Pure and Radiant HeartArthur Phillips, author of Prague and The EgyptologistPorochista Khakpour author of Sons and Other Flammable ObjectsHamilton Leithauser, lead singer of The WalkmenMatthew Sharpe, author of JamestownAmanda Eyre Ward, author of Forgive Me and How to be LostLauren Groff, author of The Monsters of TempletonJoshua Henkin, author of MatrimonyBuzz Poole, managing editor at Mark Batty PublisherBen Dolnick, author of ZoologyElizabeth Crane, author of When the Messenger Is Hot and All This Heavenly GloryMeghan O'Rourke, author of Halflife, literary editor SlateAndrew Saikali of The MillionsEdan Lepucki of The MillionsDavid Gutowski of largehearted boyMark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, author of Harry, RevisedCarolyn Kellogg of Pinky's PaperhausPeter Ho Davies, author of The Welsh GirlZachary Lazar, author of SwayMatt Ruff, author of Bad MonkeysAlex Rose, author of The Musical IllusionistJames Hynes, author of The Lecturer's Tale and Kings of Infinite SpaceMartha Southgate, author of Third Girl From The LeftJunot Díaz, author of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoRudolph Delson, author of Maynard and JennicaRosecrans Baldwin, founding editor of The Morning NewsBonny Wolf author of Talking With My Mouth Full and NPR correspondentBret Anthony Johnston, author of Corpus ChristiJoshilyn Jackson, author of Gods in Alabama and Between, GeorgiaElif Batuman, n+1 and New Yorker contributorRichard Lange, author of Dead BoysSara Ivry, editor at NextbookScott Esposito of Conversational ReadingEd Champion of Return of the ReluctantDavid Leavitt, author of The Indian ClerkRoy Kesey, author of All OverLiz Moore, author of The Words of Every SongYannick Murphy, author of Signed, Mata Hari and Here They ComeSam Sacks, editor at Open LettersTed Heller, author of Slab RatBookdwarf of BookdwarfJess Row, author of The Train to Lo WuMarshall N. Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and TyrantsBrian Morton author of Breakable YouEli Gottlieb, author of Now You See HimDan Kois, editor of Vulture, New York magazine's arts and culture blog.Robert Englund, actorGarth Risk Hallberg, A Field Guide to the North American Family: An Illustrated Novella, contributor to The Millions
I’m a huge Charlie Rose fan. I DVR his show and watch it in the evenings while I eat chocolate pudding. I love Rose’s interview style -- engaged but relaxed; the hint of North Carolina accent, and the fact that when the camera pans back too far, I can see his New Balance sneakers. There’s something about that dark set that comforts me. No fake skyline, no news crawl along the bottom of the screen. Just a black backdrop and two glasses of water on the big oak table. Last March, Rose interviewed author David Payne, whose new memoir, Barfoot to Avalon, had just been released. I’d never heard of David Payne. But I leaned forward when Rose mentioned that David Payne was known for his long, meandering sentences. I love a lyrical, beautifully crafted sentence that takes me on a journey, and by the time Payne finished reading the opening pages of chapter one, the scene where he and his younger brother pack up Payne’s Vermont house and load the last of his possessions into the rented U-Haul so Payne can drive to North Carolina to salvage his marriage, I’d set down my chocolate pudding and found the book on Amazon. They were out of stock. The next morning, I headed to my local bookstore to see if they had any copies. No luck, the clerk said. They’d sold out. He offered to order a copy, but it was backordered from the publisher and wouldn’t be in for a week. I had to have that book. So, I downloaded the audio version and listened for the entire six-hour drive to Los Angeles the next day and for the entire six-hour drive back. I didn’t stop food. I didn’t stop to pee. I just stared through the windshield and gripped the steering wheel, carried along the twisting path of Payne’s wrenching narrative of alcoholism and generations of family dysfunction. Payne is indeed the master of the long sentence, but also of the extended metaphor, time and space. By the time I got back to San Francisco, my dashboard light was blinking. I had less than a mile’s worth of gas left in my tank. When my hard cover arrived, I sat down with a cup of tea and started at page one. I already knew the story, but now I needed to absorb it. That’s how good this book is. I’m a sucker for Annie Proulx. Have been since The Shipping News. I once trekked downtown through a thunderstorm to hear her speak, and couldn’t stop my hand from quivering when I asked her to sign my book. Her latest novel, Barkskins, is a masterpiece, but hasn’t, in my opinion, received the attention it deserves. Weighing in at a whopping 713 pages, it’s a delicious doorstop of a historical novel, perfect for long winter nights. Spanning 300 years, it chronicles the lives of two penniless Frenchman, who arrive in 17th-century Canada, known then as New France, and their descendants, and their travels across North America, Europe, China, and New Zealand. Like Proulx, I’m a huge believer in bond between character and place. Place is character and character is place. The two go hand in hand. The first paragraph of Barkskins reads, “In the twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kebec and Trois-Rivieres and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement...Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur...Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impressions of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimitable wilderness.” What else do you need to know? I spent a lot of 2016 feeling outraged. Too many black bodies killed. Too much intolerance and fear, too many acquittals, too little justice. Three books helped me maintain my sanity as I struggled to make sense of these strange and discouraging times. First up, Robin Coste Lewis’s award-winning book of poetry Voyage of the Sable Venus. Readers should be prepared to be crushed by the sheer accumulation of images of the black female figure as Lewis chronicles their appearance in centuries of Western art. Slowly, the narrative takes shape and we’re left to both ponder what it means to be a black and female, celebrated and objectified. Next, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book of such brutality and clarity that when I finished, for 20 minutes, all I could do was stare out the window. Whitehead draws chilling parallels between the antebellum South and modern American life as he chronicles Cora’s escape from her Georgia plantation to the north. No surprise it won the National Book Award. When I finished Underground Railroad, I picked up Ben H. Winters’s Underground Airlines. Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Where Whitehead examines slavery from a historical vantage point, Winters imagines how slavery might work today. The novel’s conceit is that the Civil War was never fought. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated before he could take office and slavery has been contained to four Southern states known as “The Hard Four,” Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and a unified Carolina. No spoilers here. All I’ll say is read the first chapter and see how you feel. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
Joseph Boyden. If you are an American, this may be the first time you have heard this Canadian writer’s name. It will almost certainly not be the last. Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, published his third novel The Orenda in Canada in September, and it has been a runaway bestseller here ever since. For reasons known only to his American publisher, the book will not come out until May in the U.S., but we live in a wired world so you can simply order the book from Amazon.ca or Amazon.uk, where the book became available in November. The Orenda -- the title refers to the Indian word for “soul” or “life force” -- uses fiction to retell the foundation myth of Canada, and, by extension, all of North America, putting Native people back at the center of the story where they belong. The novel, set in the mid-1600s during the French conquest of what is now Ontario, Canada, is told by three rotating narrators: a proud and violent Huron warrior named Bird, a young Iroquois girl named Snow Falls whom Bird adopts as his own after slaughtering her family, and a devout French Jesuit priest named Christophe who is based on the historical figure St. Jean de Brebéuf. I have written about The Orenda before for The Millions, and I will almost certainly do so again when the book has its American release in May. I apologize in advance for repeating myself, but in a literary culture beset by endless hype, logrolling, and backscratching, it is rare to find the genuine article: a truly necessary book. The Orenda sheds new light on the dark crime at the heart of all North American history, but more important than that, it renders the ostensible victims of that crime, the Indians, as complex, fully realized human beings. Every day while I was reading an advance copy of The Orenda this summer, I drove past a billboard advertising The Lone Ranger, which showed Johnny Depp in war paint with a dead crow inexplicably plopped on top of his head. That’s why Boyden’s work is necessary. We all know Depp’s Tonto is a travesty, and the movie justifiably tanked at the box office, but we don’t as a culture seem to know what to put in the place of that war-whooping savage that filled the screen of the million-and-one Westerns we all watched on TV as kids. In The Orenda, Joseph Boyden is quietly, brilliantly showing us the way. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 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, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
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