A Year in Reading: Dan Kois

December 3, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 3

My year in books was, uh, bookended by two very different volumes — one that I devoured on New Year’s Day, and one that I polished off yesterday. It’s hard to imagine two books with less in common, but I found them both transporting.

coverStan Sakai’s comics epic Usagi Yojimbo is more than a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan. It’s a carefully researched samurai saga set in Edo-era Japan starring a rabbit with his ears tied in a topknot. Sakai’s been writing and drawing these clever, sweeping tales for more than 25 years, and the two-volume Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition collects the first decade of Usagi’s story. For someone like me who had somehow never gotten around to reading Sakai, the collection is eye-opening: Sakai is a fluid, thoughtful adventure writer, and his artwork is sharp-edged and impeccably balanced, like the honorable warrior it depicts.

coverTrain Dreams, Denis Johnson’s slim story first published in the Paris Review, is but 116 pages, but in its way it’s as sweeping a tale as Usagi’s. By capturing the life of Robert Grainier, a railroad worker in the early 20th-century Pacific Northwest, Johnson also paints a picture of the last pre-modern world in America, a place of wildfires and wolves, Model Ts and silent movies, lives lived alone and families lost forever. It’s a small masterpiece, funny and sad, and though I read it in under an hour I feel it might stay with me forever.

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is a writer and editor at Slate. His novel Vintage Contemporaries will be published by Harper January 2023. He's the author of How to Be a Family, Facing Future, and (with Isaac Butler) The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of "Angels in America." He lives in Arlington, Virginia with his family. His website is www.dankois.com.


  1. I read Train Dreams in one big quick gulp and could not recommend it more highly. I’ve got Tree of Smoke on my to-be-read shelf, but maybe I’ll get Jesus’s Son and read it as my next work by Johnson.

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