Hugo Hamilton is the author of the New York Times notable memoir The Speckled People and its sequel The Harbor Boys. His most recent book is the novel Disguise. He has been awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, France’s Prix Femina Etranger, and Italy’s Giuseppe Berto Prize. He lives in Dublin.It’s always fascinated me how history is used in order to accommodate the present. For years we heard the maoning in Ireland about Eamon De Valera – freedom fighter, treaty-opponent, head of state in the fledgling Irish state whose vision of the Irish future was derided for so many years after his death as a home-spun mess. At last, we have a biography of the man which gives a deeper understanding of his character and his time. Judging DEV by Diarmuid Ferriter examines history from a new perspective, with a touch of sociological instinct at the core of his thinking.The Shores of Connemara by Seamas Mac an Iomaire (translated by Padraic de Bhaldraithe) Imagine Darwin arriving on the shores of Connemara. This small account of a local fisherman off the coast of Connemara, places us back in time almost a hundred years to a vision of the sea and the land in an innocent state. It is seen not by a professional marine biologist or botanist, but a local expert who observes everything he sees with great curiosity. In his descriptions of sandhoppers, for instance, and why they hop on a fine evening, is always a mixture of scientific enquiry, folklore, religion and childish delight. His book, above all, reduces the pace of change and gathers up all the qualities of time, the absence of hurry, in the landscape of the west of Ireland.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Stoner, by John Williams, is not only the best novel I read this year, but it’s among the best I’ve ever read. It is also, I think, the sort of book that people aren’t writing right now. It’s a life, from the moment when its protagonist Bill Stoner really comes alive in a sophomore English class at the University of Missouri through his career as a professor of English there. About halfway through the novel is one of the best scenes I’ve ever encountered in a book. I don’t want to describe it too much here, as discovering it is one of the pleasures of the book, but I think they should teach it in writing classes everywhere, as it really is a perfect scene. In fact, Stoner is a perfect novel.
My requirements for non-fiction are pretty high: I want the book to challenge my worldview, or my view of something, at least. Few books have done that as thoroughly and marvelously as Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. A book about “organizing without organizations,” HCE (literary types will catch the reference to Finnegan’s Wake) chronicles the changes taking place across media, politics and social interactions as a result of the internet. From protest movements to software engineering to newspaper reporting, Shirky shows how much things have changed in the last ten years, and more importantly, why. The book is so smart and so successful because, at its heart, it’s a work of sociology rather than a book about technology. As Shirky states, “Technology doesn’t get sociologically interesting until it becomes technologically boring.” Here is a book that made me rethink many aspects of how I do my job and also about how the some of the things I value in this world — good books, for instance — might be produced in the future.
(As an addendum, 2009 marks the first year that I read an ebook. I read Here Comes Everybody entirely on my iPhone. My suspicion is that I’m not alone in venturing into the ereading frontier for the first time.)
I read Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations back in January, during a harsh winter I spent in the suburbs of Boston. I had just started drafting the first attempts at a story collection of my own, about displacement and being a stranger in one’s own home. It’s no surprise, then, that I’d been searching for the stories I wish I’d written, stories in which characters wonder: where did my life, my memories, my language, and home go?
My journey has inevitably colored my reading of Galchen’s text. In the strongest story in the collection, “Sticker Shock,” a mother and daughter grow apart. The mother, a real estate agent, wishes she could live in the well-lit apartment she’s selling to a Swedish client. Eventually, the client doesn’t buy the spacious studio with its tall windows and smooth floors, because it doesn’t feel “homey.” New York “is a city of compromises.” The implication is that if he doesn’t like the best place she could find in the city, he might never be satisfied anywhere. The final story, “Once an Empire,” finds a Brooklyn woman watching the contents of her apartment walk down the fire escape. These are characters who look for comfort in family and friends, living spaces, familiar objects from childhood, but, in the end, they find no answers — home is nowhere to be found.
In the title story, the narrator wakes up one day to find that her body has changed: now she has a third boob on her back. Her doctor considers what might have triggered her condition. He asks her, any “losses you haven’t accepted?” And the patient answers, “Not really. I mean, I’m far from home. But I guess we’re all far, right?” Right. The voices that narrate this collection are strong and, at times, distant. American Innovations begs the question of the limits of our bodies and the spaces they occupy.
I also admired Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas, which I read a couple of weeks ago during my commute to and from work. I was struck by the tenderness of these stories set against the unforgiving landscapes of New Mexico. “Nemecia” (which was eventually chosen for The Best American Short Stories 2013) is Valdez Quade’s tour de force, a vivid piece about family ties and community.
Of course I read many other books that are worthy of mention. These included Ferreira Gullar’s 60-page poem on exile, Dirty Poem (which I reviewed for another publication), Michael Dumanis’s My Soviet Union, a devastating poetry collection about a country that no longer exists, as well as Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, a book that deconstructs language and exposes its violence.
As for works of nonfiction, I fell in love with Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks, an essay collection I’ve already read twice this year. Luiselli explores urban spaces, melancholy, and the very concept of home. “Perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave,” she writes. “All the other places we inhabit are mere gray spectrum of that first dwelling.”
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