The book that has left the greatest impression on me in 2010 is not, surprisingly, a novel. It’s Tony Judt’s heartbreaking collection, The Memory Chalet. Judt died, far too young, in August from ALS. Imprisoned in a failing body, his mind turned to memories of his youth in Europe, and he wrote a series of unbearably moving essays, the majority of which were published in The New York Review of Books during the last months of his life. Judt poignantly bids farewell not just to his own life, but to a way of life that leaves us all markedly poorer for its loss. An impassioned, independent, alert thinker full of healthy skepticism and wry humor, Judt was the result of particular kind of European education, and we are unlikely to see the likes of him again. Other memorable books this year: Saul Bellow’s Letters is everything you have heard and more, an essential text for any writer, aspiring or published. I was directed to James Salter’s A Sport and A Pastime, a marvelous, haunting rendering of an erotic affair in France (sex, Paris, what’s not to like?), and now I am feverishly reading all the Salter I can get my hands on. And I returned to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer this year as the core text for my UCLA novel students, and was amazed at how much I’d missed when I’d first read it years ago. It’s very much a novel of ideas, and it works brilliantly, distilled through the unforgettable voice of Binx Bolling. 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
Quite a few books took my head off in 2009 and, as always, The Millions' brief is a tough one to fulfill. I've spent much of the year extolling the virtues of Rob Riemen's slender polemic, Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal, which makes a moving plea for good old fashioned high idealism. The year also brought magnificent new works from my two favorite novelists, John Banville and J.M. Coetzee - The Infinities and Summertime, respectively. But I suspect The Millions' well-read audience doesn't need me to direct them to either of these remarkable authors. And so the book that came out of nowhere and captured my imagination is Eric Karpeles' lovely Paintings in Proust, in which he goes through the entire Proust cycle and reproduces every painting mentioned (or a reasonable substitute when specifics are lacking), marrying the image to the text from the books themselves. I've gotten hours upon hours of pleasure returning to this beautifully illustrated, intelligently annotated volume. Sadly, the 2008 book is already out of print and when copies turn up they can be quite expensive - but keep your eye on the used book sites for this gem, bargains can be found. It's a book I can't wait to pass on to my daughter when she's old enough to appreciate it. Update: Well, it appears I have been happily premature in declaring Paintings in Proust unavailable. As the author notes in the comments below, " ... Paintings in Proust is NOT out of print, but currently in its third printing. There was a disastrously long hiatus of months between the first printing's selling out so quickly and the appearance of the second printing. Now Paintings in Proust should be available at booksellers everywhere as well as online." Clearly, I became aware of that book during the noted interregnum, and now the friends on my holiday gift list will be the beneficiary of Karpeles' timely notice. More from A Year in Reading
Mark Sarvas's debut novel Harry, Revised, compared by the Chicago Tribune to Updike and Roth, has been sold in more than a dozen countries. He is also the host of internationally renowned litblog The Elegant Variation, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His criticism has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, the Dallas Morning News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, The Threepenny Review and elsewhere.Well, my favorite book of this year - of quite a few years - is Joseph O'Neill's magisterial Netherland but it's been deservedly praised everywhere, so I will save my word count for a less well-publicized book. And a non-fiction title, to boot. Rob Riemen's Nobility of Spirit: A Forgotten Ideal was my surprise of 2008, a slender but dense cri de coeur from Yale University Press. It hit my radar around the same time that Sarah Palin hit ours, and I could think of no more stirring rebuttal to the proud ignorance she represents than Riemen's heartfelt pitch for the grand old values of Western Civ. The author, founder of the Nexus Institute, a European humanist think-tank, populates his crash course in the great thinkers with the likes of Socrates and Thomas Mann, and I can think of no better book for the President-elect's bedside table. Nobility of Spirit argues (among other things) that the pursuit of High Thought will always - must always - trump the pursuit of Fleeting Gain. (And as we move uncertainly through a historic meltdown of our financial infrastructure, we see just how fleeting it can be.) In the end, Riemen argues, high ideals (embodied by art) are as essential as food and shelter. The examined self never seemed so timely. (And, as a bonus title, I finally got around to Ed Hirsch's glorious How To Read a Poem and Fall In Love with Poetry, a book that makes me want to grab my Norton anthology and read every poem out loud. To be passionate about literature is unfashionable in too many quarters these days; Hirsch is an essential corrective.)More from A Year in Reading 2008
Mark Sarvas is the host of literary blog The Elegant Variation and author of Harry, Revised, to be published by Bloomsbury in May 2008.I suspect there might be something inherently unfair in asking about best books any year that J.M. Coetzee has a new novel out. He is truly sui generis and seems to operate at a level that the rest of us can only sort of admire from afar. After the interesting misstep that was Slow Man, he's returned with the extraordinary Diary of a Bad Year. The book consists of three narratives that share each page: At the top of the page are, in a nod to Nabokov, the protagonist's "Strong Opinions" - essays on subjects ranging from political life in Australia to al-Qaida. In the second thread, the protagonist "JC", who bears a striking resemblance to the author, describes his obsession with his beautiful young amanuensis. And the third voice tells that same story from her point of view. The result is an alternating comic and tragic aria for three voices that asks questions no less fundamental than what is it we require of our writers and novels? A painter friend once told me that any serious painter needed to contend with Picasso and Pollock. Anyone who cares for literature must do the same with J.M. Coetzee.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Mark Sarvas, proprietor of The Elegant Variation, takes some time to share the books he read in 2006 that he found, shall we say, most to his liking. First off, the more I think about it, the less I care for the whole "Best of" formulation. It offends me on a number of levels, not the least of which is by the assumption that one has read enough of what's on offer in a year to be able to decide what's "Best". (And this is no knock on this inestimable blog; rather, it's a systemic crankiness that's afflicting me this year.) So I'm going to come instead from the perspective of "My Favorites of the Year," which seems more inherently more defensible. (And, in an open note to newspaper editors everywhere, why not opt for the more modest construction "Editor's Choice" or "Editor's Favorite"? It seems preferable to the untenably pompous "Best of" declarations that have becomede rigeur.)OK. End of my mini-rant. A list, in alphabetical order, of books thatstruck me as being of particular note in 2006:Amphigorey Again by Edward Gorey: What will probably be the last collection from a master.Black Swan Green: David Mitchell proves he can do "human" as well as "clever" with a breakthrough novel.Christine Falls: It will only be available in the US next year, but John Banville's first thriller as Benjamin Black is drawing deserved praise forits UK release.Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio: The best short story collection we've read in years. Breathtaking.The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas: Flawed but exuberant, it's a Foucault's Pendulum for the iPod generation.Everything that Rises: Lawrence Weschler's brilliant John Berger-esque collection of essays on unlikely visual convergences.Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: The graphic novel that finally won me over to the form.The Lost: Daniel Mendelsohn's brilliantly written memoir answers those who ask if there's anything left to write about the Holocaust.The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier, translated by Lorin Stein: A delicious Gallic treat, depicting the party from hell and explaining what every man should know about turtleneck sweaters.Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris: OK, this one is a cheat - it's not out until March of next year but this hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change my mind about MFAs.Ticknor by Sheila Heti: If there's a favorite of the year, this bitter comedy of envy and failure would be the one.Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon: It's not from this year but I only just caught up with it and can see what the fuss was about.Thanks Mark!