Among the people I asked to contribute to this year’s “Year in Reading,” are readers that I admire. Garth reads a great deal more than me and can digest the voluminous input impressively (just wish he’d start blogging again!). He’s also the guy responsible for the great Lawrence Weschler reading list I posted early this year. Some of his reading this year comes from that list:Top 3 Books I Read This Year:Tony Kushner – Angels in America: The Great American Drama? Kushner moves forward the form of the theater, but that’s only what lures you in. What keeps you is that no living writer engages more fully with his characters. The Mike Nichols directed miniseries isn’t bad, either.Joseph Mitchell: Up in the Old Hotel: An unparalleled raconteur. All of his New Yorker writings are compiled in this omnibus. His style lucid, compassionate, modest, wry, and charged with the wonder of being alive.Zadie Smith – On Beauty: As many have pointed out, flawed. But she rivals Kushner in her degree of empathy for her characters while, like him, never letting them off the hook.The Best of the Rest (of Stuff I Read This Year)Walter Benjamin – Illuminations: The most sensitive and elliptical and sad of 20th century philosophers. One of Benjamin’s ideas is worth a thousand of someone else’s arguments.Gertrude Stein – Alice B. Toklas: Who knew I’d like Gertrude Stein? Don’t believe the hype – read this book.Norman Mailer – The Executioner’s Song: Again, who knew? In Cold Blood on amphetamines, this is a chilling, gripping, and strangely humble work. The second half opens up to depict the media machinery of which this book is brilliant!Patrik Ourednik – Europeana: Behind a sui generis form, itself worth the price of admission, lurks a quiet anguish at the depredations of the 20th Century.E.L. Doctorow – Ragtime: All it’s said to be, and a great read to boot.Benjamin Barber – Jihad vs. McWorld: A lucid articulation of all the things you’ve ever suspected about late-capitalist globalism and factionalism but weren’t sure how to say.Jonathan Lethem – The Disappointment Artist: The most complete thing Lethem has published. Not an enduring classic, but a totally charming read.3 DisappointmentsRick Moody – The Diviners: Bummer, man. This book has so much potential – and is definitely worth reading – but needed an editor who could say, in the end, “Something more has to happen!” Concludes not with a bang but with a whimper. But has HBO optioned the TV rights to “Werewolves of Fairfield County?”Charles Chadwick – It’s All Right Now: Here, the whimper sets in after a completely fantastic first 180 pages – and continues for 400 more. You had me at hello, Chuck, and could have stopped after Part I. Again, where’s the editor?Bret Easton Ellis – Lunar Park: Underrated, my ass. This book is terrible. Everything after the introduction is embarrassing. I don’t know that an editor could have saved it, or why I read it. Avoid at all costs.
For Sayonara, Gangsters by Genichiro Takahashi: “Sayonara, Gangsters is one of those rare books that actually defies description… It’s funny, sure. And beautiful. And slightly insane. And haunting. And heart-breaking. But all those words miss the point. The point is you have to read it. So read it.”For The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Le Thi Diem Thuy: “A beautiful, deeply moving story of a family. The more I read, the more I felt the family was mine.”For It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick: “This novel is huge — in size, ambition, intelligence, and heart.”For The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done by Sandra Newman: “Sandra Newman has an original way of thinking. The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done is often hysterically funny, profoundly strange, and unbearably beautiful. Often all at once.”For My Life with Corpses by Wylene Dunbar: “My Life with Corpses is overwhelming: in its beauty, emotional force, and uniqueness. While I finished the book a few weeks ago already, I have the strange feeling that I’m still reading it — it’s that resonant.”For Please Don’t Kill the Freshman by Zoe Trope: “I am in awe of Zoe Trope. This book is more than the kind of good story we’ve become satisfied with. It’s more than interesting. It’s art.”For The Know-It-All by A.J. Jacobs: “The Know-It-All is funny, original, and strangely heroic. I found myself rooting on Jacobs’s quixotic, totally endearing quest.”For The Noodle Maker by Ma Jian: “The Noodle Maker is hugely entertaining and deeply serious. It’s something to celebrate.”
Philip Caputo’s new book Acts of Faith is being favorably compared to The Quiet American. Caputo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has traveled extensively in Africa, and this new novel is set in Sudan. According to PW, Caputo “presents a sharply observed, sweeping portrait, capturing the incestuous world of the aid groups, Sudan’s multiethnic mix and the decayed milieu of Kenyan society.” Though the novel has a timely, flashy, “ripped from the headlines” sound to it, Kakutani called it “devastating” before comparing it to the work of Robert Stone, V.S. Naipaul and Joan Didion. Scott noted Kakutani’s “heady praise” a couple of weeks ago. And here’s an excerpt from the book (which weighs in at 688 pages, by the way. Whoa!)Charles Chadwick wrote recently about being a first time novelist at the age of 72 (scroll down): “A first novel of 300,000 words by a 72-year-old sounds like someone trying to be funny. Acceptance by Faber and then by Harper Collins in the US – the recognition that all along one had been some good at it – took a lot of getting used to. Still does.” The book, It’s All Right Now, which also weighs in at 688 pages, oddly enough (not exactly light Summer reading, these books), was panned by Nick Greenslade in The Guardian. Greenslade suggests that its publishers were more enamored by the idea of a 72-year-old debut novelist than by the book itself. I’m curious to see what US reviewers say because the book doesn’t sound all that bad to me.As I recall, Jonathan Coe’s 2002 novel, The Rotters’ Club, was well-received by my coworkers and customers at the bookstore. A sequel, The Closed Circle, comes out soon. Here’s a positive review from The Independent and an excerpt. These are good times for Coe. His recently released biography of British writer B.S. Johnson, Like a Fiery Elephant has been shortlisted for the $56,000 Samuel Johnson Prize.