Best (and worst) books
And what we're looking forward to in 2010.
Fri Dec 18 2009
Michael Miller, Books editor
1. The Adderall Diaries, by Stephen Elliott (Graywolf)
Blending memoir and true-crime reportage, Elliott’s first book of nonfiction digs into depression, a fraught father-son relationship, a high-profile Bay Area murder case and the thorny complexities of storytelling itself. It should be a total mess, but the author, with a nod to Joan Didion, weaves his disparate subjects into an emotionally intense and fiercely intelligent work of art.
2. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?, by Padgett Powell (Ecco)
Reading like a personality test gone awry, this pleasingly eccentric book is composed entirely of questions, each one formulated with cockeyed brilliance. The specific queries themselves are by turns laugh-out-loud funny and provocatively mysterious (question: Who’s asking the questions?). What’s more, Powell’s transitional jolts and sense of rhythm will be a delight for anyone interested in the possibilities of American prose.
3. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)
Dyer’s latest fiction pairs two stories: One is a satire in which British journalist Jeff tours the opulent parties of the Venice Biennale and has his heart broken; in the other, an unnamed narrator (Jeff?) gives an account of his gradual self-erasure in India. Each story stands on its own. Taken together, they create an echo chamber complete with musical sentences, moments of dj vu, and riffs on photography, reincarnation and waterfront cities.
4. Don’t Cry, by Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon)
In her third story collection, Gaitskill delivers sharply defined visions of everyday lives that hum with mysterious subconscious feedback. Characters rant, imagine how sex might undo a serial killer and have their souls stolen by one-night stands. But the further Gaitskill plunges into chaotic psyches, the more her prose crystallizes into sentences of pitch-perfect description.
5. Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
Marketed as his “autobiographical novel,” Sag Harbor might draw on the author’s teen memories of summer in a mostly African-American community on Long Island, but it feels just as inventive as his books The Intuitionist and John Henry Days. Whitehead’s descriptions of postadolescent friendships, summer jobs and mid-’80s music are a delight, and his storytelling is dryly hilarious and consistently wise.
6. Versed, by Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan)
At once elliptical and precise, philosophical and funny, Armantrout’s latest poetry collection offers up artfully fragmented meditations on pop culture, dark matter, the nature of time and illness.
7. Last Days, by Brian Evenson (Underland)
Slapstick meets mayhem in this noirish avant-horror tale about a one-handed man kidnapped by a cult that takes a line of the Bible to self-mutilating proportions. Evenson has always enjoyed chipping away at the distinctions between reality and hallucination, and here he gives us a seemingly straightforward narrative with plenty of action, without ever indicating if what we’re reading is really happening, or just the fancies of a narrator gone mad.
8. Flannery, by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown)
Flannery O’Connor, who died at 39 after having spent much of her adult life fighting lupus on her mother’s Georgia farm, once stated that there would be no biographies of her, but Gooch thankfully ignored that prediction. Though light on analysis, his account provides a fascinating portrait of an eccentric Southern Catholic and one of the 20th century’s best American authors.
9. 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, by Joshua Clover (University of California)
A poet, pop-culture critic and vibrant phrase maker, Clover captures the spectacles of 1989, particularly the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ways that music resonated in an increasingly shaky historical era. Clover’s chapters on hip-hop, rave and grunge capture songs and their meanings in ways that are consistently thought-provoking, ambitious and nuanced.
10. Running Away, by Jean-Philipe Toussaint (Dalkey Archive)
The first-person account of a Frenchman who has gone to do shady business in China, this novel, split into three parts, opens with a line worthy of Ford Maddox Ford’s “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” speeds up with a cinematic chase scene and closes with a sense of mournfulness as big as the ocean. Toussaint is excellent at setting off subtextual detonations, but his surface story alone is full of visual delights and narrative momentum, including a chapter that elevates a bowling alley into a scene of gripping action.
Best book that’s less than 30 pages: Dodie Bellamy’s Barf Manifesto, a multifaceted essay on, among other things, fellow writer Eileen Myles.
Best reprinted material: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, a convenient way to revisit the entire career (so far) of a short-fiction master.
Best website: htmlgiant.com.
Drew Toal, Staff Writer
1. I Am Not Sidney Poitier, by Percival Everett (Graywolf)
Everett’s comic masterpiece imagines the life of a boy named Not Sidney Poitier, who happens to look uncannily similar to the respected actor of almost the same name. Guest appearances in the book by bizarro Ted Turner and a soliloquizing Bill Cosby just add to the beautiful mirth.
2. Fugue State, by Brian Evenson (Coffee House)
Nominally a book of separate short stories, the pieces in Evenson’s hallucinogenic romp are all linked by an apocalyptic tension that pervades the entire collection.
3. In the Valley of the Kings, by Terrence Holt (Norton)
Holt’s story collection is quite unlike any other you’ll read this year—he challenges the reader to figure out what the hell is going on, and his honed sense of Lovecraftian menace encourages the reader to figure it out quickly, before something terrible befalls.
4. Raymond Carver, by Carol Sklenicka (Scribner)
Sklenicka treats the iconic, oft-troubled short-story writer with honesty and insight. Carver comes off looking identifiably human. The bio is fun to read in conjunction with his late story collection, Where I’m Calling From, in which the stories are arranged chronologically.
5. The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker (Simon and Schuster)
In what may very well be Baker’s finest novel to date, his pitiful poet protagonist, Paul Chowder, meditates on the meaning of poetry, and its possibly deleterious effects on his life.
6. The Book of Night Women, by Marlon James (Riverhead)
James skillfully inhabits the world of life for a slave in 18th-century Jamaica. The book is written entirely in a patois that can be hard to negotiate at first, but ultimately lends the book stunning gravitas and beauty.
7. The Importance of Being Iceland, by Eileen Myles (Semiotext(e))
The poet and former presidential candidate writes about everything here—from travel, art and poetry to celebrities and politics. And hers is an always-interesting point of view.
8. The Mothering Coven, by Joanna Ruocco (Ellipsis Press)
This book, ostensibly about a group of women missing one of their own, is delightfully strange, both in the way the plot progresses and the way Ruocco plays with language. It’s a promising, bold first novel.
9. We Did Porn, by Zak Smith (Tin House Books)
Artist Zak Smith (a.k.a. Zak Sabbath) injects some life into the moribund genre of the memoir with this thoughtful and hilarious look into the alt-porn industry.
10. The Other City, by Michal Ajvaz (Dalkey Archive)
Just translated into English, this Borgesian romp through a mystical version of Prague is at times haunting and other times hilarious. It makes you excited for Ajvaz’s book The Golden Age, which is being released by Dalkey in the spring.
Too Much Money, by Dominick Dunne (Crown)
This novel of New York society finds the recently deceased Dunne at his resentful and status-fixated worst.
The Kindly Ones, by Jonathan Littell (Random House)
This bloated tour of the Nazi mind is clumsy, exploitative and difficult to carry around in your bag. Plus, it has way too many scenes featuring excrement.
Big-business publishers spent another year fearing sales drops and bemoaning the rise of the Kindle. But even as the books industry seems on the brink of a transformation that will probably amount to fewer jobs and fewer books, the fear is mixed with a sense of excitement, as visionaries begin to rethink our current distribution model and, perhaps more important, the e-book. As for good reads, I enjoyed all the above and a handful more—plenty to most readers busy. Final grade: B+
The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte (March 2)
Lipsyte’s fiery new comedy about a recently unemployed father is full of mind-blowingly angular sentences, bile and big-heartedness.
The Ticking Is the Bomb, by Nick Flynn (January 18)
In the follow-up to Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Flynn charismatically shifts among meditations on U.S.-sanctioned torture, fatherhood and more.
Union Atlantic, by Adam Haslett (January 19)
Haslett’s imaginative and suspenseful debut novel captures a New England conflict that hinges on real estate, a bank and a woman’s sanity.