“I like a thin book because it will steady a table, a leather volume because it will strop a razor, and a heavy book because it can be thrown at a cat.”
On the other hand, “The good of a book lies in its being read,” said Umberto Eco.
Herewith a list of recommendations—that is, some of those we loved this year—in the order in which they came in.
My book of the year is Adam Fould’s In the Wolf’s Mouth, which for me is a stunning example of the novel as collage.
For whatever reason, I’d never read John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra before, and it impressed me mightily. I always thought American writers who came up in the 1930s were either on Hemingway’s team or Fitzgerald’s, but O’Hara seems to have learned from both of them, and he’s more grown-up about sex than either of them. He’s so accurate in rendering both coal-town folkways and his characters’ vernacular that the novel might seem dated; I can only hope that eighty years from now my work will seem this persuasively quaint.
I went in more than slightly skeptical, but ended up quite liking Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog (spoiler alert for Amy H. and any other dog aficionados–there’s really nothing about dogs in the book–it’s all just post-modern alienation in Abu Dhabi…).
David Guterson’s new Problems with People is one of the best books of short stories I’ve read in years.
Following the New York Review Classics publication last year of Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary novel of deranged ambition, Angel, this year Margaret Drabble made a selection of Taylor’s stories from 1954 to 1995, collected in You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There. I love Taylor’s details—the very wardrobes and worn-out linoleums of London hallways and Italian boarding-houses become lively, even witty, seen through her eyes—and her bleak view of human relations is both appalling and very funny.
Phil Klay’s NBA-winning collection of stories, Redeployment, is the book I’m recommending to everyone.
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
I’ve been reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan trilogy (along with so many other readers): My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. Brilliant, dense as a Russian 19th c. novel, set in Naples and covering personal, social and political events in Italy between the post war period and now, through the lens of two women’s experiences, from childhood until old age. She shows, tells, and does everything else besides. An enormous cast of characters, each so real you feel you know them.
A Dual Inheritance by Joanna Hershon. A wonderful novel about two college friends whose ways diverge—the driven money-maker and the drifting idealist, the WASP and the Jew—and also about their daughters.
Hilton Als’s White Girls is a bravura performance on race and gender, in which the essayist and theater critic takes in and takes on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the careers of Richard Pryor and Eminem, and his own vexed history of desire and loss. Try not to irritate your friends by reading too many sentences out loud.
One of my favorite books this year is On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. In it she examines the metaphors we use to describe illness and immunity and how those metaphors shape our understanding (or misunderstanding) of science. It’s a timely and important book.
I look for obscure women writers who shouldn’t be obscure, and a friend mentioned Lucia Berlin because she wrote short stories about women at work, something else that interests me. Berlin died in 2004 but her exquisite stories are available from David Godine. I read Home Sick. I won’t soon forget a story about a grandfather, a dentist, who makes his eight-year-old granddaughter pull out his teeth.
Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, a 1920s trilogy set in 14th-century Norway. I’d tried the old translation and kept bogging down in the convoluted syntax and the tangle of ‘twoulds’ and ‘thithers.” But Tiina Nunnally’s recent translation is clean and unobtrusive. You just fall down into the life of this character — her preoccupations and beliefs and emotions — and it’s riveting.
Gabriel: A Poem, Edward Hirsch’s elegy for his son. Testament to the power and solace of art.
I learned more important stuff from reading The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, by Annette Gordon Reed, than anything I’ve read since Galeano’s Century of the Wind. It tells the story of the family of Sally Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s wife for the last thirty years of his life, and, in doing so, the book provides a deeply troubling and moving context against which our deeply troubling contemporary issues are cast.
We Are All completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler. The narrator was so funny and likable. I had no idea where I was going even as every turn was logically sound. This is one where you should NOT read a lot of reviews for fear they reveal too much.
Digest by Gregory Pardlo. This book models inwardness and lyric engagement without solipsism, without poetry’s narcissistic tendencies.