I like the end of year lists. They are self-indulgent, giving the reviewer a chance to reminisce and even become prideful about a year’s-worth of reading (at least, I admit to those feelings). But as a fellow reader, I love to see others’ lists so I can see what books made the year’s reading pleasurable to others — and it gives me a chance to see what I’m missing. So here’s my contribution: my second year-end review.
Making this list is impossible this year. I was very selective in 2009, basically reading only books I was genuinely interested in from publishers whom I trust. Also, it was my most international year ever (30 of the 89 — 34% — books reviewed since December 17, 2008, when I last posted this year-end list, were in translation), so many books I read were illuminating in one regard or another. Indeed, I would have a difficult time coming up with ten books I didn’t like, let alone ten twelve I liked about all others. So this year, rather than list my top reads, I’m posting a nonexclusive list of some highlights. Each of these books, in one way or another, satisfied whatever mood I had at the moment, even if I wasn’t aware I was in the mood for anything in particular.
But before even listing the highlights, I’m going to put in this little paragraph that cheats. How can one leave out Philip Roth or Gilead or By Night in Chile from this list? These contemporary classics were obviously highlights of my reading year. But perhaps even more mysterious than leaving those off my list, why leave off classics like Madame Bovary, “The Turn of the Screw,” The Age of Innocence, and Moby-Dick. Well, here’s why I’m leaving them off the highlights list: because they have been highlighted time and time again, deservedly. Instead, I chose to focus on books I’d never really heard of before this year. While this will reveal some of the many gaps in my reading, I think it also might be helpful to others like me who have such gaps. (Not to mention the fact that this little shenanigan allows me to link to more of my favorite books!)
So, here is my list (seven works in translation, five in English), in alphabetical order by author’s last name. There’s just no way I can rank these in any other way. In fact, when I tried, I had most of them in the number one spot at one time or another. The list:
César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter — “Even when I was unsure where this was going, I was thoroughly enjoying the voyage. It is vast yet immediate, full of frenetic energy yet poised and controlled.” I read this book in one spell-bound sitting, and I can still remember the way the light fell in the room while I was reading it. It’s imprint on me and that moment in time are that vivid still. I also absolutely loved his Ghosts, and How I Became a Nun is not too distant in third.
Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel — “One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there. Many lesser books stop with cleverness. In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality.” The feelings of loneliness and interrupted silence stick with me as I think back on this dream-like book.
J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country — “It was moving and peaceful and interesting. In it Carr, about whom little is known but who has some whimsical biographical information detailed in the introduction to the NYRB edition, packs layers of nostalgia, making the reader aware of emotions lost to time but evident in what remains of the past.” Another peaceful masterpiece, and one book I’ll read again and again. I loved the complex arrangement of love, art, history, and nostalgia on a simple canvas. A truly affecting work I feel almost reverent toward.
Gérard Gavarry: Hoppla! 1, 2, 3 — “Each section carries the same people to the same event. Each is still unique and compelling and important. Indeed, through this book not only does Gavarry reveal some excellent insights into the roots of violence but, in doing so, he shows the power and vitality of literature.” Several months later, I’m still amazed at the multiple perspectives Gavarry uses in this book as it tells, retells, and then retells again, the story of a murder. And being stuck in traffic has never been the same.
Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker — “If this sounds like it should be a work by Kafka, that’s completely understandable. . . . However . . . unlike Kafka’s absurdity, this one is ‘real.’ Not that Kafka’s works aren’t real in their essence, but here is no heightened reality exaggerated for effect. As bizarre as it might sound, as elusive as the author is being, the exercise in silence and inference creates a very realistic piece.” For the year, this was my favorite book that succeeded by not saying directly what it was shouting indirectly.
William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow — “So silently does the story progress that the moments of violence are audible to the reader and reverberate in the later pages though silence returns.” Short, softly spoken, quietly impactful. If I were back in college, taking literature classes, I’d demand to read this as an American classic. A master-lesson in how to write directly, without all of the fanfare and preening, yet still engage in metafiction at its best. Disillusioned me towards McEwan’s Atonement.
Richard Price: Lush Life — “Lush Life builds and changes its form in unexpected ways, and I’d hate to give away too much. Then again, there is so much in the book that I could write in depth about aspects of it and it would still leave plenty for the reader to discover.” Indeed. I’m still uncovering layers of this excellent police procedural in downtown Manhattan. Brilliant dialogue, fantastic descriptions, very profound as it deals with class and race and crime. Why on earth haven’t I read Clockers yet?
Guillermo Rosales: The Halfway House — “A semi-autobiographical allegory, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and one of the best books I’ve read period. It is stunning in its execution and its content—indisputably the work of a literary master.” I stand by my review. This book is brilliant in its depravity as it describes a Cuban exile’s time in a corrupt Miami halfway house where the narrator’s complicity in brutality comes out. Very sad, very violent, very disturbing — if the book is any indicator, one can see why Rosales felt hopeless.
W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants — “One of tales is told primarily by Mme Landau, and she talks about ‘the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget. . .’ But Sebald suggests they don’t forget. In fact, it’s all they can remember, and it follows them everywhere, to their death.” I think one of the reasons I didn’t care for Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault was because I’d read this book just prior — this book was simply so so much better.
Robert Walser: The Tanners — “The precision with which Walser captures the seasons and the times of day makes the experience of reading these impressions almost surreal. Truly, Susan Bernofsky did a fantastic job translating this book.” This was the only book I read this year that took me back to my early days of reading literature, back when I was still discovering the European greats (which is fitting since Walser was a European great). There’s just something epic and yet fable-ish about this book — and it’s incredibly funny.
P.G. Wodehouse: Leave It to Psmith — “[The first few lines] made me chuckle in the bookstore. Despite that, however, I did not expect to be incapable of holding in my laughter while on the train. But I couldn’t help it when unexpected things like legs dangling through ceilings and flung flower pots pepper the pages.” My introduction to Wodehouse — surely it will be a long and pleasant relationship. Since I read this book, I’ve purchased it for several people who could use a hearty laugh (in the wonderful Overlook edition, of course).
Tobias Wolff: Old School — “I’m not giving anything away when I say that Wolff completely reworks the perspective of the novel in the last few pages, not through a surprise twist or an epiphany but by unconventionally straying from the narrative he’d been so strict to follow up to that point, playing with our notions of the narrator’s aesthetic as well as his personal development — and justifications.” I loved reading the narrator’s encounters with literature and authorship, and how they affected his downfall — as well as that of another of the school’s luminaries.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy 2010.