What You Said
What are your hopes for the next year in the publishing world?
Personally, I hope to get through a year without a new book by Jonathan
Safran Foer, Elizabeth Wurtzel, or Zadie Smith. I also hope that Neal
Pollack gets the television show he wants and a fist fight breaks out
on it. It would be even better if the fist fight was between him and Foer.
I hope Jonathan Franzen gets happy. I hope Ann Coulter mysteriously is
never heard from again. Most of all, I hope to read a book I can get really
We'll see how it all goes. E-mail me (link: firstname.lastname@example.org) with your
responses by the end of December.
Responses to last month's question, what was your favorite book you read
Susan from the Athena Bookstore:
Given that I gather this category really means The Best Books You Read
in 2002 Which No One Else Seems To Know About Yet, I'm letting myself
have two, fiction and nonfiction.
The best novel you haven't read yet is Q ROAD (Scribner's) by Bonnie Jo
Campbell. It gets Place absolutely right (in this case a corner of southwest
Michigan -- garlic mustard, wooly bears, past Potawatomis and all), it's
suspenseful, it's laugh out loud funny and the country characters never
become either bumpkins or saints. My favorite's Rachel, a seventeen year
old with a .22 and a penchant for cussing--
"David knew Rachel worked hard to put swear words into most every sentence;
she'd told him plain talk, without swearing, was weak and invited argument.
And he could see you had to keep in practice with swearing, even when
you didn't feel like it."
It's also got the oddest and most heartening love triangle I've ever encountered.
For nonfiction it was POPULATION 485: MEETING YOUR NEIGHBORS ONE SIREN
AT A TIME (HarperCollins) by Michael Perry (so it wasn't a great year
for urban books for me.) Perry came back to his tiny Wisconsin home town
after 12 years away and in the interest of fitting back in joined the
volunteer fire department and became an EMT. Thing is, in the interim
he'd become a terrific writer. Just as Thomas Lynch's essays were the
first time a really good writer could tell us what it's like to be a mortician,
Perry's book tells you stuff you don't know about fighting fires, being
an EMT and dodging Amish kids on in-line skates. One woman thought she
was having a heart attack; Perry says "I believe what she was having was
her seventeenth beer." But people die, too. Perry's hugely funny and he's
heartbreaking -- I found myself calculating how old he is in order to
estimate how many more years of reading him I can reasonably hope for.
The best books I read this past year were 2 books I read during my annual
stay in Antarctica. I think they would have been as memorable at home,
but who knows? Fiction: without question, "The Discovery of Heaven" by
Harry Mulisch (tr. from Dutch by Paul Vincent). This book just blew me
away. It defied expectation on every page. The two main characters Onno
and Max are well-developed and have a quirky relationship based on ideas
as much as shared experience. Their conversations are delightful and strange.
Mulisch seems to know at least a little about everything from cosmological
theory to early Christian history to life in Castro's Cuba and contemporary
Dutch politics, plus his major preoccupation, the Holocaust, a major subject
of the book. All his arcane knowledge and opinions seems to come out as
Max and Onno meet and talk. The ending was a little weak and contrived,
but the entire book is contrived, which is the point. Mulisch has written
several spare and classically structured novels, but 'Discovery' is sprawling
and expansive (736 pp) -- I was sorry it ended. Nonfiction: "The Metaphysical
Club" by Louis Menand. I only knew of Menand from his movie reviews for
the NY Review of Books, so I was intrigued by this serious book on the
Pragmatism movement in the post-civil war 19th century USA. It is gracefully
written, and for a history of ideas, surprisingly engaging and exciting.
The book focuses on a group of Cambridge MA intellectuals including Oliver
Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey,
their responses to the civil war and their roles in founding the philosophy
of pragmatism (called the only true American contribution to philosophy).
The extended portraits of these four men are highlights of the book. I
hope I read two books half so memorable and rewarding as these in 2003.
Looking over the list of the books I've read this year (73 to date!),
there are surprisingly few that stand out as memorable. This is not to
say that I didn't enjoy them while I was reading them, I just don't remember
them as being "outstanding." The one book that stands out as this year's
favorite would have to be Brendan Halpin's It Takes a Worried Man.
It Takes a Worried Man is Halpin's memoir of his experiences while
his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer. I'm not normally
into these kinds of books, and I'm not sure why I picked this one up.
I started reading it while I was coping with the accidental death of my
cousin, and I found myself nodding in agreement with Halpin's anger and
frustration at the turns his life had taken. He was feeling so many of
the same things I was feeling, and he was able to ask the questions that
I couldn't bring myself to ask--namely, why do such horrible things happen
to such wonderful people? But this isn't a touchy-feely, New Age "share
your pain" kind of book. Halpin's a smartass, and he's not afraid to laugh
at situations that are uncomfortable. When I see this book on the shelves
at the library, I know I can open it up to any page and find something
that I can agree with. It's a funny, gutsy book, and, corny though this
sounds, it really helped me deal with my grief.
The best book I read this year was My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due.
The book tells the story of a newspaper reporter who finds out that her
husband is immortal. I love fantasy and horror, but this was one of the
few fantastic books that made me cry. Ms. Due writes about her fears,
which are universal fears, and thus you can't help but care about her
characters' lives. Fantastic book.
best books read this year: "My Wars are Laid Away in Books: a life of
Emily Dickinson" by Alfred Habegger "Silence in the Snowy Fields" by Robert
Bly "The Sea, the Sea" by Iris Murdoch "Lying" by Lauren Slater "The Crossing"
by Cormac McCarthy "Stillest Day" by Josephine Hart "The Voyage Out" by
Stanislaw Lem, Solaris I'm curious as to what Soderbergh can possibly
do with this book; Tarkovsky's film version was brilliant but problematic.
But the fact remains that Solaris is one of the oddest sci-fi novels of
all time. It's like what would have happened if Kafka had survived the
20s, moved to England, and then -- sometime in his late 70s -- been approached
by Stanley Kubrick to write a screenplay for a science fiction film he'd
been thinking about making. It's haunting and beautiful, and much more
in line with writers like Kafka and Thea von Harbou than with traditional
Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind Of Science Stephen Wolfram is a very smart
physicist and wealthy entrepreneur who has written a book (well, book
is perhaps the wrong term; fucking weight-lifting accessory might be a
better way of putting it) which attempts to explain the entire Universe
in terms of computation -- specifically, artificial life theory, which
is Wolfram's specialty. He does this over the course of 1200 very, very
dense pages; the book is set in 9 point type, as far as I can tell, with
lots of complex diagrams and other scientific thingies.
I don't know if I believe him or not, but it's easily one of the best
things I've ever read. If you look between the cramped lines, you can
see the lifetime obsessions of a genius poured out onto paper over a 10
year period -- apparently, Wolfram did not leave his house or wake up
during daylight hours for the entire decade it took him to put this goddamn
I don't recommend it to casual readers, or people with any sort of back
injury that could preclude them from lifting heavy equipment, but it still
Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys Finally got around to it. 'Nuff said.
Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon Actually, I read it in 2000. And 2001.
And twice in 2002. I'm still convinced that Stephenson is the best novelist
working right now; he's at least 183,456 times better than Palahniuk and
he's so far ahead of the Eggers/Moody/Wallace crowd that it is, quite
frankly, embarrassing. The most embarrassing part is that he's been this
good and this interesting for a decade or more...but the literary world
didn't notice him because he was in entirely the wrong section of Borders.
You know, the one with all the David Jordan and Storm Constantine books.
I would have to say Chuck Palahniuk's Choke. I've been a fan since reading
Fight Club, and I must say that I'm amazed with his control over the First
Person narrative. As for plot and characterization, by far he is the most
imaginative if not bizarre. How many books are there with characters who
use self suffocation as a second job while in their spare time they slowly
take on all the elderly's sins at a hospital where (they) are slowly killing
their mother in hopes of saving her. His books also read much faster than
most people think, this book in particular, which I find makes for a more
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