What You Said
issue 8

Next Question:

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 excited about.

We'll see how it all goes. E-mail me (link: jessa@bookslut.com) with your responses by the end of December.

Responses to last month's question, what was your favorite book you read in 2002?

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 Virginia Woolf


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 sci-fi.

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 monstrosity together.

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 rocks.

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 passionate read.


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