The Year in Books 2004

by PopMatters Book Reviewers

11 January 2005


“We are each the love of someone’s life.” So begins my second favorite book of the year, Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli (FSG), a tragic love story about a man living his life in reverse and the woman he can’t stay away from. My first favorite was How to Make Love Like a Porn Star (HarperCollins) by Jenna Jameson. It starts with a line about perfect boobs, but ends up kind of its own tragic love story, this time about a woman and about six hundred men who can’t stay away from her.

Jenna’s confessions were big news in BookWorld this year, along with John Stewart’s political concerns, Lynne Truss’s punctuation concerns, several interpretations of the life of Henry James, even more of The Da Vinci Code, the return of S.E. Hinton, the final leg of Roland’s quest to The Dark Tower and Anna Karenina‘s rebirth as a summer blockbuster.

And while we may have a few of these types of big-hitters on our combined lists, PopMatters’ ultra-eclectic league of book reviewers have, for the most part, steered clear of praising the already over praised. As much as we may have loved The Plot Against America, we’ve left the Phillip Roth kudos to someone else in order to show off a selection of exciting works perhaps not so easy to spot at Borders.

So, library cards at the ready: enjoy.
—Nikki Tranter

* * *

1. The Most Notable of 2004: The Insightful Baffler

by Shandy Casteel

What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America
by Thomas Frank (Metropolitan)

Had things turned out a bit differently this past election day, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? would have modestly been remembered as a witty and discerning investigation into the right-wing’s bait-and-switch forging of a values-trumps-economics agenda on rural America. Instead, on the heels of Bush’s re-election, Frank’s words have taken on an unimaginable prophetic worth. Consequently this compelling read becomes an urgent primer on how the political game is won while giving shape and bringing understanding to that seemingly indefinable term values. Just wait another four years to see how decisively essential this book really is. [buy at Amazon]

* * *

2. Best Books of the Year

by Stephen Deusner

by Donald Harington (Toby Press)

Despite the sprawl of suburban sprawl of strip malls and housing developments, as well as Wal-Mart’s continued assault on small towns, it is still possible to get lost in America, as Donald Harington proves in his inventive novel, With. In Stay More, Arkansas—Harington’s old haunt from previous novels—an eight-year-old girl named Robin Kerr is kidnapped from a roller rink by Sugrue Allan, the most complex and sympathetic child molester since Humbert Humbert. He takes her to live on Madewell homestead, “resting on top of one of the highest mountains in Newton County and practically impossible to get to nowadays.” Here she spends the next 20 years, her only friends the animals around her and the spirit of a boy who lived there not so long ago. Blending Jack London’s wildlife observations and Faulkner southern gothic flourishes, Harington’s writing easily becomes the novel’s most adventurous aspect, especially when the animals narrate chapters and when the mountain begins to affect the authorial syntax. With portrays Harington as perhaps the most successfully experimental, intuitively imaginative, and downright exciting writers in all of America. [buy at Amazon]

Heaven Lake
John Dalton (Scribner)

John Dalton’s semi-autobiographical debut is easily the most criminally overlooked novel of the year. What should have been a mainstay of book clubs and bestseller lists was instead neglected by critics and readers alike, perhaps even by his publisher. But Heaven Lake is nevertheless a monument to the strength and malleability of faith. When all-American Vincent Saunders travels as a missionary to Toulio, a city in Taiwan, readers will know almost immediately what Vincent only realizes after several chapters: that he is in way over his head. As Vincent embarks on a trip across mainland China, Dalton never stoops to mocking his religiosity, but gently challenges his strong-held beliefs until they become something new, stronger, and more personal. The result is an intricate and humane examination of individual faith and an overwhelmingly evocative portrayal of China and its people. [buy at Amazon]

* * *

3. Unexpected Best Books of 2004

by Jonathan Messinger

Sometimes awards or superlatives seem ingrained in works before they’re even released. Some books come so highly touted and anticipated that by the time I get around to reading them I know I’m reading a book that will be cluttering “Best of” lists all over the map. For me, the most enjoyable reading experience is when one stumbles upon a book and falls in love with it. That’s what this list is, three books that happened to fall into my lap. They’re all happy accidents that made reading in 2004 fun.

Your Secrets Sleep With Me
by Darren O’Donnell (Coach House)

There’s something about witnessing prescience unfold on the page that is spellbinding. In O’Donnell’s novel, America has come under martial law and families with brown skin flee north to Toronto. There, children left alone by either physically or emotionally absent parents interact and play out sizeable political dramas among themselves. There’s something else out there, too, some sort of narrating “We” that hints at being alien from humans but also a connecting force. The narration takes odd turns, asking the reader to be still at some moments, at others imploring the reader to stop reading and look at the nearest person. It’s moments like these that place the reader in the book in a way that transcends empathy for characters, enveloping the reader as one of the O’Donnell’s hopeful children. [buy at Amazon]

The Wavering Knife
by Brian Evenson (Fiction Collective Two)

After finishing The Wavering Knife I felt I’d revealed a deep black spot on my character for not having read Evenson all along. Evenson is most often compared to Kafka, because of the bizarre logic of his stories and his penchant for giving characters names of the type scrawled on tags that hang from dead men’s toes. Evenson has a way to expose the horror in the spaces of his stories. As his characters commit gruesome acts on each other, gunshots to the head for example, it’s the games they play with each other that creates the true fear. This book is a tightly wound collection of nightmares that explore, and could potentially cause, psychological trauma. [buy at Amazon]

All Hands On: THE2NDHAND Reader
Todd Dills (Ed) (Elephant Rock)

The spine of this book is its Itineraries, the playful staple of this Chicago literary zine that challenges writers to find ways of plucking meaning from tiny, humdrum moments of the everyday. For several years THE2NDHAND has been the most exciting literary vessel in Chicago, opening a comfortably padded room for the anecdotal fiction writers and the experimental tale-spinners to play together where no one will get hurt. Read through this collection of four years worth of stories, and you’ll see the line between the two isn’t as clear as all that. And in the way the strongest species survive, it would seem the cross-pollination that happened over the years has strengthened both sides. [buy at Amazon]

* * *

4. The Best…

by Robert J. Smith

...Excuse to Start a Book Review with a Bob Dylan Pun
Chronicles Volume 1
by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster)

Bob Dylan is such a tease. He knows what we want to read about—the motorcycle accident in ‘67, the conversion to Christianity, the speed, the booze, the unacknowledged wives. Instead, in Chronicles Volume 1, he gives us a portrait of the New York of his early professional years, the encroachment of the Hippie Nation on his homestead in Woodstock, and the tale of his artistic rebirth in the late 80s, all delivered in a soulful, knowing prose whose cadence and content are uniquely, um, Dylanesque. It’s a fascinating read for longtime fans and initiates alike. [buy at Amazon]

...Illustration of the Term Family Ties
You Remind Me of Me
by Don Chaon (Ballantine)

The longing to belong is the thread that entwines and entangles the characters in Don Chaon’s You Remind Me of Me. Chaon deftly explores the depression and disappointment that rend parents from children, the odd poetry of chance that reunites the victims, and the redemption they find in simply moving forward. It is a startling and wholly moving novel. [buy at Amazon]

* * *

5. 2004’s Best Five Rock-Based Novels You Can Actually Tap Your Foot To

by Zachary Houle

The Arcade Fire (Merge)
[buy at Amazon]

Blueberry Boat
The Fiery Furnaces (Rough Trade)
[buy at Amazon]

A Ghost Is Born
Wilco (Nonesuch)
[buy at Amazon]

The Slow Wonder
A.C. Newman (Matador)
[buy at Amazon]

Good News For People Who Love Bad News
Modest Mouse (Epic)
[buy at Amazon]

Canadian author/musician Paul Quarrington once made an offhand remark in one of his essays about how he thought Leonard Cohen’s much maligned 1977 album, Death of a Ladies’ Man, actually played in his mind like a long-lost novel. (The essay in question was actually an afterword in a Canuck paperback reprinting of Cohen’s The Favorite Game.)

Quarrington didn’t offer much in the way of an explanation in making this claim—it was a pretty throwaway remark. Still, his comment is now a bit intriguing considering that a number of albums released in 2004 actually seemed to be reaching towards, if not long-form narrative, then experimentation with language pushing farther beyond emotive heart-on-your-sleeve teen angst poetry. In fact, one of these records, Blueberry Boat by the Fiery Furnaces, boasts a much talked-about 10-minute-plus lead off track whose dense lyrics gradually slide from English into impenetrable Inuit, and almost could have benefited from footnotes. (Is it any wonder comparisons have been made between Blueberry Boat and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow?)

This, too, is not to speak of the possibilities the cross-genre and mixed-media experimentation being raised of late by these discs. This is precisely why these aren’t “concept albums” that loosely tell a story over an hour, like albums did in the ‘70s when prog rock was consider the new classical music, but, rather, puzzle-pieces that resemble, well, novels. (Funeral by the Arcade Fire, actually comes in a vinyl-like Digipak container resembling a book with a spine. That’s not to mention the four song titles grouped by pseudo-chapter subheadings on the CD enclosed within, nor the liner notes that come as part of a mock funeral program.)

Sure, none of these “novels” were delivered through the medium of mere words on paper, but, instead, via aluminum platters surrounded by sometimes-intricate packaging. So what? Just like novelists like Dave Eggers are now pretending to be rock stars and go on lengthy book tours, perhaps musicians started to blur similar lines in the opposite direction in 2004. While there were some magnificent books that came out through traditional print-based avenues, the ones I “read” and contemplated the most during the year, and again and again at that, were oddly more often the ones you needed headphones and a good hi-fi to appreciate. Take that, DaVinci.

* * *

6. 2004’s Top Literary Draft Pick

by Kim Anderson Ray

Pushkin and the Queen of Spades
by Alice Randall (Houghton Mifflin)

In Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Alice Randall mixes a spicy gumbo of Russian literature, Motown, and hip-hop that glides across the palate of the mind to rave culinary reviews. It’s funky, hip, and sexy, yet sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and righteously poetic. When a Harvard-educated professor’s football superstar son decides to marry a Russian lap dancer, her life becomes a retrospective of “where did I go wrong as a single black mother?” Windsor Armstrong thought she had raised her son, Pushkin X, to be a perfect reflection of herself: educated, erudite, and worldly, and sees his taste for the common as a direct rejection of everything she has ingrained in him, including her place in his life. Rather than retreat and wait for him to come to his senses, she writes a hip-hop elegy of epic proportions as a wedding gift in hopes of culling his forgiveness while desperately trying to respect his choices. [buy at Amazon]

* * *

7. I Love Jonathan Strange

by Rebecca Onion

Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell
by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury)

Sometimes I set out to read a book knowing I’ll love it, because of the subject matter or the author. Other times, I start reading on blind faith, having been promised by somebody who has gone before me that the territory is fair. So it was with Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell, and my informant was very correct. The story is about two magicians in early 19th century England (the Strange and Norrell in question) and their magical meddling with the Napoleonic Wars and even darker forces. It’s laced with humor of a distinctly Jane Austen variety, complete with sycophants and marriageable young ladies on sofas in drawing rooms, but flips to the magical realm on almost no notice. What really sealed my love for the book was the footnotes, which, far from being ironic, are complete tales in and of themselves. Often, while at the bottom of the page, I would forget that I wasn’t reading the main text, out of pure delight in the storytelling. [buy at Amazon]

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