PopMatters Picks: The Best of Books 2009: Fiction

[20 January 2010]

By PopMatters Staff

Note: These books are listed in alphabetical order by title. This is not an order of preference. They may be the paperback version or a reprint: if they were published in 2009, and we read them and loved them, they’re here.

Introduction by Rodger Jacobs

In Act Three of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the troubled young prince of Denmark lectures a troupe of actors “to hold a mirror up to nature” in their performances, echoing a critical sentiment of the time (1601) that drama and theater (and, by extension, much of the arts) should reflect a form of truth and not simply serve as petty entertainments.

“In the theatrical mirror we see our virtues and vices reflected back to us in their true shape,” writes Michael Macrone in Brush Up Your Shakespeare, “that’s the theater’s moral function. Defensive dramatists, who had to contend with accusations of corrupting the masses, were fond of pointing out that their productions did indeed have the effect Hamlet advertises.”

If the 24 works of fiction contained in this annual list are examined for their reflection of the modern and postmodern human and social realm, the face in the mirror is one that is perplexed and intrigued by the spiritual and moral failings of mankind, from the very first serious lapse of judgment at the Garden of Eden (as illustrated by the father of underground comics) to all manner of ill and unforgivable sins in between, including the 1989 massacre at China’s Tianenmen Square student uprising (Beijing Coma), a most regrettable chapter in human history.

More than half of the titles in this year’s selections offer grim portraits of the human condition, some with more wit and optimism than others, and a surprising number of legendary authors complete the portraiture and theme.

Margaret Atwood, the queen of speculative dystopic fiction (don’t ever tell her she writes sci-fi, that genre “has monsters and space ships,” she says, “speculative fiction really could happen”) returns to the delightfully pandemic post-apocalyptic world of 2003’s successful Oryx and Crake with Year of the Flood; gray lion Philip Roth spins a yarn about an over-the-hill actor’s ill-fated love affair; our old friend Thomas Pynchon stops by for a marijuana-hazed L.A. private detective tale set in ‘60s Los Angeles; and the master realist Richard Yates – who influenced Raymond Carver and Richard Ford – gets his due with a nice trilogy release of three of his best novels of Freudian, angst-ridden mid-20th century life, including Revolutionary Road.

Another modern literary legend, James Ellroy, the genre writer appropriately described by Publisher’s Weekly as “the premier lunatic of American letters”, returns with the conclusion of his dark Underworld USA trilogy that began with American Tabloid in 1995, and far across the Atlantic, the popular Italian writer Nanni Balestrini explores the Camorra, the Naples-based organized crime syndicate in the experimental novella Sandokan.

As there always should be, there are a handful of commercial titles on this list, including works by noir novelist Michael Connelly and genre master Stephen King, as well as the latest heartwarming lit-fic work featuring a precocious post-adolescent genius (they’re all the rage these days) and if you feel like the need for a jolt back to reality after that venture into escapist lit fiction you can always pick up the lumbering and harrowing look into the mind of a German SS officer in World War II in the controversial The Kindly Ones; talk about spiritual and moral failings, this book is an encyclopedia on the topic.

Combative politics on the regional and global level, two wars, and a worldwide recession like none ever seen before has a lot of people on this planet not only reflecting inward but thinking about the human race at large, the brilliance and tenacity and infinite kindness of humans and their opposing ability to remain in perpetual conflict and seemingly eternal greed, corruption, hatred, bigotry, and meaningless squabbles.

Charles Bukowski put it best when he wrote, “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are hardened and flattened by trivialities. We are eaten up by nothing.”

 


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Beijing Coma

Ma Jian

Beijing Coma
Ma Jian

Picture this: A Chinese graduate student-activist gets shot during the Tiananmen Square Riot on 4 June 1989. He falls into a coma, but regains consciousness only to find himself able to see and hear, but unable to speak. His “communication breakdown” lasts almost 20 years; but as the optimism of those around him fades, the narrator becomes more hopeful – not just for his own recovery, but for that of his country. Such is the premise behind Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, the best Asian novel of the year. Jian gives us a taste of the brutal history of the People’s Republic of China through his protagonist Dai Wei, whose coma is indicative of the general malaise of the mainland government. At 700 pages, Beijing Coma is not a weekend read; however, it is a monumental novel and tribute to the perseverance of the Chinese people. Reading this book gave me a much greater appreciation for the success of China, its residents and its expats than anything I’ve read before. Shyam Sriram

 


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Blood’s a Rover

James Ellroy

Blood’s a Rover
James Ellroy

The completion of James Ellroy’s Underground USA Trilogy is a different kind of beast than those that preceded it, and that is a definitely a good thing. Books like The Cold Six Thousand seemed to be running on the fumes left over from his earlier quartet, mammoth crime novels set in the glamour and horror of postwar Los Angeles. The later books spread their nets further, almost trying to encompass all of America’s dirty laundry, from the Kennedy assassination to Cuba, Howard Hughes, the mafia and beyond. Blood’s a Rover brings Ellroy back from the edge. In tracking his epic pack of bloody-minded characters (gunsels, spies, cops, whores and more) as they tangle themselves through the ‘60s and ‘70s political tumult, Ellroy brings an elegiac note to the dense, ultraviolent plot. Yes, the novel is still replete with his patented brand of conflicted men of secrets who trade bags of money and bullets in the night, but a surprising strand of political insight runs through the tangled plot. Ellroy was once content to let the bad men take charge of history, and even seem to side with them at times, but now it seems he thinks the country is due its revenge. Chris Barsanti

 


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The Book of Genesis

Robert Crumb

The Book of Genesis
Robert Crumb

The king of underground comix made a triumphant return to publishing with undoubtedly his most radical project to date, a thoroughly faithful cartoon interpretation of The Book of Genesis. This is Crumb’s first official book-length work, and it does not disappoint in the least, drawing in even the most ardent religion skeptic with his unmatched eye for the most minute detail as only he can create. From ‘Creation’ to ‘The Death of Joseph’, no stone goes unturned in this phenomenal adaptation, which in some parts feature imagery as graphic and scandalous as his most sex-fueled inkgasms in Zap Comix. This is being hailed as the best thing Crumb has done in his illustrious 40-odd year career, and from the moment you crack open this must-own for any and every fan of this unheralded American icon, you will know why. Ronald Hart

 

Brothers and more...


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Brothers

Yu Hua

Brothers
Yu Hua

This great, sprawling Rabelasian novel follows a pair of brothers as they grow up in a Chinese village that undergoes all the future shocks of the nation’s post-revolutionary history and whose inhabitants swing from one mob extreme to the next. Of the two, “Baldy” Li is the one whom the nation’s turn toward consumerist excess will reward most handsomely, even though he spends the bulk of his young life as an outcast after being caught peeping in the women’s public toilet. His brother, Song Gang, takes a more dignified path through life, though not surprisingly ends up not quite as prepared for the raw venality of the nation’s capitalist turn as Baldy, who had been one of the town’s favorite scapegoats during the Cultural Revolution. Hua’s novel was a bestseller in China, and deservedly so, given his gift for mixing historical sweep and classical Chinese literary allegories with low villager humor (toilet jokes and kicking people when they’re down feature heavily here). It’s a cliché of the highest order to say that Brothers relates history on a personal scale, but it is nevertheless true. Also, Hua does so with an unpretentious manner rare to novels with this much scope and ambition. This is history as a dirty, sad joke. Chris Barsanti

 


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The Children’s Book

A.S. Byatt

The Children’s Book
A.S. Byatt

One of the many protagonists of Byatt’s labyrinthine, addictive novel is a writer of children’s books who does something that people find absolutely delightful—she keeps a set of books marked with her children’s names, inside each of which she pens fantasy tales for them which have no end. Her children ultimately find this less enchanting. Set in late 19th and early 20th century England, The Children’s Book is a poisoned letter of sorts to the great flowering of fantastical whimsy amidst the neo-Bohemian intelligentsia living in and just outside London. Much of Byatt’s swarm of characters, from writers to puppeteers to arrivistes and potters, seem intent on rediscovering the beauty and magic in their industrializing world, and the gilded but precise language with which Byatt describes their efforts and entanglements is nothing short of breathtaking. There is a sour edge to this glittering epic, though—a nation of dilettantes so enraptured by fantasies like Peter Pan hurls itself with just as much abandon into the abattoir of the Great War. Chris Barsanti

 


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Fado

Andrzej Stasiuk

Fado
Andrzej Stasiuk

It seems there is no shortage of great poets turned essayists that have emerged from Poland and translated into English in the past 40 years. The Noble Prize winning poet Czeslaw Milosz immediately comes to mind, and then there is the wide recognition and praise of both Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Zagajewski. To this extraordinary list of writers we can now add Andrzei Stasiuk. Stasiuk’s book, Fado, is a combination of travel book and personal essays, a potable portmanteau packed with telling incident and well-observed detail. The essays evoke in lyrical, almost sensual prose the forgotten and ignored small towns and villages of Central and Eastern Europe and some of the cultural and political problems they now face after such a long absence from the mainstream of Western liberal values. There is also something wistful, the equivalent of a long sigh, when Stasiuk looks back and writes about the past, whether it is his boyhood on a farm or abandoned WWI graveyards. No doubt his previous job as poet has served him well as a prose writer. Fado is a collection of clean and analytically sharp essays bound together with the ironic and generous voice of Stasiuk. Carmelo Militano

 


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The Fire Gospel

Michel Faber

The Fire Gospel
Michel Faber

What if someone discovered plausible, historical proof that Jesus Christ was simply a man, who lived and died like any other man, whose last words were “Please, somebody, please finish me!” instead of “It is finished”? And what if he then presented that proof to the world? Michel Faber’s The Fire Gospel takes this premise in his retelling of the Prometheus myth. The book is part of a series, The Myths, published by Canongate, reimaginings of the ancient myths by noted authors like Jeannette Winterson (Atlas and Heracles), Margaret Atwood (Odysseus and Penelope), Victor Pelevin (Theseus and the Minotaur), and many others. I like Michel Faber a lot. (Born in the Netherlands, he lives in Scotland and writes in English.) His bawdy, Dickensian Crimson Petal and the White is a stunning tour de force sustained over more than 900 pages, and Under the Skin is a highly literary arabesque combining elements of science fiction and horror with the pace of a thriller. His prose, there as here, is crisp and pure, never fussy or fuzzy. Christopher Guerin

 


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A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs
Lorrie Moore

George Santayana wrote that “everything in nature is lyrical in its ideal essence, tragic in its fate, and comic in its existence”, and that’s a pretty good summation of the genius of Lorrie Moore, whose novel, A Gate at the Stairs is at once gruesome, tragic, and hilarious. The novel is narrated by a barely post-adolescent farmer’s daughter, Tassie Keltjin, who works as a nanny. Tassie, a hyper-aware type, notes on first meeting her boss, Sarah, that “(t)he hollows of her cheeks were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily. Her hair was… dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug. Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange… and her lips maroonish brown. She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.” Late in the novel, Sarah chastises Tassie for singing “I Been Working on the Railroad” to Sarah’s mixed-race adoptive baby: “There’s just two things I’m worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor.” But Sarah is more than a figure of fun in this story, which also concerns Tassie’s relationship with her Afghanistan-bound brother, and her encounter with a jihadi. This is a post-9/11 and post-Iraq War book, but not polemically so; Moore’s points about our distracted, fearful, and neurotic culture are ruefully funny without being pointlessly bitter. As Tassie notes, “I had a habit… biting into the bruised spots of apples and cherries, the places under the skin where they had made their own wine, sweet and brown”. Moore is like that: She probes the dark spots, but discovers something complex and intoxicating underneath. Michael Antman

 


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Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing

Rob Spillman, ed.

Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing
Rob Spillman, ed.

This is a collection of, by and about modern Africa, of writers and characters negotiating their way through timeworn realities and new possibilities. The concluding selection, a short story by Ivan Vladislavic, shows how difficult that negotiation can be, as a discarded piece created for a South African museum exhibit bears the power to elicit reactions based on age-old, discredited power dynamics. It’s as if to say that no matter how far they’ve come as people and as nations, in Africa the past is never really, completely gone, at least not yet. These stories evoke the continent’s ancestral essence—from the scent of the vegetation to the sturdiness of its folk traditions—and are juxtaposed against stories in which the saga of the individual in an urban mecca reflects new tensions arising in post-millennial Africa. Perhaps the strongest theme emerging from Gods and Soldiers is that there’s no singular “voice of Africa”, no overarching cosmology to unify the continent’s literature. But that’s a great thing, in that more and more writers are finding their places within our global literary landscape (a collection of nonfiction reportage, essays and memoirs would be a worthy follow-up). We’ll still be reading many of these writers, and tracking how their finely cultivated perspectives view the current state of African affairs, long after the world moves on to the next cultural hotspot. Mark Reynolds

 

God's Mercy and more...


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God’s Mercy

Kerstin Ekman

God’s Mercy
Kerstin Ekman

In 1916 Hillevi Klarins, a 25-year-old midwife from Uppsala, Sweden, applies for a position in northern Röbäck, in the rural Blackwater region. She is entering an unknown world, where tensions between native Lapps, Swedes, and nearby Norwegians run high. Though the area has electricity and plumbing, Röbäck remains a place haunted by little people, folk medicine, and a profound distrust of the medical instruments Hillevi carries. Though much happens in God’s Mercy, only a few instances are of the “novelistic crisis” variety. Rather, the book moves slowly through the lives of these people in Blackwater, Sweden as they acclimate to an increasingly modern world. Books like God’s Mercy aren’t big sellers. With their small publishers—here, the excellent University of Nebraska Press—and even smaller promotional budgets, the serious reader must be a sort of detective, ferreting out the great literary works that still exist, albeit out there somewhere along a very long tail. There is an irony in using the Internet—this harbinger of endless twitters and blogs and bytes—to promote the sort of slow literary beauty found here. But there is also the chance to recommend you log off and take the time to read this lovely book. Diane Leach

 


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The Humbling

Philip Roth

The Humbling
Philip Roth

The Humbling centers on Simon Axler, a stage and screen actor of near legendary stature, who, now in his 60s, has earned the “reputation as the last of the best of the classical American stage actors.” The novel begins: “He’d lost his magic.” Simon is suffering from extreme self-consciousness, which has robbed him of his spontaneity and intuition on stage, leaving him revealed on the boards as a fake, apparent to critics and audiences alike, as well as himself. Back at home, Simon resists the efforts of his agent to get back to work and is one day visited by “lithe, full-breasted” Pegeen Stapleford, the daughter of two actors he’d worked with years ago. She is gay and 40 and on the rebound from a long-term relationship with another woman, who has left her to go through a sex-change operation. From the beginning, we understand that she is going through her own mid-life crisis. She stays for dinner and they are lovers before dinner is over. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that Pegeen’s failed attempt to find the heterosexual within is a mirror image of Simon’s professional psychological trauma. While she attempts willfully to challenge what is innate and natural in her makeup, and fails, Simon has lost his innate abilities, his natural talent, and he can do nothing to regain it. His pursuit of Pegeen is his pursuit of his lost genius. In the end, his failure to convert Pegeen not only confirms her own true nature to herself, but, in stark contrast, reveals Simon’s own loss of what has made him most alive and most truly himself—and with devastating consequences. Christopher Guerin

 


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In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Daniyal Mueenuddin

Daniyal Mueenuddin was raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and Elroy, Wisconsin, and practiced law in New York for a few years before deciding to reside on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region. This geographical mix to his background is certainly prevalent in the emotionally lavish and densely interconnected pieces gathered within In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, one of the more exciting short story collections of recent years. In these tales (many previously published in The New Yorker), the characters scrabble for some form of comfort and security in the quasi-medieval hugger-mugger of modern-day Pakistan. Servants vie for a sinecure in the grand households of the region’s aristocracy (such as the wrenching title story) and foreigners try to find a sense of how they fit into this land’s customs (as in “Our Lady of Paris”, where the American girlfriend to the scion of a wealthy Pakistani family tries to make a good impression on his parents). Sometimes the fight for survival is even more basic, as with “Nawabdin Electrician”, whose title character is set upon by a thief while motorcycling between assignments. Mueenuddin’s voice is empathetic yet distant, retaining a sense of the land’s great and dusty history even as he plots out the emotional turmoil of its present-day inhabitants. Chris Barsanti

 


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Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon

In 1990, 17 years after the appearance of the godlike Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon published Vineland, a distinct departure from the dense surrealism and PoMo high jinx to be found in his earlier books. Quite readable and relatively linear, Vineland evoked a post-‘60s hippie hangover that seemed plausible in its vibe if not the details, and fraught with paranoia. The book was a hell of a lot of fun. Few Pynchon admirers would agree with me that it’s his best book, and most of the reviews at the time trashed it. Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice returns to the same hippie milieu, this time in Southern California, and combines elements of The Big Lebowski, Dashiell Hammett, John Garfield’s movies, and the TV cop shows and Hollywood movie bikinis-and-surfboards grooviness of the early ‘70s. Inherent Vice is not a novelization of a screenplay, as Denis Johnson’s recent foray into the hardboiled genre, Nobody Move, appears to be, nor is it an important author taking a literary vacation by genre-slumming. The ‘a-ha’ moment is in a glimpse of a raving, fascistic Richard Nixon on TV. This moment, and others less overt, clue us in to the novel’s darker heart. Christopher Guerin

 


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Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Geoff Dyer

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
Geoff Dyer

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a novel in two novellas. This structural feature, in which the whole is its parts and each part is the whole, will resonate throughout the book. JIV, DIV (from here on) is about how a thing is no different from its opposite, how love is how we love and where we love as much as the object of that love itself, and how to “Let be be the finale of seem”. Such enfolded language populates JIV, DIV in abundance. It’s one of the book’s many charms. Side by side, the two novellas in JIV, DIV achieve a resonance, and resolution. Neither stands entirely on its own, the first lacking drama, the second almost too fraught with incident and spiritual significance—a man carrying his huge, diseased testicles in a cart, a dead body left for days to be devoured by dogs. But together, they’re like a railroad track, its two rails stretching off, never touching, but each entirely dependent on the other. Christopher Guerin

 

The Kindly Ones and more...


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The Kindly Ones

Jonathan Littell

The Kindly Ones
Jonathan Littell

Sometimes, there is in what is horrible and true a great and terrible beauty. There is nothing whatsoever beautiful about Jonathan Littel’s novel of Nazi German atrocities, The Kindly Ones, though there is much that is both great and terrible, in the best and worst sense of those words. At just shy of 1,000 pages, The Kindly Ones is not for the faint of heart or short of patience. Its densely-packed pages contain long passages about linguistics and etymology, political philosophy, and bureaucratic machinations, and there are countless acronyms referring to Nazi military and bureaucratic entities that finally tend to just glide past the eye. But with all its longeurs and heft, this tombstone of a book is one of the best novels of recent years and its acclaim in Europe, where it won two important French prizes, is more than justified. The Kindly Ones has all the art, seriousness, and structure of a great, great novel. Christopher Guerin

 


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The Magicians

Lev Grossman

The Magicians
Lev Grossman

One problem with too many fantasy novels set in the modern world is that their characters almost never reference the cultural touchstones which most people would use in order to come to grips with fantastical events. Lev Grossman’s funny, engaging novel about a kid from Brooklyn with a penchant for magic tricks who gets himself sent to a real school for teenage magicians (hidden by enchantments in upstate New York) doesn’t make that mistake. His brightly-rendered, highly verbose characters (well-versed in geek-lore all) continually make snarking, knowledgeable references to Narnia and Quidditch, and at one point even utilize the old Dungeon & Dragons handbooks for practical spell-making advice. Grossman’s attachment to reality in the service of fantasy goes further, though, in that he has crafted a potent coming-of-age tale bursting out with jealousies, dreams, and ambitions—and just happened to add malevolent enemies and fireballs. It’s Hogwarts for grownups. Chris Barsanti

 


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Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch Series #15)

Michael Connelly

Nine Dragons (Harry Bosch Series #15)
Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly’s hard-as-nails LAPD detective Harry Bosch owns the neon night of modern-day police procedurals like no other fictional sleuth since Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stalked the fog-enshrouded cobblestone streets of Victorian-era London. In the 15th Bosch adventure, the jazz-loving homicide detective whose personal motto is ‘Everybody counts or nobody counts’m suspects that the shooting death of an L.A. liquor store owner is linked to a dangerous triad with tentacles that reach across the sea to China. Warned to stop pursuing leads on the case, Harry naturally ignores the threats and continues the investigation until he is presented with a video revealing the kidnapping of his 13-year-old daughter Maddy in Hong Kong. Connelly ratchets up the tension in this international thriller that plays out between the exotic and shadowy world of Hong Kong and the Chinese underworld and the dark, menacing streets of the City of Angels. Connelly’s crime thriller plots are often nothing more or less than boilerplate melodramas with a unique twist in the third act, but credit must be given for creating one of the most enduring, endearing, and tenacious heroes in a genre often overcrowded with hard-boiled creations. The only genre writer who surpasses Connelly is Raymond Chandler… and that’s saying something. Rodger Jacobs

 


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Petersburg

Andrei Bely

Petersburg
Andrei Bely

Bely’s writing can be incredibly playful (he’s fond of word play) and is capable of satirical swipes at St. Petersburg society, and large humorous set pieces, as when Nikolai travels around in a red-domino suit to frighten Sofia after she calls him a ‘red clown’. The writing can veer from abstractly cosmic to tangible minutia, as in this description of Lippanchenko: “Suddenly between the back and the nape of the neck a fatty fold in the neck squeezed itself into a faceless smile: as though a monster had settled in that armchair.” Yet ultimately this is a very pessimistic portrait of personal and societal evisceration. Petersburg is about one event as a perpetual moment in history, a constancy of new orders usurping old orders and children destroying and then becoming parents, the battle between liberty and repression, and how this can leave people feeling permanently uprooted and haunted by the past. This is not a story about whether or not the Russian revolution was a worthwhile endeavor, but it is eerily prescient in predicting how the initial euphoria, the bomb explosion of Communism, would scorch the earth as badly as any tsar did. Michael Buening

 


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Richard Yates: Everyman’s Library

Richard Yates

Richard Yates: Everyman’s Library
Richard Yates

Richard Yates’ fiction—published in irregular spurts between 1960 and 1986—has taken on a samizdat quality over the years, being passed around from one carefully-chosen gimlet-eyed appreciator to another in a daisy chain of “You’ll understand this.” Due to that hushed and mysterious quality, one exacerbated by dim notions of the misunderstood artist (Yates died bitter, broke, and out-of-print), an unfortunate aura has developed around the man just as his work is creeping back into print. Fortunately, as the long-overdue Everyman’s Library edition of two of his greatest novels and a short story collection shows, Yates is every bit as good as his advance publicity. The ashen introduction by Richard Price paints a caustic portrait of his onetime teacher as the ruined mountain of a writer, hacking through four packs a day and battling off mental breakdowns while bemoaning his cruel, cruel fate. It’s a rough piece of work, but a nice jaw-socker to prepare you for what’s to follow. There is a pounding life and movement in these gloomy pages – particularly the classic Revolutionary Road—that catches you up before smashing you down. (Don’t say you weren’t warned.) Chris Barsanti

 

Sandokan and more...


Sandokan
Nanni Balestrini

“I repeated to myself over and over I’m never coming back to my home town.” So ends Italian poet Nanni Balestrini’s bristling 2004 novella, now translated into English as part of small press Melville House’s sterling Contemporary Art of the Novella series. Balestrini’s story is a floodlike first-person narrative in which the despondent resident of a small southern Italian town tells how his community was engulfed and made utterly unlivable by an ultraviolent clan of Camorra (that region’s version of the Mafia). He talks in an uninterrupted, frequently unpunctuated flow of despondent, bloody, ripped-from-the-headlines reportage, spilling his guts, though he seems to know that no matter what he says or who he says it t, the regime of inescapable corruption will continue. His voice spikes with rage and deepens with sorrow as he relates in a pounding rush the slow, then sudden, death of a region where violence was always in the blood and was seemingly just waiting for some force to unleash it. Chris Barsanti

 


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The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Reif Larsen

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet
Reif Larsen

Most assuredly we can blame J.D. Salinger and the lingering cult of Catcher in the Rye devotees for one of the latest and most popular trends in contemporary literary fiction: novels narrated by precocious adolescent narrators whose intelligence borders on the autistic (The immensely popular Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time immediately spring to mind). The latest Holden Caulfield wanna-be is 12-year-old Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet, a highly gifted technical artist and cartographer (T.S. even diagrams the patterns of cross-talk at the family dinner table) born into a distant and distracted family on a sprawling Montana ranch, with a taciturn cowboy for a father and an emotionally absent entomologist obsessed with the elusive Tiger beetle for a mother figure. When T.S. wins the Smithsonian Institution’s prestigious Baird Award (the committee is unaware of his tender age), the young mapmaker hops a freight train and begins his journey east to Washington, D.C., encountering Midwest wormholes, a strange Winnebago, hobos, Honey Nut Cheerios, a homicidal preacher, anarchist plots, and, as these tales often go, the tools necessary for coping with the tragic death of his brother Layton. Many of T.S.’s precocious maps and charts and observations are captured in the margins of the outsized book, literally, in elegant drawings that either distract from or enhance the text, depending upon the individual reader’s experience, but at least 29-year-old Larsen deserves credit for raising the bar in a somewhat dubious genre with this quaint presentation. Rodger Jacobs

 


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Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron

Jasper Fforde

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron
Jasper Fforde

Love, betrayal, life, death, a retro-futuristic society trussed up by their own Rules like tortured turkeys, Jasper Fforde’s novel seemingly has it all. Except the author has elected, in Shades of Grey, to divvy up the visible color spectrum and dole out drips of color to the members of the Collective as an indication of the hierarchy of castes. The colorfulness of the world Fforde describes is largely artificial. Mixing the outlandish remains of former civilizations with frighteningly plausible behavior on the part of members faced with the strict system of Rules in the Collective, Fforde has created a brave new world with a peculiar logic of its own. A cinematic storyteller, Fforde fills just a few days of Eddie’s experience in East Carmine with details that allow the reader to completely envision this odd society. I didn’t want to finish the book because the story was so well-told and crazy; I was thrilled when I turned the last page and there was the only mention I have seen anywhere so far of volumes two and three in the Shades of Grey series. We have more colorful and strange adventures to look forward to. Lara Killian

 


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Under the Dome

Stephen King

Under the Dome
Stephen King

Stephen King will probably never be considered literary, but sometimes that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you write books that are at least consistently entertaining. And with Under The Dome, King has probably written his most enjoyable book in at least a dozen years. Sure, it clocks in at more than 1,000 pages long and yes, the premise is a bit on the hokey side -– an impenetrable dome descends on a small town in Maine. But by making it impossible to escape from the borders of the town, King has written probably the ultimate tome about how things can go very, very wrong very, very quickly when its residents are offered no escape to the outside world. And that makes for a very thrilling read, especially when the body count starts to ratchet up. This is a heart-pounding, nail-biting, and unrelenting book, one that’s impossible to put down, and there’s even a subtext about 9/11-style paranoia and the impact of the War on Terror. While Under The Dome may seem like the literary equivalent of a Big Mac, this is a very well-made and delicious Big Mac that you can really sink your teeth into, one that lingers and leaves a great aftertaste for days. Zachary Houle

 


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The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood
Margaret Atwood

In both The Year of the Flood and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, rampant human greed has brought the Earth to a precipitous state. The weather is wrong; there is too much rain, or too little, it no longer snows, the heat is blistering. Humans have done so much damage to the planet that the massive species die-offs happening this moment, in real time, have escalated to the point of involuntary vegetarianism: real animal protein is as rare, expensive, and illicit as Beluga Caviar. When the waterless flood arrives, the carnage is horrifying precisely because it is so easy to envision, particularly after Hurricane Katrina, which Atwood reworks here as a Texas flood. The ending brings little closure (Atwood is at work on a third novel about this society), but is, for all its horror, faintly heartening: humanity’s capacity to love prevails amidst the carnage. Yet it’s still easy to close The Year of the Flood feeling hopeless. In a 22 September 2009 New York Times article, Atwood admits to scaring even herself with this one. But she suggests an alternative to hopelessness: choose one place to make changes. Take up one environmental cause. That is possible. And not so overwhelming. But if you aren’t terrified after reading this, then you weren’t paying attention. Diane Leach

 

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/119108-best-of-books-2009-fiction/