Must Reads

Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon) is this amazing graphic novel by Chris Ware about a father and a son who meet up finally after many years. It is so sad, so inventive, so unique with the way it juxtaposes and bends time, nearly every page made me shake my head in admiration.

I don’t know if Michel Houellebecq‘s The Elementary Particles (Knopf) was the “best book of the year,” but it was probably the most vital novel. No other work of fiction created such havoc, positive andor negative, among people I respect. The actual scope of Houellebecq’s talent is debatable, I think. But with this book, at least, he wrote a brainy, stylish enough novel of ambitious, rousing ideas that managed to connect with its readers. This year, that‘s saying a lot.

Tim Parks

Jorge Luis Borges’ Selected Non-Fictions (Penguin USA) has a pretty dull sound to it as a title. I was afraid I‘d be getting the dry theory behind Borges’ brilliant stories. But no, this collection of essays is a constant source of pleasure. It shows an amazing mind developing over more than half a century, eagerly connecting reading and life, constructing a rich and fascinating world. Why was hell invented? Were there fossils when Adam first walked the earth? The violence of the tango. The myth of the gaucho. The unreality of evil. Borges musters his extraordinary (no, really extraordinary) erudition to tackle every subject under the sun, but above all he comes back and back at the ancient conundrum, how far is our experience individual and how far universal? Are we different, or deep down one and the same person? There‘s everything and its opposite here; overall I have to say I enjoyed this book more than the famous Ficciones.

Geoff Dyer

Weird, isn’t it, when you first encounter a writer via a book that comes late in the chronology of their work -- especially when the writer in question is as weird as John Ashbery. Your Name Here (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), his 20th book of poetry, was the first one I read. Lack of any previous exposure made this belated meeting totally mind-blowing. I mean, what is the guy on? What is he on about? And who cares? Evidently, he is several sandwiches short of a picnic, but some kind of deranged lucidity is always hovering nearby. Most so-called comic novels leave me stony-faced; Ashbery is hilarious -- “A nice sliceof toast would really hit the spot now” -- and absolutely spot on: “Make that two slices.”

Jerry Stahl

In A Different Kind of Intimacy: The Collected Writings of Karen Finley (Thunder‘s Mouth Press), the genius who gave Jesse Helms hemorrhoids marches her words out minus the assaultively eye-popping performance that put her on the NEA hate list. Intimacy shows what really makes Finley so dangerous -- and so necessary -- in the State of Fratsylvania we now inhabit: the wild courage, beauty and naked, rip-your-heart-right-out-of-your-chest emotional truth of her writing. When George W. starts burning books, this one will be first in the fire.

Michelle Huneven

This fall, I read the three most recent Philip Roth novels (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) and chased ’em with Saul Bellow‘s lively Ravelstein -- all four of the books are erudite, serious and, to varying degrees, impressive. Then, I read Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead (Knopf) and remembered how fun and scary and feral and original and peculiar and un-arrogant and un-grandiose a big, great, truly wonderful novel can be. The Quick and the Dead is a gambol in the id, a teenage coming-of-age tale, a ghost story and state-of-the-world report. (The prognosis is dreadful but never boring.) The characters, an assortment of passionate weirdoes, make Flannery O‘Connor’s people seem downright sedated. The writing itself furnishes serious, deep pleasures. There‘s no other book like it. The Quick and the Dead reads like a long, unasked-for vision: disturbing, beautiful and not-to-be-missed. And funny funny funny.

Peter Gadol

The world of letters became a richer place with the debut this year of Andrew Sean Greer. How It Was for Me (Picador USA) collects 11 elegant and luminous stories that are as unpredictable as they are wise. “Youth is a tender terror,” Greer writes, and most every hero in these pages gets his or her heart broken but somehow survives and heads out looking for new love elsewhere. As for me, I’m looking for Greer‘s next book.

Hillary Johnson

George Saunders’ second short-story collection, Pastoralia: Stories (Riverhead Books), is one of the funniest, most original pieces of satire to appear since Terry Southern‘s The Magic Christian (a forgotten masterpiece all but eclipsed by the unfortunate Ringo Starr vehicle it became in the hands of Hollywood). Saunders’ characters are most often workers in nightmarish, alternate-reality theme parks, and in his hands this extended metaphor suggests that nations, societies, subcultures and even the individuals are “theme parks” unto themselves.

Brendan Bernhard

If the term “young poet” is almost an oxymoron these days, then hyperprolific Brit poet Glyn Maxwell is an oxymoron in action. Still only 39 years old, and now living in the U.S., this year he published Time‘s Fool, a 272-page verse narrative, as well as The Boys at Twilight (Houghton Mifflin), a selection of poems from his first four books of verse. Twilight makes the ideal introduction to his work. Some of his poems seem rushed, but he has a lyricism all his own, as in this stanza from the haunting “Dream but a Door,” about the breakup of a relationship: “Wash in a slip of soap belongingonly a week ago to a girl butyours now and washed to a nothing.As you and she, friends and not.”

David L. Ulin

What is the nature of islands? Are they physical or metaphorical? States of being or states of mind? These questions reside at the heart of essayist Bill Holm’s magnificent meditation Eccentric Islands: Travels Real and Imaginary (Milkweed Editions), a book that challenges us to rethink the barriers we erect, often unwittingly, to constrain our lives. Structured around visits to five geographic islands (including Iceland, where the Minnesota author now lives half the year), Eccentric Islands moves back and forth between isolation and community, identity and autonomy, to get at the way that all of us, no matter how connected, must ultimately stand alone. In the process, Holm frames a deeply personal mythology, where the most important island is the one within us, the interior island of imagination and soul.

Judith Lewis

One hundred sixty pages of prose carved as elegantly as the ornament on a ship‘s prow, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Herman Melville (Penguin‘s “Lives” series) counters Melville’s literary excesses with an economical meditation on his sad life with its slim rewards, and whets any reader‘s appetite for investigating ever more into the fabled epic of a ship stove by a whale.

Greg Goldin

Belgian author Jean Ray’s Malpertuis (Atlas Press), published in 1943, is a novel of terror, of horror, of the macabre. A damned priest who has come too close to the white-hot omniscience of Godhead unleashes evil in the form of resurrected Greek gods inhabiting taxidermic human bodies. These demiurges carry on a cosmic battle, shrouded in mystery and inclement darkness. The “God of the Cross,” as Jean Ray calls the Holy Father, is powerless to stop them. Worse, their evil is one of God‘s works. Superstition is buried deep in the foundations of religion; fear haunts the nocturnal shadows of sleep. Which leads to that ancient gnostic question, posed in the first century after Christ: How is it possible that this world is made in God’s image when it contains such suffering, such imperfection, such evil?

Ben Ehrenreich

In a literary world largely populated by tales of the sex lives and family dramas of the all-encompassing middle class, few writers attempt in any but the most polite fashion to tackle the questions that have motivated the novelistic genre from the get-go. William T. Vollmann puts them on the very first page of The Royal Family (Viking): “How to die? How to live?” With a brilliance that only occasionally falters, he sketches out his answers through the lives of addicts and yuppies, lawyers and whores, in a daring novel about damnation and salvation and the cruel paths love paves to both.

Benjamin Weissman

The unaided eyeball will strain and complain while it reads Chris Ware‘s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon). It is worth the trip to the eye doctor, who will recommend bifocals (there are times when the text gets smaller than the condensed version of the OED), because Jimmy Corrigan is one of the great, innovative works of graphic literature of our time. Designed within an inch of its life, Chris Ware’s brainwork is complex and heart-wrenching.

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