DENNIS COOPER: Relatively speaking, all great contemporary poets are undervalued. But considering the incredible quality of his work and his enormous influence on younger writers, Ron Koertge’s mere cult status seems especially unfair. Current U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, whose work could be described as a kind of Koertge-lite-and-brite, is an acknowledged acolyte. Few authors in any genre have ever written more beautifully, movingly and wittily about the moral, libidinal and spiritual dilemmas facing men in contemporary America. If there were any justice, Koertge’s books would be as critically revered as those of James Tate or John Ashbery, and as heavily fingered as those of Jimmy Carter or Jewel. Geography of the Forehead (University of Arkansas Press), Koertge’s first new book of poems in four years, is his most extraordinary batch of work yet and a complete knockout.
HILLARY JOHNSON: Each story in Barry Lopez’s Light Action in the Caribbean (Vintage) has a different weight and character, from the bleak, cynical title story to a poetic memoir of an underappreciated stepfather. A prolific author of rapturous nonfiction essays like Arctic Dreams, Lopez is a gorgeous stylist, even in an age when too much rococo styling can seem annoying. Two of the stories in this collection, “The Letters of Heaven” and “The Mappist,” are masterpieces, each seeming to contain the secret to the meaning of life. You could do worse than to read them each once a year on New Year’s Day, or your birthday.
BRENDAN BERNHARD: Weighing in at 885 pages, and not even including his epic The Changing Light at Sandhover, James Merrill’s Collected Poems (Knopf) is filled with lyric verse so impossibly clever it might have been written by a visitor from a more linguistically evolved planet. Spanning a career that extended from 1951 to 1995, these poems will give the willing reader a lifetime’s learning and pleasure — and how many books can that be said of truthfully? Fortunately, this hardback edition is beautifully made and looks like it will last a lifetime. Art “cures affliction,” Merrill once wrote, and his own poetry was written “out of the life lived, the love spent.” The glittering evidence is in these pages.
PETER GADOL: James Merrill’s Collected Poems (Knopf) is a monument of a book amassing the late poet’s finest work. At once elegant and colloquial, lyric and narrative, melancholic and ribald, Merrill always drew a world and world-view in a few well-shaped stanzas. It’s difficult to read even the grimmer poems without breaking a smile, for cleverness was everything to Merrill, ever allusive and elusive, dedicated to a code of beauty that now seems collectible if not antique. Merrill was a great interpreter of contemporary currents, and so I have to wonder how he would have read this year’s continuing sequence of bleak perpetrations. My Ouija board is out — if only he would answer.
GEOFF DYER: Ryszard Kapuscinski’s dispatches from his time as a foreign correspondent in Africa, The Shadow of the Sun (Knopf), was far and away my favorite book of the year. By virtue of the fact that it’s translated nonfiction, it’s ineligible for most literary prizes; the best thing to do would be to vault the problem by giving him a couple of Nobels — for literature and for peace. Robert Fisk is almost as intrepid as Kapuscinski. The deteriorating situation in the Middle East makes the new, updated edition of his classic Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Oxford) absolutely essential reading. Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing (New Press) also became more pertinent in the months after it was published, the baldness of the title concealing a work of great formal originality and daring.
BILL SMITH: It’s easy to imagine that video games, like most technological constructs, have benefited from the realization of Moore’s Law — you know, every year computational power doubles, yadda yadda. And sure, if you’re talking about monster-rendering, adrenaline-inducing gameplay, there is no doubt: Moore is more. But in these times of Playstations and X-Boxes, it would do us well to remember Q*bert, that armless, snorkel-nosed coward. It’s doubtful that Q*bert or Tapper or any number of ridiculously entertaining ideas from the ’70s and ’80s would have made it to production in these days of hypermega. But back when 128 seemed like a big number, they inspired the pixellated passion of one Van Burnham. With her book Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame, 1971–1984 (MIT), Burnham’s done a splendid job of re-creating the cathode-lit dens and arcades of our youth; she reminds us why we’ll never regret frittering away our allowance a quarter at a time.
GREG GOLDIN: Victor Serge was one of those early-20th-century revolutionary vagabonds who pursued uprisings as a calling. By his early 20s, he was jailed as the leader of France’s notorious Bonnot gang. He fought in the failed 1917 Spanish anarchist insurrection, and was jailed again as he tried to reach Bolshevik Russia. Freed in an exchange for French officers held by the Red Army, he finally arrived in the Soviet Union in 1919, and hurled himself into the revolution, which he heralded as a “purifying tempest.” The irony in that characterization reflected Serge’s deep commitment to individual liberty. His abiding belief that democracy was “an integral component of socialism,” as biographer Susan Weissman writes, made him one of Stalin’s enemies, and led to his internal exile and eventual expulsion. Serge produced more than 30 books and pamphlets of history and politics, seven novels, biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, and his own memoirs. Starvation, imprisonment and exile never shook his conviction that “The only meaning in life lies in conscious participation in the making of history.” In Weissman’s Victor Serge: The Course Is Set on Hope (Verso), Serge lives the dilemma of the 20th century: He sought to remake the world without consigning his individuality to the dung heap. Serge fought for himself, and others like him who did not wish to surrender their identities to commerce or their minds to ideological tripe.
DAVID L. ULIN: Denis Johnson’s first collection of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edge of America & Beyond (HarperCollins), is the literary equivalent of electroshock therapy; each installment, each impression, jolts you into reactions you didn’t know you had. Featuring 11 essays and pieces of reportage, the book travels the fringes of contemporary culture, detailing encounters with extremes and extremists from the Taliban to the hippies of the Rainbow Gathering, the American militia movement to the Motorcycle Church of Christ. There’s a certain voyeuristic intensity to many of these experiences, as Johnson takes us places we’ve never been to, revealing his vulnerabilities, his fears and prejudices and sneaking sympathies, in a consistently unexpected way. But even more important is Johnson’s sense of wonder in the face of the most severe conditions, a quality that seems utterly essential to the world in which we find ourselves today.
MICHELLE HUNEVEN: Richard Russo’s gift for tragicomedy has been maturing steadily since his first novel, Mohawk, and has now become so fine-tuned and adept that his writing seems simultaneously effortless and miraculous. His take on the renegade, town-drunk or narcissistic father — most famously drawn in Nobody’s Fool — has subtly shifted and evolved in the course of his books and serves as a kind of literary chart of how, over a lifetime, a person can come to accept, love and pragmatically deal with the essentially unacceptable. In his new novel, Empire Falls (Knopf), it’s a father who is constitutionally incapable of responsibility, who misbehaves, abandons his progeny and also loves them, however intermittently. Empire Falls also nails the excruciating misery of high school, the quotidian comforts and irritations of small-town life as lived in its bars and cafés, and the way the suppressed past destructively erupts into present life. Russo manages to be consistently and profoundly funny even as he chronicles human misery and evil, and the result is a slyly brilliant, sustained effort that’s Shakespearean in its pleasures.
MARGARET WERTHEIM: Throughout history, zoo designers have been more concerned with theoretical principles of design than with the well-being of their charges. So declares David Hancocks in his deeply moving call to arms, A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future (UC Press). Hancocks, formerly of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, wants “to uninvent zoos as we know them.” Proposing a fundamental rethinking of their purpose, he argues that zoos should be pivotal institutions in practicing and promoting conservation. Hancocks calls for zoos, rather than focusing on a small number of charismatic megafauna — lions, tigers, pandas and so on — to make preservation of total biodiversity their primary goal.
F.X. FEENEY: Although technically his first novel, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River (Atlantic Monthly Press) is a rich achievement — a suspenseful tale, set in the Midwest of the early 1960s, whose playful, consciously mythic character has deliberate roots in the frontier legends of that region. As the 11-year-old narrator Reuben Land, his miracle-working father and precocious poet sister navigate the glacial Badlands in a trailer searching for their prodigal brother (the quarry of an FBI manhunt), Enger infuses the lonesome, In Cold Blood, Lee-Oswald-driving-to-work landscape of that era with a luminosity and magic one normally associates with the literature of South America. The miracles worked by Reuben’s dad are not tricks but genuine, concrete transformations he performs without egotism or fuss, a little secret between himself and the recipient of the miracle. This novel is another.