Category Archives: favorite reads of 2009

Favorite Reads of the Year (5)

Okay, time to finish this stuff up.

24. The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. The first thing to note is the construction of narrative voice and character, which is accomplished in a very unostentatious but extremely true to life manner. (Which is to say, I could see this guy, he was counterpointed into a 3-D being in my head, and his voice remained consistent throughout.) It was a sympathetic voice, though not without its flaws and idiosyncrasies. Then there is the unity of the metaphors: Baker deconstructs objects from everyday life, staplers, trains, shoelaces, popcorn–he brilliantly defamiliarizes them, yet he does this with a system of metaphors that remains consistent throughout the entire novel so that by the end it is like a series of voices in deep conversation. And lastly, the footnote on footnotes is brilliant.

25. S/Z by Roland Barthes. For this one I shall quote the translator’s introduction: “The work so joyously performed here is undertaken for the sake of the 93 divagations . . . identified by Roman numerals and printed in large type, amounting each to a page or two. These divagations, taken together, as they interrupt and are generated by the lexias of the analyzed text, constitute the most sustained yet pulverized meditation on reading I know in all of Western critical literature.” I can’t speak to the accuracy of that claim, but the passion behind it felt valid to me after I read S/Z.

26. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. In Illness as Metaphor (which, by the way, mentions The Magic Mountain more times than any other text) calls this book something along the lines of a warehouse for every metaphorical idea that has grown up around tuberculosis. That’s pretty accurate. The Magic Mountain was written just about when TB was losing potency both as a disease and as a living artistic construct, and fittingly Mann doesn’t so much make use of TB as a metaphor as deconstruct everything it had come to mean. The glorious thing about this book (and about Mann’s output in general) is how TB moves beyond its familiar context to become a metaphor for about four different, inter-related things simultaneously.

Favorite Reads of the Year (4)

19. The Tanners by Robert Walser: You can read my review here. I’ll just say here that for most of this book I had a superficial sense of what it was about–romanticism, obviously–but I had little sense of what it was really about–where it started from, where it was headed, why it took the path it did. That’s usually a disorienting and even alienating experience in a book, but each subsection The Tanners was such a compelling experience in and of itself, that to a large extent broader questions were immaterial to simply enjoying the experience of this book. That’s incredibly hard to pull off; certainly your prose and observations need to be top notch, as is the case with this book.

20. Stoner by John Williams: You can read my appreciation of this book here. This has to be one of the finest-crafted novels I read this year. You’d have a hard time convincing me that so much as one line of this novel is out of place. And yet, despite that kind of unity the book limns some of the big unanswerable questions; that is, it makes you feel their mystery even as it gives you very concrete and idiosyncratic takes on these things. Amazing.

21. King Leary by Paul Quarrington: This is kind of like the structure of The Good Soldier recapitulated into an aging hockey star in an old-folks’ home. That’s to say the narrative structure is complex and invigorating (to a reader), and Quarrington’s ability to write idiomatic dialogue is substantial. I don’t think this book is available directly in the States (you can, however, get an “import” copy at a reasonable price through Amazon). It really should be though. A book this good should be picked up by some U.S. house, even if Americans hate hockey.

22. The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? by Padgett Powell: Not much more to say here than that 1) this is a book constructed solely of questions; 2) it lacks any kind of measurable plot; and 3) it might even lack structural organization on any level larger than a paragraph. And yet, I couldn’t put the thing down.

23. Second Skin by John Hawkes: Rarely do you see such immediacy and concreteness combined with such baroque (occasionally bordering on impenetrable) language. (I think, in this sense, the book reminds me of early McCarthy, though he did it in a completely different way.) The voice felt completely real and completely literary at the same time. And then there’s the structure to speak of; somewhat akin to the bemoaned “novel-in-stories,” but far more enigmatic in the real reason behind its construction–that is, the way things are supposed to fit together, and what this means for who the protagonist is, what ultimately happens to him, and what happens to him in the narrative.

Favorite Reads of the Year (3)

13. The She-Devil in the Mirror by Horacio Castellanos Moya: In my opinion, Castellanos Moya is one of the most interesting Latin American authors to emerge in English translation in the past few years. Legend has it that Castellanos Moya was one of three authors Francisco Goldman urged New Directions to translate (Bolano being one of the others, though I've forgotten the third). Senselessness was a great choice for a first translation in that I immediately wanted to read anything else written by its author. The She-Devil in the Mirror was #2, and in fact they make a great pairing. The two books have very similar concerns, but come at them in different, but mutually intelligible ways. We've covered Castellanos Moya quite thoroughly in The Quarterly Conversation, so for more I send you to our review of Senselessness, our interview with the author, and my essay on his first two translated novels.

14. Ghosts by Cesar Aira: The more I read Aira, the more certain I become that he is one of the great working Latin American authors. Ghosts reminded me of the playfulness and casual philosophicality of Calvino. For more, see my review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

15. The Loser by Thomas Bernhard: At points in this novel I would entirely lose track of what was being communicated and just focus in on the feel of the voice and the bumping cadence of the prose. You really need nothing more than that to love this book, but then there's the multi-layered narration that's taking the first-person voice in perhaps not-previously-seen directions. It's such an intricately crafted, devious novel that it makes me wonder if Barthes ever critiqued Bernhard. I would love to read that.

16. The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolano: You can read my review here. In particular, this book distinguished itself for the distinct pleasure it offers the re-reader, which I discussed here.

17. Vertigo by WG Sebald: So many writers want to construct narratives as they've been constructed for ages. Either that, or they confine themselves to making small tweaks on well-defined forms. I loved this book for the way it quietly set about establishing a narrative logic all its own, as if this was merely something that books did as a matter of course. Another way to say this is that Vertigo felt like one of the most unified, self-consistent works I read all year, despite ranging over: the Napoleonic Wars, Kafka, detective fiction, the Italian countryside, Sebald's personal history, the Holocaust. And it was as taut as any page-turner I read this year.

18. The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe: This book is like a magic trick: it starts from absolutely nothing–a missing person investigation with no clues, no leads, nothing–and proceeds to spin that out for 300 pages. The result is bizarre. The whole investigation could be entirely false, just the invention of the detective's imagination (after all, he has to do something, since he's getting paid). Or perhaps it does correspond to some external reality. Within this question, I think you find a powerful allegory, almost certainly about the futility of life in the modern world (because this is what concerned Abe), but also transferable to so many other things.

Favorite Reads of the Year (2)

7. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann – You don't really need me to tell you that Buddenbrooks is a great book. For those new to Mann, it's the most approachable of his major novels that I've read. It's also the closest to good old 19th-century realism. A highly sardonic, unforgiving tale of a family that just isn't going to make it. Read it with someone you love.

8. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy – I read (or re-read) all of McCarthy this year, but I'm not going to subject anyone to tedious recommendations of most of his works, though I would recommend almost all of them. (Those who still want the tedious dissections of each book can read my lengthy essay on McCarthy.)

I would like to draw particular attention to Suttree, though, which must be the most bizarre and baroque novel McCarthy has written. It's McCarthy channeling Joyce, a true verbal tour de force from an author who is pretty much known for doing that in every book he writes. It's amazing, and if you only know McCarthy from Blood Meridian onward, then you'll be very surprised.

9. The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas – I reviewed this book here, interviewed the author here, and have discussed it frequently on this blog. I think I've said what I can in this book's favor.

10. The Cardboard Universe by Christopher Miller – See my review in the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

11. Desert by JMG Le Clezio – See my review at The Critical Flame. I'd just like to mention here my great enthusiasm for this book. It's one of the best postcolonial fictions I've read in a long while, and it's also one of the best books of landscape I've ever read. The key to writing well on each lies in the same thing: getting beyond the notions you come in with.

12. Pornografia by Witold Gombrowicz – It didn't take me long to fall in love with the voice of this novel. I eat right up this kind of acidly ironic psychologizing (which, I think, is what appeals to me in Bernhard). Beyond the voice–which, I repeat, is outstanding–this book reminds me of a good play in terms of its taut structure. It more or less occurs in three "acts," and the psychological riddles brought into play are both clearly stated and irresolvably complex.

Favorite Reads of the Year (1)

I'm determined to run down my favorite reads of 2009 on this blog, but I think it might take a few posts. So this is the first, in grand hopes that I'll make it to the last.

In the order in which they were read:

1. The Darkroom of Damocles: The plot of this detective fiction is just a hair less convoluted than that of The Big Sleep, but Damocles is making more of a point with its madness. The book follows an ordinary Dutch man brought into the ranks of the resistance during World War II. He's asked to do things that transgress everyday morals and he does them, thinking he's fighting on the side of the good guys against Nazis. But is he really? The plot of this book gets so complex and so layered that it can be tough to say. Willem Frederik Hermans wrote this book to dramatize the fog of war, and in 1958 (when it was published) this was a huge issue for Holland, which was still dealing with guilt over collaborating with the Nazis to an extent greater than most other European nations.

2. Yalo by Elias Khoury See my review here.

3. The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig This is my first Zweig, though it certainly won't be my last. The plot follows a young woman from the Austrian provinces in the years after World War I when the empire was in decline. She's suddenly thrust into high society by a wealthy relative, but then has it all taken away. But once you've lived the high life . . . Here Zweig is an amazing observer of an empire on it's last legs and the ordinary people who must make sense of their lives within it.

4. Fin-De-Siecle Vienna by Carl E. Schorske This series of related essays tells you everything you need to know about the origins and great artists (Freud, Klimt, Schoenberg) of the culture that Zweig chronicles so effortlessly in the above title.

5. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth Roth starts this book at what any decent person must call the gates of the antipodes of human depravity, and then he spends the next 500 pages charging as far past them as he dares. Mickey Sabbath, the dirty old man to shame dirty old men, was the most fascinatingly repulsive protagonist I spend time with in 2009. At times I hated him, but I could never stop wanting to know about him (perhaps never more so than in the multi-page footnote when Roth gleefully provides the transcript of a phone sex conversation between professor Sabbath and his young student (said conversation being used by an abused women's support group on campus to get Sabbath fired)). There's a reason James Wood holds this among Roth's best.

6. Three Lives by Gertrude Stein To be honest, I could hardly read more than 10 pages of this book in an hour. I kept pausing to linger over the syntax, to feel the way Stein's consonants crunched together like gravel. I could simply love this book for Stein's unrelenting ability to make an ultra-stripped-down vocabulary sound fresh again and again, but "Melanctha" must be one of the truest, best-observed, most nuanced presentations of difficult love I read in 2009, or any year before it. And yet Stein does it with so few words than a third-grader would almost certainly know them all.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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