The year in reading, 2005
Just because it has resided among the rotating pile of week-old Statesmans, year-old Rolling Stones, and brand-new Motor Trends in the Chronicle's executive washroom since its release in March, Robert Doherty's (né Bob Mayer) Bodyguard of Lies is not actually our favorite book of the year. But Doherty né Mayer shouldn't feel too bad: Whereas in years past a book has often emerged whether by consensus or by my decree as a clear-cut favorite (Ian McEwan's Atonement in 2002, for instance, or David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas in 2004), this year saw no such standout. Coming closest for us, I think, was A.L. Kennedy's Paradise, which I liked quite a lot, and which Marrit Ingman addresses below. She, along with a handful of our reviewers, has offered her impressions of the year in reading. The assignment was to do so in a couple of hundred words. Well, we did it, and, as it turns out, we've got more than 20 favorites. Not bad for an allegedly bad year in publishing.
As for myself, I wasn't much of a Jorie Graham fan before seeing and hearing her read at the Texas Book Festival in late October, and I rarely base my opinions of poets on performance. Plus, Graham is established; so established that she has been accused of favoring her students (she's currently teaching at Harvard when not at her home in France) while judging contests. But Graham is hot she should be on The West Wing or something and Overlord (Ecco), aside from being accessible, artful verse, is, basically, the most concise, eloquent, and damning anti-administration statement out there. The fact that the statement, on its surface, finds its voice in World War II, specifically on the beaches of Normandy, shouldn't dissuade anyone who's sickened by the president, his cronies, and the culture of fear and loathing their actions have furthered from consulting the text. After all, as a notable author told me at a TBF party, Graham had two personal guards accompanying her throughout her stay in Austin. I don't know if this is the truth, but I know that the poetry rings with it: Part of being established is achieving and building on the mastery of one's work as it relates to the canon, and Graham can work in any meter, mood, mode, and style. She rarely repeats herself. Here, in her ninth collection, she's all over the place, but her lyricism lends itself well to the sense of a battered collective spirituality in the face of great loss. A series of "Praying" the poet trying to understand is formed throughout, as is a set of "Spoken From the Hedgerows" the poet inhabiting the "other" she seeks achieving an alternating current of plea and complacency. In other words, the living and the dead.
Ultimately, Overlord is about consequence and coming to grips with it. Still, it's not as depressing as I might make it sound, but rather pretty liberating. And funny. And effective. And fascinating. And whether read out loud or read in quiet, it's my favorite book of 2005. I wish I could share some of it with you here, but I know I'd get carried away. Come by and borrow it, if you want.
Other favorites: John Banville's The Sea (Knopf), John McManus' Bitter Milk (Picador), the aforementioned Paradise, Michele J. Hale's Undone (Cowgirlie), UT Press' Conversations With Texas Writers, James Magnuson's The Hounds of Winter (UT Press), and Surviving Justice: America's Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated (McSweeney's Voice of Witness). A couple of books from 2005 that I want to read but haven't yet: Rene Steinke's Holy Skirts (William Morrow) and Lamar Herrin's House of the Deaf (Unbridled). Shawn Badgley
It's my pleasure to cull five favorites from 2005: two novels, two memoirs, and one firebrand treatise. Lydia Millet
's Oh Pure and Radiant Heart
(Soft Skull) is a speculative joyride about the nuclear age that brings the Manhattan Project to the present day in prose like Pop Rocks and Coke. A.L. Kennedy
(Knopf) is its opposite: nimble, elegant realism about the descent into a personal hell. Nerd Girl Rocks Paradise City
(Chicago Review), recently reviewed in these pages, describes Anne Soffee
's sojourn through the Sunset Strip's cock-rock heyday before grunge expunged the Spandex from our lives as an "industry weasel." Savagely observational while genuinely literary, the book is a blithe treat. Bee Lavender
's Lessons in Taxidermy: A Compendium of Safety and Danger
(Akashic) is as grave as it is graceful, the story of its author's constant flirtations with death a diagnosis of terminal cancer at age 12, a debilitating car crash, and potentially fatal allergies, among other endangerments. Not a plucky survivor's tale, the book is harsh and real and finally transcendent, a poised meditation on mortality and fate. Everyone should read The Truth Behind the Mommy Wars: Who Decides What Makes a Good Mother?
(Seal). Miriam Peskowitz
dope-slaps America's corporate and government structures for keeping families off the public agenda by pitting mothers against each other. It's the most radical book of the year, way ballsier than Freakonomics
If Chris Ayres
' hilarious and infuriating War Reporting for Cowards
(Atlantic Monthly) isn't exactly the work of combat reportage from Iraq one might want, it's probably the one we deserve. Skirting politics in favor of dramatizing our humble narrator's distress at the war's shortage of lattes and surplus of raw animal fear, this "anti-sending-me-to-war" book entertainingly captures that terror born of selfishness and jolted apathy that played no small part in getting us into the mess, while demonstrating how an embedded reporter, no matter how cowardly, begins dangerously to think like a soldier rather than a journalist. On the other end of the analytical spectrum is Terry Eagleton
's Holy Terror
(Oxford University), which knows nothing of combat but gamely attacks philosophy and literature to render an intellectual history of the shock and awe in Western Civilization's own recurring renditions of jihad. The year's biggest surprise (to me, at least), was Jonathan Lethem's The Disappointment Artist
, a collection of essays on highly personal relationships with movies, books, music, and even a subway stop. Now his many fans probably aren't so taken aback by the delicacy of emotional and intellectual engagement in his discussions of Phillip K. Dick, John Cassavetes, Jack Kirby, Brian Eno, or the number of times he saw Star Wars
as a child. I've never been a fan, however, having found his approach to genre fiction to be a performance of undeniably clever special pleading by an inveterate scold. But the accounts of Lethem's devotions and reconsiderations in this excellent book offer a bracingly honest portrait of the artist as an audience, encouraging me to return to the author's previous work with an altered perspective.
I wish I could say that my favorite books this year were fiction, that as "literary reading" became more scarce, I fought the tide. But no, I was attracted to nonfiction, just like, apparently, the majority of the philistines out there, gauging by book sales, cultural studies, and airport hardbacks. Though I enjoyed the novels and short stories I read, it was the nonfiction that stuck with me, proving itself relevant to my life over and over. These books are already like old friends. I feel like I've always known them, like my brain swallowed them and made them as fundamental to my thought processes as the alphabet song or Every Good Boy Does Fine. Guy Deutscher
's The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention
(Metropolitan), with its chronicling of how humans got from thing-words (nose, girl, tree) to "Me Tarzan" to Shakespeare, has thrown a spotlight on every word I've encountered since reading it. I now see language changing constantly, with evidence in this very paragraph of dying words side by side with hints at what will have irreversibly replaced them 100 years from now. I wish everyone would read this book, least of all to deflate the age-old debate over whether kids these days are destroying the English language. But even more so, I wish everyone would read Malcolm Gladwell
(Little, Brown). How did I get along in the world before this book? With its fascinating onslaught of anecdotes and studies, its eloquent breakdown of how the mind works in crisis (you should practice dialing 911, because in the mindset of emergency you may be literally unable), in snap judgments (the process of describing a face can make it impossible to then recognize that face in, say, a lineup), in the hidden ways we view race and gender, jams and chairs it altered my view of the world and reintroduced me to the sneaky mechanisms of my own mind. Now, any good fiction will do the exact same thing. It will change how you think, reintroduce you to yourself, become your friend. But this year, I found friendship among the philistines.
Looking back on this past year is a bit like sorting through old clothes and finding a twenty left in the pocket of a long-forgotten pair of jeans. Though I'll admit 2005 left me generally unimpressed in terms of literature, there were a few books that stuck with me. No novel this year excited me more than Salvador Plascencia
's The People of Paper
(McSweeney's), a debut that managed to push the boundaries of experimental fiction while avoiding the leaden, intellectually overwrought tone implied by the genre. Myla Goldberg
achieved a similar feat in Wickett's Remedy
(Doubleday), playing with narrative structure without abandoning the emotional pull of her story. Zadie Smith
narrowed her scope in On Beauty
(Penguin) and ended up with an engaging and surprisingly realistic novel about the struggle of a modern, imperfect family trying to survive in a surreally academic Boston suburb (take this from someone who grew up in the town Smith's fictional "Wellington" is likely based on). Then there were the comebacks. Gabriel García Márquez
delivered, as can be expected, a beautifully written novella (Memories of My Melancholy Whores
, Knopf) that, while not even approaching his best, eclipsed most other releases this year. Kurt Vonnegut
's A Man Without a Country
(Seven Stories) amounted to an internal monologue about our country's sorry state, but its bluntness was just what we required by its September release date. In terms of poetry, former poet laureate Billy Collins
' The Trouble With Poetry: And Other Poems
(Random House) provided much-needed levity in the all-too-serious world of poetry, while Dean Young
's Elegy on Toy Piano
(University of Pittsburgh) proved that the line between experimental and lyric verse is not so neatly drawn.
"Grief when it comes, it is nothing we expect it to be." The topic of loss has never been channeled as elegantly as through Joan Didion
in 2005. In The Year of Magical Thinking
, she makes the aforementioned statement early on, and her tale of grief unfolds whether you're ready or not. For Didion, the year of 2004 was one of denial and disbelief: or perhaps just the suspension of belief. Didion's replays of the night her husband John Gregory Dunne died in December of 2003 range from torturous to therapeutic, and her pain is weighted to infinity as her only child, Quintana, lies in a coma at a nearby hospital. It is a riveting read, because we the readers are her audience, listening to her monologue as she repeatedly changes it for discomfort. Of course Didion has never been about comfort. Her novels and essays have always dealt with borderline psychosis and anxiety decorated with silvery detachment. Her "magical thinking" involved similar antics: not moving her husband's shoes in case he came back, avoiding nostalgic landmarks in L.A. while visiting her ailing daughter, so as not to trigger the "vortex effect." And yet, for a book about grief and death and personal hell, it moves in a way so raw and beautiful, like accidental poetry. Thank God it didn't end up in Oprah's book club.