Was It Good for You?
The year in books
Could be my burrowing tendencies talking, but two of my favorite books this year seem to have excavation at their cores. Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City (Doubleday) foregrounds the havoc wreaked by a wayward tunneling machine (or possibly a giant tiger) in an off-kilter Manhattan and provides endless layers of identity, reality, and high-wire flurries of cultural signifying to dig into. Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness: Stories (Knopf) tucks into a different brand of subterranean horror and, occasionally, cautious wonder; her masterful stories unearth the kinds of buried experience that make all the difference in a life. The oddest and most surprisingly fascinating read – Leann Shapton's Important Artifacts and Personal Property From the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – also has an archaeological bent: It's a literal if fictional catalog of a romance between a freelance photographer and the author of a New York Times column dedicated to (yes) cake. The detail and knowingness that Sharpton put to the project blow past the conceit's preciousness; her perfectly pitched document of a relationship's arc – from mix CDs and vintage lingerie to a hammer-damaged white-noise machine and angry, handwritten notes on the back of gallery invitations, photographed, described, and priced as if for a post-breakup auction – unspools a suspenseful, human story, well-told.
On the home(ish) front, Michener Center grad James Hannaham's tale of a closeted gay man's stabs at new identity, God Says No (McSweeney's), captures a rarely heard voice with empathy and wit. Family memoir The Kids Are All Right (Harmony), co-written by former Chron colleague Diana Welch and her siblings, is unpretentious, entertaining, and touching. And the devastating honesty and surprising imagery of An Ocean of Despair (Monofonus Press), Thor Harris' account of debilitating depression – illustrated and packaged with his instrumental soundtrack – moved me to my soul.