Friday, January 01, 2010

FIVE FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2009

Love In Infant Monkeys by Lydia Millet (Soft Skull)

A collection that uses the lives of real historical characters and their
interactions with animals to create short stories that display a rare mix of
intelligence, humor and emotional resonance. Some are heartbreaking, some
are funny, and a few are just weird. Madonna shoots a pheasant on her
English estate and muses on the Kaballah, Thomas Edison electrocutes an
elephant, Noam Chomsky tries to unload his granddaughter's gerbil habitat at
the town dump, and in the title story a famous psychologist's scientific
objectivity crumbles in an alcoholic breakdown. Millet has wit and style to
spare.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon)

Mazzucchelli abandoned a potentially lucrative career in mainstream comics
to develop his art and follow his muse, and this is the glorious result. The
story of an arrogant, emotionally stunted architect who hits bottom and
reclaims his soul, this graphic novel is both complex and affecting. The art
uses varying muted color palettes to suggest narrative time and mood, and
the characters are rendered in separate styles to indicate their their idiosyncratic perspectives. What could have been just a cold formalist exercise in style is in Mazzucchelli's hand a groundbreaking creative work that equally
values both head and heart.

Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
by Robin D. G.
Kelley (Free Press)

In this biography Kelley dispels more than a few myths about the
legendary jazz pianist and composer. A scholar of African American
history and a pianist, he deeply understands both the music and the milieu that
Monk functioned in, and shows that Monk was better schooled in music than
condescending critics of his time knew. Kelley also makes clear that Monk
suffered from undiagnosed bipolar disorder most of his life and was very
fortunate to have strong women in his life who nurtured his genius - from
his mother, who indulged his early interest in music, to his wife Nellie and
the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who supported him financially in
lean times. A detailed and definitive look into the life of a central figure
in twentieth century American music.

Big Machine
by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau)

The story of an ex-junkie named Ricky Rice who is initiated into a secret
society called The Unlikely Scholars and undertakes a quest to find a
mysterious Voice that has haunted African Americans for hundreds of years,
Big Machine takes big chances. LaValle has a gift for creating an epic that
functions on an intimate human scale though, and his demotic wit keeps the
sometimes fantastic proceedings earthbound and believable. His combination
of potboiler suspense and literary panache suggest a Stephen King novel as
written by Ralph Ellison.

Zeitoun
by Dave Eggers (McSweeneys)

The real life story of a Syrian American contractor who was snared in a
post-Katrina Homeland Security nightmare, Eggers tells Zeitoun's tale in a
crisp self effacing style that makes the book all the more powerful.
Abdulrahman Zeitoun stayed behind in New Orleans during the hurricane and heroically
helped rescue both people and animals from drowning in the early stages of
the flood, only to be arrested without charge and held without communication
for months in a makeshift Guantanamo style concentration camp on our own
shores. A book that provokes disbelief, anger and admiration for Zeitoun's
dogged resilience.

And some others I enjoyed in the past year:

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon)
The Skating Rink by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions)
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)
Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong by Paul Chaat Smith (U of Minnesota Press)
Chronic City
by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday)
The Caryatids by Bruce Sterling (Del Rey)
Stitches by David Small (W.W. Norton)
Low Side of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns (Broadway)
The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty by Dave Hickey (U of Chicago Press)

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