Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001

The Lit Parade

by W.G. Sebald
RANDOM HOUSE, 298 PP., $25.95
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In his longest narrative to date, Sebald conjures a continuum of grief so generous as to include the imagined death throes of a wayward moth and the fate of the titular Austerlitz, an architectural historian whose character was forged by his removal from Prague to Wales via the kindertransport. Austerlitz is a high-wire act in the Nocturama, dense with history and uncanny about the way things fall apart. When the narrator notes Austerlitz's adeptness at "forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him," it's a comment on Sebald's own aesthetic: His wide-ranging intelligence and the serpentine arguments of his Bernhard-gauge paragraphs make the novel a memory palace of dazzling vistas. Apt, then, that Austerlitz should share his name with the ancestors of an Omaha hoofer—Fred Astaire, whose luminous tread could make any surface sing.

by Robert Storr, Dennis Cooper, Ulrich Loock
PHAIDON, 160 PP., $35
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This overview of DIY artist Raymond Pettibon presents a collection of image-text ink drawings rangy enough to evoke Charles Manson as provocatively as it does the sentences of Proust. Initially adopted by the L.A. hardcore scene of the late '70s and '80s, Pettibon got his start drawing ersatz subcultural types in moments of unadulterated pychopathic glee. His portraits of mainstream figures—craggy Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Peeping Tom J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis on a cross—tended to highlight the malefic sides of America's pop mythology. As he turns to broader iconography (surfers, baseball, trains), the drawings grow more detailed and the text more cryptic, sometimes mimicking the complexity of late Henry James. Aside from an interview by Dennis Cooper, the written sections here don't add much, perhaps because this artist's work is often resistant to interpretation.

by Marjorie Welish
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Of course, by the time "Here" is annotated, it's elsewhere. This puzzler, akin to the shifts in figure-ground relationship that animate Welish's elegant art criticism, is one of several slippages that open whorls and eddies in the current of her poetry. In these spaces appear the ferociously analytical and suddenly sensuous discoveries of a poet at her capacious finest, deferring theoretical consolations as surely as convenient emotionalism. Strolling through the shards of modernism, these caustically rigorous inquiries into perception and language (which is figure, which is ground?) help annotate both the here and now of contemporary poetry, ongoingly turning into elsewhere.

Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).
Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).

by Colson Whitehead
DOUBLEDAY, 389 PP., $24.95
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Historically, the African American literary landscape has been occupied by more outside forces than Afghanistan. Up until recently, black divas, according to bell hooks, had to write for middle-class white feminists. And now, the black bourgeoisie has moved in. They've brought an unparalleled readership, bookstores, and book clubs. More black authors have gotten rich, but there are still those who go their own way, some of whom might be eligible for food stamps. Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days, is better off than that. His lead character, J. Sutter, is a hack freelance writer. Sutter's assignment is to cover the annual John Henry Days pageant, named for the black steel driver who tested his brawn against the force of a steam drill. Along the way, Whitehead mows down a number of American institutions with a wit that is merciless and entertaining.

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