Books

Our 27 favorite books of the year

HAPPY BABY + LOOKING FORWARD TO IT
By Stephen Elliott
MacAdam/Cage, 191 pp., $21 (image Buy Happy Baby); Picador, 306 pp., $14 (image Buy Looking Forward to It)

Elliott's twofer may seem schizoid, but his novel Happy Baby and campaign journal Looking Forward to It both hang on the Faulknerian notion that history—be it personal or political—is a thorn in the side of human progress. Happy Baby explores the ways that institutional violence shapes its victims, but the contradictions of the people who abuse its gentle protag, Theo (who, like Elliott, was an adolescent ward of Illinois), evade easy categorization. Indeed, his own actions are a mystery to him. Multiply that motivational murk on a mass scale and you have Looking Forward to It, in which Elliott tracks the 2004 Democratic presidential race and encounters a seriously mixed-up American electorate. Elliott (a Voice essayist) applies his clear-eyed, heartbroken aesthetic to the absurdities and seductions of politics without resorting to self-aggrandizement or—miraculously, given the circumstances—abandoning all hope.


IN PRAISE OF BLANDNESS
By François Jullien
Zone Books, 169 pp., $26
image Buy this book

"How, we might ask, can one speak of blandness?" asks Jullien. "Would it not be more in keeping with the very logic of this subject to simply decline to develop it verbally . . . ?" His paradoxically stylish treatise on Chinese aesthetics identifies the quality of blandness as an entrée into the Daoist/Confucian ideal of detachment; suddenly, exquisitely, an inert landscape or bland broth is revealed as a way to contemplate the beauty of becoming versus the fixity of being. Like a zitherist about to pluck a note, Jullien positions his ideas on the threshold of our imagination. Blandness is a sub rosa self-help book and a map to the sublime.

JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL
By Susanna Clarke
Bloomsbury, 782 pp., $27.95
image Buy this book

Call Jonathan Strange the fantastic Bleak House to Rowling's wizard Stalky & Co. Susanna Clarke's great fat tale of the rebirth of magic in 19th-century England has a rambling ground plan, a decorous diction, and a politely crazed investment in ornate cornices (lesser writers could mine her footnotes to inaugurate their own franchises).

Here is a writer who remembers that true fairy tales carry a sting and the creatures themselves were never properly domesticated to the nursery. Her uncanny book is an object lesson in the pleasures—and risks—of enchantment.

LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE
By Jennifer Gonnerman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 350 pp., $24
image Buy this book

In this expansion of her work for the Voice, Gonnerman exposes the human toll taken by America's incarceration industry. She looks beneath the appalling statistics that typically fill such books to illuminate what they only hint at: the character-depleting effects of confinement, the continuation of its injustices after parole, and the tenuous resilience of the prison system's castoffs. Her subject, Elaine Bartlett, served 16 years for a first-time drug offense, and attempts to resume her life once sprung. But as Gonnerman's scathing, compassionate account reveals, the odds against her are virtually insurmountable.

THE LINE OF BEAUTY
By Alan Hollinghurst
Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95
image Buy this book

Woe to Nick Guest, the callow, social-climbing grad student of The Line of Beauty, who is writing a dissertation on "style" in Henry James's late novels, yet ignores the Master's warnings about innocence doomed. The story opens in 1983 in London, where middle-class Nick lodges with the snobbish family of an Oxford friend, whose father, Gerald Fedden, has just been elected a Tory MP. Hollinghurst's Booker winner illuminates the glossy optimism of the cocaine decade, even as it exposes the reckless vanity behind the wide lapels. It's a beautiful book about ugly people.

image
Whatever you do, don't drink the zeerstum.
photo: Overlook Press
MOLVANIA: A LAND UNTOUCHED BY MODERN DENTISTRY
By Santo Cilaura, Tom Glesiner, and Rob Sitch
Overlook, 176 pp., $13.95
image Buy this book

File next to "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," then go laugh your ass off. Book-length parody often fails just a few pages in, but the authors of this "Jetlag Travel Guide" limning "one of Eastern Europe's best-kept secrets" with screamingly depressing photos and the dead-on use of boldface: "The most commonly grown grape variety is the plavec, a small dark fruit with enormous pipsunique to the area." You will carry a little Molvanîa with you wherever you go—say, that bizarrely upholstered diner on Broadway that gives you two sad-looking baked goods and an orange slice to accompany your humongous, inedible omelet.

MR. DYNAMITE
By Meredith Brosnan
Dalkey Archive, 175 pp., $13.50
image Buy this book

Or Jarleth Prendergast and the Overactive Imagination, in which the 37-year-old Dublin-born New Yorker, experimental filmmaker manqué, and ex–Cum Jerks manager, rejects "shameless fibs and worn out Irish-American clichés!!!" while trying to play the Eire card, as when he tries to convince an Indian cabbie to put the pedal to the metal ("Mindful of the centuries of suffering inflicted on both our peoples by British imperialism—"). Brosnan's head-rush style nods to Gaddis, and our hero's initials allude to that expat in reverse, J.P. Donleavy. This debut's bruising, bawdy, and built for speed.

OCCASIONAL WORK AND SEVEN WALKS FROM THE OFFICE FOR SOFT ARCHITECTURE
By Lisa Robertson
Clear Cut Press, 288 pp., $12.95
image Buy this book

« Previous Page
 |
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...