Monday, December 28, 2009

The Year in Reading 2009

The best books of the year, unranked, grouped by Borgesian principles.

Kicking things off at the start of the year, Greer Gilman's Cloud & Ashes is fantasy the way it should be done. It's a uniquely voiced view of a fully realized world filled with compelling characters. Old North English diction drives an initially fragmented story into coherence; it's like having folk songs sung to you while you rise into dreams. Like everything else from Small Beer Press, it's excellent. Also from Small Beer, Geoff Ryman's The King's Last Song reveals the Cambodia of the 1960's, 1990's and 1100's, through the life story of Jayavarman VII.

Another set of books involved various young people not wanting to go to Brown. Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You follows 18 year old James Schweik (aka Bryce Canyon) around Manhattan in search of love, or maybe just some peace and quiet. In a nonfiction effort, Brownie Kevin Roose, The Unlikely Disciple, takes a semester off from Brown to go to Liberty University for his semester abroad. Hanging behind the book are the questions of whether there are two groups of people (saved and unsaved) or only one? Is your membership in the group dependent on your own choice, or does someone else get to choose for you? The spiritual cliffhanger hinges on whether a nice liberal boy from Oberlin, Ohio will wake up one day to find himself converted on the one hand, or whether the Liberty kids will move closer to mainstream America on the other. The same questions of identity lie behind Chandler Burr's You Or Someone Like You. Main character Anne Rosenbaum draws her strength from literature, and from being, simply, human in the face of family trials. I recommended this book to more people than any other this year. Lev Grossman's Quentin Coldwater forsakes Princeton rather than Brown to attend Brakebill's College of Magical Pedagogy in The Magicians. It's been described as JK Rowling and CS Lewis meet Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt by too many reviewers, but...there you go. If Hogwarts were populated by snarky twentysomething malcontents with encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture (and Etruscan linguistics), it would look like Brakebills. Marvelous and also Very Bad Things ensue.

Books about books filled much of the past year. Nicholas Basbanes' true stories of book collectors, librarians, publishers and others of the "gently mad" and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night are the sort of nourishing books that give one new perspective and the vim to face the day.

Elsewhere in nonfiction, out of a number of very good books about strategy, thinking and human endeavor, Winifred Gallagher's Rapt and Daniel Tammet's Embracing the Wide Sky proved the most insightful of the bunch, covering attention and neurovariant thinking as well as broader issues of cognition and strategy. In history, The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham, covers an era that I had little prior knowledge of (I guess that's why they call them the Dark Ages, nudge, nudge.) In history of science, The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson about uber-scientist and gadfly Joseph Priestley and The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes cover the 18th/19th century scientific revolution in thrilling detail.
Carl Jung was, quite literally, a wizard, or as much of one as it was possible to be at the start of the 20th century, based on the contents and construction of his Liber Novus/Red Book, which represents both a harrowing journal of his encounter with the unconsious mind using techniqes of active imagination (in which dream imagery is brought up ito te conscious mind), and a stunningly beautiful work of art. An illuminated manuscript kept in the family vaults for fifty years following Jung's death, the story of how it came to be published was also one of the best articles of the year.
On the to-read stack are several widely recommended books: Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann is up next.

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