Dear God. I read 100 books in 2005. At least, that’s what the running log on my computer tells me. That doesn’t include all the magazine articles, essays, manuscripts, and blog posts I read. That’s a lot of books for someone who 1. reads slowly; and 2. isn’t a book critic.
Good thing I’m not one because, looking at the list, I’d be useless. Few of the books I read in 2005 were actually published in 2005. Instead, I rectified some glaring holes in my (self-)education—Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick Leigh Fermor, James Salter, Grace Paley—and re-read some old favorites. I’ve got several 2005 books looming at me, half-read, from my bookshelves—Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, Stephen Dixon’s Phone Rings, Robert Coover’s A Child Again—and another list of books I meant to check out from the library.
So, it was hard to come up with a list of my favorite ten books of the year. But, hey, life is hard. Here are my ten, with room left over for terrific reissues.
1. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: Spooky, fiendishly funny, and often sexy as hell, Link’s second collection of fabulist short stories is mesmerizing because it presents the most fantastical circumstances in a plainspoken, conversational prose style. You’re lulled into accepting some deeply disturbing and unbelievable happenings as just quotidian life. Link’s stories operate on dream logic—they make complete sense as you read them, but become increasingly bizarre and creepy when you try to explain them, or their effect on you.
2. Prime by Poppy Z. Brite: Brite conjures up a microcosm of contemporary New Orleans (and, by extension, America) in a restaurant. America is all here in this continuation of Brite’s adventures with gay couple/restaurateurs G-Man and Rickey—race relations, sex in a variety of forms, class, gender roles. Brite’s voice is sharp, slangy, hilarious, and taut. Kitchen Confidential looks milquetoast in comparison.
3. The R. Crumb Handbook by R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski: The first great underground cartoonist has his say, and then says it some more. Part autobiography, part retrospective, the book is chock-full of comics, sketches, spot illustrations, photographs, ephemera, and errata from every strain of Crumb’s career. Beautifully produced, thoroughly unsettling, it’s the best, single-volume introduction to this American master that you’ll ever see. There’s even a CD of his music.
4. Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman: Since his Sandman comic series in the 1980s, Neil Gaiman had quietly insisted that gods and mythological figures live among us, going about their lives as futilely and desperately as regular joes. He writes with so much propulsion and delicacy that you end up believing him. We need myths, even if we don’t quite believe in them anymore. In Anansi Boys, Gaiman finds his humor. Sometimes slapstick, sometimes pitch black, his humor is always fall-down-funny, even when the situations are scaring the bejeezus out of us.
5. The Summer He Didn’t Die by Jim Harrison: Three lush, rambling novellas that show Harrison at the height of his powers. He’s been called the “poet of appetite,” and his lusty exuberance shows. More importantly, however, there’s a melancholy that comes with the appetite. (After all, our appetites are never truly whetted until we die.) In the title novella, Harrison’s recurring hero Brown Dog must—nearing the age of fifty—finally take on some adult responsibility. In “Tracking,” Harrison gives us, in 90 pages, a veiled memoir that’s more grounded and thoughtful than his actual autobiography. In “Republican Wives,” the title characters look at their lives in the mirror, and don’t like what they see.
Last Night by James Salter: Elegant, supple short stories that are erotic and whimsical, just before they break your heart.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling: The saga gets darker, the pain hits closer to home, the humor gets downright mordant. A return to form after the overly verbose Order of the Phoenix.
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders: A slightly disappointing novella, particularly after his first two short story collections, but still caustically funny. A fierce fable for fierce times.
Wimbledon Green by Seth: A parody of comics collectors that sends up everything from fanboys to art auctions. Even in rushed, sketchy form, Seth’s art is gorgeous and impressionistic, especially the muted color schemes and easy-does-it pacing.
And They All Sang: Adventures of an Eclectic Disc Jockey by Studs Terkel: A collection of Terkel’s interviews with musicians, composers, and impresarios from a variety of genres. The history of 20th-century music, particularly American music, is right here, as told by its creators.
Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison: Small Beer Press bills Travel Light as a children’s book, but its breakneck ramble through the whole of Western civilization—all done in less than 150 pages!—is so filled with blood, acidic wit, and unadulterated desire that I’m not sure the kiddies should touch it. Too bad for them. The novella, a lost classic for over fifty years, follows the fantastical adventures of a girl raised first by bears, then by dragons, and finally by the human race that she’s grown to despise. Or is she raising humanity, showing us its potential? In any case, Mitchison shows off what she can do.
A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor: In 1934, an ungovernable 19-year-old autodidact decided to hike from Holland to Constantinople. He sees European civilization on the cusp of World War II. His prose—extravagant, meandering, magnificently detailed, ripe to the point of being purple—is wonderfully at odds with the subject’s wistful tone. By the time Fermor got around to writing of these travels, over 40 years later, much of his hiking path had been destroyed by bombs. He suffuses his narrative of a teenager finding himself with the authority—and extensive knowledge of art history and classical studies—of his older self. Not quite memoirs, not strictly travel narratives, not quite cultural critiques, these two books are sui generis. They are the first two books in what Fermor calls a trilogy. Let’s hope he completes the tale.
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa: Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge comics are hard acts to follow; Barks set the bar awfully high for funny animal comics and for American satire in general. Using side comments from Barks’s stories, as well as notes, Don Rosa concocted the life story—in twelve self-contained comics—of Barks’s signature character. Rosa’s story ran from 1994 to 1996, and is collected in a beautifully printed edition with colors that pop. Rosa is a master comedian—his humor, whether slapstick or dialogue-driven, is fresh and feisty. His attention to detail—there are sly jokes in practically every panel—is unbelievable. Most importantly of all, he manages to evoke the tone of Barks’s stories and drawing style without slavishly imitating either. This is more than a footnote to Barks’s career, but a worthy work of art in its own right.
I’ll post my top ten movies at the end of the month, after I’ve had a chance to catch up with the late-December releases.