The Year in Books
No idea why there's such a strong turnout of speculative/sci-fi-ish titles in this year's Top 10. Perhaps the reading voters this year--City Paper contributors Raymond Cummings, Joab Jackson, Adrienne Martini, and Bret McCabe--merely came across more such works they liked this year. Perhaps sci-fi merely had a really banner year. Perhaps good, old-fashioned American realism/hyperrealism simply doesn't satisfy the way it once did. Perhaps such imaginative stories, where political ideas and social observations get concealed in metaphor and symbolism, are merely more easy to take when the real world feels so harsh and hopeless. Perhaps it's just a reminder that imaginative, creative thinking is what it's going to take to help us get out of whatever financial/political/social/environmental/etc. rut we've dug ourselves into. Whatever the case, the 10 books below each delivered something that made them stand out in 2009.
Describing Walton's Lifelode as a woman's story all but guarantees that it won't receive a wide readership. And, yet, that is what it is. The woman in question, Taveth, runs Applekirk, the house of a feudal-esque lord in a fantasy kingdom. A skirmish between a very real god and a very impudent mortal breaks out and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. But while the story is familiar, Walton tells it slanted. Big things happen, but we experience them from Taveth's point of view--and that makes this potentially overtold tale into something magical. (Adrienne Martini)
This English translation of French author/poet Jacques Roubaud's next installment in his ongoing series continues the complex idea of what a novel could be that Dalkey's 2005 The Great Fire of London suggested. Less a linear progression of ideas and characters than a improvisational consideration of what writing a novel entails--Roubaud is a member of the style exercising Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, after all--The Loop is a quasi confessional, perhaps trustworthy remembrances of things past. Maybe: the 700 or so pages here suggest a constant turning of memory, this time out recounting life during WWII. A challenge that offers satisfying rewards. (Bret McCabe)
We all seek happiness, if only haphazardly though our daily pursuits. Powers uses the novel form to explore this inarticulate drive with far more nuance and intelligence than the whole self-help genre dedicated to the topic. Generosity revolves around an Algerian refugee named Thassa Amzwar, who despite a rough past, is ceaselessly buoyant, a trait put under the microscope by researchers. Artfully couching science within a conversational tone, Powers details how our yearning to believe in genetic determinism undercuts our esteem for free will--and maybe even our love for literature. (Joab Jackson)
They were just ordinary kids, it turns out. They kept diaries. They went on dates, to proms. They got into trouble now and again. They worked crap jobs, bullied, were bullied. Got blasted on the weekends. Dug guns and violence. Except that in April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold unleashed a lethal, suicidal wave of terror on their suburban Colorado high school. In the patient, methodical hands of author Dave Cullen, the Columbine story sidesteps the media-storm narratives (The Breakfast Club-gone-berserk; guns don't kill, but Marilyn Manson does) that swirled in the wake of this tragedy and emerges as a series of prosaic, intermingled portraits of normal lives at varying stages--of teenage killers, innocents, educators, lawmen--torn asunder when Harris' gestating-for-years sociopathy exploded in the nation's face. (Raymond Cummings)
While Priest's Boneshaker is a rip-roaring read in its own right, complete with zombie analogues and daring rescues from same, it's the fully imagined details that give the book its texture. The Steampunk subgenre--which has been described as what happens to goths when they discover color--has been bobbing around speculative fiction circles since Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine. Priest, however, has given it a fresh coat of mustache wax for the new millennium. Her airships, gadgetry, and poisonous gases fit hand in glove with her exquisitely drawn characters. (AM)
Set in the cubby-hole apartments, greasy eateries, and other dingy corners of Manhattan, the fanciful Chronic City follows how Chase Insteadman, an ex-child actor cashing in his fading fame on voice-over work and party appearances, falls under the spell of Perkus Tooth, a chronic pot smoker and freelance cultural critic with a somewhat paranoid obsession with Marlon Brando. Lethem deftly catches in print a restlessly cerebral group of people sorely under-examined by current fiction--those who shape their lives by refashioning the detritus of modern media. (Joab Jackson)
Pain is an inescapable fact of sentience, an unpleasant, inevitable deterrent: bump your head hard enough on a low ceiling and you'll quickly figure out that you need to be more careful. Cruel and Unusual studies the external application of hurt, but it's more than just a history of pain and its punitive inflictions as punishment. It's an erudite caution--a catalog of how easily and unknowingly we can lose sight of our own humanity in the process of meting out what we believe is justice, in consuming entertainments that promote righteous vengeance, and in earnestly seeking to protect ourselves and our loved ones from an outside world that is portrayed by media outlets and government bodies as more dangerous than it really is. (RC)
After dodging friends' recommendations for this British writer for years--100 pages into an earlier novel offered way too much fantasy elements--in The City and the City, he turns his ridiculously imaginative brain on a genre near and dear to the heart: detective fiction. The result is a tour de force of post-Soviet noir and simultaneously existing alternate realities, out of which he expertly quilts an uncannily familiar feeling portrait of life in the contemporary urban space. In this ball-juggling narrative, Miéville piles political insight atop modern anomie--with a mystery right in the middle. Monster fun. (BM)
Not the big-idea recluse's best outing by a long shot, but something about it feeling kinda/sorta like Pynchon's idea of a mainstream beach read makes it a hoot. Vice is Pynchon doing his best Chandler, setting it during the paranoid '70s and featuring sandal-wearing reefer-headed gumshoe Larry "Doc" Sportello letting his former surfer babe turned femme fatale Shasta Fay Hepworth get him all kinds of tangled up with buzz-killing underworld ne'er-do-wells, deep-pocket land developers, cops willing to play both sides of the law, and, uh, zombie rock 'n' rollers. The boobtastic Roger Corman film adaptation of this would be super-genius after 37 joints. (BM)
Just because it's a female writer exploring a relationship in stasis doesn't make it boilerplate chick-lit. Sure, Duncan and Lily, the couple at the center of Nancy Mauro's brisk debut novel, are a few years into a marriage and already starting to feel like they're moving in different directions, inventing things to do in order to avoid talking about divorce. But instead of flinging them into affairs or therapy, Mauro 1) pits them on an actual collision course with a beloved pig and 2) lets them become as obnoxious as your friends become when shit starts to go south. Entertaining, smart, and confident enough to let flesh and blood main characters be unappealing. (BM)
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