10 Best Books: Michael Anft
Vertigo, by W.G. Sebald (New Directions) Dark meditations on alienation, psychic pain, and the fallibility of memory are what we've come to expect from the German-lost-in-England Sebald (The Rings of Saturn). This surreal, hauntingly beautiful semi-autobiographical tale showcases the author's grasp of literary allusions and the bleakness of the human condition.
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1800 to the Present, by Jacques Barzun (HarperTrade) The culmination of nonagenarian Barzun's brilliant career is as provocative as it is instructive. Barzun's book-closing prologue grants us an idea of pratfalls to avoid in the future--using history as a guide, of course.
Fat of the Land: The Garbage Behind New York--the Last 200 Years, by Benjamin Miller, (Four Walls Eight Windows) Miller, a former New York sanitation official, turns an incomprehensible mound of solid waste into a compelling social history of Gotham's last 200 years.
The New City: A Novel, by Stephen Amidon (Doubleday) Based on James Rouse's Columbia, Amidon's fictional "Newton, Maryland" becomes the backdrop for an intertwining tale of racial division, broken spirits, and a failed Utopian vision--a fitting allegory for turn-of-the-millennium America.
In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac, by Mark Kingwell (Crown) Helpful but far from "self-help," Happiness explores the history of the existential dangling carrot. Philosopher/author Kingwell writes with wit, concluding that consistent examination of desires is as important as trying to achieve some of them.
Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson, (Houghton Mifflin) A quasi-exotic first novel set amid the Haisla Indian community of the Canadian west coast, Monkey Beach blends magical realism and tales of a traditional culture with the accommodations it makes with the world writ large--as seen through the eyes of a tough-as-nails young heroine.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers (Simon & Schuster, Co.) Eggers' huge ego and his seeming dismissal of his sister's efforts to help him raise their orphaned young brother notwithstanding, this anti-memoir is both moving and self-consciously hilarious. Eggers' refusal to manipulate readers' heartstrings raises Genius far above the usual soul-baring standard.
Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century, edited by Carl Jensen (Seven Stories Press) For hard-core journo freaks, it doesn't get any better than this: Seminal, earth-shaking investigative pieces by everyone from Ida Mae Tarbell to Rachel Carson to I.F. Stone to Woodward and Bernstein, with decent analysis by editor Jensen.
Master of the Crossroads, by Madison Smartt Bell (Pantheon books) The middle leg of Bell's planned trilogy on the Haitian slave revolt of 1790s charts the rise to power of its leader, the legendary Toussaint L'ouverture. As with All Souls Rising, this is history as it should be fictionalized--with dead-on analysis and compelling characterizations.
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. . . just in the case the album really is dead.
The Year in News (12/9/2009)
The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)
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