Saturday, December 19, 2009

Top 10 Books I Read in 2009

In no particular order, here are ten books I greatly enjoyed discovering this year:

1. Elective Affinities, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Geometry infused with passion. A Mozartean book in which a tightly ordered structure of ideas is illuminated by sheer beauty of sentiment. Every word seems to count in this book, in an almost claustrophobic way. The story of four people who love and interchange lovers in accordance with scientific principles. Elegant and disturbing in its implications.

2. The Rainbow, by D. H. Lawrence

Lawrence's cross-generational epic of the relations between men and women. Observed with a coldly penetrating eye and sometimes hard to take, but revealed with such fire that you become caught up in the wonder and pain of it and experience excitement as the characters begin to discover themselves.

3. Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician: A Neoscientific Novel, by Alfred Jarry

An amazing title. Concerns the surreal odyssey of one Dr. Faustroll who, among other things, sails in a sieve with his baboon and visits a series of bizarre and satirical islands (all apparently located within downtown Paris) before transforming into an astral body and attempting to calculate the surface of God. Along the way he invents "pataphysics," which is described as "the science of imaginary solutions." It's all very Rabelaisan and loads of fun. (This is my own cover design, by the way. Just for fun)

4. Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, by Dennis Covington

Another irresistible title (particularly the subtitle). I started this one expecting a wild ride through Southern grotesquery and redneck madness. I got all that but so much more, as the book opens up into authentic spiritual territory and refuses to condescend or ridicule. Genuinely moving and profound, a real-life Flannery O'Connor novel.

5. Burning Your Boats: Collected Stories, by Angela Carter

Fairy tales, surrealism, puppets, axe-murder, Jan Svankmajer, feminism, werewolves, and reams of gorgeous prose. This is a book bursting with wonders. Carter was an amazing writer and I'll need to read some of her novels now.

6. The Driver's Seat, by Muriel Spark

A disturbing little book that has had a surprising staying power since I read it in the spring. A "metaphysical shocker," it concerns the holiday of Lise, a young woman whose grisly fate we are told of very early in the story. This lends an inexorability and startling amount of suspense to this bleak, harrowing, savage little tale. Could easily be called "Lise and the Devil," like the splendid Mario Bava movie I also discovered this year.

7. My Life, by Lyn Hejinian

A beautiful autobiographical prose-poem, and, like any life, a continuous work in progress and revision. The original book, written when Hejinian was 37 years old, contains 37 chapters of 37 sentences each. The revised edition (which I read) was written when she was 45, and contains 45 chapters of 45 sentences each. So not only are there 8 new chapters, but there are also 8 new sentences added within each of the original 37 chapters. A wonderful way to depict the way life expands forward and backward at the same time, and written with luminously evocative wordcraft.

8. Spring and All, by William Carlos Williams

I'm not sure how I made it into my mid-twenties without discovering William Carlos Williams. This is one of the most exciting books of poetry I've read in a while, and it really must be read as a volume. I never much cared for the brief snippets of Williams I had encountered in the past, but in context, strung out one after the other, the book is luminous and astonishing.  (It's contained in the volume "Imaginations," along with "Kora in Hell" and something else, if I remember)

 9. The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

One of the most perfect books I've ever read. The story is about the relationship between a young girl and her grandmother and is suffused with the glories of the natural world, the humor and pain of childhood, and stripped of any cloying sentimentality. Tove Jansson was a really incredible writer, and this book sings. It's a book to celebrate, and to remind you that life is delicious and that the world is overflowing with wonder.

10. Robert Schumann: Herald of a "New Poetic Age", by John Daverio

A great biography and a fascinating appreciation of Schumann's work. Schumann was one of the great musical geniuses of the Romantic movement. Daverio is especially adept at pointing out the mastery in Schumann's often overlooked large-scale later works like "Scenes from Goethe's Faust" or "Das Paradies und die Peri", finding no loss in quality due to Schumann's supposed mental illness. Ear-opening and thought-provoking, delves into Schumann's literary interests (Jean-Paul, Hoffmann, Goethe, etc.) and illuminates the ways in which he endeavored to create a new musical-literary poetics. Made me think differently about the way I create art.

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