And the Drumroll Please!
There’s nothing in the whole wide world more meaningful, more insightful and less facile than Top 10 Lists (with the possible exception of immoderate sarcasm). So for the Pill’s summer issue, I’ve dropped all the pretense to offer you my Top Ten Books of the Year, the year meaning summer 2002 to summer 2003. These are books with which to beat the heat, to elongate a seasonally glossed phrase; they’re all thick enough to make good fans.
What Duke Ellington said about there being two kinds of music-good music and bad music-applies to books. Goodness, in all its pleasurable vagueness, was the only criterion; and to get more vague: a special summer goodness, an “I feel so guilty enjoying words this much” goodness.
One note: Remember to tan one side for two chapters; then turn for another two. Any more than two chapter-tanning on any one side will result in burning, peeling, skin cancer and death. You’ve been warned.
10. Stranger Shores by J.M. Coetzee, Vintage, 2002.
This is an always entertaining and intelligent anthology of essays, amassed between 1986 and 1999, from the two-time Booker Prize winner. With his lucid presentations of views on marquee names-Defoe, Rilke, Kafka, Dostoevsky, Borges, Rushdie etc.-and fascinating explorations of the work of lesser-knowns-including Cees Noteboom and Aharon Appelfeld-Coetzee weaves a web of his wide reading. The end product is astoundingly intricate and sturdy. Allow yourself to be snared.
9. A Guide to the Perplexed by Gilad Atzmon, Serpent’s Tail 2002.
A weird, weird, weird in a scary way novel, from the Prague-regular Israeli author/musician, last year translated from the Holy Tongue. Part Philip Roth, part non-sequitor answer to Maimonides’ original, part Madame Blavatsky-esque anti-Semitic rant, it’s an always engaging romp through post-Israel, an Israel that’s dissolved and whose nationals sought asylum overseas, in the Diaspora. It’s excellent, and the best book to come from an “expat” writer in a long, long time.
8. The Maimed by Hermann Ungar, Twisted Spoon Press, 2002.
Reviewed previously. An excellent translation of a forgotten masterpiece by this Moravian-German-Jewish writer. A morbid plot about religion, illicit sex and neuroses follows timid bank clerk Polzer deeper and deeper into the universal Slit.
7. The Book Against God by James Wood, Jonathan Cape, 2003.
This focused novel, by one of the greatest book critics this past century, is a tempest/teacup revelation; it’s proof that the realist novel isn’t dead. The B.A.G is an answer to what Wood has termed in his New Republic criticism as hysterical realism, books which describe and know everything. Wood is much too smart and subtle an artist to ignore his own advice. He has written a small gem about a distracted man, a less grotesque Ignatius Reilly figure, whose life falls into sloth.
6. The Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, Arrow, 2002. Reviewed previously. Forget the film’s schlock moralizing and read this: A history of a nation and a how-to for the unlawful rolled into one. This early century classic has been reissued (albeit with Leo DiCaprio on the cover) and finally America has a non-fiction epic, a Herodotus with bollocks (as the New English used to say).
5. The Same Sea by Amos Oz, Harvest, 2002.
A novel in verse, recently translated, and a high-water mark in the career of Israel’s novelist laureate. Rife with biblical allusion and slippery registers of poetry and prose, the book charts the life of one family, a family well acquainted with everything from high tragedy to the mind-numbingly mundane. Then the family starts phoning the author, to complain, to kvetch...; ideawise here are shades of Flann O’Brien, but the treatment is wholly Oz’s. This should be the book that earns Oz the Nobel.
4. The Subject Steve by Sam Lipsyte, Broadway Books, 2002. Reviewed previously. A novel that tells us we’re all dying of boredom and that there’s no cure. Quote unquote deep philosophy goes corporate and Steve is subjected to a media frenzy Doctor Mengele-style. One of the most purely entertaining books in recent memory.
3. Agape, Agape by William Gaddis, Viking, 2002.
Reviewed previously. Gaddis’ swan-song and a Bernhard-esque display of erudition and sheer sentence-making. A history of the player piano meets a first-person confession. They drink, flirt, and enact a love-death.
2. Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard, Vintage, 2003.
Subtitled a memoir, this is the third in Bernhard’s great series of autobiography, now issued for the first time in paperback with a new introduction by the translator, David McLintock. Bernhard was one of the greatest European writers of the 20th century. A man gifted with many hates-hatred of Austria, hatred of Europe, hatred of Catholicism, hatred of war-he focused these energies into the making of several masterpieces. This memoir follows his illegitimate birth, his early student days and his famous illness - the pneumonia which placed him in a hospital ward for the terminally ill at the age of 15. This memoir miraculously filters the horrors of a larger history through the strainer of an individual and remarkably sensitive life. This is a true Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and deserves to sit aside Correction, in Old Hoeller’s garret, as one of Bernhard’s most important achievements.
1. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin, Harvard University Press, 2002.
Reviewed previously. Incredible that this enormous synthesis of Benjamin’s thought made it to paperback. A monument of critique and the obituary for the Romantic Age, read it and acquaint yourself with the man who was truly the Last European.
Honorable Mentions: Ignorance by Milan Kundera: In fifty-three short sections, the author Czechs love to hate (and the author who loves to hate the Czechs) outlines the meeting of a man and a woman who have separately returned to their homeland from twenty years of self-imposed, or selfishly-imposed, exile. Yes, he talks about Prague. And no, he hasn’t been back for awhile. He’s still an incredibly sensitive prose stylist and I’d trade all of Klíma’s books for one from Kundera.
Book of Illusions by Paul Auster: A silent movie star is dying, and his biographer becomes involved in machinations involving his (the star’s) estate. A well-paced intellectual thriller.
The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith: Smith’s long-awaited follow-up to White Teeth, tells the stories of a group of ethnically hyphenated Jews-Chinese-Jews, Black Jews, Non-Jews... It’s also an exploration of the manias of fame and religion. In multi-ethnic, parti-colored, post-modern mode, Smith really has three influences: Rushdie, Rushdie and Rushdie. In the absence of a new book by the old man this year, we will more than make do with hers.
Count Together Now!
Micah counts to 7:
7. Quark Prepress by Robert Virkus
6. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
5. Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy MacLean
4. Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
3. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
1. Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner
Josh counts to 4:
4. The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem
3. Company by Samuel Beckett
2. Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz
1. The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
Travis counts to 9:
9. Selected Poems by John Ashbery
8. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houllebecq
7. Period by Dennis Cooper
6. Murphy by Samuel Beckett
5. Watt by Samuel Beckett
4. A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
3. Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind
2. Michelle Remembers by Michelle Smith and Lawrence Prader
1. Severin’s Journey Into the Dark by Paul Leppin
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