Year in Books: Word plays

By JON GARELICK  |  December 22, 2008

Roberto Bolaño | 2666 | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Jorge Luis Borges wrote of the desert as a labyrinth without walls or center, unending and inescapable. That's a fair description of Roberto Bolaño's 912-page last work. (He died in 2003, age 50.) 2666 does have a circumference of sorts, however, a circular narrative that begins, like his previous novel, The Savage Detectives, with academics searching the wastelands of the Sonora province of Mexico for a legendary writer and ending . . . well, it's hard to say, somewhere in that general vicinity. Like Moby Dick, this book confronts the nature, the ubiquity, and the elusiveness of evil. And as such it can also make a claim for being the Great American Novel, both North and South.

Julie Hecht | Happy Trails to You | Simon & Schuster
Hecht told the Believer that when people ask her what her stories are about, she says, "They're about the way things are now." The domestic is always yoked to the global or the infinite, in the space of a paragraph, or even a sentence. Her two story collections and one novel are told in the same first-person voice: an unnamed photographer who splits her time between East Hampton in the winter and Nantucket in the summer. Prickly, anxiety-ridden, deadpan-funny, vegan, she marks civilization's decline: from personal etiquette and the degradation of the English language and fashion to international catastrophes, the "Alfred E. Neuman president," and "the globally warmed-up days."

Marilynne Robinson | Home | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Home returns to the characters and the mid-'50s Iowa town depicted in Robinson's 2004 Pulitzer-winning Gilead. Jack Boughton, 41, is the sin-sick soul returning after a 20-year absence to the house where his father is dying. Jack has been living in the Jim Crow South, a witness. And he's fallen in love with a black woman. The novel can be read as a family story about love and death, about shame and forgiveness; yet it's also a meditation on the American concept of a Christian life, and a hymn, a sacred song that bears its readers to a glorious place. But you don't have to be righteous or holy to ride this train.

Ammon Shea | Reading the OED | Perigee
Shea, it turns out, is not some dictionary dilettante hoping to read his way into the Guinness Book of World Records. Although he's worked as a street musician in Paris, a gondolier in San Diego, and a furniture mover in New York City, his real business is words, and to that end he owns "about a thousand volumes of dictionaries, thesauri, and assorted glossaries." Those would include seven different copies of the Oxford English Dictionary. His selections are fun and edifying, but even more engaging is his account of his own reading: the headaches, the grayed-out vision, the endless cups of espresso.


Ned Sublette | The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square | Lawrence Hill Books
Like his exhaustive 2004 Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo (Chicago Review Press), Sublette's study of New Orleans teases multiple discrete threads from a complex historical weave of European colonizers and African slaves. His research has both breadth and depth. In his attempts to understand the origins of the city's distinctive music, he ranges from linguistics (tracing the word "funk" to both Middle English and Kikongo) to first-hand accounts of the arrival of European opera in 1796 and that of Congo Square slave dances. For those interested in the unique character of the Crescent City, he's given a detailed and plausible explanation of how that world came to be.

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