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Year in Books: Word plays

Of werewolves and wastelands
By JON GARELICK  |  December 22, 2008

DESERT LABYRINTH: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 can make a claim for being the Great American Novel, both North and South.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that the Phoenix wrote about in 2008.

Toby Barlow | Sharp Teeth | Harper
Written in beautiful, precise unrhymed verse, Toby Barlow's debut novel is about packs of werewolves roaming modern-day Los Angeles. Sharp Teeth provides the combination of smarts, lyricism, and thrills you might associate with the brainiest horror and fantasy entertainments. But notwithstanding the thriller plot, with its competing wolfpacks (used, among other things, by big-time meth dealers to take out their small-time competition) and shifting loyalties, Barlow has written a novel about the connections — familial, social, romantic — we form, about how easily they break, and about the comfort to be found in the compromises we never thought we'd settle for.

Julian Barnes | Nothing To Be Afraid Of | Knopf
Not usually a self-revelatory writer, Barnes here gets naked about his terror of death and his atheism/agnosticism, and about the tense dance of these ideas. He's grounded Nothing To Be Afraid Of in his parents' deaths and his childhood memories. From there he embarks on an expansive meditation on æsthetics and religions, on the inconstancy of memory and its relation to the imagination, on the genesis of fiction and narrative, and on non-belief and thanaphobia in literature and in himself. The book is scholarly, analytic, touching, and often very funny.

Frank Bidart | Watching the Spring Festival | Farrar, Straus & Giroux
To those accustomed to Bidart's distances — the pages and pages of staggered-line assaults on the big questions — these new poems feel short. But not fast. Like all of Bidart's poems, they make the line break almost a category of consciousness. Every enjambed line, every bit of white space, every pause is the product of a decision. Every ounce of the unnecessary has been lopped away with one of those razor-sharp Japanese fish knives, and you can feel the fresh face of language greet the air.

Elizabeth Bishop | Prose, Poems, and Letters | Library of America
Although she has in recent years broken through to a wider readership, Elizabeth Bishop was always a poet's poet, a touchstone of uncompromised excellence and integrity, a fastidious maker of verbal occasions that become more resonant with each reading. The editors here are her friends Robert Giroux (who was also her editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Lloyd Schwartz (who's the Phoenix's classical-music critic). The two have been scrupulous, fashioning a presentation that honors her achievement as a poet (with special attention paid to her careful sequencings) and at the same time reveals her range as a writer of stories, reportage, and essays, along with her gifts as a translator and a free-spoken correspondent.

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.

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  Topics: Books , Culture and Lifestyle , Language and Linguistics , Elizabeth Bishop ,  More more >
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  •   YEAR IN BOOKS: WORD PLAYS  |  December 22, 2008
    Of werewolves and wastelands
  •   ROBOT LOVE  |  October 01, 2008
    Terminator ’s wonder years
  •   ISLANDER  |  July 22, 2008
    Julie Hecht’s self-help
  •   LIFE OF DON  |  July 22, 2008
    Mad Men ’s dark nostalgia

 See all articles by: JON GARELICK

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