Well, it’s Spring, at least in terms of the calendar, if not the temperature. That means it’s time for my small list of favorite books from last year.
Colm Tóibín, The Master
This novel shouldn’t work, but it does: Henry James, fresh from his opening-night Guy Domville catastrophe, slowly retreats into novel writing and moves to a new house away from London — Lamb House. That’s it. The story has almost no suspense and only the gentlest of plot-pressure, and yet I was pegged. James comes across as put upon, perversely prim, persecuted by desire, and, when provoked, ruthless. It’s a somber book with a happy ending.
Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme & Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
What was life like before Geoff Dyer? I don’t want to remember. I thought these two books showed Dyer at his extremes. Otherwise … is the huge compendium of book reviews, travel pieces, art reviews, etc., that he’s accumulated thus far, and it both shows how far his eye travels but also how focused his attention actually is. The fact that the book is sometimes repetitive turns out to be more interesting than not. Even hitchhikers have routines. And The Missing of the Somme is an excellent condensed punch to your reading weekend — an analysis of memorials of the Great War and what memorials actually mean.
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First
Food is, weirdly, now a fashionable topic, and this book is Gopnik’s latest collection of essays culled from the New Yorker. All relating to food, they’re organized around “letters” to the 19th-century food writer Elizabeth Pennell. I myself enjoy how Gopnik braids his individual New Yorker essays into loose, book-length arguments; it both preserves the exploratory nature of the original essays while giving the books themselves argumentative thrust. Two things make this particular book worth your time: Gopnik is professionally curious and he’s relentlessly eloquent. One of the pleasures of reading him is to see what he’ll make of something.
Paul Maliszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders
In contrast to the stuntlike effect of The Lifespan of a Fact and John D’Agata’s other fact-bending shenanigans, this book actually investigates the how and why of artists who fake it, everything from recent false memoirs to intentionally fabricated journalism to the author’s own stint as a con-artist-in-prose. It moves beyond the shock-and-hand-wringing phase of frauds uncovered and points the finger back at the readers who believed originally in the fakes and what that might mean.
Cynthia Ozick, Fame & Folly
This collection of essays actually came out in 1997, but I picked up a copy this fall and reread it. To me, Ozick is to the literary essay as James Brown is to funk. Sometimes I thumb through her five collections just to feel better about human existence. Such talent relentlessly applied is inspiring, overwhelming, a model and a curse. If there’s any American writer alive who should be in a vest on a billboard in Times Square, it’s Cynthia Ozick.
And for special mention:
Tom Bissell, Magic Hours
It’s a grab bag of his nonfiction but it’s good.