The year in review: Books


Of all the books I read this year, here — alphabetically by title — are my 10 favorites, those that most stuck with me, that reframed how I think about the world.

“1Q84” by Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf: 926 pp., $30.50). Murakami’s magnum opus more than lives up to its billing, immersing us in a slightly altered universe to tell what is, in the end, the most traditional of stories: Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.

“Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman (Lookout Books: 374 pp., $18.95 paper). How could I have not known of Edith Pearlman? The author of three previous books of short fiction, she writes like the literary love child of Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg: piercing, subtle, and so pointed that every one of the 34 stories in this collection cannot help but break your heart.


“The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.” by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday: 438 pp., $27.95). Inspired by Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself,” this is Lethem’s homage to the inner life. Intentionally baggy, moving back and forth from subject to subject, time period to time period, it works because of its relentless sense of influence, its understanding that the art and literature and music we love not only inspire us but in a very real way make us who we are.

“The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood” by James Gleick (Pantheon: 544 pp., $28.95). The information age, Gleick tells us in this magnificent history of data and how we interact with it, did not begin with the computer; rather, it started the first time we sought to interpret our world. Connecting a dizzying array of topics, from the telegraph to talking drums, theoretical mathematics to the library of Alexandria, this elegant, insightful study reminds us that we have always been adrift in an incomprehensible universe.

“Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews” by Geoff Dyer (Graywolf: 422 pp., $18 paper). Perhaps the finest critical essayist working, Dyer takes us on a tour of his enthusiasms: jazz, literature, photography, house music, history. What links this material? Nothing, except for his erudite and idiosyncratic intelligence, and a voice as smooth as any that’s in print.

“Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz (University of Minnesota Press: 232 pp., $22.95 paper). Willis — who died in 2006 at age 64 — was a trailblazer, one of the early female rock writers and the first pop music critic at the New Yorker. This collection, which gathers 59 of her pieces, showcases her fierce intelligence and her political and cultural engagement as well as her recognition of the abiding contradictions of the music that she loved.

“Stone Arabia” by Dana Spiotta (Scribner: 240 pp., $24). On the surface, this novel — which revolves around a middle-aged wannabe rocker and his fantasies of stardom — appears to be about the lies we tell ourselves. Its genius, though, resides in the way Spiotta turns that idea around on us, revealing her protagonist’s dreams as more authentic than his daily existence, highlighting the at-times unbridgeable gap between imagination and reality.

“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson (FSG: 116 pp., $18). A nearly perfect short novel from the most essential writer of his generation: the story of a laborer in the rural West, and his journey — physical, emotional, spiritual and even mystical — through the first half of the 20th century.


“A Widow’s Story: A Memoir” by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco: 418 pp., $27.99). I’ve never been an Oates fan particularly, but this memoir — a close, almost claustrophobic portrait of the months after her husband’s sudden death from pneumonia — is exquisite, expertly and desperately parsing the landscape of grief and loss, while never once flinching or looking away.

“You Think That’s Bad: Stories” by Jim Shepard (Alfred A. Knopf: 226 pp., $24.95). Shepard is a short-fiction master, and here he pushes into new territory, giving us 11 stories about characters at the end of their endurance: contradictory, foolishly brave (or bravely foolish), clinging to hope beyond the point that hope is any longer a reasonable alternative.