Being an alliterative enthusiast myself (and a big fan of the letter P...pen, paper and poetry!) my vote goes to a little treasure of a picture book by Lisa Cinar called Paulina P. (for Petersen) (Simply Read Books). More whimsical than Atwood's Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut, and a thoughtful exploration of individuality.
Leon Rooke's Last Shot: Eleven Stories and a Novella (Thomas Allen) is a virtuoso performance that feels like a carnival ride: fast, wild, and brilliant. Every voice is clear enough in cadence, tone, and dialect to hear in the room with me as I read, bringing a vast range of strange experiences close enough to touch. It's only when I closed the book that I considered Rooke's incredible accomplishment, because in the reading it felt effortless.
My book of the year is Music: I-LXXIV (Pressed Wafer 2009), a collection of writings on music by the American poet August Kleinzahler. I don’t expect I’ll look up much of the music Kleinzahler recommends (though I don’t doubt the music is worth the looking up). The real pleasure of the book is to be had in the voice: Kleinzahler is simply a writer of great sentences, and were the sentences about some other subject – catchers’ mitts, say, or hot-air ballooning – I would still love them, I’m sure of it. Also, the sensibility behind this voice seems to me more fully realized than the narrator in most contemporary fiction. It’s a well-pickled, casually authoritative sensibility. You trust it’s spent the requisite amount of time foraging about in old record shops, which is to say: a lifetime.
Italo Calvino visits the 21st century in The View from the Seventh Layer (Vintage), Kevin Brockmeier’s collection of stories, fables and even a choose-your-own adventure. A city tries to communicate with its inhabitants in a morse code made of silences. A man finds God’s overcoat and discovers people’s prayers written on notes in its pockets. A philosophy student learns why famous philosophers stopped writing. All told in an eerie, graceful language that Brockmeier could be channeling from angels -- or perhaps their
Bertrand Russell was a fascinating guy. Mathematician, philosopher, logician, Nobel Prize-winner, champion of nuclear disarmament, crusader against the moral paucity of Christianity, Russell was the model of the jack-of-all-trades rockstar academic: kind of like Žižek, except without all the delirium, sweat and David Lynch references. Logicomix (Bloomsbury) certainly does justice to Russell’s biography and legacy. But Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou go one step further, rendering the British thinker a superhero of logic worthy of his own comic book. In giving Russell and his quest for the rational foundations of mathematics the graphic novel treatment, the authors and artists aren’t merely piggybacking on the medium’s recent move into literary legitimacy. Rather, they’re breathing life into a story which in the hands of lesser storytellers may read as irrevocably dusty. Logicomix reads as much more than the Dummies Guide to Euclidean propositions, set theory and formal logic. It’s foremost the story of a man searching for meaning in the universe, a restless spirit who his whole life challenged the tired assumptions of professors, colleagues and his own overbearing grandmother. This is sequential art, and sequential storytelling at its best. After all, there’s no better medium for representing a group of catty mathematicians brawling in a Parisian cafe.
Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton University Press) is must for students and anyone who wants to have a say in how we cope in this complex and intractably human world. George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller restore the place of economic thought in the humanities without relying on gossip or ducking the news of economic crisis that bombarded them as they wrote. They demonstrate that people are not simply rational maximizers, and, impressively, explore how confidence, fear, envy and sympathy influence our behaviour as market participants. Noting the extremes that can be released, they favour a parental role for modern government, “which gives the child freedom but also protects him from his animal spirits.” It is a short, contentious book that will be of influence well beyond this immediate recession. A longer second edition could be a classic.
As a re-creation of a city in the thrall of evil, Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone (Melville House, translated by Michael Hofmann), immortalizes the last creative days of Hans Fallada by capturing both the sociology of the Nazi capital and the insolent heroism of two working-class Berliners, who decide to avenge their son’s unnecessary death in France by writing and furtively circulating exhortations to fellow Berliners to stop Hitler. They were poor spellers, with limited vocabularies and they wrote each message on a postcard. While Hannah Arendt left us with “the banality of evil”, Fallada leaves us with a work of beauty about seemingly banal people choosing to do something good. In an age of global, camera-friendly, political violence, his two puny pamphleteers demonstrate that you don’t have to be an ideologue or god-fearing to be brave.
My pick is The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac (Basic Books) by Brit Graham Farmelo. Dirac was a Nobel Prize winning physicist, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, and considered an equal by Einstein. Also, he adored Mickey Mouse and Cher. Farmelo spent 10+ years researching and writing this page-turner of a scientific biography, which is on the short list for England's prestigious Costa Biography Award, as well as the NYT's list of top 100 books of 2009.
Nothing in 2009 exercised the marbles in my head quite like Geoff Manaugh's The BLDGBLOG Book (Chronicle Books). This book rewired the way I think about the built environment, landscape and the virtual slipstream that increasingly mediates it all. The critic and lecturer Manaugh may specialize in "architectural conjecture, urban speculation and landscape futures," but he writes like a first-tier novelist, spinning out fantastic scenarios from ideas that are already with us. Like JG Ballard run amok at art college, the effect is rarely less than exhilarating.
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG). Davis is my favorite living writer. Anatolia by Anis Shivani (Black Lawrence Press), also a story collection, and one that ranges around in time and space so energetically that by comparison, most recent fiction looks becalmed. The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Shuster), a novel in the form of an ambling introduction to a poetry anthology.