Tuesday, December 27, 2005


Newsday picks

In Sunday's edition of Newsday, I offered my choices for the Best of 2005--a year in which I read many more old books than new ones, and avoided the marquee names like the plague. Since the format dictated a certain pithiness, I'll paste the entire thing in here:
The last year seemed to yield an especially strong and variegated crop of nonfiction. On the biographical front, there was Peter Guralnick's Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke (Little, Brown), as definitive a treatment as we're likely to see of the Thomas Edison of soul music. In his manic and marvelous Trawler: A Journey Through the North Atlantic (Knopf), Redmond O'Hanlon achieved the impossible: He made ichthyology funny. Equally amusing was William Logan's The Undiscovered Country: Poetry in the Age of Tin (Columbia University Press), in which our wittiest critic of contemporary verse let loose one lethal shaft after another ("like," to borrow his characterization of Randall Jarrell, "a cobra with manners"). New York City got the red-carpet treatment from two very different writers in Jed Perl's New Art City (Knopf) and Ian Frazier's Gone to New York (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), while Tom Piazza produced a no-less-ardent valentine to his adopted hometown in Why New Orleans Matters (Regan Books). And then there was The Letters of Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), nearly 700 pages of suave, scintillating, gossipy, heartbreaking prose and portraiture. "I can see us all being written up in some huge book on the age," a weary Lowell wrote to Theodore Roethke in 1963--well, here it is.

As for fiction, I tended to steer clear of the familiar names and concentrated on new faces. I admired the snappy delivery of Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl (Random House) and the comic, campy overkill of Adrienne Miller's The Coast of Akron (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Alix Ohlin brought the desiccated landscape of Albuquerque to life in The Missing Person (Knopf), while Lisa Selin Davis performed a similar service for down-at-the-heels Saratoga in Belly (Little, Brown). And finally, there was one Old Master who compelled my awed attention: Richard Stern. His career-spanning Almonds to Zhoof (Triquarterly) is one long display of linguistic fireworks, exquisitely timed and endlessly illuminating.
Needless to say, I overlooked several favorites. Let me now add Tom Bissell's God Lives In St. Petersburg, Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Aldo Buzzi's The Perfect Egg, Ismail Kadare's The Successor, and (because I'm extremely original) Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. And let me also suggest that visitors click through to the entire Newsday round-up, where they can read fave raves by the likes of Kerry Fried, Maud Newton, Samuel Freedman, Claire Dederer, and Scott McLemee.

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