Read This!

By Bill Kohlhaase

Posted December 24, 2008 in Arts & Culture

We read dozens of books each year, a number that we guess totals less than one-tenth-of-one-percent of all the books published in that time. So the idea of a top-ten list coming from a single reader seems more than a bit absurd. Imagine what we’ve missed. Instead, here’s a list of standouts from our 2008 reading list that we hardily recommend. Why? Without these words, life would have been even drearier and less meaningful.   

Those who believe that shrinks are as neurotic and deluded as their patients will find supporting evidence in Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel Something To Tell You (Scribners,  $26). Kureishi, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter, playwright and novelist, tells the story of Jamal, a gentle London psychoanalyst who loves gossip and secrets. Jamal himself has a big one: murder. Against the backdrop of a wide and weird cast of friends and family members, Jamal searches for a lost love and redemption. Guess which one he finds?

Tim Lane’s dark, comics-as-noir collection of graphic fiction, Abandoned Cars (Fantagraphics, $22.99), is a sideshow of lost personalities and cheap commercial come on. It’s a comic-noir look at folks who have discarded the American dream and created their own nightmare. The stories, sharply drawn in shades of black and white, mostly take place in bar rooms, bedrooms, freight yards and behind the wheel of a car. In between, Lane takes time to hop freights and mull over his literary inspirations, more Jim Thompson (After Dark My Sweet), Harry Whittington (A Ticket To Hell) and Charles Willeford (Cockfighter) than Kerouac or Hemingway

Berlin: City of Smoke, Book Two (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95) is the second installment of graphic artist Jason Lutes’ epic look at pre-World War II Germany. This edition begins after the May Day demonstrations of 1929 and follows the slow and tortuous descent into Fascism. Interwoven plot lines and themes (wait, some of this stuff looks contemporarily familiar!) coupled with exacting illustration make this among the most important graphic works of the last few years.

My opinion that Jim Harrison is one of our two or three best American novelists is shared by a few other of our fellow countrymen and legions of French readers. His latest, The English Major (Grove Press, $24) addresses familiar Harrison themes, namely abandonment, sex, war and the role of landscape in our lives. Harrison’s unassuming prose and ability to make funny out of the dismal is on full display here.

Francis Levy is our generation’s D.H Lawrence, Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski rolled into one. His Erotomania: A Romance (Two Dollar Radio, $14) is a frank story of obsession, physical longing and a certain female body part as holy grail. Sex? Yes. Love? I don’t want to spoil the ending.

An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons & True Stories Vol.2  (Yale University Press $28) reflects editor Ivan Brunetti’s fascination with parody, perversion and the dark side of imagination. The selections from some 85 cartoonists, all exquisite in their depth and imagination, flow together in currents of theme, style and mood. There’s a long tribute to Mad magazine creator Harvey Kurtzman and occasional Sunday strips from 50 and more years ago suggest the inspiration for contemporary work by Chris Ware and others. This is one of the best comic anthologies ever, a view into the medium’s potential to illustrate the human condition as interpreted by over-active imaginations.

We like to see someone calling it like it is. Herve Kempf’s How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (Chelsea Green, $12.95) is a condemnation of wealth based on its adverse ecological effects. Underlying his arguments is a cry for social justice and economic equality. Kempf says leftists and environmentalists have to change their ways and join forces. We say, right on.

Nathaniel Mackey’s Bass Cathedral (New Directions, $16.95) is the only truly different book we read this year. Written as a series of letters addressed to the “Angel of Dust” and penned by the saxophonist N., the book is a sort of second-hand stream-of-consciousness account of lives in which music is all. The Molimo m’Atet has recorded a new album, Orphic Bend. And the music turns out to be more Orphic and bent than the group expected. Mackey, winner of the National Book Award for his 2006 collection of poetry Splay Anthem, likes to push and take chances. Sound, rhythm and meaning are as important to Mackey’s prose as to his poetry. This book is incredibly hip.

In the digital age, intellectual property rights are ground zero in the struggle between commercial and creative interests. In Remix (Penguin, $25.95) Lawrence Lessig says some kind of hybrid agreement is needed between artists and the download generation for whom “remix . . . is a central art.” The consequence of not finding a third way between commercial and sharing economies is criminalization and endless legal battles. A fascinating, sometimes difficult examination of a complicated issue.

Everything else is in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 (Houghton Mifflin, $14), an anthology of off-beat, over-looked and off-the-wall fiction, essays and cartoons edited by novelist Dave Eggers and selected, as it is each year, by a clique of high school students from the San Francisco Bay area. You think your life’s petty? Read Jake Swearingen’s account of existence during an attack of zombies and you’ll never go anywhere without your iPod again.


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