Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three Books from 2009 You Might Have Missed

With the deluge of major authors publishing books this year, it was inevitable that good books by less famous people would fall through the cracks. Here are my three favorite new books of the year, all of which deserved a lot more attention than they got.

Ulysses and Us by Declan Kiberd. Kiberd believes that Joyce wrote Ulysses for everyone who can read and that it was kidnapped by scholars and specialists obsessed with elucidating Homeric parallels, instead of learning about the best way to live one's life. Kiberd believes that Ulysses is a hard book to read because life is hard to live and that everybody who tries to read it, will get something out of it. Kiberd then does a close reading of Ulysses, drawing ideas about life from the story. Someone familiar with Ulysses will appreciate Kiberd's interesting and original conclusions. Someone who's never read it, will get a handy introduction to its general ideas as well as a healthy dose of confidence. Regardless, the two introductory essays are worth the price of admission as both are brilliant explorations of the role of literature in society.

Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr. The hero of Everything Matters, Junior Thibodeau, is told by an unidentified voice, in utero, the exact moment when the world will end. Then Junior lives his life with this knowledge. He is an intelligent young man and, with the Voice's help along the way, he is able to accomplish some remarkable things. But this knowledge always hangs over him covering every action and event in his life in a deep shadow. Within this conceit, Currie also manages to tell a unique and heartfelt family saga. What might be most remarkable about this novel is how it avoids all the potential failures such a plot contains. Currie is able to make a statement about life without being sappy or banal and to close the novel with a beautiful image of family that is touching without being saccharine or pandering.

The Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. The hero of this story, recovering heroin addict Ricky Rice, is plucked from a job cleaning toilets by an organization called the Washburn Library to become an Unlikely Scholar. From the first page, the story develops a vibrant weirdness as you learn that Ricky's new job is to scan newspaper articles for evidence of a "Voice," that he was raised in and is the lone survivor of a radical Christian cult, and that he and the mysterious Gray Lady must team up against the messianic Solomon Clay. Lavalle has a brilliant ear for detail and is able to invest this story about class, race, faith, and doubt with the pace of a page-turning thriller. This novel was, rightly, selected by Publishers Weekly as one of their top 10 books of the year and though it may be bumped off other end of the year lists by the big names, years from now 2009 might be remembered as the year The Big Machine was published. Look forward to an interview with Victor Lavalle on this blog some time in the new year.

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