January 5, 2010

The Year In Books 2009: Worth a Second Look

The Year in Books 2009: A CCLaP essay series

(For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all four parts, please click here.)

As regular readers know, many times it is not simply a high score that determines my favorite books of a given year; for a variety of reasons, there are plenty of titles that I may find flawed, but that still stick in my head in a profound way. Here below, a look again at nine such books, listed alphabetically.

After the Prophet, by Lesley Hazleton
After the Prophet
By Lesley Hazleton

I became a fan of religion journalist Lesley Hazleton two years ago, after receiving her well-done yet controversial Jezebel, in which she posits that the infamous "Whore of Babylon" was actually a wise and tolerant leader, vilified by the fundamentalist Christians who came after her for refusing to support the monotheistic holy war they dreamt of; and in 2009 she was back with After the Prophet, a straightforward and unbiased account of the events that took place after the death of the prophet Muhammad in the Islamic religion, that led to the birth of the competing Shia and Sunni denominations (which can be thought of as the Muslim version of the "Catholic versus Protestant" debate within Christianity). For those who already know a bit about Islam, this book will come off as nothing special; but for those of us Americans who barely know anything about the religion, it's a welcome revelation, with Hazleton retelling this story in a way specifically designed to be easily relatable to Westerners, taking no sides but simply presenting the facts as they're known today. It's one of a number of great books I read in 2009 concerning topics from the Middle East (but more on this in a bit), an area of the world that is becoming of greater interest to more and more Americans by the day.

Alice Fantastic, by Maggie Estep
Alice Fantastic
By Maggie Estep

Young authors in our society are often celebrated for writing flashy, controversial novels early in their careers; but we often forget about many of these wunderkinds once they hit middle-age, even as the mature books they put out are far superior in both quality and tone. Take for example infamous '90s slam poet Maggie Estep, who started her career with a series of autobiographical books about young, urban, artistic trainwrecks; but it's her newest, Alice Fantastic from our friends at Akashic Books, that far outshines any of these early volumes, which makes it a shame that it was greeted with so little fanfare last year. It's essentially an extended character study, taking a look at one possible outcome for many of these young, edgy hipsters, to basically become the exact bitter, dumpy, suburban-dwelling loser they used to make fun of; Estep's novel is basically an examination of one such person (now a professional gambler living in a run-down bungalow in a far borough of New York), and the way she interacts with her feisty sister and even feistier mother while spending time with them in the upstate hippie community of Woodstock (where Estep lives in real life). It's one of those slow-moving character-heavy dramadies that can sometimes really get under your skin, where the point is less to find out "what happens" than to simply bask in the quirky, comfortable environment that's been created, and it's a great choice for those who prefer their novels to be light on action but to say a lot about the human condition. A nice change of pace for Estep, one that reflects her continual maturation as an artist.

Himalayan Passage, by Jean Smith
Himalayan Passage
By Jean Smith

It's no secret that I received a ton of self-published books from print-on-demand company iUniverse last year (21 titles altogether, in fact), all of which I ended up reading and reviewing; and sometimes my peers profess amazement that I have the patience to slog through so many of them, most of which are frankly only subpar at best. But the benefit of this is that you occasionally stumble across little gems you would've never known about otherwise; and a good example of this would be Jean Smith's Himalayan Passage, not groundbreaking by any means but that kept me thoroughly entertained throughout. Written by a practicing Buddhist who has traveled extensively through southeast Asia, it's essentially historical fiction of the bodice-ripping (sari-ripping?) type, telling the story of a rural princess in a remote mountain village who is sent to lowland India to marry one of the Moghul emperors, and become part of the royal harem for political purposes; and then along the way, Smith uses this plot as an excuse to stir in all kinds of fascinating facts and stunning mental images from that actual period of history, turning in a book that is part tour guide and part genre novel, especially interesting for me since I was studying the history of India myself last year anyway. Not for everyone, but a real treat for those specifically curious about the subject.

Monastery Ridge, by Henry West
Monastery Ridge
By Henry West

And then here's another good example of what I'm talking about, that in fact illustrates what I think is the best thing of all about the plethora of print-on-demand companies popping up these days; that they provide an excuse for millions of retired soldiers and other war veterans to write out their stories, producing a breadth and depth of 20th-century memoirs like never before seen in human history. This one in particular is about the Korean War of the 1950s, which in my opinion makes it extra fascinating, because of this war rapidly starting to be forgotten by society at large, despite its relative importance; squeezed in between the juggernauts of World War Two and Vietnam, although the conflict officially ended in a stalemate, it was also the first-ever proxy fight between the US and Soviet Union using a third-world nation as their battleground, setting the tone for the 40-year Cold War to come, and was also America's first experience with jungle guerilla warfare, which of course would play such a huge and disastrous role in the very next conflict after this one. Memoirs like these are more important than ever, precisely because they tell the "inside story" of such events that are often glossed over by textbooks; although West touches on major moments in his own book, for example, the true joy of it comes from the little moments of humor and surrealism you would never think possible within such an environment, including a truly brilliant tale of the main character faking a bout of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during a weekend R&R getaway to a local mountain spa resort, in an attempt to get easy sex from an oversensitive nurse. There's a lot of self-published books just like this one out there these days, but this was one of the ones I just happened to particularly enjoy in 2009.

Moral Clarity, by Susan Neiman
Moral Clarity
By Susan Neiman

In these days of Paris Hilton and "Are You Stupider Than A F-cking Ten-Year-Old," it's always a rare treat to come across a book designed specifically for the intelligent and no one else, a title that proudly wears its smarts on its sleeve and makes no apologies for it; one particularly great one in 2009, for example, was Susan Neiman's thought-provoking Moral Clarity, a book which combines history, philosophy and non-partisan political theory to basically explain why the US has devolved in the last two decades into the trashy mess it now is. The answer, she claims, is a combination of moral extremism and hypocrisy, with both the left and right not only becoming too radical in their views but also regularly not practicing what they preach; and that's why Neiman urges all of us to reconnect with the philosophical principles of the Enlightenment, which not by coincidence was the prevailing school of thought when the US was first founded in the late 1700s, and its remarkably far-sighted constitution written. A nice example of combining purely theoretical thought and practical real-world actions, this is exactly what the doctor ordered for frazzled intellectuals who have become disgusted with the cesspool of knee-jerk stupidity our society has become.

Neurotica, by Elva Maxine Beach
By Elva Maxine Beach

Being a longtime fan of erotica, I have to admit that there is only really one type of story within this genre anymore that I seem to really love, and that's when humor and dysfunction are brought to the bedroom to tell a tale that feels dirty, funny and very true at the same time. And when it comes to this, look no further than Elva Maxine Beach's hilarious yet cringe-inducing Neurotica, a book that horrifies as much as it delights and titillates. It's essentially a semi-autobiographical look at an oversexed middle-ager down in Texas, a former party queen who has never quite been able to give up her tequila shots and Boys Of The Week, even as she now receives more and more pointed comments from her friends concerning the inappropriateness of it all; the book itself, then, is a series of quirky vignettes concerning this woman's love life, including her accidental relationship with an S&M dom who she doesn't realize until weeks in is actually a white-power racist, her disastrous experiment at being a "sugarbaby" for a McMansion-owning clean freak, and a lot more. Full of the kinds of hot, embarrassing stories that will make many smile in recognition, even if they would never admit such a thing in public, it's a courageous book that will be a real delight to any heavy reader of erotica, and especially her fellow liberated middle-aged women.

Perforated Heart, by Eric Bogosian
Perforated Heart
By Eric Bogosian

And speaking of middle-aged artists who just keep getting better each year, how I could let 2009 go by without mentioning again celebrated '80s performance artist Eric Bogosian, whose newest novel Perforated Heart is the kind of quiet yet laser-precise examination of the human soul that will stick in your head long afterward. Not exactly an autobiographical story but more of an "alternate-universe autobiography," Bogosian claims that this is how he sees his life likely working out if he had not met his wife at the point in his thirties that he did; as such, then, it's essentially a doppelganger portrait of a Bogosian who never was, a bitter and narcissistic has-been whose recent heart attack has forced him to confront the friendless, egomaniacal mess he's become. Hypnotically intense precisely because Bogosian has never actually led such a life himself, this veteran character writer has an uncanny ability to show off all the weaknesses of this "Evil Eric" not by actually mentioning them, but simply by letting them be reflected in the eyes of the people around him, making what they don't say much more important than what they do; and in the meanwhile, the novel also turns out to be a fantastic look back at the real days of late-'70s lower Manhattan, when a series of cutting-edge artists and punk-rockers mingled with the junkies and criminals of the neighborhood to produce such underground stalwarts as the Ramones, Karen Finley, Robert Mapplethorpe and Bogosian himself. Easily the best full-length book so far of Bogosian's career, and it's almost a crime that it didn't receive more attention than it did.

Standing Still, by Kelly Simmons
Standing Still
By Kelly Simmons

It's true that I didn't give this book exactly a stellar write-up when first reviewing it, mostly because of it being designed to appeal more to female readers who are fans of Lifetime-Channel-style slow-moving emotional dramas; but I also found myself often thinking about this book at random moments in the six months since first reading it, always a notable occurrence for someone like me who reads over a hundred books a year, and something I always think earns that book a second look at the end of the year. It's basically the story of a typical Lifetime audience member, a middle-class soccer mom living a bland suburban existence, who one day tragically catches someone trying to abduct her daughter and ends up offering herself instead; but as the book continues, mostly through a series of inner-brain monologues while the woman is tied to a hotel bed for a week, both she and we slowly come to realize not only that there's a pretty good reason for the abduction (having to do with some shady business practices of her corporate-executive husband), but that indeed this desperate kidnapper-for-hire is in many ways a much more decent and honorable man than her white-male-dick spouse, especially once it becomes clear that he's trying to weasel out of paying the ransom. It's not exactly my favorite type of story, but is excellent for what it is; and this I feel is part of my job as an arts critic, to sometimes point out books that others are going to go crazy for but that I myself won't. I urge you to check out this sleeper hit in that spirit.

Taj Mahal, by Diana and Michael Preston
Taj Mahal: Passion and Genius at the Heart of the Moghul Empire
By Diana and Michael Preston

Have I mentioned yet, by the way, that 2009 turned out to be the year I decided to sit down and finally start learning a lot more about the Middle East and southeast Asia, just like is the case with so many other Americans these days? That had me reading a whole plethora of books on various related subjects; and one of my favorites was Diana and Michael Preston's "NPR-worthy" Taj Mahal, which as I explained yesterday basically means a book that combines academic research with an engaging narrative writing style. Again, it's nothing too spectacular in general, but is a fantastic gateway into the Moghul Empire for those like me who know little about it, which was basically a complex aristocracy that ruled much of what we now call India, during the centuries we Westerners call the Renaissance. It can be intimidating to try to learn about an entire culture from scratch, so I'm appreciative of well-written primers like these, which in this case uses the construction of the insanely elaborate Taj Mahal (a memorial to love built by one of the emperors for his wife) as a centerpiece to examine all kinds of fascinating basic details about the entire time period, from the politics of the region to prevailing attitudes about architecture and clothing, even to the limited ways this society interacted with the West even then. As before, this will be nothing special for those already versed on the subject, but will be a much-appreicated guide for those like me just now learning about these subjects for the first time.

Coming tomorrow, a look at my nine favorite experimental novels of 2009. I hope you'll get a chance to join me again then.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:06 PM, January 5, 2010. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |