Read these books! Really.
The National Book Critics Circle, an organization devoted to promoting reading, literature and critical inquiry—and to which this round little bookworm proudly belongs—recently polled its membership to determine which of this year’s books we like enough to recommend to our friends.
We were each asked to nominate one book in the fiction, non-fiction and poetry categories. Here are the critics’ choices for the books we’re recommending the most this year, in the order of votes received.
1) Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead).
2) Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
3) Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (HarperCollins).
4) Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (Houghton Mifflin).
5) Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses (Graywolf).
1) Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf).
2) Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (St. Martin’s).
3) Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Metropolitan).
4) David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts (HarperCollins).
5) Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes (Doubleday).
1) Robert Hass, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005* (Ecco).
2) Zbigniew Herbert, Collected Poems: 1956-1998* (Ecco).
3) Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music* (Farrar Straus & Giroux).
4) Rae Armantrout, Next Life (Wesleyan).
5) Mary Jo Bang, Elegy (Graywolf).
*There was a three-way tie for first in poetry.
And now for this critic’s comments. Yep, you knew I’d have some. I read a book a day. Of course I have opinions.
First, I tend to agree mostly on the nonfiction choices. I, too, gave the nod to Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying as the nonfiction book I’m most likely to recommend (SN&R In The Mix, October 18). I just read The World Without Us yesterday, and I’d also recommend it highly (look for a short review In The Mix soon). But my colleagues missed one that I think is among the most interesting nonfiction books I’ve read this year, at least for the general reader: Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind by Bruce Watson (SN&R Words, September 6,).
The important thing about this book is the way in which it illuminates all the various elements of “the trial of the (last) century.” I’m particularly impressed by the unflinching acknowledgment that Sacco & Vanzetti were, in fact, terrorists and accomplices to acts of terrorism. They were not, however, guilty of the robberies and murders of which they were convicted.
But the book doesn’t just provide more information; Watson also manages to present it in such a way that the reader can use it as a springboard to ask some pertinent questions of the present: What balance should we strike between ideas that might lead to crime and the crimes themselves? What would a reasonable person do when presented with an obviously innocent person who is very likely involved in other unsavory acts? Simply for its thought-provoking style, I’ve been recommending this book highly. Well, that, and it also irritates my knee-jerk “Sacco and Vanzetti were framed” far-left friends.
My only other disagreement with these choices is in the poetry section (of course!). While every volume on the list is a worthy one—and there are a couple missing, notably Adrienne Rich’s Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth: Poems 2004-2006 and Jean Valentine’s Little Boat—the one poetry book that I’m recommending unreservedly this year is For the Confederate Dead: Poems (“War and redemption,” SN&R Words, March 15).
Young’s book weaves together the many of the disparate strands of American poetry, all the while re-envisioning (and revising as necessary) our history. From his personification of Jim Crow to his re-vision of Countee Cullen’s famous poem, “Incident"; from his lovely invocation to Gwendolyn Brooks to the resonance from Alan Tate to Robert Lowell in the title poem, Young is grabbing both the literary tradition and the American experience with both hands. This is a book of poetry well worth close reading.
But as always, we are left with the simple truth: So many books; so little time. That’s why we need critics.