Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Fiction I enjoyed in 2009

Doomi Golo: Netali by Boubacar Boris Diop - When I read online that there was a novel written entirely in Wolof, I immediately set out to find it. At worst, I thought, it would be good for the fact of being written in my native language, even if it was a terrible novel - I approached it ready to excuse any amount of bad plotting and writing. I had nothing to worry about - it turned out to be one of the best novels I had ever read. My gushing review does not do it justice - I wish I had enough time to spend many years studying this novel, so I could write a dissertation about it. In the end it was more than just a novel to me: it also opened up a window into the world of Wolof possibility, and let me peer through, and what I saw was breathtaking, and beautiful, and heartbreaking, and everything I never imagined I would ever encounter in a written work in my language.

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig - Possible my favorite book of 2009. Novel about two men - one of them gay, the other a political prisoner - locked up in a prison cell together. One tells the other stories to help alleviate the boredom of being imprisoned. This is the main premise of the novel, but it comes together as so much more. Each of the embedded stories is in itself fully fleshed out and could have made this a great novel; the frame story in which they are embedded however is what makes it spectacular to read in the end, a touching portrayal of the point at which two people's lives touch in unexpected ways which leaves your heart heavy.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware - I have been trying to read more graphic novels lately, and the more I read them the more I find them as good as the best novels in their own right. Jimmy Corrigan is astonishing - it is the story of a sad little man, and a chronicle of his family. Before I read this I knew the meaning of the word "anti-hero", but only on an intellectual level - reading this I finally realized what the word truly meant. Jimmy is not very likeable - neither are some of the other main sub-characters (such as his grandfather), and yet never once through the book do you feel disconnected from them, or stop pitying them, or see themselves and their searches for a good life reflected in yours.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - This year I realized David Mitchell was in fact one of my favorite writers. I had read Black Swan Green (which does not appear here but was a book I enjoyed immensely), and was about half-way through this book when I realized that I was almost breathless, and kept going back to re-read sections I especially admired, all symptoms, it dawned on me, I had suffered from while reading other David Mitchell books. Cloud Atlas is made up of a collection of inter-connected stories, and while the connection is rather tenuous at times, the stories never fail to entertain. They all possess that cliff-hanger quality which is usually reserved for trash lit - so much "real literature" is boring. Boring this book is not, and I eagerly await the next book from David Mitchell.

Graceland by Chris Abani - "Dis Elvis, you no get faith. Television is the new oracle.", said by one of the characters in Chris Abani's Graceland to another character, is my favorite quote of the year. I have always admired the Nigerian novelists for their sense of humour, which coupled with their penetrating understanding of humans makes them fantastic writers (see, e.g., the war rape scene with the house boy in Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun, which manages to make you laugh even as you feel absolutely horrified). Chris Abani is a writer I need to read more of in 2010 - I saw his TED talk about telling stories, which is what led me to this book, which I gulped down in a few days, and was greatly captivated by.

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvin - In 2009 I discovered the magic of Italo Calvino. I had previously tried reading "If on a winter's night a traveler..." but had not finished it. I picked this up and from the first story I was hooked. It is not so much a collection of stories as an exploration of the symbols that make up stories, and how they come together, and the effects these symbols have on us the readers. After this I read "Invisible Cities", and enjoyed that very much, though there will never be another collection of stories quite like Cosmicomics for me.

The Boulevard of Broken Dreams
by Kim Deitch - About a comic artist driven mad by a creature he imagined one night during a weed high, I read this book in a haze on a visit to San Francisco. It is one of the strangest books I have ever read, its very structure like a plan for madness, with just enough sanity to make everything logical and connected (in a twisted kind of way), but not quite enough to escape the black hole of insanity around it.

Lush Life: A Novel by Richard Price - I am a great fan of The Wire, and greatly envy my room mate, who is on his first time through the show, his ability to go home at the end of the work day and open a new episode fresh, without knowing what will happen next. Now imagine The Wire in book form, complete with the realistic, gritty dialogue that series is known for, as well as the pace driving the action forward with never a stop for respite. This book is that, and more. I read it on a 7-hour bus trip to New York. When night fell, and the bus overhead lights refused to work, I leaned against the window and still read it, first from the insufficient daylight coming in, and then the passing lights of other cars on the highway. I could barely put it down.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,... by M.T. Anderson - There are books which set off at a fast pace, and keep up that pace throughout, such as Lush Life, and Cloud Atlass. Then there are ones which start off slowly, and keep this slow pace throughout, so if you are not paying attention you may dismiss them, but if you are at some point the payoff will happen, and it will suddenly dawn on you that you have been reading for two hours straight, and your internal rhythm had become synchronized with the rhythm of the book, and your internal thoughts had started to sound like the voice of the book. This book - and its predecessor in the series - are those kind of books. It is set in the time before the American Civil War, and follows the live of a slave called Octavian Nothing, who is part of an experiment by a college of scientists. You know a book is good when you are reading a long discourse on philosophy in a section about the behavior of man, and it is one of the most touching things you have read all year.

Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet - A comic book set in Ivory Coast, following the adventures of a young girl called Aya. So much of this felt so real it would feel for a moment as if I was back home, sitting in the front yard watching my sister do her friend's hair, while outside on the street the woman next door sold fried pancakes which she mad while you waited.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James - Set in Jamaica during the days of slavery, and told entirely in Jamaican Patois, this is another book I found it hard to put down. Like Doomi Golo, the author could have based the success of the novel on the gimmick of language alone. Instead he used the language merely as a means, telling a compelling story with characters so human you can imagine them after you close the book.


  1. You've written about some very interesting books, I tried to check out some of them upon reading your reviews.

    Book of the Night Women by Marlon James I've since finished. It was excellent, and I am grateful for the insight into the colonial life of Jamaica. Previously I was only really familiar with the accounts of slavery in America, this was my first exposure into slave life on the islands. I know Alex Haley plagiarized much of his work in Roots from Robert Courlanders accounts of slavery in Haiti. So it is very interesting to see where the different systems of slavery parallel each other and where they differ.

    Rather then using their resources to suppress uprisings and slave revolts, I imagined if the British had instead offered pay and land on the island, in exchange for a period of service, if some Africans would have came willingly and on fair terms; rather than the great tragedy of slavery, it could have been avoided and both sides possibly could have benefited in an amicable way.


    I also checked out Cloud Atlas from the library. I honestly have no idea what this author is talking about 95% of the time. I really don't get it. He jumps from one obscure subject to the next so fast. Really don't get it so far.

  2. Re: the british - yes that would have been nice. It was much cheaper and easier to keep the slaves, though - because of that I doubt they would have changed to paid labor.

    Cloud Atlas does tend to jump around a lot, but it's worth it if you keep with it - all the stories come together nicely in the end.