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John Wilson


Favorite Books of 2010

And Books & Culture's Book of the Year

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The Irrationalist. Suzanne Buffam. Canarium Books. And Lovely, Raspberry. Aaron Belz. Persea. And The Stranger Manual. Catie Rosemurgy. Graywolf Press. Each of these volumes by a youngish poet is a second book. All three are written from the perspective of a stranger in a strange land, but their voices are sharply individual. If you're of a mind to, you can find podcasts on Buffam (May 3) and Belz (September 13). And keep an eye out for Brett Foster's piece on The Stranger Manual in the January/February issue of B&C, which mails next week.

The Lives of the Poets. Samuel Johnson. Edited by John H. Middendorf. Three vols. Yale University Press. Yes, a lot scholarship is narrow, but how impressive it can be when informed by a lifetime of learning and brought to bear on a worthy subject. A case in point is this magnificent three-volume edition of Lives of the Poets, Volumes 21-23 in the Yale Works of Samuel Johnson. John Middendorf, who was both the general editor of the Works and the editor of these three volumes, worked on the Lives for thirty years. He was able to see the first two volumes through copyediting before his death in 2007, after which his colleague James Gray completed the task. The exacting work of Middendorf, Gray, and others who contributed to this project was not wasted: they have given us a treasure. The formidable voice of Dr. Johnson, alive in these pages, has beguiled me for many a night.

The Oxford Book of Parodies. Edited by John Gross. Oxford University Press. No significant literary subject is so little studied as parody, which hardly even figures in the curriculum. Crazy. You can't understand the history of literature without it. But never mind. Parody is at once a source of great delight and an irritant, inducing anxiety. Its effectiveness tends to be sharply timebound, and some of the specimens gathered in this volume by John Gross, bookman of the first order, will be appreciated by a mere handful of readers. That's no fault of his, and there's plenty here to savor.

Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time. Sarah Ruden. Pantheon Books. Sarah Ruden is a translator of Greek and Latin (see for example her splendid version of The Aeneid, published by Yale University Press in 2008) and a poet. A comment in a Bible study (she is a Quaker) prompted Ruden to begin reading the Apostle Paul alongside the literary texts that are her bread and butter. The result was this wonderfully refreshing book. You may want to check out Natalia Marandiuc's interview with Ruden in the September/October issue of B&C, if you haven't already; also, I interviewed Ruden for the September issue of Christianity Today.

Thereby Hangs a Tale and To Fetch a Thief. Spencer Quinn. Atria Books. Here I'll quote from a mini-review I did for the B&C website: "In January 2009, Atria Books published a novel by Spencer Quinn, Dog on It, that took the familiar noirish conventions of the private-eye novel and gave them a twist: the narrator is a dog. Gimmicky? Cloying? Terminally cute? It could have been all of these, but it wasn't. The voice of Chet the dog is winsome, funny, and somehow—by the alchemy of fiction—utterly persuasive. So who was this unknown author, Spencer Quinn? The bio on the jacket flap was skimpy. No wonder. 'Spencer Quinn,' it turned out, is none other than Peter Abrahams, 'my favorite American suspense novelist,' Stephen King has said (and one of my favorites too). He followed with Thereby Hangs a Tail in January 2010 and now, in time for Christmas gifts, To Fetch a Thief, the third installment in the adventures of Chet and his partner Bernie Little of the Little Detective Agency. Like its predecessors, this new story is based in 'the Valley,' somewhere in the American Southwest, ranging out from there (in this instance, across the border). The case involves a missing circus elephant, Peanut, for starters, but soon ramifies."

Tree of Codes. Jonathan Safran Foer. Visual Editions. I haven't been a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer (on the contrary), but his new book (which I've only had in hand for several days) is fascinating. It's an erasure project, like Ronald Johnson's Radi Os, which takes as its base text Milton's Paradise Lost, but much more complex as an artifact. The base text is Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles. Rather than try to describe the look of the pages in Tree of Codes, with their die-cut gaps, I suggest you go to the web, where you can see some of the pages (and the expressions of people turning them). I'll be writing more about this book after I've had a chance to take it in.

The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Princeton University Press. Richard Wolin. I wrote about this book for the B&C website in July. Here's a slightly condensed version: " 'Is the life of the mind a history of interesting mistakes?' So Hugh Kenner asked in The Pound Era. More particularly, he wondered, 'is the surest way to a fructive western idea the misunderstanding of an eastern one?' Something like Kenner's sense of historical irony informs Richard Wolin's interesting and curious new book. Wolin centers his attention on the Maoism that animated one influential faction of French students in the turmoil of May 1968 and gained sympathizers among leading intellectuals of the day. He freely acknowledges that the 'China' these would-be revolutionaries celebrated with their paeans to Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution existed only in their heads; the reality was considerably more grim. And yet, he says, the long-term effects of this infatuation were clearly beneficent: 'what began as an exercise in revolutionary dogmatism was transformed into a Dionysian celebration of cultural pluralism and the right to difference. At issue was a political learning process via which French youth cured itself of its infantile revolutionary longings in order to focus on more circumscribed tasks pertaining to the transformation of everyday life and the regeneration of civil society.'… Disagreements and exasperations aside, I found this book compulsively readable. The history of the Sixties is a long way from being exhausted."

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