Having reviewed already the books I enjoyed despite myself, I thought I would just quickly remind readers of the new books I thought the very best among those published this year. This list, unlike the earlier one, ought not to require quite so much explanation for each title, as I have, one way and another, already made note of these books here, talked about them with anyone who would listen, and or done my level best to promote them at the bookstore where I work. While numbered, for the convenience of making a list, I would be hard pressed to say which I loved best, but as I may have already communicated as much to the party or parties responsible, I will just say here, these are all remarkable books of enduring value and I would encourage anyone to read the lot!
1) The Professor and Other Essays, by Terry Castle. Any one of these personal essays would have been enough to make this one of my favorite reading experiences -- ever. Uniformly brilliant, wickedly funny and full of unexpected warmth, there is not a rum effort in the book. My favorite? I've never read a better, less sentimentalized or more accurate depiction of first foolish love than that in the long, title essay. The best. I have a new favorite essayist.
2) How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. I'd just had Bayle St. John's Victorian-era biography reprinted for me, for want of a good book about Montaigne, and read that, when I saw Bakewell's book displayed at a booksellers' convention and begged a copy from the publisher. So glad I did. Bakewell's is easily the best book on Montaigne I've ever read, or am likely to read. Anyone who's never read the great essayist, should read this book first. Anyone who loves Montaigne, should read this book. Everyone should read this book.
3) Role Models, by John Waters. This was an unexpected delight, from beginning to end. Whether profiling Johnny Mathis, or the little guy who made a one man industry of seducing jarheads on tape for the home video market, Waters proves himself to be the man one most wants to tell a story at any party. What a delightful writer!
4) Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, et al. I can't help but smile at strenuousness of the effort, in the making, and the wading through to Twain in the middle, but here at last is the first volume of an epic reconstruction effort. While the full weight of the scholarship might sink a less buoyant document, Twain's dictated pages make even all the extra stuff interesting. An amazing accomplishment by the Twain Project.
5) Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim. First pass through, I was riled by some of the sniping at his elders, and disappointed to find such an impersonal, wholly professional record of a life in the theater. When I finally settled down and read it straight through, I discovered a unique and minutely detailed self portrait of the greatest theatrical writer/composer of my lifetime. Fascinating man. Fascinating book. There's never been anything quite like either of them before. Can't wait for the next volume.
6) Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade, by Justin Spring. This is the life I've been waiting to read since I briefly met the subject, decades ago, in San Francisco. Nobody had a more interesting life -- witness that subtitle -- or better deserved Justin Spring for his biographer. This is a meticulously researched and cleverly composed book about one of the most amazing men I will ever have met. I read it so fast, I had to go back immediately and do it again. It's that good.
7) A Life Like Other People's, by Alan Bennett. I read everything Bennett publishes. He is one of the great ironists in a competitively ironic time: dry, droll and yes, even quite dear, in his way. I was taken aback to find this little book so emotionally exhausting. In telling a son's story of his parents' marriage without a hint of sentimentality, and sparing himself nothing, Alan Bennet has written a simply beautiful book. I know these people. I'm genuinely grateful for the privilege.
8) While the Women Are Sleeping, by Javier Marias. A collection of short stories by the most exciting novelist I've read since I was a much younger, and more adventurous reader. I hesitated to pick this up, for fear it would disappoint after reading his masterful trilogy of novels, Your Face Tomorrow. These stories only reinforced my conviction that Marias is the most interesting writer working today. Such ease! I don't remember reading anything this entertaining in such brief performances since Calvino. This book proves it. I will read anything this man writes.
9) Never Breathe a Word: The Collected Stories of Caroline Blackwood. Another remarkable personality I'd only too recently discovered. Caustic and very carefully calibrated, each and every piece in this collection, fiction and memoir, just avoids being too bitter by being subtly forgiving, in ways that may only be appreciated in rereading. Blackwood was an accomplished stylist, as well as being uproariously attractive as a narrator, of her own life, or others', and this collection bottles what was best and brightest in her writing.
10) Half Empty, by David Rakoff. The writer's previous efforts represent a certain facile bad humor in short form that I've always found to be great fun. A bad attitude is all but required in the contemporary humorist, and I endorse the trend. What makes this book specially noteworthy is Rakoff's application of this formula to the unlikely subject of his own cancer treatment and remission. He is ruthlessly funny throughout, without once either descending into maudlin cliche or avoiding the genuinely complex and painful realities of what it means to become a patient when impatience is your style.
Already there are other books now crowding in on this list, books I ought to have thought of sooner, or somehow have made a place for before this comes to a quick close. Books like Harold Bloom's fascinating anthology, Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, and the Library of America's beautiful boxed set of the "novels in pictures" by Lynd Ward, the reissue of Stuck Rubber Baby, but this will have to do.
It was a good year.