This end-of-year post isn't late, just well thought-out. What follows are synopses of books and graphic novels read and TV shows discovered in 2009. (Stay tuned for part 2: music and movies, and stuff that made me go Meh.)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Many of the comic and gaming culture references leaped over my head, but Junot Diaz' story of a depressed, bull-headed, outcast who finds love with the very woman he should run from, is a sumptuous, heady look at one of the most unusual but vivid characters introduced in the aughts.
Mohawk. Richard Russo's tender, tough, surprising first novel vivisects the underpinnings and undoings of a small upper New York town at the end of its industrial era. A fading town, seething secrets, longing, and lust. Half-way through Russo tosses his characters in a cup, shakes them up, then jumps them a couple years ahead. I never knew what was coming, and that's all you can ask of a good read. The prose sometimes smacks of mid-80s work shopping, but is never dull.
Lost City Radio. A thinly-veiled look at contemporary Peru filtered through the story of an unnamed South American city. Daniel Alarcon's odyssey follows Norma, host of a radio program called Lost City Radio, who helps citizens find their relatives lost to jungle wars and political unrest. When her own husband goes missing, boy comes into her life who she thinks can help her uncover the truth. Harrowing, tender, and unforgettable.
2666. The paperback came out in 2009, although I already had the boxed set from 2008. I’m only partially through book four of six, the part about the crimes, but already 2666 is the opus that everyone claims. Richer and looser than The Savage Detectives, Bolano, in his final written work, leads the reader through hundreds of vignettes to shape a tapestry of yearning, forward motion, and loss.
The bravado of the prose is so grounded it keeps you reading even through descriptions of dozens of murders of women in the fictional northern Mexican city of Santa Teresa. And who is this mysterious writer named Archimboldi that a passel of critics are trying to track down? And why does his trail lead them to Santa Teresa?
Revolutionary Road. Stark, honest, naked, vicious. With this portrait of a young couple in the New York suburbs, Richard Yates rewrote the rules for how married characters think and act in literature. A glorious achievement that I will probably reread every few years to remind myself what writers are capable of. A template for how to construct a novel, and how to reveal layers.
Last Night at the Lobster. Stewart O'Nan's portrait of a snow-bound Red Lobster franchise during its last shift before shutting down. The day evolves in crisp detail through the point of view of Manny, the 35 year old restaurant manager. It's a novella, so there's no time for back story or flashbacks. This book doesn't need them. O'Nan clearly presents Manny's longing for a coworker while he simultaneously struggles to buy the perfect Christmas gift for his girlfriend. Quietly hopeful, and full of longing, small betrayals, and loves, this little Lobster delivers big (pull-quote of the year folks! I got a million of 'em).
Noir. An anthology of illustrated crime stories in stark but effective black and white, Noir brings together many wonderful contemporary storytellers working different angles of noir. Contributors include Ed Brubaker, Kano, David Lapham, Ken Lizzi, and novelist Chris Offutt. Here we have straight up crime stories of hitmen, kidnappings, robberies, and other shady dealings. Entertaining and thrilling, Noir packs small, lethal punches.
Filthy Rich. Set in 1960s New Jersey and Manhattan, Filthy Rich is a story of how an ex high school football star nicknamed Junk becomes the bodyguard/chaperone to the daughter of a powerful Jersey used car dealer. An assignment for which nothing good can come. Written by Brian Azzarello (also a contributor to Noir) with art by Victor Santos, Filthy Rich is a frenetic, sometimes elliptical tale supported by stylized black and white illustrations of tough brutes with square jaws, hot dames with soft lines, hard hearts, and big boobs. Nice retro feel to the dialogue and characterizations. One hitch to full enjoyment is how Santos' busy frames and fussy lines make many of the male characters look confusingly similar, and the smaller trade paperback-sized format hinders a full appreciation of each panel.
I finally allowed myself to get sucked into the wonderful world of Mad Men, that retro look at the workplace of mid-town Manhattan in the early 60s. Where men were encouraged to smoke, drink, and treat women like objects. And women were only beginning to find ways out of this trap. Mad Men avoids repetition with strong characterization, writing, and stories that never stray far from the strong atmosphere of an advertising company.
Something happened on Wednesday nights that I can’t quite explain: I became a fan of Cougar Town starring Courtney Cox as randy, goofy, selfish, charming real estate agent Jules. It’s a breezy show; each week the story lines concern nothing more than Jules worrying about crow's feet, looking younger, and hanging with her neighbors in a cozy Florida cul-de-sac where everybody has a swimming pool and it’s always sunny! Always! Courtney is gloriously game, and her comic timing, honed from years on Friends, runs circles around the rest of the very funny and believable cast.
What are some of the books you discovered last year? What TV shows can't you live without?
Stay tuned for Part 2!