By Nicholson Baker
Simon & Schuster; 243 pp.
In prior novels, Nicholson Baker has channeled his boundless curiosity through proxies both mundane—The Mezzanine is narrated by an office worker on his lunch break—and fantastic: The Fermata's protagonist had the power to freeze time. But regardless of milieu, Baker's style is unmistakable: a rare blend of fierce intellect and upbeat perspective, with prose full of captivating descriptions of minutiae and acute insights into human behavior. His ability to rhapsodize the ordinary, with disarming intelligence and humility, is unsurpassed.
In his latest novel, The Anthologist, Baker shines his light on the world of poetry. Paul Chowder, a modestly heartbroken and quasi-failed poet, speaks in the affable, candid voice of all Baker's leading men, even when being outrageously petty or erudite. His sensual readings of poems he loves are balanced out with cheery, fair invective for Pound, Whitman ("The Waste Land" is a "hodge-podge of glummery and borrowed paste"), Italian Futurism and Billy Collins, whom he calls (with admitted unfairness, in a jealous moment) a "charming chirping crack whore." This doesn't seem cruel because of the sharp sense of conversational intimacy—it's the kind of meaningless smack-talk exchanged by friends. Baker hones that sense with asides that keep Chowder up close and personal. "Haaaaahhhh!" goes one of many delightful quotidian digressions. "I'm going to oxygenate myself. Haaaaaaahhhh!"
Chowder is trying to write the introduction to a poetry anthology and win back his ex, Roz. This action is set amid brilliantly eccentric disquisitions on rhyme and meter. He argues that the heart of English poetry is the rhymed ballad, not the starchier, more formal iambic pentameter (how like Baker to discover his own secret song: a slow waltz in a nearly petrified form). The extravagant ideas unfold in a realistic context. Chowder clings to the hem of a finely drawn poetry world—of The New Yorker, Oxford anthologies, soul-sucking readings and chic academic conferences. He also has understated encounters with dead poets in Laundromats. Most writers would have portrayed him as gloomy and hubristic, but such qualities are not in Baker's repertoire. Chowder's love of rhyme connects him to life in its pure, infantile, incantatory essence.
While The Anthologist has special interest for poetry lovers, no esoteric knowledge is required. In fact, it's discouraged. "Triplets are called dactyls or anapests in the official lingo, depending on whether they start with an upbeat or not," Chowder says, while discussing Tennyson. "But those words are bits of twisted dead scholarship, and you should forget them immediately." Baker delves into abstruse academic concepts only for the sake of peeling them back to their simple underpinnings, and in the process he rescues poetry from the ether, rooting it instead in the marvelous banality of everyday life. —Brian Howe
The Year of the Flood
By Margaret Atwood
Knopf Doubleday; 448 pp.
Margaret Atwood recently caused a stir within science fiction fandom with her assertion on the Internet that she doesn't write SF, because (as she told The New York Times) her books lack "aliens and spaceships and the other usual things." (At the Edinburgh Book Festival she was rather more direct; her books aren't sci-fi, she said, because they don't have "talking squid.") Inspiring pointed reactions from figures as diverse as Ursula K. Le Guin (who wrote, "She doesn't want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto") and Stephen Baxter (who paraphrased William Shatner's famous exhortation to a gathering of Trekkies on Saturday Night Live, "Get a life, woman!"), Atwood's rejection of the SF label even inspired a short-lived holiday, International Science Fiction Reshelving Day, dedicated to taking canonized literary works like Frankenstein, Gulliver's Travels, Slaughterhouse-Five and 1984 and moving them to the "Science Fiction & Fantasy" section of bookshelves, where, it might be said, they've always really belonged.
Don't tell the literary bigots, but if there was any remaining doubt about Atwood's central place in the science fiction canon, it's dispelled by her most recent book, The Year of the Flood, the sequel to her delightfully apocalyptic 2003 novel Oryx and Crake. Borrowing from the more traditional science fiction franchises the trope of the "parallel sequel," The Year of the Flood takes place before, during and after Oryx and Crake, with major characters from one novel making cameos in the other. Where Oryx and Crake appears to be doubly dystopian—a corporate nightmare of ecologically destructive consumerism is replaced, through a deliberately engineered plague, by an artificial "paradise" of genetically modified humans who worship the architect of the disaster as God—The Year of the Flood returns to us at least the possibility that we might still build some kind of better world for ourselves out of the broken lives and ecological havoc caused by the ongoing breakdown of late capitalism. (It helps a bit that the misogynistic corporate scientists of the earlier novel have been replaced in this one by working-class women and hippie environmentalists.) If I have one complaint, it's that the perfectly ambiguous ending of Oryx and Crake has in some small way been spoiled by Atwood's decision to show us what comes next—but the novel we get out of it, rich with its own complex ambiguities, is absolutely worth the cost. —Gerry Canavan
By Jonathan Lethem
Knopf Doubleday; 472 pp.
Unlike Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem has made no secret of his science fiction influences or his place firmly within the genre's orbit, authoring fiction that confounds easy generic classification and speaking often of his admiration for the legendary Philip K. Dick, whose pulp SF novels Lethem spent his teenage years scouring used bookstores to find. Though Lethem got his start in the science fiction section of bookstores at the start of his career in the mid-1990s, the MacArthur "genius" grant laureate hadn't written a purely SF novel since his mainstream breakout novel, Motherless Brooklyn, a noir pastiche, way back in 1999.
It's been worth the wait. His latest novel, Chronic City, is an unabashed, unrepentant return to the genre in which he got his start: a meandering trip through a hyperbolic and paranoid Manhattan, with characters obsessed with their own memory loss and conspiracies that could have been concocted by P.K.D. himself. (In a subplot worthy of the master, more than one character wonders if the world outside Manhattan is even still out there at all.)
Lethem's famous genre-bending cleverness—a loose tiger roams his postmodern Manhattan, spawning widespread panic and "TigerWatch" Internet applications in roughly equal measure—and frighteningly encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture would, by themselves, make the book a necessary read this winter. But despite its satiric tone and New York fixation, Chronic City makes deep cuts at any reader's heart. I defy you to remain unmoved by the hopeless letters from astronaut Janice Trumball, trapped permanently in an international space station surrounded by a Chinese mine field, a woman the narrator-protagonist (former child star Chase Insteadman) can hardly remember but nonetheless knows he loves.
(You have my word: This all makes perfect sense in context.) —Gerry Canavan
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Random House; 544 pp.
Kim Stanley Robinson has never had Atwood's luxury of refusing the SF label; his novels, alas, do feature spaceships and the other usual things (though no talking squid yet). But don't worry: He has no regrets about his books' home in the science fiction section, speaking often of his theory that in the future-shocked world in which we live, "science fiction is the realism of our time." His "Three Californias" trilogy, "Mars" trilogy, the "Science in the Capital" trilogy and the novel The Years of Rice and Salt have all, in different ways, explored the possibility of new and utopian political forms erupting out of the crucible of global economic-ecologic crises through scientific thinking and empathetic feeling; his latest novel, Galileo's Dream, out next week, continues these themes through Robinson's first attempt at a time-travel narrative.
Galileo's Dream begins in 16th-century Venice with Galileo Galilei—whom Robinson calls "history's first scientist"—receiving from a chance encounter in the marketplace the news that the Dutch have invented a working spyglass. From here he intuits the spyglass's operation and then quickly perfects it, inventing the telescope, discovering mountains on the Moon and then the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Galileo is subsequently taken by that same mysterious stranger to Ganymede, circa A.D. 3020, to discover a society of moon-based city-states facing social crises that require Galileo's scientific judgment and intervention; he is the one person whose opinions everyone there can agree to respect. But there's something in all this for Galileo, too—the "damaged and traumatized" inhabitants of Jupiter's moons come from a future in which he is not only history's first scientist but science's first martyr, having died not of old age under house arrest but having been burned at the stake by the Catholic Church for heresy.
In both genre and mainstream literary fiction, America's vision of its future has been dominated for decades by dystopia and apocalypse. Robinson is perhaps the last, best utopian in American letters, unapologetically crafting in his novels visions of the better world that he believes can still emerge, through struggle, out of this one. Individual lives, he writes in The Years of Rice and Salt, always end with the tragedy of death; it's only in the long history of collective struggle, over lifetimes, that we can hope to find the possibility of comedy, of happy endings. (As Martin Luther King put the same idea: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.") The first principle for Robinson, King and any other citizen of Utopia is not just the belief that a better future is possible but the conviction that the dream of the future can help us save the present; in the two-millennial span and twisting grandfather paradoxes of Galileo's Dream, that political and philosophical commitment is made, for the first time in Robinson's long career, spellbindingly literal. —Gerry Canavan
Stitches: A Memoir
By David Small
W.W. Norton & Company; 329 pp.
The second graphic novel to be nominated for the National Book Award, David Small's memoir of an unhappy childhood is the best David Lynch film David Lynch never made.
Using negative space, chiaroscuro and well-chosen slashes of gray, Small captures the perspective of his younger self, surrounded by towering, monstrous adults who literally gave him cancer, leaving him unable to speak for years. The sequences aren't told so much as they are presented as lucid dreams, reflecting the fear, confusion and defiance of a child who doesn't completely understand the world.
Small, principally known as a Caldecott-winning illustrator, makes a stunning debut into adult works with a book that's the equivalent of a good therapy session—one that leads to a joyous catharsis as young David finally receives the comfort and understanding he so badly needs. In theory, it might not sound like a feel-good story, but in practice it's one of the most uplifting works of the year. —Zack Smith
Goth Girl Rising
By Barry Lyga
Houghton Mifflin Books for Children; 350 pp.
Many authors write about the high school years they wish they had; Barry Lyga writes about high school as most people actually remember it. Like the late John Hughes, he sets all his stories at the same small-town high school, but where Hughes emphasized comedy, Lyga focuses on the hell that is the teenage mind—filled with insecurity, guilt and an attitude that combines self-hatred with hatred for everything else.
Goth Girl Rising is the sequel to the first book in this sequence, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, where the comic book fan of the title entered into a potentially dangerous friendship with Kyra Sellers, the Goth girl. Now back from a stay in the hospital, Kyra resumes her life of shocking people, stealing cars and arguing with her widowed father, while half-heartedly plotting an ineffective "revenge" against Fanboy, whom she sees as abandoning her.
Filled with topical details (Kyra spills out her insides in blank verse and unsent letters to author Neil Gaiman), Lyga writes teens so real that you wish you could tell them they just need to let go of their anger and bitterness. Luckily, they're usually smart enough to figure this out for themselves. —Zack Smith
By Lev Grossman
Viking Adult; 416 pp.
Lev Grossman knows science fiction and fantasy. As a book reviewer for Time, he's heavily promoted the idea that we live in a world where "the geeks have won." But the geeks don't exactly win in The Magicians, a look at the fantasies of childhood from an adult perspective.
The first part takes a group of teens through a school for magic, where the friendships and couplings play just as big a role as spells and potions. In the second half, they find themselves adrift after graduation, only to retreat into a Narnia-esque fantasy world where quests and dungeons don't solve neuroses and insecurities.
The fantasy detail is as fun as the relationship material is insightful, and The Magicians offers a lesson for those who graduate from Harry Potter and its ilk: Fantasy can help you escape reality, but only you can escape your own faults. Now someone just needs to teach Twilight fans a similar lesson. —Zack Smith
Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950
Photographs from the collection of Jim Linderman; essay by Luc Sante
Dust to Digital; 96 pp.
Don't be fooled by the slim dimensions: Though it's about half a foot tall and only a bit wider, with just 96 pages bound between its sturdy blue-canvas covers, Take Me to the Water is a volume of infinite return. Consider, for instance, just one of the several dozen full-page prints of time-damaged, sepia-toned pictures of immersion baptisms: In one frame that comes about a fifth of the way through the book, a little boy dressed in a tan fedora standing close to the camera looks up at a grown man at the left of the frame. His partially covered face is an invitation for interpretive guesses—he looks mildly curious, somewhat anxious, possibly just little-kid-needy. Besides that blurred glance, we know nothing about him—not even when or where the photo was taken, since these photos, dated between 1890 and 1950, were rescued from antique shops and flea markets and archived by collector Jim Linderman. And that's to say nothing of the several hundred other people in the photo, gathered like sports spectators along the banks of a river, using the landscape—a slim strip for standing between a scrubby forest and the shallow water, divided ahead by a fork—as natural bleachers. This looks to have been a crowded baptism, people standing shoulder to shoulder beneath black umbrellas and white hats, just inches away from the water, where the minister, his right hand raised, prepares to immerse a young congregant. Four others stand there, wading knee- to waist-deep, waiting their turn.
Take Me to the Water—full of snapshots of sacred elation and nervousness, and accompanied by a 25-song CD that happily finds Washington Phillips, Reverend E.D. Campbell and Ernest Stoneman in the same strident pursuit of salvation—is a passively riveting collection, where a long look at one old image leaves you with enough untold stories to contemplate for a week. Dive in. —Grayson Currin
Soccernomics: Why England Loses, Why Germany and Brazil Win, and Why the U.S., Japan, Australia, Turkey—and Even Iraq—are Destined to Become the Kings of the World's Most Popular Sport
By Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
Nation Books; 328 pp.
This book by Simon Kuper, a British soccer journalist with the Financial Times, and Stefan Szymanski, a soccer-mad economist at Cass Business School in London, is less a coherent manifesto than a quirky, argumentative hodgepodge of insights of varying usefulness. The half of the book given over to the unfortunately overblown title is actually less interesting, an over-determined examination of demographic trends.
But in the powerful early chapters, the authors shine a light into the darkness, exposing the absurdities and ordinariness of the soccer business that should be readily apparent to outside observers. The most crucial and succinct point is that soccer is a poor business to be in and that it really isn't a business at all. The authors point out that most clubs lose money—especially the top clubs—because turning a profit and putting an exciting, winning team on the field are generally incompatible goals. Yet soccer thrives, despite the poor business record. In one startling passage, the authors demonstrate that of the 88 English football clubs that existed in 1923, 85 of them were still in business in 2008, despite rampant mismanagement and frequent trips into receivership. By contrast, of the top 100 British companies in 1912, 49 had vanished by 1995, thanks to the dog-eat-dog realities of capitalism. Clearly, soccer is not a normal business; instead, it performs a social function that people value, which is why these clubs are kept afloat.
The authors expose some of the most rampant wastefulness: for example, the overspending on name-brand strikers who often command their most inflated salaries and transfer fees after they've peaked on the field. The book is scathing on the practice of recycling the same mediocre managers (who are almost always white, male and former professional players). Particularly ruinous is when a struggling club sacks a manager mid-season (forcing an expensive buyout) and replaces him with whoever happens to be available (often someone who just lost his job somewhere else). However, in one interesting detour, the authors write approvingly about a top French club, Olympique Lyonnais (Lyon), that seems to be successfully straddling the goals of profitability and on-field prowess.
Elsewhere, the authors are good at illuminating the role of class and geography in the development of the sport. They contend that the English Premier League, often maligned for being dominated by foreigners, is actually home to too many inferior English players. The quality of the English national team, and of English players generally, they argue, suffers because while England has become a middle-class, bourgeois society in sharp contrast to a quarter-century ago, its players continue to be drawn almost exclusively from the rapidly shrinking pool of semi-skilled laborers.
On June 12, 2010, the English national soccer team will face the United States in the first game of the World Cup in South Africa. While you're counting down the days, Soccernomics supplies surprising insights into the workings of the game in both countries. Readers will come away thinking that the U.S. is less of an underdog than is commonly supposed. —David Fellerath
By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Hardcover; 416 pp.
Nick Hornby's already having a great year with his successful screenplay adaptation of Lynn Barber's An Education, and he continues his streak with his latest novel, Juliet, Naked.
Combining the themes of music-obsessed males from High Fidelity with the female protagonists of his more recent work, Juliet concerns a college professor obsessed with a reclusive singer-songwriter, the long-suffering girlfriend who dares to pen a negative review about his new disc of unreleased acoustic ("naked") tracks, and the singer-songwriter himself, who likes this review and begins a correspondence with the girlfriend.
Though Hornby has fun satirizing obsessive fans and Internet culture, the book's themes deal more heavily with the redemptive power of self-expression—whether it's breaking out of a lifetime's rut or being reminded that there's still potential within you. And it's also terribly funny. —Zack Smith
The Forever War
By Joe Haldeman
Thomas Dunne Books; 288 pp.
When Joe Haldeman returned from the Vietnam War, having experienced combat first- hand, he felt compelled to offer a "reply" to Robert Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers.
Set over thousands of years, The Forever War follows a soldier fighting against the first aliens encountered by humans. Due to the relativistic speeds of space travel, his unit returns from every battle to discover that centuries have passed on Earth, with their families and the generals who ordered them into combat long dead.
Haldeman struggled to find a publisher for his anti-war book, as it was deemed too controversial, too close for comfort in the early '70s. The Forever War eventually went on to win the Hugo and the Nebula, science fiction's highest awards, and is now considered a masterpiece of both sci-fi and anti-war novels such as Catch 22. (It should also not be confused with the book of the same title—recently issued in paperback—by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins, which is about a different "forever war.")
Earlier this year, Haldeman released his definitive version of the book, restoring a large center section that was originally considered "too downbeat." Interestingly, he left in several anachronisms (the book opens in 1997, and we are already colonizing other planets) because he realized it doesn't matter when the story is set or whether the analogy is of Vietnam—or Iraq and Afghanistan. The effect on soldiers is still the same. —JP Trostle