Reading is a way of life here at LQ as we figure out what’s necessary, what’s timely, what’s exciting to put in each issue. The best books we read this year may not always have been new—it’s actually a surprise that any of them were new—but of the many texts we read both in and outside of work, we felt it was necessary to let you know which ones rose above the rest.
Comedy in a Minor Key, Hans Keilson
“For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: Comedy in a Minor Key [is a] masterpiece, and Hans Keilson is a genius.” So reads the first line of Francine Prose’s review of this marvelous book. The plot turns around three characters: a young married couple in Nazi occupied Holland who shelter Nico, the Jewish perfumer who quietly waits out the war in their upstairs bedroom. Rather then dwell on the heroics of this act, A Comedy in a Minor Key, unsentimentally describes the daily grind of scalded milk, fishmongers and laundry tickets that such an arrangement entails. There is a beauty and a kindness to Hans’ characters, all of whom fail and succeed to the best of their abilities. The book, originally published in 1947, was released for the first time in English this year, with a brilliant translation by Damion Searls.—Kira Brunner Don, Executive Editor
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, edited by Helen Vendler
At least four Broadway-produced plays, five novels, one hundred and eighty-six published poems, two children's books, and a Simon and Garfunkel song have been written about Emily Dickinson—it's time to return to her poems themselves. This year Helen Vendler published her own selection of Dickinson's verse along with astute commentary. After reading Dickinson's fifty or seventy-five best poems you realize that few poets have written this many poems of this much merit. Dickinson's manuscripts show that she left behind multiple variations on words and phrases, sometimes as many as a dozen, without favoring a particular one. Vendler points out moments when Dickinson wrote one word, only to bracket it and replace it with another. Not since Vendler's meticulous commentary on Shakespeare's sonnets has a finer book of close-readings been published.
—Jeannie Vanasco, Assistant Editor
The Magician of Lublin, Isaac Bashevis Singer
Reissued this year in celebration of its fiftieth anniversary, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin is a tale of modern anxiety set in late-nineteenth-century Poland. Charting the financial and spiritual breakdown of the title character, we watch as the lock-picking, hypnotizing, tightrope-walking Yasha Mazur avoids his wife in Lublin by preparing his new summer show in Warsaw while failing to juggle affairs with several women in the city itself. Told simply and matter-of-factly, the novel is imbued with deep pathos, Mazur grappling with religious doubt in a manner both comic and profound. A lively and engrossing read with an ending that offers more questions than answers.
—Aidan Flax-Clark, Assistant Editor
Cassandra at the Wedding, Dorothy Baker
Bringing new meaning to the sentiment “this wedding makes me want to kill myself,” Cassie Edwards travels to her family’s California ranch from an unfulfilling graduate program at Berkeley to attend her twin sister’s wedding. There, she faces her widowed father’s alcoholism, her grandmother’s well-intended bossiness, and the prospect of losing her beloved sister to a New England doctor who hates music. Oft-recorded themes, perhaps, but Cassie’s blithe rationality as she breaks glasses, incites screaming matches, and attempts suicide make this book an absurdly funny and moving affirmation of living and caring. As Cassie notes when she decides she doesn’t want to die, “One thing about being alive is that you can swim.” —Erin Fleming, Intern
Columbine, Dave Cullen
Dave Cullen’s ten years of research on the Columbine massacre has equipped him with the poise of a novelist who’s got a confident grasp of the community he renders and the lives of its inhabitants. These include the devoted high school principal, the Evangelical parents of a victim championed as a Christian martyr, the pastor ostracized for providing a funeral for one of the killers, Dylan Klebold. The narrative is fast-paced and penetrating. In episodic accounts Cullen unfolds how the people of Jefferson County react to its tragedy, then its national infamy, while working backwards to expose the psychological complexity of the two murderers. —Nora Newhouse, Intern
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
The structure of this extraordinary book is simple—back-to-back daily entries of two unlikely diarists who don’t know each other and live in the same wealthy Parisian apartment: Paloma, twelve (an exquisitely angry and rebellious girl, expensively educated, astonishingly smart, insightful and funny), who has summed up all of Life and decided to kill herself when she becomes thirteen; Renee, fifty-four (a calculatedly unremarkable and wholeheartedly passive concierge, with minimal formal education, searingly accurate observations, and outrageous humor) who reads every book on philosophy, history and literature she can take out of the library. Read this book, if you admire opinionated, precocious pre-teen girls, and inscrutable, unremarkable, middle-aged women with depths you never dreamed of. —Ann Gollin, Executive Assistant
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
For the connoisseur of paranoia, no better book exists. Dostoyevsky’s story of a death-dealing student triggers spasms of anxiety so severe it’ll make you think twice next time you schedule plans to commit mortal sin. In his focus on inward rather than “real” punishment, Dostoyevsky might be charged with navel gazing and abstractness. But the author is innocent, deftly weaving Raskolnikov’s guilt right into his external affairs. Once Raskolnikov dispatches the pawnbroker and her half-sister with an ax, the neurotic boy doesn’t simply become more neurotic, the inflection of his entire universe changes. Paranoia charges every word and discolors every deed. Why pass up the opportunity to share in such pain?
—Eli Burnstein, Intern
December 29, 2010
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff
I’ll admit it, Schiff had me hooked at her descriptions of incest and murder in the house of Ptolemy—but then metropolitan Alexandria began to bustle. The life of Cleopatra is a story with a little-known beginning, a familiar middle, and an infamous end. I was lucky enough to ask Schiff at a reading how she dealt with the constant pressure of historical speculation—how do you, for instance, have Cleopatra walk down the street? “I never wrote that Cleopatra walks down the street,” she explained, slightly annoyed. And suddenly I realized she was right—I was the one who had made the queen walk. Schiff fills in the negative space around her elusive subject with a mastery of detail and narrative, it’s the reader who conjures up a very real ghost. Cleopatra reminds us that well-written history should never be the agony of a life’s labor, but instead a profound work of magic. —Michelle Legro, Assistant Editor
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