N.B.: Recommended Reading


The Owls asked some thoughtful people to suggest a favorite book of 2009 as a series of notes toward a recommended reading list. This was not intended as any sort of pretend ranking system. The responses received are below, in no particular order. Most memorable for me was Iain Sinclair’s Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire, published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton. This curio contains decades of research about the London borough of Hackney, told in a series of chapters blending peculiar travels, sometimes street by street, with notes on culture, historical wormholes, and personal essays. (Read an extract here.) –JMT.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG)

I read “The Fish” to anyone who has thirty seconds to listen.

–Stephanie Soileau

By Greg Grandin (Metropolitan Books)

Given the near-collapse of industrial capitalism over the past year, few analyses of the current crisis had as much resonance as this historical exploration of Henry Ford’s attempt at cornering the rubber market and recreating Main Street USA in the heart of the Amazon. A colossal failure, now swallowed by the jungle, that puts our current folly in perspective.

–Matthew Power

Bad Science
By Ben Goldacre (HarperPerennial)

It gives a satisfying answer to one of the most important questions of our time: if science is so great, why, every week, do we get conflicting advice about what we should eat from scientists?

–S. Abbas Raza

Hovering at a Low Altitude:
The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
Translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (W.W. Norton)

The legendary Israeli poet and peace activist, who wrote with tremendous naturalness and tenderness in Hebrew going back to the deepest layers of the language, is well served by two brilliant translators. In their prefatory remarks, Bloch and Kronfeld tell of a translation conference with the poet. They are wavering between two English words to render the Hebrew, and ask Ravikovitch which one is better. “So much is lost, either way,” the poet replies. Sure it is, in any translation — but less this time.

–Elatia Harris

The Cradle
By Patrick Somerville (Little, Brown)

My favorite novel of the year . Earlier this year I had the pleasure of publishing a Somerville short story in American Short Fiction. After reading just the first page of that story, I knew I wanted to read everything that Somerville would ever write. The Cradle is beautifully written, wise, heartbreaking, and un-put-downable. Who could ask for more than that?

–Stacey Swann

Black Postcards: A Memoir
By Dean Wareham (Penguin)

Wareham captures the ambivalence, emptiness and simple pleasures that make up a large percentage of the life of a small-time touring musician accurately and poignantly. In terms of music memoirs I’ve read this one is closest to my experience as a micro-time indie rock musician straddling the period between the industry’s feast and famine years (late 90s vs. current day).

–Kid Millions (read his letter on not-so-great books here).

Infinite Beginnings
By Lucyna Prostko (Bright Hill Press)

The endurance of the character of Paulina from this book of poems has haunted me for months.

–Nellie Bridge

My Abandonment
By Peter Rock (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

A beautiful and haunting novel about a young girl living off the grid.

–Skip Horack

Reconsidering Happiness
By Sherrie Flick (University of Nebraska Press).

Beautiful evocation of landscape and of the way that people’s lives intersect across time and space. Best novel set in a bakery, ever.

–Emily Mitchell

By Jericho Brown (New Issues)

Technically this is a late 2008 book. Power, Pause, Repeat, Stop: you can find the section titles of Jericho Brown’s debut book of poems, Please, on your stereo, if you’ve still got one; lyrical, raw love poems, in the best tradition of the hit single, Brown covers the dial from Diana Ross to Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye to Donny Hathaway.

–Keith Ekiss


Notes Received

It’s not a book from this year, nor a book I’ve been meaning to read.  And I have never liked the idea of favorites; even now, hearing an adult ask a child to name a “favorite color,” I am outraged.  How stupid. But it is such an odd and rare thing to stumble by accident into a novel, and find it surprising, that I respond in the not-odd, not-rare manner, wishing to wave it around on the subway, yelling “This book happened!” This book this time is WINKIE, by Clifford Chase.  This is a novel about a teddy bear.  This teddy bear, among other things, is captured and tried as a terrorist.  This is an impossible book to write, but it was written, and it made me feel any number of things, some forgotten, some never felt before. Right now, it is my favorite color.


Last month I was at dinner with a couple of friends and remembered a story about a horse, a town, and a collapsed tunnel once part of the Underground Railroad. I couldn’t place it; the story didn’t feel like part of anything I’d read but more like something a good friend whispered in my ear. I remembered, days later: Gilead. Of course. When I write poems or nonfiction about myself, I’m always a couple years behind.  The same is often true of reading. This year I read Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead, more than five years after it was first published. I read it and then read it again. By a voice so generous and prose so graceful, I felt humbled at the same time I was reminded why I read stories at all. I am late, I know, and it’s hard to describe how a novel so small in narrative scope feels so large in meaning, or why I think about the events in the book not as words on the page but as felt experiences.
–Joshua Rivkin


Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen. Open this book to any page and you’ll find mesmerizing writing, such as:

I had no idea with whom I was speaking, but I was welling up with unarticulated emotion, emotion preceding any thought, and I saw images—thin wales of corduroy, hairs of an ink brush, bruisy vein on a foot, a yellow cardigan, archipelagoed tea leaves, smudged newsprint, a pulley, the tendon of a neck—and the word that rose to the surface was ‘Rema.’

‘I miss you,’ emerged from my mouth unintentionally, before I could think or plan or be wise in any way; it’s ridiculous, to say I miss you to someone when you don’t know who she is. ‘Where are you?’

‘Leo, I’m at our apartment but where are you?’

Her words collapsed me into a smaller number of selves, a knowable number, an unpleasant dinner party.

The narrator is a psychiatrist suffering from Capgras Syndrome, a condition which makes him believe his beloved wife Rema has been replaced by an imposter. This is a terrific book for anyone who enjoys reading about the brain and its many functions and malfunctions. The narrator’s intelligence and affliction serve to make emotion and the uncertainty of human connections exquisitely clear.
–Rita Mae Reese


Here’s my Owls top ten books of 2009 list. If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that not all of these books were printed in 2009. What I offer here is The Best Books I Read in 2009 list, for what it’s worth:

The Floating Bridge, David Shumate (prose poems)
Azorno, Inger Christensen (novella)
The Poetry of Rilke, Edward Snow, trans. (poetry)
You, Frank Stanford (poetry)
Dark Things, Novica Tadic, Charles Simic, trans. (poetry)
Evil Corn, Adrian C. Louis (poetry)
The Sadness of Days, Luis Omar Salinas (poetry)
Seven Nights, Jorge Luis Borges (essays)
Reaching out to the World, Robert Bly (prose poems)
Casual Ties, David Wevill (prose poems)

–Michael McGriff


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