! = recommended
* = all-ages
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2009 was an excellent year for book lovers, even if publishers became as entrenched about withering economic changes as much as the cowering music industry. And as May '68 prophet of speed Paul Virilio was quoted in a 2002 interview, "If there is one place where you're scared, it's a bunker."
Great literature and thrilling reads (and mixtures of both) still made it into the margins of the marketplace, where the best stuff always sticks. Even a couple of lofty but subversive tomes with hefty price tags bobbled up into the mainstream, the perfect gifts to impress print-stubborn smart uncles and shrewd aunts during the holidays. But if you've been famished yourself for some tasty writing, be it scholarly or humorous or woven through excellent art and design, what follows is a short list of lit I personally endorse. Take it with you to an independent like Elliot Bay Bookstore, Third Place, University Bookstore, or any other fine vendor in the Pacific NW or elsewhere.
A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Belknap/Harvard), if you can afford its over-$40 price tag, is probably the one book you want to buy for yourself this season. A thousand page-thick cultural-theorist documentation of the United States, It is well worth every penny, with essays by Marcus on Moby-Dick, NPR's beloved Sarah Vowell on Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, dazzling pop critic Douglas Wolk on Superman, EMP Pop Conference philosophical agitator Joshua Clover on Bob Dylan, and so much more. The Vowell analysis of the society surrounding the times and photographic sensibility that went into the painting of that famously dour farming couple is great journalism, while fans of Brian Eno should be forced to read David A. Mindell's history of Cybernetics to understand where his Oblique Strategies evolved from. Low Life author Luc Sante on the invention of the blues (where he can pretty much trace it to a few dudes, sort of), and some other pieces have seen light before, but it's a thrill to have them all coffee table booking it in a volume as big as a coffee table. Just add legs. An give yourself a year of spare time to wallow in all this goodness.
The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book: Two Stories by Joe Daly is a great follow up to also Fantagraphics-published Scrublands, and proof that the Seattle publisher will travel the world, even going so far as South Africa, to help bring the best artists to the graphic novel scene. Druggy noir vividly told, Red Monkey is like watching Jim Rockford take a monster bong-hit before getting bashed in the jaw by some muscle of a rich guy in a bar bathroom. "The Leaking Cello Case" and "John Wesley Harding" are both contenders for short graphic fiction of the year, with pellucid plotting distorted by strange times and scary surprises. The artwork is like the more story-based finely crafted alternative comics of the 90s, and the sense of distorted place and identity as creative as fiction by Thomas Pynchon. If that seems lofty, start here and wait for Daly to one day unveil his Gravity's Rainbow.
Life With Sudden Death (Counterpoint) by Michael Downing is my favorite non-music, non-comics memoir of the year. It's a fascinating tale of unintended medical torture and the weird indifference of the universe told by an author living with a condition that can cease his existence at any time. At age 45, a scrap of his DNA came up as a mutation, though Downing was feeling just fine and in proper shape. This begins a search into the genetic curse of his lineage, and a complicated series of relationships with doctors who feel compelled to solve this mystery. In terms of telling a tale of our time, the information on his insurance company alone is enough to put anyone on the side of reform. "I was repeatedly told that everything possible was being done for my own good, and yet I seemed to be the only person involved in the project who was not prospering." It's this central view of mordant acceptance that makes the title of this book a story we could all relate to, even if it's horribly peculiar.
How To Be Inappropriate by Daniel Nester is my choice for humorous essay collection of the year, starring a writer unafraid to put himself in tawdry, humiliating positions to be able to personally describe them and the feelings created by them. Another sharp creative non-fiction release from Soft Skull, this is a breeze of a read, rhapsodizing on the Bon Jovi-made-famous "talk box" (think "Livin' On A Prayer"), Christians who consciously adore their own kitsch, a "fartspotter's guide to passings of the wind," a query into the footlicking fetish and his wife's hilariously inimical response to it, and what happened when Gene Simmons of KISS was interviewed by NPR's Terry Gross (in the form of a robot), and the failure that was his own rock band, Fear Itself. There's a lot of fucking up here, but keenly makes lemon-grenades out of lemon peelings, or something.