Some Favorite Reads for 2009

By Chris Lydon
Boston, MA
January 27, 2010

My reading/interviewing/podcasting year ends on the gorgeously swinging, dissonant, modernist note of Robin Kelley’s “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.”  Kelley lovingly moves the complex Monk story from the ragged edge to the creative center of 20th Century American music.  And it offsets Monk’s many eccentricities and trials with the man’s private kindnesses and his belief, unshakable through thick and thin, in his own voice.  Monk emerges as a true Emersonian at the keyboard.  “To believe your own sound,” (paraphrasing “Self-Reliance”) “… that is genius.”  There may be another jazz biography as thickly detailed, as audibly lyrical, as passionate, as thrilling as this one, but I can’t bring it to mind. See: Robin Kelley’s Transcendental Thelonious Monk.

2009, all told, felt like a recovery year.

Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” felt like the book of the age, and may well have been my book to remember for 2009.   A post-911 tale of the cricket leagues that thrive in third-world New York City, it’s a parable of how we confront “otherness” in the world, in our midst; and perfectly fitted for the Obama inauguration and, it turned out, for the presidential night table.  See:  Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland: The Novel of the Age.

Another surprising novel, Paul Harding’s “Tinkers,” an offbeat New England peddler’s family saga in a transcendentalist spirit, made it miraculously from the quirky brilliant Bellevue Literary Press to Amazon’s Top 10 list of fiction for 2009.  See:  Paul Harding’s Magical ‘Tinkers’.

Nicholson Baker, in “The Anthologist,” makes the huge loss of John Updike a bit less bitter.  Another adoptive New Englander and ex-urbanite, Baker is a one-off stylist, profoundly though nimbly erudite in poetry, history and music, and hilarious as well.  In his fiction and his New Yorker fact pieces, Nick Baker seems to have become our Great Noticer.  See: Whose Words These Are (16): Nick Baker’s Chowder.

Favorites  in non-fiction were two early warnings about the booby-trapped obstacle course President Obama can’t finesse:

Jackson Lears’ “Rebirth of a Nation,” is a glum reflection on the revivalist, bully-boy, anti-intellectual stream in American culture and psychology that’s been flowing strong since the US Civil war, embodied by Teddy Roosevelt on his bad days and by G.W. Bush every day.  See: Jackson Lears: on Obama’s Sorrows of Empire.

Chris Hedges’ “Empire of Illusion” is a sort of draft death certificate for an American economy, culture, foreign policy and mainstream media that refuse absolutely to reflect on, much less correct, their self-destructive trajectory.  See: Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic.

George Scialabba’s essay collection, “What Are Intellectuals Good For?” is outwardly a lament for the civic culture and the late great public intellectuals.  But it more truly a modern model of wondrously civilized dedication to the ecstatic discipline of ideas.  See: George Scialabba: the untethered, untenured mind.

My biggest investment in a giant writer this year was in the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk: in his new “Museum of Innocence;” his Nobel-nailer, “Snow;” his masterpiece, “My Name is Red;” his memoir “Istanbul;” and his essays, “Other Colors.”  Pamuk is the Proust of melancholy Istanbul.  He’s still more absorbing as a sort of Dostoevsky of today’s moral tensions between West and East, with rather more cheer, less spleen than Dostoevsky brought to the subject when the critical difference seemed to be Roman vs. Orthodox Christianity.  Pamuk is, finally, a marvelous exponent of novels as a way of knowing, a way of life. See: Orhan Pamuk and his Museum: This is your brain on novels…...

To all you fellow travelers — courage!  thanks!  love!

Chris Lydon

Yale '62

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