Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes and NOX by Anne Carson
Two books on my best of list this year are about mourning: Roland Barthes'Mourning Diary and Anne Carson's NOX. Barthes' posthumously published Mourning Diary is a beautiful, lapidary portrait of mourning his mother over the course of about two years, before his own untimely death. (Barthes was hit by a laundry van and died some weeks afterward from the injuries he sustained.) Because the volume comprises notes toward a more fleshed-out book on mourning, it is fragmentary and repetitive—and captures the dislocated, searching mind of the mourner as brilliantly and movingly as any book I know. NOX is Anne Carson's elegy for her brother; a book in a box, it incorporates photographs and images as well as text in its drive to find a language for loss. A moving meditation on character and estrangement, it's also an examination of Catullus' poem 101, an elegy for his own brother. — Meghan O'Rourke, culture critic
The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Reading is strange, when you think about it. And writing about reading, especially about the delirium of obsessed readers, the madness and melancholy of book lovers and scholars, can be even stranger. Few writers can capture these Chekhovian love affairs with the deadpan humor, charm, affection—and pitch-perfect voice—that Elif Batuman brings to The Possessed.
If you love reading you will love this book, which ranges from Batuman's half-serious (I think) effort to prove to Tolstoy scholars that Tolstoy was murdered, to a summer trip to Samarkand which results in a hilariously Borgesian attempt to explain the impossibly convoluted evolution of the Old Uzbek language. "What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying?" she asks herself. "I wasn't sure, but it didn't seem to bode well for my summer vacation."
—Ron Rosenbaum, "Spectator" columnist
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring
Samuel Steward was a man of obsessions. Born in 1909, his first love was literature, and he struck up lifelong friendships with Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, and other prominent authors. Soon, though, his true passion came to dominate. He was preoccupied with sex, and he devoted his talents as a scholar, writer, and artist to the erotic. Steward's mania for self-scrutiny—he kept precise records of his "contacts" and "releases"—and his rejection of the shame that was supposed to accompany homosexual desire, led him to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. His passion for sailors, meanwhile, drove him to abandon his academic career to become a pioneering tattoo artist. Steward was a cranky loner—at the age of 73 he noted that though he had "slept with 807 persons for a total of 4647 times … I never had a 'love affair' with anyone, nor lived with him." Yet biographer Justin Spring has managed to transform such raw data into a loving chronicle of a fascinating life.— June Thomas, foreign editor
They Live by Jonathan Lethem
Novelist, essayist, and avowed sci-fi nerd Jonathan Lethem's They Live—a pocket-size ode to the greatness (and electric incoherence) of John Carpenter's 1988 film—takes as its object of affection a film some might rank in the sci-fi/horror genre maestro's top five, but few (not even Lethem) consider his best. Still, the movie proves ripe for exploration. Its premise: A Reagan-era, working-class vagabond (professional wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper) dons special sunglasses, discovers a secret ruling class of yuppie aliens, and then sets about taking them down, one shotgun shell and lug-headed bon mot at a time. Lethem combines sharp-eyed scene-by-scene analysis with freewheeling riffs and tangents. Topics discussed include John Wayne's posture, the Tompkins Square riots, District 9, Jenny Holzer, and Slavoj Zizek's Marxist-Lacanian parsings. All the references keep the book percolating, rather than bogging it down—and it's a testament to the daffy riches of Carpenter's film that it more than sustains them.
—Jonah Weiner, pop critic
And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and regular contributors: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens; The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean; How To Become a Scandal by Laura Kipnis; All the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera; Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski; Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz; The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz; Grounded by Seth Stevenson; The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam; Palinisms by Jacob Weisberg; The Master Switch by Tim Wu.