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Speeding through life
The best fiction and poetry of 2005

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best fiction and poetry books reviewed by the Phoenix in 2005.

1 THE COLLECTED POEMS OF TED BERRIGAN | EDITED BY ALICE NOTLEY WITH ANSELM BERRIGAN AND EDMUND BERRIGAN | UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS | Twenty-two years after Ted Berrigan’s sudden death, at age 48, his 758-page Collected Poems will consolidate and expand his legend. Poetry that was brash, funny, risk-taking, and fully alive when written remains bold and fresh. In life, he had legendary status on New York’s Lower East Side and wherever he taught. Loud, streetwise, stoked on speed, a man on whom little was lost, the quick-tongued Berrigan delivered his full freight whenever you encountered him. Readers new to his work will feel the man in this book.

2 CHARLES BURNS | BLACK HOLE | PANTHEON | Jonathan Franzen, who declared fictional sex dead, should read Charles Burns’s intricately wrought graphic novel set in a suburb of 1970s Seattle, where a group of teenagers have fallen victim to a ravaging virus that’s spread via unprotected sex with ghastly results. One victim sprouts hair on his face, like Michael J. Fox circa Teen Wolf; another develops a vaginal gash on her back through which she can crawl out of her skin. In its hundreds of carefully choreographed black-and-white panels, the main characters in act out a sort of ballet; the moral is ambiguous, the effect extraordinary. Black Hole is testament to how powerful a graphic novel can be.

3 DANTE’S INFERNO, DANTE’S PURGATORIO, DANTE’S PARADISO | ADAPTED BY SANDOW BIRK AND MARCUS SANDERS; ILLUSTRATED BY SANDOW BIRK | CHRONICLE BOOKS | Sandow Birk, an artist and surfer, did the illustrations (103 of ’em), which look like Gustave Doré except when they don’t, if you know what we mean. And he translated the Italian with Marcus Sanders, who edits Surfline, except it ain’t exactly a translation, since you know Dante never heard of Eminem. But Dante’s big thing was writing his Commedia in the vernacular, and that’s what Birk and Sanders do, only they do it in our vernacular, with Inferno set in LA, Purgatorio in San Francisco, and Paradiso in New York. Some people probably freaked when they saw f-bombs bursting all over a Classic of Western Civilization, though we bet Dante’d have done the same if he’d thought he could get away with it.

4 ABHA DAWESAR | BABYJI | ANCHOR | Anamika — the "Babyji" of the title — is a blooming physics wiz, a brainy New Delhi 16-year-old who rationalizes her multiple seductions in the language of her science and math classes: it’s particles acting on particles, all bodies in motion. For this smart, attractive, confident young woman, everything is possible and everyone available. But the charm of the Indian-born, Harvard-educated, New York–based author’s second novel is in the unsaid, the creeping uncertainties that have less to do with Heisenberg than with the heart.

5 RATTAWUT LAPCHAROENSAP | SIGHTSEEING | GROVE | In these seven stories set in Thailand, the 25-year-old Lapcharoensap, who was born in Chicago and raised in Bangkok, combines a native’s knowledge of side streets, alley ways, and underbellies with a tourist’s wide-eyed, alienated wonder. He reveals a place where shantytowns, cockfights, huffers, and hookers edge up against beach resorts and other innocuously exotic tourist traps. These are lush and pungent tales, so deftly crafted that you can feel like insider and outsider at once, tourist and native, alienated and embraced.

6 KELLY LINK | MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS | SMALL BEER PRESS | Link is a fabulist working in the age of reality TV, her stories evoking the timelessness of fairy tales while remaining grounded in a world much like our own. Tales nest within tales, and time’s trajectory isn’t always forward. A poker game turns into a chat with a sex-line worker who’s "Stephen King and sci-fi and the Arabian Nights and Penthouse Letters all at once," turns into a tale about the Devil and a cheerleader, turns into a story of one man’s wife, her clones, and vats of green beer. Link’s stories are as real as they are magic; if nothing else, they help guide us through the dark.

7 JOHN MCMANUS | BITTER MILK | PICADOR | McManus’s first novel (following two collections of stories) takes place in his native Tennessee, in the shadow of Blount County’s Chilhowee Mountain, and it has that fetid Southern feel, fecund like a dammed-up creek. His best stories have dealt with children, and here we have Loren Garland, a chubby nine-year-old boy who doesn’t have a father and whose mother wants to be a man. In the course of the novel, Loren grows from a kid with a flower garden, 230 books, and an endearing addiction to peanut butter into a kid who rips saplings out of the earth, who curses and drinks and learns to fight. McManus writes with sensitivity and affection, without succumbing to stereotype or condescension.

8 DAVY ROTHBART | THE LONE SURFER OF MONTANA, KANSAS | TOUCHSTONE | No less than the late Arthur Miller blurbed, "Davy writes with his whole heart. These stories are crushing." Corny, maybe, but true. The rapper and documentary filmmaker who’s made a name for himself by collecting scraps of other people’s lives in his Found magazine here gives us characters who reside in a very gray moral reality: two are prisoners, three others risk jail. With his exacting empathy, Rothbart has a knack for making you care about life’s losers.

9 ZADIE SMITH | ON BEAUTY | PENGUIN PRESS | With On Beauty, the 30-year-old Jamaican-British writer — author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man — has acquired greater dimension and restraint, giving readers a social novel that is true both to the times and to the mysterious workings of beauty itself. Set primarily on the liberal-arts campus of Wellington College and in nearby Boston, the book participates in the minor literary industry of academic-culture-war send-up. The twinned quest for social justice and ordered private meaning helixes through complex cross-cultural, intergenerational stories, and so too does the power of æsthetic form.

10 WESLEY STACE | MISFORTUNE | LITTLE, BROWN | Fans of the singer John Wesley Harding have long known him to be a witty master of wordplay and timing, in many ways a throwback to an earlier era — part Bob Dylan, part English balladeer. Small wonder then that his debut novel, published under his given name, Wesley Stace, is a delicious tour de force studded with punning twists, turn-arounds, and questions of identity. Misfortune, which seems to have been inspired equally by Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, is a historical romp, a 19th-century-style bodice ripper of the most entertaining sort.

Issue Date: December 23 - 29, 2005
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