I think I’ll remember 2009 as the year when I made a conscious effort to immerse myself in the culture of books, and fell more deeply in love with that culture than I would have thought possible. My first novel was published a few months ago, and in the lead-up to publication I began spending an inordinate amount of time talking to booksellers online and in person, going to other writers’ events, lingering in bookstores and reading all the fiction I could get my hands on. Reading has become one of the great joys of my life, and I think I’ve probably read more books in 2009 than I did in the previous five years combined.
It’s hard to pick a favorite. I thought Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn were breathtaking. I loved John Wray’s Lowboy. But in a year awash in books, one in particular stands out: Shaun Tan’s gorgeously illustrated Tales from Outer Suburbia is the size and shape of a children’s picture book, but I’m not sure I’d give it to a child. The Library of Congress summary describes the book as “fifteen illustrated short stories… set in the Australian suburbs,” but these suburbs aren’t quite of this earth.
Tan’s suburbia is a haunted place, sometimes banal and sometimes beautiful, populated by strange apparitions—a water buffalo who lives in a vacant lot and gives directions to children in need, a man in an antiquated and heavily barnacled deep-sea diving suit who drips water from his air pipe as he wanders blindly down the street. Mysterious courtyards open up impossibly between attics and upstairs rooms; figures made of sticks and clumps of clod wander silently over the landscape; dogs gather one night outside the burning home of a man who recently beat his own dog to death. I’ve been slightly obsessed with this book for months.