After eight or so years of choosing my favorite books of the year at some point in mid-October, for professional reasons, I might seem a little overdue for such a list for 2011. But I'm enjoying the luxury, for a change, of waiting to sum up a year of reading until after the year is actually over, so I'll post my top 10 for 2011 just after the new year, as Firmament #11.
In the meantime, instead of summing up my own year's reading, I'll sum up someone else's, or rather a whole lot of someone elses'. My favorite year-end book feature (and I do like year-end features) has become The Millions's Year in Reading series, which has become an online institution in recent years. Their approach, which they seem to have pioneered in the States but which is much more common in the UK, is not to come up with some consensus ranking of the "best" books published during the year (which I think is still a worthy exercise!), but to ask a number of good or at least famous readers (mostly writers) to write about favorite or memorable books from their own year of reading, whether they were published this year or not.
As much as I've always enjoyed the series, the posts come in at such a rapid pace that at some point in the season I always end up lagging behind, never to catch up. But this year, even though the number of contributors has passed 65 (I think they must be coming to an end soon), I took it as my responsibility to read them all, so that you don't have to, and highlight a few of my favorites.
What criteria did I use? Two main ones: was the post interesting to read in its own right? And did it make me want to read the book or books they recommended? Some of the entries below were stronger in one element or the other, some in both. None this year quite reached the idiosyncratic heights of Sam Anderson's "Year in Marginalia" from 2010, but these ten were both good reading and, more importantly, will lead I hope to more good reading.
(By the way, two sociological notes from reading all sixty-plus entries: a) the Millions staffers have a lot of new babies this year; and b) musicians--sorry!--just aren't very good writers.)
- Benjamin Hale on The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon: The closest to a genre-busting entry this year, and certainly the most attention-grabbing, which begins as an examination of post-debut-novel ennui (by the author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore) and ends as a heated plea for Fanon's fiery manifesto: "Frantz Fanon was not punching the clock. He was not writing a book because he was a writer and writers write books. He was writing with dire passion, with an intensity of hate that only true love can birth." (Docked one point for an ill-judged Joyce Carol Oates sideswipe--my impression is that Oates writes so much out of passionate mania, not joyless mechanism--but granted an extra one for a gratuitous but I'm guessing justified knock on T.C. Boyle for phoning one in.)
- Ward Farnsworth on Jorge Luis Borges and John Jay Chapman: Farnsworth's celebration of Borges's lesser-known but still thrillingly encyclopedic nonfiction made me want to open up the copy of the book that I've had on my shelf since it came out, but what I really appreciated was his recommendation of Chapman, who sounds like just the sort of neglected but fascinating writer I love to discover: "Chapman was one of the finest American essayists of the early 20th century, and a very singular character; after starting an unjustified fight as a young man, he punished himself by putting his hand into a fire until the skin burned off, forcing its amputation. Fortunately he did his writing with the other hand, and was prolific with it. He wrote with learning, passion, moral energy, and rhetorical skill about all sorts of topics, most related to American political and cultural history." Also, Farnsworth's own unfashionably declarative style makes me want to check out his manual, Classical English Rhetoric.
- Stephen Dodson on Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman: Grossman's once-lost World War II epic has long seemed like a must-read, but never has it seemed more concretely so to me than in Dodson's compact and convincing account: "His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely's Petersburg and Olesha's Envy and Nabokov's The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control."
- Daniel Orozco on The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones: No doubt I bring something to this post, since Dan is an old friend and reading his words is always enhanced by hearing his sly, deadpan delivery, but in recommending Jones's stories he manages to skillfully squeeze in a moving reader's story of his own, of how what he once disliked about the stories is now what makes him love them: "What I remember about not liking Jones had something to do with the hopped up, motor-mouth narration of the few stories I’d read. Well, The Pugilist at Rest is an entire collection of hopped up, motor-mouth narrations, and the effect of reading all eleven stories was very emotional for me. There is an urgency and a need in this aggregate voice that feels palpably human, and vulnerable."
- Belinda McKeon on Love's Work by Gillian Rose: Here the extra element I bring is the added faith I have in NYRB Classics, the publisher of her recommended book (and of book #3 here), which makes whatever she says in praise of it twice as convincing. But she does a fine job of it herself, making me want to go back to a book that, as it happens, I was paging through in the store the other day. How about the stylish first sentence here: "She gives comfort a kicking, and shows morbidity up for the easy moping that it is; complex, jarring and vivid, this is no trip into grief-lit. It also contains one of the most perfect descriptions I’ve encountered of a child’s discovery of the written word: 'Reading was never just reading: it became the repository of my inner self-relation: the discovery, simultaneous with the suddenly sculpted and composed words, of distance from and deviousness towards myself as well as others.'"
- Philip Levine on Piano Lessons by Anna Goldsworthy: A short and unflashy post whose effectiveness can nevertheless be measured by the fact that I just bought this book to give to my cousin, a young violinist: "I have never read a better depiction of a great mentor and of how true learning takes place. Every teacher of anything should read this book. Twice."
- Michael Schaub on The Great Frustration by Seth Fried: A convincing argument that Fried, who I didn't know of, is a very funny writer, although the two (very funny) quotes Schaub gives as examples both come from Fried's blog, not this collection of stories: "Like Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders, Fried is a master at the absurdities, small and large, that make up the human condition. He’s a deeply funny, deeply generous author, and on the basis of The Great Frustration, I’m ready to pay him the biggest compliment I could ever give an author: there’s never been a writer exactly like him before."
- Geoff Dyer on All God's Children by Fox Butterfield: Extra authority points here, certainly, because it's Geoff Dyer making the recommendation. The short piece doesn't show off any of Dyer's more pyrotechnical critical moves, but instead makes a straightforward case for a book that's just old enough that few would think to pick it up unless someone like Dyer told them to: "The narrative of this investigative genealogy is valuable in itself (even if there are moments when Butterfield seems in danger of being swayed by his own rhetoric) but it’s the close-up story of Willie and his father that makes the book so compelling: the constant, cliffhanging hope of the possibility of redemption matched by the attendant fear of something ever more dreadful about to be unleashed."
- Ellis Avery on The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald: I shouldn't need much excuse to read more Fitzgerald but I have to confess that, after liking The Blue Flower and The Bookshop quite a bit, I had moved on to other writers (as I often do), so I'm glad to have a good case made for one of the others I haven't read yet, although the part of her review that most makes me want to read it is a bit of a spoiler, so I won't quote it here.
- Parul Seghal on The Journals of John Cheever: Here Seghal loses points, through no fault of her own, because I don't need anyone to tell me how good the Journals are. But she says why better than I've been able to say it to myself, so I'm glad to be reminded: "It’s a disheveling, debauching book. Even a dangerous book: it invites you to contemplate — even embrace — your corruption."