As I mentioned in the last Firmament, after years of making my Best Books of the Year list at some point in mid-October, I've been enjoying the luxury this year of actually waiting until the year was done to sum it up. (The down side: announcing my list this year is much less likely to lead to a significant online sales spike for my favorites.) Another luxury of sorts: this year I didn't have to limit my list to books published during the year, a good thing since I stopped my fanatical new-release reading in February. Nevertheless, the last few weeks of 2011 still felt a little like mid-October to me, as I tried to cram in a handful of new fall novels I had been excited about--it wouldn't have felt like I really had participated in the year of reading if I hadn't given them a look.
It was an odd year of reading, driven by different agendas at various times (game-show cramming, novel research, Michigan burrowing) and often by the agenda of reading without an agenda for a change, but it meant that a lot of the time I was reading for purposes other than, "Is this a book I can recommend?" More often it was, "Is this a book I can use?", which is likely closer to how most people read. Some of the books that were most useful to me don't appear below: perhaps I'm still operating under an aesthetic that values literary qualities more than informational ones. Only now do I realize that the list below is almost entirely fiction, along with a couple of stylish collections of essays and a very literary memoir by a novelist.
Perhaps what that means is that there's nothing I find more useful in a book than beauty, especially the sort of strange singularity we often settle for the word "literary" to describe. Since that is still what I read (and write) to find, that's what the books below are chosen for. I'm curious what next year's list will look like (I'm also curious about what agendas will end up determining my reading!)--I can already tell, as I put this list together and start my 2012 reading, that after an uncharacteristic year of not reading toward a year-end list (but still making one anyway) I'm going to be returning to form and once again paying a lot more attention to composing the list as I go. I like the way it directs the mind.
Also: a lot of books by fellas on this one, which clearly says something about my reading habits, even though much of my inner, absolute pantheon is populated by women--Spark, Hazzard, Gaitskill, Robinson, Carter. Hmmm: could it be that I'm drawn to male writers out of a misguided sense of what kinds of books I actually like?
The only eligibility rule for making the list is that I read the book for the first time in 2011, although in a couple of odd cases (#2 and #3) I had actually read part of the book beforehand and only finished it in '11. Despite my appreciation for the discipline of the dime, I couldn't keep this list to the usual FF 10 (and I certainly could have gone on well beyond 15), but if your own sense of discipline is offended, feel free to stop reading at #10. The books are ranked, naturally, but even more than most years the books on the list, at least after #1, feel almost interchangeable. On the right day, I could see putting almost any of them at #2.
It turns out that I've written about most of the list already here or elsewhere, which I'll point to below, but there are a few I've just finished or just never posted about.
- Townie by Andre Dubus III. Dubus's memoir was the first book I fell in love with in 2011, and it held off all comers throughout the year. Dubus is not what I think of as my type of writer (he unsettles through his earnestness, not his irony), and I think that's part of what I loved about the book: he just flat out won me over with the story of a very different life than my own, an authentic moral journey into and out of violence and a fascinating portrait of mill-town Massachusetts (and of his somewhat neglectful writer father--see #4). You can also read my Amazon review and my more casual rave on Omnivoracious.
- Salammbo by Gustave Flaubert. There's plenty of backstory on this novel and me, but suffice it to say: I've been writing a novel about the filming of a movie based on Salammbo for about four years, but only this year did I actually sit down and read the whole thing. And, for reasons that may only apply to me, I loved it. I can't say I would recommend it to anyone else, but making my way slowly through it, after living with it as an idea rather than a book for so long, was one of the great reading pleasures of my year. It is, as I assumed, an absurd book, whose 19th-century exoticism itself looks, well, exotic to 21st-century eyes, but it's not only that. Flaubert revels in the cruelty and voluptuousness of his subject, but with the same disciplined economy of style of Bovary. There's hardly a page without an absolutely knockout sentence, and he conveys the endless military and political reverses of his tale with true suspense. I've always loved reading about Flaubert (e.g. here) more than reading his actual fiction, but Salammbo is the first novel of his I can say I've really loved. And thank goodness, 'cause I'm going to be spending a lot more time with it.
- Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. Like Salammbo, Yourcenar's novel lived as an idea to me for a while before I actually read it. In the spring of 2010, I fell head over heels for her lengthy "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian," which is a postscript in the book, but only in the spring of 2011 did I finally read the novel itself, which I wrote an appreciation of in the first days of EphEff: "It's rare enough to read a novel about an admirable character (Yourcenar in the 'Reflections' calls him, with much more consideration than usually accompanies such praise, a 'very great man'). It's far more rare, I realized as I read, for that novel to be told from that character's point of view (narrators, like heroes, are so often undermined), and rarer still to have an admirable narrator who is a man of power (after all, who wants to root for the emperor?)."
- Voices from the Moon by Andre Dubus. I came to the father only after meeting him through the son, and I wrote about it here: "I like to talk about how allergic I am to emotionally on-the-nose scenes in fiction--I like oblique!--but, well, these scenes hit the nose so squarely and honestly that I just bowed down to their power. It's a beautiful, hard-earned story, and a lovely complement to Townie."
- The Damned Utd by David Peace. Another book that lived up to a great deal of hope and hype I had heaped on it, and another book that won me over, despite my prejudices, with its "onthenoseness." As with Hadrian, I posted both about its cover (one of the all-time greats) and the book itself: "What balances the obsessive rat-a-tat-tat of Clough's internal monologue is the brilliant and cutting dialogue when Clough surfaces into the world, both in his often devastating exchanges with players and staff, and in his more knowingly witty presentation of himself toward the press. The tension between Clough's churning and self-consuming insides and his contact with the world, both when it responds to his fire and charm and when it spits back in his face, is what drives this propulsive story as much as the crazily dramatic events it follows."
- Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I've often said, and it may even be true, that I was turned on to literature when we were assigned to read Hardy's Return of the Native in high school. I fell in love with Eustacia Vye, and literature too, and came back to find the rest of the class thought it was boring (or at least that's how I prefer to remember it). As I have noted a few times recently, it's perversely characteristic of me that it then would take me a full quarter-century to get around to reading a second Hardy novel, which I decided would be Tess. This time, I found his doomful authorial manipulation as winning as it is preposterous, and once again I fell in love a little, with the unfortunate milkmaid. I also found that the very passage which heads this blog is an echo or even an allusion to a climactic scene, also among monoliths, from Tess.
- Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. In past years I've usually spent my August week at the beach reading galleys of upcoming fall releases, but this year I decided to catch up with modern classics I'd been wanting to read for years. I brought along Martin Amis's Money and Edward P. Jones's The Known World and liked both, though neither quite as much as I'd always hoped. But on the shelves at my aunt's rented house I found another that lived up to all expectations, Coetzee's Disgrace, which carves a modest and moving human story out of the most brutally arid material.
- Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. The last, and my favorite, of my end-of-the-year deadline reads, which I actually finished on New Year's Day. I hope to take the time to write more about it, but for now I'll just say that the great flurry of raves for this slim, small-press novel (e.g. Lorin Stein's in the NYRB and James Wood's in the NYer) are justified. Lerner's debut has an unpromising premise that would make it hard to talk anyone else into reading it--an American poet smokes a lot of dope and tries to avoid writing poetry while on a fellowship in Spain--but Lerner pulls it off with elegance, intellectual insight, and a thrillingly fine-tuned sense of the shifts in a very self-conscious human consciousness.
- Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. I haven't really written about Pulphead here, except in passing while giving James Wood a hard time for his review of the book, and to tell the truth I haven't even finished it (which makes my deceptively exact #9 ranking even more absurd). I think I've been pretty clear, though, about how ecstatic I am about JJS as a writer (and how the whole world suddenly seems to agree with me). For me the best examples of why from the first half of the book are not the long pieces on Christian rock and reality shows that have gotten a lot of attention, but two other pieces, his memoir of his time caretaking the late Tennessee writer Andrew Lytle and his eulogy for Michael Jackson. There's really not much Lytle and Jackson shared, except, allegedly, a tendency to grope, and a status as both culture heroes and pariahs, Lytle as the most reactionary (but ironically, the longest surviving) of the I'll Take My Stand Southern Agrarians and Jackson as, well, Jackson. What the essays share is that they are full of love for their in some ways inexcusable subjects: not from a contrarian, journalistic impulse to embrace the uncool but from a real affection for human foibles and genius.
- Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household. It wouldn't really be a year-end top 10 list of mine without an NYRB Classic, and this year's is Rogue Male, a stripped-down and absolutely thrilling midcentury adventure tale in which the hero, a charismatic, resourceful, and fiercely ethical assassin fails in his mission and spends much of the rest of the book hiding in a hole in the ground. It's fantastic!
- Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. DeWitt's first novel, The Last Samurai, is one of my favorite books from the previous decade: brilliant, inventive, and unique. Lightning Rods is, at long last, her second (though she actually wrote--or cowrote--at least one other novel in between that she released as a PDF and is now going to be published sometime soon). The two books have, formally, almost nothing in common, although thematically they share a fascination with self-help narratives that I would love to look into further at some point. If The Last Samurai is all over the place (and wonderfully so), Lightning Rods is just one place, and relentlessly and also wonderfully so. Much like Tom McCarthy's Remainder, she takes a fictional premise--in her case a hilariously bawdy business innovation that rethinks anonymous prostitution as a "proactive sexual harassment management program"--and takes it as far as you think it can go, and then takes it further, and then further still, and totally pulls it off, giving a sharp satirical edge to the deadpan-innocent smut of Nicholson Baker's House of Holes.
- City Primeval by Elmore Leonard. A favorite of my month or two of Michigan, about which I wrote in October, "this time I felt that Leonard's dialogue, always musical and surprising, had the density and depth of the sort of bewildering but thrilling music I like best." And of course I wrote a lot more than that.
- The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst. I think this must have been the new release I was most looking forward to in 2011. I've loved the two Hollinghursts I've read (The Folding Star and The Line of Beauty), and this one too had gotten strong reviews in the UK. And it would certainly be too much to say I was disappointed: I enjoyed it a great deal and had to pick my jaw up off the floor a few times, especially in the early sections of the book, for his sheer brilliance at evoking the microscopic shifts in power, attention, and desire in a single conversation. But as much as I appreciated what he was doing with his century-long story that bounded across decades and boldly left characters behind along the way, solving a few of their mysteries but leaving many more unanswered--and even more mysterious with the passage of time, I felt the story lost its power as it fell further and further away from the dramatic and desire-filled weekend that began the story. I've no doubt that feeling of loss was intended, but its effect on the narrative remained.
- Open City by Teju Cole. As with Sullivan, I was glad to see I wasn't the only one who took to this meandering, intellectual tale. Just about every review mentioned W.G. Sebald, who for me loomed inescapably large as an influence over the book, but if you're going to be influenced by anyone--and pull it off--I couldn't recommend a more productive sensibility: as I wrote in my Omnivoracious appreciation, it's "a kind of wandering but intense attention that is both rootless and almost unbearably tied to the past, drawn especially to the stories of those caught in history's implacable gears." Unlike with Sullivan, I thought James Wood's review was superb.
- Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland. In that same Omni post (February was an excellent month for books this year), I made the same point, that a strong influence is not bad if it's the sort of influence that opens up awareness rather than closes it off, about Emerson's presence in Hoagland's essays. I have more to say in that post, but I think I got to the heart of why I love these essays in my more compressed Amazon review: "Hoagland's best known as a nature writer and has been called 'the Thoreau of our time,' but his tolerant and curious affection for human nature too makes him closer to Thoreau's friend and landlord, Emerson. In any case, his sentences sing like theirs: elegant and aphoristic, but chunky with thought and image, leaping and pausing like a line from Monk's piano. As you might guess from the title, the essays in Sex and the River Styx, his first new collection in a decade, are both late and lively. Hoagland is far sadder about the accelerating destruction of the earth's bounty and variety than he is about his own decline; while he angrily fights the former, he happily accepts the past tense in talking about ways he once lived but won't again. He's grown wise in the best way: he's learned some things in his time, none more than how little he knows."
For further reading, and to put these favorites in the context of the reading they were part of, I also have a long list of honorable mentions, about which I would just say that I was glad I read them, which is still high praise for the time you give a book. I'm glad that I could say that about so many of the books I opened this year. I'm certain I'm leaving some out, but these I do remember (with links where I've written about them): Money and The Known World (see above), Henri Pirenne's The History of Europe (Vol. 2), Ben Katchor's The Cardboard Valise, Kate Beaton's Hark, a Vagrant!, Mark Richard's House of Prayer No. 2, Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot, Alexander Theroux's The Strange Case of Edward Gorey, Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By, Samantha Peale's The American Painter Emma Dial, Hugh Aldersley-Williams's Periodic Tales, Larry Gonick and Craig Criddle's Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, Ken Jennings's Maphead, Tom Bissell's The Father of All Things, Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, Ferdinand von Schirach's Crime, my friend Mike's unpublished novel, "The Many-Venomed Earth," Roberto Bolano's The Third Reich, Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding, Nicholson Baker's House of Holes, Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia, Louise Brooks's Lulu in Hollywood, Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Richard Stark's The Hunter, The Mourner, and The Score (the last four all on my phone via Kindle), and, for the first time (for Jeopardy!), the New Testament gospels. And a whole lot of Michigania, including Janet Lewis's The Invasion, John Hersey's The Algiers Motel Incident, A.J. Verdelle's The Good Negress, Philip Levine's What Work Is, Elmore Leonard's Unknown Man #89, Chase and Stellanova Osborn's Schoolcraft--Longfellow--Hiawatha, Jim Harrison's Sundog and Black Dog novellas, Arthur Hailey's Wheels, Gerald Carson's Cornflake Crusade, and Wessell Smitter's F.O.B. Detroit.
Whew. Listing all those makes me sure of two things: I've forgotten others, and I had an excellent year of reading in 2011.