Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Books I Read in 2011 (by Duke Altum)

As is our annual tradition here at TST, here are my choices for the best 10 books I read during the year 2011.

NOTE: I don't usually put these in any order and this year is no exception... however, I feel like each year if I were pressed I could name a single book that was my favorite read, the one in the list that I would bring with me to the proverbial desert island if I could only choose one... so this time around I decided to designate my "Book of the Year." You'll see which one merited that honor below. This is something I may do for future lists; I haven't decided yet. -Ed.

1. (Book of the Year 2011) Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone, Eduardo Galeano - As with most of Galeano's books, this unique and fascinating blend of history and fiction, dreams and harsh realities is not only one of the most interesting and thought-provoking books I've read in many years, it's also an invaluable compendium of questions and speculations about human nature and the entire broad sweep of world history. Every single page - literally - stopped me short in wonder or fascination.

2. Tinkers, Paul Harding - A runner-up for this year's top honors, Harding's profound, poetic debut novel made fascinating connections between clockwork, the workings of the human brain, and the search for personal truth and meaning in the context of generational family dynamics. Somehow he also manages to make his story a moving examination of the complicated relationships between fathers and sons, AND an interesting meditation on vocation. That very rare novel that is both beautifully told, and remarkably insightful on matters of the heart and spirit.

3. Memoirs of World War II, Sir Winston Churchill - An 1100-page long abridgement (!) of Churchill's 6-volume magnum opus, this first-hand account of the build-up to and commencement of the Second World War offers a unique and richly detailed perspective from the eye of the storm. Churchill's personal accounts of such noted and notorious figures as FDR, Hitler and Stalin make this memoir particularly interesting, and his knowledgeable and opinionated assessments of the geopolitical landscape at the time provide perspectives on the conflict you didn't learn in your high school Social Studies class!

4. Earlier Poems, Franz Wright - Don't let the boring-sounding title fool you. These raw, personal, shattering poems of doubt and faith, depression and loneliness, guilt and the search for meaningful redemption by Franz Wright (collected over two decades) prove his uncommon talent and insight into man's instinctive grasp for something Greater than ourselves. These poems clearly came at a heavy cost for wright, but his courage and generosity to share them have, I hope, rewarded him in other ways.

5. Resistance, Rebellion and Death, Albert Camus - As I'm doing this list I realize that this year, for whatever reason, my choices are skewing towards non-fiction. Perhaps most indicative of this personal trend is this choice: I decided to read several of Camus' works this year, including two novels, but the one that made the list was this penetrating and challenging essay collection. I think it's because I admire Camus' unflinching commitment to his own philosophical positions and yet, his willingness to carefully (and critically) consider others. His long and passionately argued essay against the death penalty would alone make this collection well worth reading.

6. Nightmare Alley, Willian Lindsay Graham - This pitch-black, perfectly named psychological thriller is a rich, disturbing and highly original concoction of vintage American "carnie" culture, the occult, religious hucksterism, noir elements, and the art of the con. With its unique structure (each chapter is represented by a different Tarot card) and gothic sensibilities, it reads like an unholy mixture of Flannery O'Connor, Dashiell Hammett and H. P. Lovecraft. A wild and unsettling read, but absolutely unforgettable!

7. King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild - This impeccably-researched account of the Belgian King Leopold's grab for land, riches and power in Africa (near the heyday of the British empire) chronicles in horrific detail one of the worst campaigns of genocide in human history. A troubling read for sure, but I had no idea at all of the almost incalculable loss of life among the tribes of the Congo rain forests - all due to the greed and conniving of one deluded tyrant. For that new awareness alone, I am glad I read it - but it also contains many vivid portraits of brave souls who campaigned for the basic human rights of these Africans, who would otherwise be completely lost to history.

8. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Writings on the West, Wallace Stegner - I admit this choice is somewhat influenced by the fact that this year marked my first time on the "real" open frontier of the American West (Wyoming), and I wanted to acknowledge that. I also, around the time of my trip, did some reading about the West from both fictional and non-fictional sources... and this collection of essays from Stegner, who lived and wrote in mountain terrain his whole life, stands out in my mind as some of the best stuff. His ruminations on Western geography, politics, people, and literature were insightful to this Easterner, and highly entertaining to boot (pun intended).

9. Khufu's Wisdom, Naguib Mahfouz - This one just made it under the wire (I finished it very recently), but it belongs on the list because I read nothing like it this year - or in fact, in many years. This was Mahfouz's first novel (he went on to win the Nobel Prize in the 1990's), and in it he richly evokes the sounds, smells, customs and mythology of ancient Egpyt during the time of the building of the Great Pyramids. A fascinating debate between the great Pharoah Khufu and his son over whether or not to engage in a pre-emptive war gives this 1939 novel a surprisingly contemporary feel!?

10. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier - A generous - and forward-looking! - gift out of nowhere from my cohort Mutt, this wide-ranging, passionately argued plea for individuality and creative freedom in the digital age was widely discussed across the 'blogosphere.' While I can see how some of his arguments could be taken as alarmist, nearly every page of this articulate and thoughtful diatribe made me think in a more critical way about our gadgets, our unprecented (and often unfiltered) access to information, and our growing interconnectedness via the Internet. A bold and stimulating book.

Honorable Mentions for 2011: The First Man, Albert Camus; Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon; The View From Castle Rock, Alice Munro; Technopoly, Neil Postman; The Virginian, Owen Wister; The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens (Mutt Ploughman's 2011 Dickensfest selection); Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror, Jason Zinoman

Friday, December 02, 2011

Mutt Ploughman’s Best Books of 2011

Returning since taking 2010 off to focus on Melville books, Mutt Ploughman brings you his ten favorites reads of the year 2011.

10. You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon. Have to disclose that Siobhan Fallon was a classmate of mine in the Creative Writing program at The New School in NYC from 1998-2000, and while I am thrilled to learn of her good fortune, her debut story collection succeeds entirely on its own merit. A powerful grouping of tales set in the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, about not the soldiers themselves so much as their family members left behind at Fort Hood, Texas. This book is filled with beautiful prose and powerful moments while relating important stories about the tragic and far-reaching effects of armed conflict. In “Gold Star,” the brief closer, a busy, overwhelmed young mother driving around a crowded commissary parking lot finds a spot marked by said star – one that we learn she can occupy, because it is reserved for the relatives of those who paid the ultimate price. This terrific book is filled with such searing details.

9. The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka, Ernst Pawel. Here is a rich and colorful biography of one of the great writers of the 20th century, in spite of his having led such a short life (Franz Kafka died in his early 40s in 1924). There have been a number of biographies of Kafka, but none of them seem to fully “definitive.” This one, published in the 1980s and out of print now, was enjoyable to me for a number of reasons. It’s written in a forceful, sometimes opinionated style and not without a sense of drama and humor. It also provides enlightening analyses of Kafka’s Jewish identity and its influence on his work; the geopolitical situation in around his native Czech Republic before and during World War I; and his personal relationships with his parents, friends, and women. His sickly disposition and struggles with emotional intimacy seem to have made him a difficult person to know, let alone love, but his brilliant prose and insights into the human condition make him a fascinating subject, treated thoroughly and competently in this fine study.

8. Conquest of the Useless, Werner Herzog. One of the most unique nonfiction titles I’ve read in some time, which is only fitting considering the uniqueness of its author. Fearless, stubborn, and insightful filmmaker Herzog, who is responsible for some of the great documentary and fictional films of the last 30 years such as Grizzly Man, Aguirre: The Wrath of God and Nosferatu the Vampire, traveled to the Amazon jungle in 1979 to begin production on his film Fitzcarraldo. Destined to become another classic, this production faced a series of monumental obstacles, culminating in Herzog’s nearly insane attempt to film a scene in which a 300-ton riverboat is transported over a mountain without using any modern machinery. Conquest of the Useless is a journal of his three-year experience making this film; but it is not a production diary. Rather, it is a conceptual, philosophical dreamlog, a collection of thoughts and ideas that combine to present a fascinating and powerful portrait of a master artist in the throes of creation. The surprise is that Herzog can craft images in words as well as he can capture them on film.

7. Fairy Tale, Alice Thomas Ellis. A brief, hallucinatory, sometimes even nightmarish novel by the late Welsh writer Ellis, who was known for being a Catholic but also highly critical of the modern Church. Like her break0ut first novel from the 1960s called The Sin-Eater, this one, among her last works, contains a unique mixture of family dynamics, wicked satire, and Welsh mythology. A young English couple decides to eschew city life and move to the remote and harsh country of rural Wales, where the naïve wife desires to start a family as soon as possible. But the tale gets more complicated when an elderly relative and her friend decide to come stay for a while, around the same time a group of four “Watchers” – wandering spirits – decide to target the house and its occupants for their own brand of mayhem. In the right hands, this could make for a stark and creepy film adaptation.

6. Red Dust, Ma Jian. When I saw this title at a used book sale and read it described as “a Chinese On the Road,” that was more or less all I needed, since it is not hard to have a sense of fascination about China if you’re from this country, and Kerouac’s book is a personal favorite. The book itself did not disappoint, although it’s hard to compare this journey to Kerouac’s or anything American, for that matter. Published in China in the 80s at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it follows its author from his danger-courting Bohemian lifestyle as a painter and writer in Beijing into self-imposed exile, wandering aimlessly all across the entire expanse of China. I can recommend this book for numerous reasons – the prose, even in translation from the original Chinese, is lovely and poetic, which seems hard to believe; the innumerable descriptions of stunning archeological sites and religious temples all across that magnificent country; the fascinating window it offers into the lifestyles and customs of poor Chinese in rural areas; and, not unimportantly, the poingnant account of the Spiritual desolation that overtakes its author, a product of a Communist regime who nonethless seems to pine for the transcendent. This book is not easy to find, but well worth the search. The author, Ma Jian, remains a dissident to this day, living in London, with his books banned in China.

5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling. Call me a snob if you want, but I would not put any of the Harry Potter books on a list of great reads if it was only about the excellence of the writing. I’ve always found J.K. Rowling’s writing fairly pedestrian and cliched. But a great novel is also about storytelling, and with this entire series, all seven books, Rowling accomplished something extremely rare and special: a global phenomenon that stayed true to its origins and delivered on an unbelievable amount of expectations all the way to this final installment. Having hit a low point in her personal life in the 1990s, a single mother on public assistance, Rowling took an idea she had come up with on a commuter train and spun it into gold. But it’s not just that the books were spectacularly popular; they painstakingly and lovingly constructed an entire world of their own, and blew open the imaginations of millions of children around the world. This final book ties together a dizzying amount of storylines in an exciting but graceful manner and still manages to amaze us with a final showdown that everyone could see coming from the first. A fairly perfunctory Epilogue showing the main characters well into the future can be forgiven of a novelist that made us care for three young people who grew up casting magic spells and supporting each other through all kinds of trials, right before our inner eyes.

4. Onitsha, J.M.G. LeClézio. I had wanted to read the French novelist LeClézio since he won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, and I was lucky that the co-founder of this blog found a copy of this novel for me while on a business trip in California. (Mad props, Duke Altum!) This is a beautiful and thoughtful novel, especially to any American reader who has an interest in, well, the rest of the world. What I really enjoyed about is that it is a story seen through the eyes of its 12-year-old protagonist, a boy named Fintan, whose Italian mother brings him to a remote outpost along the Niger River in Africa to meet his English father for the first time. In inhabiting his youthful character so seamlessly, LeClézio gives us both the spacious beauty and the harshness of the African landscape with a heart full of wonder, and shows us how absurd the brutality of colonialsm appears when viewed through the eyes of innocence. Based on this one performance, it is easy to see why this writer was honored for his contributions to world literature.

3. Skippy Dies, Paul Murray. The biggest surprise of the year for me, here is a hefty, rollicking, big-hearted comic novel set in a Dublin boarding school that seemed to represent better than any single novel I’ve seen in a long time all the great things about Irish culture. In the darkly funny opening set-piece, Skippy, a nerdy, 14-year-old boy with a hopeless crush on a girl from a sister institution, dies choking on a doughnut, an episode of zaniness that for me recalled David Foster Wallace. From there the novel goes back and catalogues how this event came to occur, following a gaggle of misfits and outcasts through a madcap school year. The crazed antics of the pre-pubescent boys made for many utterly hilarious scenes to this reader; meanwhile, the adults, including a stern priest and a politician headmaster, often behave even worse. Yet Murray judges no one, be they priests, teachers, or students. This novel inevitably buckles at times from too much weight, as it dabbles into string theory, the poetry of Robert Frost, the history of World War I, hip-hop, and the Irish drug culture. But the ambition here is winning and harnessed mostly with aplomb; the laughs are more like howls; and the emotions swing back and forth widely, making for a hugely satisfying read.

2. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan. To say that this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is about time itself sounds pretentious as hell. Yet it is; and thank God we have brave writers like Egan to take such themes and run with them. It makes this bold, fresh, but mysterious novel a bit of a head-scratcher – but Egan (whose Look at Me was my Best Book of 2009), is a daring writer who pays close attention to culture, literature, technology, and spirituality in our era and she has the intellectual and artistic muscle to turn it into something haunting and elegant. Goon Squad is a series of interlocking stories whose characters wander in and out of one another’s lives across about 40 years of time, including a stretch into the future. Really, it’s hard to say more than that. The punk culture of the 1970s in California is one setting, as is the music scene of our time, but this book is really about the way people relate and communicate with one another as time grinds every single one of us, to a man or woman, down. Sounds depressing, and at times it is; but because Egan dares to question what it means to live in these times, around these people we know but don’t know – and writes about it all beautifully and insightfully – it makes for a novel that feels something like a literary submarine. It runs silent, and it runs deep.

1. The City & The City, China Miéville. I must say here that the top three books on this list all ran very, very closely alongside one another to the end of this year. So maybe on another day this novel by China Miéville, a sometime science-fiction writer who with every new book ventures further beyond description, would not be placed on the top spot. But I love a bold and fearless imagination, and this writer has one that seems bristling to explode out of whatever box you put it in. The sheer originality and convincing execution of this noirish, genre-bending spellbinder was utterly impressive to me, and was the sort of read that reminds me that your only limitations in fiction are self-imposed. A dystopian crime thriller set in a vaguely central-European country, it imagines two cities, Beszel and Ul Qoma, posited right up against one another, with a nebulous, danger-ridden border territory in between known only as “Breach.” The book opens with inspector Tyador Borlu of the “Extreme Crime Squad” of Beszel called to the scene of a young woman’s murder, which at first appears routine. But investigating the case leads Borlu across the border into Ul Qoma, a far different and more sinister city, where he is is forced to work with a shady detective named Qussim Dhatt. But a series of unpredictable events leads Borlu to stumble into Breach – which is controlled by an unnamed police squad, and from which few ever return. The City & The City is so imaginative and so cleanly executed that it reads like a Chandler novel processed through George Orwell’s 1984 and sprinkled with a healthy dose of Philip K. Dick. It’s not perfect, and at times it almost seems too confusing for any storyteller to handle no matter how smart they are. But those feelings come rarely, because for most of the book you are hurtling around on tracks you can’t see and at great speed, in this dark but exhiliarting literary carnival.