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

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