For 2011, I decided that after a prolonged period of paging through books mostly written before my lifetime, I decided that I would only read books which were written, revised, or completed after 1984. It was an exercise I would recommend: shake up your reading! Dive into a period or a genre you’re not familiar with or found reason to dislike in the past. What you find may surprise you.
These books constituted the best of the best of my reading list this year. All come with a sterling seal of approval. Some of them were highly informative. Some made me cry. All of them, actually, made me laugh at one point or another, and the world needs to laugh. Maybe that’s why I feel they’re important.
Some of these books I previously wrote about on the blog, and I’ve included the appropriate links.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
An intelligent, poetic, rip-roaringly funny novel which evolves chapter by chapter into an intelligent, poetic, devastating, cathartic novel. I afterwards read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a novel which gave more of the same, was intermittently effective, and sadly was intermittently too precious and showy for its own good. This does not diminish the power of Safran Foer’s debut in the slightest.
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
A masturbatory explosion of violence and evil for an endless nightmare of pages, written as if Homer and Virgil had come back from the grave into nineteenth-century Texas. One of the most powerful and important American novels ever written. Cannot really be talked about unless with someone who’s read it.
Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli
This is the book I dream of writing. It ranks with Blankets and Fun Home in the running for the greatest graphic novel ever written, and may be my favorite example of what the medium is capable of producing. A complex, stirring story of romance, revelation, and philosophical insight, the book goes beyond any level you expect as Mazzucchelli changes his lines, panels, coloring, everything page by page in perfect combination with the tone and voice of each separate scene. It is impossible to ask for more from any book…here is a writer and artist giving everything he has to give.
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
The sadly late Carol Shields is one of my favorite Chicago-born writers because of one book. In 1993, she won the Pulitzer Prize for an extraordinary novel of which the New York Times wrote, “this is a reminder of why literature matters.”
As a literary scholar, I believe that narrative penetrates the entire spectrum of human existence, and The Stone Diaries not only explores that idea to the fullest extent but also combines in in a perfect alchemy with the strongest feminist storytelling I’ve ever read which didn’t come from Doris Lessing.
The Stone Diaries is a fictionalized biography/autobiography of Daisy Goodwill, whose long life as a girl, wife, mother, writer, and finally feisty retiree is merely ordinary, but when laid out from birth to death is also laden with meaning and aftereffects: I have read many tales which describe the chains of love, influence, and inspiration handed down between generations, but rarely have they been so powerful and interesting. Shields uses a multitude of narrative voices: her own, that of Daisy herself describing her own birth and many other things, Daisy’s family and friends, and archival newspaper articles and correspondence (also fictional). The final result is that Daisy’s story is full of thought-provoking detail, but it pushes your brain even further because the multitude of voices imply even more layers to the story. It’s a book you read, then read again a year later, and probably again after that…
Moreover, Shields is a master builder of characters. Like Trollope, she writes about very decent people, flawed but basically good at heart, and minces nothing about their virtues and vices. In the above two works, wonderful as they are, part of their effectiveness comes from the exaggerated and poetic qualities of the characters. Shields’s world is painstakingly real.
The Stone Daries was 360 pages in the original hardcover. The Penguin modern classic paperback I have is even shorter. But the story is nearly as sweeping as Anna Karenina. It is a must-read.
The Complete Henry Bech by John Updike
I read seven John Updike novels this year, more than any other writer on the list, but before I break into this exploration I want to say something about Alfred Hitchcock which I found useful in reacting to Updike.
Hitchcock’s two favorite leading men, whom he worked with four times apiece between 1941 and 1959, were two actors of iconic status equal to his own: Cary Grant and James Stewart. And one critic or biographer I read once, whose name escapes me now, wrote that Hitchcock cast Grant as the man he dreamed of being, the suave, action-ready romantic hero of Notorious and North by Northwest, while he cast Stewart as the man he really was, the smart, more nervous, obsessive, and secretly passionate man at the center of those psychological twisters Rear Window and ‘Vertigo.’
John Updike already had a clear alter ego in the famous (and still unread by me but that will change) Maples short stories, but in his two longest-running recurrent characters, I think he was working with a principle similar to Hitchcock’s. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the ex-basketball star turned prosperous car salesman with a mildly adulterous streak and a penchant for surprisingly effective turns of phrase, was such a fully-realized character that I had to imagine he WAS Updike in a way, Updike if he had never been a writer. And Henry Bech, New York-born, secular Jewish, amazingly influential but way too unproductive, and entranced all too often by the opposite sex, was Updike’s comic vision of himself as the great American writer.
Reading seven books of his, my readers, you can imagine I fell in love with Updike, how he told delightful stories and let his characters grow, but that growth also explains why one sequence stood out more for me than the other. Rabbit, Run is a quintessential wunderkind book, bursting with nonconformity and postmodernity and early hints of how the 1960s became the 1960s and a deliberately ambiguous conclusion. Admittedly, I probably should judge the novel in accordance with its time, but doing that doesn’t explain how Rabbit Redux was such a long slog stuck in the same not quite mature pattern. It was the last two novels, Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, both Pulitzer honorees, which had me drinking up Updike’s language, style, careful construction, emotional touches. Those books are must-reads, MUST-READS which made me care deeply and empathize through the characters’ darkest moments and worst decisions, and the final chapters of the fourth book, which mirror the opening of the first, constitute one of the most poignant and moving sequences in American literature. But those first two books…
And I can’t excuse Updike because he was writing the Henry Bech story concurrently, he hit the right tone and style from the beginning, and developed it appropriately over 36 years of magic. Written as a series of short stories and novellas collected in three volumes, Bech’s life switches back and forth between America, where he forms tricky emotional entanglements, reacts to everything with cynical humor, and tries to write, and the rest of the world, an unsettling locale where he keeps getting sent as a cultural representative, finds himself feeling bemused or sad or both at once, can’t get anything started with the women he meets who become his saving grace, and never has the opportunity to write.
There are so many ways to absorb the Bech stories. As masterpieces of humor, certainly. But they also function in more emotional ways, for instance, as a contemporary version of the Wandering Jew mythos. Bech’s constant traveling always has him longing for America and New York, and even in America his excursions into suburbia leave him miserable, but he never seems at home in New York either, letting the evolving city feed his insecurities, and on top of that he always walks a thin line between embracing and sublimating his cultural identity. This variation has actually taken on greater weight, in my eyes, in the globalization age, as America loses dominance in all but cultural imperialism.
But on a personal level, I responded to Henry Bech, under the hilarity, as a moving portrait of the creative mind in any age. Updike captures the mix of beautiful inspiration and necessary, sometimes plodding craftsmanship which art demands, the intense romantic passions which make the art possible and carry over into life (it doesn’t matter that Bech is a straight man…I believe Updike could have written about a man or woman, straight, gay, or bi, and produced the same emotional effect in any case), and the constant recognition of growth and change, wanted and unwanted, both personally and in the world surrounding you.
As short pieces, picking out highlights is both easy and a little necessary. The best parts of Bech: A Book (the 1960s) are his trips to Russia, London, and Bulgaria (the latter, a bittersweet tale, marked his first appearance) and his experience with marijuana. Bech is Back (the 1970s) is dominated by the magnificent description of Bech becoming a husband, stepfather, and unexpected number-one best-seller and predictably not dealing well at all. And Bech at Bay takes our hero up to 2000 and beyond, ending in two stories which allow Updike to cross into near-fantasy, except that Bech is still so Bechian that we accept everything as real, crack up without pausing to breathe in between the laughter, then let our hearts flutter at a very appropriate ending.
Possession by A. S. Byatt
This is sort of a judgment call. One of the most fantastic ideas for a story I’ve ever come across, actually two stories in one. Half of the book is excellent. The other half…the execution is botched.
Here’s the idea: two Ph. D.s in 1990 London discover that the two Victorian writers they specialize in may have had an intense, physical love affair. Byatt crosscuts between Randolph and Christabel falling in love back then, in a highly moral and restricted world, and Roland and Maud searching for the evidence of their subjects’ romance and, despite an overintellectualized academic training which makes them interpret and distrust anything emotional, fall in love themselves. Byatt then tells the story through poems, letters, and journals which are dead on pastiches of the Victorian era, along with lectures and articles and language which perfectly capture modern academia. And there’s footnotes galore!
Here’s the problem: in the modern section, Byatt is great at describing the highs and lows of the scholarly, intellectual life and the peculiarly temperamented individuals who live this life, but she can’t wrap a convincing plot around them. I felt like I was reading a film treatment which had all the rough edges and intricacies filtered out. The characters, including the supposed antagonist, are all likable except for the one obvious jerk, and the complications and problems get way too easily resolved. The final resolution is a crowd-pleaser, but it’s a manipulative one as well…I didn’t feel it had been entirely earned.
On the other hand, the Victorian section is like the novel I always dreamed Borges would have written, a Romantic cornucopia of apocrypha, of things which don’t exist but really feel like they did…only Byatt’s protagonists are living, breathing, troubled souls who seem to be looking straight into your own spirit through their poems and fairy tales and tortured letters. It’s a world you want to get lost in, and it’s truly worth rolling through the weaker chapters to luxuriate in the stronger ones.
(Though to reiterate, the weaker chapters are worth it for the detailed touches. Mortimer Cropper is a heck of a good character, and the small part near the end with Roland alone in the cellar apartment resonates just right with its description of the creative spark.)
Cultural Amnesia by Clive James
One of the best books I have ever and will ever read. In fact, I just re-read it and discovered even more vital insight. This is the grandest defense of humanities, liberal democracy, and the need for the creative spirit. Everyone on the planet should read this book.
The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn
Non-fiction that reads like the most glorious poetry. A tale of history, family, and the place of religion in people’s lives, of what gives us meaning. I’ve read many books about the Holocaust, but this one cuts to what I can assume was the emotional truth of the situation.
Postwar by Tony Judt
I’ve had enough of left-wing and right-wing news and history. Part of what made Clive James such a spirit-lifting read was his condemnation of both sides. But what if you don’t care about Benjamin and Vargas Llosa, or have no interest in learning who Lichtenberg and Polgar were? Tony Judt’s history of Europe after World War II is a factual argument for the same moderate principle. His look at how social democracy and economics turned the continent into a unique power all its own is history which reads like a great suspense novel, full of thrilling action and dramatic decision-making all subject to Judt’s penetrating, occasionally wry analysis. And in a book written just before the EU meltdown, Judt’s commitment to square, even-handed appraisal of how ideas succeeded and failed, how they were strong or weak, pointed the way to how such a turn of affairs was going to be possible. As we enter an age which looks more and more to be centered on the USA, China, and India, it’s important to remember that even with a reduced role Europe is not going away and still influences. Judt’s history is an entertaining and ultra-informative reminder of that fact. Like Shields, I wish I had discovered him before he died…any historian who can write with such skill and authority AND reference Sir Cliff Richard is a top figure in my book.
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
Another history of ideas, not political this time but scientific. Today technological advances and new discoveries are taken for granted…our new Apple products and medicines roll down the line and we don’t blink an eye. But Holmes, who wrote classic biographies of Shelley, Byron, and Richard Savage, brings to life the Romantic era in England and the ways science captured people’s imaginations and integrated with popular society. Holmes’s canvas spans the entire gamut of the period, from obscure professors to the aforementioned poets, plus Mary Shelley’s invention of sci-fi. But he concentrates on three disparate figures: naturalist explorer turned eminence grise Joseph Banks, astronomer William Herschel, and chemist Humphry Davy, all of whom found their passions getting firmly fixed in the public eye with varying results. Holmes has a plain, welcoming style, and, more importantly, a contagious delight in his material. There’s a mammoth list of people who would be interested in this book: any history or science or biography lover, steampunk aficionados, feminists (for his remarkable characterization of Caroline Herschel, William’s sister and assistant), and many more…though as now more of a geek than ever, I think of this book as a nerdy paradise.
Thelonious Monk by Robin D. G. Kelley
I read a lot of outstanding biographies this year: Sir Michael Holroyd on Augustus John, Roy Jenkins’s epic life of William E. Gladstone, D.J. Taylor’s diving into the psyche of William Makepeace Thackeray, and Claire Tomalin going beyond the diary to depict Samuel Pepys and his tumultuous times. But Robin Kelley, professor of History and American Studies at USC, wrote about Thelonious Monk with an unflinching need to accumulate every bit of information possible and an exuberant amount of love. Monk is not just one of the greatest American composers and musicians of all time. He was one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century, and this biography is worthy of such a man. My earlier statement was no overstatement: Kelley conducted a multitude of interviews, dug up every article and piece of correspondence, walked every street, and most of all listened to every song. But he is never dragged down by the data. Instead he synthesizes it all to try to understand who Monk was, his motivations and inspirations, how he worked, and above all why people incorrectly thought he was a little insane. Music writing is often entertaining but rarely great prose. Kelley gives us great prose.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
A most unusual biography, the story of cancer and how we as humans have tried to combat it, written with flair and verve and presenting a startling conclusion. The 21st century is witnessing us as a species confronting our limitations and testing our capabilities not only socially but biologically, and Dr. Mukherjee, who writes like a great novelist, pays fitting tribute to our creativity and persistence in trying to save the lives of others while writing of out frailties with care and respect. A read which is not intimidating for the non-scientific and worth pondering by anyone.
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
I could not in good conscience put these on the list because I’m really not finished. I’ve read only the first two volumes of Martin (though I own all five now) and Rothfuss’s book is the first of a trilogy, and like most fantasy novels in series they don’t really have rounded-off endings. So I want to wait. But I will say that my earlier judgment of A Game of Thrones applies equally to A Clash of Kings, with Martin introducing even more characters but keeping up the epic storytelling with no slouching and no weak spots, and adding heavier doses of magic. And The Name of the Wind has a decent plot, albeit one which comes to a close far too abruptly for my tastes, but this is not a book you read for the story. You read it for the atmosphere and meticulous detail with which Rothfuss builds an entire world and narrates in a way which makes you think, this is how the medieval bards told stories for hours on long winter nights. You won’t put it down.
The Archaia Entertainment Catalog
Yes! I’m biased! But I can’t help it if Archaia puts out so many amazing titles for all ages and audiences and keeps setting a standard for quality which no one else can match.
And let me add: I was shocked when USA Today named An Elegy for Amelia Johnson one of their best comics of 2011. It deserved a place for Dave Valeza and Kate Kasenow’s art alone…but what stunned me was that no other Archaia books made the list. Again, I’m biased because I know these people and have drunk and laughed and lived in tight quarters with them, but honestly you could have picked any book Archaia put out this year for this list and gotten no argument. I am humbled to be in such creative company.
The books: I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read them all, but these were my favorites. I’ve rhapsodized enough over Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, but this year also saw Royden Lepp’s Rust: Visitor in the Field, a tale of childhood, Americana, and jet packs and robots with a remarkable style. And the new anthologies of Fraggle Rock and Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, with editors Tim Beedle and Nate Cosby marshaling so many forces into perfectly compact artwork and writing. And the note-perfect noir homage from Victor Quinaz and Brent Schoonover, Mr. Murder is Dead. And Josh Hechinger and Marvin Mann’s action-packed, witty, fantasy-filled homage to Leone and Ford The Grave Doug Freshly. And Chandra Free’s hallucinatory The God Machine. And Drew Gaska’s precedent-setting prose tale Conspiracy on the Planet of the Apes. AND Giannis Milongiannis’s elaborate cop thriller Old City Blues which is kind of but not really like Michael McMillian and Anna Wiesczyk’s impressionistic supernatural cop thriller Lucid. AND Brandon Thomas’s twist on classic superheroes, Miranda Mercury. AND Swifty Lang, Michael Lapinski, and Chris Mangun’s mix of werewolf thriller and political commentary, Feeding Ground. AND Jean-Pierre Pecau’s elaborate alternative spin on human existence as an epic power struggle, the lavish The Secret History. AND Marjane Satrapi’s fairy tale The Sigh. I didn’t even get to Ramon Perez and his glorious interpretation of Jim Henson’s A Tale of Sand yet because I still don’t have a copy! But these books and all our others will, in the words of Ray Bradbury, “stuff your eyes with wonder.”
Go online, to your comic store, and read them today. And trust me, 2012 and 2013 will be even better.
(Arachaia also publishes David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, but did I have to say that? You should know already!)