Sunday, January 1, 2012

Books of the Year 2011 and of Things to Come

2011 has been the year of book buying.  With Borders going under and clearance sales all around me I bought more than twice as much as I read this year.  Finding a few more used book stores to spend time in didn't help either.  This trend will most certainly stop going into the new year and I'm okay with that.  

Reflecting back on books this year and last year I'm struck by how much food plays into my memory of memorable novels.  Bare with me...  I'll never forget--and hope to soon revisit--a most depraved Christmas Day dinner, comprised of more liquor than subsistence in Jerusalem Poker with Joe O'Sullivan Beare and Cairo Munk; two of Jerusalem's most powerful and wealthy sharing a paupers feast in the ghetto on a freezing cold night.  It was made special by way of circumstance and all they said and didn't say.  Equally powerful in my mind is a meal shared by The Deathless Man and Natalia Stephanovic infuriatingly unnamed grandfather in The Tiger's Wife.  The two of them and their waiter share a decadent dinner on a patio while the city they are in is currently being bombed out of existence.  I don't know why these things stick out in my mind as strongly as they do, but there you have it.  So, recommend me something with good grub and phenomenal imagery that takes me far away and chances are high I'll like it.
I read forty-three books this year which was off my repeat goal of last year's fifty; last year I was able to hit fifty-three.  Last year I said I wouldn't make this goal.  I was right in that the five-hundred plus page doorstoppers I've been trying to get through slowed down my progress.  Oh well; it's not as if I minded reading any of those books.  I did read nine books that were actually published in 2011 which is a big deal for me.  If I keep this up I may become one of the cool kids.  This was also a big year for what I didn't read.
There were three books I couldn't bring myself to finish.  I've said before I've no scruples in putting a book down, but I thought I'd gotten better about identifying my interest before picking a book up than to start and not finish three.  Slaughter House Five by Kurt Voungout, The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Dancing Girls by Maragret Atwood were decidedly not for me.  I can't see myself ever giving any of these a second chance.  I think I have a "Books I didn't finish" label but don't really care to link to those entries.    
Now on to the good stuff.
This is officially not a "Best Books of 2011" list.  As previously noted, I've only read nine books from this year.  As such, these are the books that stood out to me--enough to merit some special designation--at the end of my year of reading.  
Most Forgettable Reads
I should have put down The Hammer by K J Parker, and I never thought I'd say that about one of her books as everything else of hers I've read has been amazing.  In many ways the fact that I didn't enjoy it and finished this book is also they biggest surprise of the year.  
I also have to mention Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, Dark Mondays by Kage Baker, Summerland by Michael Chabon, Trader by Charles de Lint and The Mammoth book of Merlin edited by Mike Ashely.  All but the last of these books are by authors I love.  As a proviso I'll say, none of these were 'bad.'  Some were merely not special; others not for me.  (And in Chabon's defense, when you're Michael Chabon the bar is ridiculously high.)   
Biggest Surprise
Firebirds Soaring edited by Sharyn November not only has the most badass cover art of anything I read this year but is also the most, 'out of the blue, how-did-I-come-across-this-book?' piece of awesome that ended up in my hands.  I don't care if it's young adult, or adult fiction, science fiction or contemporary literary fiction: it was awesome and containted two of my absolute favorite short stories.  Ever.  I'm not sure if this anthology is being continued or not, but I am certainly tracking down previous installments in the coming year.  Yeah; I singled this one out...

I didn't know what to expect going into Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card so saying "Wow," feels appropriate.  I didn't know Arturo Pérez-Reverte could write a book like The Painter of Battles and considering how well he did it; I'm amazed we haven't seen more from him in this vein. The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick (this link goes to the short story; not my commentary) isn't necessarily his best piece of writing, but it may be the most concise and powerful piece that embodies all of his awesomeness.  It's a beautiful fairy tale and it's diet science fiction all at once.  (Swanwick made a comment on his blog that the story was straight up Sci-Fi, but then said as soon as it's publish the matter is out of his hands and readers have the final word.)  It's whimsical and profound.  It feels real and lingers on the mind.  I always expect the amazing from Swanwick, but this story is really good.  
Best New Author Discovery
This is the hardest category yet considering the amount of repeat authors from last year I've read.  I going with André Aciman and Nicole Krauss (said as quickly as I can manage as to not dwell on the other names I left out.)
The Best Book I read in 2011
I said back in August that this category's winner would come from that month's reading.  E L Docotorw's Ragtime, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chaing (which I should invent it's own category for), Of Love and Other Demons and Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The French Luitenetn's Woman by John Fowles and Catherynne Valente all came out swinging, but the final choice still comes down to Krauss' Great House and Aciman's Call Me by Your Name.  I'm glad I had half a year to mull on this answer before stating my claim; I needed that much time.

Nicole Krauss is simply the most badass and subtly powerful writer I've come across.  Damn near everything else I've read pales in comparision.  I can't wait to check out her back catalouge.  

A surprising trend that has persisted the past two years: my 'best book of the year' have been written by a women.  A disturbing trend that has persisted is I haven't let comments for either of those books.  I don't know what that means, but in case of Krauss, everyone that has left comments for it makes mention of needing a second reading so I don't feel bad.  As I said last year in the case of Gershow, I enjoyed it too much, read it too fast, and didn't take any notes.  I will re-read both and leave comments for both at some point in time, that said Great House is not merely 'about a desk,' no matter what you read saying to that effect.  

Next year will be kinda lame; I'm gonna shoot for the same goals: fifty books read, a door stopper a month, and at least two commentaries a month.  Wish me luck.  Happy New Year.  

It's now time for champagne .     

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