Saturday, January 07, 2012

Best reads of 2011

Happy 2012! It has been some time since I have updated my humble blog, but one of my new year’s resolutions is to do one post a week. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve missed a lot in the lag since early September, from crucial world events to the carnival of the GOP race for the presidential nomination, to my various reads and viewings, to the sad death of Christopher Hitchens. This last event came close to inspiring a post; I wrote a draft or two of my thoughts on the occasion, but simply have not been in a blog head space for some time.

But I’m back, and let’s hope I can maintain something of a regular schedule. I miss my blog.

I thought I’d lead off 2012 with a list of my favourite reads of 2011—though I should clarify that few of these books actually came out in the past year. They are, rather, just books I read and enjoyed. So without further ado …

Monique Truong, The Book of Salt 

The story of Binh, a Vietnamese cook forced to leave Saigon in the early 1920s because of his affair with the head chef of the Lieutenant Governor’s house—an affair less scandalous for being homosexual than for crossing racial boundaries. He ultimately ends up in Paris in the 1930s, employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Besides being beautifully written—a feast in a variety of ways, and a must read for any literary foodie for its exquisite descriptions of food—it is a remarkably nuanced and deft critique of the “Lost Generation.”

George R. R. Martin, A Dance With Dragons 

As any reader of this blog will know, I have been an avid follower of GRRM’s Ice and Fire series since A Game of Thrones was in hardcover … and like my fellow readers, I had to wait four long years between books three and four, and six—six years!—for book five. Which would have not been nearly as arduous were the books not so good, so readable, and addictive. Dragons was so long in the writing that many of GRRM’s formerly diehard fans turned against him starting vitriolic websites devoted to attacking what they saw as the betrayal of his obligation to them as his readers. (For the best response to such whininess, see Neil Gaiman’s comments on the subject). Coming on the heels of the incredible achievement of HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation, Dragons did not disappoint—full of GRRM’s trademark intrigues, complex plots, nuanced characters, and surprising twists, it was almost worth the wait.

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22

Hitchens was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer almost immediately after the book was published; it was during his initial book tour that he suffered his first collapse. I had put off getting his memoir for a while, until I realized that I was, without realizing it, waiting for him to die. I was horrified at this realization. I started reading it mid-October, and finished in early November. A month and a half later her succumbed to his disease, and I was genuinely saddened by his passing—after reading his elegantly written, often self-serving, but always riveting autobiography, it was like losing a particularly prickly and sometimes infuriating great friend. Love him or hate him, he was the best of a dying breed—the public intellectual. Would that there were more like him. It is an historical irony that Kim Jong Il died only a few days afterward; I like to think the North Korean tyrant held out so that Hitch wouldn’t be around to write his epitaph.

Anne Patchett, Bel Canto 

Quite simply one of the most beautifully written novels I have read in a long time. The story of an unlikely group of people brought together by a hostage situation in a nameless Central American country. A meditation on music, love, passion, and language.

Terry Pratchett: Thief of Time, The Colour of Magic, Snuff, The Light Fantastic

I continue to work my way through the vast corpus of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which he seems to write almost as fast as I read them. Not counting the young adult novels, the current Discworld crop stands at thirty-five books, of which I have now read twenty-six. Snuff is the most recent. I am currently at work on a few articles about Pratchett, and so this has become a professional concern … but then, that’s one of the reasons I love my job.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

A few years ago, I read Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist, and was blown away. He is one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary American novelists, an African-American whose writing offers a truly challenging and unique take on race in America today and the entire concept of “post-blackness”. So when I read reviews of this, his most recent novel, and saw that it is his version of a zombie apocalypse narrative? Sight unseen, I put it on the fourth-year seminar I’m teaching this term. And while I have once or twice put books on courses without having previously read them, they’ve usually been well-worn canonical works I’d been meaning to read for some time. So I went on faith this time—and was not disappointed. Exquisitely written, it is at once an innovative take on the zombie genre, a valuable addition to American dystopian literature (I paired it on my course with The Road), and a painful love-letter to New York City.

Justin Cronin, The Passage

Speaking of post-apocalyptic undead yumminess: Cronin’s novel combines the best of the zombie and vampire genres into a truly terrifying narrative. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Jamie Fitzpatrick, You Could Believe in Nothing

This one is a pleasure to plug: Jamie is a friend, and so it was with delight that I found his first novel to be a (a) exceptionally well-written, and (b) totally fun and engaging, even as it was (c) vaguely disturbing to a man approaching middle age. This is a novel about hockey and Newfoundland, and the troubled masculinity of a protagonist hitting his middle years with not a heck of a lot to show for it all. If I was to suggest an analogue here, it would be Philip Roth: sport as a metaphor for fraught national and regional identity and the waning of male virility and confidence. But it has none of Roth’s pretension or self-regard, and is inimitably at once a Canadian and Newfoundland novel.

Ned Sublette, The World That Made New Orleans 

I have to thank my friend and colleague Andrew Loman for turning me onto this one. While I was researching a paper on the HBO series Treme, Andrew suggested I read Sublette’s incredibly engaging and readable history of how New Orleans jazz became New Orleans jazz. Sublette does not shirk the history, going back to the original settlements of the Gulf coast, and beautifully explicates the complex relationships and interactions between English, French, and Spanish conquests and colonizations, and in the process provides one of the best histories of slavery in the Caribbean I have yet encountered.

Tim Cook, At the Sharp End 

This was a Christmas gift from Kristen last year, and this year she got me the sequel Shock Troops. These are the best popular histories of Canada in World War I that I have encountered—extremely readable while also scrupulously researched. Sharp End tells the story from the start of the war to the aftermath of the Somme. It balances the broader history and the individual stories of soldiers in the trenches. One emerges with a vivid understanding of both the political realities and the horror of battle. A must-read for any military history enthusiast.

Lev Grossman, The Magicians 

This novel is at once a fabulous corrective to Harry Potter and Narnia, and a cracking good yarn in its own right. Grossman takes the conceit of a school for magicians out of Rowling’s twee realm of the British boarding-school novel and turns it into a brilliant satire of the privileged culture of exclusive small east coast colleges. Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant and gifted student from Brooklyn with his eyes set on Princeton when he is recruited by Brakebills school of magic. He is also secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels that are a transparent analog of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; unsurprisingly, after many hardships and adventures at Brakebills, he and a handful of friends discover that Fillory (the Narnia clone) actually exists, and they make their way there. What I loved about this novel was that it pushes its derivative elements well past the point of simple parody. The novel is no mere satire: it is deadly serious, and its bald-faced borrowing from Rowling and Lewis acts as a trenchant critique of those books flaws and shortcomings. The second book in the series, The Magician King, sits now on my desk.

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind, The Wise Man’s Fear 

Must-reads for fantasy enthusiasts. Kvothe is a former hero whose exploits are known across the land, but has gone into quiet and deliberately anonymous retirement as an innkeeper. For a variety of reasons he decides to tell his story to a chronicler, and that is how the narrative unfolds. Extremely well written, Rothfuss’ world is richly imagined and the plot compelling. If it has a flaw, it is in somewhat thin characters at times, and a tendency to be somewhat repetitive by the end of The Name of the Wind. This is somewhat corrected in Wise Man’s Fear as young Kvothe is forced to leave his university education and go out into the world. Neither book exactly ends on a compelling note, however; unlike GRRM’s Ice and Fire books, finishing Rothfuss’ does leave me frantic for the next installment.  

 Stuff I was ambivalent about

Kathryn Stockett, The Help

This was one of those rare novels that worked better for me as a film—mainly because actors Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Allison Janney, and Jessica Chastain all brought a depth and nuance to their characters that was lacking in the novel. The novel was, to give it its due, a good read, and very well written; and it did a useful job of reminding contemporary readers just how pernicious and hateful—and all-encompassing—Jim Crow laws were. But at the same time, there was something a little cheap about it. It never hurts to remind ourselves what the pre-civil rights South was like, but Stockett effectively gave herself an easy target in the much larger realm of race in America. There are few today outside the enclaves of white supremacist compounds who would not cheer long-suffering Aibeleen and irascible Minny and boo smug, superior Hilly (and feel satisfying schadenfreude when she gets her well-deserved comeuppance). Which makes it a pretty safe narrative in the end. It is a bit ironic that one of the novel’s frequent allusions is to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which is also all about a virtuous white person helping African-Americans find their voices in the racist south. The difference is that when Lee wrote that novel, it was brave of her to do so.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion 

Dawkins spends a chunk of time at the outset of the paperback edition of his atheism manifesto debunking the criticism that he is “shrill” in his denunciation of religion. He presents a coherent argument to the contrary, but you know what? He is shrill. Though perhaps “shrill” is the wrong descriptor. He is, rather, disdainful and dismissive; he is glib and mocking when a more measured argument would be more likely to carry the day. Which is not to say that I wasn’t impressed by the book—perhaps more than anything however, I learned interesting things about science. To paraphrase Toby on The West Wing, the best answer to the question “Why are you preaching to the choir?” is “Because that’s the best way to get them to sing.” For me, this book was preaching to the choir. But unlike Hitchens’ God is Not Great, The God Delusion didn’t exactly inspire me to join Dawkins in song. The melody was just too discordant.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay

If I had stopped with the first book, I’d have many more glowing things to say. But in the end, I found the series disappointing, mostly because it fell into a hackneyed teenage love triangle with utterly no affect. The dystopian world Collins imagines is at once plausible and chilling, and the framing conceit of the Hunger Games themselves a useful turn on a not-uncommon SF trope. But beyond that, I was generally unimpressed.


Ex-airfair crew said...

Yeah! You're baaaaack!

Lisa Marie said...

Justin Cronin spoke to a fiction-writing class I took when I returned to college 1997-2000. He spoke briefly of meeting his wife while both were pursuing their MFAs--his in prose, hers in poetry. Evidently, the poetry students looked with some disdain on the prose students, calling them "sellouts," accusing them of being interested only in the money. Cronin agreed with this view, because " you know, poetry brings in literally *dozens* of dollars every year."

I still giggle every time I think of that.

Really glad you're back. Completely support the weekly blog idea. Not that I'm being selfish.

No. Wait. Yes, I am.