Well, since I have been seeing quite a few “10 Best…” lists of lots of folks’ favorite books and such for this year, I thought I would take a few moments and put down some of mine. I did not actively write down books as I read them, and I read probably 2 or 3 books a week averaged out over the course of a year, so I may be forgetting some. Additionally, I stopped compiling my list on Goodreads until I had a lot at once, and then I had too many to do, so I skipped that too.
Some of these titles were not written or released in 2011, but that is when I read them, so here is where they appear. Without further ado:
10. FUN & GAMES-Duane Swierczynski. Has Duane Swierczynski ever written a bad book? Even a “mediocre” book? No way. As a huge fan of his earlier works (particularly THE BLONDE and SEVERANCE PACKAGE), I knew what to expect from Mr.S: snappy dialogue, deliciously twisty plots, morally ambiguous characters and heaps and heaps of what Alex DeLarge called “the old ultraviolence.” And, FUN & GAMES brings it on in spades. I happened to read quite a bit of “crime/noir” fiction this year, and I’d have to say that Swierczynski is probably my overall favorite writer currently working the genre. Bonus: this book is the first of a “trilogy” (I’ve read the second book, HELL & GONE, and it is mighty fine, too).
9. LAMB-Bonnie Nadzam. This is a wonderfully written book that takes a depressingly familiar premise–unmoored older man and vulnerable, lonely girl (ala THE END OF ALICE, LOLITA, etc.)–and makes something extremely interesting and complex with it. The titular character prevaricates endlessly to his younger companion, but also tells her some great truths. The girl, Tommie (or “Em”) listens closely because someone is paying attention to her, yet she also has her own secrets. When they abruptly depart for the wilderness, the reader is in a constant state of nervous anticipation, fearing the worst, or some awful mix of bad, worse and worst will happen. What happens is not at all what one would think, and the most important part of the book are the conversations these two lonely people have, and what they encounter in that wilderness. I realize I have made a complete hash of describing this book, but trust me, it is exceptional and not at all exploitative. And, the real capper is the writing. The sentences are just lovely. Nazdam is definitely a writer worth following, she is going to have a spectacular career.
8. Zone One-Colson Whitehead. Click the link and you can read Justin Cronin’s comments regarding ZONE ONE on Amazon. I completely concur with everything he said. At this point, is there really–honestly–anything new or interesting left to say in a “zombie” novel? I would have guessed “highly unlikely” but Whitehead’s book made me change my mind. The writing is spectacular–I mean really, really, really SPECTACULAR. Maybe that’s what people are responding to: the boringly focused-on “literary writer tackles tawdry genre subject” but, for me, someone who has ready approximately 12,456,543,323,657 pieces of zombie fiction, this one was definitely worth reading. Every page was a pleasure. Really.
7. AT HOME: A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE-Bill Bryson. Presumably you already know who Bill Bryson is. As someone who has read–and very much enjoyed–his previous work, AT HOME raised things to a new level for me. As opposed to, say, A WALK IN THE WOODS, which was a hilarious–and poignant–account of Bryson’s adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail, this is a more research-based piece of nonfiction about the history of “homes.” Taking the conceit of “following” him through each room of his “old and drafty” parsonage-cum-home, Bryson goes off into wonderfully brilliant detail about all kinds of facts regarding bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms and even hallways. Aside from being reminded numerous times how incredibly more comfortable our modern lives are than those of people even 100 years ago–let alone several hundreds–I have to say I probably learned more tantalizingly fascinating tidbits about suspension bridges, land disputes, riveting historical figures and all other kinds of arcana which sprouts from ostensibly attempting to learn why, for example, we have windows made of glass, or ice. Many folks have complained about the rambling, shambling nature of the narrative, where Bryson begins talking about silverware and then suddenly one is reading about bubonic plague or something equally esoteric, but to me that is part of the fun. Again, aside from the comparatively great comfort (most) of us live in now, the other takeaway I got from this wonderful book was how even simple things like salt and pepper on the dinnertable come (sometimes after a fashion) from great adventures or hugely important historical events. A fascinating, fascinating (and easy-to-read in a folksy-talking-to-a-friend manner) book.
6. ARGUABLY: ESSAYS BY CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS. It was terrible that we lost such a great thinker and writer this year. I actually happened to be midway through this huge book of essays, criticism, reviews, etc. when the news broke that Hitchens had finally succumbed to the cancer which he had been openly battling for quite some time. Whether one agrees with him or not, his writing is always informative and entertaining, and he is a fierce wit. As a genuine polymath, his gaze travels over everything–literature, politics, art, film, and, of course, religion. The only small positive from his passing may be that the many stories that subsequently appeared about him in the media will encourage folks who have not read him previously to check out some of his work and see what all the fuss is about.
5. THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME-Donald Ray Pollock. After reading Donald Ray Pollock’s amazing collection, KNOCKEMSTIFF, I was eagerly waiting for his first novel to be published, and, for fans of his bleakly humorous, hard-boiled crime/noir stories of low-rent criminals and out-and-out psychopaths, this book did not disappoint. The book features three distinct storylines–a boy with a crazy father who too soon is turned loose into a mean world; a married couple of serial killers where the wife is the bait and the husband stages elaborate photographic tableaux of the mayhem; and the relationship between two twisted brothers working a variety of bottom-echelon scams. These three narratives start out close together, wander far afield, and then–of course–converge towards the end of this very powerful book. This year saw no shortage of “hard” crime works looking at rural and penny-ante losers–also notable was the collection CRIMES IN SOUTHERN INDIANA by Frank Bill–but Pollock is clearly the class of the field. Far more than showing the casual brutality and depressing milieu (although there is plenty of that), Pollock’s writing achieves that highly-elusive “Flannery O’Connor voice” that really elevates his work into real “literary pulp fiction.”
4. BIRDBRAIN-Johanna Sinisalo. Certainly the most unfortunately titled book on this list, this is nonetheless an extremely gripping story set with the most basic of premises: A young couple (somewhat portentously armed with Joseph Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS) begin an “extreme hiking” trip that gradually begins to turn sour. There are the hardships of the journey both expected and unexpected, there is the intricacies of the relationship dynamic between the couple, and, then, there is the growing sense that some type of sentient force is working against them. To say anymore would spoil this wonderful and nerve-wracking book. As thing turn progressively worse for our two protagonists, the pages start turning faster and faster and by the time one reaches the conclusion, the reader will be exhausted and emotionally wrung-out–but also thinking. Sinisalo is a Finnish SF/F writer who also wrote the amazing TROLL: A LOVE STORY, which is simply one of the best and most moving books of the last 50 years. Do yourself a favor and check out BOTH of these great books from this hugely-talented writer.
3. HARBOR-John Ajvide Lindqvist. The second of back-to-back northernly writers (Finland and Sweden), Lindqvist burst onto the scene with LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, which was made into an excellent Swedish film and a surprisingly good American remake (titled, inexplicably, LET ME IN). Even the Swedish version, as great as it was, only touched upon some of the true weirdness and a major theme of the book, which adds even more texture to the story. He followed that up with the emotionally-wrenching HANDLING THE UNDEAD, which was, after his extremely original take on the vampire mythos in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, an extremely original take on the zombie trope. With HARBOR, Lindqvist turns his odd-but-extremely original vision to another seemingly used-up premise. A husband and wife suffer the disappearance of their six year old daughter, who vanishes whilst exploring a lighthouse near the cozy (i.e. lonely) island on which they live. The island has a small population of folks whose families have lived there for centuries. Will there be clues to the child’s disappearance? Does the island and its inhabitants have many secrets? Is the shit going to hit the fan? I am sure you can imagine the answer is yes, yes, and yes. What raises this book to its lofty perch at #3 is both the language (using the same translator as the earlier two books) and the very original ideas Lindqvist explores in what would appear to be yet another tired premise. All three of his novels really pierce a reader’s armor and cause deep emotional feelings to be experienced. Plus, it is as creepy as all hell.
2. 11/22/63-Stephen King. I grew up entranced with the work of Stephen King (as did most of the kids my age who read). To this day, I think NIGHT SHIFT is the greatest single author horror collection I have ever read. Reading THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, I felt the first blush of “wow, that wasn’t all that good.” I followed along dutifully, through many books I did not enjoy at all. The short story collections seemed to fall prey to the law of diminishing returns: SKELETON CREW was stronger than NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES which was worlds better than EVERYTHING’S EVENTUAL. BY the time of LISEY’S STORY and DUMA KEY, I had almost given up on my beloved Mr. King’s work. UNDER THE DOME I just could not finish. JUST AFTER SUNSET had a few moments, but didn’t really work for me. I was ready to abandon ship. Then, almost begrudgingly, I started FULL DARK, NO STARS. By the time I finished those four novellas, I was feeling excited that–again to my own opinion, King had found his mojo again. With 11.22.33, I can say wholeheartedly that this is the Stephen King book I have been patiently awaiting for years. As many folks have pointed out, it is not a “monster on the loose” story or a skin-freezing tale like PET SEMATARY. It is just a GREAT STORY told expertly by a GREAT STORYTELLER. This is an 850 page book that one breezes through and wishes it could keep going when one gets to the end. It just doesn’t get any better.
1. THE SISTERS BROTHERS-Patrick deWitt. This quirky Western was far and away my favorite book of the year. I actually forced myself to limit reading to only a few pages per day to draw out the enjoyment I was experiencing. I don’t know whether this book is truly as spectacular as I felt, or whether it just struck me in that “sweet spot” a reader has when everything seems to fall into place perfectly. The language, the dialogue, the careful balance of comedy and violence, the wonderful relationship between the narrator, Eli Sisters and his brother, Charlie–all of these elements propel the story though short chapters than are almost stand-alone vignettes. Two things to really treasure are the pitch-perfect voice of Eli–who is both more melancholy and much wiser than he appears–and the absolutely astonishingly beautiful sentences that make this book a true joy to read. Examples: “I do not know what it was about that boy but just looking at him, even I wanted to clout him on the head. It was a head that invited violence.”, “That is to say, nine dead beavers in a line on the sand. There was something decorative about this, but also ominous or forbidding.”, and, my absolute favorite: “Here is another miserable mental image I will have to catalog and make room for.”
Anyway, that’s it. I read many, many other superb books this year, but those were the 10 that come to mind, with the top 3 of HARBOR, 11/22/63 and THE SISTERS BROTHERS really getting the highest possible recommendation from me.
Here’s to hoping that 2012 will bring even more printed riches and great storytelling.