December 29, 2010

The Year In Books 2010: Worth a Second Look

CCLaP: The Year In Books, 2010

(For all the essays in this four-part "Year In Books 2010" series, please click here.)

As regular visitors know, sometimes my favorite reads of any given year are not necessarily the ones that scored highest, because of the unique way that CCLaP's rating system works, in which scores are based not only on sheer quality but on how much they'll appeal to a wide general audience. Here then are ten books from 2010 that were excellent but will appeal only to smaller, more specialized crowds, presented as always in alphabetical order.

Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris

Acedia and Me, by Kathleen Norris

One of the original Seven Deadly Sins, back at the dawn of Christianity when they were still known as the Eight Bad Thoughts (seriously), "acedia" is a strange combination of depression, sloth, apathy about the world and restlessness, and what Kathleen Norris claims is what many burnt-out Gen-X creative-classers are suffering from in these post-9/11 days, continually misdiagnosed as traditional clinical depression when in fact it's a much more complicated thing. This fascinating book, then, is not only a deeper look at the syndrome itself, citing a wealth of Medieval historical documents, but also a guide on how to beat it, which ironically enough mostly involves activities we traditionally associate with monks (the ones most often to suffer from this "intellectual disease" in the Middle Ages) -- regular periods of solitude, regular periods of contemplation, a better understanding of both ourselves and the world around us, and an attempt to live as forgiving and consumerist-free a lifestyle as possible. An eye-opening read for overworked forty-something single-parent web developers and the like.

The Cave Man, by Xiaoda Xiao

The Cave Man, by Xiaoda Xiao

All three of the books sent to me this year by newish small-press upstart Two Dollar Radio made my best-of lists this week, which I think is a good portent of what's to come from them in 2011 as well; this title, for example, has an intriguing connection to this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, in that it too is the true tale of a Chinese man kept for years and years in that country's brutal political-prisoner system, at one point even being shut up for years in a literal cubbyhole carved into the side of a mountain (hence the book's title). But this is also about the author's time after the camps, and his surreal struggles to fit back into mainstream society; and it's here where Xiao gets bizarrely funny and poetic, the real reason to read this hauntingly beautiful book and now sleeper national hit.

The Cry of the Sloth, by Sam Savage

The Cry of the Sloth, by Sam Savage

I'm a real sucker for what I call "anti-villain" stories, in which a character starts out generally likable if not quirkily annoying, but then slowly turns more and more legitimately evil over the course of the manuscript; and such stories didn't get much better this year than with Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth, which inventively presents our narrator's tale entirely in epistolary style, via letters to friends, notices to the tenants of his slumlord properties, excerpts from the ridiculously pretentious and almost completely unread literary journal he publishes, and even slyly revealing shopping lists and other ephemera. And wow, what a portrait it adds up to by the end -- a repugnant intellectual with absurdly grandiose dreams, a lethal dose of self-importance, and not a shred of a sense of personal responsibility -- so in other words, every self-absorbed writer you've ever met, Savage heavily implies in this look at our helpless pro/antagonist's pie-in-the-sky plans to organize a local literary festival, his ongoing feud with a neighborhood book club of genteel middle-aged housewives, and his burning hatred for any fellow struggling writer he's ever met who has gone on to commercial success before him. Simultaneously cringe-inducing and laugh-out-loud funny, it was personally one of my favorite reads of the year.

Harvest Season, by Chris Taylor

Harvest Season, by Chris Taylor

This was a late addition to the list (I read it just a few weeks ago), and like yesterday's 600 Hours of Edward is a great example of why I put so much of a priority here on self-published and basement-press material; the first novel of a veteran professional writer of hippie backpacker travel guides, it tells the lightly fictionalized story of an issue constantly being debated among this real circle of vagabonds, looking at a tiny little artist-friendly village on the southwest tip of China (or near Thailand, that is), full of seasoned Graham-Greene-style jaded world travelers now just trying to live a quiet life, whose entire environment is suddenly threatened by the arrival of a brash American frat-boy entrepreneur, who builds a tin-walled "hippie resort" in town and starts convincing hordes of rich partying white spring-breakers in Bangkok to start coming there for a more "authentic" experience. A great character study as well as being timely and political, this explains in detail an issue I never realized I'd even find interesting, taking the urban topic of "gentrification" and applying it on a truly global scale.

Jesus Boy, by Preston R. Allen

Jesus Boy, by Preston R. Allen

Our pals at Akashic Books had another great year in 2010, putting out a whole series of books that almost made these best-of lists this week, but which mostly ended up faltering just underneath the cutoff point; but one that did make it was the great character drama Jesus Boy by Preston R. Allen, a look at love, sex and other sins within the inherently hypocritical world of radically pious ultra-fundamentalist black Protestant churches in rural Florida. And indeed, a big part of what makes this book so successful is that Allen finds this a perfect milieu for examining traditionally noir-like material, everything from passionate trysts among intergenerational lovers to violence and death among desolate orange groves; but instead of presenting it in a hardboiled classic noir style, Allen's writing is complex and beautiful, painting densely layered scenes of heat and lust and religion that sing rather than rat-a-tat. It's brilliant but easily overlooked manuscripts like these that are the entire reason small presses exist, and it makes me glad that places like Akashic are out there putting them out with such love and devotion.

Life in Year One, by Scott Korb

Life in Year One, by Scott Korb

Yet another of the "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books I was mentioning yesterday, which combines the scholarly research of academia with an engaging premise and writing style, Gen-X religious expert Scott Korb gives us here a fascinating combination of theology, anthropology and sociology, giving us a deep and reasoned look at what life must've actually been like in the year 1 AD, expanded in the book into the entire first century AD, back when first Jesus lived and then a radical religion was based around his legend. The answer, as you may guess, was generally "nasty, brutish and short," just one of the many factors that led to humans behaving in the way they did two thousand years ago; but as this entertaining guide shows us, life could sometimes be both fun and profound then too, and in many ways not too different than our own. Yet another quick but interesting read that's practically begging for its own PBS special.

Some Things that Meant the World to Me, by Joshua Mohr

Some Things that Meant the World to Me, by Joshua Mohr

And then here's the second title by Two Dollar Radio to make this week's best-of lists, which like the others is mostly a showcase for textually dense, poetic writing, but that doesn't forget to include a fascinating premise and a fairly fast plot; in this case, a modern noir that manages to somehow combine Charles Bukowski and Haruki Murakami, which speaks in this brilliantly beautiful way about some of the most harrowing barfly action you've ever heard of. Only for those with strong stomachs and open minds, this is exactly the read for those who have become disappointed by the lately diminishing returns of someone like Chuck Palahniuk.

Tamara Drewe, by Posey Simmonds

Tamara Drewe, by Posey Simmonds

Now much better known because of the major motion picture, this modern adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd started life several years ago as a funny, naughty "adult comic book" published serially in the liberal, artsy UK newspaper The Guardian, which shows: it's basically about a group of upper-middle-class "bohemian bourgeoise" who all move to a quaintly rural exurb of London, and turn their newly acquired sheep farms into writing colonies and B&Bs, the entire story basically hinging around the arrival of a young, sexy, trainwrecky (wait for it) Guardian nightlife columnist, whose ribald comings and goings causes havoc among the middle-aged artsy males in town, their jealous wives, the hunky locals who actually tend the sheep since no one else knows how to, the bored skater teens who act as a Greek chorus to it all, and more. Always witty, occasionally filthy, and refreshingly smart, this puts to shame most of the blood-and-boob fests out there purporting to be "comics for grown-ups."

Walks With Men, by Ann Beattie

Walks With Men, by Ann Beattie

So yes, it might be that the reason I liked this so much is partly because I'm a man, and enjoyed this glimpse at female mind-working that's usually hidden from us, but I guess that's as good a reason as any to include a title on these best-of lists this week. A short-story veteran who's revered in the lit-mag world, this small novella is Beattie's look back at early-'80s lower Manhattan, the story of a young arts professional who's not exactly idealistic or wet behind the ears, yet falls for an older, richer, slick charmer anyway, even knowing full-well beforehand that he's a slick charmer. So why does she get involved with him despite knowing better? Ah, well, that's a big part of this book's charm, the complicated portrait of a smart woman doing dumb things that Beattie paints here, an elegy to youth and its inherently contradictory nature. A tight story that can be finished literally via bathroom breaks, this is one of the few novellas I read this year worth the price of a full-sized book.

The Women, by T.C. Boyle

The Women, by T.C. Boyle

Not my favorite novel ever by the prolific T.C. Boyle, this was still excellent in its own right, a "fictionalized biography" of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, as told through the eyes of the four lovers/three wives he was to have over the course of his fascinating, event-filled life. And indeed, fans of Boyle's meticulously researched historical fiction will find a lot to love here too -- virtually planting you in the tactile world of the early-1900s Midwest, this briskly moving story uses all the real facts known about Wright's sometimes secretive life -- one espousing "free love" with his equally radical architecture and full of philandering and resulting drama -- then fills in the blanks with Boyle's usual witty and smart dialogue, a book that really only gets points off simply for me now being used to the TC magic. A great title for Boyle beginners as well as Wright fans, of course, although veteran fans of either should as well take the time to check it out.

And that's it for today's list; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow, for a look at my ten favorite cutting-edge and experimental novels of 2010.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:29 PM, December 29, 2010. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Profiles | Reviews |