January 4, 2012

The Year In Books 2011: Also Worth a Second Look

The Year In Books 2011

(For an overview of this year's essay series, and a linked list of all its chapters, please click here.)

Of the 120 books read and reviewed at CCLaP this year, many of my personal favorites were loved for very specific reasons that may not apply to the blog's entire audience, so may have not received the highest scores of the year despite being some of my favorite reads of the year. Today, a look at ten such titles, listed as always in alphabetical order.

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham
By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

It's derivative at points of his past work, and his writing style in general is unique enough to turn some people off (and seriously, don't come within ten feet of this author if you're creeped out by erotic/Freudian reminiscences by gay men over the golden downy forearms of their fathers), but there's something about Cunningham's dense psychological character studies that always fascinates, and especially within the specific milieu this time of a creative-class Manhattan power couple (a senior publishing executive and a SoHo gallery owner) at the moment in history when the survival of not just their jobs but their entire industries start getting called into question. Best enjoyed for its poetic style and slow pace, this is a quiet charmer that like the rest of his books will stay with you long after finishing.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace
Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, by Wesley Stace

Known in the music world as indie-rocker John Wesley Harding, Stace has also put out over the years a series of incredibly entertaining, delicately complex, very very British brainteasers of novels; this latest is a fascinating look at the period in the early 20th century when Romantic orchestral music turned into Modernist orchestral, and when the British debated not only their place in the Austria/Italy-dominated chamber-music world but also the role of traditional British folk songs in it all. Framed as a series of "factual" accounts that become more and more revealing with each telling, Stace cleverly examines this milieu through the scandalous tale of an Early Modernist pioneer whose life resembles that of a plagued Renaissance composer, and who comes to just as much of a violent, messy end; but what seems clear at first becomes simply more of an enigma as this jigsaw puzzle of a plot continues, cementing Stace's love of fussy, funny, delightfully old-fashioned storytelling. A title for those with a love for the pureness of language itself.

The Clockwork Universe, by Edward Dolnick
The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society and the Birth of the Modern World, by Edward Dolnick

Yesterday I mentioned my fondness for so-called "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books; and here's yet another such titled I enjoyed immensely in 2011, in this case examining the formation of Britain's Royal Society in the 1600s, considered by most to be the very first scientific organization in human history. Not just a history book but also examining in detail the explanations behind many of the breakthroughs the RSA was making in those first years, this is one of those books that's great to read a chapter of every night before bed, and you can almost picture the entertaining PBS companion miniseries that this title is practically screaming for.

Embassytown, by China Mieville
Embassytown, by China Mieville

It seems that nearly every book that New Weird pioneer China Mieville writes ends up making a best-of list here at CCLaP; and this year is no exception, something from the "serious/brain-exploding" side of his oeuvre that is a particular challenge, but well worth wading into. Set on a far alien world where humans inhabit merely a town-sized embassy, Mieville invents a species not only with double mouths and a twin-sound language, but a glitch in their brains that only lets them understand this twin-speech when coming from one mind, along with the inability to lie, the inability to understand a metaphor unless the metaphorical act is literally demonstrated in front of them, and all kinds of other head-scratching details that will have you at first yelling, "What the frak, Mieville!?" Stick with it, though, and you'll find a powerful story about addiction, colonialism, groupthink, and humans' unending ability to misunderstand situations and then start pointless wars over these misunderstandings. Only for hardcore science-fiction fans, but a must-read if you are one.

John Crow's Devil, by Marlon James
John Crow's Devil, by Marlon James

It was another great year for our buddies at Akashic Books, and this was one of my favorites they put out in 2011; written by a Jamaican expat and now American professor, it's set in that country in the 1950s, telling an almost pulp-like tale of sin and sex within the decidedly weird world of hyper-conservative Christian churches among the back jungles there. Academic in quality but with a decidedly "Florida Noir" feel to it, this feels like the kind of story that Oprah makes slick big-budget movies out of, and it comes recommended in that specific spirit.

The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto
The Lake, by Banana Yoshimoto

The back cover unfortunately reveals one of the book's biggest surprises; but if you can manage to skip it before reading the book itself, this latest English release by the revered Japanese relationship author finds her in top if not dark form, looking at two Tokyo creative-classers who both can only tiptoe into their new relationship with each other, and the complicated stories from their pasts on why that is. Granted, Yoshimoto's style takes some getting used to, and it takes a certain personality to like her books in the first place, the reason such titles don't ever get higher scores at CCLaP; but for those who enjoy her quirky, minimalist voice, this is a somber and quick but great one from her, combining a timeless attitude with some real "ripped from the headlines" details.

Love In Mid Air, by Kim Wright
Love In Mid Air, by Kim Wright

Because CCLaP has so many middle-class, middle-aged female readers, I feel obligated to trawl the dreck of the "chick-lit" cesspool more than many other litblogs might, to find the small number of legitimately great novels that exist within this endless slush pile; and this was one of my favorites in 2011, featuring a fairly simple storyline for this genre (middle-aged woman has an affair) but saved by Wright's subtlety, surprisingly subversive humor for being a Christian-friendly novel, and the pure complexity that she insists on instilling in what's usually some pretty cardboard-feeling stock character types. Because the fact is that our hero here is a much more realistically flawed person than most chick-lit novels like to admit; sexually adventurous when younger to make up for her self-admitted plain looks, she has no illusions about romance, infidelity, or the messes that both will create, making it all the more doomfully delightful when she falls so hard for a mysterious stranger anyway. A great companion to the 19th-century novel that started this whole genre, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, this will be a welcome relief for fans of Tom Perrotta and other unexpectedly smart authors with mostly soccer-mom audience bases, and is a strong suggestion for these specific types of readers.

Remain in Light, by Collin Kelley
Remain in Light, by Collin Kelley

Technically a sequel to his 2009 Conquering Venus, this second volume is clearly better than the original, taking an admittedly fascinating plot and now cleaning up inconsistent characterizations, adding much more realistic consequences to everyone's actions, and simply getting better at portraying the city of Paris where both these books are set, using the same complicated series of events as the first volume (including two Tennessee slackers who take a group of high-school students on their senior trip to France, one of the gay slackers falling in love with one of the students [a closeted jock with a tendency for binge drinking], the discovery of a de-Gaullian conspiracy concerning a local sixtysomething ingenue, who's been a virtual shut-in since the death of her husband in that city's 1968 student riots, and a lot more), but now looking much more realistically at the long-term repercussions of all these events, even while upping the fantastical nature of the '60s flashbacks. A flawed but shiny little gem from the easily overlooked world of basement presses, this is the rare example of everything finally coming together in a sequel after a promising but scattershot original, and it's a welcome alternative for those who usually read a lot of romance novels and the like, as well as those who appreciate complex character studies within the world of gay lit.

Storyteller, by Donald Sturrock
Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl, by Donald Sturrock

Especially here in America, most of us know British author Roald Dahl only as the penner of such dark children's books as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda; but as this first-ever authorized biography shows, this only scratches the surface of this fascinating man -- a fighter pilot in 1940s Africa who helped Ian Fleming set up Britain's first spy agency, he was married to an Oscar-winning actress, helped pioneer new approaches to heart valves and stroke rehabilitation therapy, had an entire career as a writer of adult literature before turning to kids' books only in middle-age, and even once hosted a short-lived Twilight-Zone-type anthology television show. And to the family's credit, they also let biographer Sturrock explore the dark sides of Dahl's life, of which there was plenty -- an alcoholic and serial philanderer, he would sometimes poke vicious fights with strangers at dinner parties just because he was bored, and among other manipulative acts set up a series of semi-illegal Caribbean scam companies in order to wrench every single penny he could from his various publishers. A complex man for a complex age, those who only know him through his children's books will find this mesmerizing.

The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman
The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman

A few years ago I infamously declared that I would no longer read any more work by this aging Gen-X essayist, having developed an intolerance for his endlessly clever yet empty stories concerning such banal topics as breakfast cereal and heavy metal; but I'm glad I broke my word and read this newest by him anyway, because it seems that Klosterman has gotten tired of this shtick himself, and has written what can be argued is a death knell for Postmodernism in general. Ostensibly a psychological horror story in the vein of David Cronenberg, it's the epistalatory tale of a sociopathic genius (a literal "mad scientist") who invents a suit/gel combo that effectively renders him invisible, then uses it to spy on random people for days on end in order to confirm his worst theories about humanity, slowly rotting his brain with amphetamines in order to keep up his marathon snooping sessions, relayed to us through a series of combative therapy transcripts with an everywoman psychiatrist; but because of our villain's proclivity for pop-culture references, snooty know-it-all monologues, and preference for passively watching life go by instead of actually living it, it can be argued that this is an autobiographical novel as well, Klosterman metaphorically expressing his disgust for the MTV-friendly cartoon character he had become by the mid-2000s and deciding to kill off this persona for good. A broad attempt to change the very nature of his career, this might not go over as well with existing Klosterman fans, but is just the thing for those who never want to see another hipster article about Scooby-Doo ever, ever, ever, ever again.

And that's it for today; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow, for blog staff writer Oriana Leckert's overall look at her own ten favorite reads of 2011, whether or not she ended up doing a review of it for CCLaP.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:35 AM, January 4, 2012. Filed under: CCLaP news | Literature | Reviews |