(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, officially ten of them received a score of 9.6 or higher; although other books in the last year may have been enjoyed more in a niche way, you can think of these ten as the ones most recommended to a general audience, no matter what your specific tastes. Don't forget that these recaps are mere tastes of why I thought these books so great; if any of them capture your own attention, I encourage you to click through and read CCLaP's full original review of them. As always, listed in alphabetical order.
The Death-Ray, by Daniel Clowes
When people talk in the future about that magical period in the '80s, '90s and '00s when indie comics really flourished for the first time, and finally brought a mainstream respectability to at least one manifestation of the form, Daniel Clowes and his regular title Eightball will forever be one of the people and comics mentioned, a darkly surreal master storyteller with a true nerd's passion for the "purity of the form." This newest Eightball hardback is actually a reprint of a 2004 issue, but a fantastic one to choose to lavish this kind of money and attention on: a metaphorical story about a loner, troublemaking double-orphan in the 1970s who discovers that cigarettes give him superhero powers, but an uncontrollable rage to go along with them, his relationship with his equally troubled but eventually maturing best friend can be seen as a powerful look at the differing processes of aging and becoming a fully functioning adult. Clowes' work can be real hit-and-miss; this is definitely one of the ones not to miss.
Empire of Liberty, by Gordon S. Wood
The years in American history between 1789 (when our modern Constitution was written) and 1815 (the end of the War of 1812, when the US was finally recognized by the entirety of Europe as a nation to no longer mess with) are traditionally thought of as quiet ones, a time when the country was simply recovering from the revolution of the 1770s; but as this lively most recent volume from Oxford University Press shows, this 25-year period was actually a lot more complicated and important than most of us give it credit for, the period that saw the birth of the entire concept of political parties, the invention of the Protestant Work Ethic, the first exaltation of the middle class to the most important demographic of American society, and the first separation into the industrial, everyman North and agricultural, aristocratic South. Award-winning historian Wood explores it all in a long but fascinating 800 pages, making it a must-read this year for armchair historians and NPR fans.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
One of three books to receive a perfect score of 10 at CCLaP this year, it's not just for glib reasons that I compare this almost perfect latest by Franzen to Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karanina, but for practical reasons too: his rich creative-class NGO suburban characters can be directly compared to Tolstoy's liberal gentleman farmers on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, their endless scene-watching cancer 5K fun-runs are a direct substitute for Tolstoy's society nights at the opera, and both groups face the same narcissism, misguided political concern, and oblivious reliance to their unspoken sense of entitlement, usually to the outraged delight of the books' readers. Fifty years from now, I'm convinced that Franzen will be seen by historians as one of the major writers of our age, and fans of smart, precise literature would do well to pick this up if they still haven't.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Regular readers know that I'm a big fan of so-called "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books, which I suppose you could also call a written version of a fascinating cable documentary; both concern subjects big enough to be worth all that time, but unique enough to be really eye-opening, done with a combination of a plain-spoken approach with an academe's eye for detail and scholarship. And one of the best I read this year was Bartlett's wonderful account of modern bibliophilia (or love of rare books), in this case through the filter of a mentally disturbed narcissist who stole hundreds of them from across the country not to make money but literally to create the greatest private library in the world, even if he was the one single person on the planet to actually know of its existence. This book gets into why this kind of mindset might develop among book collectors by also looking at the obsessive quirks of even the most sane ones around; and by definition it becomes just a great general look at the sport of book-collecting overall, and of the profound ways that places like Amazon and eBay have changed the entire community in the last decade.
Mr. Toppit, by Charles Elton
The debut novel of a famed British television producer and former Young Adult literary agent, this purports to be about a Roald-Dahl-type dark children's author who languishes in obscurity for most of his career, just to be discovered by an overbearing American movie producer during literally the traffic accident that kills him, with her becoming obsessed with his five-book "Darkwood" series and eventually turning them into huge Harry-Potter-style hits in the US. But it turns out that this is just the start of this unusually clever, surprisingly expansive story, and that it's really a smart look at a dysfunctional family both in the wake of this success, and back when their patriarch was merely a cultishly loved obscurity. Erudite and pitch-black, this is just the ticket for fans of Michael Chabon or Karen Russell, and comes recommended for all of you in that McSweeney's/Believer/This American Life crowd.
Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell
The second of three books to get a perfect score at CCLaP this year, and the popular frontrunner for the 2012 Pulitzer, this latest by the revered Sam-Shepardesque Bonnie Jo Campbell takes some getting used to at first; after all, it's essentially the story of a mentally challenged teenage tomboy in the late 1970s, the last period in American history when literal hillbillies still really could live completely off the grid and off the land in the rural wilds of the Midwest, the first 50 pages dedicated to watching this girl get raped by a drunken uncle, get blamed for it by the rest of her family, then run away in a broken rowboat into a lawless hellhole that makes Deliverance look like a freaking tea party. But then as you get more and more into it, you realize that Campbell actually is trying to make the same point as fantasy author George R.R. Martin in his "Game of Thrones" novels: that far from the anarchic wastelands that areas without traditional law and order are usually portrayed as, there's actually a complicated series of balances and understandings that exist, as we watch our willfully stubborn hero wend her way through this "shotgun justice" and understand exactly how to take advantage of it. As thrilling as any airport read, but as exquisitely written as anything you will read this year, there's a good reason that this book has been receiving so many accolades. Believe the hype!
Player One: What Is To Become Of Us, by Douglas Coupland
I've talked in detail before about the remarkable change author Douglas Coupland has gone through in the last several years, from an aging Gen-Xer spinning his tired pop-culture shtick in ever-hackier ways to a modern master of dark surrealism; and this is perhaps the best manifestation of his new attitude yet, a nasty little brute of a story originally envisioned as a series of audio performances for a respected Canadian lecture series, but that works pretty well as a standalone literary novel too. A look at a possible sudden breakdown of North American society one random day, over a crisis in the Middle East that compounds faster than anyone was expecting, Coupland uses a claustrophobic setting (an airport bar where a number of characters wait out the nightmare) to brilliantly explore a number of basic issues regarding ethics and morality (the theme of the original lecture series this was written for), painting a darkly pessimistic portrait of a terminally dysfunctional Western society post-9/11. If you haven't read Coupland since getting disgusted with him around jPod or so, now is a good time to revisit his work.
Revenge Fantasies of the Dispossessed, by Jacob Wren
Nearly all the books I received this year by the delightfully obtuse Pedlar Press made it into my top third of all read titles, and you'll be seeing more of their books in other lists coming later this week; but this was undoubtedly my favorite of them all, a decidedly experimental and academic title but with all the humor and action of the front table at Borders. Ostensibly a look at what would happen if a Julian-Assange-type and a Naomi-Wolf-type started dating, Wren uses this merely as a starting point, expanding into a sprawling story that encompasses reality television, third-world tourism and more. One of the few trade paperbacks I received this year with a graphic design beautiful enough to be worth skipping the ebook version, nearly all of Pedlar's titles are ultimately worth your time, but especially this one in particular.
Tablet & Pen, edited by Reza Aslan
In the West, it's been posited for a long time that there's been nothing of real importance to come from the Eastern arts since the Renaissance besides a lot of folk-tale hokum; but especially when it comes to the 20th century, the literary histories of places like Egypt, Turkey, Iran and the Arab states are actually just as complex as Western developments, and just as important for the global growth and maturing of culture. And now here's the remarkable Western-friendly guide to it all, Reza Aslan's Tablet & Pen, a volume which translates some of the most important 20th-century stories from these societies into English for the very first time in history; and now that he's done so, it's easy to see for example that there were just as many cutting-edge Early Modernists in the East in the 1920s and '30s as the West, or just as many Postmodernist post-coloniaists in the '60s and '70s. A revelatory volume that will have English-speakers rethinking the very way that the 20th-century arts have even been defined in our culture over the years.
West of Here, by Jonathan Evison
For nearly every author who eventually becomes part of the Standard Canon for that generation, there's almost always a point a couple of books into their career when they stop becoming merely a good writer with a cult following, and become a truly great writer who will be remembered by at least a little slice of history; and for mid-level author and online favorite Jonathan Evison, that time is now, as his epic saga about the Pacific Northwest became his first true mainstream national hit this year, as well as the third of three novels this year to receive a perfect score at CCLaP. A dual story of a small town in Washington that hopes to become the next Seattle, the novel cleverly switches between the 1890s when the area if first being settled, and the dam built that the residents of "Port Bonita" hope will eventually make them famous, with the period of the early 2000s where the crumbling town has become the epicenter of Jerry Springer trash, the dam long ago becoming an ecological blight that killed off the local fishing industry. A strong sign that Evison might one day be fated to become his generation's TC Boyle, this impeccable book vaults him for the first time far above the level of "yet another dude at Goodreads bugging you about his new novel," and into that tier of authors who are still studied by college students a century after their deaths.
And that's it for today; but make sure to stop by again tomorrow, for a look at ten books that may have not been the highest scorers of the year, but nonetheless hovered around that top tier and are definitely worth a second look.