(For an overview of this year's essay series, and a linked list of all its chapters, please click here.)
CCLaP was happy to be joined this year by New York publishing-industry professional Oriana Leckert; but since Oriana didn't have nearly the time to write reviews of every single book she read last year, for this best-of list I've asked her instead to merely share with us her ten favorite reads of 2011 regardless of whether a review got written. Here's her report below.
Best sprawling modern epic novel: Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
This is a straight-up, no nonsense, trickery-free whirl of a novel. It takes place in an Irish boys' school, following a whole group of tween boys, as well as many of their teachers, through a month or so in real time, but with scads and scads of backstory. It's filled with incredibly drawn characters, slippery dicey morality, bad bad luck and timing, the howling chaos of lived lives. There are so many chances for Murray to take the easy way out -- becoming corny, melodramatic, or needlessly devastating -- but he hews instead to something that approaches real truth, actions and dialogue and characters that remain consistently believable, and therefore all the more crushing when they fall.
Best pre-feminist reprint: The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer
The Pumpkin Eater is told by an unnamed narrator who is married to a philanderer (her fourth husband) and has an army of children (number never specified). This a rough story, full of imposed will and victimization and sexual misdeeds and cruelty. Yet it's an interpersonal melodrama, and the persons playing the roles are endlessly compelling. Best of all, Penelope's writing is immediate, sharp, and brutally, often blackly hilarious. It cracks and sparkles and seethes with rage, despair, hopelessness, urgency, and, eventually, against all odds, hope.
Best nonfiction explication of our modern age: Epic Win for Anonymous, by Cole Stryker
Stryker covers a ton of fascinating ground here: there's a sort of condensed history of hacking (dating back to the 1950s), discussion of the early "Wild West" days of the web, histories of a bunch of the sites that define internet culture today, a basic meme primer, descriptions of all the boards on 4Chan, and a whole lot more. Plus scads of interviews with tons of internet people, from execs at all the major sites to random /b/tards. He introduced me to a ton of stuff I never knew about, filled in the gaps on things I knew only vaguely, and gave me a really varied, balanced account of the internet today and how it got like this.
Best small-press wonder: Tea of Ulaanbaatar, by Christopher Howard
Drugs and depravity and a bunch of jaded, crazy, over-sexed American Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia, told with sparse thrilling language and filled with riveting characters. A brilliant juxtaposition of old-timey Mongolia, with flashback snippets of marauding hordes overtaking everything in their path, and modern-day Mongolia -- a devastated victim of Soviet rule and withdrawal, desperately trying to claw its way into the twentieth century.
Best memoir: Revolution, by Deb Olin Unferth
Deb and her boyfriend dropped out of college and schlepped around Central America for a year trying to find a war to join. This memoir is told in a self-conscious, bemused, almost condescending style, which is clearly a defense mechanism, forestalling criticism via self-mockery. And that grounds the narrative, saving it from corny idealism and keeping it from spinning off into maudlin recollection or inflated self-importance. It's an incredible journey she took, full of insane things she did, and Deb's language and narration is more than up to the task.
Best essays: How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley
I am unabashedly on Team Sloane. This has a lot to do with the fact that we're so demographically aligned --suburban youth, upper-middle-class background, collegiate experimentation and self-finding, living now in the same city, about the same age, working in the same field -- to the point that her essays often feel like a rarefied version of my own life. But when she gets it right, she just nails it; she's so smart, so so wonderful with phrase-turning, so adept at pacing and style and finding the right balance of self-mockery and self-aggrandizement. The essay about how bad cabs smell was kind of awful, but the rest of the collection was just about perfect.
Best heart-wrenching oral history: Nowhere to Be Home, edited by Maggie Lemere and Zoë West
If you haven't read any of the books in the 'Voice of Witness' series, you're doing a disservice not just to yourself, but to the whole f*^#ing world. These oral histories document the world's most harrowing atrocities in the scariest places on the planet, told by the people who lived through it all. They also include vast bibliographical sections for historical grounding, in case you (like me) are a casually Ameri-centric asshole who is woefully under-informed about the plight of the rest of the world.
Best total disappointment: Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell
By "best" I do not mean "most good." I hesitated to even include this on this list because I am not the kind of reviewer who delights in pointing out failures, but this book was awful. More awful was how high my hopes had been for it; Karen's debut short-story collection is incredible, so I'd assumed this would be even better. Nope. Lazily conceived, lazily written, lazily edited...it was even lazily proofread, for heaven's sake. Please read Skippy Dies instead.
Best graphic novel: Habibi, by Craig Thompson
By contrast, my hopes for this one were pretty low, as I'd found Blankets to be flaccid and hokey and saccharine and generally pretty boring. Habibi, though, is downright spectacular. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, complex and inventive and enthralling. The story is huge and sweeping, a sad tale of two people with insanely awful lives who find each other and save each other over and over, but interspersed with fables and parables and verses and stories, mostly from the Qur'an. Breathtaking in scope and emotional reach.
Best read for work: Hot Pink, by Adam Levin
You might think this would be a cheat, because it's not actually going to be published until 2012, but you would be wrong, because in my other life I'm a proofreader, and I got to read this in October. I'm not really going to tell you anything about it because I don't want to blow up McSweeney's spot, but look: Did you like The Instructions? Did you think it was probably the greatest sprawling modern epic novel of 2010, if not the greatest sprawling modern epic novel ever? Then you will love the short stories in Hot Pink. Maybe not quite as much, but plenty.
Also, I just want to say a million thanks to Jason Pettus for giving me a platform for my literary ramblings this year. CCLaP is a wonder, and I'm so honored to have been part of it!
Well, thanks, Oriana! And don't forget, the book version of Oriana's year-long series of essays on classic comics from a female perspective, Jugs & Capes, will be coming out in just another month or so, including a cutting-edge paper version designed by CCLaP's new winter intern, Todd Poitras; but of course more on this when we get closer to the book's actual release. In the meanwhile, I hope you'll have a chance to come by again tomorrow, when CCLaP takes a look at our favorite experimental, gonzo, and otherwise cutting-edge books from 2011.