Friday, December 23, 2011

2011: A year in review

In closing out the year, I thought it would be timely to weigh in on 2011 as a whole and compile a best-of list of sorts. It's been an exciting year in books for me...not only have some of my favorite authors come out with long-awaited new novels, I've had the opportunity to dig into some really esoteric independent publishers and geographically broaden my scope of world literature. A publisher I'd slipped away from has bounced back with two exceptional novels two years in a row and re-secured my interest in their output for the foreseeable future. And lastly, the annual literary prize circuit has continued to keep me busy, despite my better judgment. It's been a splendid year, though, and I'm looking forward to what 2012 had to offer. What I love about the literature horizon is that in all, there is very little hype over forthcoming titles. I can tell you a number of albums that bands are planning for 2012, but can’t really do that sort of thing with booka (you'll see below that most of my top 5 were completely unknown to me in 2010). Instead of anticipating, we're left to explore.

So, here we go: my top five books of 2011 in no particular order:

John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun

This book was somewhat of a game-changer for me and my relationship with historical fiction. This is the first book of history that I got truly lost in—Sayles’s style tapped into the parts of me that loves Pynchon and Vollmann and managed to sneak past a deeply illuminating history lesson under the guise of an epic novel. Sayles delves deep into the Spanish-American war and the Wilmington race riots and has single-handedly opened my mind towards other historical writing. And a final nod goes to McSweeney's, who had previously wowed me with Adam Levin's The Instructions—let's see if they can go three-for-three with another monstrous novel in 2012. I highly recommend the book! Those interested in a more thorough discussion of A Moment in the Sun can read my full review here.

Edouard Levé, Suicide

Suicide might be the best book I’ve read all year, but due to its tough subject matter it is practically impossible to gift or recommend. Suicide is composed almost entirely of short and dense poetic lines that begin with the word you (similar in form to Joe Brianard’s I Remember). Fragmented memories and heartsick accusations are thrown at the reader with such relentlessness that it's difficult to extract oneself from Levé's "you". No, the book is not written in second person, but addressed to a nameless character who suddenly shot himself before an outing with his wife. As the narrator tries to understand this death, we as readers are pulled in to try to understand ourselves and learn what could possibly provoke such drastic measures. To add to the novel's dolor, Levé himself committed suicide days after handing in his manuscript. The weight of his actions is inescapable, and permeates confounding emotions through each page of this novel. It’s a stunning, heartbreaking work.

Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie

Jamrach’s Menagerie was one of the best things to come out of this year’s Booker Prize lineup. I’ve gone through the 2011 Booker in much detail in earlier entries, so I’ll hold off on reposting those thoughts here—but if you like nineteenth-century adventure novels, this blends together H. Rider Haggard and the Whaleship Essex into one outstanding read.

Anders Nilsen, Big Questions

I just did a recent post here on Big Questions, which not only discussed Drawn & Quarterly’s new omnibus but the 15 issues Nilsen created leading up to the story’s conclusion. It’s hands-down the best graphic novel of the year, and I hope this book gets stocked in every bookstore. Big Questions has the potential to be a gateway book for so many readers who are looking to delve into comics. I recently wrote a detailed review for, which can be read here.

Roberto Bolano, The Third Reich

I’m a huge Bolano fan, and I think The Third Reich ranks among his best novels, up with the likes of 2666. It’s a different sort of book for Bolano—The Third Reich doesn’t attempt to change the literary landscape like 2666 and The Savage Detectives, but instead is just an enthralling, pitch-perfect novel about a German couple vacationing on the coast of Spain. Take a look here if you want to read more.

What have been some of your favorites this year? What are you looking forward to reading next year, old books or new?

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday. My sincerest thanks to each of you for reading my blog—while I’d like to think I’d continue writing even without an audience, your interest in The Oxen of the Sun is most often what keeps me motivated.

Currently reading/packed for Christmas holiday:

In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Men in Space by Tom McCarthy
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas

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