My Year in Books 2011

At the end of a nicely literary year, I’m currently reading or just finished the following:

Intense, and intensely grim, but beautifully written. The copy I got from the BPL included a great introductory essay by Jonathan Franzen that adds depth to the book (when read afterwards, as proper introductions are).

The kind of noir that shows you how it’s done. Who was it who called it one of the three classic books set in LA?

Only just started it but already I’m swept away. Gornick also wrote one of the most important books I came across this year, The Situation and the Story (see below).

It doesn’t finish with quite the same verve and pop as it begins, but it’s well-written, engaging, and smart all the way through. My favorite First Novel of the Year.

This gets my vote for Most Disappointing First Novel of the Year. It falls into the same traps as Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which I also had to put down in frustration for being obnoxiously over-written. The premise is so promising, too! Will someone else please write the book this meant to be?

Again with the grim. The Submission is too much like real life, only rehashed and exaggerated. You’d think that’s what good fiction is supposed to be, and Waldman is a competent writer, but for me it doesn’t quite connect. I need fewer characters, including at least one I can relate to and like, as well as fewer stereotypes and more surprises. Otherwise, it’s just like reading the news.

And here’s the final round-up of WHAT I READ BESIDES “THE NEW YORKER” IN 2011:

  • A Dance With Dragons (Martin) – A-
  • A Moveable Feast (Hemmingway) – B
  • A Red Herring Without Mustard (Bradley) – B+
  • A Walk in the Woods (Bryson) – B+
  • An Unsuitable Attachment (Pym) – B+
  • An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (James) – B+/A-
  • And the Pursuit of Happiness (Kalman) – A-/A
  • Best American Non-Required Reading 2008 – unfinished but good! B/B+ ish
  • Bonk (Roach) – A/A-
  • Bossypants (Fey) — A-
  • Broken Glass Park (Bronsky) – B+
  • Buttered Side Down (Ferber) – B+
  • Canterbury Tales (Chast) – B
  • Claire DeWitt And the City of the Dead (Gran) – B+
  • Disobedience (Hamilton) – B
  • Excellent Women (Pym) – B
  • Game of Thrones, Books 1-4 – B+/A-
  • Homesick (Eshkol) – A-
  • House of Holes (Baker) – B+/A-
  • Human Croquet (Atkinson) – B/B-
  • I Remember Nothing (Ephron) – B
  • Incendiary (Cleve) – B/B-
  • Kafka Was the Rage (Broyard) – Unfinished and uninteresting. C+?
  • Life Among the Savages (Jackson) – B+/A-
  • Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House (Daum) – B
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (Simonson) – B+
  • Mary Ann in Autumn (Maupin) – B-
  • My Mother She Killed Me … (Bernheimer) – B
  • Mysterious Benedict Society (Stewart) – B/B-
  • One Day (Nicholls) – B
  • Orange Jumpsuit (Cobble) – N/A. How can I rate a book written by a close friend in which I play a supporting role?
  • Raising Demons (Jackson) – B+
  • Rich Boy (Pomerantz) – A-
  • Room (Donoghue) – A
  • Sacred Games (Chandra) – unfinished but strong; I want to come back to it
  • Spook (Roach) – B+
  • Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America (Biskind) – unfinished & not sure I’ll pick it up again. Turns out dirt on Beatty’s sex life doesn’t really do it for me.
  • Started Early, Took My Dog (Atkinson) – B/B+
  • Starting from Happy (Marx) – C+
  • State By State (Weiland/Wilsey) – B+
  • State of Wonder (Patchett) – A
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
  • Swamplandia! (Russell) – B
  • The Finkler Question (Jacobson) – B-
  • The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society (Shaffer) – B
  • The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Bronsky) – A-
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot) – B
  • The Lazarus Project (Hemon) – B
  • The Magician King (Grossman) – B
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Bender) – B-
  • The Sabbath World (Shulevitz) – B+
  • The Situation and the Story (Gornick) – A
  • The Sun Also Rises (Hemmingway) – Unfinished but ugh. C
  • The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (Summerscale) – B-
  • The Tiger’s Wife (Obreht) – B+/A-
  • The Tragedy of Arthur (Phillips) – B-
  • The Warmth of Other Suns (Wilkerson) – unfinished but I definitely want to get it from the library again. Engrossing, wonderfully-written history.
  • The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag (Bradley) – B+
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Le Carre) – A-
  • To The End of the Land (Grossman) – A
  • Unbroken (Hillenbrand) – B
  • When Everything Changed (Collins) – A
  • Your Voice in My Head (Forrest) – B+/A-
  • Zone One (Whitehead) – Unfinished and I think I’d like to go back to it, though I felt mixed in the moment. B?


2011 Discoveries

Genre novels. I’ve always been one of those people who could appreciate Dorothy Sayers, the occasional quality YA novel, and Harry Potter, while still being a snob about genres in general. In 2011, I got over myself. Perhaps “Buffy,” which I watched way too many hours of over the course of the year (especially on the treadmill–it’s excellent exercise viewing), gets some credit. Regardless, I went in headfirst and got swallowed up by George R. R. Martin, John Le Carre, PD James, the debut novelist Sara Gran, and Walter Mosley. I also bought a copy of The Maltese Falcon, which I haven’t gotten around to yet. Turns out, and gee, who’s surprised, I’m a huge dork for this stuff. Can’t get enough. Feed me, Seymour, feed me!

Alina Bronsky. The best writer you’re not reading, possibly because books in translation don’t get a lot of attention in America. (Unless they’re about bisexual Scandinavian hackers with axes to grind.)

Mary Roach. Roach writes non-fiction for people like me who don’t want to have to work to learn things. Factoids from her masterpiece Bonk continue coming to mind eight months after I read it, and it works as a terrific 2011 book as an intellectual, witty Superego-like counterpoint to the hilariously, gleefully filthy Id of House of Holes.

Shirley Jackson. If you only know her for her chilling short stories, try her memoir — her first-person account of trying to raise a brood of high-spirited children in mid-twentieth-century middle America is almost as scary and twice as funny.


2011 Disappointments

Hemingway. Was it watching Midnight in Paris that pushed me into Papa’s arms? His books were good at getting strange young men to approach me on the subway and that’s the best I can say for them. Except I did love the exchange at the end of A Moveable Feast where he tries to convince F. Scott Fitzgerald that he has a perfectly normal-sized penis, no matter what Zelda says. Hemingway here is a very good friend: he not only tells Fitzy he’s being silly, he also drops trou to compare and takes his still sorrowful, unconvinced buddy to a museum for a tour of naked sculptures. Overall, though, Papa’s self-absorption left me cold.

The Finkler Question. This flaccid, unfunny humor novel won the Booker Prize. I’m trying to remember now why I rated it even as highly as I did, considering I enjoyed very little of it. Ambition? A good concept? Maybe I felt sorry for the author. That happens sometimes.

UPDATE: A old friend accuses me of grading on a curve! Do I? Do I now need to rethink everything??

5 thoughts on “My Year in Books 2011”

  1. I am surprised how much you liked “Guernsey” (which I hated) and “State of Wonder” – which I found good, but disappointing compared to the luminous “Bel Canto.”

    1. The luminous “Bel Canto” is one of my all-time favorite books. If I compared everything to that, my ratings would look pretty sour. Why was I so nice to “Guernsey”? I can’t really remember that now either. I think it’s partly that I was expecting very little and ended it finding it, you know, pleasant in a mild way. Why did you hate it?

  2. This may just be the most useful thing on the internet, as I suddenly have a lot of time to read and a new device to read them on.

    Curious about the Hemingway disappointment – did it stem from comparison to other Hemingway pieces, or just his style overall?

    1. Thanks! Although I thought I saw that your Kindle is being held hostage by Danish customs?

      I had never read Hemingway as an adult, actually, and only “The Old Man and the Sea” as a teenager. Maybe I haven’t yet tried his real quality stuff, and I’m open to being convinced. So far, my reaction has been that he doesn’t live up to the hype.

  3. Hemingway is *way* over-hyped. Machismo bordering on misogyny and complete self-absorption do not make great literature. His writing style was new and different at the time, which explains his success, but why he remains so revered has always puzzled me.

    I will have to check out the Alina Bronsky book. I browsed through it early in the year after reading the NYT’s article on the two Alinas (Alina Simone being the other), but it just didn’t grab me, so I put it back on the shelf. I will give it another chance. I did enjoy Alina Simone’s book a great deal (You Must Go and Win).

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