The Year in Books
Thirty-one titles that got us talking this year
By Kimberley Jones, Sarah Smith, James Renovitch, Cindy Widner, Monica Riese, and Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Jan. 6, 2012
I'm a prejudiced reader. Maybe a bit of a snob, too. So say the words "genre fiction" – no, even worse, "Western novel" – and all my limited imagination coughs up is a moldering stack of Louis L'Amour paperbacks. Now The Sisters Brothers (Ecco) is in fact a very stylish-looking hardback, but still. It wasn't until Texas Book Festival Director Clay Smith took the book off my shelf, handed it to me, and said with real urgency, "You must read this now," that I considered reconsidering my position. It took me another three months to get around to discovering what a spitfire seduction is Patrick deWitt's black-comic, gold rush picaresque about an assassin with the soul of a poet.
I may have opinions about fantasy novels, too. Not really my bag. But I'd heard enough burbling about Erin Morgenstern's first novel, The Night Circus (Doubleday), to give the first chapter a once-over. About 12 hours later, I was done with the book, and powerfully tempted to turn back to page one and relive the novel's lyrical unfurling of a love story between rival magicians in the late 19th century.
Might as well continue the confessional: I started, but never finished, at least three of the year's most acclaimed books – Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown and Company), which was the victim of a hand-me-down Kindle crapping out on me midread; Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife (Random House), currently perched alongside my bathtub, a placement that suggests a sincere desire to forge on; and Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (Twelve), which did great things for my vocabulary but plinked another unavoidable prejudice of mine, which is that bestiality really icks me out. (I'm just trying to be honest here.)
There were nonfiction treats, though their pleasures were more piecemeal. The incandescent first chapter of Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (Random House). Jon Ronson's The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry (Riverhead), a book that wisely contains itself to discrete chapters lest Ronson's distinctive voice – equal parts curmudgeon and paranoiac, pickled in a wicked sense of humor – overwhelm. John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – a touch overpraised, but hats off to any essay collection that can span an encounter with Real World royalty the Miz and a heart-clutch personal essay about the electric shock that brought his brother near to death. And I suspect Rachel Polonsky's Molotov's Magic Lantern: A Journey in Russian History (Faber & Faber) might've been nearer the top of my list had I started it sooner than two nights ago.
There were other books that got under my skin, I'm sure of it, but I have a terrible memory, which is probably why I was so moved by Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winner The Sense of an Ending (Knopf). Some critics called it slight, but its subject matter – the disconnect between how individuals remember a collective history – dovetailed with my own reckoning with a faulty recollection. Barnes' novella was an eloquent reminder that there is no one truth, and no impartial observers, either. – Kimberley Jones
It's tremendous luck to start reading a book you'll love just as the fasten seat belts sign blinks during your first of many connecting flights, which is how I found Donna M. Johnson's Holy Ghost Girl (Gotham). Subculture stories hook me hard, especially when they involve touchy issues like tent revivals, infidelity, and charismatic healing. Memoirs like this usually rebuke the past, but Johnson lets the mysteries – among them, whether her adoptive father truly cured ailments during his revivals and why her mother would abandon her in favor of working as the revival organist – retain their sovereignty, leaving the possibility that faith could produce real marvels.
I almost always miss out on the big, revelatory novel of the year until it comes out in paperback, but I somehow managed to catch Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child (Knopf) in high cotton (and also while on layover in Dallas-Fort Worth). Hollinghurst presents some set-pieces that smack of other British novels – class disparity, familial estates crammed with secrets – but shifts the narrative architecture so radically it makes fresh tableaux of old finery.
The imaginative swerve of Dean Young's Fall Higher (Copper Canyon) is hardly the most amazing thing about the collection of poems; more to the point, it's his ninth full-length collection, and his work gets wiser and braver all the time. There are the blockbuster gorgeous poetry moments – "Mostly the world is lava's rhythm,/the impurities of darkness/sometimes called stars" – and also the unexpected stunners: "Something is always tumbling/down the steps in my chest/carrying a birthday cake"; "It's not that Monet cared that much about stacks of hay." No offense intended to "Free Will Astrology," but if you hand over the contemplation of your fate to these poems, you'll certainly emerge more edified. – Sarah Smith
Media academic Ian Bogost's 2011 might have been dominated by the surprise success of his Facebook game, Cow Clicker, about the insipid nature of Facebook games, but he also managed to write the year's best book on the subject of video games. Split into chapters that set out to elucidate the role of games in various areas of the average American's life, How To Do Things With Videogames (University of Minnesota Press) pulls some Malcolm Gladwell-grade insight out of its hat. Stating a fact and positing a distant conclusion, Bogost builds sturdy and elegant bridges of logic between the two. The trip is often revelatory in fields outside of the interactive arts, but to do so with a medium as maligned in the art world as video games is doubly impressive. Not every chapter is solid gold, but more times than not you can feel your brain making connections that seem obvious, and that's Bogost's genius.
Two veteran Japanese authors also got their groove back, even if that groove is, in actuality, a simple, to-the-point writing style. Banana Yoshimoto released the slight but invigorating tale of burgeoning love in a time of personal strife with The Lake (Melville House). The lack of flash and focus on character made it a quick and altogether satisfying read. The first 500 pages of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (Knopf) feel like they are written by the same man who wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Why only 500 pages? Because that's how many I've read so far, but they're strong enough to recommend the entire hulking novel. It's a mysterious and scary world Murakami paints, but I want to know every murky, surreal nook of that world. – James Renovitch
The perfect book kicked off a devastating year: Colm Tóibín's The Empty Family (Scribner) – gorgeous, affecting short stories set in various places but all calling back to Tóibín's native Ireland. Fiction held sway for the wind-down, too, with Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – a novel that explores complex ideas of love within a winning, naturalistic plot. The bright light of spring and summer, though, brought an overdue and rewarding renaissance of my relationship with nonfiction. The Journals of Spalding Gray (Knopf), edited by Nell Casey, reminds us of how radically the troubled, pioneering monologist changed the concept of the one-person show; it also reveals how much artistry was involved in turning his life into art. Jonathan Lethem's The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. (Doubleday) is manna for lovers of the cultural essay – a "bloggish book," as Lethem calls it, that features pieces he's written on everyone from Philip K. Dick to Rick James. Funny that Lethem writes there that he "dread[s] reading or listening to the interviews" his fame required, as one could not find a better companion piece to that book than Conversations With Jonathan Lethem (University Press of Mississippi), edited by Jaime Clarke. Clarke's anthology continues the essays' dialogue with readers as well as capturing Lethem's charm and generosity as a participant in the contemporary cultural project. Chuck Eddy's Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism (Duke University Press) could not be more different in style (and, for the most part, particular subjects) than Lethem's critical work, but both serve as antidotes to the current practice of stripping reviews down to something resembling Morse code: They're shining reminders that criticism can, and should, be much more than just an endless series of product reviews. – Cindy Widner
It's no wonder so many food-related metaphors extend into our reading nooks: Good books are not mere entertainment; they sustain, nourish, and enrich. I gleefully devoured these books, the bread and butter of my bookshelf, which made serving up this recipe for reading success a piece of cake, no matter what your cup of literary tea. (I'll stop now.)
Feed your mind: My two favorite music writers, Austin Powell and Doug Freeman, unleashed The Austin Chronicle Music Anthology (University of Texas Press) this spring (see "Off the Record," Music, March 4, 2011). Despite having had this book for eight months and having lived in this fair town six-plus years now, I know there's always something else in those pages I can learn about our collective musical history. It's a beautiful volume, and the only one I know of in which Joan Jett and Jay-Z make appearances five pages apart.
Feed your body: Hilah Johnson serves up a weekly Web video on Hilah Cooking (see "Seasoning's Greetings," Screens, Sept. 23, 2011), but this past summer she also released Learn To Cook, a comprehensive e-book filled with recipes, tips, shortcuts, videos, and some trademark "dirty jokes and cussin'." Johnson always delivers, and her stint as one of YouTube's Next Chefs suggests 2012 will be another hearty year.
Feed your soul: Dean Young, the University of Texas' own preeminent contemporary poet, spent the first four months of 2011 awaiting a heart transplant (see "The Heartsick Poet," April 8, 2011), which made his spring collection, Fall Higher (Copper Canyon), particularly poignant: "Maybe poems are made of breath, the way water,/cajoled to boil, says, This is my soul, freed." If this is what 8% of the heart can yield, brace yourself for Young's return to full-force. – Monica Riese
Luminarium (Soho Press), Alex Shakar's second novel, is a rewarding literary tribute to brotherly love, existentialism, and the possibilities of modern technology, with emotional and philosophical depths entangling you no less than the dark mystery of a dead brother who seems to be communicating with his still-living twin via the (corporately stolen) video game the two of them created. Chester Brown's Paying for It (Drawn and Quarterly), the acclaimed cartoonist's unswerving account of his regular, ah, use of prostitutes over the past several years, doubles (or at least exhaustively tries to double) as an argument for the rights of sex workers. Dave McKean's Celluloid (Fantagraphics), on the other hand, is an unfettered erotic fantasy told, wordlessly, with the sort of glorious imagery – a stunning mix of hand-drawn illustration and Photoshop wizardry – that made all those old Sandman covers such a mind-blowing delight. Kenk, the first graphic novel from new company Pop Sandbox, is sequential-art nonfiction about "the world's most prolific bicycle thief," as vividly documented by Richard Poplak, Alex Jansen, Jason Gilmore, and Nick Marinkovich. Webcomics get a welcome incarnation in the offline world as Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn and Quarterly) brings the cartoonist's sharp wit and delightful send-ups of historical characters (real and/or literary) into paper and ink. Alison Bechdel, as editor of The Best American Comics 2011 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), offers just that in a hardcover volume of remarkable works conjured by artists from sea to shining sea. And The Godfather of Kathmandu (Knopf) is John Burdett's Royal Thai Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, struggling with murderous dope smugglers, his corrupt police chief, and his own half-breed and shakily Buddhist identity in the fourth of this thrilling Bangkok series. – Wayne Alan Brenner