Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Tens of 2011

2011 was a good year for all the types of entertainment I encountered this year, and here are 41 titles divided by four sections (authors I have read before, new authors, horror and short stories) that made me love taking the time to read.

Authors I Have Read Before
10. The Sea by John Banville- a pretty dry book, but this story of Max Morden’s regrets crashing upon him as he revisits his childhood home is rich in description of its Irish landscape and painful nostalgia that affects all of us.
9. Everyman by Philip Roth- Similar to the above title, but focuses on one man (although he isn’t “everyman”) as he experiences a life lived close to the edge of dying, and how that colors his life of dishonesty. A great intro to Roth’s vast collection of works.
8. The Cider House Rules by John Irving- you can’t really go wrong reading an Irving book. Arguably the best word for word writer alive tackles the subjects of race and abortion. Too political at points, but a meaty engaging read.
7. So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger- Enger’s follow-up to the brilliant Peace Like a River, this is a straight up cowboy tale, with adventure, a scary villain and a lot of heart. Only wish Enger would write something else.
6. Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee- strange to think that books as small as this one can pack such a punch and say so much. Coetzee can actually get political without sounding smarmy, and this tale of a simple minded man refusing to live without dignity in war torn South Africa is compelling and informative.
5. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta- Think of something Rod Serling would write if he were tasked with writing a modern day sitcom. The rapture becomes background noise for the people left confused and alone as loved ones and neighbors disappear. An interesting familial tapestry set amongst the end of the world.
4. A Visit From the Goon Squad- With this book, Egan is getting the recognition she deserves. A disparate number of stories centering on an aging punk rocker and his assistant ripped a new hole in the narrative, while still being a wild ride you won’t soon forget.
3. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris- A book that rises above the goofy premise of a man suffering from a walking disease and goes on to tell an intimate love story between the man and his wife and daughter. Ferris has big things ahead of him if he keeps up the pace.
2. You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon- I really love Dan Chaon. He blends scary and literary better than almost anyone, and this novel about losing and finding your family is a superb example of his amazing talent. This won’t be the last you see of Chaon on my list.
1. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen- The novel The Corrections should have been, and the glue that will cement Franzen as the foremost chronicler of 21st century life. This story of a families’ downfall is more interesting than The Corrections, and has a happier, optimistic end to it. Franzen is a living legend, and this book proves it.

Authors I Haven’t Read Before
10. I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti- A thriller with too much brain to ignore. A boy finds a body in a well, and comes face to face with a cruelty that is too close to home. A short book that flies by even quicker.
9. Mystic River by Dennis Lehane/The Turnaround by George Pelecanos- I cannot really separate these two distinct but equally great books, each dealing with a tragic murder and its far-reaching consequences. They transcend the crime genre into something much more heavenly and angelic.
8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt- A creepy, darker take on A Separate Peace, where loss of innocence is only the beginning. A have known people like this before, and it is scary to think their elitism can extend to violence. Either way, I loved reading this.
7. The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock- Probably the most violent non-horror title I read this year, it is a cross between Wise Blood and Natural Born Killers, but sharing more of the former’s grace and less of the latters lack of subtlety. Just be glad if you don’t live in rural Ohio.
6. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard- What The Virgin Suicides would be if it weren’t as pretentious. This story of a missing girl and the people who knew her goes deep into collective and subjective memory, and how thoughts of things that might be can seem real.
5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski- A real puzzle of a book that is too much fun to put together. Really three stories told at the same time, centering on a haunted house that is growing from the inside, this novel will haunt your dreams, and you will be thankful for it.
4. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht- One of two staggering debuts this year, with The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht has written a book with the knowledge of someone who should be fifty, not twenty-five. Mixing mysticism and gritty realism to tell the story of a girl’s odd relationship to her grandfather and his stories, it was a real treat to see the emergence of a new talent this year.
3. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell- Odd that the two youngest of the 20 Under 40 group came out with the two best first novels this year. A scary, thrill filled ride into the Florida everglades, and the alligator park of the title. This is old-fashioned story telling at its best. Russell is frighteningly good, and I expect enormous fame for her in the coming years.
2. Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell- The most fun I had reading this year. Amazingly fast plot and action, this story of a hit man turned doctor is filled with graphic violence and medical knowledge. The ending clinched it for me. Never will you see something so desperate and agonizing done in order to survive.
1. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver- The best novel I read this year. Emotional without pandering, this novel of about a school shooting got an emotional response out of me I haven’t had sense Mysterious Skin. It brings up painful questions that are too hard to answer with simple statements, and ultimately it is about unconditional love, no matter how taboo or wrong. I felt rewarded to have spent time with this awesome book.

Horror Novels
10. Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist- Not as good as Handling the Undead, but still one of the best vampire books out there, using the metaphor of vampirism to explain the euphoria of young love. Also, not ruined if you’ve seen the movie first.
9. Salem’s Lot by Stephen King- I tried reading a Stephen King and Bentley Little book once a month, and made it 10 months before I gave up. I read many good ones but I will keep it to two. This novel is his best from his earliest period, besides The Stand. Can’t go wrong with vampires and small towns in fiction.
8. A Dark Matter by Peter Straub- Although I hate saying it, this is a more sophisticated Stephen King. It has all the trappings of one of his novels, but with more critical praise. Straub is one of the best in the business, and this story of a cult leaders arrogance bringing about horror and destruction, is a solid late masterpiece.
7. Dispatch by Bentley Little- One of two Bentley Little books I read this year that stood out, he is the exact opposite of Straub, a more accessible King if that were possible. What he lacks in writing talent he makes up for in fierce originality. This story of a man’s godlike powers of letter writing is macabre, creepy, and unnerving.
6. The Mailman by Bentley Little- This is a very original take on “The Man Come to Town” story arc that is a more violent and visceral take on Needful Things. A creepy mailman comes to a small town and reeks havoc through the postal system. Although it sounds campy, it is dead serious horror at its best.
5. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum- Ketchum is the bravest writer alive today. No one comes close to the ugliness that he can conjure in his sadly true to life horror novels. The destruction of an innocent girl by self-loathing sociopaths not only shocks and appalls, it opens our eyes to where the line between good and evil is, and how something so hardcore can actually come from the heart.
4. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion- The first horror/zombie novel I have read where the overall message is optimistic. We meet R as he is knee deep in his zombie existence. Not caring, he chomps on the brain of a man and falls deeply in love with his girlfriend, which may bring an end to the epidemic. I like how the message is one that goes against cynicism, and treats the loss of hope in a cruel world as the ultimate villain.
3. Under the Dome by Stephen King- Probably his best novel since it, this epic novel is proof that the master still has a few tricks up his sleeve. As in any good Stephen King novel, a horrible accident makes monsters, as well as heroes out of the residents of Chester Mill, Maine when an impenetrable dome covers it. From this rises King’s most compelling narrative in years and most despicable human villain he has ever created.
2. Slippin’ Into Darkness by Norman Partridge- A nostalgic death trip that is a ghost story where the ghosts are memories of the past. The gang rape of a girl in high school affects all involved in the worst possible way twenty years after it happened. We see these adults beaten down and desperate from a past that might as well have a physical form. It just gets uglier as the depravity of those involves escalates to its end. A darker version of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
1. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill- I love Joe Hill, and think he will surpass his famous father if he keeps this level of talent up. Take a typical King story, amp up the attitude and what is at stake, along with loads of original talent and you’ve got one of the best writers today. Judas Coyne is not a good person when we first see him, but in buying a haunted suit, we see his journey toward heroism, which is one of the most fun rides you will take in a horror novel. Read Joe Hill, he is totally worth your time.

Short Story Collections
10. The Dark Country by Dennis Etchison- These stories introduced me to “quiet horror” which relies on atmosphere instead of scares or violence. Some do fall flat, but others will have you switching on your lights in the middle of the just to be reminded you are not in Etchison’s scary world.
9. Fitting Ends by Dan Chaon- Not as good as his tremendous novels, these stories are good intro into his world where small decisions lead to bigger, extraordinary things. A solid collection if you want to be introduced to Chaon’s work.
8. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer- A part of this new generation of black writers, ones which were born after the civil rights movement, who talk very honestly about race in the modern world. Packer’s stories funny, somber, and are never predictable, and she is not afraid to cast black people as antagonists in her stories. The race issue, as she sees, is more universal than black oppression.
7. Books of Blood Vol. 1-3 by Clive Barker- The true power of Clive Barker lies within this collection of long stories. They are equal parts gross, disturbing and oddly erotic (all at the same time). They push the boundaries of the imagination, and really show us how to love our monsters, even when it is so very hard.
6.  Kockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock- I read this after his novel, and it really is a more subdued, but equally harrowing journey to the heart of the rural heartland of America. We meet a wide range of people in this small town, from murders to drug dealer, to those looking for ways out but are running out of options. One thing these people will never lose if their grace and dignity, and Pollock is a master at finding humanity in the inhuman.
5.  When the Nines Roll Over by David Benioff- This was the biggest surprise for me this year. Having found City of Thieves lackluster compared to The 25th Hour, these stories rival that amazing novel, and makes me rethink my opinion of City of Thieves. A Hollywood screenwriter, Benioff injects thrills into places we wouldn’t expect, so some stories come off as exhilarating and heartbreaking all at once. I hope he writes more in between scripts, because I am eager for more.
4.  Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill- Had to include the man from my home state. I was amazed by these stories that combine violence and mystery into a prime example of “country noir”, where meth and farmhouse replace cocaine and skylines for places where lives are made and lost. To those living in Indiana, give this man some support, he made it without selling out his hometown and did so by writing great fiction.
3. The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones- Hemingway without the macho bullshit, Jones’ stories reflect people’s lives that are forcibly rough, instead of made rough by the protagonist’s attitude. These people never come off as arrogant or jerks, they just adapt to the harsh world around them and try to survive with little damage as possible. Really, they are a testament to the human spirit, and how great of a talent Thom Jones is (despite the unfortunate name).
2. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower- Startlingly original and manically funny, Wells Tower is an emerging talent who, when he writes his first novel, will likely explode with a talent we have not seen in a long time. Equal parts Chabon and Bellow, these audacious stories of people on the verge of change, whether willing or unwilling, ring true and heartfelt, even when they dance too close to the edge of zaniness. The title story is the best modern Viking tale of ennui you will likely to read.
1. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill- The best book I read this year, novel or otherwise, and maybe my favorite collection of short stories of all time. None of these stories are bad. Some are great; some are fantastic, and two (“Pop Art”, and the title story) are two of the best stories I have ever read. These fantastic tales can be bloody, ironic, but all seem to have and untouchable tenderness that brings a smile to your face, even when body parts start flying. A read I envy you for if you haven’t picked it up, no other book this year comes with a bigger recommendation from me than this amazing collection.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Review: "Out Stealing Horses" by Per Petterson

For my last book of the year, I kind of wish I had picked something a little less boring and confusing. It would have been great to finish out the year with something carried itself like wildfire, but I instead chose a dud. I only knew of Per Petterson from the fact that he won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, which besides the Booker Prize, is one of the most prestigious awards you can win for a book. It is awarded once every year and to books that are two years old and it comes with the largest cash prize for any award, which is 100,00 pounds. Seeing this award on the back cover of a book immediately puts me at attention. But rarely do awards go to books that have a good story, they always have some complicated ideas or worse yet, political implications. To put it simply, simplicity is almost never awarded in the book world. Having said that, this book fell into the former category, with a nonlinear style of narrative mixed with a rather dry prose styling that reflects Cormac McCarthy, who I have never been a fan of. Trond Sander, an old man content with his solitude, meets someone he thinks is a stranger while out on a walk who brings up his childhood memories that carry equal amounts of unbridled happiness and unbearable despair. We see his relationship with his father, friend Jon, and mother affected by the elements of life that make Trond rethink his life’s path’s. Plain stuff, but I always give a good writer some credit, even if the story stinks. It’s dry as hell, but it sometimes floats off the page in certain scenes (like when Jon and Trond ride horses that are not theirs, which is where the title comes from). But for the most part, it is quite a bore, which a terrible thing for a coming-of-age tale. I am not too eager to enter Petterson’s lush, if dull world again anytime soon.
Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: "Everyman" by Philip Roth

I finally understand why Philip Roth is so respected within the reading community. I read The Breast last year, and thought it was more goofy than great. Turns out I was starting with a very minor work (a minor one physically as well, clocking in at a slim 80+ pages). Roth really is a writer’s writer who appeals to readers as well. He has massive amounts of critical acclaim, winning a shit-ton of award (winning all the major American ones during the nineties) and getting praise from stodgy old blowhard academics like Harold Bloom. But I also feel his books can qualify as beach reading, in that none of them are extremely hard to follow, and they offer both a reasonable challenge as well as great entertainment value, much like a Murakami or Auster. Everyone has his or her critics, but for the most part, Roth receives almost universal love, and I think he deserves such praise. He has been writing for over fifty years and he is still going. He is something of a national treasure, and his novel Everyman is quite the achievement in his winter years. It is meditation on death that combines Bellow-esque and Kafkaesque themes to produce a short novel that is big on the meaningfulness of life. The unnamed central character in the book (very much like a Kafka story) is dead at the beginning of the book. He has a basic funeral that is very plain and non-extravagant, complete with a confused eulogy from his more successful older brother Howie. The novel goes on to explain his journey to the grave, which is just slightly more remarkable than the funeral itself. We see this man from his childhood, which is marked by a series of stays in the hospital and his obsession with his father’s jewelry and watch store (a keen metaphor on the idea of death being a running clock). We follow his continuing health problems through three failed marriages, resulting in three kids, two of which hate his guts, and the regret of choosing an advertising job over his artistic ambitions, a feeling that cripples his life from there on out. Finally we see him at his inevitable end, in a great scene involving a black gravedigger explaining very professionally how graves are dug and filled. It is great ending to this story that, although his fueled by anger and pain, comes straight from the heart. I try not to look at things like this cynically. I consider myself an aggressive optimist, so I seek out the silver lining every time I read something like this. Here, I see the story as kind of a modern take on Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, in that Tommy Wilhelm now being an old man, with his regret and anger taking form around him, leaving everything he loves in ruin. It really is kind of a call to action for anyone sitting around waiting for life to happen in a vast, modern world. It sees life as too precious for this kind of waiting to take place, and something too terrifying awaits those who fail to do anything. I beautiful book with a lot of heart, it is great to read something like this so late in the year.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: "Notable American Women" by Ben Marcus

I don’t know what to think of Notable American Women by Ben Marcus a little bit after finishing it. In one word, I’d call it interesting. Not great or a revelation, but very interesting. It is a complex book, in that it is hard to follow. It doesn’t have a narrative and seems to deconstruct what a story is the way Beckett would. It actually goes on to create a new kind of use for words that is funny, astounding and irritating in different spots in the novel. I also wouldn’t really call this a novel. It is more of a collection of ideas that form something that is to convolute to be looked at as a whole by even the most accomplished reader. It is best to pick out certain aspects and ideas it presents and read it sentence-by-sentence, and sometimes word-by-word. What little plot there is deals with the fabricated history of Ben Marcus’ family in Ohio (the biggest surprise for me was, for a book where the main character shares the name with the author as well as a book that puts the author’s knowledge in the forefront of its image, it doesn’t come off as being arrogant or narcissistic); from his father, who is buried out back (voluntarily, I might add), and his mother, some sort of feminist guru bent on using Ben as a “breeder” for all her followers in order produce absolute stillness. For a plot this weird, it really takes a back seat to what Marcus says about language. He really treats words and phrases like objects within this world he has crafted. Words carry physical weight to both harm and hurt, and food exists just to give people power to produce these words. Names are so important, that some people do not possess them. I am really not doing justice to this story, but I think what Marcus is doing is using a very unsubtle metaphor for how words might as well be things, because they are the tools that can chain us together or rip us apart. So, go seek out this book, you are likely not to find anything else like it.
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Review: "Fools of Fortune" by William Trevor

Reading Fools of Fortune by William Trevor, one is struck by Trevor’s mastery of language and his ability to use words that everyone uses, put them in a certain order, and produce something akin to a symphony on the page. Even when the book lacks direction and concrete plot explanation, such as this one, I cannot knock Trevor for being a born writer, like John Irving or Richard Russo, who write simple stories that are anything but simply good. Every detail in the best books by those kinds of writers stick with you long after you’ve put the book back on your shelf, and the memories they recall are still fresh. If I have to point out the thing that brought Fools of Fortune down from a great book to a good one would be its lack of simplicity. It is about this wealthy family that is torn apart by the English black and Tans, and how one of the two survivors goes on to ruin his life, or that is what I gathered from what I read. That was a big issue with me. It has the emotion, power, and grace that a story like it should have, but it becomes too political way to early, and there are so many people who have stake in the story being told, I had to look online to find out which characters were related to who and why. I feel this is a case of the book being an earlier novel for Trevor, so he was interested in different things. I read Felicia’s Journey last year, and while it also wasn’t great, I thought it was good enough to find an audience, and simple enough, with just two main leads, for anybody to become emotionally attached. Even if this is a kind of a dud, Trevor is a writer no book lover should die without reading once.

Rating: 4/5