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The Year In Books

Blue Nights, There But for The, The Pale King, Uncanny Valley, Us, and more.

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe, License: N/A

Brigitte Lacombe

Joan Didion


So there’s no reason that a list of the year’s best books ought to be more difficult to compile than a list of the year’s best theatrical productions or internet memes. There are more books out there than ever, after all, what with the increase in digital and print-on-demand varieties. Yet it was a bit like pulling teeth to get more than a couple of suggestions out of the likely suspects this year. If our contributors are anything like I am, it’s not because they aren’t reading, but because they may be a bit behind. For instance, I’m currently deeply engrossed in a fantastic book that happens to hail from the year 2010—The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Fortunately for us, books, unlike theatrical productions and bacon, have no expiration date, which means the tomes we plan to read often pile up faster than we can attend to them. The year 2011 brought with it numerous books worth adding to the pile, however, and here is our list of 10. (Andrea Appleton)

 

1 Joan Didion, Blue Nights (Knopf) Blue Nights is ostensibly a memoir about the death of Joan Didion’s daughter. If it sounds like this could be horribly sentimental, you don’t know Didion. In fact, the rhythm, the obsessive return, the understatement—in short, the style—is as beautiful and brutal as anything she has written. “When we talk about mortality, we are talking about our children,” she writes. And yet, when Didion writes about the death of her daughter it is clear that she is also writing about her own mortality. We’re lucky to get such a report from one of our greatest writers. (Baynard Woods)

 

2 Ali Smith, There But for The(Pantheon) At a dinner party a guy walks into a room—and never leaves. This could be the setup to a conventionally silly joke, but in the unconventional mind of British novelist Ali Smith it becomes the banal event off of which a series of interlocking character pieces combine to create this ingeniously organized and shrewdly pleasurable novel. The guy is Miles, the dinner party is a friend of a friend’s, the book’s four sections come from the point of view of different guests whose lives have in some way crossed that of Miles, and the sheer reading joy comes from Smith’s smart and nuanced touch with observation and language. (Bret McCabe)

 

3 David Foster Wallace, The Pale King(Little, Brown, and Co.) Subtitled “An Unfinished Novel,” The Pale King is at split ends in at least two senses: David Foster Wallace took his life prior to molding the book into finished form, and his narratives pointedly resisted coherent linearity. Like 1997’s Gravity’s-Rainbow-for-Gen-X future-fic absurdity Infinite Jest, King seems to explode wildly and brilliantly in all directions. Unlike Jest—a meditation on chemical dependency, competitive tennis, and theoretical avant garde cinema—King busies itself with the granularity of tedium; it is what might best be described as an archeology of boredom. Competing buttoned-up perspectives shift, shimmy, and flicker in and around early 1980s Internal Revenue Service examination centers like spreading flames, strewn with digressive footnotes, exhaustingly dry IRS mythology, and the kind of soaring prose that’s as emotionally searing as it is deftly satiric. (Raymond Cummings)

 

4 Lawrence Weschler, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint) “We long to lose ourselves in stories—that’s who we are,” Lawrence Weschler writes. He makes it easy for us to get lost in his new collection of nonfiction, Uncanny Valley, which offers his trademark blend of erudition and gee-whiz wonder. The title of the book comes from an essay about the attempt to create a realistic human face with CGI—but in Weschler’s hands it becomes a breezy and yet profound theological study about what it means to be human. His profiles of film editor and sound designer Walter Murch and twin artists Trevor and Ryan Oakes are nothing short of mind-blowing. (BW)

 

5 Michael Kimball, Us (Tyrant) Michael Kimball’s novel, though simple in style, will yank on the heartstrings of even the most stoic of readers. An elderly man watches as his wife’s health slowly declines; they both know she’s dying and they do whatever they can to stave off the inevitable. Years later, their grandson looks back on their relationship and explores his own marriage and mortality. Us bravely portrays an aspect of life that many of us ignore. We’re all familiar with the classic boy-meets-girl scenario, but what would happen if the tale kept going? Kimball takes the reader to the end of the love story—the real end—and shows just how crushing it can be. (Erin Gleeson)

 

6 Errol Morris, Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography (Penguin) Errol Morris is known for documentary films like The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, and, most recently, Tabloid. Morris had always wanted to write, but suffered from chronic writer’s block until The New York Times asked him to do a blog. Blog is an understatement: The beautiful and obsessive essays use transcripts, maps, diagrams and Morris’ own ruminations and travels to investigate how we process “truth” in photographs. You’d never think you could care so much about the position of cannonballs in a photo from the Crimean War, but when you read this collection of essays, trust us, you will. (BW)

 

7 Megan Abbott, The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur) When 13-year-old Evie Verver goes missing from her ordinary 1980s suburban neighborhood, her BFF Lizzie becomes an amateur sleuth, searching for clues. Unfortunately those clues don’t just come from the observable world, but from Lizzie’s memories of Evie, times spent around the Verver household, and her own life and fractured family. Abbott, one of the best crime stylists of her generation, has masterfully and distressingly captured the voice of teenage girl straddling awareness and naivete, sexuality and innocence, and the end portended by the title isn’t the one expected, but one far more ordinary and emotionally devastating. (BM)

 

8 James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (Pantheon) It’s hard to imagine James Gleick actually copping to the scope of his project with The Information. His book, as with the best science writing, never seeks to overwhelm, even at 544 pages. Yet, even in a pop science field chasing the biggest questions, Gleick’s task is immense. He attempts not only to outline a history of information throughout humanity, and not just to place humanity in the context of information, but to make it inarguable that humanity as we know it is as much a result of information—of codes (whether through tribal drum rhythms or Wi-Fi) and bits and memory—as it is biology. We fret a lot these days about drowning in information, like it’s an invading force, but we can’t escape it or that invasion any more than we can our own skins. (Michael Byrne)

 

9 Mark Seal, The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Impostor (Viking) Clark Rockefeller was the crustiest of the upper crust, an American blue blood with a magic family name, a lockjaw prep-school accent, a stunning art collection, and memberships in all the right clubs. He was also Christian Gerhartsreiter, a middle-class German hippie from a small town in Bavaria who had never finished college, much less attended Yale or Harvard, and was in the United States illegally. Mark Seal’s account of Gerhartsreiter’s three-decade charade posing as a series of ever-more well-bred types and taking advantage of those taken in by his assumed patrician airs and chi-chi aliases makes for a surprising nonfiction armchair thriller (earlier this year Gerhartsreiter was indicted for a 1985 murder). It also serves as a damning exploration of the ways even we egalitarian Americans tend to kowtow blindly to our ostensible betters, whether they’re actually better or not. (Lee Gardner)

10 Daniel Woodrell, The Outlaw Album (Little, Brown, and Co.) If it takes a movie to bring Daniel Woodrell a wider audience, so be it. The southern Missouri writer has quietly perfected his unforgettable country noir since the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until Debra Granik’s impressive 2010 adaptation of “Winter’s Bone” that Woodrell turned heads other than those of crime fans. His short story collection, The Outlaw Album, should please both early adopters and newbies. Equal parts Harry Crews fringe and Cormac McCarthy scary beautiful, Woodrell’s stories travel through life’s darker regions, committing acts as new as the news for reasons as routinely weak as found in the Old Testament. (BM)

Guest List

Andrew Keating, managing editor of local quarterly literary magazine Cobalt Review

1 Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown, and Co.)

2 Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife (Random House)

3 Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 (Knopf)

4 Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

5 Greg Olear, Fathermucker (HarperCollins)

6 Ron Tanner, Kiss Me, Stranger (Ig Press)

7 Lawrence Douglas, The Vices (Other Press)

8 Jessica Anya Blau, Drinking Closer to Home (HarperCollins)

9 Donald Ray Pollock, The Devil All the Time (Doubleday)

10 Ben Tanzer, You Can Make Him Like You (Artistically Declined Press)

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