Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best Books I Read in 2011

Boy, did I ever not read that much fiction this year!

Most of what I read this year was what I reviewed for a variety of different publications, and those books for whatever reason just happened to be non-fiction.

I did read a massive, ambitious novel by John Sayles, A Moment in the Sun, but it wasn't all that good. By way of reviewing Kenneth Slawenski's okay biography, I re-read J.D. Salinger, which holds up well, but that doesn't count. Also, there were the collected English translations of Vladimir Sorokin, of which the best was The Day of the Oprichnik, a fine dystopian ass-kicking toward any country that would elect Vladimir Putin.

Anyway, here's my Top Ten, so to speak, heavily skewed toward non-fiction, with links to my original reviews.

The Golden Bowl by Henry James. James in his later years is a famously hard nut to crack; the prose gets denser, the sentences get longer, the thoughts thornier -- and the payoff is richer, more symphonic. It's a different artist who wrote this book than the one who wrote Washington Square; still a great storyteller, but one more attentive to acute psychological details, with an abiding sense of the big picture and how everyone fits in it. I don't agree with William James. I don't want the old Henry back.

Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin. This has to be one of the most purely entertaining, page-turning biographies I've ever read -- a perfect marriage between a brilliant writer and a literary genius who gave her an awful lot to write about. Dickens was the total opposite of a writer who spends all day at his desk (although to be sure he parked there for many long stretches.) Dickens from a young age was one of the most famous men of his day, and as lively a character as anyone he ever invented, not to mention a busy one: besides being the greatest novelist of the 19th Century, he was a magazine editor, actor, caring philanthropist -- one of the best parts is when he opens a home for reformed prostitutes -- and a man who always took care of his friends. He also had a bit of a nasty, bitter side, which came out when he divorced his faithful wife for a young actress. Tomalin writes beautifully and elegantly. I cannot imagine her great subject being in any way disappointed.

Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. Another great biography that pulls off that trick that defeats so many: marshaling a wealth of research into the service of the story. The book is nearly 1,000 pages (with so many footnotes that it required its own website) but it brought to mind other great examples, like Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Ellman's James Joyce -- books where, at the end, you feel you know the subject personally, or at least as well as you can. Criticized in some quarters for being too tough on it's subject; I on the other hand found it, if anything, a little too defensive at times, a little too protective. Captures Van Gogh in all of his madness, genius, and genuinely moving despair.

Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts. No, six Depression-era books told entirely in images aren't exactly what we normally think of as novels, but they are perfectly riveting stories and social documents by a great American artist.

Lights Out in Wonderland. The best novel DBC Pierre has ever written -- quite the surprise, because his previous two don't suggest he has a good novel in him. A book-length suicide note and an international adventure about the decline of the West.

Examined Lives by James Miller. A well-done survey of the great minds, from Socrates to Nietzsche, that reasonably asks just how well these august gentlemen practiced what they preached, and finds that a lot of them fell wide of the mark. Miller isn't a snarky, snotty debunker; he's often sympathetic to the fact that wisdom often involves risk. This is one of those books, like William Barrett's Irrational Man, that make you want to drop everything and spend the rest of your life reading all the great philosophers.  Shrewd and intelligent.

At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from the Library of America. I'm the last person you'd assign to review a collection of writing on boxing, but someone did, and I learned an enormous amount.

MetaMaus. Art Spiegelmann returns to his masterpiece, lifts the hood, and shows how he pieced it altogether and made it run. Indescribably fascinating.

Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark by Brian Kellow. I'm not sure if I overpraised or under-praised this book; it's a straightforward biography that may fall under the category of "deceptively simple." I read it compulsively, but Kael is one of those figures in my pantheon (others include Vladimir Nabokov, Luis Bunuel, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal) whom I simply like reading about, above and beyond whatever their achievements are. I could listen to stories about her all day and this book has plenty -- and I loved reading all the reactions the book received from people who knew her. The next book offers a superb portrait as well, and one a little more finely-etched.

Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York by James Wolcott. Superb memoir of life in the Rotten Apple in the 1970s, as Wolcott roams through high culture and low. Wolcott could almost be talking about himself when he describes the way Kael’s writing style bopped and danced: “ She wanted the writing to read like one long exhalation that would seize the reader from the opening gunshot and then drop him off at the curb after a dizzy ride.”

Everyone who knew Kael, it seems, has written about her, and Wolcott delivers a great store of memories: her legendary disputes with New Yorker editor William Shawn, her deadly response when George C. Scott’s rep asked for her take on his latest movie (“Tell him to bury it”), her awkward, hilarious defense of Roman Polanski against his statutory rape charge (“It’s not as if he could physically hurt those girls…He’s quite tiny and slight…”), her stunned response to Renata Adler’s 8,000-word bitch-slap in the New York Review of Books. (“She’s trying to take away my language,” Kael tells Wolcott, “to make me so self-conscious that every time I ask a rhetorical question or do something jazzy I’ll catch myself and worry, `Is this something everyone will jump on?’”) Wolcott makes his own mark as a critic, burning writers (“Oh, I was such a scamp,” he writes, recalling how he trashed a Pete Hamill thriller) but also making important discoveries. One was named Patti Smith, the punk priestess who knew she would make it big, setting the stage for Madonna and Lady Gaga, bearing “the crowned awareness that to become a true star is to act like a star from the moment of self-conception and let the world play catch-up.” Wonderful.


Nellmezzo said...

Makes me wish I didn't have to go to work today. Must order some library books first at least. Thank you!

Jon said...

I had an awfully hard time appreciating the Golden Bowl. (I.e. I didn't like it very much). I wouldn't go so far as to ask for Washington Square - but The Ambassadors (written just 1 year before the Golden Bowl) was just right for me. Psychological nuance and complexity- but also characters I could sink my teeth into.

RW said...

"The Golden Bowl" is so hard for me to recommend to people, but over the year it's only grown in my esteem. But I love The Ambassadors, too: “Live all you can; it's a mistake not to. It doesn't so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven't had that what have you had?”