The following twelve books are the best books I read in 2011. All of these have in common sublime writing and are filled with subtle, nuanced life. Each of them surprised me, as well, constantly helping me rediscover the joy of reading.
Here they are, my favorites, in the order in which I reviewed them:
Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (original review January 14, 2011) — This was one of the first books I read this year and before I was even half-finished (which is only, like 15 pages in this short volume) I knew it would be on this list come December. I’ve read it many times through the year and will probably read it again during the Christmas holiday (it’s very short, so maybe again at New Year’s). Denon packs an amazing amount of lust and mystery into this short tale about a one-night fling at the mistress’s estranged husband’s house — while the husband in the other room. It is sweet and savage at the same time, and I have been completely charmed. This is certainly one of those rare literary relationships that will last a lifetime. One thing: I highly recommend the translation by Lydia Davis — I’ve sampled another and it simply wasn’t as good.
Gert Hofmann: Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (original review February 15, 2011) — This is probably the saddest book on this list, yet it is also one of the most tender and boisterous. And, like No Tomorrow, it reaches its depths through a unique kind of whimsy that most authors couldn’t handle when treating such a narrative. This is the story (based on fact) of Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century physics professor with a hunched back and a gift for composing witty aphorisms, if not a gift for advancing studies in physics. The little flower girl is Maria Stechard, the young girl who lives with him, at first in innocence. Then, abandoning the oft-used exclamation point, Hofmann has the Stechardess say one powerful line: “Don’t hurt me, she said.” As it deals with yearning in a life shadowed by death, it is witty, funny, and it expressly includes the readers in the text as we continually ask: “And then?”
J.A. Baker: The Peregrine (original review March 3, 2011) — When I reviewed this memoir/nature book I made comparisons to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I still stand by those statements. Baker’s book is searching as it takes into account something that lies beyond mankind and that is dying. As the memoir progresses, we see an amazing transformation; slipping into the text are Baker’s own desires to escape humanity and become one with the creature he hunts. Nearing the end, the transformation — at least psychologically — is complete: “We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.”
Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Paper (original review March 25, 2011) — Ozick is one of my favorites, and this book compiles short pieces she wrote about Ruth Puttermesser over the course of four decades (Puttermesser is also a victim of the passage of time and ages the four decades with Ozick). It’s a fantastic series of tales about this rather lonely woman who, at one time, becomes the mayor of New York and unleashes a modern-day female golem (she really wanted a daughter of her own) in the city. In another chapter, when she’s in her fifties, she relives — she thinks, she hopes — the love affair between the similarly aged George Eliot and the much younger George Lewes. All of this leads to the last story where, at the beginning, we witness her violent death at nearly 70 — and then we go a bit further.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard: A Life on Paper (original review April 13, 2011) — I nearly missed this title, which would have been a shame. Had I missed it this year, it is unlikely I would ever have encountered it again once its publication date drifted back in time. I only heard about it when it was a finalist in the Best Translated Book Award (this year’s finalists should be announced sometime toward the end of next month). It happened to be a book I could acquire rather easily, and what a surprise! This selection of Châteaureynard’s short-short fiction is the first time this prolific writer has been translated to English. The tales are lovely and strange, mixing the realistic with the bizarre to both sad and comic results (which reminded me of one of my favorites, Steven Millhauser — more on him in a moment).
J.M. Coetzee: Youth (original review April 22, 2011) — Coetzee is another long-time favorite. I’ve been working my way through his work for a few years, enjoying everything a great deal — and I mean everything. This particular book, the second part in a loose autobiographical trilogy (both the trilogy structure and “autobiography” should be interpreted loosely), is one of the best. Here Coetzee writes in the first-person about his (or his character’s, rather) time in London working as a computer scientist at IBM. He’s young, alone, and melancholic, and he’s trying hard to develop a tragic, romantic spirit to become an artist, but he’s failing at things as foundational as passion because his cold, rational brain cannot, for example, understand why any woman he barely knows would give herself to him. He seems to belong to the world of IBM where there’s no possibility of a drunken brawl. As an autobiography, Youth contains blatant untruths and, therefore, probably some truth, but none of that really matters: it’s just a fine book.
Alan Heathcock: Volt (original review May 1, 2011) — It took only a few lines in the first story, “The Staying Freight,” before I was convinced Heathcock was something special, providing something new that still paid homage to the old masters as it shows us the lives of a few inhabitants of the fictional small town Krafton. The whole book is an excellent exploration of guilt and redemption that reminded me of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, the sense of space — apparent in the first few paragraphs as an unmanned tractor slowly pulls away from the protagonist in a large arc of dust — reminded me of Maile Meloy. Yes, it reminded me of other authors — the best of these other authors — but it still has a distinct life of its own, and I hope someday Krafton is known as well (or nearly as well) as Winesburg, Ohio.
Steven Millhauser: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (original review May 24, 2011) — Millhauser brings childhood back to haunt us, reminding us of just how much our innocent minds actually knew and how terrified we were, in this very strange fictional biography. The author is the very young Jeffrey Cartwright; the subject is his tragic, genius friend, Edwin Mullhouse. Millhauser often reminds me of the great Edgar Allan Poe, both in writing skill and in tone, particularly here when we see just how jealously Jeffrey guards Edwin from some young romances (which were admittedly ill-advised to begin with). This is possibly the most outrightly terrifying book on this list, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how seductive it is.
Jean Echenoz: Lightning (original review June 22, 2011) — If this list has a consistent theme it could be quasi-fictional biographies on eccentric personalities. Lichtenberg, Baker, Puttermesser, Coetzee, Mullhouse, all lives worth reading about, whether fiction, real, or somewhere in between. Adding to the list is another whimsical (though ultimately tragic and lonely (another theme here?)) fictionalized biography, this one of Nikola Tesla, the famed scientist that helped usher electricity into our lives and caused a famous fued with his one-time employer, Thomas Edison, who managed in the end to at least die in better circumstances than Tesla. Again, the author brings the reader into the story; it’s as if we’re sitting down with Echenoz as he offers us refreshment before continuing the tale, and we can’t wait to hear more.
László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance (original review July 11, 2011) — The most outwardly challenging book on this list is this 300+ page single paragraph (okay, there are some breaks, but not enough to really count). But, just like the others here, it pays back a great deal as we read about a dead whale brought to a small Hungarian town by a wandering circus. The opening pages about the increasing tension as people on a train platform wait for a late train, followed by the terror of arriving somewhere much later than anticipated, soon give way to coldly calculated chaos. Eventually the town is torn apart by anarchy. The story focuses on an evil woman (whom we watch twitch in her sleep for a time), her reclusive husband who is working on his ideas about the Werckmeister Harmonies, and the village idiot. What a strange — and magnificent — book. I’m very excited for more Krasznahorkai (New Directions will be publishing his Satantango early in 2012).
Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad (original review November 30, 2011) — A fantastic late-year surprise from NYRB Classics, The Adventures of Sindbad continues to show that, for whatever reason, this year my tastes ran to the bizarre, with a generous touch of modern style. This collection of stories about a paramour’s many many pursuits takes us back and forth in time, into dreams, into the grave, into a sprig of mistletoe. There’s a lingering air of melancholy over the whole thing (in the very first story a young boy with a hunchback drowns in a river), but that’s one of the reasons that, despite the obvious strangeness, it feels so real. Furthermore, this is a story about a wandering paramour, so melancholy is actually to be desired. It makes the lust more poignant, which in turn makes the affair more — but, out of preference, not wholly — satisfying.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Letter Killers Club (original review December 19, 2011) — After finishing The Adventures of Sindbad, I thought this “year’s best” list was done. I should have known better than to discount NYRB Classics, who’d just published yet another lovely book. Just as the year began, when I knew Denon’s No Tomorrow would be on this list after just a few pages, the year comes to a close with another NYRB Classic that, after just a few pages, I knew this list would have to accommodate. The Letter Killers Club, which takes us to secret meetings where men tell stories without writing them down (and not without a great deal of suspicion), may have been my favorite book of the year (though, looking at this list, it’s hard to make that a definitive statement). Krzhizhanovsky again touched on my apparent taste for the bizare portrayed realistically in an effort to depict the familiar even better.
Going over this list again, I can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store! To everyone: a happy holiday season!