This year I tried to limit my list to ten books, but I couldn’t decide which two of the following books should go: here are my top twelve books of the year. I had no trouble deciding which two were my favorites. They are listed at the bottom.

It was a great reading year for me. Each of the books below impressed me so much that I have already either started reading or started acquiring the author’s back catalog (or marked that their front catalog should not be missed).

César Aira: The Literary Conference — “The Literary Conference borders on . . . no, delves into the ridiculous — in the best way possible.” Last year I put Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter as one of my top reads, and I could as easily have put his Ghosts. Neither of these books was particularly funny, so I was surprised when I declared The Literary Conference to be “the funniest book I’ve read all year.” With more titles due in 2011 (will he make my top-reads list three years in a row?), there is much Aira to look forward to — thankfully! Next up? The Seamstress in the Wind, coming in spring of 2011.

Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad — “I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy. I assure you that Egan pulls it off. The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals.” I’m still not sure why this novel composed of interconnected short stories — each in its own unique style — didn’t show up as a finalist for the National Book Award. Surely it will show up in the awards early next year. After this, I went back to read Egan’s lesser The Keep. It was okay but didn’t do it for me. Nevertheless, next up is Look at Me.

Michael Frayn: Headlong — “We have as fast-paced a narrative as one can hope to find.  Frayn’s writing is smooth, and very very funny. Throw in some genuinely intriguing art history (as opposed to that falsely intriguing stuff making bestsellers), and it’s already a winner for me. But now, throw in Frayn’s skill at tying the human drama to the art drama.” I still find myself pulled into Brugel’s paintings. I had already attended several of Frayn’s plays, but this was my first attempt at one of his novels. I have gone back to read Spies, and I look forward to reading The Trick of It. I might even read his memoir, My Father’s Fortune: A Life, which is coming out in February.

Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room — “I loved this book. I was completely entranced. I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.” Since it is out of context, I should probably explain: this is the first book I ever read successfully on an e-reader, and I hardly noticed the different medium so much did Galgut’s prose and story pull me in. My pick for the Booker Prize, even though I loved the eventual winner too (which didn’t find its way onto this list, but easily could have). Going to Galgut’s back catalog, I recently enjoyed The Good Doctor and can’t wait for The Imposter.

Alexander MacLeod: Light Lifting — “Perhaps I shouldn’t have started my Giller shortlist reading with this book. It might not get any better.” That turned out to be the case, and this book eventually went on to be the Shadow Giller’s choice (though I was quite taken by the Giller Prize winner). This book of short stories is a debut collection that encourages readers that MacLeod is the rightful heir to his father’s exceptional talent. Since MacLeod has no other book out, I cannot read his back catalog, though I would have if he had one, and I’m certainly in line for whatever he publishes next.

Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne — “At just over 200 pages, I expected to breeze through it, but it demanded that I slow down — in a good way. The language and the cadence of the story, at first delicate and then raucous, made it impossible to read quickly. The best thing about this book is not the cover.” That last sentence is saying quite a bit, since this is one of my favorite covers of the year. This is such a creepy book, I couldn’t resist acquiring several of Moore’s back catalog. I’m not sure what I’ll read next, but it will probably be either The Temptation of Eileen Hughes or Lies of Silence.

Harry Mulisch: The Assault — “This is a fantastic book about chance and fate, about guilt and innocence, all against the backdrop of the twentieth century as the big issues range from World War II to Budapest to nuclear weapon talks in the 1980s. For all its scope, it remains intimate, just like that opening section when we looked on the four homes lined up in a row.” I know a lot of people feel that the market for World War II books is oversaturated, but this one is not to miss. I have what many consider Mulisch’s masterpiece, The Discovery of Heaven. It is quite long, though, so I’m not exactly sure when I’ll get to it.

Cynthia Ozick: The Cannibal Galaxy — “Though this is a relatively short book, it is incredibly dense with both plot and idea. The writing is top-notch.” Ozick had a new book — Foreign Bodies — out this year, and it, too, is exceptional. Still, I found that I connected more with this, a book about an aging pedagogue and his obsession with the mind of the mother of one of his students. Ozick is critically acclaimed, but her books are difficult to acquire since a few are shamefully out of print. I have her The Messiah of Stockholm on my need-to-read-soon list. Then again, I have all of her books (save her first novel) on my need-to-read-soon list.

Larry Watson: Montana 1948 — “[L]ike So Long, See You Tomorrow, Montana 1948 is a special book, a classic piece of American literature not because it is widely read (though it should be) but because it simply is in its depiction of a facet of American life and counterlife.” This was one of my favorite “quiet” books this year, and I hope that it eventually rises from relative obscurity. I actually haven’t done much looking at Watson’s back catalog, but I’m interested in Justice, which examines the Hayden family (the subject of this book) in the late nineteenth-century. I haven’t heard anything about it; then again, I hadn’t heard anything about this book either.

Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome — “Ethan Frome skirts a Romantic ending and punches the reader in the gut.” Another of my favorite “quiet” books (how does a quiet book punch one in the gut?), this one looking at rural Massachusetts a little more than a century ago. It is the perfect little book for a dark winter night. After reading this novella I turned to Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and it was hard to know which of these two I liked more. Next up is Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, which I’ve heard so much about and which recently made KFC’s best of the year list (also, K2D2 has written about it on his blog, and I know he’s a major fan).

Now for my two top books of the year. They are not only my favorites of the year but also two favorites of my lifetime. They are exceptional from any angle. Unfortunately, one of the authors is dead and wrote only a few novels. Fortunately, the other is very young. That she was not on The New Yorker‘s 20 Under 40 shows a major blindspot for that list.

Maile Meloy: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It — “I was so pleased with this collection I immediately marked Meloy as one of my favorite authors.” This book of short stories is the best short story collection I’ve read in a long time. Meloy’s controlled prose is simply in another league. I’m sure it heightened my interest that many of these stories are set in Montana, just north of where I grew up. (In fact, if you haven’t noticed, it seems that rural (even western) writing has won me over this year.) This is Meloy’s second collection of short stories; her first, Half in Love, is just as good. I have her two novels, Liars and Saints and A Family Daughter, in line. In fall 2011 her first young adult novel, The Apothecary, will come out. It sounds strange: a cold war novel featuring kids and magic. She hope adults will be able to read it too. I trust her. Count me in.

John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing — “As an American reader, deeply interested in what literature has to say about this land, its promise, its spirituality, and its emptiness, Butcher’s Crossing hit me with the same force as (if not more than) Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick, The Age of InnocenceThe Great GatsbyMartin Dressler, American Pastoral, and Gilead. Yes, I expected Butcher’s Crossing to be great, I expected it to be well written — people told me so — but I was shocked at how much it contained, at how well it balanced jubilance and heartbreak, innocence and depravity, all while reinventing the western to expose the fault lines the American Dream is founded upon.” After reading Butcher’s Crossing, I read Williams’ National Book Award winner Augustus and the recently much revered Stoner.  I loved each of them as well (Augustus is a worthy award winner, and Stoner deserves every ounce of praise it has gotten — more, in fact; each of the three books deserves more), but, to me, Butcher’s Crossing is Williams’ masterpiece. Williams only wrote four novels. He didn’t much care for his first, Nothing But the Night; however, where can I turn next? Plus, I learned earlier this year that, while the author may be right that a certain book is not a masterpiece, it doesn’t meant it is not worth reading.

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