WITH NO DISRESPECT to anyone, I’d like to point out how much harder my job here was than any of my fellow Post contributors. What does it take to listen to an album? Like, an hour? Even the Kanye album doesn’t break the ninety minute mark. And movies? Three hours, tops. And did you know if you go to an art exhibit, you get to hang out with other people, and there’s free wine?
Books, however, are long and solitary. Feel free to check the page counts on a couple of these: we’re talking big fish here. Weeks-long commitments, in some cases. And you can’t just put a book on in the background and make dinner. Books demand your full attention and will settle for nothing less.
Also, it is very difficult to dance to a book. Although if it was possible, How to Wreck a Nice Beach might be that book.
Point being, I think I’m justified coming in a few days late on this one. Books take a long damn time to read. More importantly, this is more a list of the top ten books that happened to be from this past year that I coincidentally happened to read this year. I’d love to say I had time to read Tom McCarthy’s C, Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels, or the new translations of Madame Bovary or Doctor Zhivago. I sincerely wish I’d been able to dig into Jay-Z’s Decoded or Ann Carson’s Nox, both beautiful arguments for why and how the book will persist as a physical objet, or had the patience to wade into the Mark Twain autobiography. I really meant to get around to The Secret Historian by Justin Spring and Just Kids by Patti Smith, but time just didn’t allow. So here is a list of ten excellent books from this year, all of which I swear I at least mostly read.
Citrus County by John Brandon. A hot little Virginia creeper set in rural Florida, Brandon’s second novel follows the romantic relationship two teens: one a recent transplant to the nowhere town in the Sunshine State, the other a budding sociopath who kidnaps her younger sister. More melancholic than suspenseful, the book captures the stasis of a small poor town and the poignancy of clutching young love with dark humor. Brandon’s book has the concision of a short story and the character depth of a novel, creating a cramped and sweaty atmosphere that combines Blood Simple and Dawson’s Creek.
The Passage by Justin Cronin. I know I lose all credibility throwing a vampire novel in here, but this was a pretty awesome vampire novel. As an adolescent Stephen King fan, I truly believed The Stand was the greatest book ever written. But when I returned to it as an adult, I was appalled at how poorly written the book was. Cronin’s The Passage isn’t exactly vampires by Proust (and falls into the Magic Black Person Trap that so often ensnares King’s stories), but it gave adult-me the same charge King once provided for teenage-me. Well-plotted, well-written post-apocalypse stuff for grown ups.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. It’s not as good as everyone says, nor is it as bad as everyone says. Despite my overwhelming dislike for Franzen as a person, I devoured this book over a weekend. Franzen seems to have imagined a novel for which postmodernism never happened, presenting a complex family drama that yearns to be on the shelf with Tolstoy and Thackeray rather than Pynchon or DeLillo. With characters not as hateful or “quaintly Midwestern” as The Corrections, Freedom makes for a compelling bit of the psychological realism Franzen has so fervidly advocated. Is it the Great American Novel? No. Is it the Great American Novel of Affluent but Miserable White People? Possibly.
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu. If Mengestu’s first novel, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, was a finely crafted character study, his second is an even more delicately done study of a non-character. Jonas Woldemariam conjures up fragile and fictionalized histories for the refugees he works with, his parents and ultimately himself. Amid these spun-sugar constructs, the smallest gestures between Jonas and his wife take on unimaginable weight and a moment of near-violence becomes world-shattering. With a narrator as difficult to pin down as Dosteovsky’s Underground Man, Mengestu’s novel is stunning.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet by David Mitchell. After the narrative pyrotechnics of Cloud Atlas, the last thing I expected from Mitchell was a straightforward piece of historical fiction. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet is nothing short of hypnotic, mixing its exotic historical setting of Hiroshima just opened to foreigners with a plot involving eternal life and the intricacies of trade policy, all with an intensely poetic prose style, rhythmic and lilting. It’s the kind of book that compels the reader towards the finish, only to drive them back to the beginning to read through again.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddharta Mukerjee. It’s pretty natural to be skeptical when someone says “You’re going to love this book about cancer.” But Mukerjee’s comprehensive biography of cancer is riveting, one of those rare science books that is also a page turner. Charting various historical paths of treatment and prevention, Mukerjee gives makes a thriller out of the great medical war of the 20th century.
Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. A comics journalist, Sacco’s earlier works, primarily Safe Area: Gorzade and Palestine, functioned as survey courses in the humanitarian crises they portrayed. But both avoided becoming dry textbooks by remaining grounded in the peculiar voice and image of Sacco himself, who spent extensive periods in Gaza and in the small Balkan town whose existence hung in the balance during the Dayton peace talks. Sacco’s cartoonish version of himself, all nose and ears, often crowded the frame. In Footnotes, Sacco examines a fifty year-old massacre many Palestinians cite as the true seed of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In doing so, he manages to turn down the volume on his own voice and listen more deeply than ever to his interlocutors. The result is an intensely humane and surprisingly balanced mediation on the nature of history, memory and conflict.
How to Wreck a Nice Beach by David Tompkins. A dizzying history of the vocoder, from its beginnings as a WWII encoding device to its incorporation in disco and hiphop. David Tompkin’s prose warps and twists, echoing off its own walls to reproduce the very effects it describes. Bouncing and veering wildly from Bell Labs in the forties to the green room at an Africa Bombaata show (and swerving off topic to include Peter Frampton’s talk box, explicitly not a vocoder), the book manages to be a history of a device and of a musical form, a beautiful cyborg of a tech book and a music book.
The Legacy by Kirsten Tranter. Tranter’s debut novel recasts Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady against the backdrop of September 11th. Which is a great way to pitch it as a movie, although might not sell you on the novel. But the concept is such a minor part of this rich and lushly written study of the relationships between three characters whose crossed desires drive the novel long before the suspense plot surrounding Ingrid’s disappearance kicks in. An examination of unrequited love (pretty much no one in The Legacy gets loved back), the New York City art world and the ability to slip into a moment and potentially disappear.
Hotel I by Karen Tei Yamashita. A collection of ten novellas, all set in San Francisco, each one launching from a particular year in the late sixties and seventies, Yamashita’s Hotel I is a fantastically complex portrait of a city in flux, delving into the lives of the Asian Americans who populate it. Big idea novels like this (each novella is accompanied by a fold-up die, each side marked with its central characters and themes) work best when they’re grounded in strong character development and Yamashita’s mastery of narrative voice and dialogue makes the more airy concepts palatable.
Honorable Mentions: I liked Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question even though I hated all the characters. I liked China Mieville’s The City & The City even though it didn’t have any characters. Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge was great, although a little slight compared to, say, When the Levees Broke or Treme and James Sturm’s Market Day was beautiful, although not as good as some of his previous stuff. The first 400 pages of Adam Levin’s debut, The Instructions were fantastic, if a little too derivative of David Foster Wallace, but not compelling enough to make me read 800 more. Thomas Rachmann’s The Imperfectionists is a better short story collection than it is a novel, and Doug Dorst’s Surf Guru is a better short story collection than that. Luka & The Fire of Life, Salman Rushdie’s pseudo-sequel to Haroun & The Sea of Stories was off to such a good start, I decided to wait until I could read it to my local kid, but that might be a year or two off. If you ask him (or probably any eight year old), the new Diary of a Wimpy Kid is the greatest book every written. And it has a purple cover, which is an obvious plus.