My reading schedule was terrible in 2011. I spent nine months writing my own novel almost every day, often for between 6-10 hours, and so my literary desires were meek. It's something I've got to work on. Yet as soon as I finished up the rough draft, I began pounding books, and by December I'd read some amazing works of fiction. It took some effort to trim it down to just four books, though these have stuck with me the most this year. I'm giving each book a paragraph, but you can click below them for my full reviews over at Goodreads.
Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49
My first exposure to Pynchon, and before finishing I was already looking up prices and library availability on Gravity’s Rainbow. This reads like the work of a cosmopolitan Garrison Keillor, able to tug on any loose string of culture rather than those that dangle into Wisconsin. Presenting anarchism and Freudianism as failed religions, treating the Postal Service as a sinister agency, or simply the idea of Strip Botticelli were all hilarious and fascinating. Pynchon seemed able to write unique sentences, paragraphs, chapters, characters and ideas without ever requiring pause. I’m eager to see what else Pynchon came up with given he remarks this book was the one “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until” he wrote it.
Full Review of The Crying of Lot 49.
Full Review of The Crying of Lot 49.
Ethan Coen's The Gates of Eden
This wound up as a Christmas present for the two Coen fans in my life. It’s an obscene and obscenely funny collection of short stories, evidencing that the Coens’ talent for voice doesn’t only come from great actors. Ethan Coen delivered story after story that thrived on earthy narration, be it a twice-baked parody of Mafiosos, or a racist detective, or a Jewish boy utterly uncomprehending of the cultures he’s being raised into. Coen seemed to get off by embarrassing his characters, particularly the proud, in ways you wouldn’t imagine fitting into their respective worlds. But for those already under the heel, the humor turns against those who are empowered, or evaporates into worries about how we humans function at all. The collection is in search of equilibrium, humiliation hammering down and humility elevating us a little. The circumstances are raw for everyone, but the way the players emerge, with quirks and concerns and shortcomings, validates the entire exercise.
Jeff Smith's Bone
It’s not that I don’t like any YA works – it’s that what is marketed as YA is clearly not for me. And despite being called “a grump,” “an old man” and “a YA Nazi,” this MG comic book was as involving a read as I had all year. It takes a special book to keep you up to midnight when you have no electricity, it’s ten degrees and you’re going on candlelight. Part was Smith’s masterful art style, blending Charles Schultz, Walt Disney, classic illustrations and more esoteric art styles into the same panels without making a single character appear out of place. But part of it was the irreverent humor, always willing to snap at the heels of the drama, and characters that mingled cuteness and motivation in infinitely consumable concoctions. Smith knew how to make things goofy, but also dire (one character loses an arm and is left to die in the wilderness), and surreal (the Moby Dick allusions go mental by the end). Unlike all the MG or YA prose I’ve consumed, I continuously wanted more of everything Smith was selling, be it cow races or the hierarchies of shadow assassins. Certainly that he created a world where those sorts of things coexist helped, and I wondered if I wasn’t getting into the spirits of this the way others got into Harry Potter. The Complete Bone is a doorstop, but upon completion I would have happily forked over cash for another bludgeon-sized volume.
Arthur Miller's Death of a SalesmanOf everything, this is the item I’m most ashamed of having put off for thirty years. What a play. It’s quotable and tragic, but so is most of theatre. It’s the way Miller damningly captured certain human behaviors, including a few of my own less desirable traits. Consider how Willie will be working out a divisive issue, and then his wife or another character will pipe up with a separate topic, and he’ll explode out of proportion, because the conflict of both topics suddenly swallows him with the interruption. I’ve done this far too many times in the last year, and to read exactly how it functions stings. The meta-theatrical elements are inspiring even without seeing them acted, though since reading I’ve begun seeking out productions to watch.
Full Review of Death of a Salesman.