Tuesday, December 27, 2011

#bestreads2011 Blog Hop

Welcome to #bestreads2011! This blog hop invites anyone to play along by making their own lists of the books they've enjoyed most this year. Not what was written, not what was published, but what you specifically read that struck you the hardest. You can write them up however you like, and list as many as you like. Just post about them on your blog, and then share the URL of your post in the Linky below.

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.

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 Salesman
Of 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.


  1. This comment is a classic example of my ineptitude with all things technological.
    I have no idea what the linky thing is or does, therefore I will give you a few of my favourite reads of 2011 in the comments section.
    Stay tuned...

  2. The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J.P. Donleavy is a book I read once a year. While Balthazar and I are polar opposites in social class, we have a connection I find hard to put into words. Let's just say I shed a tear each time I read it.
    Dannigirrl5 now has my only copy.

  3. A person I thought cared about me recomended The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I've always had a love for stories of struggle set in Africa, but this one will stay with me for a long time. As well as encouraging me to be more thankful for what I have, it also helped me understand a little about the person who recomended it

  4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a book which needs no introduction. I'll just say that it leaves Kerouac's On The Road, umm, on the road.

  5. You'll Be Sorry When I'm Dead by Marieke Hardy is the first book I have read which was written by somebody I follow on twitter (@mariekehardy). It is a memoir written with the correct mixture of grace, venom, humour and love. I actually laughed and cried at the same sentence.
    Dannigrrl5 has my copy of that one too.

  6. That's all I have regarding books, but I can't sign off without giving a special mention to a few of my favourite bloggers:
    Some guy who calls his blog The Bathroom Monologues.
    Some girl who has more than one of my favourite books.
    And a lady named Tianyu who writes beautiful words over at oneblessingaday.blogspot.com

    Thanks for your time and sorry for taking up so much space in the comments section.

  7. You have to do a blog post, Judge, then click on "get your own Linky tools" at the bottom of Johns and enter the post URL.

  8. Judge/Josh, if you're more comfortable leaving them in the Comments than doing your own blog post, then I'm happy to share the Comments real estate with you. And I agree that Catch-22 is a total winner.

  9. I haven't read Death of a Salesmen either, but I may have to add that to my list for 2012 along with The Gates of Eden. Thanks for the recommendations!

  10. Josh - Thank you so much for sharing your books with me. I'm especially looking forward to the Hardy memoir. I'll get them back to you when you bring the family out to visit. :)

    And the same person bought me The Poisonwood Bible, but I haven't had the courage to read it yet. Maybe one of these days.

  11. in no particular order

    1. lamb --the gospel of biff, who is the best friend of jesus.

    2. buddah in the attic--a chorus of voices from their departure as mail brides in japan through the beginning of WWII. never told by one narrator, all of the stories blend into a book that will haunt me.

    3. 11/22/63 --king at his best in years

    4. catherine the great --it's time to put away the tall tale of the empress and the horse, and really come to know a woman of great intelligence and political savvy.

    5. the hunger game series--loved the first two, the last was not necessary. she could have easily expanded on the first two volumes, concluding all in that space. but, she didn't. so. well done, a remarkable world is created, and an author who has the guts to take characters who are vastly loved, and kill them off in order to create more layers and a better book.

  12. I read Lamb last year and loved it! Great, great book.

  13. Oh my gosh! Death of Salesman is one of my most favoirte plays ever! And it changes so much depending on the interpretation. In the Dustin Hoffman performance (which I saw on tape in English class) he seemed so angry- he spat bile with every line. In the Brian Dennehy performance(which I was lucky enough to see live) it was sad- they played on his madness more than anyhting and he seemed like a victim in the middle of all the chaos. One way or another it contians one of the best, sweetest, most heart-breakingly simple descriptions of a character I've ever encountered: "He's just a little boat looking for a harbor."

  14. I cannot believe there is a YA book in your list. It is as amazing as there being a fantasy book in Danni's list. ;)

    I've heard a lot about the Gates of Eden, but I am not sure I want to read it.

    But the Catherine the Great bio is actually on the TBR list.

  15. I am surprised there was one because you said you don't read YA!

  16. Great stuff John.

    Many say THE CRYING is the best (and most accessible) of Pynchon's work, and it is on my TBR. I have read GR and it is so freaking awesome it will make you cry. It also takes a year to read because it has prose that convolutes so much, and so damn prettily, that you get lost. I wonder if Pynchon was stoned when he wrote GR... but I loved it (btw, a group of us Harbinger*33 folks read it together 2 years ago, which made it easier to understand).

    Love Bone, love Jeff Smith... I have an almost 13-year old son and this was one of his best reads last year.

    I'll contemplate my best reads and join the merriment. Not sure where to begin, so many great books. Happy Christmas! peace...

  17. Linda, I've heard that this is Pynchon's most accessible, but most critics seem to think Gravity's Rainbow is his best. After what you wrote there, does it seem you agree? And if you do a list, please hop back and share it with our Linky!

    Sonia, while I'm not a YA reader, I'm not closeminded. I've given plenty of YA titles chances over the years, and even a few MG. Bone here is one friend's favorite book of all time, so I had to try it out. It was well worth the chance.

    Bev, Death of a Salesman is pretty earthshaking even in print. I look forward to seeing those productions. The Hoffman one is streaming on Netflix. I can buy any sort of anger in Willie, though might be more interested in other interpretations that were less easy to jump to.

    Quin, when I do finally check out 11/23/63, gosh do I hope to share your enthusiasm.

  18. Hello, found your blog through a mutual friend's and decided that this blog hop topic was a good idea for today's entry over at my blog. Thanks for the great idea!

    Anyway, my top book for 2011 was "Kushiel's Avatar" by Jacqueline Carey. I'm a fantasy junkie, and that series hits the spot more than ASoIaF could any day.

  19. I am disappointed at the moment as it appears that Gates of Eden is not available in eBook. (I have a strange aversion to books that aren't available electronically. I may have to make an exception for this one, though.)

    Also, I've never been one for reading plays much (other than the Ransom of Red Chief, that was awesome!) but your praise of Death of a Salesman has me convinced to give it a go.

  20. @Bev if you are here maybe check the link to your blog, it wasn't working for me this morning...

  21. It looks like Bev left off a few digits on the URL, but she made a post here:


  22. In no particular order
    1. The Great Gatsby .. read it again this year.. seems more relevant than ever. I can't believe the clarity of expression.. It's like sheer glass on top of a still lake.. beautiful.
    2. Catcher in the Rye.. Why am I fixating on the great American novel.. well I'm Glaswegian.. and I have a greater affinity with American writing than the class-bound trappings of The English novel (having said that Rye is pretty class bound itself..and again it is about a highly disfunctional society.. hey there's a theme developing..I was surprised how much I still enjoyed it after all these years. Again, the attention to voice, register and precision of language is sublime.. This one still shocks and still makes me cry.
    3. The collected stories of Janice Galloway.. Scottish writer who spills over you like a severed artery.. The writing is shocking, experimental and beautiful.. Thoroughly recommended..

    Two more to follow as soon as I get this damned party out of the way

  23. Good list of books, John. I think I may have to put those on my to read list.

  24. Okay.. last two..
    Now I know I said I didn't like the class bound English novel (after singing the praises of Gatsby and Rye..Duh!), well I'm going to release the hypocrite in me once again and nominate
    4. Florence and Giles by John Harding.. I don't know if this is a legit nomination as I haven't quite finished it yet, but I have been bowled over by the elegance and mastery of the English language with which Mr Harding wields his mighty pen. The story is loosely based on The Turn of the Screw..but told from the kids point of view and it is very creepy indeed..The voice of Florence is simply magnificent and the realisation of setting and character is breathtaking. A master class in storytelling.
    5. For my fifth choice, I pick Beginnings by Raymond Carver. This is a fascinating book, which illustrates the power of the editor and just what good and bad editing can do to a story. Carver's scissor-weilding editor cut some of his most famous stories by up to 70%, and at times, it seems like a hatchet job. Carver's pre-cut prose is surprisingly descriptive... often defying his trademark terse style. It's great to read the original and then the edited, and then try and work out what the hell his editor was up to..A must-read for every writer..(or editor?)

    So there you go, 3 re-reads and 2 new reads..


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