Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books I Read in 2011

I fell shamefully behind on reading when I went to college, first overburdened by an engineering course load then spending so much time writing stories for journalism assignments or delving deeper and deeper into film to tend to my literary interests. This year I vowed to get back into the groove and challenged myself to read 40 books before New Year's. Just last week, I succeeded. For the most part, I read a lot of great books over the year, so I thought I'd share some brief thoughts for them after the jump.

1. The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy — Bill Carter

Less dramatically intense and straightforward than The Late Shift—in part because of the more diverse late-night field that now exists and because so much of the central conflict occurred on television and in constantly updated Internet stories—New York Times television writer Bill Carter’s investigative look at the latest fiasco at NBC is nevertheless well-researched and narratively assured. Perhaps a bit too unwilling to lay blame at anyone’s feet, Carter points out the surprising ties that bind Conan and Leno, from their mutual sense of company loyalty and work ethic to their worship of the Tonight Show franchise and overriding desire to be a part of its legacy.

Carter presents the issue of the Tonight Show as the product of so many compounded mistakes that no one, not even Jay Leno and Jeff Zucker, can be held responsible for the resultant train wreck. But even setting aside my own Team Coco bias, it seems as if that tangled web was primarily woven by NBC executives and Leno, but the depth of Carter’s reporting ensures one cannot stay mad at anyone for a series of decisions made in the attempt to please everyone. But those in entertainment should know you’ll never be able to make everyone happy, and as much of a White Person Problem as this whole saga is, I continue to marvel at how gripping the story can be.

2. Absalom! Absalom! — William Faulkner

William Faulkner’s writing is hilarious, poignant, allegorical, immediate and, quite often, borderline infuriating. It took me three goes with this novel before I finally understood the truth: stop trying to figure it out. Yes, Absalom! Absalom! is allegorical and symbolic, but it works by letting its endlessly overlapping and conflicting histories add up to an emotional, even semi-spiritual, portrait of the post-Reconstruction South. The “truth” of Quentin Compson’s assembled chronology of the Sutpen clan is irrelevant: what matters is just what the contradictions say about them, and of Compson, and of the entire Southern sensibility. Most importantly, though, it speaks to the desperation of the soul, that terrible need in all of us to know ourselves, to know and make our place.

Faulkner’s structure is breathtaking: you cannot even call it ouroboric because that would imply a circular movement. This is less the sight of the snake eating its own tail than the excreted remains of self-consumed serpent. Nearly everything one needs to know is located in the first chapter, but different perspectives encroach, all of them adding, at least, characters’ subjective interpretations and, at most, their freewheeling speculation. There’s Rosa Coldfield’s ingrained hatred casting nightmarish shadows over Thomas Sutpen, Mr. Compson speaking more analytically but also reverently, Sutpen’s own words passed through several generations of lips or, most hilariously, Shreve’s conjecture, an outgrowth of his intense fascination with the corkscrewing story as well as his fed-up attempts to get to the damn point (rarely has a character served as a better stand-in for the audience). And at the center of it all is Quentin, so discombobulated by the Sutpen legacy and what it means to him that he’d eventually throw himself off a bridge, though in true Faulkner fashion, he’d technically already done that.

There are few things more gratifying than wrestling with an accepted masterpiece until you find that when you stop trying to appreciate it, it’s a damn sight easier to love it. It’s till a challenge, but I couldn’t put it down, finally enthralled by Faulkner’s most towering work, even if I still prefer Light in August.

3. Blood Meridian — Cormac McCarthy

Review here.

4. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain

Huck Finn is a serio-comic masterpiece, one of a handful of books in any language to truly contain a laugh a page, but also that rare comedy that can step outside itself in horrifying moments of clarity that do not derail the comedy even as they deepen the text. I remember disliking the final chapters when I read this my freshman year of high school, utterly failing to see Twain’s intention: by reintroducing Tom Sawyer, he completely changes our view on that erstwhile protagonist by divorcing us critically from antics that now seem less precocious than sociopathic and deranged. Furthermore, Tom contrasts the absurdity of romanticism with the meaningful drama of Huck’s realism.

I re-read this over the latest censorship fuss to plague the novel, and as ever I remain in the camp arguing it should never be altered. Twain knew exactly what he was doing using that word, and it makes his satire all the more lastingly piercing.

5. Silence — Shusaku Endo

With Martin Scorsese finally on-track to adapt this long-gestating project, I decided to give the source material a go. I discovered two things: 1) It's obvious why Scorsese would want to film it, what with its themes of religious doubt and suffering lining up neatly with his own preoccupations and 2) As good as the book is, there is room for improvement. Endo's writing segues awkwardly from an epistolary collection of writings from his protagonist, Rodrigues, to limited third-person, a shift that would work better in film where perspective can more smoothly change. By the same token, Endo's direct but resonant prose contains an undeniable power.

The best art dealing with faith is made by those grappling with belief. Endo's priest hero heads to Japan unable to comprehend the rampant apostasy of the recently converted and even a few European priests, despite the reports of horrid, unimaginable torture placed upon them. Once he arrives, however, the unforgiving attitude of the ruling daimyo toward Christians, and even the harsh terrain, confront the zealous missionary with the first resistance to religion he's ever experienced, and all he can notice after a time is the deafening silence of God in response to atrocity. But Endo, who presents Japan as a nation inhospitable to the vision of a Christian God, intriguingly reveals his own unique (and culturally Japanese) take on God/Jesus as a being that sufferers with his followers instead of simply looking down from above. A fascinating, moving book that will certainly rank as one of my favorite artistic endeavors to wrestle with faith

6. The Awakening — Kate Chopin

Read for my American literature class. Before it was assigned, I’d never even heard of the book, or Chopin, despite her groundbreaking influence on my favorite Southern writers. Though her writing only flirts with the stream-of-consciousness Gothic qualities that Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner would later perfect, you can still see the germinating seed here. Still, the novel itself is a bit dry, restrained by its Victorian sentiment of freeing a woman solely by having her act like the selfish, lustful image of man and not by truly probing femininity and gender rebellion. I enjoyed it more as a tongue-in-cheek version of a horror story (Egads! A woman declaring independence!) than as an examination of what it means to be a woman, but that may have been Chopin’s intent all along.

7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — James Joyce

Having read only the tiniest excerpts of Joyce in high school, I figured it was high time to dive into that most celebrated (and feared) of 20th century writers. Despite the lengthy annotations (nothing compared to his two biggest works, which contain hundreds of pages of notes), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man alerted me quickly to the rhythm of Joyce’s prose, a bouncy livelihood which more than compensated for his dense lingual experimentation. Given the novel’s focus on a young man who finds himself through his talent and rejects what he considers the banalities of the world, I’m surprised this doesn’t get mentioned alongside The Catcher in the Rye more often, but Joyce goes far deeper than Salinger ever dared, not only conveying Stephen’s growth through the narrative but the text itself. The book starts with a children’s tale using children’s words, and it ends with a well-articulating, radical artistic manifesto (an expression of one’s thoughts made more literal in the epistolary last chapter). Some might accuse Stephen of arrogance, but Joyce is simply refusing to apologize for presenting a truth: an artist, a true artistic genius, must step outside normalcy to better create. Political and religious imagery runs through the book, but Stephen rejects both to pursue creation.

There’s simply too much here to spotlight, but I would like to register just a snippet of Joyce’s gift for wordplay: Stephen Dedalus, a combination of the first Christian martyr and the mythological architect of the labyrinth in Crete, a dichotomy Joyce circles around throughout. Stephen’s father’s name is Simon, and when Stephen has a rush of spiritual shame that leads to a brief dalliance with Catholic living he briefly considers using money to atone for his sin, thus making him guilty of simony. And I cannot quite put into words why I am so affected by one of the last passages in the book, written in the terse bullet-form of a journal entry but full of meaning, as it addresses the genuine humility underneath some "know-it-alls": “Mother indulgent. Said I have a queer mind and read too much. Not true. Have read little and understood less.” I find this passage as beautiful as the novel’s most flowery runs, and there are many. A masterpiece.

8. Notes from Underground — Fyodor Dostoevsky

A terrifying outpouring of bile that at every turn reveals the unutterable sadness beneath the unnamed narrator's screeds. So short it barely constitutes a novella, Notes from Underground nevertheless troubles me more than nearly any other work of art. But its cathartic honesty only makes it more necessary; writing it probably kept Dostoevsky from killing someone.

9. Pride and Prejudice — Jane Austen

Few things in life are more delightful than sitting back and watching Jane Austen work her magic with the English language.

10. Jurassic Park — Michael Crichton

God, this might be even more awkwardly anti-human than the special-effects bonanza movie.

11. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 — Paul Tingen

Tingen makes some weird diversions into talk of Zen Buddhism, and he is occasionally too eager to use all of the notes he collected (every journalist knows you never use all your research) but otherwise his meticulous cataloguing and interviewing adds invaluable insight into the neglected and even mocked late-career of an American icon. I love Electric Miles, and some of the revelations here only made me appreciate Miles' daring sonic explorations even more.

12. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

HATED this in high school, couldn't put it down this time. I still don't quite cotton to its almost emo romance, of two insular people basically retreating from the rest of the world to live their Gothic life, but the mash-up of social romance with Gothic horror is not only entertaining but often riotous. Brontë gets in a number of fantastic jabs.

13. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 — Hunter S. Thompson

One of my all-time favorites, densely involved in the minutiae of political wheeling and dealing to the point that it can be hard to follow, yet so ingeniously scribbled by Thompson that it is compulsively page-turning. I reread it all the time, and you can be damn sure I'll be breaking it out in this upcoming election season, which promises to be an outright farce .

14. The Dirt — Motlëy Crüe

I've never hated the members of a band so thoroughly, nor have I ever been so unable to put down a book. The confessions here are demented and disgusting, but the occasional moment of clarity of the addict makes for harrowing self-evaluations. Vince Neil's self-loathing over his fatality-inducing drunken driving is particularly brutal in its honesty. A trashy read, but a revealing one.

15. Ulysses — James Joyce

Life-altering. My collection of posts for each chapter can be accessed here.

16. Leviathan — Scott Westerfeld

Intriguing take on steampunk that also explores a what-if? history re: Darwinian theory and genetic engineering. Shame it's a YA novel, as the story constantly moves away from its fascinating world to focus on clichéd storytelling elements further restricted by the age of the intended audience.

17. The Sirens of Titan — Kurt Vonnegut

One of Vonnegut's best. Surreal and silly, but often so piercing it hurts. Up there with Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle for me.

18. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell

Half of this book is a masterpiece. The magic realist chapters with the daughter make prose poetry out of banal, even ugly, tracts of land. Sadly, the stuff with the brother rates as dimestore anti-capitalist satire, and a garish plot-twist that launches the final act is a predictable and cheap ploy for shock. It's a shame; Swamplandia! started out as one of the most lyrical, intoxicating reads of recent years, only to end up an all too typical disappointment.

19. The Great Terror: A Reassessment — Robert Conquest

Review here.

20. Hitch 22 — Christopher Hitchens

Even his damn memoir is combative. I still can't really write about Hitch yet. Maybe I'll try if and when I get through that massive final collection of essays.

21. The Lost World — Michael Crichton

If Spielberg's poorly aged Jurassic Park is nevertheless an improvement over Crichton's original, it's hard to say who came out worse with their respective sequels. Spielberg's Lost World is a soulless, pedestrian waste of time and perhaps the director's worst film. Crichton's book may be even worse, a lethargic trudge through a pointless plot that exists only to posit how the dinosaurs went extinct. Because we were all on pins and needles to hear what Crichton thought about that.

22. What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years — Ricky Riccardi

Riccardi can be a bit too defensive of Armstrong and defend some questionable career decisions, but his book is as vital as Tingen's on Miles' late career. He makes a compelling case for the artistry, even the barrier breaking of Satchmo's mainstream success, and it sent me scrambling to save up the cash for the new 10-CD collection of Armstrong's post-Hot Fives & Sevens career. It's sad how many supposed music lovers seem to think that Armstrong's legacy stops after those short years near the start of his professional life.

23. The Age of Innocence — Edith Wharton

Succeeds at capturing the rule-ordered social world of the setting that the pain of forbidden love never quite breaks through. I actually prefer Scorsese's film of the work.

24. Dubliners — James Joyce

A suffocating portrait of Dublin, but one that also finds meaning and occasionally even beauty in the characters trapped by Ireland's necrotic past. "The Dead" is, of course, a masterpiece, but I'm still captivated by most of the stories, which can be so cynical, yet so human. It's an inexplicably attained balance, and it's no wonder Jennifer Egan recently failed so badly at writing a postmodern Dubliners for America (more on that later).

25. Franny and Zooey — J.D. Salinger

I never took to Salinger in high school, but I should give him another try now that I'm no longer around people who are, like, TOTALLY inspired by Holden Caulfield. This bifurcated novella was a refreshing reentry into the late author's work, a slightly precious but intensely moving account of genius children in serious danger of falling into incurable waste as young adults. Its short length gives the work a brevity that gets to the heart of the story quickly without sacrificing style.

26. The Brothers Karamazov — Fyodor Dostoevsky

One of the most psychologically rich novels ever written. Whole pages of neurotic word soup pass without so much as a single paragraph break, but I never once got tired of Dostoevky's epic. Overwhelming in the best sense, Karamazov covers so much ground that only a book like Ulysses, which chased profundity by running in the opposite direction, to minute observation over cosmic melodrama, could find something else to say about the human condition in its wake. The "Grand Inquisitor" chapter is one of the most incisive, brutal things I've ever read.

27. The Help — Kathryn Stockett

An insipid bit of revisionist nonsense that allows a white woman to kind-of, sort-of, not-at-all address her own upbringing by a black maid. But Stockett is so invested in learning that she was actually loved by her own help that she won't let anything in the book that even hints at the possibility that a black woman forced to neglect her own children might only not love a white baby but could utterly resent it. Stockett even talked to former maids who expressed this view while conducting research, but funnily enough that didn't make it in the novel. And why should it? Her deceptive structure only gives the impression of telling black women's stories.

28. Light in August — William Faulkner

I had to wash The Help out of my mouth with a book by a white person that actually gets racism right. Faulkner's novel is a harrowing reckoning of the South's racial past, its shuddered waves of shame and self-repulsion more suffocating even than his works on the South's broader issues with self-identity and lack thereof. My favorite Faulkner.

29. Culture and Anarchy — Matthew Arnold

Keeps all the good bits from Plato and leaves out that whole "censor and punish the artists" chestnut. I still think there's a limiting view to Arnold's philosophy, but this a nice stepping stone to more engaging (to me) philosophers like Levinas.

30. Twilight of the Idols — Friedrich Nietzsche

I love Nietzsche. He's so easy to misconstrue that I'm afraid to even say what I think he believes on any topic, but he is so witty and combative that his philosophy is fantastically readable. As something of a self-summary of intent, Twilight of the Idols is accessible even by his standards, and I loved his thoughts on religion.

31. Lolita — Vladimir Nabokov

As I recall, Lolita was the one Stanley Kubrick film I didn't like, and I was reluctant to delve even into its lauded source material for fear of its potential romanticization of a repellent affair. Happily, Nabokov's playful prose subtly undermines its rhapsodic narrator, carefully making clear that Humbert's self-justification is just that, and that his perceived romance with a girl wise beyond her years is actually a psychologically scarring event that tears down that old-young pairing that runs through literary history. I toed the water with this at first, but I emerged as ready to sing its praises as the host of more qualified literary critics.

32. Elective Affinities — Goethe

Too odd for me to even go into. Not entirely sure what the book is saying beyond the idea of human chemistry being as irreversible and natural as elemental chemistry, but then maybe that's the whole point. I was intrigued throughout, but I don't necessarily know that I enjoyed it.

33. Hitchcock’s Films Revisited — Robin Wood

This critical assessment, split between Wood's original edition and a revised evaluation not only of other Hitchcock films but his own previous writing, is indispensable. Wood's knowledge of various critical theories and his ability to fluidly connect them to practical, demonstrable examples not only deepens our understanding of one of the great directors but also makes complex academic theories more palatable and cogent to a layman like me. This book makes me want to be a better critic, and I think that reading it while taking a class on critical theory helped me understand some of the writers I was reading in that class so much better.

34. A Visit from the Goon Squad — Jennifer Egan

I should have a full review up for this on another site sometime in January, but for now I'll just say that Egan's sub-Joycean stylistic exercises left me underwhelmed, and her characters were so crudely drawn that I could not believe anyone could see any humanity in this work. As social critique, it is laughably clueless, and as literary experimentation, it is infuriatingly safe.

35. Images: My Life in Film — Ingmar Bergman

A surprisingly bouncy read that offered enjoyable insights from the director into his own work, and not always positive self-assessments. Naturally, the autocritique lacks the more layered study a detached critic could bring, but Bergman is sufficiently candid that Images is never just a parade of compliments and self-justification.

36. James Joyce — Richard Ellmann

Review here.

37. Catch-22 — Joseph Heller

I'm going to make a habit of reading this every few years. I first read it in high school and found it funny. Now, I couldn't make it past a page without laughing, even as the more traumatized segments of sheer horror affected me more profoundly. Christopher Hitchens once advised readers to "stay on good terms with your inner Yossarian," and I have a better idea as to why after rereading this all-too-sane farce on the sheer madness of war and the bureaucracy that carefully orders that madness into official insanity.

38. Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings — ed. Adriaan T. Peperzak, Simon Critchley, Robert Bernasconi

I had a hell of a hard time understanding Levinas at first, even compared to my normal difficulty with philosophy. Yet once he clicked, I found I delighted in his thoughts more than just about any other thinker, his beliefs on our innate ethical responsibility to others the most affirming philosophy I've ever heard. There are still huge gaps even in this introductory collection of essays I found impenetrable, but I was not only stimulated by what I understood but utterly moved.

39. Mirroring People — Marco Iacoboni

My critical theory professor gave us this final read as, I suspect, his idea of a reward for getting through various philosophical essays over the semester. Whatever the reason, this fleet, intelligent but layman-targeted explanation of mirror neurons was a great read, and one that offered empirical biological data to support Levinas' assertions of ethics. The notion that we are neurologically predisposed to engage in mimetic and empathetic behavior is exciting, not merely for its revelations of human communication but its implications for treatment of disorders like autism.

40. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Stieg Larsson

I touched on my feelings on this book with my review of David Fincher's adaptation of it (which not merely surpasses the Swedish version but improves on this source material). Larsson broaches so many interesting ideas but constantly pulls back to rant about the state of investigative journalism, even using an extraneous act after the mystery climax to settle Mikael's scores. Furthermore, Lisbeth Salander, so tragically seen as some kind of feminist action heroine, is so blatantly the fetishized projection of this male author that I couldn't help but feel embarrassed at times. Still engagingly page-turning enough to keep me going, but I was amazed that someone managed to make a near-great film out of this, given what a near-abysmal novel it is.


  1. Lolita is an amazing book. I've read all three of the Leviathan books, but you are right. The story and the details of this imagined world seemed wasted on silly YA conventions.

  2. The Awakening is a curious little novel, a bit dry, as you say. I like it. I like its imagery, and I like how the final eleven paragraphs recapitulate the imagery pervading the novel. It's a memorable book because of that. This would be a suitable novel for Malick, another imagist, to make.

    Also, Blood Meridian is one of the best novels I've read in the past 20 years. Also, very memorable writing. I'll never forget the quicksilver.

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