Here’s the big one. Here’s last year’s list. I did manage a few more this time, but didn’t hit 50. I blame…school? Asterisk means a reread, as with the movie list.
2011 BY THE NUMBERS
New Reads: 45
Read on -
And here we go:
1 The City and the City; China Miéville - this is the first Miéville I’ve read, and it led indirectly to the Border Town project I worked on last summer. So it was hugely important for the tenor of my year, and for that I am eternally grateful. But as a book on its own merits, I found I enjoyed only the middle third of the book: after the setting was (laboriously) described, and before the plot got irritatingly ridiculous.
2 The Broom of the System; David Foster Wallace - DFW’s first book, which I read in spite of the fact that I’ve always enjoyed his nonfiction more than his fiction. Its images have stuck with me, nonetheless. Although, they are tied up with movie images - Office Space, for instance?
3 Bed; Tao Lin - a collection of hyper-self-aware little stories, written by a precocious hip kid a few years back. I’m not sure I was entirely taken in by this pose, but I’m glad I took a little (this plus #5) time to figure it out on my own.
4 Selected Poems - Carl Sandburg - I don’t read a lot of poetry, and this is one of those library loans that I must have seen mentioned somewhere online (Paris Review, I’m thinking). He’s great at evoking the early 20th Century USA, with some really shockingly great turns of phrase. I’m easily impressed by a good poem.
5 Richard Yates - Tao Lin - the kids today! This is the kind of book that many of its readers (young, creative but frustrated men with crushes on yet-younger women, I guess?) will see themselves in. Let me tell you the thing you need to know: yes, the protagonists are called Dakota Fanning and Haley Joel Osment. No, this book will not age well. Yes, I’m a cranky old lady.
6 Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food; Paul Greenberg - this is probably the most positive and cheery book I’ve ever read about the future of fishing. One of the most interesting ideas of the book: perhaps we should look at tuna the way we look at whales, given that they roam the sea in much the same way and are also large and long-lived. Really throws our mammal-centric views into the cold light of day.
7 How Should a Person Be; Sheila Heti - this is another tale of twentysomething creatives. I found it much less irritating than Richard Yates, as Heti’s writing style is far less mannered than Lin’s. Not really fair to look at it only in comparison to another book I happened to read recently, but there we are!
8 The Language of Fashion; Roland Barthes - it’s been a while since I’ve picked up any Barthes. This is a bit of a patchy collection, but I do always have a soft spot for new uses of langue and parole (in this case, style or fashion, and the individual clothes themselves).
9 Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits; Jason Wilson - so, this is a book aimed pretty precisely at People Like Me, who have forsaken the vodka/soda for the small-batch bourbon manhattan. I certainly found out some interesting facts about bitters, and left with a desire to try pisco, but felt like the whole exercise was preaching to the choir. But of course, that’s my own damn fault!
10 The Wrong Place; Brecht Evans - amazing comic, lots of interesting formal innovation, but a strong story with realistic characters at the spine. Wonderful watercolour art, too.
11 St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves; Karen Russell - I quite vividly remember the title short story of this book, where girls raised by wolves are integrated into regular human society (or not). Otherwise, a pall of sticky everglades mist settles over the book. Does the everglades have mist? Gee I hope so.
12 Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power and Lies; Ginger Strand - read this in anticipation of our Border Town group’s visit to Niagara in July. It looks at the Niagara story from the US perspective, from debunking myths about a native chief’s daughter going over the falls to the honeymoon destination to its current status as a ’natural’ wonder shored-up for the tourist trade.
13 City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles; Mike Davis and Robert Morrow - these days I’m endlessly interested in stories about cities, and LA has a huge number of stories to tell.
14 Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids; Kenzaburo Oe - totally brutal story of wartime Japan, in which a bunch of reformatory school kids are left after the villagers flee a plague of some kind, and make their own Lord of the Flies society.
15 Gastropolis: Food and New York City; Annie Hauk-Lawson & Jonathan Deutsch, editors - every modern multicultural city has a wealth of food stories, and these are a few of NYC’s. Quality varies, as usual with an edited collection like this, but there are some vivid stories in here.
16 The Metropolis Case; Matthew Gallaway - who was the first to write a novel like this, spanning many disparate time periods and places? only to have them all come together (miraculously!?) in the end? Feels like the biggest trope in fiction (not to exaggerate or anything).
17 The Venice Chronicles; Enrico Casarosa - an illustrated memoir! I haven’t been to Italy, so I feel like I was missing something in this account. But it’s lovely, and incorporates a cute love story to boot. So far, so adorable.
18 Gatty’s Tale; Kevin Crossley-Holland - another entry in a middle-ages YA series I’ve been slowly reading over the past few years. This one is a detailed look at an aristocratic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, told by a lucky servant girl.
19 * Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an introduction; JD Salinger - god, you know, sometimes you just need some Salinger? And this seems to be the one I usually go for, for whatever reason.
20 Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City; Sherry Simon - this was also a Border Town-related choice (linguistic/cultural borders, this time). Definitely an interesting look at the city, but felt a bit slight to me.
21 Samuel Johnson is Indignant; Lydia Davis - Joey got me excited about Lydia Davis’ translation work, and now I’ve got her version of Proust on the docket. This book is short stories (I read more of those this yea than I’d thought!) which were appealingly strange, and often incredibly SHORT.
22 * French Milk; Lucy Knisley - yes, more illustrated memoir. Knisley’s work is absolutely great, she always manages to find the points of broader importance in her own experiences, which is a skill I’d love to have. Read this!
23 How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less; Sarah Glidden - aaaand more graphic novel travelogues. This from the perspective of an american taking advantage of her ability to take a free Birthright tour of Israel, but with a healthy skepticism about Israeli policies and tactics.
24 Scott’s Food and Drink Miscellany; Ben Schott - One of the other things I worked on this year was editing a food book, and reading this book was a bit of research to that end. Neat stuff, but irritatingly free of references. Damn you, Schott!
25 On Booze; F Scott Fitzgerald - Fitzgerald is out of copyright now, leaving the doors open for collections like this little one, which has brought together a bunch of pieces from his books that relate to booze and boozing. An excellent book to bring travelling.
26 Borderlands: Riding the Edge of America; Derek Lundy - Lundy is a writer whose books on the sea I’ve read in the past, but this one’s entirely landlocked. He rides the Mexican and the Canadian borders, having interactions of various kinds. Those that are more directly border-related were interesting to me, but there’s also maybe a little too much motorcycle repair for my personal taste.
27 The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage; Kingsley Amis - this has to be one of the most satisfying books on english I’ve ever read. Amis is a curmudgeon, of course, but he does allow for the changes in the language. He elucidates how a mistake becomes an accepted part of the language so tartly. A book I’d like to have, as a reference.
28 A Little Dinner Before the Play; Agnes Jekyll - this is another in the Penguin Great Food series. This one is from the 1920s, and talks about the kinds of food that are far beyond or behind us now.
29 With Bold Knife and Fork; MFK Fisher - can’t get enough of my MFKF. The edition I read has the recipes she’s talking about in the margins of each page, so that they don’t distract too much from the general narrative of the book itself.
30 Quantum of Solace; Ian Fleming - this is a book of the Bond short stories, and it’s the first I’ve ever read, so I was taken by how emotional Bond is in this context. I’m inclined towards the more emotional or vulnerable movie Bonds, so this was a nice validation of my preferences. YES!
31 Portrait of a Marriage: Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson; Nigel Nicolson - A son writing about his famous parents’ unusual marriage. Creepy? Perhaps.
32 Design of Everyday Things; Donald A Norman - gosh, what a great book! Could do with an update regarding UI design in modern electronics, but the principles remain largely the same. Really, I’d just want to see how much Norman thinks we’d got things wrong, or right.
33 Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages; Kate Roiphe - This came from the same source as #31. Roiphe has her problems as a writer (she’s certainly espoused some ridiculous views) and while I was interested in her subjects in this book, her style ended up irritating me. I do hate when journalists after the fact put words in their subjects’ mouths. So very presumptuous!
34 Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine; Andrew Smith - I picked this one up on impulse at the library. It tends to concentrate on packaged and processed foods, with a few digressions into food magazines international cuisine in the US. He’s not the most engaging writer, each chapter feels a bit like an essay, especially in terms of format.
35 A Fairly Honourable Defeat; Iris Murdoch - I love me some Murdoch, but I found this one slightly less involving than the others of hers I’ve read over the last couple of years.
36 Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret Story of the Lust, Lies, Greed and Betrayals that Made the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Michael Gross - I had higher hopes for this one that it didn’t end up fulfilling. It’s basically a long series of donors and directors, directors and donors. It’s interesting to see how much (especially in the early days) the interests of a few people can affect the collection in a museum, though.
37 The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America; Erik Larson - I think my impulse to read this book comes from much the same place as my impulse to read the serial killer pages on Wikipedia. A sort of True Crime of the Past thing. This one flips between the activities of the builders of the Chicago World’s Fair and those of a serial killer operating during the fair. He was eventually caught in Toronto, woohoo!
38 The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood; James Gleick - one of the most eye-opening books I read in 2011. Gleik runs through the history of writing to computers, and the ways in which information transmits itself in biology. The kind of book that makes you want to read a million other books.
39 Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror; Jason Zinoman - gives a good historical account of the state of horror film in the 1960s, and the 70s films that changed that. There’s a chapter on my favourite 70s horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so I’m happy.
40 Short Stories: 1906-1908/1909-1922; LM Montgomery - I got a smartphone in November, so you may notice a certain number of free classics, read under cover of darkness or while sitting on busses or trains. LMM has a formula, and gosh darnit, she likes it! Everyone ends up happily married/able to go to school/following their dream in these tales, no matter how many deus ex machinae are required to get them there.
41 Late Bloomer; C. Tyler - lovely little comics collection, spanning several years of the author’s life. It’s always interesting to see how graphic artists’ styles evolve over time, and this one covers 20 years’ worth of work.
42 Wuthering Heights; Emily Bronte - oh good god. I HATED this book, spending a good amount of the time I was reading it raging silently against Bronte. I was later talked down somewhat by a knowledgeable friend, who insisted that it’s not Bronte’s fault that she finds such awkward workarounds for the omniscient narrator she obviously wanted, or that everyone in the book is so unremittingly terrible. Well. OK. But I still feel like this book doesn’t warrant the amount of background research that is required to make it enjoyable.
43 A Taste of the Sun; Elizabeth David - this is one of Penguin’s recent series of books about food. David is a particularly noted chef in the UK, known for introducing the British to Mediterranean food. This is just a little taste, I’ll have to look up one of her bigger books for more.
44 Rats & Gullies/Killing Velasquez; Philippe Girard - I’ll count these two graphic novels as one, as both are slight and I wouldn’t want to be accused of padding out my list! They’re both memoirs, one a travelogue of St Petersburg (which introduced the idea of citizen taxis to me, which seem both highly reasonable and slightly frightening to me) and one a more harrowing story of the author’s childhood involvement with a charismatic priest.
45 The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls - this book was a gift, so I didn’t know anything about it before picking it up. Upon getting a few chapters in, I had to check the back to see that it was a memoir, as the series of events depicted seems almost impossible to believe. This is one of those endless-hardship tales where things start bad, and get worse.
46 Nasa/Trek; Constance Penley - I feel like Penley was trying to make a bigger connection between the two halves of this book (the personalities of NASA and those of Trek fandom), to weave them together like the Kirk/Spock slash fiction she references in the title. But we never quite arrive there.
47 Train Dreams - Denis Johnson - a slight little novel of the wild west, told in a really appealing way, as if someone is actually telling a story; mentioning things briefly, then coming back to them to explain them fully later. Pretty great! Pretty weird!