I love reading lists, especially lists from smart people who are paying attention and have insightful things to say. Hence, these lists from Ravi Mangla, Lance Olsen, Dawn Raffel, Joseph Riippi, and Penina Roth. With all these choices of amazing things to check out and revisit, 2012 is looking very promising already. Check out our first and second installments of Best of 2011, HERE and HERE.
I’m woefully behind on my reading, to the point where the books on my nightstand threaten to smother me in my sleep. Any “best of” list I came up with would undoubtedly be riddled with glaring omissions, so instead I’ve decided to cite just a small handful of favorites (in literature, film, television, and music) from the past year:
Divorcer, by Gary Lutz:
At this point Lutz could write an unauthorized sequel to Twilight: Breaking Dawn and I would still read it at least fifteen times.
Weather Stations, by Ryan Call:
It’s a hugely ambitious, richly textured, and wildly imaginative debut collection. I enjoyed every page of it.
The Tree of Life:
Sometimes it feels like the film scene is overrun with slice-of-life fare. I admire that Malick, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky before him, isn’t afraid to wrestle with larger metaphysical themes.
There’s a lot to love about this film. It’s warm and whimsical and deeply sincere. I can’t wait to see what Mike Mills does next.
Louie, Season 2:
Louis C.K. might be the closest thing television has to an auteur. He’s reinventing the sitcom form and it’s a joy to behold.
Strange Mercy, by St. Vincent:
It’s hard to believe that someone with such a dreamlike voice and delicate appearance can do such disgusting things with a guitar. I don’t expect the album to leave my listening rotation for a while.
Ravi Mangla‘s collection of microfictions, Visiting Writers, was recently released as an ebook by Uncanny Valley Press.
I met for the first time this year both Theresa Hak Jyung Cha’s Dictee (1982), an extraordinary multi-voiced undoing of the usually underwhelming memoir form, and William Gass’s Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), his lush sentences always, always a joy to swim through, phrase to phase.
Among new semi-fictions I read and loved are Lidia Yuknavitch’s amazingly raw—yet often wonderfully, self-deprecatingly funny and wise—self-aware revitalization of the memoir, Chronology of Water, which, thank goodness for her, for it, for us, has become a cult hit, and Edouard Levé’s Suicide, published in France in 2008, but just translated and brought out in the U.S. in April by the inimitable Dalkey Archive. Again a troubling of the easy (and weak) sense of memoir, Suicide presents itself as a meditation on the suicide of a close friend, but shortly after the flesh-and-blood Levé turned the book into his publisher he took his own life, and so it becomes novel ghosted by personal meditation.
Most of my year, though, due to my teaching responsibilities, has been informed by rereadings, one of the great joys in the world and a chance to meet earlier versions of yourself triangulated through texts that are no longer quite themselves.
Among my delights are, in no particular order:
Crying of Lot 49. Thomas Pynchon. I revisited this one for the first time in, oh, fifteen years or so, and was struck again and again by what a perfect, goofy-as-hell, Rube-Goldbergian-structured, existentially/epistemologically menacing novella it is, why it remains one of my special favorites. Too, Oedipa Maas’s quest into the nature of the Tristero, an underground postal network committed to circulating small narratives from the dispossessed that stand in opposition to the dominant one(s), feels in many ways like it was written last Tuesday.
Nox. Anne Carson. An elegy for her older brother, whom she didn’t know well and who died unexpectedly while on the run from the law in Europe, Nox arrives in a box that simulates both a thick book and a textual version of the brother’s coffin. Open it, and inside you discover, not a codex, but an accordioned series of “pages” that unfolds into an arrangement suggesting an ancient scroll (Carson is professor of classics at the University of Michigan) made up of shards of her brother’s letters, old photographs, tickets, Carson’s observations, Catullus’s poem 101 (the one addressed to the Roman poet’s own dead brother, which in many ways doubles Carson’s situation), and extensive dictionary entries on all the words that comprise that poem. The aggregate produces a collage about the impossibilities of aggregates, of understanding fully, of fully translating word to word, word from deed, of capturing the absences that inhabit language. Although Carson is usually thought of as a poet, Nox is really novel as assemblage art.
Jealousy. Robbe-Grillet. A kind of innovative detective novel where the real gumshoe is the reader, Jealousy is a beautiful obsessed thing told from the point of view (although the first-person pronoun never appears) of an unhinged husband shot through with potential for violence. Scenes are repeated almost verbatim a number of times with only slight alterations from earlier iterations, with the intent of casting the truth-value of the whole “plot” (and with it our culture’s communal sense of “reality”) into question. The more one pays attention to Robbe-Grillet’s text, the more the definition of what constitutes “new and interesting information” alters, even as “progress” comes to signify, not the traditional forward plot thrust, but the reader’s experience of making a sort of meta-sense out of the uncertain structures before him or her.
Blood & Guts in High School. Kathy Acker. Acker populates her Limit Texts with impossible protagonists that challenge normative notions of character construction. Janey Smith in Blood and Guts, a deeply hybridized text, for instance, is simultaneously a ten-year-old girl sexually abused by her father, and, depending on page and paragraph, a literary critic dismantling Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter or Marxist theorist critiquing late-stage capitalism. Character construction, that is, becomes bracketed, revealed as a working metaphor for the dominant culture’s narratives about the construction of identity. Social and gender theory, poetic suggestive indirectness, mythic patterning, existential extremity, and fractured structures undo traditional ideas of continuous being in the world and on the page.
The Unnamable. Samuel Beckett. One of my profound literary love affairs. I always wonder what might happen to novelistic geometry if, instead of conceptualizing influence as a space of anxiety, we authors conceptualized it as a space of pleasure and possibility, and took our cues from Beckett’s astonishing Unnamable, that indeterminate, disembodied subject position (“character” is far too strong a word for he/she/it), uncertainly human, pulsing in and out of existence between gender and genderlessness, thereness and nowhere/nowhenness. Beckett’s Limit Text serves as a continuous reminder, in a Nietzschean/Derridean vein, that the pronoun (the heart of the heart of character) is, at the end of the day, a sort of hoax foisted upon us by the culture’s language. That character, self, and identity are quantum fields rather than Newtonian nuggets. The rules of grammar, Beckett’s novel suggests, echoing Wittgenstein, have been repeatedly misunderstood by philosophy and fiction as a metaphysics.
Lance Olsen teaches experimental narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah, serves as chair of the Board of Directors at FC2, and is author of more than 20 books of and about innovative fiction. His next, Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing, will be published by Raw Dog Screaming Press in March 2012.
The marathon reading of Frederic Tuten’s The Adventures of Mao on the Long March at the Jane Hotel, with Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg, Lydia Davis, Francine du Plessix Gray, David Salle, etc. because it celebrated quality, community, and endurance. Nice bar, too.Best bookstore
Unnameable Books, Brooklyn (again)—the place to find what you didn’t know you needed
Best literary Facebookers
Shya Scanlon—he makes you think
Roddy Doyle—he makes you laugh, and then he makes you think about why you laughed
Meg Pokrass—best kick in the pants, and that is meant as a compliment
Say Her Name, Francisco Goldman—genre-bending, mind-bending, heartbreaking
Best writers I hadn’t read before this year (in alphabetical order), quite possibly because I was under a rock
Lucas Church, Leopoldine Core, Scott Garson, Roxane Gay, Richard Peabody, Anna Joy Springer
Best book I screwed up and missed when it was published but finally read this year
Where the Money Went by Kevin CantyBest book I still haven’t read and probably won’t read next year either
Ben Franklin (with his pal, Philip Roth) at the Center for Fiction (see attached photo)
Best of what I read, saw, or heard in 2011
Novel with the most heart: Michael Kimball’s Us.
Novel I most wish I had written: Roy Kesey’s Pacazo.
Poetry book: Edward Mullany’s If I Falter At The Gallows
Short book (as in novella): Tie between Jean-Phillippe Toussaint’s The Truth About Marie and Denis Johnson’s Train Dream
Short book I hadn’t read yet but am glad now to have finally done so: Ben Marcus’s Notable American Women
Memoir: Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution
Otherwise non-fiction: Sebastian Junger’s War
Reading I’m saddest I missed due to a fever in excess of 103 degrees: Joan Didion at Paula Cooper Gallery
Reading I’m saddest I missed due to working late: Paul Auster and Don Delillo for Granta
Best play I read multiple times: Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno
Best play I saw: Hand to God by Robert Askins
Book for which I had a great deal of expectation and by which I was NOT let down: Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table
Television for which I had a great deal of expectation and by which I WAS let down: Mad Men Season 4
Literary reading: Tie between Scott McClanahan at the 510 Series in Baltimore (May) and Scott McClanahan at the Franklin Park Series in New York (November)
Film for which I had very little expectation and was happily delighted: Margin Call written/directed by J.C. Chandor
Concert: Tie between The Weakerthans’ performance of Reconstruction Site at the Bowery Ballroom, NYC and Ryan Adams at Carnegie Hall and Bill Callahan at Bowery Ballroom
New band featuring members of Sleater-Kinney: Wild Flag
New band NOT featuring members of Sleater-Kinney: Wild Flag
New writing music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
Reigning best holiday movie of all time: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Book I’m most looking forward to reading in 2012: Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine: How Creativity Works
Reading series (if seating were weighted heavily): Soda Series by John Dermot Woods and Greg Gerke
Reading series (if seating were not weighted at all): Franklin Park Series by Penina Roth
Joseph Riippi wrote Research: a novel for performance, which is currently in development for full production in Los Angeles and New York in 2012-13. His books include A Cloth House, The Orange Suitcase, and Do Something! Do Something! Do Something!………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………
Best of 2011 List:
I’ve already talked about most of my favorite 2011 books (
), so, except for a few random categories, I decided to focus on short fiction here. Overall, the qualities I value in fiction include a distinctive voice, strange perspectives, dark humor, musicality and playfulness in language, striking imagery, experimental structure and a touch of the supernatural.
Favorite debut novels: Swamplandia by Karen Russell, Open City by Teju Cole, Busy Monsters by William Giraldi and Follow Me Down by Kio Stark
Favorite reread novel: The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Favorite novel set in Crown Heights: A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott
Favorite fables: The “novel-in-fables” And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips
Favorite memoirs: Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth, Half a Life by Darin Strauss, Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia by Blake Butler and Automatic: Liner Notes from R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People by Matthue Roth (no relation)
Favorite poets: Robin Beth Schaer, Melissa Broder and Montana Ray
Best short stories I’ve read this year (in no particular order):
Danielle Evans: “Virgins,” “Snakes,” “Harvest” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are”
Scott McClanahan: Everything in Stories II and Stories V!
Emma Straub: Everything in Other People We Married
Jim Shepard: “Sans Farine,” “The Netherlands Lives with Water,” “John Ashcroft: More Important Things Than Me” and “Krakatu”
Seth Fried: “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre”
Greg Gerke: “The Iron”
Anthony Tognazzini: “Accident by Escalator”
Justin Taylor: “Tennessee” (reread)
Joshua Cohen: “Emission”
Eliza Snelling: “A Walk on Eastern Parkway”
Alexi Zentner: “Touch” (reread)
Tiphanie Yanique: “Kill the Rabbits”
Sarah Rose Etter: “Koala Tide,” “Tongue Party,” “Chicken Father,” “Cures” and “Husband Feeder”
Chiara Barzini: “First Husband,” “Linen Trunks,” “Traps” and “Practice Items”
Mary Otis: “What We Missed Was Everything”
Ben Greenman: “What He’s Poised to Do” (reread)
Gary Lutz: I’m really enjoying Stories in the Worst Way, now.
Stacey Richter: “The Doll Awakens”
Sam Lipsyte: “The Climber Room”
Mary Gaitskill: “The Other Place”
Said Sayrafiezadeh: “Paranoia”
Etgar Keret: “Suddenly, a Knock at the Door”
Community news blog: ilovefranklinave
Favorite literary bloggers: Dani Shapiro, Alexander Chee, Lev Grossman, Michael Kimball, Jami Attenberg, Aryn Kyle and Gabrielle Gantz
Most fun websites: Electric Literature, The L Magazine, HTMLGIANT
Lit world heroes: David Goodwillie and Jason Diamond
Lit world goddesses: Melissa Febos, Rebecca Keith, Jamie Reich, Mira Ptacin, Molly Rose Quinn, Shelly Oria, Blaise Allysen Kearsley and Julia Jackson
Coolest internationally acclaimed author: Stefan Merrill Block
Favorite journalist: Royal Young
Best reading series for emerging writers: Renegade Reading Series in Crown Heights, hosted by Caitlin Harper
Favorite bar owners: Matt Roff and Toly Dubinsky
Favorite bookstore: Unnameable Books
Most stylish authors: Emma Straub, Jami Attenberg, and Aryn Kyle
Favorite clothing: Novel-Ts
Multi-category favorite: Colson Whitehead
Penina Roth is the curator of the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Post, the Forward and other publications.