A few days ago, I reached out to writers and other artists across the country to provide me with a list of some of their favorite books, music, films, events, moments, or whatever from 2011, which needn’t necessarily have happened or been made in 2011. So I’m happy to publish this first installment, featuring lists from Gabriel Blackwell, Samuel R. Delany, Giancarlo DiTrapano, Andrew Ervin, Eugene Lim, Brad Listi, Kyle Minor, J. A. Tyler, and Curtis White.
On Thursday, I came home with fifty rather beautiful student chapbooks. In an effort to post grades early and get on with this novel I haven’t had the focus to write during the semester, I have been reading ~300 pages of student work a day since (at that rate, I ought to be done by the end of the week, but we’ll see how long I can keep it up). Naturally or not, this process has put me in mind of reading jags, those brief and not-so-brief fashions I’ve put on and discarded this year.
And so, the five “best” reading jags of 2011, in chronological order:
1. Stanley Elkin: Which actually began in the waning days of 2010, when I started The Magic Kingdom (I finished it on the plane back to Portland, firmly in 2011), but which for some reason I did not follow up on in the new year until several months later, with Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers and Boswell. I was greedy for more, but also a little afraid that my enthusiasm for Elkinizing was beginning to show just a bit too much. Is there anything worse than a parody of a parody? After this Mardi Gras of prose, a self-imposed Lent — I’ve only just begun George Mills, but, confidentially: I don’t think it will last through Christmas. Perhaps I am inaugurating a new New Year’s ritual — I suspect The Dick Gibson Show and The Franchiser are wrapped and under the tree, and if I’m right, The Franchiserwill be next up.
2. W. G. Sebald: As with Borges (the last few stories of whose Collected Fictions may always remain unread), I had put off reading all of W. G. Sebald to forestall that moment when I could no longer read something of his for the first time. It may seem silly, but I can be silly. This year, I decided I had put it off long enough. Vertigo quickly followed Campo Santo, which quickly followed On the Natural History of Destruction. So that was that. I can look forward to rereading, I suppose, starting with Austerlitz and The Rings of Saturn. My favorite I think is still my first Sebald, The Emigrants, but Vertigo and the title essay in Campo Santo were rather extraordinary.
3. Bruce Chatwin: There was an odd confluence of Chatwin recommendations in the early months of this year, but I can be foolishly stubborn. Chatwin — I must have thought — pah! Don’t waste my time. But then Chatwin was mentioned in Campo Santo (“Sebald, too? Oh well”); I think that is what finally decided me. The Songlines, oh, The Songlines. I went back to Powell’s the day after I bought The Songlines and bought In Patagonia and What Am I Doing Here. It took me a couple of weeks to get to Utz, The Viceroy of Ouidah, On the Black Hill, and the various ephemera (I got married; there were other, higher priorities), and at some point in there, I read Peter Handke’s The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (see #4). But I cannot recommend The Songlines enough. And In Patagonia. And all of the rest (and don’t skip What Am I Doing Here).
4. Peter Handke: The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick really was the highlight for me, but Repetition was also quite good. I was impressed by Slow Homecoming, but then Absence killed the streak. Not that it was bad, but it no longer seemed so important that I read more Handke. Perhaps I am missing out. Am I missing out?
5. Alexander Theroux: Years ago, Josh Billings recommended I read Theroux. He recommended that I read Three Wogs, but, again, I am stubborn, and so I said, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll read it,” but didn’t (which reminds me that I really should read Andrei Bitov, after all, and everything else Josh has recommended). I found a very cheap copy of The Primary Colors and kept it on my shelf for a couple of years. Then, while making my way through Handke, I had to move my books from one bookcase to another, and I rediscovered it. If Absence hadn’t been enough to stifle the Handke run on its own, the great love I developed for Primary Colors would have provided the necessary impulse. I immediately bought and read The Secondary Colors, which I think was even better. I pined for the next volume (the fabled Black, which has apparently been finished for some time, as has its sequel, White— viz. this 2008 Bookslut interview). Deprived, I wasn’t sure where to turn next. I did eventually pick up Three Wogs (honestly, mostly for its appendix, Theroux Metaphrastes, entirely worth the price of admission) but I think I prefer Theroux’s essays (or else the other reading I have been doing this year has made me prefer them); not that I was disappointed in Three Wogs, but that I want to read Black and White so much, nothing else will do. (600 pages! Each! About black and white! From A. Theroux! Agents, publishers, for the love of literature, I beseech you, bring them out.)
Samuel R. Delany
I thoroughly enjoyed the film Hugo a few weeks ago. As well, the reading list for my graduate seminar “The Structure of Complex Novels” proved to be wonderfully salutary and satisfying to both me and my class. This term we read three major novels, interspersed with three relatively short books that threw an interesting light on our primary texts. Our first was Balzac’s Lost Illusions, but before we took on that, we read Roland Barthes’ S/Z (his study of Balzac’s novella “Sarazine”) to give us a preliminary taste of Balzac at his most characteristic as well as a few notions of how fiction might be analyzed in some way other than as a set of character studies. Then we plunged into his great tapestry of the hypocrisies of life in Paris and the province of Angouleme at the turn of the 18th Century. Next, in preparation for reading Flaubert’s novel of the revolution of 1848, Sentimental Education, we read Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte–his eye-witness account of Louis Phillipe’s coup d’etat of December 1851, just after the revolution in France, and how the one grew out of the other. Then we plunged into Flaubert’s rich picture of the failure of the young men of his generation to make anything of the opportunities that the revolution itself had afforded them. Finally, we read Virginia Woolf’s The Partigers, the novel-essay she wrote in preparation for The Years; then we read The Years itself, one of her richest novels (and certainly her most ambitious), which dramatizes changes in sensibility between 1880 and 1937, over three generations of an upper middle-class Victorian/Edwardian family. Well over half the class was really knocked out by the Woolf, especially in the light of what had preceded it. For each, we discussed the narrator’s strategies for depicting social changes (in Woolf, the heroine’s first glimpse of an airplane, of her first hot shower, of another woman’s putting on lipstick for the first time, a bombing in the midst of dinner during the Great War. . .), landscape, and character.
I hope that gives you a taste of what I’ve been doing–and what I’ve been enjoying about it.
I’m still waiting for my own novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, to materialize into an actual object. . . any week, now; any week . . .
Samuel R. Delany is the critically-acclaimed author of over forty books, which includes novels, literary criticism, and memoirs.
Best Album: The Year of Hibernation by Youth Lagoon (Fat Possum)
Best New (to me) Artists: Riff Raff and Dent May
Best Party: Vice with Rick Ross and DFA 1979
Best Movie: Mumblecore (MDMA Films)
Best Book released in 2011: Divorcer, by Gary Lutz
Best book I read in 2011: Dog Soldiers, by Robert Stone
Best Internet Writing: ‘Andrew’: A Dialogue of Texts in the Year of Drugs and Kindness
Best Breakout Writer: Michael Bible
Best New Thing in General: Spotify
Giancarlo DiTrapano edits New York Tyrant and Tyrant Books.
There’s something melancholy about looking back at a year’s worth of reading. I didn’t read enough books this year. I never read enough books. American letters lost a tremendous voice this year, and I lost a friend, when Jeanne M. Leiby of The Southern Review was killed in a car accident on the Atchafalaya Basin. I haven’t completely come to grips with the fact that I won’t see her again, but I’m hopeful that some of the stories she was working on will make it into print one day.
The idea of ordering a list and crowning a champion—Best Book of 2011!—is a bit distasteful to me, but I’d love to mention a few things that challenged and affected my thinking over the past twelve months. Peter Nádas’s epic Parallel Stories got lost amid the Murakamimania, and it’s in many ways an even more remarkable accomplishment. And for all the fetishization of big, doorstop books, I read very little about The Iovis Trilogy by Anne Waldman, which was this nation’s publishing event of the year. I also adored We Others by Steven Millhauser and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavich is one of those books that should be handed out at the DMV; my immediate surroundings would be livelier and more thoughtful if more people read it.
Jennifer Tamayo’s radical, debut poetry collection/scrap book/memoir [Red Missed Aches] opened up the possibilities of how meaning can occur on the page. (My interview with her will be on Hobart’s website next month.) I was delighted by the tremendous response to Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow—it’s not often that a book that’s so smart also gets the critical and popular attention it deserves. And I personally can’t put much faith in any year-end list that doesn’t include Kate Christensen’s The Astral. It’s a quirky and delightful novel that feels more real than real life. Whatever that is. It’s one I wholeheartedly recommend. Also, the afterimage of Denis Johnson’s novella Train Dreams is still seared into my retinas.
I also read some great short stories by my Temple University undergrads, several of who are currently applying to MFA programs. Stow the names Harmon, Thomas, Bates, and Rastetter in the back of your mind. Two readings I attended have inspired me a great deal: I got to hear the legendary Joseph McElroy read a short story from his collection Night Soul (and had him sign my first edition of Women and Men, albeit with my name misspelled) and more recently heard Brian Evenson read the title story of his forthcoming collection Windeye, which is on my immediate to-read list along with a novel called Blueprints of the Afterlife by Ryan Boudinot.
David Asma’s study On Monsters gave me a lot to think about for the novel I’m working on, as did John McFee’s classic The Pine Barrens, which I’ve just read for the first time. And my intellectual life, such as it is, has benefited enormously from incessant listening to P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake and—shameless plug—my partner Elivi Varga’s Silver Tunes: Music for Flute and Organ (Sterling Records), which she recorded in Sweden over the summer and is available in Europe; it’ll be stateside early next year. I’m closing out 2011 by filling one of the most egregious and embarrassing holes in my reading life: I’ve only now started reading Virginia Woolf for the first time. What a joy.
As soon as I submit this text to Big Other I’ll think of a dozen more things I should have included. I’m so looking forward to the books that 2012 will bring.
Andrew Ervin is the author of Extraordinary Renditions.
In no particular but starting it off: Giancarlo’s glamour-soaked narcissus tale as lit journal advertisement… Hans Rickheit’s SQUIRREL MACHINE is a great gross-out dream… The beautiful ephemera of Luca’s DAS DING #3… Saying goodbye and anticipating saying goodbye to Merce… The tumult of a chinese lifetime told in incredible locked down, long take that is Wang Bing’s FENGMING… the state of the disunion address of Teju Cole’s OPEN CITY… catching up with Lewis Warsh’s A FREE MAN (1991) and its inverse mirror A PLACE IN THE SUN (2010). They’re what social realism could admirably be — if those words meant something different… Monica Youn’s love song of J. Alfred IGNATZ (“and the fading//echo of the detox/mantras://helpless helpless/helpless helpless“)… Speaking of which, 1st volume of Beckett’s letters, which include the quip “T. Eliot is toilet spelt backwards” and untaken advice from his brother in the form of the question “Why can’t you write the way people want?” …and, a year late, but RIP Barry Hannah you lunatic god.
& last but definitely not least: Hat’s off to the erstwhile and ever OWS People’s Library, which rallied the troops and served as symbol in a way yer kindle download will never.
Here’s my (very short) shortlist:
Best Novel: Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner. A lean, whip-smart novel about a drug-addled Fulbright scholar in Madrid. It addresses in brilliant fashion the relationship between art and reality, and in so doing turns the postmodern novel on its head.
Brad Listi is the founding editor of the online literary magazine The Nervous Breakdown and the host of Other People, a twice weekly podcast featuring in-depth, inappropriate interviews with today’s leading authors.
Best New Books of 2011
Unclassifiable fiction/drama/memoir/essay/poetry hybrids
Essays & Reporting
Best New-to-Me Books of 2011
Most Criminally Under-Read Books of 2011
Best Writers of 2011 Who Don’t Yet Have Books (in no particular order)
10. Sharisse Smith (West Point, NY)
Best Literary Reading in the Voice of a Polar Bear, 2011
Best Literary Reading in the Reader’s Own Voice, 2011
Best Literary Phone Conversation-Offerers, 2011
Best Literary Editors, 2011 (in no particular order)
Best American Literary People to Give A Million Dollars to Make an Independent Film in 2012 If You Are So Inclined
Best Subjects that Fascinated Me But No One Else Seems to Care Much, 2011
Best Literary Internet Stuff of 2011
Best Philip Roth Books I Read in 2011
Best Books Stacked by My Bedside, 2011
Best Morality Plays in Reruns on Cable, 2011
Best Books Written by People Who Used to Be My Teachers, pre-2011
Best Authors of Yet-Unpublished Screenplays I Read in 2011
Best List of Top Five MFA Programs Even Though These Lists Are Patently Absurd, 2011 (Non-Abramson Methodology)
Best Out-of-Print Adolescent Pulp Novels I Re-Read in 2011
Best Drink of 2011
Total Number of Opportunities to Drink Alcohol for an Hour or Two in the Evening in 2011, Owing to Blistering Work Schedule
Total Days Spent Writing, 2011
Total Days in Which at Least Some Time was Wasted on the Internet, 2011
Total Days Drenched in Want, 2011
Total Hours Spent Compiling Best-of Lists for Big Other, 2011
J. A. Tyler
Here are my most-eager-for-titles of 2012:
Qurratulain by James Chapman, Fugue State Press.
I love Chapman’s books. All of them. I’ve read every book-word he has published, many more than once. This book will, I guarantee, excellent.
Fjords, by Zachary Schomburg (Black Ocean):
Scary, No Scary is a book that I cannot stop reading. Literally. And I loan it out to everyone. And then, when it doesn’t come back again, I buy a new copy. So it goes with good lit, and his next will be brilliant I’m sure.
Daniel Fights a Hurricane, by Shane Jones (Penguin):
Light Boxes is one of my favorite books of all time for a variety of reasons. And if I know anything about Shane Jones’s writing, his 2012 title will be impossibly good.
Meat Heart, by Melissa Broder (Publishing Genius Press):
When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother was clever and witty and daring and good, but I’m really looking forward to Meat Heart (especially given the sneak-peek review copy I’ve already read some of and loved loved loved).
Monogamy Songs, by Gregory Sherl (Future Tense Books):
Heavy Petting was awesome (YesYes Books) and I’ve been working with Sherl’s on his forthcoming MLP title The Oregon Trail is the Oregon, so I know where he is headed, and I know what kind of books Kevin Sampsell makes, so this one is a must have before it is even released.
J. A. Tyler is the author of Inconceivable Wilson, A Man of Glass & All the Ways We Have Failed, A Shiny, Unused Heart, and Girl With Oars & Man Dying.
Here’s the most amazing book I’ve read in a long time: David Loy’s Lack and Transcendence: Demonstrates how Buddhist logic/metaphysics completes the logic of Western metaphysics with special attention to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Derrida.
Curtis White has spent most of his career writing experimental fiction, but he has turned recently to writing books of social criticism.
John Madera's fiction may be found in Conjunctions, Opium Magazine, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His criticism may be found in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, John Madera lives in New York City, where he runs Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.