Best of 2011, Part 2

Lots of great things happened in 2011 for Gary Amdahl, Donald Breckenridge, Tobias Carroll, Aaron Gilbreath, Johannes Göransson, Dylan Hicks, Christopher Higgs, Tim Horvath, Jamie Iredell, and David Peak.

Find Part One, here.

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Gary Amdahl

It’s been a miserable year…fallen out of touch with nearly everybody and everything. But some good beat its way relentlessly towards me:

The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, founded and directed by John Eliot Gardiner (Sir John if anybody’s checking… “Oh good Sir John, thou art mincing me to death!” “Mistress Quickly, I shall tickle thee! and pretend to chase thee round this stage, this globe, this so on and so forth.”) produced the final volumes of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage” that they undertook in 2000…nearly all of the 200 cantatas, more or less on the dates appropriate to the Lutheran Calendar, in Bach-related and architecturally interesting venues. I am a convert to the cantatas, and agree with Good Sir John (and Albert Schweitzer and a few others) that they are the heart and soul of Bach’s music. A lot of them incorporate Lutheran hymns that I grew up hearing and loathing, but which I–no surprise–now find unbearably moving. I associate them not with church attendance but things like a claymation TV series called “Davey and Goliath,” boy-and-his-dog stories sponsored by the Lutheran Church of America that I watched “religiously.” In other words…my childhood, the second of which I am afraid I am moving into.

Jordi Savall, founder and director of Hesperion XXI (ancient music and odd instruments), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations (slightly less ancient music) produced a book-and-CD of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” (always look on the bright side of life–sorry, that’s eight) that included commentary by José Saramago. I think it was the last thing he wrote. “Cain,” “The Elephant’s Journey,” and “Small Memories” were also published.  Maybe not his greatest books, but good notes to go out on….

The Indisputably Great Moment came technically in the fall of 2010, and I am waaaay prejudiced, but still, my wife’s book about Jessica Mitford’s “American years” is a GREAT BOOK: Irrepressible, by Leslie Brody, now in paperback from Counterpoint!
And oh yeah: Dalkey Archive brought out a translation of a great novel published fifteen years ago in Portugal, The Splendor of Portugal, by Antonio Lobo Antunes, and City Lights published the long-awaited Paper Conspiracies, by Susan Daitch.

Gary Amdahl is the author of Visigoth and I Am Death, and is currently working on A Devil’s Dictionary for the 21st Century, channeling Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce, for Kelly’s Cove Press in San Francisco.

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Donald Breckenridge

Here is a 2011 list of 4 discoveries:
Discovering that the tune behind the Fall’s, “Ladybird (Green Grass),” from their ’93 release The Infotainment Scan was copped off of that LSD drenched Sunday Funnies tune “A Pindaric Ode from ’67. This happened the other day, after listening to “A Pindaric Ode more than a dozen times, while scratching my head and wondering why it sounded so strangely familiar.
Discovering that using lime on the lawn will turn your grass thick and dark green. Young grass really loves lime! I finally got my grass to grow.
Reading Ahmer Hamdi Tanpinar’s A Mind at Peace, which was translated from the Turkish by Erdag Goknar and published by Archipelago in ’08. Exquisite.
Reading Pascal Quignard’s The Roving Shadows, which was translated from the French by Chris Turner and published by Seagull Books this fall. Equally exquisite.
Donald Breckenridge is the fiction editor of the Brooklyn Rail, co-editor of the InTranslation website and his third novel, This Young Girl Passing, was just published by Autonomedia.
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Tobias Carroll

So: here are five live musical moments that impressed me most in 2011.

LCD Soundsystem / Terminal 5, New York, NY
Because it was one of their farewell shows, the night was incredibly bittersweet. From the ad hoc choir that appeared on “Dance Yrself Clean” to the crowd-wide singalong on “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down” that ended the night, there was the sense that there was a temporary community in the room — something even more ephemeral than the usual sense that arises while watching live music. Not to mention the obvious: three hours of smart pop songs, played perfectly.
John Luther Adams, “Inuksuit” / Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY
John Luther Adams’s “Inuksuit,” performed by nearly a hundred percussionists inside the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, made for one of the most monumental listening experiences of my year.
Blake Butler, live reading from There Is No Year / WORD, Brooklyn, NY
In the basement of Greenpoint’s WORD, Butler read from the conclusion of the second part of his novel There Is No Year: a slow list of the dead, delivered with the intensity of the best punk rock, rhythmic, harrowing — a cavern that all in attendance seemed drawn into.
St. Vincent, set of Big Black covers / Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY
As part of a concert commemorating the tenth anniversary of Michael Azzerad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, a number of artists played shorts sets of covers of artists profiled in the book. I’d expected St. Vincent’s set to deconstruct Big Black’s terse, misanthropic transmissions; instead, the group led by Annie Clark channeled the fury of those songs into a rage and fury of their own.
Swans / Paramount Theater, Asbury Park, NJ
Much like when I saw Dirty Three a couple of years ago, there’s something intensely pleasurable about watching a group of close-knit musicians pulling off wrenching, challenging music and making it look almost effortless. Presiding over all of this was Michael Gira, alternately majestic and self-brutalizing.

Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York; links to his writing can be found at www.thescowl.org/fiction, and he regularly contributes to www.vol1brooklyn.com.

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Aaron Gilbreath

Best to me isn’t one thing but always a tie for first place. (But not like in those politically correct, misguided elementary school softball games where both teams win and everyone gets robbed and feels flat like in Huxley’s Brave New World.) Best to me is a pile, a mess of bests, because I love too much stuff to be able to choose. Add to this the fact that volume means some current favorites arrived on a delay, bubbling up through the 2011 after years of circulation. That makes this less a “Best of 2011” list and more a “Best of the Last Few Months of My Life” list. February, 2011 feels so long ago it might as well have been 2006, and some of this stuff came out in 2006.

I. Music:

People without large iPods mystify me. Really, you can fit all the music you like on that tiny stick of gum? I try not to judge, but I do wonder how they get by. I like everything from Hard Bop jazz to electric juke joint Blues to surf instrumentals, but I especially love stuff that cooks my brain like a microwave with no door on it: feral, chugging, sloppy, sleazy, fuzzy, loud guitar-driven rock and roll. I don’t know what that this says about my heart’s wiring or mental metabolism, but I do know we’re living in a golden age for that kind of music. Some current jams:

1) Night Beat’s self-titled album is a powerhouse: dark, raw, spacy, and stony, with lots of bottom-end set beneath lots of fuzz and high pitch guitar squealing, like an apocalypse of lightning bolts and mudflows. I haven’t smoked weed in over a decade, but listening to this, I don’t need to. The songs “Ain’t Dumbo” and “Hallucinojenny” will blow up your brain. The record’s currently sold out http://troubleinmindrecs.com/bands/nightbeats.html but you can get the tunes at iTunes, and this song runs on rocket fuel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cGNuA17i4I&feature=share This one, too:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x_gKi8J-3Cw&feature=related

Their split 10” with UFO Club is pretty good, too: http://thedecibeltolls.com/the-ufo-clubnight-beats-split-10/

2) Thee Oh Sees need no introduction. Their new LP, Carrion Crawler/The Dream, is all killer, no filler. They’re insane live, and this album captures that energy pretty well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FBLQ7TSrHpU&feature=relmfu

3) Mikal Cronin’s debut solo album

Over the last year, Cronin has emerged from being just another California kid in a surfy band to being one who writes some of the catchiest, most melodic songs coming of the San Francisco fuzz-pop underground. Cronin plays bass and sings in the band Moonhearts. He and guitar shredder Ty Segall released their scorching Reverse Shark Attack LP in 2009, and Cronin often plays bass with Ty’s band on tour. He also spells his first name in that really unusual way to get women’s attention and slay your suggestive heart. Just kidding. (It is pronounced “Michael,” though.) Most important is his musical sensibility. Sure, songs on this ten-song solo debut and the last Moonhearts record conjure a slew of familiar influences – Brian Wilson, Del Shannon, The Beatles, T. Rex, Neil Young – but Cronin’s particular amalgam is potent.

As some wise guy in the bible said, “There is no new thing under the sun,” but sun is the key word here, rather than the reference to recycling. Listening to tunes like “Get Along” and “Is It Alright,” you feel like you’re bathed in sunlight. Not blinded, but subdued, euphoric. There’s a comforting wash of blissful vibes in Cronin’s best slow songs. Soft guitar strum, overlaid by a reverb-soaked electric and lots of layered, high-end harmonies that will have you humming even before you know the words. Cronin is a curator of the woo-woo harmony. Not new age woo-woo like crystals on your forehead in Sedona, Arizona, but Beach Boys/60s pop woo, that intoxicating sing-a-long sound. Even though Cronin draws much of the album’s emotion from melancholy and confusion, this is feel good music, for sure, sounds of the eternal summer. But Cronin’s no one-trick pony.

Judging from the two extreme poles that define this album and Moonhearts’ range, Cronin seems a man perpetually in love and frustrated at the same time. His songs go from full-force rock and roll fuzz (“Green and Blue,” “I Hate Myself,” and “Obliteration”) to love-struck, euphoric cloud-splitters (“Get Along,” “Apathy,” and “Shine”), making him as much Black Flag as Pet Sounds. Fans of his band Moonhearts will recognize the Cronin signature all over this album. Added bonus: a flute solo courtesy of Thee Oh Sees’ John Dwyer, and most of the drums played by Ty Segall.

Did that go on too long? I recycled it from a magazine pitch that no one wanted, magazines who are missing the boat. You can get the album here: http://troubleinmindrecs.com/catalog.html

4) Pow Wows from Toronto came out of nowhere and landed red hot with their debut album Nightmare Soda. Their song “Four” is a fun one; too bad there’s no YouTube link to share.

5) I like when musicians can make melancholy feel good, like The Goodnight Loving does with this song, “Into a Grape”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dNV12HDtWD8

6) “Scales,” by Poor Sons – this song is melting my brainstem right now. (Free download here: http://poorsons.bandcamp.com/)

7) This song still holds its heat for me, too: “Dry Basement” by Apache Dropout

8) Though so does Sonny Rollins’s “Strode Rode,” and it’s fifty-five years old. Jazz players like Rollins, Coltrane, and Art Blakey were punk before there was a word for it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7G4DciALDs

II. Books I Read:

Most of the stuff I read during 2011 came out in or before 2010. Every year produces more brilliance than even the hungriest readers can handle. It’s all you can do to keep up, but you never crawl out from under the pile. And who’d want to? We’re blessed with an overabundance of options, though despite the biblical-sounding verb, the gods have nothing to do it. These are golden times for music and the literary arts. Talent abounds.

I write and read fiction, but mostly, I write nonfiction, with a deep love of essays. So I’ll stick to the genre I know best and leave most of the fiction coverage to the talented fiction writers here, like J. A. Taylor, Amber Sparks, Gabriel Blackwell, Paula Bomer, and Tim Horvath.

1) The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman

If you want brilliance and humor, lit-talk, first-person narrative and perceptive analysis, then Batuman is your author. This book is a singular blend of elements, and her mind is proof that human evolution is happening as we speak. The Batuman Brain and its correlative, The Batuman Effect, as they will one day be known in critical and scientific studies, are things of power, awe, and beauty, and I have a feeling I’m going to be reading everything she writes for the rest of my life, though not in a creepy stalker kind of way. She’s the real deal. Her website: http://www.elifbatuman.com/

2) American Nerd: The Story of My People, by Benjamin Nugent

If you’re reading Big Other, chances are these are your people, too. Be proud.

3) Work and Other Sins: Life in New York City and Thereabouts, by Charlie LeDuff

I bought this collection of reportage in November, 2006 at The Strand in New York City and have been slowly reading through it ever since. I’m still only three quarters of the way through its 357 pages. It’s not that I’m slow – although I often am – it’s just not the kind of book you burn through. Or maybe it is and I’m just not that kind of reader. The book’s been my nice bottle of Scotch that you take sips from here and there, savoring the quiet moments you spend with it and the knowledge that there’s always more there on the shelf waiting for you.

A Pulitzer Prize winner and former New York Times correspondent, this year LeDuff received a much-deserved multipronged buzz platform: his essay “Who Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” was reprinted in both Best American Essays 2011 and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. Who does that? A badass nerd, that’s who.

4) The 2009 Believer collection, Read Hard, contains essays I’ve already read in the magazine, but I love having them all in one bound volume. Also, like Jereme Dean, I like things that roll hard.

5) Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

By now you’ve likely stumbled onto a review or some glowing hunk of praise heaped on this book, at least I hope you have. It really is that good. Instead of redescribing how much it rules, I’ll direct you to my review of the book here in the Portland Mercury and try to convince you that I, too, rule, because I’m needy like that: http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/whats-in-an-essay/Content?oid=5094400

Also, I’d suggest you check out James Wood’s review of it in The New Yorker, but that would only make my review look weak by comparison. Wood does get it, though. He’s a skilled essayist himself, and a badass. He and I played drums in a band once, very briefly, at the Bennington MFA program. Seriously, he really is super cool. Trust me when I say, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. For further proof, check out his piece “The Fun Stuff” in the November 29, 2010 issue of The New Yorker about his other life as a drummer: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/11/29/101129fa_fact_wood

6) One Nation Under a Groove: Motown & American Culture, by Gerald Early

I recently rewatched Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary while researching an essay I was writing, and some of the best analysis came from essayist and thinker Gerald Early. I’ve read many of his pieces here and there, but somehow this particular book had eluded me. Even though the title sounds like the title of a collection of elevator music, this slim book of 135 pages is packed with more grit and brains that countless books three times its size. That’s because it’s Early’s. Calling him a national treasure makes him sound like some intellectual artifact or cement obelisk. He’s a teacher and family man, fully engaged in the culture of now, but the level of his Motown analysis, his broad scope of vision and ability to see what it all means while articulating its tangled complexity, show that, as a thinker, he really is one of our country’s cultural and intellectual assets. Asset – that word’s better. I should’ve used it instead of “treasure” from the get-go.

7) Best American Travel Writing 2009 and 2010 – playing catch up, and well worth the extra effort.

8) A Week at the Airport, by Alain de Botton

In a tie with Approximation and Weak Convergence Methods for Random Processes with Applications to Stochastic Systems Theory (Signal Processing, Optimization, and Control) for most boring sounding book on earth, Botton’s is, in fact, one of the more novel and interesting ones I’ve seen in ages. 111 pages of brilliant text and gorgeous color images, it’s a glowing example of the power of looking deeply at what on the surface seems too ordinary to be interesting. Flying is still annoying, though.

9) Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays, by George Orwell

“Shooting an Elephant,” “Such, Such Were the Joys,” all Orwell’s best essays are here. Just knowing they’re on the shelf next to my writing desk makes me feel more sophisticated, even if I do spend most days at my desk dressed like a homeless person.

10) Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, by New York Times jazz critic Ben Ratliff

Ratliff does Coltrane proud by focusing on the saxophonist’s artistic development and spiritual and intellectual evolution, rather than rehashing his biography.

11) Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China, by Peter Hessler

An enlightening book on a country that every American should be paying attention to. Journalist Peter Hessler is one of the best writers covering China, penning probing, digestible first-person narratives that bring the people and complexities of their enormous, diverse country to life. Hessler won a MacArthur Foundation grant this year. Having read this book and various essays of his, I can see why. Then again, I think Dex Romweber of Flat Duo Jets is pretty ingenious and wish he could get one of those $500,000 MacArthur Foundation checks. Last time I saw Dex play a show, his tour van had just been broken into.

III. Book I’m Excited About:

1) I’m excited about this change in format for the Best Music Writing anthology. They’re going indie, and their new publisher is expanding its purview to music. Pre-ordering the 2012 edition helps the publisher cover production costs: http://funboring.com/bestmusicwriting/

2) Excited about the next novel on my to-read list: John Haskell’s LA satire, Out of My Skin

3) I’m finally going to read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, only partially to prove that the 1952, Signet mass market edition with the cool cover isn’t just a furniture book designed to impress visitors, although it is partly that.

4) Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens

I know why Orwell matters to me, but I like Hitchens’s big mouth and big brain, so I’m curious what he has to say on the subject, and curious to learn what else I’m missing about Orwell.

5) Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier

This book is as big as Siberia. It’s going to take a while. I’m thirty-six. I hope I have enough time.

6) I’m always rereading Joseph Mitchell, but I recently found an old, 1962 mass market of James Thurber’s The Years with Ross, about The New Yorker’s brilliant and volatile founder. Judging from the size of my to-read pile, and the Mitchell pieces I’m revisiting, I probably won’t get to it this year. I’ll definitely be sniffing it a lot, though. It has that musty, sweet, almost cake-like old book smell. I suspect there’ll be an app for that in 2012.

IV. Movies: I also just watched the documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times. It’s relevant to all writers and booksellers, even those who never want to write or sell a word of journalism, because at its core it’s about content and platforms, and the way we choose to read what we read, and the struggle to monetize web content, which affects everyone who values the written word and loves having a local bookstore to go shop and sit around in.

Aaron Gilbreath has written essays for Tin House, The Paris Review, Gettysburg Review, The Smart Set, Popmatters, Gastronomica and The Normal School.  You can find an excerpt from his Link Wray-themed novel, “Run Chicken Run,” at storySouth.

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Gary Amdahl

It’s been a miserable year…fallen out of touch with nearly everybody and everything.  But some good beat its way relentlessly towards me:

The Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists, founded and directed by John Eliot Gardiner (Sir John if anybody’s checking…  “Oh good Sir John, thou art mincing me to death!”  “Mistress Quickly, I shall tickle thee! and pretend to chase thee round this stage, this globe, this so on and so forth.”) produced the final volumes of the “Bach Cantata Pilgrimage” that they undertook in 2000…nearly all of the 200 cantatas, more or less on the dates appropriate to the Lutheran Calendar, in Bach-related and architecturally interesting venues.  I am a convert to the cantatas, and agree with Good Sir John (and Albert Schweitzer and a few others) that they are the heart and soul of Bach’s music.  A lot of them incorporate Lutheran hymns that I grew up hearing and loathing, but which I–no surprise–now find unbearably moving.  I associate them not with church attendance but things like a claymation TV series called “Davey and Goliath,” boy-and-his-dog stories sponsored by the Lutheran Church of America that I watched “religiously.”  In other words…my childhood, the second of which I am afraid I am moving into.

Jordi Savall, founder and director of Hesperion XXI (ancient music and odd instruments), La Capella Reial de Catalunya, and Le Concert des Nations (slightly less ancient music) produced a book-and-CD of Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” (always look on the bright side of life–sorry, that’s eight) that included commentary by Jose Saramago.  I think it was the last thing he wrote.  “Cain,” “The Elephant’s Journey,” and “Small Memories” were also published.  Maybe not his greatest books, but good notes to go out on….

The Indisputably Great Moment came technically in the fall of 2010, and I am waaaay prejudiced, but still, my wife’s book about Jessica Mitford’s American Years is a GREAT BOOK:  “Irrepressible” by Leslie Brody, now in paperback from Counterpoint!
Best,
GA

P.S.  And oh yeah:  Dalkey Archive brought out a translation of a great novel published fifteen years ago in Portugal, The Splendor of Portugal, by António Lobo Antunes, and City Lights published the long-awaited Paper Conspiracies, by Susan Daitch.

Gary Amdahl is the author of Visigoth and I Am Death, and is currently working on A Devil’s Dictionary for the 21st Century, channeling Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce, for Kelly’s Cove Press in San Francisco.

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Johannes Göransson

Here are my favorites from the past year.
Liknöjd Fauna, by Aase Berg (Albert Bonnier Förlag)
Melancholia, by Lars von Trier (movie)
Strange Circus, by Shion Sono (movie)
Parade, by Nathalie Djurberg and Hans Berg (exhibition at Walker Art Center, Mpls)
Jiyoon Lee’s Love Song for My Darling Translator (duet with Lara Palmer’s ghost at &Now Conference, San Diego)
The “No Future” panel at &Now San Diego (with Feng Sun Chen, Lucas de Lima, Joyelle McSweeney, and Monica Mody)
Leon Baham, Pony Boy (Birds of Lace Press)
Rihanna’s “We Fell In Love In A Hopeless Place” (music video)
Alexander McQueen’s exhibition/book “Savage Beauty” (The Met, NY City)
Lykke Li, Wounded Rhymes (music CD)
Ginema’s performance at the Tokyo International Poetry Festival
The Swedish issue of Action, Yes, edited by Sara Tuss Efrik and Anna Thörnell (www.actionyes.org)
Jenny Boully, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them (Tarpaulin Sky Press)
Baloji with Konono N1 – Karibu Ya Bintou (subtitled music video)
Feng Sun Chen, Ugly Fish (Radioactive Moat)
Cecilia Vicuña, Saborami (Chainlinks)
WJT Mitchell, Clone Wars (book)
Polly Jean Harvey, Let England Shake (music CD)
Blake Butler, There is No Year (Harper Perennial)
Daniel Borzutzky, The Book of Interfering Bodies (Nightboat)
Aimé Césaire, trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman, Solar Throat Slashed (Wesleyan)
Lonely Christopher, The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse (Akaschik)
Seyhan Erözcelik, trans. Murat Nemet-Nejat, Rose-Strikes and Coffee Grinds (Talisman)
Stina Kajaso, Son of Daddy (http://sonofdaddy.blogspot.com/)
Sean Kilpatrick, Fuckscapes (Blue Square)
Joyelle McSweeney, The Necropastoral (Spork)
Alice Notley, Culture of One (Penguin)
Maria Margareta Österholm, Den Unga F:s Bekännelser (X Publishing)
Sara Stridsberg, Darling River (Albert Bonnier Förlag)
Anja Utler, trans. Kurt Beals, engulf – enkindle (Burning Deck)
Ronaldo Wilson, Poems of the Black Object (Futurepoem)
Uljana Wolf, trans Nathaniel Otting, My Cadastre (Nor By)
Johannes Göransson is the author and translator of several books. He teaches at U of Notre Dame and blogs at www.montevidayo.com.

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Dylan Hicks

I don’t keep a record of my reading, partly because such a register would either unduly privilege the book (as a form, that is) or be pointlessly thorough. My register from 2011 might, for instance, make note of Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which I read it its entirety on assignment, and Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence, which I poked around in for fun, but be silent about the sort of things that make up those collections: not only long-form criticism and essays, but also book reviews, magazine journalism, website riffs, and other material that, if written by less prominent figures, would be recycled only in the sense involving bins and alleys. All that between-the-cracks stuff—the book review I read to avoid writing my own book review, the poetry books and lit journals I browse with no cover-to-cover intentions, the Harper’s story I skim while waiting for a prescription to be filled—is an important part of my reading life, but to document it would start to resemble the map of the Empire whose size is that of the Empire, or the to-do list that makes room for seven minor tasks dispatched in the hour leading up to the creation of the to-do list.

So I’ve already forgotten much of what I read this past year, but I did at least scan our bookshelves, and—restricting the discussion to books published in 2011—figure that I read, or read a good share of, twenty to twenty-five of the year’s books, a bit over half of those for review (these, I promise, I finished). Here are five, arranged alphabetically by author, that I especially enjoyed:

Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda. Master hypnotist and surveillant collects tales of dread and transcendence. Good with orange juice.

Paul La Farge, Luminous Airplanes. A newfangled historical novel whose disparate elements get filtered through one modest, engaging voice and harmonize in a hymn to failure.

Evan Lavender-Smith, Avatar. A study of extreme isolation in which nonthoughts of the void share outer space with floating hair and sneaker daydreams.

Ben Lerner, Leaving the Atocha Station. A skeptical Künstlerroman for the charlatan in all of us. The present charlatan is now happily working backwards through Lerner’s poetry.

Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia. A book about delusions, some of them quite honorable, by a novelist who’s as sharp on rock music and sociopolitical history as she is on romance and family and, especially, the spaces where such things overlap.

I nearly put Humiliation, Wayne Koestenbaum’s nervy book-length essay, in my little top five, but didn’t know what to let go, on top of which it seems appropriate that Humiliation should in some small way be shunned. I also enjoyed books by fellow or onetime Twin Citians Jim Moore, John Jodzio, and Will Hermes, and was a sometimes complaining fan of novels by David Foster Wallace, Alan Hollinghurst, Mat Johnson, Jesse Ball, and others. I hope to spend some of January catching up on ’11 books by Teju Cole, Maggie Nelson, and Gary Lutz.

Making a list of 2011 music is even more problematic. There’ve been a few years in which, largely for professional reasons, I’ve managed to listen with various degrees of concentration to hundreds of albums and singles, and come up with long lists of endorsements. This year, though, my Top Ten list would be rather too close to a ranked list of all the new albums I happened to hear. Even more distressingly, it would be long on folks I’ve been following for decades, and would reflect that I entirely lost track of jazz this year and heard only a few things in hip hop and country. I have a hunch that my sixth favorite 2011 album is in fact my twenty-eighth favorite album 2011 album; I just have to find those twenty-two albums in between. In other words: I’m kind of old. But determined, next year, to be a younger kind of old.

Anyway, I got a lot of listening pleasure out of tUnE-yArDs’ Whokill, Paul Simon’s So Beautiful or So What, Raphael Saadiq’s Stone Rollin’, Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, TV on the Radio’s Nine Types of Light, and Nico Muhly’s Seeing Is Believing, and was somewhat less taken, but still enthusiastic, about albums by Mates of State, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, Tom Waits, and Drive-By Truckers. A very provisional Top Ten. Among the radio hits I now mostly hear when my son gets to choose the station, my faves were Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends,” Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling,” an intoxicating dance single that makes brilliant use of the a cappella intro to Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” “Oooh, sometimes, I get a good feeling,” she sings, and then, like magic, I get that feeling too.

Dylan Hicks’s first novel, Boarded Windows, comes out in May of 2012 on Coffee House Press, along with a companion album, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene.

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Christopher Higgs

My 2011 was bookended by Blake Butler: at the beginning with his novel There Is No Year and at the end with his memoir Nothing, both published by Harper Perennial. Between those two boundless slices of cake, I delighted most in devouring these ten books:

The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover: Aphorisms, by Mark Leidner (Sator Press)

The Necropastoral, by Joyelle McSweeney (Spork)

The Marbled Swarm, by Dennis Cooper (Harper Perennial)

Schizophrene, by Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat)

I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur, by Mathias Svalina (MLP)

Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno (Emergency Press)

The Iguana Complex, by Darby Larson (Nephew)

Simple Machines, by Michael Bible (Awesome Machine Press)

Arcane Carnal Knowledge, by Feng Sun Chen (Pangur Ban Party)

Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, by Johannes Göransson (Tarpaulin Sky)

Christopher Higgs self-identifies as an author, educator, assembler, curator, theorist, husband, and doctoral candidate.

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Tim Horvath

Best ofs 2011

Best reason to stalk my mailman and think of him as “Pavlov”: Mud Luscious Press with its fine offerings, from Mathias Svalina’s I Am a Very Productive Entrepreneur to Robert Kloss’s How the Days of Love and Diphtheria. Aside from the main event, one great thing about their packages is never knowing where the bottom is—mini-chapbooks and stamp stories and little textual doodads keep coming out like loaves and fishes. I hold the lint up to the light before I toss the envelope to make sure I’m not hastily consigning some miniscule, amazing story to the trash.

Best literary twitter feeds: Amelia Gray, Melissa Broder, Salman Rushdie, and Christian Bök. Gray and Broder are resounding reasons to be thankful that the Library of Congress is cataloging every tweet. Rushdie—well, he’s Rushdie. While it’s counter-intuitive to me that the guy who writes rotund novels and doesn’t seem to do short stories would excel at the tweet, he does; maybe it’s that he honed his chops writing advertising copy decades ago. Christian Bök is the best linker hands down. If someone has swiped a fingerprint off the keys of James Joyce’s typewriter and used its whorls and tented arches to algorithmically compose a sequel to Finnegans Wake, you can bet he’s linked to it. If someone develops a font that evolves based on bee colony activity, he’s on it. If aliens get in touch, I’d put my money on them contacting Bök before SETI catches wind of it.

Books that make me want to just skip 2012 and go straight to 2013: Kyle Minor’s The Sexual Lives of Missionaries; Norman Rush’s Subtle Bodies. I have no idea what the actual drop dates of these books will be, but suffice it to say that I look forward to both. They are sort of inverse in that Minor is still early in his career and is looking outward, from the excerpt I’ve seen, to focus on Haiti, while Rush, who I’ll simply call “mid-career,” is shifting his focus from Botswana, where his first three books are set, to the U.S. Each writer is omnivorously-minded and intertwines the political/ethical with the interpersonal in ways that I gape at.

Best books about libraries that reaffirm my faith that books won’t die: Rebecca Makkai’s The Borrower and Kane X. Faucher’s The Infinite Library. Makkai’s fabulous debut pays tribute to everything from Lolita to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and succeeds as an homage to libraries, children’s literature, the solaces of reading, and the allure of the open road. Reading Faucher’s book is like wandering with an erudite companion around a vast, ancient library—you know, the kind with ladders that extend to ceilings at neck-imperilingheights and where any given book might distract you for a month. It’s a fun book to get lost in, what I’d call, admiringly, a page-loiterer.

A pair of 2011 books that warrant more attention: William Walsh’s Ampersand, Mass and Jeffrey DeShell’s Arthouse. Like some absurdist Carver or New England’s response to Sherwood Anderson, Walsh evokes a town who denizens are quirky and hilarious, blunt and recognizable and out there. Whether it’s a story about a guy who becomes a barber in order to avoid heart disease or Footboy, who simply refuses to use his hands, his tellers each bend your ear so that it stays bent. DeShell’s Arthouse is an action-packed story of meth addicts and innocent bystanders that is refracted through a sequence of films, each of which becomes the touchstone, the organizing principle and stylistic conductor of a chapter. The collision of cinematic fantasy with the bleak, brutal reality makes for a strange paradox—a book which I found chillingly immersive even as I was aware of the artifice, riveting me to the pages even while it made me want to sequester myself in a dark room to watch each one of the films he incorporates.

Some of the best ways that Netflix seduced me to continue our streaming relationship, in spite of their notorious gaffeage: additions of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Breaking Bad, and Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution. Damn you, Company Very Briefly Known as Qwikster!

Best shadow theater practitioners I discovered this year: Animal Cracker Conspiracy and Christine Marie. Animal Cracker Conspiracy is Iain Gunn and Bridget Rountree, located in San Diego, who do sublime, mesmerizing work and who I was lucky enough to see perform live at &NOW. Here’s a taste of what they did: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32paJPTyU1Y&feature=player_embedded. Christine Marie is a true innovator in the field of umbrology. She has developed a method of casting massive 3D shadows that would make Plato break a sweat. She’s a 2012 TED Fellow, and so she also wins for the TED Talk I’m Most Looking Forward to. http://www.cimimarie.com/christinemarie/christine_marie.html

Most memorable readings I attended in 2011: The zoo reading at AWP in Washington D.C. (best moment: Alec Niedenthal reading in perfect choreography with an emu that looked like it was pacing, which was cool because Alec was pacing too in way that worked really well for his reading). Also, the ¡YAhora! reading in Tijuana after the &NOW Festival was a lot of fun, as well, and made me hungry to know more Spanish. Held in a tiny alley outside the cafe/bookstore El Grafógrafo, the readings ranged from the wispy and understated to the pummeling and ballistic, such as that of local poet and founder of the poetry group Los Intransigentes, Jhonnatan Curiel, who belted his out in a ski mask.. Co-sponsor and emcee John Pluecker capped off the event by reading a poem he’d cobbled together by using bits and pieces from each of the previous readings, and that added another dimension.

Emerging writers to keep an eye on in 2012 and beyond: Naomi Day, a high school student in the Turnstyle program in which I teach, whose great story “A List of My Shortcomings” placed third in PANK’s 1001 Awesome Words Contest and will appear in PANK #7. Rebecca Kish, author of a chapbook, “2 Hours Ago near Surprise, NY” available from etalprojects.com. Her splendid poems are like dreams imprinting themselves on the skin in tandem with the texture of whatever surface you fell asleep against. She wraps herself in sensory impressions, like mnemonic talismans for a time when red might have to be rebuilt and a tepid television heated by pornography. It feels like it is always 4 a.m. in her poems, which bear many readings.

Tim Horvath is the author of Circulation (sunnyoutside) and the forthcoming collection Understories (Bellevue Literary Press), due out in May of 2012. He teaches creative writing at Chester College of New England, and serves as a prose editor for Camera Obscura.

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Jamie Iredell

Why Blake Butler’s Nothing Is an Important Book

I imagine that there are some who are sick of this guy. He edits HTMLGiant, he publishes two books per year, he has a hilarious Twitter feed, he’s friends with all the cool kids.

Wait: it’s important that I drop a caveat: Although I’m not a cool kid (I mean, I’m someone’s dad) Blake is my friend, like the kind of friend who comes over for dinner with me and my wife, and on whom I have on occasion dropped my being upset about certain things, because that’s what friends do for each other: listen and buy each other bourbon and drink it together. So, maybe to you it seems nepotistic to talk about Blake’s book here, like I’m giving props to my friends-in-high-places’ books. But that’s not, honestly, what this is about.

In fact, there are plenty of people who have not liked Nothing and other writing by Blake Butler. To cite the professional reviewers’ point of view, I’ll look to Justin Moyer at the Washington Post, who calls Nothing “overwritten.” He quotes from the text: “Some nights it is better then to get out of the bed and walk around as if the day is there.” Then Moyer says, “If the syntax of that last sentence seems off, it’s because Butler . . . tries to capture his own hyperactivity in run-on sentences, bad grammar and stream-of-consciousness.” Others have claimed the book to be “difficult to read” and “not very accessible.” It’s sometimes painfully obvious that some Butler-haters have read little if anything that Blake’s ever written: “He discusses a lot about his youth, about insomnia when he was young, but also many other topics from his youth.” Although I’ve seen Blake write sentence run-ons, and what someone might describe as stream-of-consciousness, I’m not entirely sure what’s meant by the off-syntax of the sentence Moyer’s quoting. I guess he has a problem with sentences that end in prepositions? And the “inaccessibility” and “abstraction” of Butler’s prose is what most naysayers seem to gravitate towards in their critiques.

I’m baffled by such responses. Blake’s prose in Nothing certainly pays attention to the language of itself (read: all of his prose does), and that is just one of the pure joys of reading him. “At early or temporary periods of unsleeping it is this very clicking presence of dying time that keeps one going, ever-conscious of the counting-down clocks, the furor of the leak, but deeper in, as one resigns to scrying, it is the blank of time that feeds true heat–longer, wider, shapeless nothing–how knowing within in knowing that day and night time continues on and on, and that there in that is truer blank.” This short passage, I imagine, is one that most reviewers complaining of abstraction and stream of consciousness might point at with an emphatic “Exactly!” Moyer might even call “run-on!” like a kid calls “foul!” in a pickup game of basketball. As for abstraction, I see nothing of the sort in this passage or in the entirety of Nothing. A reader might go to the seemingly vague “blank” as problematic here. But “blank” is not an abstract word; it is an ironic one. It means the opposite of what it is, the absence of things when the word of it itself is a thing. This, of course, rings true of the book as an object: titled “Nothing” and yet, at 300 + pages, is itself a substantial thing. Blake’s playfulness on the subject of time here also demonstrates this book’s depth. Can there be a more abstract thing than time? What is it? Sure we see evidence of it, but there’s nothing to say that it must always go in its constant direction from present to future. Ask a physicist about entropy. The arrow of time pushes Butler to “scrying,” or divining the future, while aware of the past, the constant countdown towards our individual end, while we remember, the only thing we know for certain: nothing.

So here’s the real thing I want to talk about: this book and the printing of it by a major publisher is important. If you ask someone who works at a bookstore (or at least at those near where I live) to point you in the direction of “literary nonfiction,” they show you where the literary criticism is. And if you ask them to take you to the lyric essays or nonfiction they shrug and push their glasses farther up the bridge of their nose as if to say, “This jackass doesn’t even know what he’s looking for.” We live in a time when looking into the past seems in vogue, with the NYT hardcover nonfiction bestsellers all about figures from our recent or distant history: Steve Jobs, Abe Lincoln, George Washington. We also live at a time when Glenn Beck consistently finds his way up there on that list with his asinine eschatology.

There is nothing wrong with writing that is, for a wide readership, “accessible.” But I question that readership’s understanding of “accessible,” and–as a college professor–I constantly (and on a perpetually accumulating scale) question my little slice of America’s ability to read carefully and critically. That fact of Nothing‘s existence spells hope to me as a writer and reader. Perhaps our little enclave’s borders are constantly challenged by the encroaching hegemony, but we will defend our land till we die with pages from manuscripts crumpled in our fists. And for this reason, I’m listing this one book alone as among my favorites for 2011.

Jamie Iredell is the author of Prose. Poems. a Novel. and The Book of Freaks. He was a cofounder of New South and is fiction editor of Atticus Review. He is Art Director of C&R Press, and lives in Atlanta, where he teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design.

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David Peak

Favorites:
Book: How the Days of Love & Diptheria, by Robert Kloss
Movie: I can’t remember seeing any
Album:  Replica, by Oneohtrix Point Never
Gravestone I Visited: H.P. Lovecraft’s
Odd Bit of Pig I Tried for the First Time: Cheek
David Peak‘s collection of stories, Glowing in the Dark, will be released by Aqueous Books in 2012. He is co-founder of Blue Square Press, an imprint of Mud Luscious Press, and lives in New York City.

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“Theroux Metaphrastes” is an incredible display of wit and erudition, betraying an intelligence biased toward mastery, virtuosity, and versatility, all of which certainly still need to be interrogated as much as any other set of values or qualities, but these qualities and values are nevertheless in scant supply, these days. Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, George Bernard Shaw, Sir Thomas Browne, Henry James, and many others are floating within Theroux’s prose. Who out there, besides William Gass, matches him? Instead of wit, we get snark. Instead of erudition, we get know-it-all bluster.

I loved Suzanne Jill Levine’s The Subversive Scribe (I reviewed it here http://www.newpages.com/bookreviews/archive/2009_11/nov2009_book_reviews.htm); and I quoted the Bishop Sprat quote as well for my as-yet-unpublished review of Joanna Ruocco’s The Mothering Coven. Here’s a bit from my review:

Sprat’s pronouncement was a cry against “extravagance,” a rejection of “all amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style.” It called for a “return back to the primitive purity and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things almost in an equal number of words.” And the censors have exacted from all their members a close, naked, natural way of speaking, positive expressions, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near as Mathematical plainness as they can, and preferring the language of Artizans, Countrymen, and Merchants, before that of Wits and Scholars.

Modernize its antiquated prose and you will perhaps have a perfect mirror of the current major publishing house climate, their biases and prejudices.

6 thoughts on “Best of 2011, Part 2

  1. Pingback: Top Things of 2011 - Montevidayo

  2. Pingback: Afternoon Bites: Writing Soundtracks, Sci-Fi Comics, Alex Shakar’s 2001, and more | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

  3. Pingback: Best of 2011, Part 3 « BIG OTHER

  4. Pingback: Best of 2011, Part 4 « BIG OTHER

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