too many words by laura lemay

The Best Stuff I Read in 2011

If everyone else in the world can do a year-end wrap-up, so can I.

I have possibly the worst musical taste ever and I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies, but I do read a lot. So this is the best stuff I read in 2011.


I post tiny book reviews to twitter; I’m also trying to keep up with longer reviews on Goodreads.

The Pale King: David Foster Wallace’s posthumous unfinished novel has moments that are undeniably brilliant, but it is absolutely unfinished and not so much a novel as a collection of fascinating potsherds. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last year. The good parts are just so good that even as sketchy as it is it was still worth reading.

War and Peace, Tolstoy: Yeah, I read War and Peace, and I’m glad I did. It’s an intimidating book in its length, but it is extremely readable. The characters are so well-drawn and the social problems they face seem entirely modern. There were a few times I actually put off important appointments because OMG I had to find out what happened to Prince Andrei. It is a brilliant, epic novel, and well-deserving of its reputation as one of the best novels ever written in any language.

Side note: I read this book in paperback in the Penguin edition (Rosemary Edmonds translation, two volumes, which makes it easier to hold), but I also used a free Gutenberg version on my Kindle. Having a searchable version on which I could take notes was very useful for keeping the characters straight.

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: The best contemporary novel I read this year. I heard good things about this book for months but the title seemed off-putting to me. Ignore the title. This is one great book. It’s funny, and surreal, and poignant. It’s a big book, but it reads fast. The characters are all wonderful. Spoiler: Skippy dies.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: I was halfway through writing this post last week when I read this book, and I had to add it. I have a warm place in my heart for long, slow, quiet, ethereal, fairy-tale influenced fantasy, and this is that kind of book. I could complain that the ending is too obvious, the metaphors a bit heavy (hello! wizard in the tree!) and that a lot of the book feels kind of light and fluffy. But this is a beautifully written, otherworldly love story, and I loved it.

Short Stories and Other Random Things

I used to read short stories all the time, but my attention span these days works best on social-networking time (10 seconds or less) or novel-span time (2-3 days). Random point of note: I’ve been trying to finish The Stories of John Cheever for almost five years.

Escape from Spiderhead, George Saunders. Ignore the fact that this is from the New Yorker. It is science fiction, it is cynical and violent and profane, and it is absolutely terrific. It reminds me a lot of the dystopian Vonnegut and Vonnegut-style stuff I used to read as a kid in the 1970’s.

Six Months, Three Days, Charlie Jane Anders. “The man who can see the future has a date with the woman who can see many possible futures.” This is the rare kind of science fiction that I love, complex literary character-driven SF.

When I look at a Strawberry I think of a Tongue, Édouard Levé. This is not a short story, and its not an essay; it’s kind of a stream-of-consciousness piece of impressionist textual memoir, but it is just astonishingly written. Do not google Édouard Levé before you read this; the last few lines and the epigraph are devastating.

Blog Posts

How to Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon. If there was one blog post in 2011 that affected me more personally in 2011, it would be this one. The subhead is “10 Things No One Told me About Creativity” and this is one of those essays with pithy and seemingly obvious advice about creativity. I’ve read tons of these posts. I’ve read tons of books about creativity. Most of them are indeed kind of obvious. And as I once said to Jason Kottke, books about creativity are like books about swimming; eventually you have to stop reading and get into the pool.

It was this part that really thumped me in the head:

  1. Write the book you want to read.

Hello, obvious. But not so obvious to me. I’ve spent thirty years trying (and failing) to write a novel that I thought would be worthy of my talent. But what’s wrong with just writing a simple novel that is the kind of crappy fun book I like to read? Nothing. Nothing at all. Even if I write a crappy novel I will learn something about writing *any* novel. After this post I did actually start a novel, and although I’m not sure I’m ever going to succeed at it I’m making more progress than I have in the past, and it’s making me very happy.

Dear Sugar at The Rumpus

I wanted to come up with ONE Sugar column that I liked the best for this post, and couldn’t do it. Dear Sugar is an advice column, and much of the time it is the sort of advice to the lovelorn column you see anywhere. But the writing. The writing is so unbelievably good. For every column it seems there is always a turn of phrase, a metaphor, or an anecdote that is deeply resonant for me. I have sat in front of my computer and cried myself stupid more often for Sugar columns than for anything else this year. I managed to reduce my list of best Sugar columns to four, in reverse chronological order:

Dear Sugar #78: The Obliterated Place. “23. There is no 23.”

Dear Sugar #69: We Are All Savages Inside. On art, and success, and jealousy, and privilege. “There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart.”

Dear Sugar #64: Tiny Beautiful Things. Advice to one’s younger 20-something self. “Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.” This made me cry myself stupid.

Dear Sugar #48: Write Like a Motherfucker: Probably the most famous Sugar column. Advice to writers, and female writers especially. The last line is most often quoted, but I like this one: “Writing is hard for every last one of us. … Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” Cried myself stupid.

Final Note

My first resolution for 2012: try to write blog posts that are fewer than 1500 words and don’t take a week.