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.

Books

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:

3. 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.

life of pi, ongoing and illustrated

My obsession with Yann Martel’s Life of Pi predates this blog. I bought the book in 2002 when it came out based entirely on a glowing review in the local paper, and on the premise — indian boy survives six months shipwrecked in a small boat with a bengal tiger. How could a novelist possibly make THAT work? I had to find out.

It turns out the novelist really does make it work and the book is AMAZING. As I described it to others at the time: the first half of the book had me thinking oh, nice book, well written, kind of slow. And then the second half was: great book, fabulous tale, fast-paced, can’t put it down. And then last five pages had me lying awake in bed the whole night afterward thinking HOLY SHIT. And then I got up and started the book all over again from page 1.

I would not shut up about the book. I forced it on everyone I knew. I pressed it on strangers in bookstores. I sought out interviews with the author and essays on the Meaning of the book and the various metaphors and allegories. I discussed it in online forums. I was obsessed.

It’s a good book. Have you read it? You must read it. Go read it right now, I insist.

I bring this up because there’s been a worldwide search recently to illustrate a new edition of Life of Pi. The Times Online posted details about the search and its judges as well as a slideshow of the shortlisted entries. I like this one by Jonathan Gross. Nice use of whitespace.

winter book roundup plus sodoku

Six months ago I walked into Borders on a saturday after breakfast, as I do on pretty much every saturday after breakfast, and was greeted with a huge table display. The display said

NEW PUZZLE CRAZE!!

And there on the table were about 50 books for this thing I had never heard of called Sudoku.

Well, I like puzzles. I like puzzles a lot. I’m not so great at crosswords (ironic for the english major, no?), and there are some 3D spatial things I’m bad at (I’m told this is a male/female thing). But mostly I think just about any kind of puzzle is pretty darn great.

I went to a party once and I had intended to be social, really, but then someone handed me one of those old blacksmith puzzles where you have to get the ring off of the hooks or the loops or whatever and I promptly became the least social person in the history of the entire known world. Just me and the blacksmith puzzle in the corner, responding to greetings with grunts or not at all and refusing to come out of hiding until I had solved the darn thing. Days later I emerged from the corner, hungry but triumphant. I don’t get invited to so many parties anymore.

Oh, and there’s Tetris. I have this problem with Tetris. We will conveniently skip over my really bad Tetris addiction in college and I will note that I got a PSP just recently (Sony is Evil, I know, I’m sorry) and they have this game called Lumines which is like Tetris only blocks instead of lines and they flash blinky lights and play loud repetitive dance music at you all the time. Like Tetris at a rave. Anyhow I’ve been playing that game a lot and having conversations like:

Eric: Laura?
Laura: not now.
Eric: Laura…..
Laura: not now.
Eric: Laura, your hair is on fire.

But I digress.

So I picked up one of the sudoku books in the store and I thumbed through it. I read the introduction. Sudoku, in case you haven’t been assaulted by bookstore displays in the last six months, is a simple logic puzzle involving grids of of numbers. The numbers are purely symbolic; there’s no math involved. They could use random symbols but the numbers are easy to remember. All you have to do is fill in the grid so that all the rows and columns and squares all contain numbers from 1 to 9.

The book I had in my hand, the Book of Sodoku, was only ten bucks, so I figured what the hell, I’ll give it a try.

This is my really long-winded explanation for why I have only read five books in the last six months. But I’m getting really great at Sudoku.

Olympos, by Dan Simmons. Last year I read Ilium, the prequel to this book, and loved it. As I posted back then, I’m not a huge traditional science fiction fan, but Ilium was complex and well-written and just really well put together. Unfortunately, it also ended in a huge cliffhanger, and OIympos was supposed to be the book that resolved everything.

Um. Well, its a big book, and it continues all the big and complex storylines that Ilium started. But its a big fat longwinded mess. It just spins madly out of control, there are too many plots, nothing much gets resolved, and I ended the book thinking “I have no idea what just happened here.” Bah. Plus there was this big time Heinleinian Stupidity Moment: there’s this beautiful female character central to the plot, and she’s been put in a sort of suspended animation for thousands of years, and the only way she can be awakened is if the virile male hero has sex with her sleeping body. My eyes rolled so hard they popped right out of my head.

Thud! by Terry Pratchett. Yes, if there’s anything that can drag me away from an incredibly addicting puzzle book, its a new Terry Pratchett book. This one involves a long-ago war between the dwarves and the trolls, and the seething resentments that have resulted since then. Now a dwarf has been killed apparently by a troll and the Watch has to deal with it before a new war springs up.

I was kind of surprised that this book came out so soon after Going Postal and kind of concerned about it; the last time Terry P. started writing books really fast the quality suffered. And alas although this book was fun I don’t rank it among his best. It just didn’t reach out and grab me…in fact it took me a week to read it which is positively unheard of. It is definitely no Going Postal, or Night Watch.

My Work is Not Yet Done, by Thomas Ligotti. I have gushed about Thomas Ligotti before. I love this guy. He doesn’t write horror, really, he more writes dread, or loathing. He’s just immensely talented at setting a really dark mood.

In this book there are three stories of “Corporate Horror.” In the first, the dread and loathing and darkness take place in a perfectly ordinary company. The first half of the story is terrific; like some sort of horrible lovecraftian “Office Space.” The main character is oppressed by his co-workers in various tiny awful ways. His boss and co-workers conspire against him, and drive him to madness.

And then there’s the second half of the book, which turns into kind of a supernatural Kill Bill. The main character is run over by a bus and becomes an avenging spirit, picking off in various nasty ways each of his former co-workers who betrayed him. I found this second part of the book kind of disappointing, less about the dread and loathing and more straight-up horror. Its good straight-up horror but I prefer the more moody and less bloody Ligotti.

The other two stories in the book are shorter. The first, “I have a Special Plan for This World,” is chock full of mood. Deliciously so. Unfortunately the plot is also kind of muddled and I’m not sure exactly what goes on here. The last story, the “Nightmare Network,” has a unique structure: its just a series of mostly flat descriptions of ads, videos, events. Its kind of a non-narrative and I admit the style does not grab me much at all. I could not get into this story and I couldn’t tell you what it was about.

Anansi Boys, By Neil Gaiman. I suppose if you made a list of Most Predictable Books Laura Must Have Read in The Last Half of 2005 this book would be on it. Well duh, of course I read it. It was a good, fun, quick read. Not as complex as American Gods. Not as creepy as Coraline (which, despite it being a kids book, creeped the living daylights out of me). It was fun, but kind of Average Fantasy I’ve Come To Expect From Neil. I’m still waiting for the Neil Gaiman fantasy magnum opus and beginning to think maybe Sandman was it. Hm.

Spook, by Mary Roach. Gushed about Mary Roach previously, too, when she wrote Stiff. Stiff is about human bodies and the things we do to them after people have left them. Spook is about the other side of the equation: its about souls and ghosts and spiritualism; about the search for life after death.

I’ve been trying to figure out why it is I don’t like Spook as much as I liked Stiff. Mary Roach’s writing style and humor are intact, the characterizations are terrific and brilliant long-winded off-topic footnotes are just as frequent. Perhaps because souls and ghosts and spiritualism are just less shocking than corpses the subject matter is just less interesting to read. But this book just wasn’t as as much fun as Stiff. I really wanted it to be, but it just wasn’t.

Five books in six months and none of them were even all that great. Boohoo. I need to find something to read now that will blow the top of my head right off with its greatness. I’m not sure what that book might be. If you had to make the list of Most Predictable Books Laura Must Read in the First Half of 2006 you might think Feast for Crows was on there given that I am a big fantasy reader…except um I haven’t actually read any of the other books in the series. So maybe I will board that ship for my spring books list.

Right after I finish 40 more Sudoku puzzles.

weird moments in music history

I’ve had this damn post sitting in my To Be Blogged list for months now, and I haven’t blogged it for no good reason at all. Its a post from stevenf‘s blog entitled “weirdest moments in popular music history.”

It is really really funny, eg:

3. ‘Space Oddity’ by David Bowie

A nice little noodley, spacey bridge begins at approximately 2:43, but concludes abruptly when an apparently drunken tuba player barges into the studio 17 seconds later, and farts out four of the most incongruous notes in recorded history just before, I can only presume, collapsing onto the floor. Only Bowie knows for certain what really happened that fateful day.

And you know, I didn’t remember this farting tuba player so I had to go queue up Space Oddity on iTunes and swing the pointer over to 2:43. Now I’m never going to be able to listen to the song without giggling madly. Curse you, stevenf.

(I got it from ~stevenf.)

popularity contest

new sign over the genre fiction

I was in my local Borders Books this morning, and perhaps this sign has been there the whole time and I just didn’t notice, or perhaps its a new sign, but none the less, there is a “Popular Fiction” sign over the SF, mystery, and romance sections now.

I went around the corner:

I guess this is the unpopular fiction

This must be the unpopular fiction section.

a bad geek

I’m sorry. I do not have plans to see either Serenity nor Mirrormask this weekend. My deep abiding hatred for people in crowds just way outweighs my need to be geeky.

I am officially on vacation next week but could not get organized enough to actually go anywhere, so perhaps I will take in matinee.

i love this song

The Faders, “No Sleep Tonight” [iTunes Music Store link]

Three or four times a year I discover some great new song and I have to listen to that song over and over again until I am so sick of it that I can’t stand it anymore. Its been that way since I was twelve; I am perpetually stuck in teenager listening mode. Woe betide you if you live in my household.

This is the current iteration of that song. Its a raucous punk-poppy little thing from a British teenage girl band. Very Donnas-like. I love it. Now that I have iTunes to keep track of my music obsessions I can let you all know that I have listened to this song 18 times in the last two days. Not sick of it yet.

I am told this song is in the iPod Nano ads, although I’ve only seen the one with the hands and this song isn’t it. Conveniently, I just bought an iPod nano (neat! new! toy!), so now I can put this song on it and listen to it everywhere I go.

BTW you link into the iTMS by control-clicking (or right-clicking) a song and choosing “Copy Music Store URL.” They use horrible weird web objects URLs that launch iTunes, but they work.