Like all years, this has been a mix of elation and disappointments, both in myself and in my readings. The singular event of the year was my simultaneous literary and personal introduction to a top-of-the-line American Writer–Luis Alberto Urrea. I chose him as my Tin House Conference group leader because he is an historical novelist, then read his work, then discovered him as a top-of-the-line human being as well. Not to mention wife Cindy–a literary and romantic partnership if ever there was one. So he tops my list as the number one author and number one discovery.
As usual, I list my favorites books below, not necessarily in any order except for the top three. Worth noting that three of the books on the list were actually published this year. I usually don’t keep up that well. Don’t skip the “worst” category which follows. It also includes a 2011 publication.
The Hummingbird’s Daughter and The Queen of America—Luis Alberto Urrea’s two-volume family saga–20 years in the making–constitutes one of the top literary achievements of the decade (all right, so the decade’s only a year old, but the statement will stand) both for entertainment and literary richness. It has the scope of McMurtry and the magic of Allende. Don’t agree? I’ll send a bruja after you.
The Forgotten Waltz–Ah, those Irish. They’ll bring the little man out of his chair every time–or almost. In this case, Anne Enright shows her stuff admirably in the first work since her Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. Ah, the characters. Ah, the language. More, Anne, more.
The Surrendered—Here’s another from one of my workshop leader (Napa, 2005?) His Aloft garnered well-deserved plaudits that year. The Surrendered beats it all hollow. Not just a novel. An experience.
Darling Strumpet and The September Queen form a pair of historical romances written by a former student with whom I reconnected via (not kidding) Facebook this year. Both books celebrate the Restoration Period of the 1660’s, and Darling Strumpet, a novelized biography of Nell Gwynn, gets the WW prize for best title and cover of 2011 and beyond. I wrote commentaries on both, sent them to author Gillian Bagwell, who pointed out a couple of serious mistakes. I pointed out one of hers in return, and all in all it’s been a most satisfactory reunion.
The Sense of an Ending–Speaking of reunions, I’d read nothing of Julian Barnes for quite some time, and what a treat to return to this prose master. Someone who makes so much of seemingly so little. You enter one of his spare rooms, proceed to the next, then the next and before long realize you are deep in an intellectual and artistic palace.
The Invisible Bridge—A book I entered reluctantly because it’s a holocaust story. But it’s different, and it centered around Hungary, which was a different story than the rest of Europe, and besides, because Julie Orringer’s writing is superb.
Warlock–Oakley Hall is both a personal and literary hero of mine. This is one of his classics, and deserves to be counted as such. It’s one in a trilogy. I’ll get to the rest in 2012.
The Perfect Crime—Readers ofWW know that Les Edgerton is a friend and mentor, so it was a real treat to get the opportunity to comment on his new publications.Both are crime novels in the noir genre, both move with the speed and momentum of high-speed train. Delicious action reading rich with meaty dilemmas and vivid characters.
Killshot–Another reunion, this time with the master of noir, Elmore Leonard, who literally changed the language of modern popular fiction. Richard Price would have been impossible without him, and it was an exciting several hours I spent in the world he created in Killshot.
My Antonia–I try to read a couple of classics every year. Willa Cather’s is my only fiction one for 2011. Look in non-fiction for the other. It’s one of those I always thought I’d read, but hadn’t really. Completely fascinating frontier stuff from a legend of American letters, not just as fiction, but as an editor and publisher.
Short—Now here’s one that’s as interesting for its ripped-from-the-headlines subject as for its excellent writing. The title refers to the world of stock and commodities trading, where selling short is basically a bet that a product will drop in price and you win money if it fails.Appropriate, since that’s what wall street did and is doing with our money. Exciting noir-flavored stuff.
THE WORST AND MOST DISAPPOINTING
Swamplandia, Goon Squad, and Special Topics in Calamity Physics are not such bad books in themselves. They’re just so far short of the praise and acclaim they received that I’m disappointed not only in them, but in the whole literary world that promoted them.
Tinkers. Unlike the three above titles, Tinkers is a bad book, a novel which takes off slowly and goes nowhere. Yet, it received more praise than any of them. Pulitzer indeed.
Infinite Jest is revered by many as complex tome of enormous wisdom. I thought it was an infinite mess of jargon and pretentious idiocy.