The Books That I Read in 2011

December 31, 2011 | By | COMMENTS

Just Kids by Patti Smith. Convalescing from the flu, I read this book in a sweaty, feverish trance, which–it turns out–is entirely appropriate for this painfully honest text about Smith’s early years in New York City with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Smith proves that a steady accretion of deceptively simple sentences can yield a text as sweeping and powerful as the most ambitious novel. What I admired most about this book was its clarity: Smith sees things with such penetrating depth, I almost melted when, a few weeks after finishing this book, I found her staring me in the face at a table catty-corner to mine at ‘ino. And yet, despite her power to intimidate, its her disarming warmth (which I witnessed in person when she kindly took pictures with a table of Italian tourists) that makes this book so complex. At her core, Smith is a sweetheart: a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell. This book is not a fun read but it is, perhaps, the most important book I’ve ever read about religion, storytelling, the existence of God, our purpose on earth and what it means to live a meaningful life. If you’re not familiar with Campbell’s work, the man spent his life studying the world’s myths and religions, both ancient and modern. And what makes his work so important is the way that he synthesizes those myths and religions into an overarching schema that reveals not the differences but the similarities: the universal need we have for creation stories, stories about the harvest, stories about death. When I finished this book, it became clear that it doesn’t matter if you’re a practicing Buddhist, a practicing Christian, or a practicing Jew; in all cases, religion is there to help you make sense of a chaotic, frequently cruel universe. As long as you’re not forcing your beliefs on other people, I’m ok with you believing whatever you want to believe. To quote Joan Didion, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Campbell (who’s interviewed, in this book, by Bill Moyers (it’s also available as a video)) helped me understand that on a deeper level.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. True horror is rarely explicit. Yes, there are chainsaw massacres, I’m sure, and men who will disembowel you in the night, but the really scary stuff that happens in this world happens gradually, quietly, systematically. Ishiguro’s book (which was turned into a pretty mediocre movie) is similar to his previous book, The Remains of the Day in that they both feature thoughtful, introverted protagonists whose lives seem benign until the horror of who and what they really are slowly dawns on them. What I liked about this book, in particular, was the way that a fantastical future was made completely plausible. Also, Ishiguro can make a book of unpleasant things entirely pleasurable to read: that takes skill.

Four Kitchens by Lauren Shockey. When Lauren Shockey asked me to blurb her book, I took my job seriously and read her memoir (about cooking in four kitchens around the world) cover-to-cover. And, indeed, when I was finished it wasn’t hard to praise the book as “full of heart and humor…essential reading for anyone who plans to work in a restaurant kitchen.” Shockey fills her pages with memorable and specific details from each experience, perhaps most notably in the first section when she describes her time under Wylie Dufresne at New York’s wd-50. If you’re curious about life in a restaurant kitchen or plan to visit Vietnam, Tel Aviv, Paris or wd-50 anytime soon, give this book a go. Shockey pulls back the curtain and reveals what goes into making meals at those various locales happen.

Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza. The good people at Three Lives & Company in New York know how to recommend a book before a trip. Before going to Barcelona, for example, I stopped in there and was recommended two books: Barcelona by Robert Hughes & The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n. Both books deeply informed my trip and helped put the experiences I was having in a context I wouldn’t have had otherwise. Same goes, then, for the book the Three Lives people recommended to me before visiting New Orleans: Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza. The book is equal parts personal reflection, passionate homage, and furious diatribe (about the way the government handled Katrina) and, in its jumble, paints a portrait of a city that’s very easy to love. Piazza can be hectoring at times and there were moments I wanted to shout at the book, “Hey! I’m on your side!” But, mostly, I was glad to see the city through the eyes of someone who loves it as much as Piazza does before seeing it myself. Three Lives, you did it again.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Sometimes you just want to get lost in a story, transported and possibly transformed by a world that’s utterly different than your own. I’ve always known that Lonesome Dove would be such a book; my mistake was, seeing it marked “3” in a 4-part series, I read the first two books (Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon) before I allowed myself to read what I thought was the 3rd part. Turns out, though, that Lonesome Dove was written first and the other books are prequels: sort of like making yourself watch “Star Wars” Episodes 1 through 3 (God forbid) before watching the good stuff. The point is: skip books 1 and 2 and start with Lonesome Dove. It’s a wonderful book; fast-paced and choc full of incident and unforgettable characters. You’ll turn those pages fast (there was one night when we had company and I excused myself to the other room so I could finish a particularly compelling chapter) and you’ll be sad when it’s all over. Then you can read the prequels and enjoy them.

Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton. Traditionally, when I finish a food book, I write about it on my main blog; an easy way to generate a post without having to cook anything. But when I finished Blood, Bones and Butter, I didn’t feel worthy of it. I didn’t know what I could say that hadn’t already been said; Anthony Bourdain called it “the best memoir by a chef ever” and I couldn’t disagree. The writing is lush and deeply personal; more importantly, it’s funny. I’ve always been a huge fan of Prune, partially for the whimsical nature of the place, but what Hamilton reveals in her book is the excruciating amount of work that goes into running a successful restaurant. I’ll never forget (and I wish I could) her account of finding a dead rat outside her restaurant’s door that still seemed to be moving. What happens next is the stuff of nightmares; but it’s a testament to my affection for and admiration of Hamilton, her food, and her writing, that not even a rat exploding with maggots (ok, I gave it away) could keep me away from her restaurant. It’s where I went for my final meal as a New York resident for a reason: Prune, like Hamilton herself, represents the best that New York has to offer. Don’t miss this book.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This may be it, my favorite book that I read this year. It’s funny because when I first heard about this book, I was wary. High-concept books with high-concept structures rarely appeal to me. I enjoyed Cloud Atlas, and that’s certainly a book in the same family as this one; but other experimental books, like The Savage Detectives for example, leave me cold. What got me hooked on Egan’s book was the first chapter. It’s very simple: a woman’s on a date. She goes to the bathroom. She sees a purse on the ground outside a bathroom stall and decides to steal a wallet out of it. She goes back to the table, exhilarated and terrified of what she just did. And what happens next, well, you want to know, don’t you. And that’s precisely what makes Egan’s book so successful: she makes you care even when, upon reaching the next chapter, it’s about a totally different character only peripherally related to the first character. Figuring out the structure and how the characters are connected is part of the fun of the book. And somehow, miraculously, when it’s all over, you feel like you read a cohesive novel with an internal logic that gradually reveals itself even after the book is over. Egan, maybe even more so than Jonathan Franzen, perfectly captures the mood of these modern times. It’s no wonder that she beat him out for the Pulitzer prize (and having read Freedom too, I think she deserved it.)

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I’ve never cared much for high society. Don’t ask me, for example, who Pippa is. I don’t know but I do know she wears a funny hat. Evenly Waugh’s book, which spawned a mini-series that’s having a bit of a resurgence (see the recent New York Times article about it) is all about the Pippas of his day. This book takes you through the stately mansions, saves you a seat at extravagant dinners, gets you drunk on Port and tells you scandalous stories of marriages gone awry. It’s a wicked book, full of mischief and cattiness, that’s also, occasionally, moving. I have to say, despite the fun here, I much prefer Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray which covers similar ground but does so in a way that’s significantly more entertaining. Both are gay classics; Dorian Gray is the classier of the two.

The first 150 pages of Swamplandia by Karen Russell. I had a fight with this book, which is on many “best of” lists this year. My issues with it are complicated. On the one hand, I admire Russell (who’s annoyingly young) for creating a world and characters that are so specific, so imaginative, so unlike any I’ve encountered before. On the other hand, I think she goes too far. It’s just too much imagination and not enough real life; nothing in this book felt grounded to me. It felt show-offy and inauthentic; as if she were standing over your shoulder whispering: “Look what I can do! Can you believe I came up with THAT?” I quit the book when she started telling the story of The Dredgeman, a ghost who starts dating the narrator’s sister. The story, while richly detailed (and the language, I should say, is wonderfully lyrical) didn’t do anything for me. I didn’t care. I also didn’t care that much about the narrator, who–according to the blurbs in the front of the book–is supposed to be Russell’s version of Scout Finch from To Kill A Mockingbird. But Scout Finch is rooted in a specific place and time; I believe in Scout Finch and Atticus and Jem. I don’t believe in Ava Bigtree or her sister or her brother who works in that weird theme park across the way. And the fact that I could stop reading after page 150 without remorse suggests that this book was just not for me. I hope it deals with our break-up as well as I did.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. When I tossed Swamplandia aside, I decided to read something fun. This was late at night so I dug out my iPad (which I rarely use) and downloaded the Kindle version of Hunger Games, Book One. I read the first chapter. I read the second chapter. The next day, I woke up and finished the whole book and downloaded the second one. I devoured that on the plane to Seattle; finished that on Christmas morning and downloaded Book Three and finished it the day after we came back. These books, as my friend Jill says, are “like crack.” You can’t stop reading them. Are they good, though? I mean, are they literature? My feeling is: no. They’re wonderful entertainments. The first book, especially, is pretty flawless in the way that it draws you in and makes your heart race as you tear through the pages. But the problem is that the books are guilty of the very thing that they criticize: these are entertaining books about kids killing each other that makes the point that kids shouldn’t kill each other for entertainment. It’s as if Collins wrote the first book, felt guilty about it, and wrote the second and third book as penance for her success. I mean, let’s put it this way: if kids didn’t kill each other in the Hunger Games series, would the books have been as popular? And when we watch the movie (a movie that, I’m sure, will make Collins even richer than she already is): aren’t we partially watching it to see kids fight to the death? I’m saying all this not to vilify Collins, who’s a talented storyteller, but to reveal the inner-conflict that makes the second and third books less fun than the first book. As far as the writing, it’s purely functional. Craig says he heard it described as basically “an outline for a screenplay” and I have to agree. Nothing is rendered in vivid detail. In fact, characters and scenes fly by so quickly, I often had no idea who it was that died some horrific death. Collins relishes killing her characters, though, that’s for sure. From melting them in a violet light to dropping them into a meat grinder, this woman makes Eli Roth look like Shel Silverstein. I recommend these books as quick, escapist story porn that’ll get you through a long flight or a short stay at a hospital. Will they change your life? Most likely not.

[See also: The Books That I Read in 2010.]

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