Tuesday, January 03, 2012

2011 Literature List

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon -- One of the better books I've read over the past year.  Told from the point of view of a boy with autism, but who is a genius at math.  The genius of Haddon is his ability to present a very convincing picture of how a young, autistic savant's mind would work, and all without coming across as patronizing in the process.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin -- If you want to know about rural Mississippi wrapped in a well-done murder mystery tinged with racial overtones, you'll want to check this out.  What I like about this story is that the typical racial narratives of life in Mississippi are reversed, with the white man subject to vilification and suspicion of heinous crimes while a black man, working for the local police, who has information that could vindicate this white man, doesn't come forward and let's it fester for a long time, some twenty plus years, until the situation comes to a head and the truth must out.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson -- This one takes a bit of getting used to as it's essentially a missive from an elderly minister to his young son.  It's purposefully slow-paced, but it has a kind of peacefulness about it that is very calming and soothing.  Very philosophical and theological.  If you're looking for action or for a plot that has twists and turns, this book isn't for you.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart -- At first, the brazen vulgarity and crass sexual materialism that hits the reader square in the face very early on can be quite a turn off.  But, this book, out of all the ones that I read over the past year, has probably stuck with me the most.  It's that kind of book that one constantly remembers and thinks about.  What makes it this way is the fact that the world Shteyngart paints is one that seems quite possible in the near future.  And the theme of the social alienation and coarseness that comes with a loss of privacy through advanced technology is, I think, probably very prescient.  It's a glimpse into a world what we can actually see the beginnings of today.

In the Company of Angels, by Thomas E. Kennedy -- This was a difficult read because it probes the depths of deep psychological wounds that result from systematic torture on the one hand (one of the main characters is an exiled torture victim of the Chilean military dictatorship of the 1970s and 1980s) and from domestic abuse on the other hand (the other main character is a Danish woman whose adult life was characterized by harsh physical abuse from her husband and subsequent boyfriend, compounded by the suicide of her only child at a very young adult age).  But the writing is elegant and the description of Copenhagen and Danish life is quite satisfying.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot -- The only non-fiction book in this current list, this book is exceptional for its ability to tell the history and probe the ethics of cell tissue research in a way that any average, non-biologist or non-geneticist, can read.  It's also a very readable sociology of race in the context of scientific experimentation and the evolution of protection of the rights and privacy of human subjects in scientific research involving human tissue samples.

Distant Star, by Roberto Bolaño -- Another short book that explores the depths of the mind and actions of a Chilean torturer and sadist.  However, the narrative is so compelling, well-written, and readable that the horror of the profile of the story's main subject personality, while not obscured, is certainly muted.  In other words the beauty of the writing belies the terribleness of the story that is being written.

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, all by Suzanne Collins -- Because my oldest daughter has read them, and in anticipation for the upcoming movie release based on the book, and given that some of my friends whose reading choices I respect have given this series glowing reviews, I thought that I should read them, too.  And they do not disappoint.  While the story can get a bit cliched at times -- i.e. the suffering underdog hero always wins in the end against the evil authority -- the actual story concept is pretty creative: in a post-apocalyptic United States, subordinate and oppressed zones dominated by a central power have to send teenage kids - a boy and a girl - to fight to the death against one another until only one is left standing -- hence, the "hunger games."  As usual, the first in the series is the best; but the follow-up books hold their own, even though they aren't as good.  The writing is crisp and clear, and the narrative in each book of the trilogy is action-packed from start to finish.  It's an adolescent reader's version of a cross between the Mad Max story, Gladiator, and Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery" told in epic format.  And, yes, good and freedom conquers evil and totalitarianism in the end.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - One calendar year in the life of 13 year old British boy who suffers with a stutter, deals with being bullied at school, craves to belong and be "cool," while his parents' marriage dissolves and ends in divorce.  The language and storytelling is very good, and one gets a really good sense of how life for an adolescent boy in semi-rural, small-town Britain was in 1982-1983.  As someone who was a young teenager in the early 1980s myself, I particularly enjoyed the pop cultural flashback that this story engendered: Thatcherism, Reaganism, The Falklands War, and  the punk/pop culture of Adam and the Ants, Madness, and Blondie made this, in a way, a nostalgic read for me, too.

I'm sure there are more to add, especially from the non-fiction categories that my work and teaching require; but I'll leave them for another day.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Most of my reading last year was slogging through the Federalist/Anti-Federalist papers and re-reading the entire Stephen King 'Dark Tower' trilogy, which is, with all its faults, still my favorite fantasy series of all time (and I'll stand on JRR Tolkien's grave and say that). A few other noteworthy books I read this year:

-Game Of Thrones (we watched the HBO series and I stayed about a chapter ahead of each episode in my reading, which made it interesting... great character writing but I don't know if I care enough about the plot to continue w/ the series)

- D-Day by Stephen Ambrose - Great primer on one of the most amazing and horrifying days in human memory.

- Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank - I read a few "end of civilization" survivalist/prepper type novels last year. They are always horribly written but philosophically interesting. 'Alas, Babylon' is perhaps the grandaddy of that particular genre, written in the 50's about a small community in Florida trying to rebuild civilization after a nuclear war, and it distinguishes itself from every other book of its type by being fairly well written.

"On The Nature Of The Gods" -by Cicero: A Stoic, an Epicurean, and a Skeptic (who happens to be a priest) meet over dinner to talk about God. You'd expect a cheesy punchline in there, but instead you just get a fascinating conversation that informs much more about those individual philosophies than it does about the nature of God. Great read.

Empire Of The Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne - A history of the Comanche tribe and their 200 year reign over the American plains. One of my favorite reads of the year, it actually inspired a family camping trip to Palo Duro Canyon outside Amarillo, TX (the Comanche tribe's home base for over a century). It took the Anglo and Spanish settlers in San Antonio nearly 50 years to figure out that the Indians who kept raiding them were operating out of a base camp that was over 300 miles away... nobody believed they could have that kind of range, because no other Indian tribe did (and that was only the bottom of half of territory they had laid supreme claim to since riding out of Wyoming on captured Spanish horses in 1680). Great book about one of the most successful (and underrated) military cultures in world history.