Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011: My Reading Year in Review

So it’s been a bit quiet here on Free Range Reading over the last couple of weeks, but of course that’s because I’ve been on vacation and trying very hard not to do any actual work. But I have taken some time from all this lounging around in my pajamas and drinking myself blind to compile my annual reading year in review – my top 10 books, my top 5 disappointments. After much eggnog-induced contemplation, I feel pretty confident about my choices.

What struck me about 2011’s top 10 list was that only three novels made the cut. Three short story collections, three works of nonfiction and a poetry book make up the rest of the list. This seems odd to me, as I often feel like I read a disproportionately high volume of novels every year, compared to other genres.

I often make apologies for my top 5 disappointments, stating that they aren’t necessarily bad books but just books that didn’t live up to the expectations I had for them. Not this year. I can confidently say that all five books on this list were bad as well as disappointing.

Anyway, here we go:

Top 10 books I read this year:

Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore. “You get the sense that Moore – who was just 28 when she published this book – is writing out of a profound sense of freedom, of unencumbered movement, flinging her limbs to the sky and not caring who is watching or what she looks like as she performs. It’s what gives these stories their startling originality.” Full review.

Are You Somebody, by Nuala O'Faolain. “Yes, Are You Somebody? is probably not the best structured book I’ve ever encountered. It hops around in time and place and doesn’t linger enough on any given person in O’Faolain’s life to give us a full sense of that person’s impact on her. But what so engrosses us in this memoir is not the bare facts of what happened over the course of this Irish woman’s tumultuous life, but the voice in which she shares those events with us. This is writing that does not contain a gram of self consciousness. This is writing that is entirely caught up in the moment of itself, in the truth it is trying to express.” Full review.

Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran. “One the great strengths of Foran’s writing is that he never takes his narrative off in directions that aren’t appropriate for the subject itself. Richler would have had a low tolerance for high-falutin’ literary analysis (even of his own work) or didactic extrapolations on biography, and Foran wisely keeps both out of his book. Instead, he approaches his subject with an eye for storytelling, for humour and for presenting details at face value and allowing the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. Richler would have thoroughly approved.” Full review.

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. “It’s really difficult to sum up the vast array of sacred cows, current affairs and cultural phenomena that Shteyngart is skewering in this novel. Capitalism, communism, strip joints, the Iraq War, the ‘immigrant experience’, senses of national identity, 9/11, porn, globalization and Mother Russia herself all fall victim to his fearlessly satiric eye.” Full review.

Forms of Devotion, by Diane Schoemperlen.Forms of Devotion is one of the most satisfying collections of short fiction I’ve read in a long time. Schoemperlen’s experiments and craftsmanship keep the rewards coming with nearly every turn of the page. This book is definitely worth reading again, and again.” Full review.

Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle. “In the end, Bullfighting is exactly the kind of work we’ve come to expect from Roddy Doyle: funny and sad, brilliant in the way it balances small details with large concerns, and infinitely, compulsively readable. I strongly recommend it – for men and women alike.” Full review.

Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson. “From this launching pad, Guesswork ascends into a stratosphere rich in delightful preoccupations. One might surmise that the collection’s title is ironic, since none of the poems here come off like guesswork at all; rather, they feel forged out of obsessions or observations that may have taken years, or even decades, to incubate.” Full review.

Gunmetal Blue, by Shane Neilson. “What [Neilson has] written is a raw-boned, devastating, unflinching, uncomfortable and fiercely honest portrait of his life as a doctor and a poet. Neilson describes these duo careers … without a hint of sentimentality or pretension. Medicine is a matter of life and death, but for Neilson, so too is poetry. He weaves its importance into the very fabric of his life, treating it not as a pleasant adjunct to his existence but as a core component of it. Gunmetal Blue is about a man finding his voice both as a physician and as a scribe. It is cold-eyed and elliptical. This is a memoir as memoir should be.” Full review.

The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. “I’ve been a huge fan and advocate of Coady’s work since reading her first novel, Strange Heaven, more than 10 years ago. I can tell you without a gram of hyperbole that The Antagonist is her finest work to date by a good country mile – and that’s saying a lot, considering how brilliant her other books are … [I]f someone were to go about tailoring a novel for my exact and specific tastes, the end result would resemble something like The Antagonist.” Full review.

The Enemy in the Blanket, by Anthony Burgess. “What’s interesting is how the dynamics of these characters’ relationships –multicultural, fragmented, decentralized from a sense of self – mirrors the broader political situation in Malaya … In the end, the future for everyone is uncertain, loyalties are vague and the past cannot be unwritten.” Full review.

Top five disappointments this year:

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson. “I could tell there was something profoundly wrong with this novel right from the beginning. The book never seems to settle into a single scene, into a clear-cut time and place – it hops around aimlessly from past to present, from moments of immediacy to ones of pure hypothesis. For the first third of the book, the narrative never finds a comfortable place to sit. Then you begin to realize why. You start to see that this is not an organic story arising naturally out of itself. This is a narrative intended to make massive, multifarious commentaries on contemporary Jewishness – on traditions, religion, the state of Israel, the Palestinian question – and each and every character is merely a prop used toward those aims.” Full review.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe. “It’s been a long time since I’ve hated a novel as much as Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. I mean, wow. This book is so bad that it can’t help but acknowledge – inadvertently or otherwise – its own awfulness at odd intervals … You realize early on that you’re in for a long slog, not simply because this novel tells you you’re in for a long slog (and it does!) but because you find yourself wanting to line-edit the first 20 or 30 pages. Many of Coe’s sentences at the beginning of this book are in desperate need of tightening up and expose an occasional slip into questionable grammar.” Full review.

Mongrel, by Marko Sijan. I have no actual review to point to, as I didn’t get much past page 30 of this novel. I had such high hopes for Mongrel after reading Sijan’s (very candid) essay in CNQ about its long road to publication. I know some people loved this book (including Jim Bartley, “first fiction” reviewer at The Globe and Mail) but Mongrel wasn’t my cup of tea at all.

Larry’s Party, by Carol Shields. “There’s a lot to admire about this book, but also a lot that annoys. Chief among the problems I had with Larry’s Party is its structure: each chapter is written as a stand-alone piece, as if this were a collection of short stories and not a novel. Characters and their backgrounds are reintroduced in each chapter and each chapter has its own small arc. And yet this is not a short story collection, and it’s not even a collection of linked stories. If it were, Shields wouldn’t be so preoccupied with the linear track of Larry’s overall story and would have made the various ‘slippages’ necessary for a linked collection to work. This is a novel, and yet is inexplicably framed like a short story collection.” Full review.

The Perfect Order of Things, by David Gilmour.The Perfect Order of Things is bound to be forgotten five minutes after you’ve finished the last page, and rightfully so. Still, many readers will emit little titters of delight along the way before consigning it to a final guffaw of dismissal.” Full review.

This year's full reading list:

64. December 28. Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant. 378 pps.
63. December 14. Ossuaries, by Dionne Brand. 124 pps.
62. December 12. In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders. 228 pps.
61. December 6. The Enchanted House, by Beth E. Janzen. 64 pps.
60. December 5. How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry, edited by E.O. Parrott. 270 pps.
59. November 30. Beds in the East, by Anthony Burgess. 219 pps.
58. November 25. The Enemy in the Blanket, by Anthony Burgess. 200 pps.
57. November 21. Time for a Tiger, by Anthony Burgess. 203 pps.
56. November 17. Verbatim, by Jeff Bursey. 294 pps.
55. November 9. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. 363 pps.
54. November 1. The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. 337 pps.
53. October 27. The Perfect Order of Things, by David Gilmour. 222 pps.
52. October 22. A Glass Shard and Memory, by J.J. Steinfeld. 240 pps.
51. October 18. Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir, by Shane Neilson. 198 pps.
50. October 13. Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. 309 pps.
49. October 4. Hitting the Charts: Collected Stories, by Leon Rooke. 298 pps.
48. September 27. The Big Dream, by Rebecca Rosenblum. 190 pps.
47. September 25. Larry's Party, by Carol Shields. 339 pps.
46. September 16. Eye Lake, by Tristan Hughes. 179 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)
45. September 12. Description of the Blazing World, by Michael Murphy. 234 pps.
44. September 7. (reread) The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. 499 pps.
43. August 28. The Return, by Dany Laferriere. 227 pps. (For review in Quill & Quire.)
42. August 23. The Millstone, by Margaret Drabble. 172 pps.
41. August 19. (reread) A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Iriving. 617 pps. (For the Co-habitational Reading Challenge.)
40. August 17. How Stories Mean, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers. 356 pps.
39. August 6. Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew, by Stuart Ross. 178 pps.
38. August 2. Mongrel, by Marko Sijan. (unfinished) 32 pps.
37. July 31. Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare. 255 pps.
36. July 26. Dog Eat Rat, by Tom Walmsley, 180 pps.
35. July 23. Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson. 78 pps.
34. July 21. Campfire Radio Rhapsody, by Robert Earl Stewart. 95 pps.
33. July 20. The Fry Chronicles, by Stephen Fry. 446 pps.
32. July 13. Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. 483 pps.
31. June 26. The Italian Girl, by Iris Murdoch. 171 pps.
30. June 23. Disarmament, by John Terpstra. 98 pps.
29. June 21. (read) The Glass Knight, by David Helwig. 190 pps.
28. June 15. The Shadow of the Sun, by A.S. Byatt. 298 pps.
27. June 8. Pigeon, by Karen Solie. 100 pps.
26. June 7. Bullfightng, by Roddy Doyle. 214 pps.
25.June 2. The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, by Jonathan Coe. 314 pps.
24. May 24. Forms of Devotion, by Diane Schoemperlen. 223 pps.
23. May 20. Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino. 165 pps.
22. May 17. The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, 302 pps.
21. May 10. A Season in the Life of Emmanuel, by Marie-Claire Blais. 145 pps.
20. May 8. Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart. 333 pps.
19. May 2. All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy. 302 pps.
18. April 26. Folk, by Jacob McArthur Mooney. 103 pps.
17. April 25. Underground, by Antanas Sileika. 310 pps.
16. April 18. The Rush to Here, by George Murray. 79 pps.
15. April 15. Winter Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal. 122 pps.
14. April 13. Find the Words: Writers on Inspiration, Desire, War, Celebrity, Exile, and Breaking the Rules, edited by Jared Bland. 320 pps.
13. March 30. Mordecai: The Life & Times, by Charles Foran. 752 pps.
12. March 14. Bloom, by Michael Lista. 76 pps.
11. March 12. Wonder Boys, by Michael Chabon. 368 pps.
10. March 6. Blue Angel, by Francine Prose. 314 pps.
9. February 28. Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. 186 pps.
8. February 26. Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter, by Carmen Aguirre 277 pps. (For review in Quill and Quire.)
7. February 18. Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow. 233 pps.
6. February 13. C, by Tom McCarthy. 310 pps.
5. February 5. Remainder, by Tom McCarthy. 308 pps.
4. January 30. Are You Somebody?, by Nuala O'Faolain. 225 pps.
3. January 25. The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson 307 pps.
2. January 19. Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore. 163 pps.
1. January 16. Collected Stories, by Frank O'Connor. 715 pps.