Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 59 books in 2011, a bit of a drop from previous years which is mainly due to Strange Horizons and the SF Encyclopedia taking up a lot of my time, but also, as I mentioned yesterday, because commuting by car rather than pubic transport has cut into my reading time.  Probably the most interesting thing about this year's reading is that for the first time since I've been keeping track, I've read more books by women than men.  This is mainly due to my Women Writing SF project from early in the year (though a reread of the entire Harry Potter series in August, inspired by the release of the last movie, also helped).  If you look at the gender breakdown of best and worst books, there's a clear indication that I should strive to maintain, and even increase, this preference for women writers.

All told, 2011 was a good reading year but not a remarkable one.  I read many books I enjoyed, if few that I loved unreservedly, and not many that I hated.  Most of all, I didn't read nearly as many books as I wanted, and going into 2012 there are at least a dozen books that I'd like to be my next read, and that I would have loved to have gotten to this year.  Which is not a bad place to be in, I suppose.  Without Further ado, then, the best books of the year, in alphabetical order of their authors' names:
  • The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson

    Once again, NYRB Classics delivers the year's hands-down winner.  Bengtsson's invented Viking saga, which follows the adventures of the sardonic, cheerfully bloody-minded Red Orm as he is kidnapped into slavery, becomes a royal bodyguard in Muslim Spain, escapes and makes his fortune pirating, and returns to his home to become a great chieftain, is an effortlessly fun adventure story, full of wonderful characters--including some memorable and prominent female characters such as Orm's mother and love interest.  Bengtsson tells his story with enough of a straight face that it comes across like a Tolkien-esque recreation that chucks overboard the tools of modernist fiction in favor of plotty, adventurous fun, but he also has a sense of humor about his subject, and doesn't mind poking fun at either his characters or the conventions of their story.  A thought-provoking discussion of religious conflict in the story's era, with pagans, Christians, Muslims and Jews vying, at certain points, for supremacy, and at others, for survival under an inhospitable regime, and constantly making the case for their own way of life, gives the story some heft, but even this is leavened by Bengtsson's sense of humor and Red Orm's practical approach to all matters, the spiritual included.  When I started The Long Ships, I worried that I would find nothing human enough in it to grab onto and interest me, but by the time I turned the last page I was heartbroken at the thought that I could spend no more time following the adventures of its wonderful characters.

  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

    At the very other end of the genre scale, Egan's literary novel par excellence is a reminder of why I continue to read literary fiction and of the pleasures that can be found in it.  A Visit From the Goon Squad is quintessentially literary--plotless and focusing on character and affect--but it uses its leaps back and forth through the lives of large cast of loosely connected characters, taking the old and dissipated back to their innocent youth, the young and hopeful forward to disappointed middle age, to land a hell of a punch.  Slowly and almost obliquely, Egan drives home that point that time and its ravages spare no one, and the characters she subjects to those ravages are so human and so relatable that by the time her scheme becomes apparent the novel is nothing short of heartbreaking.  The segment set in the future works less well than the ones in the present and past, but it serves as a reminder that time doesn't stop for those of us who are still young--like it or not, the goon squad is waiting for us as well, and just around the corner.

  • Gullstruck Island (The Lost Conspiracy in the US) by Frances Hardinge (review)

    I read a lot of YA in 2011, and enjoyed most of it, but Hardinge's novel puts the rest of her field--and a lot of novels for adults--to shame.  Most YA reaches for a sense of familiarity, through the characters' worldview and reactions, if not through its setting and premise.  Hardinge not only reaches for foreignness, but makes it the crux of her story.  The titular setting, a tropical island, has a rich history of colonization and cultural mingling that is a pleasure to discover, and the plot revolves around cultural differences and misunderstandings.  The heroine, Hathin, is as much a product of her culture as everyone else in the novel, which makes her slightly foreign to us, and her decisions sometimes a little hard to understand.  Over the course of the novel she struggles, first for survival, then for revenge, and finally for the future of Gullstruck itself, but the real struggle, for her and for the rest of the cast, is to find a balance between respecting tradition and being bound by it, and between holding on to one's own culture and trampling the culture of others.  It's a weighty subject, but Hardinge handles it as lightly as she does the novel's twisty plot, which sees Hathin escaping the massacre of her village and trekking across Gullstruck while other point of view characters slowly grasp the danger facing everyone on the island, and which makes Gullstruck Island an utterly engrossing read.
Honorable Mentions:
  • God's War by Kameron Hurley - The setting grabbed me more than the plot or characters, but it is original and clever enough to make this novel a highlight of the year.

  • Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness (review) - A fittingly dramatic conclusion to the excellent Chaos Walking trilogy, though it sadly fumbles the theme of gender introduced in the first volume.

  • Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine (review) - Like God's War, more impressive for its setting than its plot or characters, but also a novel that does interesting things with the clichés of steampunk and its circus setting.

  • The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman (review) - Not as impressive as Goodman's masterpiece Intuition, but the novel's depiction of the late years of the dot com boom has stayed with me, and resonated through much of my SF reading in the last few months--pretty impressive for an Austen-tinged romance about cookbooks.
A special, collective honorable mention goes to the Women Writing SF reading project and the authors whose science fiction I discovered through it for the first time: Joanna Russ, Gwyneth Jones (strictly speaking, a 2010 author), Mary Gentle, and even M.J. Engh, whose Arslan remains one of the most frustrating and challenging books I read this year.  I'm planning a second project, probably a little later in 2012, and hopefully its results will be as engrossing and illuminating.

And, since you can't have the good without the bad, the worst books of the year:
  • The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

    I had planned to write a long post about Orringer's well-received debut novel and why it put me off so completely, but time and the complexity of the task put that project off long past the point where I could do it justice without rereading the book.  Still, I can't let 2011 come to a close without saying something about this book, which encapsulate, to me, the corner that Holocaust fiction has turned in recent years, from fiction aimed at illustrating the horror of the Holocaust to fiction that uses the Holocaust as a backdrop to an adventure, or a coming of age story, or, in Orringer's case, a romance.  Orringer has the excuse of basing her story, in which Hungarian architecture student Andras falls in love with an older woman, Klara, during his studies in Paris, and brings her back to Hungary just as the war kicks into gear, trapping them both in a Nazi-friendly country, on the lives of her grandparents, but whether out of love and family loyalty, or simple tone-deafness, she has cast those lives into the mold of an insipid romance.  Not only are Andras and Klara inhumanly perfect, never selfish or angry or craven or forced to do anything unsavory to survive, but Orringer so valorizes and prioritizes their love story that the awfulness of the Holocaust becomes the fact that it might tear these lovers apart.  One of the most horrifying crimes of the twentieth century is thus reduced to a romance trope, the obstacle that must be placed in the lovers' path so that their inevitable happy ending feels earned, while the deaths of other characters feel like dramatic necessities, heightening tension or sweeping a now-pointless character off the board, not the crushing blows they must have been in real life.  It's pretty obvious that Orringer thinks that she's honored her grandparents and acknowledged the horror of what they and their families experienced, but what she's created is so glib and so devoid of any real horror that I found it nothing short of disgusting.

  • The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

    As I've already written, Rachman's implausibly well-reviewed debut feels like the antithesis of Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad.  Like that novel it moves back and forth through time and through the lives of reporters, administrators, and hangers-on at a Rome-based international paper, leading up to the paper's collapse along with the rest of its industry in the early twenty-first century.  But Rachman, instead of creating human and believable characters, trades in stereotypes and in crude, too-obvious jokes, reaching for dramatic irony--a character who has romanticized their free-thinking best friend discovers that he is now conservative and small-minded, a woman strikes up a romance with an employee she's just had fired only for their connection to turn out to be a cruel prank--but landing, again and again, on clomping, leaden, unfunny endings that only stress how unlikable and unsympathetic everyone in the novel is.  Rachman not only completely fails to sell the grandeur of print journalism and its vanished era or greatness, but by the time he reaches the end of his story, his elegiac tone feels so incongruous with the unpleasant, cliché-ridden stories he's been telling that one wants nothing more than to drive a final stake through the medium's corpse.

  • Reamde by Neal Stephenson (review)

    Strictly speaking, Reamde isn't entirely a bad novel.  The early chapters have some typically Stephenson-ian excursus on the relationship between MMORPGs and economics, and the middle chapters are essentially one long action scene spread out over several days and locations, but nevertheless quite exciting.  But the novel is too long, and by its end both the neat inventiveness of its beginning and the cool action of its middle have faded away, several hundred pages before the story actually shuffles to its close.  Still, what's bad about Reamde is less the novel itself and more the way that its failures as a piece of fiction lay bare Stephenson's limited, self-satisfied, ethnocentric worldview, which in turn spurred a, perhaps long overdue, reevaluation of his past fiction, which suffers from the same flaws.  Reamde is on this list, then, because it may very well have put me off Stephenson for good.
Dishonorable mentions:
  • Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber - What I had hoped would be a cool mystery starring a female scientist turned out to be a weepy romance with a self-absorbed protagonist and a nonsensical plot.

  • Snuff by Terry Pratchett (review) - Poorly written and harping too hard on themes already worn into the ground, this latest Discworld volume turns Sam Vimes into someone who is more concerned with his own image as a class warrior than with actually being a class warrior, and treats slavery with an infuriating glibness.
That's it for 2011, then.  Have a nice (and safe) New Year's Eve tonight, and happy reading in 2012.


Michal said...

I am so happy to see The Long Ships on this list. It's a book I love unreservedly and recommend at every turn. Truly great storytelling, and oh so much fun.

Jack Rodgers said...

I've been reading your blog for about a year now, and I wanted to say thank you for a number of great book recommendations. I read I Capture the Castle and Cloud Atlas last summer, and just finished The Long Ships and The Last Good Kiss after getting them for Christmas (I'm a slow reader, I'm afraid). Your comments inspired me to finally move Cloud Atlas to the top of my reading list, and I probably would never have heard of the other three books if not for you (okay, I vaguely remembered Castle thanks to the movie adaptation from a few years back, but that didn't exactly inspire me to seek out the source material). Keep up the good work - I look forward to checking out more of your recommendations in the future.

Ruzz said...

Probably too late to add a comment here but astonished and delighted to see the reference to The Long Ships, a book that seems to shrug off it's increasing age. Excellent for all the reasons you give.

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