It’s more than half way through January and as usual, I’m behind. I considered skipping this post altogether, as many of my favorite books from 2011 appeared on this blog when I read them, or shortly thereafter. I also don’t remember what I read in 2011 very well. My chronology is wonky and unreliable, and I can only be sure of a few general and thematic things:
I can think more easily of authors than of titles. I know I read oh so many books that broke my heart. I also know that if you spoke to me at all last year, had a single conversation with me longer than 30 seconds, there’s a strong chance that I declared my passionate love for Joan Didion. I read her novel Play It As It Lays at some point early in 2011. I fell in love with that book, and then fell further in love with Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I’d read a little Didion before and liked it, but I’d never read her the way I read her this year: intensely, voraciously, patiently. And impatiently. I read an advanced manuscript copy of her new memoir, Blue Nights before it was released this fall. I finished it in the middle of the night, reading with a flashlight, feeling stunned.
I dressed up the day that I worked our bookstore’s event with her. I was giddy about meeting her and hearing her speak. I told her so. She thanked me. I’m still a bit giddy.
I think that Joan Didion is one of the best writers alive today. I think her work will be read for centuries. I had a conversation the other day about Sylvia Plath, and whether or not she should be called a minor, rather than a major poet. My friend said (I’m paraphrasing) that she thinks of Plath (on whom she wrote her dissertation) as a minor poet, mostly because she is so distinctly tied to her time, rather than being simultaneously timely and timeless. I think Didion is timely and timeless. I think that she is a writer for whom writing gets harder the better she gets at it. I think that she uses language like a knife, and the more adept she becomes, the thinner and sharper her blade and the more elusive her quarry. I cannot imagine a more terrifying blank page than the one that faces Joan Didion when she begins to write, and I think you can sense that in the deep, oceanic rhythm of her prose, so propulsive and beautiful, haunting and incisive, lyrical and fear-defying. I have trouble thinking of another writer who speaks to me as profoundly as Didion does.
That being said, I did read a few other things this year. Mostly poetry. Well, that’s a lie — I read a lot of poetry, but I read many other things too. A breakdown by genre seems like a good idea, so…
Fiction: I loved Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. I was swept away by Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, and entranced (and horrified, as usual) by Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and The Bell. I think I owe a lot to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, which I read early last winter and which cracked through a string of reading failures with tragic hilarity and misshapen affection.
I reread Sarah Waters’ novel The Nightwatch, Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater! and Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I highly recommend reading The Phantom Tollbooth aloud to yourself whenever you’re in need of buoying up.
I also read a quite a few essays. I was enchanted by Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, whose final line (“If I could start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers exist in the world or the universe, I still think that’s where we’re going to find them.”) tolled in my head throughout the past month and a half of struggling with graduate school applications. I wrote a staff recommendation for Anna Politkovskaya’s final collected writings, Is Journalism Worth Dying for?, perhaps the most important and most difficult book I read last year. I discovered the great pleasures of M.F.K Fisher and Wendell Berry.
I’ve never had a year where I’ve thought more about how I want to live my life, so it’s more than appropriate that one of my favorite books of the year was Sarah Bakewell’s biography, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. I also spent several weeks with Hermione Lee’s excellent biography of Virginia Woolf (by far the longest book I read this year) and weird and hilarious train ride with Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages.
This year was my introduction to graphic novels, and thanks to the hand-selected choices of a terrifically knowledgeable and generous friend, I’m probably hooked for life. Many of my favorite books this year have really important graphic elements. I had my heart broken by Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls and David Mazzucchelli’s gorgeous graphic novel Asterios Polyp. I had it repaired by Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty, by the fun I’ve had reading The Unwritten series, and by bathing it in oodles and oodles of poetry. Granted, I read some pretty heartbreaking poetry, but something about poetry repairs your heart even as it splits it open.
I read more Szymborksa, discovered Bob Hicok and Jack Gilbert, returned to Frank O’Hara and A.R. Ammons, and stumbled across Katherine Larsen’s excellent Radial Symmetry, the poems of Nick Flynn, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Olena Kalytiak Davis.
So, in summary, 2011’s Absolute Best: Joan Didion, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, Asterios Polyp, Bob Hicok, and A.R. Ammons. Absolute, absolute best? Didion and Hicok. I’ll leave you with this:
Some things that come together in coming apart
How stuck am I on the polar ice caps
now that they’re not so much there as historical
novels people pretend to have read
but really, who has the time? Like it’s haveable,
time, like we can stop driving ourselves
to the market and crazy soon enough
to have anything left to claim for England. Melting things
on that scale beats the yo-yo I stoved to goo
and a spanking, someone
needs to come along and send us to bed
without supper. In our defense
we’re stupid, gullible, smelly, we’re not
stupid, that was mean and categorical,
we’re wired and emblazoned and impressed
by the singing of birds who are merely
shuttling air from one spot to another, holding it
as we do each other in a waltz
to let it go further on, where it must fend
for itself. These bits of song-air
and dance are changed forever, everything
is changed forever all the time, I’m not here,
I’m up ahead, running with my arms thrown back
to embrace how mild life seemed
when I first noticed light coming to rest
on my mother’s face. Creatures
who generally have trouble with story problems
may not be the organisms one should ask
to anticipate global warming. A car
about to to be started in Poughkeepsie
is the tipping point, after that, all is fire
and water, all is lost: do you
shoot the driver, learn the backstroke,
enjoy long walks into the high ground?
I keep returning to the ice caps,
their vast calvings in my mind, TV stars
of our dissolution, my head
thunderous and cold and too small
for their wounds but well-suited
to my hair. The debate as I understand it:
it’s too late, it’s not too late. Smart people
agree we’re not that smart. Here are clouds again,
telling me they make this up as they go.
If we don’t owe it to ourselves to fix
what we’ve broken, we owe it to ponies.
That was manipulative, but I love ponies,
how they let our children
ride them in circles with helmets on in case
the circles fall.
~ Bob Hicok