Standout Reads of 2011

Once again these are the books that stood out for me among those I read this past year. They were not necessarily published in 2011; many of them appeared decades ago, in fact.

 

Fiction

  • Native, by William Haywood Henderson. Henderson’s gorgeous, delicate, but also ripping first novel explores some themes similar to those in “Brokeback Mountain.” This novel came out several years earlier. And it’s better, IMO. Not that there isn’t room for lots of this kind of thing in a big state like Wyoming. 
  • The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak. So many American novels are about personal anomie, with characters suffering from what the DSM-III used to call schizoid personality disorder. I’m left wondering, why should I care about characters who don’t care? This main character has every reason to be in this situation. He’s an immigrant three times over, having come to America, returned to Austria, and ultimately coming back to America. That is to say, he has no home. Yet, he fights for the Habsburgs in WWI, among so many tribal groups it’s hard to say why they’re fighting. It’s a time in history when close personal bonds are not always present. However, there is no narrative distance in this story. Great trick, Krivak.
  • City of Light, by Lauren Belfer. A little soapboxy, or a lot, at times, but so interesting in terms of the industrialization of electricity and the social movements it either spawned or was coincident with. Take a trip to Buffalo, which once, like Pittsburgh, had a shot at being one of the centers of wannabe old-money American society (ie, robber barons aping blue-bloods…the ridiculousness goes on and on, but it’s worth reading about). What keeps this book out of mere book club classification is Belfer’s refusal to give her heroine a neat ending. She doesn’t wind up unhappy, exactly, but it’s a tough time in history to be a woman and there’s no real way out of that.
  • Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor. Yeah, should have read these a long time ago. Thanks to author Thomas Powers for pointing this out after I mentioned a book of his in my blog last year.
  • Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner. I’ve read lots of Stegner’s longer works, but am only now working through the stories.
  • The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin. Actually I’m not sure I liked this one, but I recommend it so someone else will have suffered.
  • The Good Son, by Michael Gruber. I recommend anything by Gruber, no matter what’s wrong with it. His books are so interesting and engrossing that you come away satisfied even if the plot made no sense or the characters were slightly impossible. They’re supposed to be thrillers, but he takes his time building place and character, and it’s always worth it. His writing is pretty high-quality. Every once in a while, it’s as if he says to himself, oh, crap, I’m supposed to be writing a thriller, better stick in a sex scene on a kitchen counter. And so you have this awkward sex scene on a kitchen counter (nothing against kitchen sex, just awkward kitchen sex). In the end, though, you learn so much about whatever it is he’s writing about, plus the setting, that you don’t care. Okay, I don’t. The Good Son is about Afghanistan.
  • Sworn Before Cranes, by Merrill Gilfillan. I went back to this book after reading Great Plains (see below), to see if I liked it as much as I remembered. I had initially reviewed it for the Boulder Daily Camera backimage in the 90s. Yeah, baby, it’s still beautiful. This may be one of the most under-noted and –appreciated story collections of the last century. Maybe that’s because they’re almost more like long prose poems than stories. Today, this form would be welcomed, perhaps even elevated over a conventional story. But then it was fairly radical to call this a short story. James Galvin’s novel-or-whatever-it-was, The Meadow, was out, and people were excited, but they weren’t sure what to do. What I like about Sworn before Cranes is the way he’s unafraid to delight in what he sees down in the pockets and folds in the plains. He’s a magic man. Where Frazier is at pains to show the braided glory and seaminess surrounding Native Americans since the Conquest, Gilfillan as a poet and naturalists has interests in sound and imagery. It’s good to read them both in the same year.

Nonfiction

  • The Tiger, by John Vaillant. About a tiger who began stalking and killing some of the particular poachers who had wounded it. About Siberian Tigers in general. About Siberia. About the history of human-tiger interactions. About why poachers poach. About the few people in Russia who are trying to protect the environment and why. And about how not just dead tigers but also the whole Siberian ecosystem is getting smuggled to China and made into stuff we’re buying in Home Depot. With the personality and menace of This Particular Tiger on every page.
  • Great Plains, by Ian Frazier. I hadn’t got around to this for some reason. I remember Frazier sitting in the Boulder Book Store back when it was a one-storey, one-slot place. He wasn’t giving a reading, just sitting behind a table with his ponytail, waiting for people to ask him questions and ask him to sign his book. I didn’t know who he was, but I like guys with ponytails. I kind of felt sorry for him. I thought, Oh another guy who drove across the country and wrote a book about it. It’s a great book.
  • On the Rez, by Ian Frazier. Not sure who else could pull this off. At first you’re not sure who this book is about. Indians? Frazier? Frazier’s kids? The contents of his household? But Frazier is a good, entertaining writer and it’s no skin off your nose to keep reading, so do it. In the end it comes together with a big, WHOA, holy shit that was intense. Nose skinned.
  • The 4% Universe, by Richard Panek. It’s not even wrong, according to some reviews I read by math and physics majors! A user-friendly way to find out a little about dark matter by getting the dirt on how the scientists fought each other to discover it. I particularly liked learning about Vera Rubin, who did some of the important early calculations and pursued her Ph.D. (but not at Princeton, her first choice, because women were not admitted to the graduate school then) despite nursing four children. At one point concessions had to be made in a key telescope regarding the only bathroom…. For pete’s sake, as if we don’t all pee in one place inside our homes.
  • Murder in the High Himalaya, by Jonathan Green. Not the greatest writing but a gripping story. Tibet is the weirdest place to read about because you might as well be in the middle of the Lord of the Rings, the references are so medieval and mystical. At the heart of the book is a moral dilemma that should not have been one—a community of climbers witnessed Chinese border guards shoot unarmed refugees—mostly women and children. A 17-year-girl was killed. The event was filmed. The people who filmed it knew what to do—release it to the press. But most of the climbing community wanted to keep it under wraps so that they could stay on China’s good side and keep climbing in the area. The book digs into the story of the refugees, gives the official Chinese version, and explores the different climbers’ opinions. But overall you wind up thinking a lot about relative versus absolute morality. This isn’t even the Holocaust, where you might have to choose between your life and someone else’s, or between your child’s life and someone else’s. This is about whether you get a sponsorship for a being a jock.
  • Leaping Poetry, by Robert Bly. I saw this referenced in an interview with Bly in American Poetry Review and asked the library here at Phillips Exeter to get it. Bly argues, here and elsewhere, that American poetry has moved too far away from the great associative leaps that characterized romantic poetry as well as the work of many of the Spanish and South American poets, such as Lorca and Neruda. We’re too much stuck in our heads. He’s not arguing for the stream-of-consciousness stuff that we’re starting to see all over the place in MFA poetry now. Bigger leaps, more stream-of-SUB-consciousness stuff that requires a broader base of reading and experience.
  • The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, by Alexandra Fuller. Drawn to the beauty of Western Wyoming, Fuller moved to the area near Pinedale and found herself caught up in the conflict associated with the industrialization of that landscape for gas and oil development. In the life story of a young cowboy and roughneck, she epitomizes this tension. It’s not unlike The Tiger (above) in some respects. Fuller’s controlled but essentially gonzo journalistic style makes these characters sympathetic and gives the lie to narratives offered up by writers like Annie Proulx, which make the same landscapes look ugly and the same people bestial. One question is what are we going to do about the fact that we are turning our last wildernesses into grids full of drilling rigs, powerlines, switching stations, dusty dirt roads, and tanker trucks going up and down all day long? With little concern for worker safety as we go…
  • No Life for a Lady, by Agnes Morley Cleaveland. Memoir of ranching in New Mexico in the late 1800s. Interesting to compare her life with the one depicted in City of Light, above. Cleaveland went East for her schooling and it must have been a shock to deal with the routines and proprieties people in the East were bothering with. Something I’d never heard before: there was a messianic figure who came to Denver, walking out of the Mohave desert. Francis Schlatter was so charismatic that special trains were sent to Denver full of people who wanted to see him and be healed by him. He disappeared, only to show up on the Morley ranch in New Mexico, where he dictated his life story to Agnes’s mother. The title he chose is wonderful: The Life of the Harp in the Hand of the Harper. However, although she recounts this tale about Schlatter, I’m struck by how little personal reflection on God comes through in these memoirs I’m reading about life in the American West around this time.
  • The Victorians, by Thomas J Schlereth. Actually reads pretty well. Packed with interesting facts and figures about this transformative time in our culture. Good stationary bike or elliptical reading.

 

Poetry

  • Way More West, by Ed Dorn. I wanted to reread Gunslinger, but this was what was on my shelf here in my Exeter apartment, and it’s got parts. Never gets old.
  • Morning Poems, by Robert Bly. Okay, I’m on a Bly kick. The stuff that’s coming out right now from him just rocks. So I looked on my shelf and found this, which I hadn’t got around to reading for some reason. Lots of strong pieces here. My only real objection, and it’s a big one, to Bly is that although he means to honor the feminine it’s always as he defines it, and his definition is always in terms of the male. Boring. But almost any poem that stays clear of that stuff, I love.
  • From the Box Marked Some Are Missing, by Charles W. Pratt. Each quiet piece will make you think. Pratt’s had some airtime in 2011 courtesy of Garrison Keillor. Here’s a sample from my blog earlier in the yeimagear.
  • Three Russian Women Poets: Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, Bella Akhmadulina, by Mary Maddock. I was feeling so unsatisfied with certain Akhmatova translations by Kunitz and Kenyon that I thought I might have to try my own hand at them. Luckily, I went looking for other versions, and after reading what was in this book, I decided I could sleep. I also discovered Akhmadulina, who is possibly a better poet (gasp). While I was at it, I read Feinstein’s biography of Akhmatova. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
  • Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz. Just read it. If you find anything in there you don’t like, let’s discuss.
  • When I received my fellowship, the identities of the fellowship committee members were revealed, I found out about their significant publication credits and awards. So I went out and bought their books. What an enriching and humbling experience to read them:
    • Evidence of the Journey, by Ralph Sneeden
    • Cameo Diner, by Matt Miller
    • Strange Land, by Todd Hearon

    cameo 

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