Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

Well, there's no particular reason for me to write a Best of 2011 list, except for the fact that it's the end of the year and EVERYONE is doing it. Then again, there's no reason NOT for me to do it either.

Though honestly, I read a lot of great books this year. Actually, in general, I just read a lot. I have no records before this year, but I started using Goodreads in January of this year, and I love using it, so I've been very diligent about adding everything I read (to an embarrassing degree, too, since everyone can tell when I totally give up on a book too). As of writing this post, I read 43 books this year, and it'll probably be an even 45 by January 1st—though I know that those two won't end up on this list in the end so I don't mind waiting to write about my Best Of now.

So yes. I've narrowed it down to a top 5, but I also will highlight some honorable mentions as well after. I'll even do a little countdown, because I am a dork. The top 5 all actually came out in 2011, and the honorable mentions will primarily be other great books I read this year but didn't actually come out in 2011. And without further ado:

Will's Best Literature of 2011:

5. Funeral For a Dog
by Thomas Pletzinger
Translated by Ross Benjamin

I read this for a class in Literary Translation right before I graduated, but it's stuck with me for the rest of the year. It's a debut novel, and I think you can tell when you read it. It has a messy, shaggy dog type quality to the prose as well as the construction of the work itself, but it is such a strong voice, and it is amazingly effective.

Basically, it's about a journalist who's sent by his editor/girlfriend to interview a reclusive children's book author. There's a story in a story here too—the journalist discovers a manuscript while staying at the author's lakeside home that tells the story of a love triangle that spans across the globe, and the way these two plot elements dovetail is nothing short of beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. There's even a little real-life Easter Egg that you can discover, but I'll let you find it for yourself. So yes, three words to describe this book: messy, heartbreaking, beautiful. Just like life, you say? Just like love, you say?

It also reads beautiful (i.e. the translation is amazing) possibly due in part the level of collaboration between the author (who does speak English) and the translator (they're like best friends now).  Insider knowledge!

4. Stone Upon Stone

If anyone from the aforementioned translation class reads this blog (I'm pretty sure they don't), they are sure to yell at me, because I was the only person in class who had anything slightly negative to say about this book when we were reading it.

But let the record show that I declare that I was slightly too hard on it, though I still believe some of my minor criticisms are valid. I was on hard on this book because I had to read this 500+ page monstrosity in about four days, which might have made me a little extra sensitive or cranky.

Though truly, it was not the worst four days I've ever spent (though very tiring). Stone Upon Stone follows a man, building his grave, as he reflects upon his life in rural Poland. But this dude was a boisterous Zorba type fellow—a heavy drinker, a fighter, a lover, a coward, a soldier, a pesky brat. It chronicles both his entire life—elliptically, and in pieces—but it also shows the way Poland modernized starting from around World War II until almost the present day (present when it was written, I believe, which was the mid-1980s).

Look, invisible classmates who aren't here, the main character is awesome. He is hilarious, and his life was very entertaining. However, sometimes I don't appreciate ten pages of solid text when some minor character who won't appear again talks in one large existential monologue about life or farming or whatever, when I still have three hundred pages to read in 48 hours on top of everything else I have to do.

But seriously, this is the kind of ambitious, all-encompassing, total novel that only comes like once a decade, if that. I know absolutely nothing of Polish or Eastern European literature, but I know that this is an "important" novel. It's the kind of greatness that every writer aspires to. And it is like 85% entertaining, which for it's page length is an impressive feat. Stone Upon Stone absolutely needs to be read by anyone who loves serious fiction.

3. There But For The
by Ali Smith

Thinking about this novel right novel, I'm still amazed by the linguistic acrobatics and witticisms. And how moved I was when I reached the end.

The basic plot (there's no such thing, and I keep saying this, and I know in the end I'm going to talk about how much more to it there is than that summary but I can't help myself) is that a quiet man Miles is invited to a dinner party, then locks himself in the guest room and doesn't come out. However, the novel is never told from Miles' POV, but from four other characters that barely know the man in question, like someone who went on a high school trip with him, or the precocious daughter of the family who invited Miles to the dinner. They all only know a little bit about him, and yet Miles becomes this strange but powerful symbol to them all, and they all rally behind him to make sure that he doesn't starve in the room, for instance.

But Ali Smith brings such life to her words, and each of the four characters is so different from each other and linguistically different. And on top of that, each chapter uses a word in the title as it's theme. You'd think it would be hard to write a story using the word "the" as the theme that ties it all together, but Ali Smith not only accomplishes this feat, she freaking excels at it. Mind = still blown.

2. How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
by Charles Yu

Ok, so I'm cheating a little bit. TECHNICALLY the hardcover of this book came out last year, but the paperback DID come out this year, and that's what I actually read (though I've been wanting to read it since before the paperback came out. I just got lucky I waited long enough that it did). But frankly, this book was so amazing I couldn't not let it on this list.

I'm not sure this book is as technically or stylistically as brilliant as some of the other books on this list, but this one was by far the most entertaining, in a page-turner kind of way. I think it's literary merits are still very high though. It just happens to weave themes like "fiction" vs "reality," the complicated relationships between family, determinism and fate, and the nature of love, with a gripping science-fictional hook.

Again, another novel that has a shaggy dog appeal. The beginning, in particular, has a slightly patchwork quality of little vignettes of what it's like to be a "time travel machine repair man," but when the ball gets rolling it really gets rolling. In that way it reminds me of early Murakami, particularly A Wild Sheep Chase and Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World. A Wild Sheep Chase evokes a mood before the plot gets started almost a hundred pages in, a quality this book definitely shares, and it also has HWatEotW's science-fictional/meta-physical plot bent. I fell for this book so hard, like I haven't in a long time. It's messiness keeps it from being a truly great novel, but it's entertainment and thought value brings it way up my list, and I cannot wait to read everything by Charles Yu I can get my hands on.

1. The Private Lives of Trees
by Alejandro Zambra
Translated by Megan McDowell

I had to justify choosing this as my best book of the year for a while.

Not because I don't believe it is truly, truly great. But it is a novella. It's only 90-ish pages. How can I compare this slight little thing with the ambition and scope of Stone Upon Stone or the linguistic games of There But For The or the philosophical/entertainment value of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe?

Well, I will admit that I love short novels and novellas. I love tight writing. I want every word to be important and perfectly used. And I think this is the closest thing I've ever read to that ideal. Not a single goddamn word is wasted in this thing. And it is so freaking beautiful and moving and resonant. I have never been so affected by the words on a page.

The Private Lives of Trees is about a guy who's telling a bedtime story to his daughter as they wait for her mother to come home. The question is, the guy realizes, is whether the mother ever will come home. And so he thinks. And writes. And tells a story.

In 90 odd pages, we see an entire relationship grow. In 90 pages we get a fully realized father-daughter relationship. We see an entire life in less pages than that. And Zambra has so much style. Brimming with language that just is so evocative. I've never read a writer quite like him.

You can read this in an afternoon. In one sitting. And if you're like me, you'll want to. You'll need to. This novella is amazing. I think everyone should read this.

I'm sure this novella has its critics. In fact, after reading Bonsai, I can see how similar the two works are. So who knows if Zambra has another story in him. But at least we have this one.

Phew. Just thinking about that book makes me want to read it right this second.

Anyway: some honorable mentions, in no particular order:

From 2011:
An Empty Room, by Mu Xin
The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier

Not from 2011:
Oblivion, by David Foster Wallace
Bonsai, by Alejandro Zambra
The Literary Conference, by Cesar Aira
Where Europe Ends, by Yoko Tawada

What great books did you all read?


  1. Wow, a lot of interesting looking books there!

    I was busier than I would have liked this year, and it affected my reading as well, but I would have to say, the book that left the biggest impression on me this year was 告白 by 港かなえ. It was just so heavy and dark (like the book I'm reading now, 人間失格 XD) that I felt like screaming "NO! STOP!" throughout...I saw the movie afterwards, and while people liked it better than the novel, I think it didn't capture the intensity of the characters as well as the book. I also liked GO by 金城一紀, but it was of a light pleasure read that touched on deep issues, instead of something deeper, like I was hoping for. Still, it was a fun read.

  2. Bokusenou, I love Ningen Shikaku, what a great book... Best book of 2011 for me? Would have to be 2666 or The Savage Detectives, both by Roberto Bolano.

  3. @Will
    Apperently your Junbungaku blog now requires a login, and I don't see a link to make an account.^^; So I'll just post a comment meant for the "Changes to the Site" post on Junbungaku.

    To be honest, I really like the "New Releases" and "Bestseller" posts, though I see why most of your readers would probably care about releases in English more...As always, Junbungaku is one of the best J-Lit blogs out there. Keep up the good work!

  4. These are some of the worst book reviews I've ever seen. It almost makes me not want to read the books. Look at this comment:

    "The Private Lives of Trees is about a guy who's telling a bedtime story to his daughter as they wait for her mother to come home. The question is, the guy realizes, is whether the mother ever will come home. And so he thinks. And writes. And tells a story."

    The writing is terrible and lackluster, at best. Did you really think people would read this review and think, "Wow, this is a brilliant critical review. I got to get this book right now"? Apparently, you're some sort of literary translator? Wow. The Japanese must be low on English-speaking gaijin to pick such a poor writer for their companies.

  5. Loving your review for the life of trees - I was inspired by your raw energy and enthusiasm and have committed to reading it - thanks for sharing.