Everybody’s Doing It (Making “Top” Lists for 2011, that is)

This time of year, everyone’s rounding something up, whether it’s the top 10 albums of the year, the top 5 books of the year, or the top 7.2 olive oils of the year. Creating a “top” list is inherently problematic; none of us is well read, well listened, or well oiled enough to be able to speak for all cultural productivity for a year, and grouping work by base numbers of ten is clearly convenient rather than meaningful.

This year, I thought I’d make a list for myself. This list is titled “Some of the Fiction that I Read and Enjoyed this Year.” Okay, it’s not as catchy as “The Only 10 Relevant and Worthy Books of ALL TIME,” but I rather like a small gesture, don’t you?

A few statements before I get into this list:

1. I do not possess complete world knowledge, so this list is a limited endeavor. These are just books I read and enjoyed. Not all of them, not the most important of them, just good books.

2. This list is based solely on what I read this year, not on what was published this year. Some of these books are a bit older than others.

3. While it’s awesome for reader/writers to encourage one another, it makes me nauseated when I see lists in which reader/writers simply mention everything their friends published in a year. So, while I’ve met some of these writers, I do not personally know any of them, and I listed their books for no back-scratching purpose.

4. Yes, this list is all fiction, this time. I have a number of reviews of poetry forthcoming, so I’ll let those reviews speak for themselves.

Some of the Fiction that I Read and Enjoyed this Year

Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been a fan of Ishiguro since I read The Remains of the Day when in high school. (I’ve also made it a project to introduce my high school students to Ishiguro. Yesterday, one of my kids told me that he thinks A Pale View of the Hills is the best book of all time. Mission accomplished.)Β  I’ve been eagerly anticipating another novel from Ishiguro, and read this collection of short stories simply to patch the gap between longer works. And then I felt like an idiot for not having picked it up sooner. Nocturnes is built on the same deliciously quiet sensibility that makes works like Never Let Me Go tick, but in these short stories, Ishiguro also reveals a smart, quirky sense of humor that makes these stories some of his most lively, if some of the least heartbreaking.

The Signal, by Ron Carlson

The Signal is not a book I’d normally pick up. I’m known to some of my more outdoorsy friends as “rurally challenged.” Give me pavement, wifi, espresso, and tall shoes, and you can have your cliffsides, your wide open spaces, your iodine pills, and your hiking boots. I’d only stub my toe on a big rock anyway. I’m a big fan of Ron Carlson’s shorter fiction, especially his gut-busting stories like “What We Wanted to Do,” though, so I thought I’d give this serious, backcountry story a try. I’m glad I did. The Signal isn’t some self-congratulatory meditation on The Land (can you tell I have strong feelings about nature writing?), but a gritty, muscular narrative with a quick pulse. Carlson is smart with his storytelling, describing neither too much nor too little of his natural setting, but giving us terse but revealing inner landscapes of his characters. It’s a book that the writers side of myself will look back to in order to see just how he pulls of such a fluid, fast-paced narrative that’s quiet and cinematic at the same time.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

It’s not secret that I eagerly counted down the days until this meganovel from Murakami hit the shelves in the US. I practically gnawed my own arm off while waiting for my preordered copy to arrive. And while 1Q84 doesn’t quite stand up to the pacing of some of Murakami’s other novels, like The Windup Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, it does bring us the first truly powerful female character–and, to my knowledge, the only female protagonist–of Murakami’s entire repertoire. Yes, Murakami does have to meditate on Aomame’s ears a good deal, as he must dwell on all women’s ears, but Aomame’s also an assassin who could kick any ear-meditator’s behind. And while I do speculate that some of 1Q84’s extreme length (the book is 900-plus pages) is included to play with the reader, this is a work that opens up new territory for an already prolific writer.

The Keep, by Jennifer Egan

I cannot lie: the first half of this book made me want to punch myself in the face. I keep checking to see whether I’d bought a book by the much-hailed Jennifer Egan, or whether I’d been scammed by off-brand book also called The Keep. The protagonist was thoroughly unlikable. The prose was deeply flawed. The premise was shaky. I was tempted to give up on this novel entirely, but I have a rule against giving up on books. So, I stuck it out to the end. And I have to say, the magic that Egan pulled off in the second half of the book was sheer brilliance. Every terrible turn of phrase came to make sense, and every shoddy detail of setting proved itself an ingenious trick on Egan’s part. I won’t give away Egan’s brilliant plot twist and ruin the surprise for you, but this quirky book is well worth the journey.

Please Look After Mom, Kyung-Sook Shin

A student of mine gave me this novel by an established Korean author whose work was being translated into English for the first time, and I’m glad she did, because I might never have picked it up on my own. This isn’t a fun read in any sense. The prevalent second-person point of view is disconcerting, and I absolutely missed some cultural indicators that would have helped me understand the dramatic situation. But the brutal and beautiful core story of one family’s move from rural poverty to urban modernity, and the way in which such a transition affects a family who love but inevitably break one another, is one that I won’t soon forget.

The Likeness, Tana French

Genre fiction, you say? Well, yes. Yes and no. The Irish author Tana French burst onto the American scene with her In The Woods, and The Likeness, her followup title, solidifies her standing as a new voice in–dare I say it?–procedural fiction. But it’s not the whodunit factor that interests me about French’s work. It’s her characters that really sing. Most literary fiction writers could get quite an education by reading French’s characterization, which is better realized and more compelling than the vast majority of what passes for “literary.” The Likeness is indeed a page-turner, but stay on that page a little longer and marvel at this writer’s ability to show you real people moving on the page, not sad shadows bungling in the dark.

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4 Replies to “Everybody’s Doing It (Making “Top” Lists for 2011, that is)”

  1. Congratulations, Kelly. Your blog has made my list of Top Ten Blogs About Blogs of 2011. πŸ˜‰ Seriously, though, a fascinating list. I plan to check out some of these titles as soon as I get through my current reading pile.

  2. The top 20 blogs about blogs! I’m…honored. πŸ™‚

    I’m glad you found a couple of titles here you might enjoy! I’d love to hear what you make of The Keep, if that’s one you get around to reading.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl by Kelle Groom, but my favorite of the year would have to be Dream Memoirs of a Fabulist by Doug Rice. It’s the kind of book that will never be an e-book or even an audio book because you have to read it with your hands.

    You might also find this interesting. A list of the most overrated books of 2011: http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/node/126739

  4. I’ve been hearing great things about the Doug Rice book–I think I need to pick it up!

    The Daily News list of overrated books is definitely interesting. I agree with the inclusion of the John Hodgeman book. JH could have called it a day after The Areas of My Expertise, which was funny in roughly the same way a child putting fries up his nose is funny (which is to say, funny for about 30 seconds).

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