My Literary Year In Review, 2011

This is the third year I've kept tabs on what I read (here's 2009 and 2010). My number's down from last year, when I read 30 books; this year, I finished 22 and abandoned two at various stages. And that decrease becomes more stark when you realize that quite a few of my choices this year were graphic novels, which take much less time to read than traditional ones. I'm not totally sure why the number went down, or even if that's something I should be concerned about. I was always working on one book or another, and (typical for me) I'd start a new book immediately after I'd finished the one before. I think it's because I traveled more in 2011 than ever before (both for work and myself), and because I finished the year with Justin Cronin's The Passage, which runs 800 tightly scripted pages and is not a journey to be taken lightly. Yet I'm not doing this as a contest, and my goal isn't to set a new personal record every year (if only because I'd eventually have to stop working, eating, and sleeping to squeeze in more titles). I just like keeping the list because I enjoy watching patterns emerge in my reading habits, whether it's seeing recommendations from certain friends appear with more frequency or uncovering certain genre patterns. I sought out more humor writing in 2011 than ever before, and I also explored more memoirs and nonfiction. Picking a favorite is almost impossible, but for sheer emotional power and ambition, The Pale King was hard to beat. Anyway, here's a chronological list of what I read in 2011. As always, suggestions for future reads are welcome.

bookwrap11-somnambulist.jpg The Somnambulist (2007), Jonathan Barnes There's a ton of potential in Barnes' historical fantasy-thriller, including the pleasing device of having the reader experience time travel from the perspective of the characters who aren't traveling through time. (So our narrative moves forward as progressive meetings with the time traveler are earlier in his life.) But the final product was too cute by half, and suffered from some of the pacing and dialogue issues that trouble first novels. I finished it out of sheer commitment to the project.

bookwrap11-kicker.JPG And Here's the Kicker: Conversations With 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft (2009), ed. Mike Sacks For a comedy nerd, this is a fantastic read. Sacks talks with a smart group of comedy writers to pick their brains about how they got into the industry and what they think is funny. The interviews are introduced with biographical chunks that are a little too cheesy, but the talks themselves are worth it.

bookwrap11-sleepwalk.JPG Sleepwalk With Me: And Other Painfully True Stores (2010), Mike Birbiglia Mike Birbiglia is a hilarious comic who's found success by shifting away from typical sets and telling longer narratives that weave in jokes; when I saw him a couple years ago, his show was nothing but a few stories drawn out to epic length. Those stories work wonderfully on the stage, but they don't translate that well to the page because Birbiglia commits the sin that many stand-ups do when they write a book: he assumes that a transcript of his act will work as a humorous essay. But humor written is far different from humor spoken and performed. What feels natural out loud reads as choppy and far too short, meaning much of Sleepwalk With Me reads like half-formed pieces. There are some good punch lines in here, but you're better off hearing them than reading them.

bookwrap11-likeness.jpg The Likeness (2008), Tana French I really dug In the Woods, French's first novel, and The Likeness is just as good. It's not a sequel exactly, but a sequential novel involving a supporting character from the first book and now told from that character's point of view. It's a solid device that lets French poke around in whole new personalities while keeping the story rooted in the world readers have come to enjoy. Great literary mystery.

bookwrap11-ifoundthisfunny.JPG I Found This Funny: My Favorite Pieces of Humor and Some That May Not Be Funny At All (2010), ed. Judd Apatow The title doesn't lie: some of these stories are bitter, weird, and intentionally off-putting, while others are plain anti-humor, anti-drama, and anti-enjoyable. Still, there are some highlights, including Paul Feig's piece about his brief flirtation with sports announcing (imported from Feig's Kick Me) and Conan O'Brien's "Lookwell" pilot. Some of the dramatic pieces are good, too, but overall the collection is pretty hodgepodge.

bookwrap11-bigpayback.JPG The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop (2010), Dan Charnas Dan Charnas used to be a talent scout for Profile Records and later the head of the rap division for American Recordings, meaning he had a front-row seat to the rise and bloat of hip-hop as a cultural force. His book is a dense but readable history of hip-hop from a business perspective, charting the path the music took from blowing out New York basements to dominating pop culture worldwide. Great read.

bookwrap11-kickme.jpg Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence (2002), Paul Feig Now this is humor writing. Feig has worked on a number of TV series and films (he directed Bridesmaids), but it's his role as creator of "Freaks and Geeks" that earned him a place in TV history. His personal essays about growing up as a weird, repressed little geek are heartbreaking but hilarious, and anyone who's seen "Freaks" will recognize many, many story lines in Feig's own childhood. A fantastic memoir.

bookwrap11-untimelydemise.JPG In the Event of My Untimely Demise: 20 Things My Son Needs to Know (2008), Brian Sack Brian Sack (who blogs at Banterist) brings his sharp wit to a series of brief, vaguely cartoonish essays written to his child. Cute but insubstantial.

bookwrap11-martians.jpg What I'd Say to the Martians: And Other Veiled Threats (2008), Jack Handey It sounds stupid and unoriginal to call something "laugh-out-loud funny," but the phrase genuinely applies here. Jack Handey's quick essays are dependably hilarious, but the books packs so many of them together that it's easy to overload. The book feels like an ideal bathroom reader.bookwrap11-monkeytown.JPG Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions (2010), Rachel Held Evans I don't agree with some of Rachel Evans' conclusions, but then, the book is about learning to live in those kinds of tensions. Her background mirrors my own in many ways: politically and theologically conservative upbringing, plenty of time with her church's youth group, and a growing sense of unease at the way some of the things she was taught didn't mesh with her developing understanding of the world around her. She's still a believer (as am I), but she's no longer on the same path as her parents or peers because she started asking tough questions and realizing that some of them don't have easy answers (if they have answers at all). If you grew up in a Southern church and/or went to a private religious university, this is worth your time.

bookwrap11-superstud.JPG Superstud: Or How I Became a 24-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Paul Feig Brilliant and sad and wonderful. Feig re-creates his romantic misadventures with amazing detail, and the brief chapters make for an easy (if cringe-inducing) trip through one repressed boy's rocky sexual discoveries.

bookwrap11-paleking.JPG The Pale King (2011), David Foster Wallace Wallace is my favorite author. The first thing of his I read was Infinite Jest, and after that it was over. I had to get everything. My heart broke when he committed suicide, and I met the release of The Pale King, his unfinished final work, with equal parts anticipation and sorrow. I was wowed by the book, but it's definitely a partial novel. The bare bones of a story are there, and so many sequences channel the humanity and brilliance of Wallace as well as anything he ever wrote, but it's ultimately more a coda to his career than a swan song. It's definitely one I'll revisit. bookwrap11-gunmusic.JPG Gun, with Occasional Music (1994), Jonathan Lethem Lethem's first novel is a compelling mix of retro-futurism and detective noir. It didn't hit me as hard as The Fortress of Solitude or some of his essays, but it was still fun to see where he got his start. bookwrap11-gilead.JPG Gilead (2004), Marilynne Robinson Absolutely beautiful. Every sentence is a finely carved work of art, and I found myself reading more slowly as the novel went on so I could revel in Robinson's pace and style. It's also one of the most realistic and moving depictions of faith and struggle that I've ever read. bookwrap11-greatworld.jpg Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann McCann's novel has a number of wonderful scenes and ideas, but it's also one of those "disparate stories that are tangentially connected" books that feels like a shortcut to a novel instead of an actual profound narrative. bookwrap11-magicianking.JPG The Magician King (2011), Lev Grossman I really liked The Magicians, so I was excited to get this when it dropped over the summer. The sequel is thinner than the original — the page count is smaller and the typeface is bigger — but it's still a great narrative about two characters working from different emotional places to try and achieve the same result. That said, I had the wind knocked out of me by the ending. It didn't feel like a legitimate or organic twist, but a forced and overly bitter way to make the main character grow up a little. The disappointing final pages colored my feelings about the rest of the book, but I'd like to dig back into this one in a couple years and see how I feel. bookwrap11-batmanyearone.jpg Batman: Year One (1987), Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli I decided to catch up this year with a few Batman graphic novels that I'd always meant to read, and I figured Year One was a good place to start. It's a good book, just four collected issues, but I liked the approach Miller took to plugging some of the gaps in the hero's early years. bookwrap11-batmankillingjoke.jpg Batman: The Killing Joke (1988), Alan Moore, Brian Holland What a terrifying, riveting story. The hardback edition nicely fleshes out the issue's history with background info, character sketches, and so on, but all you really need is Moore's wicked little one-shot. This is the merciless Joker that Christopher Nolan brought to life in The Dark Knight, not the cavorting goofball of so many comic book and cartoon stories. One of the all-time greats. bookwrap11-batmanhalloween.jpg Batman: The Long Halloween (1997), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Loeb and Sale's Long Halloween is a cool idea, unfolding over a year as a holiday-themed serial killer makes life difficult for the denizens of Gotham City, but I found myself groaning at the overly orchestrated dialogue. Comic book dialogue tends to hit one or two words in every sentence with additional force conveyed in bold text, but that means taking the narrative control away from the reader. Good dialogue has its own flow, but I found Long Halloween unwilling to let that flow build on its own. Still, a fun read. bookwrap11-zombiesw.JPG Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (2011), Patton Oswalt Like most comedians, Patton Oswalt is a great public speaker and an awful writer. Where Birbiglia's long-form comedy has at least some similarities with printed essays, Oswalt's style doesn't really work on the page. He's fantastic at knowing how to make a bit work on stage, but he's not nearly as skilled at organizing his ideas into chapters (or even coherent narratives). I checked this out on faith, but I found myself skimming almost immediately. I barely remember finishing. bookwrap11-faithfulplace.jpg Faithful Place (2010), Tana French (abandoned) As a fan of French's previous two novels, I was sad that this one didn't connect for me. I quit after a while, but I might be able to find a way in if I wait a while and come back to it. bookwrap11-darkvictory.JPG Batman: Dark Victory (1999), Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale Again, another decent story undercut by rocky dialogue. Still, I'm something of a sucker for Batman origin stories, and this introduction of Robin was fun to read. bookwrap11-briefinterviews.JPG Brief Interviews With Hideous Men (1999), David Foster Wallace (abandoned) I'd never tackled Brief Interviews before, and I had to quit when the bitterness became overwhelming. It's not like I didn't know that was the point of the book; Wallace's focus here is as sharp as ever, and he digs unforgivingly into the sad and awful world of semi-fictional men. Still, it was a little too much for me to take. As a Wallace fan, I plan on coming back to this one, though I might have to do it in small sips instead of bigger gulps. bookwrap11-thepassage.JPG The Passage (2010), Justin Cronin Cronin's novel (his first) hooked me from the start, opening with a sad vignette about a poor woman and her lonely child, but I didn't know just how emotionally invested I'd become until major characters went missing and I found myself saddened by the loss. The Passage feels at times like a perfect mix of I Am Legend and The Stand, but Cronin digs into the hearts and minds of his characters with more skill than your typical genre author. The novel's first third is sprawling and dense, as Cronin sets up the viral infection that will eventually turn a dozen unlucky people into vampire-like monsters whose disease will unmake the world, and things get even bigger when he abruptly jumps forward almost a hundred years to pick up the plot in the postapocalyptic wasteland of future America. Yet he makes it all work, weaving together big stories and great characters in a classic page-turner. I had more fun getting lost in this world than I'd had with a book in a long time, and I'm looking forward to the sequels. (This is the first in a planned trilogy.) A great read.