[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months--and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you're at it.]
Pym, by Mat Johnson
Pym is flat-out the funniest book I read this year. Mat Johnson turns Poe’s weirdest novel (actually, Poe’s only novel; but it’s weird as hell) on its head and mocks it to hilarious effect, all the while showing an unabashed love for the book and its writer.
Poe, as we all know, was a big-time racist honky, and nowhere does he prove that more than in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Want me to boil that novel down to four words? Okay. White good, black bad.
It’s hard to reduce Pym to as brief a snippet, but here’s the shortest manageable version: a black literature professor discovers that Poe’s novel might in fact be nonfiction, so he joins an expedition to Antarctica to find Poe’s “Tsalalians,” a black-skinned, black-toothed tribe living in monoracial isolation. Instead, the crew is kidnapped and forced into slavery by 7’-tall albino snow creatures. Meanwhile, civilization on the other six continents is crumbling due to some sort of unidentified Armageddon. And so on.
Pym is captivating, exciting, very, very funny, and almost as bizarre as the novel it plays off of. You can see my full review here.
Snow Whale, by John Minichillo
This was a better-than-average year for novels revolving around questions of race and identity set in extreme polar climates and serving a twist on classic novels. Snow Whale is another very funny book, and shame on me for not reviewing it in full on C4 like I intended.
An Office Space-style corporate drone takes a DNA test and discovers that he has some Inuit blood, which turns upside-down everything he thought he knew about himself. So of course he quits his job and travels to the very northern tip of Alaska, a place called Point Halcyon, to hunt whale on the frozen Chukchi Sea with a tribe that doesn’t really want him there (except for the mostly-blind pot-smoking former chief). Meanwhile, his wife stays home and contemplates engaging in a bit o’ melodramatic suburban adultery. Watch out for some very funny scenes set in an REI.
And if I’d read Moby Dick like a good boy, I could tell you how this book is a modern-day spin-off of Melville’s classic, as advertised.
Luminarium, by Alex Shakar
This is about the tenth time I’ve talked up Alex Shakar on C4, but I don’t care—I love his work. Luminarium is a darkly funny novel set in the weeks leading up to 9/11’s fifth anniversary. Fred Brounian has just lost his company and job, has moved in with his parents, and, while visiting his (maybe-) comatose brother in the hospital he signs up for one of those “scientific studies” you see advertised in train stations and college dorms. The study promises a non-religious spiritual awakening, a “Faith without ignorance.” By the end, it’ll be more than just Fred’s faith that is tested. (Cue foreshadowing music.)
I’d have a hard time arguing against anyone who says Dana Spiotta’s latest is anything but the best work of fiction of 2011. I received two copies of the book, loaned one out, read the other, and then asked for the loaner back. That’s how much I like this book; I want two copies of it in my house at all times.
Failed musician Nik Worth is writing his Chronicles, a compendium of newspaper clippings, interviews, and album reviews—all of them fake. Nik never hit it big as a musician, and neither did he ever take on the responsibilities of a mature adult (good for him); leaving his sister Denise to take care of him and their ill mother. Much of Stone Arabia is comprised of Denise’s Counterchronicles, her handwritten attempt to set the record straight. This is probably the best brother/sister novel I’ve ever read—though it’s about so much more than just sibling relationships.
Full review. (Apologies for the “stirring,” “poignant,” and “luminous.”)
Short Bus, by Brian Allen Carr
Disclosure: Earlier this year Carr won the Texas Observer’s short story contest, for which I chose the five finalists. I didn’t know Carr then, but we’ve since become friendly, due mostly to a shared appreciation for beer. He sent me a copy of Short Bus for review.
And I read it, and it’s really good. Stories that bounce back and forth across the Texas/Mexico border, protagonists who are down on their luck and attempting to keep their severe demons at bay. There’s a Special Ed teacher who straps his mentally-disabled students into flak jackets to rob a bank; a father who considers tipping his deformed and obese son into a lake while fishing together; a group of dudes who slip into Mexico to buy cheap anti-psychotics, and to bury a severed foot under a banana tree. These stories are dark, funny, and relentless.
Against the Workshop, by Anis Shivani
This book is a collection of Shivani’s reviews of and essays on contemporary literature and workshop writing, and it should be on every single MFA syllabus. Shivani is the guy who occasionally gets everyone all up in arms with his HuffPo posts like “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” but he’s not one of those easily-dismissible Internet attention seekers; Shivani clearly has strong, and genuine, emotions about literature. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says—and there’s no way you can—these pieces are insightful, passionate, and often razor-sharp and laugh-aloud funny.
The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman
Interesting, amusing, quintessential Klosterman. It won’t stay with you long, but it’s an engaging novel, and you can breeze through it quickly. Full review here (paywall).
The Devil all the Time, by Donald Ray Pollock
Like Klosterman’s, this one is entertaining but forgettable. Full review here.
Remember Ben Clayton, by Stephen Harrigan
Not my bag, but if you’re a fan of historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy Harrigan’s portrayal of a sculptor battling inner demons while on commission to build a statue for a grieving father of a WWI casualty.