Friday, December 23, 2011

Looking back

Really this is the "books I read that stuck with me this year" post (I make it by quickly skimming back through blog posts, so I'm sure I've missed things), but I do feel the need to note one painful failure for 2011 - I didn't get to the start of my projected Ironman race, due to bronchial illness stemming from ongoing lack of mastery of exercise-induced asthma, training loads and life stress. 

I am on a higher dose of asthma controller medication now, and I think I have a better handle on how to manage that particular aspect of bronchial vulnerability, but I am still overextended in a more general sense and I am not going to attempt an iron-distance triathlon in 2012, as I think I need to do more work on various building-blocks first.  If plans go as I hope, though, I'll volunteer for the inaugural NYC Ironman next August and get some kind of preferential status re: registering for a slot for the 2013 race.

On a brighter note, it is also the case that in 2011 I finished drafting the novel formerly known as The Bacchae on Morningside Heights, revised it and found a publisher; I am just now undertaking an extensive further revision/reimagining (this will make no sense to those who have not read it, but I can see now that a whole game is missing!).  I also revised the style book, and it is as of a month or so ago out with publishers again, but I have no news yet as to its fate and fortunes: books can take a long time from start to finish, a fact that horrified and appalled me when it first dawned on me many years ago but that I've had to reconcile myself to in the meantime.

I feel that I had a very good year of teaching: I was eager to be back in the classroom after an overly quiet sabbatical year in 2010, and the charms of teaching have been particularly alive to me.  The surprise for me this fall was how much I loved teaching the required MA seminar to entering graduate students in our department; I had undertaken it as a 'service' class, but it was truly as much of a pleasure as any class I have ever taught.

I have just finished reading what I think is my favorite novel of the year, Murakami's 1Q84.  Haunting, immersive, lovely! 

My other single favorite novel in the loose category of 'literary fiction,' a term I hate but that does serve to differentiate it from thrillers and young-adult dystopias and so forth, was probably Teju Cole's amazing Open City.  Others I particularly enjoyed in this sort of broad category (all newish though not all from 2011): Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child; Lydia Millet's How the Dead Dream; Vanessa Veselka's Zazen; Cody James's The Dead Beat; Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding; Emma Donogue's Room; Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad; Tayari Jones's The Silver Sparrow; Barbara Trapido's Sex and Stravinsky.  Neal Stephenson's Anathem was as immersive as 1Q84 and probably belongs in this group rather than with science fiction and fantasy below (Reamde, on the other hand, was enjoyable but forgettable).

Helen DeWitt's Lightning Rods deserves a category all its own!  Another uncategorizable but excellent book: Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti's collaboration The Chairs Are Where the People Go.

Sara Gran's Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead is definitely in my top ten favorites for the year.  I also loved Lauren Beukes's Zoo City, that's another strong recommendation.

Megan Abbott's novels Bury Me Deep and The End of Everything were among the most interesting crime fiction I read all year, but there was a lot of other exceptional stuff too.  Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter; Taylor Stevens's The Informationist; Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours and Trackers; Lawrence Block's A Drop of the Hard Stuff (which also prompted a reread of the amazing When the Sacred Ginmill Closes)

Nonfiction: John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead; Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned; Anna Goldsworthy's Piano Lessons; Priscilla Gilman's The Anti-Romantic Child; Sarah Bakewell's Montaigne biography; Peter Terzian's interesting little anthology Bound to Last; and (I am late to the party) Michael Lewis's Moneyball.  It was a reread, but Francis Spufford's The Child That Books Built remains one of the few books I can think of that it pains me not to have written myself.

Most prized addition to book collection, courtesy of my mother: Green's Dictionary of Slang.

Didn't read a ton of YA this year, but can definitely recommend Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books and Catherine Fisher's Incarceron series.  Tow Ubukata's Mardock Scramble was a surprise and a delight; also very delightful was Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Much enjoyed new installments in ongoing stories by Lev Grossman, Charlie Williams, Kate Atkinson.  Also: LEE CHILD!

Most perfect light reading: Doris Egan/Jane Emerson's Ivory omnibus and City of Diamond.  But I was lucky in my light reading this year, I'd have to say: I loved Mira Grant's zombie trilogy, and found the first two installments of Patrick Rothfuss's fantasy series utterly addictive.  Best zombie book was Max Brooks's World War Z, though: I couldn't get it out of my head after I read it, and kept on telling people about it at parties even when it was not suitable.

A small selection of books I reread that still speak to me very loudly (really I'm always rereading a lot for teaching- and research-related purposes): Roland Barthes's The Neutral; Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow; Bernhard's Wittgenstein's Nephew; Markson's Reader's Block; Conrad's The Secret Agent; Dostoevsky's Demons.

A few performances that especially astonished me: Stravinsky's Nightingale and other fables at BAM (and the ombromanie of Philippe Beau!); Philip Glass's Satyagraha, at the Met; and Krapp's Last Tape, with John Hurt and also at BAM.  Music from Nico Muhly and Thomas Bartlett has been an ongoing delight.  

The film that most preoccupied me: Helen Hill's The Florestine Collection, completed after her death by Paul Gailiunas. 

The TV series that I want to live in, thus recent preoccupation with fictions of alternate realities: Fringe.

I don't listen to enough new music to make good recommendations in a broad sense, but new albums from P. J. Harvey and Gillian Welch are both remarkable.

Books to look out for in 2012: Sarah Manguso's The Guardians: An Elegy; Marco Roth's Transmission; and Heidi Julavits's The Vanishers.

I probably read a better range of books in 2010, but that is because I was on sabbatical.  In 2011 my thoughts were much engaged with books I was writing and books I was teaching, most of which are not really prominently represented here.  I continue to have a deep-seated obsession, though, with Swift's Tale of a Tub...

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