Last month, the New York Times came out with its 10 Best Books of 2011. Seth Rogovoy at the Berkshire Daily mentioned that he hadn’t read any of them, and when I checked the list, I saw that I hadn’t either. Yet we’ve all been reading. Something.
So here is my list of the top 9 books I’ve read in 2011 — fiction and non. (I wasn’t able to come up with a 10th that still resonates with me.) Only two were published this year, but that’s what reading for pleasure is like.
City Boy, by Edmund White (2009), is White’s memoir about life in the rough and randy NYC of the ’60s and ’70s. White amiably fills the pages with beautiful insights into art, the people he knew and the new paradigms of identity and relationships that gay liberation tried to bring into the world. The first part of Chapter 1 is so wonderful it should be read aloud:
“In the 1970s in New York everyone slept till noon…” it begins.
Life, by Keith Richards. Here is the rare guy who got to do his thing, and overall seems to have enjoyed it. As a book, Richards’ life is a fun ride, although things get thin after 1980. Sure I was thrilled to read how he plays those songs, but do I care how he makes bangers and mash? Still, A natural storyteller as well as musician, he manages to share his pleasure with the reader. After I read the book I read Greil Marcus’ review, which fleshed out shortcomings that I had only sensed. (“Richards needs a Dominican retreat to get away from his Jamaican retreat.” Cry me a river.)
“Positively 4th Street,” by David Hajdu. (2002) Dylan is a nerdy creep. Joan Baez is a narcissistic channeler for Joe Hill. Her sister Mimi is sweet and ethereal and too young to have been swept into the folk music pantheon. Mimi’s lover-then-husband, writer-turned-musician Richard Fariña, always a half-step behind Dylan, pulls the couple into the folk-rock mainstream. Easily the most engaging of the four main characters in this history of the folk boom, Fariña was the kind of guy who would meet you in a bar for drinks, and you’d walk out hours later having agreed to a grandiose plan to write a joint novel.
“Dylan was offensive in that he would really be rude to people, and Dick wouldn’t really be rude to people. But Dick was like, ‘Look at me — here I am. Dig me!’ Dylan was like, ‘Look all you want. You’ll never see me.’ “
The First Tycoon, by T.J. Stiles. (2009) I loved American history when I was growing up, but had an aversion to Captains of Industry like steamship and railroad pioneer Cornelius Vanderbilt. But the story of “The Commodore” was instructive to me in this time of teetering economics. Vanderbilt was among the first to understand the power of the abstract economics of capitalism: corporations, the stock market, competition and monopolies. He constructed his railroad empire as much in the board room and on data as on the ground of running tracks. His relentlessness over some 80 years makes for a biography that doesn’t flag.
Secret Historian, by Justin Spring. (2010) The fascinating biography of the American writer Samuel Steward who began his career as a novelist in the circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and later reinvented himself as tattoo artist Phil Sparrow. As Phil Andros he wrote gay porn. Steward was a lifelong journal keeper, who kept detailed notes of his sexual experiences which he provided to researcher Alfred Kinsey. Born at the beginning of the 20th century and dying at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Steward’s remarkable life is a reminder of how awful things were for gays, of the price paid for being in the closet — or for not being in the closet.
Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris. (2010) Even in decline, Theodore Roosevelt was more vital, more vivid than most people. This is the last of Morris’s trilogy on the 26th president. It begins with the set piece of Roosevelt’s post-White House African big game hunt in 1910. It follows through endless election seasons, including a failed run for president in 1912, the disastrous Amazon expedition of 1913, and Roosevelt’s energetic lobbying for national preparedness in the run-up to World War I. Between it all, Roosevelt wrote, wrote, wrote. A late-life magazine profile was titled, “The Most Interesting American.” In Morris’s telling, that description is certainly accurate.
History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago. (1996) On the potency of words and imagination, and the Christian conquest of Muslim Portugal. A milquetoast proofreader alters a historical text with the addition of a single word and his life changes, as he struggles to re-imagine the history of his city to conform to his emendation, and win the woman he loves.
House of Meetings, by Martin Amis. (2006) The first book by Amis I ever read, and the first of two that I read this year. An intense, grimly absorbing exploration of Stalinism and the Gulag and a probe of the Russian mentality, reflected in the lives of two brothers.
State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett. This is the only book listed on the Washington Post’s “Best of” list that I’ve read. It’s also the first of Patchett’s books that I’ve read, and I found its story of hide and seek in the Amazon jungle, with its twists and revelations, neither shallow nor deep. The character of overbearing, manipulative Dr. Annick Swenson, though, is a fascinatingly drawn study of ego and will. Glenn Close could play her in the movie.
That’s my list. Please add your top 9 books of the year, or top 10, or 5…