Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Books of the Year, 2011

Here is a list of the ten best books published in the year 2011. Admittedly, there are a few thousand others I didn’t get round to, so you’ll just have to trust me that these ten are the best. Though I’m happy to entertain alternative views.

Water matters
10. Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press)
What it says on the bottle – an accessible account of how various past civilisations engineered water sources to irrigate their crops, flush away their shit, supply themselves with drink and, when supplies were abundant enough, prettify their gardens and public spaces. Being mankind, though, we’re on the way to exhausting our natural supplies through illogical idiocy like too many golf courses, gardens and swimming pools in places like California, Phoenix, Texas and Arizona, resulting in a chronically cost-ineffective use of energy and precious H2O. Sample quote: “The Owens River turned Los Angeles into a megalopolis, located in an arid landscape where, by the rules of common sense, no city should ever stand. Los Angeles hefts enough political clout to capture any river within 600 miles. Today, the city receives water not only from the Owens River but also via aqueducts from the Colorado River and the California Aqueduct, which runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Lake Perris, in Riverside County, 444 miles to the south.”

9. Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich (Random House)
This is an objective but entertaining chronological rundown of everyone who’s ever claimed to be Pope, how they got there, and what they did when adorned with the office of the Papacy. It wasn’t always good and godly things, you know. Sample quote: “Hadrian’s successor, John VIII (872-882), was at least energetic, but he also had the dubious distinction of being the first pope to be assassinated – and, worse, still, by priests from his own entourage. According to the Annals of the Abbey of Fulda, they first gave him poison; then, when this failed to act quickly enough, they hammered in his skull. The enthronement of his successor, Marinus I, in 882 is said to have been marked by the murder of a high Roman dignitary, that of Hadrian III two years later by the victim’s widow being whipped naked through the streets. On Hadrian’s death on his way to Germany in 885 foul play was also suspected. The next two popes, Stephen V and Formosus, died in their beds,
but on the orders of his successor, Stephen VI, the body of Formosus was exhumed in March 896, eight months after his death, clothed in pontifical vestments, propped up on a throne, and subjected to a mock trial on charges of perjury and of coveting the Papacy.” 

8. I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge (Harper Collins)
The memoir of Steve Coogan’s fictional, narcissistic nerd Alan Partridge, now a DJ at North Norfolk Digital, stays true to the one-dimensional, Daily Mail-reading archetype whose utterances induce equal amounts of delight and embarrassment. An accurate mirror of mediocre Middle England, Partridge’s inane wisdom and relentlessly self-serving (and at times unhinged) actions cause you to cringe even as you nervously laugh – ridiculous but, in a John Major way, frighteningly real. Sample quote (in the car on his way for an interview at the BBC about a second chat show series): “I felt, looked and smelt fresh and was in high spirits, electing to forego a conversation role-play in favour of a singalong to The Very Very Best of Tears for Fears. (Their album was actually called The Very Best of Tears for Fears, but I didn’t like ‘The Way You Are’ or ‘Woman In Chains’, and had taped it on to a C90 minus these two tracks, and then renamed it to create a compilation that really was the crème de la cream of their output.)”

7. Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco Books)
Back in the 1980s, if the content of American fiction is any indicator, every US high school kid was fucked up on drugs, the product of a broken home, possibly adopted, and tormented by jocks and bullies. Henderson’s 16-year-old Jude Green is no exception, and it’s a good starting premise for a highly readable novel about nervous young love, hard core music (with hard core abstinence thrown in for good measure), cool and pre-gentrified lower Manhattan, and the fictional staples of (homo)sexuality, mortality and fumbling around in the search for one’s true self. Sample quote“ ‘You can blame me for fucking up my own kids,’ said Les. ‘But don’t blame me for fucking up yours.’ He put down his glass, gouged out his cigarette in the ashtray, plucked up a cupcake, and kissed the crown of Eliza’s head. ‘You’re not fucked up. I’m just saying.’ Eliza sat with her elbows on her knees, hands covering her face. ‘Happy birthday, sweetheart. I tie-dyed you a Yankees shirt – it’s around here somewhere. You can call me.’ His sandals slapped the marble floor as he crossed the room. The door closed noisily behind him.”

Glorious mud, and other pleasures from the past
6. Got, Not Got: The A-Z of Lost Football Culture, Treasures and Pleasures by Derek Hammond and Gary Silke (Pitch Publishing)
Browsable for hours, even days, preferably with your favourite records from the 1970s in the background, this is the Christmas present that every football fan of a certain age yearns to peruse while their neglected partner’s busy basting the turkey and getting quietly pickled on cooking sherry. Pages and pages of prose and pictures devoted to football memorabilia from the days when everything in the game was so much better. At least, that’s the way it seems now. Sit back and be blissfully reminded of adverts, food products, players, toys, kits, magazines, stickers and trends you’d long since confined to your mental attic. Sample quote:  “Mud used to be as central to the game of football as the ball itself. Placed on a freshly repainted centre spot. By the Man in the Middle. At Central Park, Cowdenbeath… Mud was synonymous with football, a crucial factor in its tactics, skills and disciplines. We played in mud and paid to watch better players overcome mud – their control, balance and ability to dive and tackle like demons all dependent on mud.”

5. Hartland: Zu Fuss durch Amerika (Hardland: On Foot Through America) by Wolfgang Büscher (Rowohlt)
A whole new kind of US road trip. This German journalist can’t be accused of taking the easy option – instead of going east to west by car, in summer, he goes from north to south. In the middle of winter. On foot. Zese crayzee Germans, huh? He cheats now and then by getting a lift, and at one point he buys an old pick-up truck and a second-hand gun for a particularly inhospitable stretch, but by then you can’t blame him after he’s ended up in places that are as depressing to read about as they must be to visit. Sample quote (being interrogated by two different border guards while having his rucksack searched at the US-Canada border in the middle of winter): “It was less an examination of my possessions, more an examination of my brain. The new border guard probed it for contradictions, and I made sure that what I said tallied with what I’d told the first interrogator. He was ready to pounce on any apparently trivial detail to expose this bloke who claimed to have come on foot out of the wintry prairie, and who was now planning to walk across America.”

4. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (Viking)
This thoroughly absorbing and comprehensive biography of Malcolm X fills in the gaps left by his own life story, ghosted by Alex Haley, the genesis of which is a story here in itself. Marable’s book charts his life from criminal youth to the radical statesman latterly conflicted with the goals of the Nation of Islam that nurtured and politicised him during and after his prison term. The road to his assassination is clearly set out, but is no less upsetting or alarming for being so meticulously telegraphed. A towering political history of courage, intrigue and betrayal. Sample quote (at an OAAU rally in December 1964): “ ‘You’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ His [Malcolm’s] argument defined Pan-Africanist logic, but also ran deeper in light of the ‘imperialist’ connections that [Che] Guevara had drawn at the UN. Underlying Malcolm’s main argument about the unity of the black struggle was an important point about exploitation. The ‘connection with the Congo’ for black Americans had as much to do with the commonality of economic oppression as it did with race. It was the leap from race-specific ideas to broader ones about class, politics and economics that pushed Malcolm’s thinking forward in late 1964, a lesson that his travels in Africa had brought into focus.”

3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper)
Marina Singh, a research scientist with a US pharmaceutical company, is sent down to Brazil to find out why her former mentor, Annick Swenson, is taking so long to come up with a revolutionary fertility drug she’s been working on deep in the Amazonian jungle. She’s also intrigued by the fate of her close colleague, Anders Eckman, the last employee sent down there, and curtly reported by Swenson in a telegram as dead and buried. That’s just for starters – not even a swooping, hungry tree python will force you to put this novel down once you’ve ventured downriver. Sample quote: “Dr. Swenson brightened for a moment. ‘I’ll tell you what the locals do have a real genius for, and that’s poison. There are so many plants and insects and various reptiles capable of killing a person out here that it seems any idiot could scrape together a compound that would drop an elephant. As for the rest of it, people survive regardless of the care they get. The human animal is too resilient for it to be otherwise. It is not for me to meddle’.”

2. Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III (WW Norton)
It comes as a surprise to find that the author of the elegiac House Of Sand And Fog was a psychotic thug in his youth, but this hugely honest account of the psychology of violence explains in graphic, blow-by-blow detail why some inwardly seething individual in a bar might just decide to come over and whack you with little apparent provocation. Dubus starts out as a weak kid, in a broken home in a shitty Massachusetts mill town, picked on and taunted by the kids that use his house after school for drinking, drugs and sex.  After helplessly watching his brother get beaten up, he becomes the man in the Bullworker ad – he stops smoking pot and starts working out, and by the time he’s ready for action, he’s got muscle and a ton of scores to settle. A touching account of eventual redemption through writing rather than kicking someone’s head in, and how he reached a sort of peace with his famous author and namesake dad. Sample quote (walking home one night, he spots two men in a parking lot as they threaten a pleading third. Dubus decides to step in): “Ryan hit him again, and now I was close enough to hear it, the dulled thud of bone under flesh on bone under flesh. ‘Hey!’ I felt my voice move through my vocal cords, watched myself stand a pace behind them, my weight on my back foot. The tall one was bent over at the waist crying, his hands cupped to his nose, and Ryan turned to me. ‘Mind your own fuckin’ business.’
     ‘Why don’t you hit me then? Hit me.’
    He rushed at me and there was a thrust in my shoulder and he fell backwards to the asphalt and lay there and didn’t move.
    The tall one straightened up and sniffled. He looked from me to his friend, then back at me. Someone else had been standing near the hood of the Monte Carlo, and now he ran around the car and squatted on the ground near Ryan. ‘Shit.
    Ryan mumbled something. He rolled onto his shoulder, and I turned and walked through the parking lot and out the iron gates and into the street for the long walk home.”

War - still stupid after all these years
1. To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This brilliant WW1 companion book to the SAHIP number one album of the year, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, not only highlights the madness and carnage of the battlefield, not to mention the unconscionable political and military blundering, but also the protest movements back home, and the bravery of those who stood up and expressed their dissent. Sample quote: “Unlike other wars before and since, there were no behind-the-scenes peace negotiations while the battles raged. Both sides were committed to fight to the bitter end, and by now, two years into the war, if someone in a prominent position on either side so much as advocated peace talks, it was close to treason. When reverend Edward Lyttleton, the headmaster of Eton, gave a sermon outlining some possible compromises that might end hostilities, the resulting uproar eventually forced him to resign.”


JHH4 said...

Thanks Ian, Nice Selection, just ordered Got, Not got. I look forward to reading that. This year I also enjoyed Lost in Shangri-La, (and thus a re-read on James Hilton's Lost Horizons, totally unrelated except for Shangi-La), Matterhorn and a review of The Rum Diary. To satiate my need to escape reality... Wildwood and Game of Thrones. Hope all is well, let me know if you have time for a pint.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

JH, There seems to be a pattern of people being lost in woods and jungles in those books - I'll hit you up for a lone of Lost In Shangri-La, it looks really good. Definitely up for a holiday pint between Xmas and New Year for a verbal (if slurred) revue of 2011.

Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop said...

'Loan', not 'lone'. Tsk.

No Good Boyo said...

I enjoyed John Julius Norwich's Byzantium history, and fancy these classy popes. Another fine Medieval institution seems to have fallen foul of political correctness, like the Vikings, although the occasional pontiff still makes on stand for barbarity by liking the Nazis and endorsing child-rape.

As for Patridge, I feel parliament beckons.

Merry Christmas!