Belated Top Fives for 2011

January 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have not one, not two, but three top five lists for last year, mostly because a read a whole lot of canonical lit in 2011, and a lot of the best of the rest of what I read was short stories, essays, and the like.  So herewith, three lists: favorite short pieces I read last year, favorite more-or-less contemporary lit, and favorite books including the canonical stuff everyone knows they should read.

Short pieces:

5.  “Pride and Prometheus,” by John Kessel.  This brilliant short story (verging on novella) speculates on what would happen if Victor Frankenstein (and his creature) showed up in the milieu of Jane Austen.  A brilliant mash-up.

4. “Skunk,” by Justin Courter.  I read this in an anthology of “fabulist and new wave fabulist” stories entitled Paraspheres.  I never expected to love a story about a perv getting addicted to skunk musk.  But I did.  The deadpan delivery of the over-the-top premise works beautifully.

3. “Declaration on the Notion of ‘the Future’,” by the International Necronautical Society (Tom McCarthy).  The best manifesto I’ve read in ages. (Not that I read all that many manifestos.)

2. Section 36 of The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace (printed under the title “Backbone” in The New Yorker).  This is a cheat, but TPK really is an unfinished assemblage including some finished, short-story-length pieces.  This is probably the best of those, about a boy obsessed with touching his lips to every part of his body.

1. “Retreat,” by Wells Tower.  A masterpiece of a short story.  See here for my comparison of it with Chekhov’s “Gooseberries.”

Contemporary lit:

5. Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.  I was a little down on this when I finished (see here), but it’s gotten better in my head since then.  The flashback descriptions of life in the Washerwomen cult, especially, will stick with you.

4. Eunoia, by Christian Bok.  Can I interest you in a wildly inventive work of conceptual prose-poetry, consisting of five story-poems which each use only one of the five vowels, and use over 90% of the possible words available in the English language fitting that criteria?

3. The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace.  By no means a finished work, but I’ll remember reading it more than almost everything else I read in 2011.  See here, here, and here.

2. Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami.  For some reason I didn’t have high hopes for this particular Murakami — I guess it was the off-putting title — but it’s right up there with his best stuff (maybe one rung below Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland).  Love the ferris wheel scene.

1. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. A clinic in the American short story, destined to be the tailpiece to any creative-writing or American lit course featuring Hemingway, Carver, Coover, and Lorrie Moore.  Also, he’s from Chapel Hill.

Canonical lit:

5. Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar.  In retrospect, reading Beckett before this would’ve made sense.  A terrific synthesis of modernism and postmodernism, and one of the most successful experimental novels I’ve ever read in the gestalt of its structure, style, theme, and content.

4. The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.  Hilarious, heartbreaking, and absurd, at times all at once, in its depiction of Kiev under siege.  Bulgakov is just the best.

3. Molloy, by Samuel Beckett.  From this point on we’re dealing with three unspeakable masterpieces, and ordering is really a matter of what the weather’s like on the day you’re asked.

2. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.

1. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.  Actually, Emily may always be at a different level for me.

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