A year of favorites: Jason’s 2011 Best Of list

Posted by Jason Diamond

I’ve written and read my share of year-end lists, and I’m at the point now where I’m not totally sure what sort of purpose they serve, but I continue to read and write them anyway.  I’m not trying to sound jaded about peoples roundups of the year that was, in fact I rather like them and really enjoy doing my own.  I guess my issue tends to be more of the way you’ve got to dig deep for the Best Of lists that challenge me to revisit something I may have missed in the year.  Like I know people really like The Marriage Project and thought Watch The Throne was a masterpiece, but why do I want to re-read about these works a few months after the initial offering?  Or why do I want to read what is essentially another review?

With all that said, I’ve tried my damnedest not to write another “Best Of” list of my own that adheres to any sort of real structure.  I feel like a lot of the stuff on this list I’ve mentioned in the past, but for sake of celebration, I’d like to try and build upon why they had such an impact on my life.

Favorite Books of the Year:

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson (FSG)

Day of the Oprichnik by Vladmir Sorokin (FSG)

While neither of these are technically books of this year (Sorokin’s book had been released in Russia a few years prior, and Train Dreams showed up in The Paris Review in 2002), they were given the book treatment this year.  Sorokin’s dystopia was the Eastern European A Clockwork Orange written by Burroughs and not Burgess.  It was Shteyngart’s Russian cousin who never left the homeland, and it was an immaculate example of the new school of dystopia literature that has been quite prevalent as of late.   Johnson’s Train Dreams deserves to be placed in this American canon of art that explores where America started going wrong when everything seemed like it was alright.  I drew comparisons less to any writer, but more to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Johnson’s Robert Grainier wasn’t a ruthless oilman, but he was a man living through an America that was slowly developing into the monster it’s become today.  Unlike Daniel Plainview, Grainer stays ignorant to most of the changes; maybe to numb the pain of losing his family, or maybe just because he’s simply unable to accept and understand change?  Johnson doesn’t explore that.  He simply tells the man’s story in a novella that would have taken any other writer 800 pages to even scratch the surface with.  The most amazing thing about Train Dreams is that it isn’t Johnson’s greatest work.  I still think he’s got something better in store for us that will rest alongside Train Dreams and his many other works.

Other Favorite Book Written by a Russian

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated by Tim Mohr (Europa Editions)

I reviewed this earlier in the year.  I think it’s already a classic, and you should probably pick it up.

Other Favorite Dystopia Novel

The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson (Akashic)

Nathan Larson is an artist that earns the title of “Scary Talented.”  His novel was one of the few instances of a great musician writing a great novel.

Favorite Non-Fiction Book

Out of the Vinyl Depths: Ellen Willis on Rock Music (University of Minnesota Press)

I’m not sure I can adequately put into words the effect reading Willis’ music collected music writing had on me, but it’s one that won’t go away any time in the near future.

Other Favorite Book That Was Re-Released in 2011

A Heaven of Others by Joshua Cohen (Dzanc)

If my own memory serves me, I first encountered Cohen reading from this book about a Jewish boy being blown up by a suicide bomber who is sent to the Muslim heaven, at a reading on one of the Upper Sides of New York to a room filled with Jewish art “supporters” who looked completely aghast at what they were hearing.

Too bad for them, but hopefully they can all see the error of their ways, and pick up the latest release of Cohen’s brilliant and challenging 2008 novel.

Favorite Debut Novels of the Year

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown)

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale (Twelve)

One book may have suffered from over-hype (even though it ended up walking the walk), and another book was so unique and brilliant that it may have frightened off a few folks because it was about a brilliant primate who likes to fuck reptiles.  I guess I’ll let you figure out which one was which.

Best Book That Made Me Really Sad

Us by Michael Kimball (Tyrant Books)

Favorite Poetry

Ordinary Sun by Matthew Henriksen

Selected Unpublished Blog Posts of a Mexican Panda Express Employee by Megan Boyle (Muumuu House)

Favorite Short Story and Essay Collections 

Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman (Red Lemonade)

Other People We Married by Emma Straub (Republished by Riverhead in 2012)

Ayiti by Roxane Gay (Artistically Declined Press)

Stories V! by Scott McClanahan

The Great Frustration by Seth Fried (Soft Skull)

Reading Lynne Tillman’s collection of short stories filled me with the same amount of happiness that reading Deborah Eisneberg’s a year prior did.  She’s a master writer and everybody who reads her work recognizes that.

What was so fantastic about Straub’s collection?  How damn human it was.  It was honest, intimate, sweet, and all done with an eye for detail that very few writers have.  The collection is being republished by Riverhead in the near future (I believe February?) and if you haven’t read it, you really must treat yourself.

Scott McClanahan writes his life experiences into really short stories that are sometimes funny, other times sad, but always truthful.  Maybe one of the great Southern storytellers of our time?   Track down all his books to figure it out for yourself.

Fried and Gay are the two writers whose future work I’m most curious to check out.  The stories in The Great Frustration were like the bastard child of DeLillo and Gogol (thanks to Michael Schaub for first making the Gogol association for me).  Fried obviously did a lot of research to craft the stories in his debut, but does not skip on the humor one bit.  Gay, who is constantly putting out essays that I admire and enjoy, is obviously a talent that should be paid close attention to.  She seems to be able to write about anything with a command that very few writers have, leaving me very excited at what she has in store.

Favorite Memoirs

You Must Go And Win by Alina Simone (Faber & Faber)

Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War by Deb Olin Unferth (Henry Holt and Co.)

Deb Olin Unferth didn’t need to let puppy love lead her down to Central America during a time of revolution, just like Alina Simone didn’t need to become a career musician and deal with the pitfalls that come with her chose profession.  They could have gone down totally different paths, but then we wouldn’t have these two fantastic books.

The Best Punk Novel

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor (Harper Perennial)

There were a few books I considered “punk novels” this year.  Taylor’s was the best one.  After this fantastic novel and his debut collection of short stories, I’m left to wonder what Taylor will do next?

Favorite Books About Music

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes (FSG)

I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks (Dutton)

Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge by Mark Yarm (Crown)

Pretty Hate Machine 33 1/3by Daphne Carr

Marquee Moon 33 1/3 by Bryan Waterman

Hermes’ account of New York from 1973-1977 is about music, but it’s honestly so much more than that.  It’s personal and political, and it covers so much ground that hasn’t been covered in a period that’s been dissected and discussed over and over.

Carr and Waterman somehow managed to pull of something in same year: they wrote two of the best books in a series I’ve come to love.  Carr tackles the time and place that helped make Nine Inch Nails into a phenomenon, and Waterman took on the unenviable task of writing about one of the most loved and misunderstood records in rock history. (I talked to both Carr and Waterman this year.)

Favorite Issues of Magazines and Journals

Annalemma #8

The Believer #82 (Music Issue)

Every issue of The Paris Review.  (It’s true…)

Favorite Bolano Essay

Fatherland” by Jacob Silverman

Favorite Sports Piece 

Punched Out: The Life and Death of a Hockey Enforcer

Last year if you would have told me that the New York Times was going to dedicate three days of front pages of their sports section to a hockey story, I wouldn’t have believed you.  Sadly, the brilliantly written novella-sized piece was about the life and death of NHL enforcer Derek Boogaard.

Favorite Individual Podcasts 

Bat Segundo Show live with Dana Spiotta.

Eileen Myles on Bookworm.

How Was Your Week? Julie Klausner talking to Gil Ozeri about Inglorious Basterds

Favorite Joan Didion Book That Came Out This Year Which I didn’t want To Read Because I Became Really Depressed After Year of Magical Thinking

Blue Nights 

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  1. Oh, and Dennis Cooper’s The Marbled Swarm, how could I forget. But thanks for your list, there are a couple I need to check out.