05 February 2012

Best and Worst of 2011

I began posting book reviews regularly in December of 2010, and immediately loved the practice. What began as an idle notion to review a handful of recent reads turned into the central focus of my blog, and a great success. I reviewed about 130 books this past year. Some reviews are only a paragraph, and others are sprawling essays of joy or disgust. But a few books stand out: these are the best and worst of the new books that I read in 2011 - a summary that's a little late but inspired by my friend Sherrema.

Best Fiction
Ficciones, Jorge Luis Borges
(original review)

There are many good books.  There are some great books.  But there are very few books that you can read once and know that it is a Great Book.  Ficciones is one of them.

The power of this book was such that, immediately upon reading it, I wished I knew sufficient Spanish to read the original text.  There must be subtleties that I am missing, despite what seems like an excellent translation.  But even without those wisps of meaning that slip away between languages, this is an astounding collection of short stories.

The stories are often mysterious or have a hidden conclusion.  They are often self-referential, or otherwise "meta."  Some of them are skilled metaphors.  But almost without exception, they are conceptually brilliant.  At the center of each weird, wonderful story lies a beating heart of an insight, animating all the strange parts and twisting limbs.  If Borges' work in this volume is similar to anything else I've read (and it is marvelously unique) then it is perhaps a strange combination of Kurt Vonnegut's gift for ideas and Umberto Eco's patient tracing of consequences.

I know I am gushing.  It's merited.  Read this.

Best Nonfiction
The Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell
(original review)

I read a lot of bad nonfiction - it's a hobby.  Hokey memoirs, self-glorifying accounts, and outright lies: they're all interesting in their way.  Joining this guilty pastime is a host of mediocrity: workable histories and practical biographies.  An author like Jon Krakaeur (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven, Where Men Win Glory) gives a clever and sturdy story, but doesn't break into brilliance.  The likes of Guns, Germs, and Steel doesn't come along every week.

The Life of Samuel Johnson was a pleasant surprise, because it truly is brilliant.  This judgment will surprise no one, of course, because it is celebrated as one of the greatest biographies ever written.  Boswell, an attentive (almost worshipful) friend of Johnson, manages to rip the great man out of his life and onto the pages.  The flush-faced Johnson, huffing out clever opinions and learned commentary, is so real that the reader can almost smell the ale in the air.  Indeed, you can feel the honor of having a friend you so admire in Boswell's dedication to transcribing the experience.

It has to be admitted there is much cruft - you can safely read the abridged - but for all that this book remains the best nonfiction I read this past year.  It is clever, erudite, insightful, and vivid with the life of a titan.

Worst Fiction
Kingdom Come, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
(original review)

This may be a bit of cheating, because technically I reviewed this last book of the Left Behind series at the end of 2010.  But I'm not going to worry about it too much, because it seems necessary to honor these books, which are truly the best of the worst fiction in so many ways.  The quality of the writing is dismal, the characters are repugnant and unrealistic, the plot is inane, and the philosophy is so slobberingly stupid that a reader is invested with nothing but the deepest admiration for the villains.  This final book in the series was a worthy conclusion and summary of Left Behind, and deserves to be held up for the apoplexy-inducing pile of crap that it truly is.

My original review is pretty good, since I labored with the same flabbergasted glee on all the reviews for that series.  Check it out, if you haven't already (tagline: "If you want a picture of the future [in this book], imagine a divine sandal stomping on a human face - forever.")

Worst Nonfiction
Heaven Is for Real, Todd Burpo OR Assholes Finish First, Tucker Max
(original review OR original review)

I have a weak spot for bad nonfiction, so this was by far the toughest choice.  I couldn't actually decide on a winner: it's a tie between Pastor Todd Burpo's exploitative and shallow Heaven Is for Real, an account of his son's near-death experience, and Tucker Max's vomitous exploration of the depths of self-loathing in Assholes Finish First.  Each book is crashingly terrible in its own way.

Heaven Is for Real is another religious book.  Todd Burpo's son becomes deathly ill, and has a near-death experience in which he travels to Heaven and meets Jesus.  His father the pastor then writes this book, in which he engages in the most marvelous example I have ever seen of someone re-arranging events to suit their belief system.  Unwittingly, Burpo's story becomes a comedy, because it is all too obvious to the reader just how thoroughly he is bamboozling himself.  Vague sentiments from the boy are reshaped into specific evidence by the father; flimsy coincidences are seized upon as proof; and the whole thin skein is stretched out paper-thin to reach the length of one shortish book.  It is completely unintentional and absolutely fascinating, and so it is the best worst nonfiction: a pleasure to read because it is so bad.

The other winner is a sharp contrast.  Assholes Finish First was Tucker Max's second book, arriving after the inexplicable success of I Hope There's Beer in Hell, which came to us both in terrible book form and shockingly bad movie form.  I thought it would be impossible to do worse than the juvenile misogyny of the first book, which used self-awareness as self-justification (i.e. it's okay that I'm a pig because at least I know it) and plunged far below the lowest common denominator in its frat-boy bravado.  But Assholes Finish First has the distinction of being so astoundingly bad that it barely even deserves to be called a book.  It merits coinage as a term: Assholes finish first (assholes fɪnɪʃ fərst), noun: a booklike collection of words that inspires nausea and shame for one's gender.

Assholes Finish First is mostly a collection of stories that apparently didn't make the cut for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, which is a sad thing considering the standards of that book.  Tucker Max gets drunk, faces off against rowdy fans and women who lust for him, and has all kinds of tepid adventures.  After only a few stories - summaries for which you can read at the original review - he has lost all power to shock.  Queasiness and disgust follows, soon replaced by an abiding sense of pity for this man, and repentance for belonging to the same species.  Long before the end, which dissolves into masturbatory discussion of his own success, you will be hoping for blindness or death.  In a completely un-ironic way, Assholes Finish First is one of the worst things I have ever read.

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