Monday, March 19, 2012

The Year in Books: A Reader's View

by R.E. Paris

In which I discuss some interesting titles from 2011, note others, and leave out yet many more worthy of mention among the hundreds of thousands of books published in 2011.

Swerve: How The World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton) is a very readable history of the intellectual inheritance of the Renaissance. Greenblatt shows how that history ties the modern world to the classical one far more than the stages of grief for western civilization that we continue to work through with our medievalist-inclined fellow travelers.

Greenblatt tells the story of a Renaissance book hunter, Poggio Bracciolini, and his 1417 recovery of On the Nature of Things after more than a thousand years of obscurity.

Lucretius’ On The Nature Of Things (re-released by Norton in 2011 with a translation by Frank O. Copley) was an ancient Roman Epicurean poem. Epicureans did not hold a belief in life after death, or a belief in an interventionist God, but did find a belief in atoms might be useful. They held that an appreciation and exploration of this world was reason enough to exist. The dissemination of Lucretius’ work brought the views of the ancient Epicureans to the notice of Italy’s 15th century artistic and scientific culture.

A perfect complement to Greenblatt’s book is Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the Renaissance (Yale) released in paperback in 2011. Pettegree offers a brief history of the book prior to the Renaissance and moves on to the first 150 years of printing.

Gutenberg’s printing press was an invention on par with the personal computer and the impact upon, or creation of, a unique popular culture in its era was just as great as that of Steve Jobs (Simon & Schuster) This biography by Walter Issacson relates a similar “intersection of humanities and science, creating new devices and services that consumers did not know they needed” (or wanted) when first invented.

The increase in access to information is central to Bracciolini’s era and ours. The key to success for the printing press was a move beyond the religious backlist to less expensive titles and more earthly subjects such as those celebrated by Rabelais.

2011 marked the 100th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan. Gingko Press re-released many of his works, including The Medium is the Massage, created in collaboration with Quentin Fiore, with a new cover illustration by Shepard Fairey.

Fifty years after its original publication, University of Toronto Press released a new edition of The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan’s first book that gained him the title “the prophet of the internet.” All your tribal base are belong to us, McLuhan.

The Lilly Library holds a copy of a Gutenberg New Testament on permanent display. It remains a testament to the power of print. The Lilly Library was also the location for much of Charles Shields’ research for And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, (Henry Holt) the first biography of Indiana’s favorite literary son.

Vonnegut died in 2007, after a year of correspondence with Shields in which Vonnegut noted his early desire to move out of the “genre ghetto.” He need not have worried since the Library of America released Kurt Vonnegut: Novels and Stories 1963-1973 in 2011, with a second collection of stories from 1950-1962 scheduled for release in the spring of 2012.

Vonnegut’s most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, fictionalized his experiences in Germany as a soldier during the bombing of Dresden. Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown) details the experience of William Dodd and his adult children as Dodd moved from Chicago to Berlin to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933. Dodd saw, firsthand, the mass psychosis that changed the 20th century’s worldview (and led to the beginning of an atomic age beyond Epicurean imagining.)

From There To Modernity

Manning Marable passed from this existence in April of 2011, the same month in which he published Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (Viking) nominated for the National Book Award. Professor Marable was the author of 15 books and served as the Director of Columbia University’s Center for Contemporary Black History.

Marable’s last book tells the story of a soul’s journey with a body’s warts and all. The author looks at missing chapters of Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and notes Malcolm X’s emerging vision of African-American solidarity across political or religious divides. In addition, Marable ties Malcolm X’s pan-African liberation to the anti-apartheid movement.

Speaking of liberation, though of a different sort, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) tells the story of a man who was a crucial part of Alfred Kinsey’s work (whose archives include selections of Steward’s writing and ephemera.) In addition to the bona fides in the book’s title, Steward was a prolific diarist, pornographer, S&M devotee, and young fan who “seduced” Rudolph Valentino.

Like Poggio Bracciolini in his search for part of the untranslated past, Spring went in search of Stewart’s firsthand and mostly unchronicled account of (male) homosexual American life in the mid-20th century and found it in the attic of Stewart’s executor. Secret Historian was a National Book Award Finalist and 2011 winner of the Lambda Literary Award in Biography.

The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael edited by Sanford Schwartz (Library of America) is a small collection of Kael’s reviews. Kael was one of the foremost film critics of the 20th century and the first to win a National Book Award for a book of movie criticism.

She made her reputation in 1967 with a review of the then-controversial Bonnie and Clyde and the reviews in this book cover the decade following this movie. She was Tarantino’s film school. Brian Kellow published Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark (Viking) and explored Kael’s earlier life as a bohemian and single mother and the arguments among critics regarding her work.

A Few Short Subjects

Graphic Novels

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick (First Second) Feynman was a beautiful soul who showed the world the beautiful soul of physics.

Habibi by Craig Thompson, (Pantheon) A graphic romance in stunning black and white.

The Influencing Machine: Brooke Gladstone on the Media
by Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld (Norton) brings McLuhan’s ideas to the present.

Moby Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish (Tin House Books) A mixed-media retelling of a classic.


11/22/63 by Stephen King (Scribner) Time travel and the Kennedy assassination.

A Dance With Dragons (the final book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series) by George R. R. Martin (Bantam).

Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (Penguin) A manuscript in Oxford’s Bodleian Library leads a woman to a discovery of her family past.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown) The future and the past in a virtual reality wrapped inside a dystopia inside an enigma.

Two Worlds and In Between: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan, Vol. 1 by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Subterranean) A ten-year retrospective of Kiernan’s work.

The Wise Man’s Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicles Day 2, by Patrick Rothfuss (Daw) An orphan promises to tell his story in three days.


Audubon Birds of America by John Audubon (Natural History Museum UK) The museum disbound the original book pages to create fresh copies for these prints.

Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer, edited by Peter F. Neumeyer. (Pomegranate) The art of friendship, illustrated.

Gig Posters Volume 2
by Clay Hayes (Quirk Books) includes work from Indiana’s Mile 44 (Stacy Curtis and Dave Windisch).

Pilgrimage by Annie Leibowitz, with Doris Kearnes Goodwin (Random House) Photography.

Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen by Andrew Bolton, Susannah Frankely, Tim Blanks, Sølve Sundsbø, with a lenticular cover by Gary James McQueen (Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information by Manuel Lima (Princeton Architectural Press) Lima is considered one of the most influential thinkers on information visualization.


Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (Knopf) A National Book Award Finalist, published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of this pivotal moment in American history. History.

Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, illustrated by Dave McKean (Free Press) Science.

Roots and Blues by Arnold Adoff, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Clarion Books) Poetry. Sights and sounds of American music.

Symphony City by Amy Martin (McSweeney’s) McSweeney's began a series of children’s picture books this year. The dust jacket unfolds into a larger double-sided poster. Picture Book.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press) Selznick also wrote and illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Fiction.

Once Upon A Time, The End (or, Fiction)

Harlem Renaissance Novels: The Library of America Collection, edited by Rafia Zafar, is available as a two-book boxed set or individually by decade.

Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, the multiple award-winning history released in the fall of 2010, told the story of the great migration of African-Americans from the Jim Crow south to the urban and industrial north. This migration created an urban culture and voice that is the basis for this Harlem Renaissance anthology that includes work from the 1920s and 1930s by luminaries such as Claude McKay, Nella Larsen, Langston Hughes and Jessie Redmon Fauset.

2011 marked many first novels of note and the last, unfinished work from David Foster Wallace with The Pale King (Little, Brown), the tome that will launch a thousand dissertations.

Wallace’s mind was another ”intersection of humanities and science” revealed in beautifully wrought prose concerning an IRS office in Peoria. “Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.”

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) includes a character reminiscent of David Foster Wallace who is part of a love triangle in a story concerned with the death of the love triangle (or marriage plot) as a plot device.

by Haruki Murakami (Knopf) ponders the fate of our future past present and sideways. Aomane climbs up a subway ladder wormhole, in Japan, and finds herself in a-Japan.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell (Norton) is an updated female Huckleberry Finn story with Annie Oakley as a patron saint. Campbell is a midwestern writer whose fullness of voice demarcates a geographic space. She is also a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow. Read her work.

Open City by Teju Cole (Random House) This meditative walk through New York in the mind of a Nigerian immigrant is this reader’s favorite new fiction title of the year. The elegiac tone and the stream of consciousness other-ness of experience lead to a startling conclusion. This is Cole’s first novel.

More Notable First Novels:

Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (Little, Brown) Baseball and love.

Before I Go To Sleep
by S.J. Watson (Harper) Memory, trust and suspicion.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (Viking) A librarian and a reader on the lamb.

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday) A circus arrives, a competition ensues, the stakes are dear.

Swamplandia (Vintage) is Karen Russell’s alligator-wrestling theme park story. Nominated for the Orange Prize.

Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (Random House) Balkan folklore and family tales.

Notable Local Author & Press Titles for 2011

Four for a Quarter by Michael Martone (Fiction Collective) A narrative derived from four.

Haiti Noir (Akashic Books) Nadine Pinede was anthologized in this collection edited by Edwidge Danticat.

Overbite by Meg Cabot (William Morrow) The second book in the Insatiable Series.

The Ridge by Michael Kortya (Little, Brown) A supernatural thriller involving a cat rescue center.

IU Press began the Break Away book series in 2011. The first two titles are Glimpse Traveler by Marianne Boruch and The Swan by Jim Cohee. The Break Away series features regionally-influenced fiction, memoirs, nonfiction and poetry. Susan Neville and Michael Martone are the series editors.


Bringing the Shovel Down by Ross Gay (University of Pittsburg Press)

Shadows Set in Concrete by JL Kato (Restoration) won the Indiana Center for the Book’s Best Poetry Prize for 2011.


David Baker: A Legacy in Music by Monika Herzig (Indiana University Press) An Indiana musical treasure.

A Home of Her Own by Nancy Hiller (Indiana University Press) Home as a journey through life.

Paradise Kitchen by Daniel Orr (Indiana University Press) The Farm’s chef shares his latest tasty offerings from The Caribbean.

Young Adult Fiction:

What Can(t) Wait by Ashley Hope Perez (Carolrhoda) A girl in the barrio struggles to be the first in her family to attend college. Perez’s next novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, will be released Feb. 2012

XVI by Julia Karr (Penguin) A teenage girl comes of age in a dystopian future. The sequel, Truth, will be released Jan. 2012.

This article originally appeared in The Ryder Magazine, Bloomington's Oldest Magazine of Culture and the Arts. It was re-posted at the Electron Pencil