My brain doesn't seem to want to participate in year-end roundups this year, as every time I try to think about what books or films or music or legumes I've encountered, I mostly go blank. I seem to have lost the capacity to link such experiences to the experience of time in annual chunks. I wouldn't in any case be able to write a "best of the year" post because I've spent a lot of this year catching up with stuff from other years (well, no old legumes -- that would be gross...). Probably still a hangover effect from my years as series editor for Best American Fantasy.
However, some books, at least, do come to mind as things I haven't posted enough about here, and which I would like to recommend. So if you get some good giftcards or something during the holidays and feel impelled to buy something; or if you happen to want some stuff to look for in the library, here are a few titles (arranged alphabetically by author) I've thought rewarded the time I spent with them.
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. When I first tried to read this novel some years back during a Bernhard binge, I was also in the midst of a Glenn Gould binge, and the two didn't work together -- Bernhard's very fictional portrayal of Gould bothered me too much. It was a silly thing to be bothered by, but it's hard to stop being bothered once one has been bothered. (And Bernhard is a brilliant botherer.) A few months ago, I was more in the spirit, and really enjoyed Bernhard's playing around with Gould's image and legend, though that's only a minor part of what the book is about ... or, well, is (I'm uncomfortable reducing any Bernhard book to being "about" something). I still prefer some of Bernhard's other novels -- Correction, especially -- but I also find Bernhard's book really defy hierarchical ranking, and since Correction was the first Bernhard I read, it holds the privileged place of being the first encounter with that singular, singeing voice.
Heartsick by Chelsea Cain. I stumbled upon this book when looking for novels about female serial killers, because I've been redesigning my Murder, Mayhem, Madness course for the spring and wanted to have a novel about a female serial killer. Heartsick has plenty of the clichés of the serial killer and police procedural novel, but it seems to recognize them as clichés and therefore to pump up the volume of them more -- e.g., the grizzled police detective isn't just grizzled, he's permanently traumatized from torture and has a less-than-healthy relationship with his torturer. The book becomes a grand guignol character study and a page-turner, and that's a real accomplishment.
Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism by T.J. Clark. I took this out of the library after reading various references to it in Gabriel Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism, and it's a wonder. I'm still working my way through it, but enthusiastically recommend it nonetheless -- the text is dense, but don't let that put you off; it's worth the work, because Clark fills the pages with ideas about art, history, politics, culture, etc., and it gives the brain a wonderfully rewarding workout. And the book is also an art book, so it's beautifully illustrated.
Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot. I mention this book in passing in an upcoming Strange Horizons column, but because that column is primarily about another book, I didn't say as much as I would like about what a marvelous book Pink Brain, Blue Brain is. Eliot is a neuroscientist and a mother, and her book is a powerful corrective to the "men are from Mars, women are from Venus" approach to gender difference.
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. This may be the only 2010 novel I read in 2010. (I'll probably think of 20 others once I finish this post.) It's certainly one of the few novels I read in the last year that has remained vivid in my memory.
Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See by Jonathan Rosenbaum. I could not disagree more strongly with the chapter in this book about movie canons and their "necessity", a chapter that generalizes horribly and is, to my mind, utterly at odds not only with reality, but with Rosenbaum's own way of writing about cinema. Nonetheless, every other chapter of the book is fascinating, and while certainly I'd quibble with all sorts of things throughout, the fundamental arguments that Rosenbaum makes seem strong to me, even now, eleven years after the book was written. Actually, some of its datedness makes certain progress apparent: the rise of blogs, of sites like Slant, and others have in some ways ameliorated the problem of so many major film critics being ignorant of world cinema and of film history. Yes, the major publications like The New York Times and The New Yorker still employ most of the same people Rosenbaum criticizes, but even there there have been improvements -- Manohla Dargis at the Times has been a welcome improvement over ... the rest. Systemic problems remain, but the fracturing of the media environment over the last decade has actually helped reduce some of the monolithic power of the blockbuster reviewers. In any case, my point here is that Rosenbaum's book is an accessible and thought-provoking study of how we value the movies we value.
Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes by Stephen Sondheim. My love for Sondheim is boundless, but even if it weren't, I'd probably still love this book. It's not just a collection of the lyrics to Sondheim's songs up to 1981 (a second volume is due next year, and will, in fact, include the title song, "Finishing the Hat"), but is also a memoir and a manual on writing -- as Paul Simon said in the Times, the book "is essentially about process, the process of writing songs for theater", although it's not nearly as limited as that may make it sound. Sondheim includes lots of commentary about how and why he wrote the lyrics, as well as his evaluation of other lyricists, and alternate drafts of the songs. For anyone interested in musical theatre, this book is a must, but I think many people simply interested in language and writing would also appreciate it.
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women by Rebecca Traister. I actually got this as a gift for someone, and after glancing at the first page or two, ended up reading it myself before giving it to them. Traister is particularly insightful about the intersections of race and gender in the discourse of the 2008 election. It's a compelling read, but also a smart one -- race and gender have been thorny issues for activists at least since Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had a falling-out with Frederick Douglass over the 14th and 15th Amendments, and Traister knows this. Though I tend to think politics in the U.S. is controlled by two wings of a corporatist war party, I'm fascinated by the 2008 election because of how many fault lines in American culture erupted during it, and because once we thought it all couldn't get any worse, we got Sarah Palin -- who is, herself, interesting for making "feminism" a word conservatives such as Newt Gingrich suddenly wanted to claim for their own side, and who provoked plenty of sexist and classist responses from Democrats and their supporters.
Lynd Ward: Six Novels in Woodcuts, edited by Art Spiegelman. Because I'm friends with David Beronä, I've become more sensitive to wordless books than ever before, and have especially enjoyed the work of Lynd Ward. This Library of America edition is gorgeously produced, and though I already had most of the Dover editions of these books, I ordered the LOA edition the minute I first heard about it, because having them all together in such a wonderfully designed edition was too exciting to resist.
Once I post this, I'll think of a hundred other books I enjoyed this year, but there's a certain value in grabbing the ones that come most immediately to mind, and that's what these are.