When people ask me about my favorite book, I often have no idea what to say. Come up with one book that I like more than any other book that I’ve ever read? How am I supposed to do that? I most certainly have books I like more than others. There are books I love and books I hate. But I find it almost impossible to choose one single work that I value above all others because, among the really great books, they each have something of value that can’t be fairly compared to others.
In this spirit, my new years review of the books I read in 2011 will not be a single ordered list of books I liked culminating in my favorite book of the year. Instead, I’ve come up with a few categories into which I can place just some of the books I read last year. This list is by no means comprehensive but it gives some good examples of what made me happy to be a reader in 2011.
The “Try Not to Make an Ass of Yourself By Laughing Hysterically in Public Places” Books
The Books: Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik; Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend by Christopher Moore; God, No! by Penn Jillette; Pandaemonium by Christopher Brookmyre
Most books are not laugh-out-loud funny. They might inspire a smirk, or an inside chuckle, maybe a giggle. But, some books are pee-your-pants funny. Christopher Moore’s Lamb is one of these books. The story of Jesus’ missing years is narrated by Biff, a well-meaning but flawed sidekick to the Son of God. For all it’s wacky irreverence, the book manages to remain surprisingly inoffensive, no small feat when dealing with two teenage boys (even if one of them is Christ). Penn Jillette’s God No! could be summed up with “a fat dude vomits all over naked strippers in zero gravity.” That sentence in itself is funny and the book follows suit. Jillette does, however, get a little bit preachy in his hatred of anything religious and that drags the book down. Pandaemonium, by Christopher Brookmyre, sits in as a a gaggle of hormonal teens battle demons at a forest getaway. Sex, drugs, and mayhem predictably lead to hilarious results. And Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk, tells the story of an adolescent spy sent to the American heartland to instigate chaos and destruction. Told through the butchered syntax and grammar of a non-native speaker, Pygmy is a brutal satire of American society in the guise of a raucous farce. It was certainly the funniest book I read in 2011.
The “It Would Be So Cool to Do These Things But I Don’t Actually Want to Die” Books
The Books: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer; No Way Down by Graham Bowley; The Wave by Susan Casey; Blind Descent by James Tabor
Four very strong books round out this category of tales chronicling men and women jabbing their fingers into nature’s eye by exploring those places where mortals have no business being. Two have to do with mountain climbing tragedies in the Himalayas. Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Bowley’s No Way Down read as gripping thrillers set on the rooftop of the world. Turning a complete 180, Blind Descent by James Tabor follows those who explore the earth’s deepest depths in a claustrophobic tale of supercave spelunking. The final work in this category is Susan Casey’s The Wave. She follows scientists, sailors, and (of course) surfers on a quest to find the worlds largest and most dangerous waves. The tale of a 1700+ foot wave alone makes this book a gripping read.
The “Sometimes Religion Makes People do Crazy Things” Books
The Books: Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer; Underground by Haruki Murakami; Inside Scientology by Janet Reitman; The Cleanest Race by B.J. Myers
There were four excellent books in this category, each one exploring a different religious movement and their often tragic collisions with mainstream society. Haruki Murakami’s Underground deals with the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Murakami chooses to forgo any sort of author driven narrative by telling the story almost entirely in the words of the victims and cult members. The result is a sobering meditation on Japanese society and it’s culpability in this horrific tragedy. Inside Scientology, by Janet Reitman, takes a more traditional approach in exploring the origins, beliefs, and future of Scientology. Her research is insightful and scathing. While remaining sympathetic to Scientology’s many adherents, she paints a vivid portrait of a power-hungry organization founded by a delusional huckster and being led into the 21st century by a violent sociopath.B.J. Myers’ The Cleanest Race seems to be misplaced in this category as it is a book about how the North Korean people perceive themselves and how this affects contemporary geopolitics. Myers, however, makes a very persuasive argument that the North Korean worldview is informed by their own psuedo-religious belief in the purity of their race and in their leaders ability to protect this innocence against an onslaught of corruption and filth from the rest of the world. Finally, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven explores the violent roots of Mormonism while telling the story of a grisly modern-day murder. This story of faith gone awry is masterfully told, moving at times more like a thriller than a religious history. His book challenges believers to ask themselves how far they might go in the name of faith and, depending on the answer, what this implies about the very nature of religious belief.
The “WTF???” Books
The Books: American Psycho by Brad Easton Ellis; Ed King by David Guterson; The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; Pygmy by Chuck Palahnuik
As an adult reader of literary fiction, one can very easily become desensitized to scenes of violence and sexuality (or a combination of the two). Depictions of this nature often pop up in various works and, having read hundreds of them, they’re usually not quite as shocking as perhaps they should be. Still, every so often a book can truly jolt. Dave Guterson’s Ed King is a modern retelling of Oedipus Rex and is billed as such. Therefore, the ending’s not a complete surprise. No matter how prepared you are, however, it’s still cringe-inducing when the titular character discovers the truth about his wife. Chuch Palahnuik’s Pygmy makes a second appearance for its bipolar swings between boring suburban life and graphic mayhem. The scene where the diminutive narrator deals with an oafish bully will test your resolve as you try not to laugh at something that shouldn’t be in any way funny. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks also deals with an adolescent narrator prone towards violence and sociopathic behavior. As his story careens towards it’s disturbing surprise ending, he spends his time collecting his own bodily fluids, killing dogs, and torturing wasps. The last book in this category, however, makes the rest of these seem like appropriate bedtime stories for toddlers. Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho depicts scenes of violence, sex, and sexual violence more disturbing and graphic than anything else legally available. Readers beware.
“Even Though I’m a Guy, I Sometimes Cry a Little at the End of Books”
The Books: Room by Emma Donoghue; 11/22/63 by Stephen King; Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
I’m not a crier. Even if I was, I probably wouldn’t admit it. But, I’d be lying if I said that these books didn’t bring a tear to my eye. Stephen King’s 11/22/63 may seem like an unlikely choice – time travelling alternate histories aren’t exactly known for their emotional potency. King, however, turn this tale into a poignant meditation on memory, loss, and time. You’d have to be one tough person to remain dry-eyed at the end of this one. Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men needs little explanation. The ill-fated story of George and Lenny has been regurgitated so many times in pop-culture that it almost seems cliche. But this doesn’t negate the raw emotional power of this tragic novella. The gem in this category, however, was Emma Donoghue’s Room. The brilliance of this novel lies in the author’s use of Jack, a six year old narrator. Jack’s innocence in the face of a dark,cruel world is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.