Books we read in 2011 that left the longest lasting lingering positive impression

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

Said, a bit too loud, "Ha! Wow!" immediately after finishing its perfect ending. Not to hype it too much but maybe a new favorite short novel? It's a little like the Bartlebooth sections in Perec's Life: A User's Manual crossed with "Fitzcarraldo"? Imagine if Herzog exhumed Kinski for one last old-timey (early 1800s) South American romp . . . Seriously swell lit. Very little dialogue (no quotes; no conventional literary fiction dramatization; no character-revealing convos etc; no sections rendered as freakin' .PPT files). Mostly exposition. Objectively fantastic sentences (examples to come), the product of clear perception, perfect phrasing, insightful and often odd, but never feels "languagey." Similes are rare and wielded with extreme care, like a knife to the udders of night. If he'd filled out the summarized scenes with traditional dramatization this would have maybe felt like The Radetzky March in spirit. As is, it's 87 pages of awesome fictional biography, and, as such, feels like a novel due to density and evocation of a world. Shades of Sebald, Bolano (his most vivid bits), but more accessible -- easier reading, more focused, at times way more gripping (vividly described, very active things happen!)? Anyway, Señor Aira has earned another fan. Might try to read some of his stuff in Spanish once I exhaust what's available in English (apparently only 4 of ~60 novella-length books have been translated)? The translation, by the way, reads ridiculously well. If you're trying to figure out which little Aira book to read first in English (only five or six or 80+ are available so far) I'd suggest you start with this one, as I did. Ghosts was a semi-distant second for me, with the others falling way back, almost like they were by another writer.

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Fiction that feels unlike fiction is my favorite sort of fiction. This one explores intellectual and emotional terrain related to sensitive experience of what's real and contrived, propelled by a sustained sense of non-fictional narrative reality accentuated by author/narrator autobiographical overlap. Seemed at its best when essayistically offering insight (not "indulging in interiority") about poetic creation/sensibilities, about reading poetry (Ashbery), and describing attacks on self (panic) or a city (terrorist). At its worst when pretentious or wonky or mannered or self-consciously sophisticated, sometimes something as slight as a tacked-on phrase or, indeed, the imposition in a short sentence of something like "indeed." Conventional scenes (not always formatted as such), sometimes semi-insufficiently characterized characters, dialogue (conventional "s/he said" quotation and summary), and a bit of plot work with the expository jags to mirror society and self as they strike poses of sincerity and contrivance in the narrator's spliff- and paroxetine-addled mind. Shades of Bernhard's "Old Masters" (only at first), maybe a little bit of "The Stranger" (my initial thought bubbles re: post-postmodern solipsism blew up to encompass the larger picture when things became post-March 11), Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist" (poetry talk more convincing/energetic/inspired than the novel's drama/plot). Generally, I couldn't put it down. Not "hilarious" (per many of the blurbs) -- only one small LOL -- but it's intelligent, idea-driven, flowing, compelling, engaged, contemporary, questioning, touristical (I've stayed near the Prado and visited Granada and Barcelona), and sincere about the narrator's outright lies and artistic contrivances. But again, best of all, it feels like fiction that feels absolutely real (see Twain's thing about the difference between fiction and non-fiction), not much like literary fiction that might feel false in conception and execution, more concerned with "saleablity" than what it's like to be alive and abroad as homeland USA monstrously morphed into the United States of Bush . . . Oddly covers some of the same ground I've covered in old-ish stories (questions about authenticity at the artificial lake in Madrid's Parque de Buen Retiro; sitting for hours in front of a painting in the Prado), a novel I'm working on now (similar themes), and an unpublished novella (that also talks a bit about Maria Schneider in "The Passenger" -- a movie I rewatched three days before reading a few lines about it in this one). Eerie compatability in theme, tone, often in approach, plus semi-farflung elements made it easy to spend most of the day after Xmas with this novel. Highly recommended, albeit maybe more of a "writer's writer" sort of book.

Monsters by Ken Dahl

A freakin' comic about the author/artist's experience with herpes? Indeed. There's enough humor and pathos and artistry and anti-everyone sweetness and STD information to make this book wholly individuated, informative, entertaining, emotional, eye-catching reading. Very talented deployment of drawing, characterization, storytelling oomph, thematic/existential heft, balance of dramatization and exposition, distortion of frames to match the author's psychic sense at the time. But mostly it's informative and funny and I couldn't stop reading till it was done. Sort of like Maus for my generation? OCD re STD = five stars for me. (Not because I have herpes. Not that I'm aware of at least.)

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

As good as all his other stuff. No less finished-seeming than anything else he ever did. No plot, but thematic balls are always in the air and bouncing around, plus the prose is always so readable -- often easier, more mature, steadier, less trying to impress than his earlier stuff? Only had to look up two or three vocab words. Awarded the fifth star to encourage the writer to one day finish it properly -- for now, this collection of 540+ bound pages of DFW's writing, whether it's an unfinished novel, linked collection of stories, fragments, dialogues -- whatever you call it -- like a massive Snickers bar offered to all those famished for Mr. Wallace's particular sort of caloric content, really satisfied on micro and macro levels. Not really an office novel. More like a longer Brief Interviews with Hideous Men than a shorter Infinite Jest. A++ sequencing job by the editor -- seems like controlled pomo chaos instead of old-fashioned mess. Conflicts and thematic dealios are explicated by the author in the final "notes and asides" section: maturity/responsibility requires ability to pay attention, especially in the face of "boredom," which is really just an inability to pay sufficient attention -- and paying attention has a moral dimension. Apparently purposefully dull passsages come studded with easter eggs -- toward the end of a long dull footnote there's a "woodpeckerishly intensive round of fellatio" --- fellatio performed by an Iranian women who seems sort of like the Indian woman in "Freedom" -- wonder if Franzen cribbed her, or if he and DFW colluded to sexualize the long liquid hair of such women, or maybe as an inside joke re: their attraction to Jhumpa Lahiri? Minor magic realism: a character just barely levitates when he's immersed, paying serious attention to work or listening to someone. Also a pair of minor phantoms. Four major writers mentioned in the book as major writers a writer might aspire to be like are echoed throughout: Gaddis (dialogue onslaughts of JR), Perec (Life: A User's Manual -- attention to detail, structure, the name Sylvanshine echoes the name Bartlebooth), Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio -- portraits of an ensemble cast in the midwest), Balzac (ridiculous attention to detail? I haven't read enough to have much insight). LOLs a-plenty, often at revelation of a paradox (see essay on humor in Kafka, the bit about "A Little Fable"). Several dozen pages turned down, sometimes top and bottom corners turned in -- first time I've done that since Gilead. A systems novel -- like most of DeLillo or Kafka -- focused on individual/very much individuated lives (thanks to author's observations) inside a major faceless institution. Structurally, the book would've been loosely organized to have something to do with a yaw system -- that is, attention, responsibility, maturity are the rotor that turns the propeller that cuts through the wind of boredom, loneliness, excessive thought, and, as Shane Drinion demonstrates, enables levitation/flight (temporary transcendence). As noted early on in the book, "yaw" backwards is "way," which is the English word for "tao." For a 1200-word version of this impression, get the tenth edition of The Lifted Brow.

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas

Very highly recommended for fans of David Markson. Footnotes to a book that doesn't exist about writers who stopped writing ("those in the No") by a solitudinous Spanish hunchback. Clear, affectationless prose. A hybrid of biography, pseudobiography, pseudoautobiography, review, invention, quotation, invented quotation, and quick sad tales centerlessly centered on Rimbaud, Duchamp, Kafka, Beckett, Melville, Hawthorne, Salinger, Saramago, Cervantes, Henry Roth, and dozens of other "writers of the No," whether real or imagined. A unique yet totally readable read. Lots of LOLs, too. David Shields would love it.

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

Character-driven narrative non-fiction. Once the storm hits, it's consistently top notch, un-put-down-ably compelling and important. Not really just a book about Hurricane Katrina. It's more about how essential human virtues -- courage, endurance, hard work, tolerance, love for and reliance on family -- outweigh superficial religious and regional differences. How character's revealed under pressure. Extreme Bush-Era breakdown of rights we take for granted in the U.S -- there was some disbelief reading this, thinking it's like Camus' The Plague or Saramago's Blindness or Cormac's The Road, but it happpened in 2005, in the good ol' U.S.A, just a few years ago, in a city I visited in 2004 sometime . . . How can that be? The writing seemed at first restrained, kept to a lower gear, aiming for maximum accessibility, but it really worked when the winds pick up. It's effortlessly spare and transparent, lets you see through the text to scenes so you can read in "real-time" as actions unfold. The author's storytelling/formal talents are the conduit for this family's story -- Eggers' presence is really only felt as the messenger, channeling this story about this unfairly tested family. An easy (large-ish print, lots of white space on every page), well-executed, mostly foward flowing, moving, "enjoyable," meaningful read.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (re-read)

Especially recommended to cold cerebral dudes with liberal arts degrees in English Lit who rarely read fiction by living women. Would also recommend it to those who loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog but thought it might have been a bit twee. Just re-read after 10 years after really enjoying DeWitt's very different second novel, Lightning Rods, which just came out. In the past decade I've crammed in a few hundred novels, a few hundred pages of my own writing, and an MFA etc. And it's still one of my all-time faves, maybe my favorite contemporary novel, up there with Infinite Jest, 2666, and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. It's 530 pages but it feels more like 325 since there are tons of blank pages and pages without much text in English on them and spare dialogue throughout that flies down the page. It's a virtuosic performance about the limits of virtuosity. An explicitly intelligent, skillful novel about the necessity of something more than intelligence and skill. Structurally, it has two parts, one narrated by the mother and the other narrated by the son. The first part narrated by the mother is joyous as the main characters emerge, especially as the six-year-old genius son goes to school for the first time. Ludo, age six, knows Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and is learning Japanese, etc, etc, but mostly wants to learn who his biological father is. The second half of the book is narrated by Ludo, age 11, who hunts down seven potential fathers, all of them geniuses/ heroes, some more vividly described by the author than others, but all of them making the end sadder and more "poignant" than the opening. It's set in London in the mid-'90s, not 16th Century Japan. It has nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, although it's thematically perfect that this book, which constantly refers to Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai" and is about parrying the blow brought down on the head by worldwide cultural idiocy ("Sesame Street seems about the right level") is confused with a Tom Cruise movie. On second read, I thought some of the potential fathers were rushed a little bit, that the last 100 pages got a bit thin at times, but not enough to undermine my love. A few days ago, very sheepishly asked Ms. DeWitt to sign my first edition hardback after a New Directions 75th Anniversary reading event thing in NYC. Very awkward to approach someone you know and love who has no clue who you are, of course. I wanted to give her a hug but she's sort of birdlike compared to this bearlike reader, plus it could have been misconstrued as assault. Above her signature, she wrote "A good samurai will parry the blow" -- and I think that's why folks love this book. Not only is it explicitly intelligent and original, with text appearing in Japanese, Greek, and Icelandic, but it has such a heart, is more about how one survives when caught out in the storm of shit (see the last line of By Night in Chile). Also re-watched all 200 minutes of "The Seven Samurai" last night after finishing the novel. Really a wonderful afternoon and night, especially on a cold snowy/sleety Saturday in October.

Also see Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt and Atomik Aztez by Sesshu Foster