Friday, December 23, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #2

Silver medalists!  We're so close to #1 that Gianna might pee herself in anticipation.  Too much information?


Blue Nights
Joan Didion

After a devastating personal loss earlier this year, I had little intention of reading Blue Nights. I knew that this book would be the last thing I needed. But after a particularly bad night thinking of the friend I lost--and then thinking as I so often do, about her mother--I opened the first pages where I read, “When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.” This would be the first of many sentences that took my breath away.

I am a slow reader; this book, which is under 200 pages, took me nearly a week to read. It was too much for me at times. In fact I set it down at least twice not intending to pick it up again. Yet each day I would go back to it, needing it, maybe on some level knowing that like The Year of Magical Thinking, this would be a book I would need and think about often.

Raw, direct and powerful, Blue Nights reads like Didion is dreaming. She is offering us slices of the most important parts of her life; a real gift considering she claims writing is no longer easy for her. I do hope it has offered her some sense of solace though, as I know it has, on some level given me some.

Simply the best non fiction book I have read this year, from any publisher. 


Karen Russell

There were two novels published in 2011 that I couldn't shut up about--Swamplandia! and my pick for #1 (all shall be revealed tomorrow).  When Gianna and I started this countdown a month ago, I made a spreadsheet of my favorite books, ranked in order, and in the past 30 days I've changed the book in the #1 spot at least eight different times.  I am therefore considering Swamplandia! as #1-A in my mind.  I think Karen Russell's novel is one of the finest I've ever read.

Gianna wrote about Swamplandia! yesterday, and this book represents the closest that our Top 30 lists came to duplicated book and rank.  This is a book that spoke to me in the way that The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao did a few years ago...and that book won the Pulitzer.  It's the story of an American family, and perhaps representative of the times in which we live, the dissolution of that family.  It's a coming-of-age story, a loss of innocence story, a survival story.  And it's set on a tourist trap alligator wrestling park.

When the alligator-wrestling matriarch of the Bigtree clan dies, her 12 year-old daughter Ava attempts to pick up the slack and wrestle the reptiles.  What's excited about watching a voluptuous adult wrestle gators is disturbing when swapped with a kid, and the park--and Bigtree family is sent reeling financially and emotionally.  Ava's father disappears, her older brother Kiwi runs off to work for the rival theme park on the highway, and her sister starts dating a ghost for lack of actual suitors in the swamps of the Everglades.  Ava then goes on her own odyssey with the Birdman.  This is a book full of quirky characters and scenes, but don't be fooled--this is a serious literary novel that is often heartbreaking.  

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