The Catapult Notable List 2011
Well, here we are again – it’s list-makin’ time. Self-indulgent list-makin’ time. As you know from previous years – this being the 6th annual Catapult Notable List – my “best books” list isn’t like a lot of the other standard lists you see out there. Sure, I share a few favorites with the New York Times’ 10 Best, a couple with Publishers Weekly’s Fiction list (and none! with their overall “best” list), and even a few on Amazon’s list. And hey, check out the Guardian’s crazed list – this is what happens when you let the authors pick their favorites. Wha? Huh?
But my Top 10 are drawn from the 43 books I chose to read in their entirety during this past year (there were 7 others that I read significant, 100+ page chunks of but never finished) so there’s quite a bit of subjectivity to it. AND, I will have you know – six of the books I read this year were written by women. Go ahead, ride me for not reading enough, but if you recall, the tally for 2010 was a big fat zero. This is progress, everybody, so lay off!
The only other real qualification is that all potential Notables were published in 2011 – which unfortunately leaves Bruce Machart (The Wake of Forgiveness) and Scott Huler (On the Grid) off in the wings. (Sorry fellas, loved ’em both, but rules is rules.)
I was down from 47 reads in 2010, and over 50 in 2009. Not sure what that means, other than I’m stupider, busier, or lazier, perhaps. Despite the lower number there, I agonized over this list this year. I shuffled the Top 10 more times than I can count, some books got cut, others moved into the top tier, but after the dust settled, I’m pretty sure that the final list is absolutely correct. Before you get too excited, know that there are no books by Jeffrey Eugenides or Haruki Murakami on the list. Ken Bruen (Headstone), Philip Kerr (Field Gray), David Bezmozgis (The Free World), and George R. R. Martin (Dance with Dragons) were good, but just not quite good enough to make the list. But before the Top 10 commences tomorrow – and unfolds in incredibly dramatic suspense over the following 10 days – here are the best of the rest. The also-rans. Those that just missed the cut. The Notable Notables for 2011, in no particular order:
This is one that just – and I mean just – missed making the Top 10. I debated this right up until the last, self-imposed second, but the book that beat Chad out was just slightly better. I suppose that in the literary canon of baseball novels, this will ultimately rank up there with Malmud’s The Natural and Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe. However, as for the rest of the book, there wasn’t anything particularly stunning about Harbach’s prose that made me really sit up and take notice. It sort of putters along, laying out the unfolding drama of this young man’s life, populating the world with some half-formed characters (Pella, Schwartz) and some other wonderfully fully-formed ones (Guert), and ultimately leaving us with a very good story, but not a life-changer. To me, at least. Every other critic in America seems bowled over by it, but on the whole, I think it left me a little flat.
Scandinavia’s best crime novelist, in my not-so-humble opinion. Jo has firmly wrestled the mantle away from Henning Mankell with this fantastic addition to the Detective Harry Hole series. Yes, Hole is an unfortunate surname, I know, get over it. After the soul-ripping events in last year’s The Snowman, Harry has abandoned his life in Oslo for a drunken, opium-hazed existence in Hong Kong – just the kind of behavior that endeared us to him in the first place, if you ask me. (If you’ve only read The Snowman, with Harry off the booze and settling into a cozy relationship, you’re severely cheating yourself.) Since Harry is the only police officer in Norway with any experience with serial killers, his boss sends someone to bring him back when two women turn up dead in Oslo under bizarre circumstances. (The only wounds on their bodies originate inside their mouths.) Harry waltzes back into a morass of politics and backstabbing upon his return, leaving him constantly wondering who he can trust and who amongst his friends is sabotaging him at every turn. And there are a lot of those turns to keep you guessing throughout.
Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. My first foray into Barnesian lit, after some elbowing by friends who told me I’d like him. Right they were – I do like him, this Mr. Barnes! This slim, quiet little volume is, as the NY Times so rightly put it, “a mystery of memory and missed opportunity.” Within its pages, Tony Webster, in his 60’s, divorced, finds himself pondering back on his youth when his college girlfriend’s mother bequeaths him a small sum upon her death. His long-ago relationship with her daughter, Veronica, was fleeting and innocuous – or so Tony thought. Down the rabbit hole of memory we go, back 40 years, to meet friends long gone and a life long left behind all in order to sort through the reasons why he is involved with Veronica at this late stage in his life. A solid little number.
Johnson’s one of my favorite writers, (Tree of Smoke, Jesus’ Son, Already Dead) so I easily devoured this little novella in the better part of an afternoon. It’s a simple story, really, on the surface, about the hard life of a early 20th-century working man named Robert Grainier. Johnson essentially puts on a writing clinic with this book, fully evoking a lost time of railroads and hard work, hermit-living and love lost. It seemed to have a sepia-tone to it – an aged look about it. I got completely lost in its too-few pages. In his review, Anthony Doerr put it well in that upon finishing this book, “You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.” Hell, I think I’ll read it again.
I’m including Mr. Ondaatje (The English Patient, Divisadero) here on the Notable Notables simply because he is Michael Ondaatje. There is a lot to like about this book – a semi-autobiographical tale about a young man’s journey by steamship from his home in Sri Lanka to a new life in England – but Ondaatje could write the copy on the back of a soup can and make it sound beautiful.
JLB’s my man, what can I say? Sometimes he drops a little too much churchin’ on me in his books, but sometimes, the biblical evil shines through and all is forgiven. In this case, Feast is the second novel to feature septuagenarian South Texas sheriff & widower, Hackberry Holland and his attempts to maintain sanity in his tiny border town. His primary nemesis is a man called the Preacher, who has a tendency to mow people down with his tommy gun and bury them in the desert. But is he the worst thing to haunt the hardpan in Hack’s neighborhood?
The Cut by George Pelecanos
Read the full Catapult review. I’ve been over George already, but I can’t stress enough how fucking great he is at writing an atmospheric, darkly realistic crime novel.
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray PollackPollock’s debut novel – following his acclaimed short story collection, Knockemstiff – is a dark, gritty, violent power-punch in the jaw, populated by the fringe elements from America’s seedy underbelly. Somehow, in the midst of this grotesquerie, we are able to sympathize with most of his characters, despite their inherently repulsive flaws. The NY Times described Pollock’s Ohio/West Virginia landscape as “one long, coal-smeared and hell-harrowed gash in the earth,” so imagine what sort of folks would populate such a place.
Okay, tune in tomorrow for #10 on the 2011 Catapult Notable List.