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To complement magazine contributor Joshua Bodwell’s Baker’s Dozen 2011, we're featuring, during the month of January, our readers recommendations of the best books they read in 2011. We've offered our own picks to start things off. Submit your favorite read of 2011, along with a few words about why you'd recommend it, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy reading!
“There’s something about Rings of Saturn that speaks directly to me as a writer. Maybe it’s that the book begins in a hospital in East Anglia, where the narrator, a writer and traveler himself—so overwhelmed by both the horrifying remains of war and his own creative ennui that he has become physically immobilized—has checked himself in. Maybe it’s the opening page, wherein he meditates so deeply upon all that he can see—a small patch of grey sky peeking through the window above his hospital bed—and his desire to crawl on his hands and knees just to get a glimpse of the city outside. Or maybe it’s the way that I, in the depths of February in New York City, identified with his angst. I felt mired in the ever-swelling mass that was my graduate thesis, unable to figure out what I wanted to say. My collection—which was very much about Europe, and the human cycle of destruction and recovery—felt stagnant. The stories within it felt old. I longed to travel again, see new places, bring old stories to life and start new ones. Rings of Saturn helped me do just that. The book, like many of Sebald’s books, is a hybrid—part novel, part memoir, part travelogue—whose interwoven stories meander through time and space, through present and past, while meditating on ideas of memory, war, and the obliteration and rebirth of a continent. The prose is curious, its stories strange; the narrator’s words—laden throughout with ghost-like images of fire, rubble, and devastation—are thick and ethereal, yet somehow accessible. The reader often wonders what is fact and what is fiction, but never seems to mind that the distinction can’t be made. Sebald—as he always does best—takes a journey (in this case, a trek on foot across the countryside), and brings his reader along, allowing her to meander beside him, while telling the stories of not just his travels, but of things much larger, much older, and, by the time both he and his reader make it to the end, something much more illuminating.”
Melissa Faliveno, Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow, from New York, New York
"The author was very young when she wrote the Depression-era short novel Now in November (Feminist Press, 1001), and she won the Pulitzer for it in 1935 despite the fact that she was not only young but female in a male-dominated society. I read online (I forget where, sorry) that this book is one of the five least read and remembered of all the Pulitzer prize–winning books for fiction. I find that sad after reading it, because it is well written and tells a tragic yet beautiful story of a family struggling to survive in a world hit hard by the Depression."
Tammy Marshall Wright from Neligh, Nebraska
"The novelist David Rhodes once told me to always keep Wisconsin in my back yard. While my job in New York City and my young family have led me far from my home state, I'm following David’s advice by raising chickens behind our house in Staten Island. I’ve noted the relatively recent crop of memoirs about urban farming experiments with some amusement, but I haven’t found one compelling enough to read. Several years ago I was talking on the phone to our contributing editor Frank Bures when the conversation turned to authors from Wisconsin. Frank was living in Madison at the time (he has since moved to Minneapolis) and he told me about Michael Perry and suggested I read Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at Time (HarperCollins, 2002), a book about Perry's return to his childhood town of New Auburn, where he joined the volunteer fire and rescue department. I promptly bought it and had every intention of reading it, but it sat on my bedside table for two years—never read but never forgotten, either. Eventually it was the chickens that drove me to read Perry’s work—not Population 485, but his more recent book Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg (HarperCollins, 2009). Perry still lives in rural Wisconsin, and Coop is about his experience moving, along with his pregnant wife and their six-year-old daughter, into a ramshackle farmhouse on thirty-seven acres, where they intend to keep chickens. The chronicle of his humorous attempts to tame the land and raise chickens as well as pigs would be enough to recommend the book, but what makes Coop one of the best books I’ve read this past year is the author’s moving and insightful recollections of a childhood spent on a sheep and dairy farm. His familiar description of chopping wood in the snow, hauling it into the farmhouse, and stacking it in the basement to ensure that the house stays warm on a cold winter night was enough to bring a tear to my eye. Michael Perry is the real deal, and there’s a lot to love in Coop."
Kevin Larimer, editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, from New York, New York
"My annual reading list is an exercise in moderation—that is, balancing a healthy dose of preselected classics with contemporary works that often make chance entrances into my life. Last summer, on a cross-country trip that included devourings of Justin Torres's then-forthcoming novel We the Animals (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)—grabbed at random from a stack of galleys on my work desk—and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse—part of my summer of the Woolf—I picked up Chris Adrian's second novel, The Children's Hospital, at Portland, Oregon, literary mecca Powell's Books. I'd heard of the book several years ago—it was released by McSweeney's in 2006—but hadn't actually come across a copy until the face-out shelf placement of the big, beautiful paperback volume caught my eye (yes, Powell's knows how to market the heck out of brilliant works, regardless of when they debuted). By the end of the first line, I was hooked on the surreal story: "I am the recording angel, doomed to watch." Set inside the magically unfixed walls of a children's hospital afloat on a post-apocalyptic sea, the story captures our human shortcomings, the frustrations—and sometimes terrors—of the body, and our struggles with spirituality, all with humor and gloriously detailed language informed by Adrian's work as a physician and his studies at Harvard Divinity School. Even with its more far-reaching fantastical elements, the book is imbued with such earthly wisdom that the whole story feels remarkably real, of the moment, of the world we live in."
Jean Hartig, associate editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, from New York, New York
“My reading list for this year consisted mostly of the classics—those already on my shelf, the work of authors I haven’t read yet, but should have by age thirty-four. I ended up reading one after another because shifting away from all that existentialism to contemporary work was too jarring. Most of them are worth a reread—if you’re that type of reader—but Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Holt, 1929) is the one I find myself referencing in conversation and recommending most often. In a time when it seems all in the world are suddenly and collectively questioning their place in it, asking why we live the way we do, following Harry Haller, the Steppenwolf—“that beast astray who finds neither home nor joy nor nourishment in a world that is strange and incomprehensible to him”—on his search for the luring Gothic doorway with its enticing message, “Entrance Not for Everybody. For Madmen Only,” that begins his journey and finally gaining entrance to Pablo’s magic theater, offers the reader a surprisingly timely meditation on what it means to be aware and awake in this mad world, while forcing the question, ‘How do I want to proceed?’”
Suzanne Pettypiece, managing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine, from New York, New York