Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 in Books

I feel like I read less in 2011 than in other years. I certainly wrote fewer blog posts about books. And I've owned a copy of Sondheim's Look I Made a Hat for six weeks now but still haven't finished it, which is why it's not on this list. Oh, and  I seem to have read only books by white men during the latter part of 2011.

Enough guilt and self-flagellation. Moving on. I tried a new way of counting books this year, with one list for "Longer Works" (primarily novels and nonfiction) and a separate list for individual plays.  I averaged 2 "longer works" and 2 plays per month -- 23 Longer Works and 28 plays total.  Please also note that I counted only plays that have been published and that you could purchase and read for yourself if you wished.  I read several new/unpublished plays this year (either written by my playwriting friends, or submitted to a playwriting contest that I was helping to judge), but it's not fair to list them on my blog.

LONGER WORKS: 

1. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky, translated by Sandra Smith. Highly recommended. 

2. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, by Lydia Davis. Or should I count this as four books, as it is four volumes of short stories now being compiled into one? Seven hundred pages of minimalist short fiction is a lot, despite the critical acclaim, and perhaps one would be better served reading it as four separate volumes.

3. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. I don't feel like getting involved in the literary-aesthetic battle that Zadie Smith started after writing a critical piece on this novel, so is it OK just to say that I generally enjoyed this book but also am not hailing it as the second coming?

4. Prague, by Arthur Phillips (2nd read). I read this book when I was in high school, due to the good reviews and my fascination with Eastern European history, but I enjoy it even more now, when I, like the characters, am a confused twenty-something.  It is written with verve, has a lot of memorable set-piece passages, and inspired a game of Sincerity between me and some friends in a bar one night. Oh, and I just found a review that calls Prague "the literary equivalent of a Whit Stillman movie" -- so, naturally, I love it. Highly recommended.

5. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (3rd read). Highly recommended

6.  Just Kids, by Patti Smith. While I probably would not have gone so far as to award this the National Book Award, I enjoyed it. Recommended.

7. The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. Recommended. 

8. The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips. This is how I like my "light" reading to be: cleverly constructed, laugh-out-loud funny, full of unreliable narrators, and with an unexpected emotional kick at the end. Recommended.

9. The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Recommended.

10. The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home, by George Howe Colt. Recommended.

11. Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France, by Lucy Moore. This was a good read. I had never read a detailed history of the French Revolution and Moore provides a clear explanation of all of its major events: the storming of the Bastille, the Terror, and beyond. At the same time, her decision to view the Revolution from the perspective of six women from various social classes made it interesting for a feminist like me.  Recommended.

12. Cheerful Money: Me, My Family, and the Last Days of WASP Splendor, by Tad Friend. More research into the lives and times of the American upper-crust! Not as good as The Big House, because it's less focused and written less lyrically. You can probably give this one a pass.

13. Fear of Flying, by Erica Jong (3rd read). This was one of my guilty-pleasure reads in high school and because I was writing a play set in the 1970s, that was enough of an excuse to reread it. While very dated in some ways, it still feels radical in the way that it portrays a woman who is highly sexual and enjoys intellectual pursuits and maintains a wry sense of humor about the absurdities of life. When I was a teenager, Fear of Flying reassured me that women who crack jokes about Chaucer and Sylvia Plath can still be sexy and get laid. And because of that, it was invaluable.

14. The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer. Read as part of my Pleiades research, and only valuable as a historical curiosity -- I don't remember much about it now.

15. Machine of Death, by Various. I attended the "Machine of Death"-themed performance by the Un-Scripted Theater Company in July and got a signed copy of the bestselling anthology of stories about what might happen if a machine was invented that could tell you how you are going to die. (I also received my own Machine of Death prediction: "Under Collapsing Shelf." Considering that I live in an earthquake zone and have too many books, this is depressingly likely.) The anthology was a decent read, but I'd had enough of it by the end (I won't be buying Machine of Death II) and the stories haven't really stayed with me.

16. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays, by David Ball (re-read). There comes a moment, when I'm writing a full-length play, that I have to spend an evening and re-read this little book. Recommended for all theater-makers -- it is brief but full of wisdom.

17. Lord Byron's Novel: The Evening Land, by John Crowley. I quite enjoyed this novel -- no surprise, as it is in the vein of Arcadia and Possession and I'm a huge fan of both those works. The frame story about the modern-day researchers is a bit predictable, but the pastiche of Byron's writing style is deftly done and very amusing. Recommended.

18. An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. This comic novel got great reviews but I didn't find it funny or interesting at all. Not recommended.

19. The Extra Man, by Jonathan Ames. Mixed feelings: I get what Ames was trying to do, in updating the "New York bildungsroman" to fit our seedy and sexually confused times, and smuggling uncomfortable moments into a book that initially seems like it will be innocuous. But the result is episodic and didn't make me laugh. Or maybe I'm just annoyed that Ames invents a major character who is a failed playwright (Henry Harrison, the protagonist's eccentric roommate) but then has nothing interesting to say about the theater.

20. The Basic Eight, by Daniel Handler. Mixed feelings: this book was advertised as in the vein of The Secret History and Special Topics in Calamity Physics but I enjoyed it the least out of the three. The writing was flat in parts (there's a party scene that drags on way too long) and I wish the San Francisco setting had been better evoked.

21. The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas père, translated by Richard Pevear. Fun! Recommended.

22. Papers for the Suppression of Reality, by Matt Werner. In one of those "only in San Francisco" moments, a few months ago I met one of the guys who was responsible for the Borges Google Doodle, and he gave me a copy of his self-published chapbook of Borges-inspired short fiction.  The book is filled out with lots of McSweeney's-inspired literary high jinks. Geeky good fun, and inspired me to go back and reread some of the Borges stories referenced.

23. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris. Recommended. Harris writes with wit and insight about the demise of the studio system and Production Code, the beginnings of "New Hollywood," and the effects of the upheavals of the 1960s on moviemaking (for instance, several passages deal with Sidney Poitier's sensitive position as the only famous black actor in America). The book also offers valuable insights to anyone involved in a creative field, as we see just how much hard work is required and how many setbacks may occur before the work of art is completed. Even talented artists don't always get to make the movies they wish to make.

PLAYS: 

1. Mirrors in Every Corner, by Chinaka Hodge. I loved this play when I saw it at Intersection for the Arts and was happy that Theatre Bay Area published it in their magazine. 

2. Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge. Related blog post here, about reading it aloud with theater friends. It is hilarious!

3. The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, by Stephen Adly Guirguis. I enjoyed reading this but it felt like quite a long play -- perhaps too long to be staged effectively.

4. Congresswomen, by Aristophanes. Read in preparation for acting in Theater Pub's staged reading of this play in April 2011.  We rocked the house in our togas and the audience had a great time laughing at jokes that are over 2000 years old.

5. Swanwhite, by August Strindberg. This lesser-known Strindberg play, with him in a gentle, symbolist, fairy-tale mode (probably influenced by Maeterlinck) was another play that we read aloud at the No Nude Men Salon.

6. Acharnians, by Aristophanes. I decided to work my way through my "Complete Plays of Aristophanes" volume and got about halfway through before determining that I had reached Aristophanes overload. I was reading the Paul Roche translations, and, while modern, they are kind of difficult to read. Roche has striven to reproduce the rhythms of Aristophanes' Greek and often needs to use odd vocabulary words in order to fit the rhythm. Thus, I feel like some punch-lines probably fall flat.

7. Knights, by Aristophanes 

8. Clouds, by Aristophanes 

9. Wasps, by Aristophanes 

10. Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov (re-read). Another play read out loud with theater friends. I played Irina and gave an unexpectedly impassioned rendition of her Act III monologue where she laments being "almost twenty-four, I've been working all this time, and my brain has shriveled up... time passes and you realize you'll never have the beautiful life you dreamed of." I quickly understood that it was a bad sign that I identified so deeply with Irina, and resolved to try to turn my life around. Oh Chekhov, you are the best.

11. Uncommon Women and Others, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read). Wasserstein blog post here.

12. Isn't It Romantic, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read) 

13. The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein (re-read) 

14. Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph 

15. The Habit of Art, by Alan Bennett. I read this because I love W.H. Auden (a character in this play) and really enjoyed Bennett's The History Boys, but I'm not sure that the framing backstage-drama elements are that interesting or enjoyable. It all comes off as rather self-congratulatory ("Isn't the National Theatre great? We produce literate plays!"). Then again, The History Boys does not read very well as a script, but it works in performance.

16. Oedipus el Rey, by Luis Alfaro. Another excellent play that premiered in San Francisco in 2010 and was published by Theatre Bay Area. It won the Glickman Award -- this spring I volunteered to help out at the award ceremony. 

17. The Sisters Rosensweig, by Wendy Wasserstein 

18. A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams (re-read). This is one of those plays that haunts my memory and, because I wrote a parody of it earlier this year, I had to reread it.

19. 5th of July, by Lanford Wilson (re-read). While revising Pleiades to take place over Fourth of July weekend, 1971, I had to reread 5th of July -- which takes place over Fourth of July weekend, 1977! 

20. Over Martinis, Driving Somewhere, by Romulus Linney. I hate to speak ill of the dead, but while this was clearly a very personal play for Linney, I found it almost too personal to be really compelling.

21. True West, by Sam Shepard. This is such an archetypal play about brotherhood and masculinity that, after reading it, I'm amazed that I ever saw it in a gender-reversed version (oh, Vassar College student theater...)

22. Buried Child, by Sam Shepard 

23. Curse of the Starving Class, by Sam Shepard. Related blog post here. I think I enjoyed this one even more than Buried Child, though it seems to be less well regarded by critics.

24. Tongues, by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin 

25. Ring Round the Moon, by Jean Anouilh, translated by Christopher Fry. Related blog post here.

26. The Tooth of Crime, by Sam Shepard. What a strange play. The person who wrote the introduction to my book of Shepard plays considers this his masterpiece, but the 1970s rock-and-roll attitudes seem very dated, almost to the point of parody. I also feel like the second act (the duel between Hoss and Crow) is where the real meat of the play is, so much that the first act might be unnecessary. Could this work in the 21st century?

27. La Turista, by Sam Shepard

28. Savage/Love, by Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin. With that, I finished Shepard's Seven Plays. I should note that I took a playwriting master class this fall and the teacher made a remark about "that Sam Shepard collection that we all have on our bookshelves" -- I knew just which one he meant!

Previous years' reading lists: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007

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