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Memorable Books Of 2011

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Languishing on a beach chair in my winter outpost by a turquoise sea, I have only books on my mind, for me the most portable item from before the age of Kindle or even a recent dinosaur, the ipod nano. So here are a few that have pleased and provoked:

Fiction:

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

I hesitate to place this poetic work in the fiction section. But of course it is a prose novella, mythic and miniature, a saga of an American moment, of the expansion of the American consciousness. Long a fan of this writer (Jesus' Son), I was simply mesmerized by the sheer ingenuity of this beautiful, pitch perfect work.

The Sea is my Brother by Jack Kerouac

An early prose work from the author of On the Road, this recovered manuscript was forgotten or thought to be too much of an ur-novel to publish. From the perspective of the Kerouac opus, it is outside his Legend of Duluoz, the story of the development of his unique language, but a fascinating journey when Kerouac imagined himself an adventure novelist in the mode of Hemingway or Jack London.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Here is a novel both clever and disturbing. But what a good storyteller Eugnides is! The novel starts out a cheeky rendition of the romances, flirtations, lusts and fantasies of literary-minded characters in their college years and takes them to their logical, at times comical and tragic lives in the contemporary ethos.

Playdate by Thelma Adams

Remember when a playdate was a set up for kids? In Thelma Adams' novel that term goes tongue in cheek, literally, describing assignations, mixing and matching between two couples. Who knew that this prominent New York based film critic, a--eh, respectable mom herself could muster the vocabulary of the erotic with such verve? Not that the kids are left out! The book opens with a typical domestic scene: Darlene gives Lance a quick "blow" and then mounts him for a "sleep fuck" hoping to make another child. Belle, stuffed bunny in hand, comes in on them. The moment, hilarious or tragic, depending on your perspective, illustrates just what Adams accomplishes in this work: a blend of wisdom, comic timing, an infectious, page turning guilty pleasure.

Non-Fiction/ Biography:

Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban

This wonderful mid century painter, a portraitist of bohemian personae in the time of abstract expressionism, was known to me mostly for her performance in the classic Pull My Daisy, a 1959 "spontaneous" film by Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank narrated by Jack Kerouac. Neel's unconventional life, her men including a little known Cuban painter, her parenting skills, non nurturing and arguably abusive, the opposite of the born-to-please midcentury female artist or otherwise, made her nevertheless the ideal visual chronicler of the New York bohemian life. Hoban, the author of a biography of Basquiat, is her fine chronicler.

Lee Krasner: A Biography by Gail Levin

The wife of Jackson Pollock, an abstract expressionist in her own right, Lee Krasner grew up in a humble Russian Jewish New York environment. Especially good in its attention to the freeing aspects of this immigrant childhood, this excellent biography should bring about a reconsideration of this artist's work, separate from her more famously reckless, alcoholic, and philandering spouse. Levin's distinctly feminist take is informed by some of the previous work: in her definitive biography of Edward Hopper, Levin added an essay to the Hopper reissue, focused on the painter's forgotten wife and muse, Jo.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The life of the man who was quite simply the man of our time is revealing on so many levels. While many of us deal with technology as the great frontier, frumphering around, hoping to be able to stay a step ahead of the tweets, here was the visionary who created a path. One can only be in awe of this life so recently lost yet renewed in this good read.

Poetry:

Iovis by Anne Waldman

An epic work by a woman who is performance artist and poet, Iovis blends myth and fantasy, history, gender politics and drama in the creation of a Whitmanic opus. This is perhaps the most richly dense work of the past year.

Crossing State Lines: An American Renga edited by Bob Holman and Carol Muske-Dukes

I love the idea of this linked verse, 54 poets collaborating on a single poem: Mark Doty, Grace Shulman, Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, David Lehman, Adrienne Rich, Jorie Graham, Anne Waldman, Charles Bernstein, to name a few. That it works is itself a miracle. And in this election year, here is something of a prayer by Edward Sanders to remind us of our hopes for the last time we chose our leadership, and for the future:

"If there is a God,/ Please may He or She/ Assist our new President/
Guide him to Peace and Service/ Help calm the Military/
Grant prosperity to every/ Last human on/ Broad-breasted Earth/
The semi-bliss of Nat'l Health/
And a Sharing of the Wealth"

To be continued...

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