Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011 Book Review Roundup / Year in Reading

Since I finished my reviews for 2011 on New Year's Eve, my roundup has to be on the first day of 2012. Keeping track of my pace and what books I had read was easier than in the past, thanks to GoodReads and their yearly reading goal challenge. I actually read 54 books in 2011, despite only reviewing 53. Tessa Hadley's Accidents in the Home snuck in right at the end there, and while I'm still unsure if I'll give it a full-on review, I will say that I loved it and the pages flew by.

If you are the curious sort and like things color-coded, I have made a PDF of all the books I read this year, divided by author gender and with notes on how I acquired the book. But more on that in a minute.

Top 3 books for 2011:

1. Everything Beautiful Began After by Simon Van Booy -- Yes, I've been promoting this book to everyone I know. It was my favorite this year, easily. I don't think it got near the amount of widespread attention it deserved.

From the review:
God, I love that phrase – “the calm violence of attraction.” Is there any better, more succinct way to describe it? Van Booy's writing is filled with so many beautiful truisms, that I could spend much of this review listing them, and having little to offer in commentary apart from, “Yes. That.”

2. Just Kids by Patti Smith -- This book deserves all the accolades it has received. Patti Smith is a fantastic writer, and the story of her and Robert Mapplethorpe's life together is the stuff of legend.

From the review:
Just Kids is a love story — a love story between people, a love story about art — and a story of sacrifice for what one believes is their destiny. Patti Smith has talked about the pleasure she had writing this book, and how even though she thought she would only write the one, she feels as though she may have another one in her. I hope she does.

3. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell -- David Mitchell's writing and the way he talks about writing basically make me want to hug his face off. Reading interviews with him led me to this book, and I loved it. Right now, I'm about 3/4 of the way through his Cloud Atlas, which is also amazing.

From the review:
Though I have yet to read David Mitchell’s other novels, I still feel like my favorite has yet to come. That’s not to disparage anything about de Zoet, but for making me love a story I might have otherwise ignored, I can only guess that his more modern settings will leave me lacking in the adequate vocabulary to describe their greatness. This is high and hypothetical praise, I know, but my head and my heart are in agreement.

For the most part, I read some really excellent books this year. However, there's one book I still can't decide how I felt about: There is No Year by Blake Butler. It was so strange, I'm not sure whether to applaud the effort or stare suspiciously at it, at the thought of being "had" for over 400 pages. I honestly have no idea. It is completely, and by no exaggeration, unlike anything else I have ever read.

From the review:
The ending is only a designated cut-off point, the end of the exhibit. Butler's writing comes closer to performance art in some ways, the literary version of disorienting video installations, housed in dark rooms at the MOMA. It would be disingenuous of me to define this book in terms of "good" or "bad" — All I can tell you is that it's an experience.

Now, then! Do you like pie graphs? I like pie graphs.

In early 2011, the literary corner of the internet went a'speculating about the reasons for gender disparity in publishing. Somewhat predictably, I got cranky about it:

[G]raphs like these can be misleading. While of course gender disparity exists in publishing, the amount of women published in these handful of publications are not also featured alongside the number of women who submit. So it's difficult to come away from their graphs with any real sense of what the numbers mean, other than we should be somewhat irritated by them.

Throughout the year, author gender isn't a large consideration when I decide what to read. My to-read queue is an ever-changing thing. It's an unscientific mix of what I'm interested in at the time, what has laid around too long and now I feel guilty, what has just arrived that I'm really excited about, or I'm trying to be fair to an author/publisher and am trying to get a brand new release reviewed by its publication date (I'm not as good at this, but it does happen).

Still, I like to see how the stats shake out, and yes, I like pie graphs. And pie. So let us have some graph, yeah?

That's 54 books for the year. It should be pointed out that there's always a chance my math can be wrong in these breakdowns, but if you notice something and care to figure out what I meant, do consult the 2011 Book List PDF.

I'm writing this through an eye infection, the flu a massive ear infection that's gumming up the works and the usual chronic fatigue, so let's not assume I know what I'm doing with numbers.

How did I get my mitts on books this year? Here's how it works out:

Wondering what the difference between "Requested from Publisher" and "Review Copy from Publisher" is? "Requested" means that I'm the one who initially sent out the email. I saw a new-ish book I wanted to read, tracked down the marketing address for its publisher, and basically said, "Hi, I'd like to review this book. Could you part with one?"

"Review Copy" means that the publisher or author themselves asked me first. They were the ones who sent the email, basically saying, "Hey, we have this book. If it sounds interesting to you, we will send it."

Giveaways are just that -- usually 'comment on this post, and we'll pick someone at random.' I won titles from GoodReads, Boooooom!, Chronicle Books, and BookSlut this year. Used to be, I never won anything, anywhere. So thanks to them.

But because I receive so many review copies, I want to show you all that I do spend my own money on books still, and never underestimate your local libraries. We'd be lost without them.

Here's how the Lady Author stats shake out:

It's a tad heavier on the "I sought it out" side than the "They sought me out." However, I am not figuring in the review copies that I was sent that I have yet to read, so this does not provide a complete picture.

On with the Men Folk:

Here, the "They sought me out" paired with giveaways almost doubles what I sought out. Again, we're not counting books I have yet to read, but this does back up the anecdotal evidence of publishing's heavier emphasis on male authors. Believe me, I'm not disparaging men. I like and love a lot of men just fine, but I think the point of these graphs is to have even just a little more awareness of the institutionalized sexism that has led us to the present.

Still, like I said early last year, I hate that we should even have to pay attention to gender disparity. I find it insulting to have my writing given extra consideration just because I have a set of ovaries. But at the same time, I also hate the still-existent attitude that books with women as main characters are "only" for women. I hate the labels "women's fiction" or "GLBT fiction," as though they somehow change whether or not a good story is involved. Or that we should rate it with different criteria. And on matters of race, the disparity numbers are especially dismal.

I don't really know what the solution is. No writer wants to be professionally patted on the head for reasons other than being a good writer, but the literature that gets widespread attention isn't equitable. We know this. Some presses, like Engine Books, are making a concerted effort to feature books predominantly by female authors. I think that's fantastic, and one way to call attention to the problem. As far as the publishing world on the whole goes? Well, I suppose just talking about it is a start. Discrimination is hardly limited to just publishing, and I'm not in the business of figuring out world peace. Other than to say, you know, it'd be nice.

The above graph basically shows the large number of compilations I read this year. I've been supporting a lot of small presses/journals with my money, and if they can spare a review copy, I like getting those too.

Really, you're not meant to draw definitive conclusions about publishing trends from my graphs and list of books, but they are pieces of the larger scope. A much, much bigger pie graph, if you will. All I know is that I'm going to keep on reading what interests me, and I will tell you my thoughts along the way.

Onward, 2012...

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