Monday, December 26, 2011

A Year in Review

Last year, I wanted to write a “year in reading” review for my new blog. I never got around to it and, since I had only started blogging a few months earlier, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to review anyway. Now that I’ve got a whole year under my belt, I thought I’d take the time out this final week of 2011 to look back on the books that impressed me, made me think, or didn’t have any impression on me at all (there were quite a few like that).

Sizing up the last twelve months is a pasttime at the end of year. It’s a way for people to review all their triumphs and failures, things done and things left to be done. Reading has been that way for me as well. There were plenty of books I wanted to read but didn’t for any number of reasons. But I’ve not only had a chance to read some pretty great books, I’ve also had the pleasure to review them for this blog and for other sites as well. This post will address the books that I enjoyed and would highly recommend.


I’ve read plenty of fiction books in the last year that were great to good to middling. The ones that stayed with me, sunk their teeth into my marrow and left their mark, have made this past reading year such a revelation. The book that lingers in my thoughts is Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow. Jones’ third novel creates an indelible collection of characters whose very heartbeats continue to thump subtly in my head. Told from the perspectives of two half-sisters whose father’s act of bigamy creates a tenuous but tense thread between them, Silver Sparrow addresses the compromises people make in the name of love with an uncompromising glare. What impressed me most about Ms. Jones’s story was how she refused to rely on any of the cliches or cheap stereotypes that such a story would provoke. These are not characters we are meant to despise or put in a simplistic box, but rather to embrace and understand even with their brittle flaws. 

What You See in the Dark, by Manuel Muñoz is another great entry in the fiction category. This quiet, slower burner should read like genre fiction, a plunge into the shadowy back alleys of San Bernardino and Hollywood, a noirish take on reality and fantasy. Instead it is a quiet meditative look at dreams unfulfilled. What You See In the Dark, a tale of love, murder, and the cinema, continues to linger and have its sway over me. I had the real pleasure of interviewing author Muñoz for Creosote Journal, which was certainly a highlight of my blogging year.

While I gave Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel a mixed review, I admire her willingness to push the envelope in terms of novel structure and form. Less a novel than a series of interlocking tales, she uses various forms from short story to play to court transcriptions, comic strip panels, and others to bring to life a little known era in Asian American political history. But more than that, I Hotel is the story of California and of America. Whatever flaws the novel might have, they are more than made up for its tenacity.

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar is a fascinating look at Los Angeles as seen through the eyes of the fierce and uncompromising Araceli N. Ramirez, a housekeeper who is thrown headlong into the marital drama of her employers. Anyone who is from Los Angeles will recognize this love poem to that sprawling, diverse, and always-evolving city.


There are a few books of nonfiction that have had an impact on me this year. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People is one such example. Aside from giving the rundown on how the definition of whiteness began in antiquities and continues to this day, what I remember and enjoy most about Painter’s work is that she is a born storyteller. Her ability to bring to life what could have been dry facts and research into fascinating stories about the history of Europe and America as seen through a racialized prism is superlative and thoroughly engaging.

Manning Marable’s long-awaited biography on the intriguing Malcolm X is another work of nonfiction that made waves this year. A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X uncovered a lot of ground that The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley could not. What emerges is a man of complexity, a work in political and social progress, but someone far more human and flawed than previous hagiographies. Marable, who passed away this year just as his tome was being published, had an engaging but unobtrusive writing style that allowed his subject to burn defiantly through the work itself.

Journalist Isabel Wilkerson covers the scope of 20th Century African American history through her retelling of the Great Migration, a period of social revolt as African Americans migrated out of the south between World War I and the 1970s to seek better opportunities in the north and west. The Warmth of Other Suns focuses on three individuals---Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster---who left their homes and families in the deep south and sought economic opportunities and social freedom in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. As personal and intimate a historical account as you'll ever read, Gladney, Starling, and Pershing Foster, by the end of the book, will have become like good, old friends.

Like Irvin Painter, Siddhartha Mukherjee, MD is also a born storyteller as revealed in his 2011 Pulitzer prizewinning account of the biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. Considering that the 571 page book uncovers a lot of historical as well as medical and scientific ground, this skill proves quite adept at helping laypersons such as myself to understand the often complicated and very complex web that makes up cancerous genes and the medicine developed to combat them. The Emperor of All Maladies was eye opening. Months after I read it, I still recollect it whenever I chance upon an article about cancer or cancer research.

The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A Wilding didn’t get the kind of fanfare that the previous nonfiction works had when they were published, and that is a disservice not only to the author Sarah Burns but most importantly to the subject itself, which, over twenty years later, deserves a historical review. Covering the story of the four young black and hispanic men who were unjustifiably charged and sentenced for the rape of a central park jogger in the late 1980s, Burns, like a good investigative journalist, covers all the grounds which led to the conviction and reveals how citizens of a city mired in racial politics and animosities willingly believed the men were guilty despite a shred of evidence linking them to the victim. The book’s ending, a bittersweet one with the eventual release and exoneration of the now grown men, continues to haunt. Will this happen again? Burns asks. Considering that the NYPD is now currently under investigation for its racial profiling practices, the answer should give everyone pause.  

Francisco Goldman’s tender memoir Say Her Name is like a sad song---it stays with you long after the last refrain. Haunting, elegiac, and beautiful, Goldman’s momento mori to his late wife, Aura Estrada, is like the memorial to her that he kept in his New York apartment: full of tiny, intimate details of the life they shared. While there were moments I questioned the appropriateness of Goldman's revelations, I was thoroughly touched and saddened by his loss, as though I knew these people and their grief was my own. Very few works of art touch me this way, and Say Her Name is but one.

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