I'm even less of a new book hound than I am a new movie hound. It's rare that I read a book that's come out within three years, much less one that's been written within one. So, of course, this is the best stuff that I read this past year, regardless of when it was published.
Perdido Street Station (2000) - Full review here
There's hope for fantasy as serious fiction. Holy crap. I had kept up with just about all the big fantasy authors through the 1990s, but the genre has mostly failed to hold my interest since. It could be that I've aged out of the genre, or it could be that the genre stagnated, but my best guess is that it's a combination of both.
It's hard to outline just how much this book altered my outlook. Even when I had liked fantasy in the past, it had been as imaginative escapism. I really thought that the fantasy industry was incapable or unwilling to provide real criticism or relevance to our world. Perdido made me realize how wrong I was.
Yes, this is a fantasy world, but it's not too difficult to see echoes of our current world, with the threat of authoritarianism and subjugation of individual freedom. The threats may manifest as fantasy, but it's not so damned unbelievable as "The ultimate source of evil is coming to destroy everything!"
The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006) - Full review here
I am not a "this changed my life" kind of person with anything. But this book really did change my life. Michael Pollan outlines the worst of our food industry, including the meat-packing, monoculture, and cultural blindness that has resulted from our cheap food. The arguments are laid out so thoroughly, convincingly, and above all, without preachiness that it resulted in me changing my eating and shopping habits significantly.
It's not going to change everybody's mind. But it outlines an issue that everybody should have at least a moderate understanding of. Our food policy has granted us the most prosperous food system in history and should be celebrated. But it also should be examined and not taken for granted.
Best Graphic Novel
Stuck Rubber Baby (1995) - Full review here
Comic books have embraced the autobiographical and semi-autobiographical genre, and this is one of the best. It's well-written, well-drawn, and full of thoughtful introspection on both an individual and a societal level. It's history writ small through the lens of one semi-willing participant.
The protagonist has an almost willful ignorance, which lets the author get away with what otherwise would be maudlin simplification. This tells a story about a place to which I have no connection, a time during which I wasn't alive, and some social movements of which I was not a part, and it makes me care anyway. Emotional relevance is difficult to find in any art form.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann (2005) - A wonderful historical work in a fantastically easy-to-read style, yet with plenty to say. Excellent summary of history that tends to get glossed over in U.S. education. (Review)
Fractured Fables (2010) - Terrible mass-market comic book drek, wrapped in a lame homage to Rocky and Bullwinkle. Feels like just about every contributor in this compilation mailed it in. (Review)
Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (2001) - Decent writing kept me involved through the first third of the book, but couldn't wait for this one to end. Plot is hackneyed, overtold, and plain boring. (Review)
Beloved (1987) - While I'm tearing down idols, let's go after this one. There's plenty of real tragedy to be found in this period of history, why do we have to muddy the waters with mediocre magical realism? (Review)
Here's the full list of what I read this year.
The Well of Ascension (Mistborn, #2)
Stuck Rubber Baby
It Was the War of the Trenches
Warriors Of The Steppe: Military History Of Central Asia, 500 Bc To 1700 Ad
Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession
The Best of 2011 New-to-me Books
Skitzy: The Story of Floyd W. Skitzafroid
I Am Legend
Kiss and Tell: A Romantic Résumé, Ages 0 to 22
The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
Perdido Street Station (New Crobuzon, #1)
Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend
Android: Free Fall
The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
The Scar (New Crobuzon, #2)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Millennium, #1)
Dune Messiah (Dune Chronicles, #2)
The Deeper Meaning of Liff
Holidays on Ice
The Portable Nietzsche
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay