I once heard that there are only two real aphrodisiacs: variety and exercise. Variety to, you know, keep it exciting, and exercise for the endorphins and “use it or lose it” factor. Because books are the lens through which I interpret my world, I have, of course, tested this hypothesis in my reading life. And it totally works! It takes a mix of genres, formats, and writing styles to keep me interested, and I need to make reading time a regular part of my day so I don’t feel mentally out of shape. Eclecticism is what makes my reading life spicy, so here’s a buffet of my Best of 2011 reads.
In the alternate universe of my dreams, drunken revelers scrawl book recommendations on bathroom stalls before stumbling home after last call to curl up with well-loved tomes. And in that alternate universe, whole walls are devoted to Alexander Yates and his Filipino crimefighters with magical powers. A total riot (see what I did there?) from the first word to the last, Moondogs is hands-down the most fun I had reading this year. If that’s not enough for you: one of the villains is an evil rooster. A rooster! So. Awesome. Now if Doubleday would just change the last 9 digits of the ISBN to 867-5309….
Provocative in both concept and execution, this anonymously-penned memoir begins with an agreement between lovers in which She states that she will be his “sexual property,” performing sexual services and light housekeeping, while He will provide a separate home for her and cover her expenses and spending money. The text of the book comes from transcripts of conversations the couple–who are still together and in their 70s today–had over the next twenty years. They discuss philosophy, gender politics, feminism, and the sexual revolution. They explore the power dynamics of their relationship and wonder aloud if what they are doing is somehow new or really the oldest trick in the book. It’s fascinating, challenging stuff that begs to be discussed (which is why I haven’t shut up about this book since May), and it’s about way more than the sex. Joni Rodgers said it much better than I could: it’s “the Foucault, not the f#@king.”
Yep, we just went from sex to war. I told you this was going to be eclectic! Last year, Karl Marlantes stole my heart and then broke it into a thousand little pieces with Matterhorn. This year, he reveals the intimate details of the real-life moments he fictionalized for Matterhorn and deploys them in support of his call for a paradigm shift in how we prepare soldiers for combat. A former Rhodes Scholar, Marlantes draws from his readings in philosophy, psychology, history and mythology to suggest changes to our concept of warfare and improvements to the support we provide for soldiers. He presents his case with startling candor and pulls it off without being pedantic or overtly political. This is a book about preserving humanity, and if there were such a thing as the “Required Reading for Life” list, I’d put it in a top spot.
Is this book overexposed? Maybe. But the attention is well-deserved. This was my first experience reading Patchett, and HOLY WOWZA, the lady can write! State of Wonder came out just as V.S. Naipul spouted his latest sexist tirade about female writers, and I like to think Ann Patchett mailed him a copy of State of Wonder with a very delicately addressed note reading simply: “BOOYAH.” By now you undoubtedly know what it’s about (woman-centric contemporary pseudo-reworking of Heart of Darkness in the Amazon), so what are you waiting for?
This collection of essays and short fiction by contemporary female writers is not your mother’s book about S-E-X. Running the gamut from prudish to downright erotic, it inspires laughter and tears in equal measure and is nothing if not thought provoking. Julie Klam’s confession that she is so prude she’s taught her daughter to refer to her genitals as “the front” is hilarious. Susan Cheever’s “Sex With Strangers” will make even the most conservative reader consider running out for a one-nighter. Jennifer Weiner’s short story about a woman’s last night before her mastectomy is both devastating and hopeful. Molly Jong-Fast’s reflection on her famous mother’s generation and the sexual revolution is fascinating and funny. And that’s just a taste! Erica Jong must have heard the same advice I did about variety, and she nails the selection and flow of this collection so thoroughly that reading it is akin to listening to a perfectly crafted mix tape. What a pleasure, this.