Book Review - The three most absorbing books of 2011

Wyatt Williams lists his most compelling reads of the year

Wednesday December 28, 2011 08:00 am EST

Critics like to use the word "absorbing" to describe a good book. That might be shamelessly cliché, but the image is undeniably resonant: We want a good book to pull us in and keep us contained for the duration, not unlike the way a sponge sucks up the water around it. At the end of the best kind of "absorbing" read, I remember the exact moment of finishing it and being squeezed back into the world. There are lots of judicious, calculated ways to compile a "Best of ..." list at the end of a year, but there are just three books that I can remember exactly where I was when I finished them in 2011.

This spring, I was assigned by CL to profile local author Blake Butler, whose novel There Is No Year was slated to appear in April. Owing to personal circumstances, I was living on a friend's couch at the time and wasn't sleeping well. The surreal domestic scenes in There Is No Year didn't help the sleeping problem. Tuned into the dark absurdities of simple acts like sitting on a couch or staring at a computer screen, the novel's diarrheic language sucked me into a digitized, alternate vision of suburban life for days. I remember putting the book down on my coffee table and sitting upright on that couch for most of the night, the room lit only by my laptop's screen.

In late summer, I picked up Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding because the hype was inescapable. It was supposed to be the Franzen novel that Franzen didn't write. Clean sentences that eschew word play, a precisely balanced ensemble of characters, a blend of the campus novel with the sports novel: The conversation surrounding it made it sound like a focus-group-polished Hollywood trailer only worth rolling your eyes at. When I actually starting reading it on a Friday after work, I found myself so absorbed by the characters and Harbach's eloquent fabric of allusions to Moby-Dick that I turned off my phone and stayed in, devouring the bulky book all weekend long. I was sitting next to my bookshelf when I finished it. I immediately picked up Melville's novel and returned to my favorite passages. The two books are sitting near one another on that shelf now, not a small compliment.

Denis Johnson's Train Dreams was published as a novella in the fall and I'll admit that I felt a foolish twinge of possessiveness when I saw it out that way. I had read the short, myth-like work in the O. Henry Prize Stories from 2003 and thought of it like a secret, a polished gem hidden in plain sight. You couldn't find it next to Johnson's other novels on the shelf; you had to know where to look. The story is a of simple laborer, Robert Grainier, who mostly lives in a small cabin as the 20th century goes on behind him. The exquisite mountain scenes are filled with howling echoes — wolves, trains, winds — that pass in the distance with the unstoppable force of time. I reread it on a transatlantic flight a few weeks ago and, when I set the book on my tray table, I heard the roar of the jet engine outside my window like I was hearing it for the first time.

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