By Joseph Arellano
In my opinion, this was a good to very good year; not as good as 2010 in terms of its offerings, and hopefully not as good as what’s to come. Let’s look here at some of the highlights and lowlights.
The Rise (and Fall?) of the e-reader
The e-book readers offered by Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Sony began to finally take off in terms of general acceptance. Even a Luddite like me picked up a Nook Color tablet, as the issue of glare seemed to have been resolved with the fine screen manufactured by LG. But just as e-readers were taking flight, the reading public received some very disturbing year-end news.
It seems that publishers are about to kill their golden goose by raising the prices on e-books to levels that will match or exceed the print versions. Yes, it appears to be a replay of what happened with the recording industry… Music CDs first appeared with reasonable prices of $9.99 and then shot up to double that and more; and the industry then wondered what happened to their sales figures. Duh.
It was a good time for biographies, the two most notable being Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and Robert Redford by Michael Feeney Callan. Both were examples of treating famous people as more than living legends – turning them into three-dimensional figures with true strengths and weaknesses. Callan’s book is such a fascinating portrait of the actor that you’ll want to see every film mentioned in it.
It’s always fun to discover new writers at the start of their career, and both Proof of Heaven by Mary Curran Hackett and The Violets of March by Sarah Ann Jio were engaging life and love-affirming debut novels. Kudos!
It was a mixed front when it came to personal memoirs. Christina Haag produced a singular New York Times Bestseller with Come to the Edge: A Love Story, her entertainingly nostalgic account of the five years she spent as the girlfriend of John F. Kennedy, Jr. If you’ve missed this one, it will be released in trade paper form in January – with a cover that’s sure to capture the female reader’s eye! (Some will remember that JFK, Jr. was once named “the sexiest man alive” by People magazine.)
A Widow’s Story: A Memoir by Joyce Carol Oates might have been a groundbreaking account of what happens to a wife after her husband dies suddenly. But it was preceded four years earlier by Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Oates’s account unfortunately read like a note-for-note cover of Didion’s earlier account. Oates and Didion are, no doubt, two of our best writers but only one of them could assemble a uniquely first tragic memoir.
A troubling trend
2011 was the year in which a few fictional works were introduced that I wound up calling “plotless novels.” These were books whose plots generally centered about a cast of multiple characters, occupying only a few days in time; time in which nothing noteworthy seemed to occur. Reading one of these novels is like, paraphrasing Jerry Seinfeld, perusing “a story about nothing.” A few misguided or mischievous critics made them popular by praising them as being clever. Well, they were clever in getting a few unfortunate readers to pay money for a book without a beginning, middle or ending.
Another parallel troubling trend had to do with novels that took 90 or 100 pages to get to the beginning of the story. Any story that takes that long to get started is, trust me, not going to end well.
Good and very good, but not necessarily great
While there were some good and very good works to read this year, it’s hard to think of standouts like we had in 2009 (Her Fearful Symmetry by Anne Niffenegger) or 2010 (American Music by Jane Mendelsohn, The Unnamed by Timothy Ferris). One novel that did receive plenty of attention was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, which the average reader seemed to find either brilliant or meandering and tedious. One hundred and sixty-eight readers posted their reviews on Amazon and these love it or hate it views balanced out to an average 3-star (of 5) rating.
Give me someone to love
Some were troubled by Eugenides’ novel because of the lack of likeable characters, a critique to which I can relate. If an author does not give me a single character that I can identify with, trying to finish a novel seems pointless. Why invest the time reading a story if you simply don’t care what happens to the characters the writer’s created?
This year was filled with unrealized potential. Let’s hope for a bit more excitement in the publishing world in 2012!
Joseph Arellano, a Column Coordinator for Portland Book Review, has written book reviews for San Francisco Book Review, Sacramento Book Review and the New York Journal of Books. He also runs his own online book review site, Joseph’s Reviews, which he invites you to look at in your spare time: http://josephsreviews.wordpress.com.