Looking back on 2011, here are some things I particularly enjoyed during the year:
Heart First Into the Forest, Stacy Gnall (Alice James Books)
Wrenching yet beautiful, at times even sweet in the most glorious, painful sense. Imagine watching, in hi-def slow motion, a future race of twelve foot tall albino supermodels engaged in a battle of mortal combat. I want to look. I want to look away. I want to look away because I want to look. Etc. Again and again Gnall sets the sweetest traps of language, making for a delicious, near-S&M reading experience: I understand that I am going to get bitten, but I turn the page anyway. I often found myself reading many of the lines out loud—it wasn’t enough to read them. I needed to hear them too. They’re so beautiful, filling your head and throat with space that’s cold, sad, and ghostly. Not to mention addictive. I read this book often, the way I imagine many listen to a beloved record again and again. It feels healing to me; there’s catharsis in its grief.
We Are Starved, Joshua Kryah (Mountain West Poetry Series)
This book makes me understand the “aversion therapy” scene from A Clockwork Orange just a little bit better. I have a pretty high threshold for discomfort, but this book carried me overtop it repeatedly in unique and profound ways, troubling the boundaries between animal and human, urge and need, safety and danger, desire and repulsion. After setting this book down, I no longer had any idea what I was attracted to or who I was. If you need a book to force you to strip down, put on a loincloth and paint your face with mud, then run into Wal-Mart screaming “Who are we, who are any of us?” Well, look no further.
Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America, BJ Hollars (University of Alabama Press)
Examining the brutal deaths of three innocent victims in three different areas of Alabama during three different decades, Hollars travels a wide swath of time, herding together social demons that many would like to claim are disparate or isolated. With great velocity and engagement, patterns woven within the prose demonstrate that events in 1933 and 1981—and arguably all events fueled by hate and fear—have more in common than most would hope, and more commonplace ingredients than most would guess.
The Complete Tales of Lucy Gold, Kate Bernheimer (FC2)
The third installment in the trilogy of the Gold sisters, Lucy is my favorite. I found the book to the darkest and most delicious of the three; Lucy is so woefully optimistic (think about the tone-deaf American Idol cringeworthy tryouts, the ones that are the most heartbreaking because the singer never once imagined the audition would result in anything less than winning the show and taking over the world) that society’s brutality becomes all the more obvious in reading through the lines at the grand discrepancy between her beliefs and desires vs. reality. It’s sidesplitting as only the most wrenching truths can be, when you’re laughing because it’s so funny, yes, but also because you must do so in order not to weep, about Everything.
The Last Repatriate, Matthew Salesses (Nouvella Books)
Occasionally I’ll find myself reading a book and thinking “This is so important right now.” I definitely had that experience with Salesses’ novella. It’s a psychological study of a Korean War POW, yet brilliantly, it manages to avoid any type of clinical or distant feel that is so common when approaching such a gigantic concept as the human impact of war. Personal and precise, the book breaks the long-reaching effects of war’s violence down to an individual scale that can be thoughtfully studied, and Salesses’ masterful nuances throughout paint the situation in the complex shades of grey such a topic demands.
Melancholia (directed by Lars von Trier)
Depression certainly feels like the end of the world, but this movie combines the two. Yet it manages to avoid cliché throughout, despite being a combination of two of the biggest cliché movie topics ever. It’s also one of the first movies about depression I’ve ever seen where I don’t feel pity for the main character; empathy certainly, but the main character Justine (played by Kirsten Dunst) also displays a great deal of strength, determination, and independence, which makes for a much more complete and realistically complex portrait of the illness.
Drive (directed by Nicholas Winding Refn)
I liked the soundtrack to this as much as the movie, for the same reasons as the movie (in both cases, think Cormac McCarthy meets New Order). It’s a little scary and nostalgic, but also romanticized in that there’s the message that just being a good person is special and rare. The violence in this movie is shocking yet digestible à la Dexter—it’s good vs. evil, and the bad guys are really bad. Except the protagonist of Drive is far more boyscout than Dexter. Like Billy Jack, he only resorts to violence when threatened, and the closest the movie gets to a sex scene is a single, long kiss that comes right before he kicks in a man’s skull: a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. One of the best and truest things my husband has ever said? “It’s hard to stay mad at Ryan Gosling.”
Alissa Nutting is the author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone Books). She has read for HFR in Bowling Green, OH, and Chicago, IL, at the events We Are Really Good Ppl and Everything Will Be OK.