Epics, Artists, and Revolutionaries 

Ten of the best books of 2011.

Craig Thompson
Part fairytale, part romance, part scripture, part Alhambra, this nearly seven-hundred-page adventure elevates the graphic novel to lofty new heights. Even if its storyline about a boy and girl who meet as slaves in the mythical Middle Eastern land of Wanatolia before fleeing together and bonding for life is sometimes elusive — fanning out like the serpentine desert riveras it depicts — Thompson's artwork is epic. His lush, sinuous images of lead characters Zam and Dodola — fleeing, embracing, being sexually traumatized, and even upchucking in this timeless realm of harems, motorcycles, and toxic sludge — are set against hypnotic waves of Arabic script. A four-time Harvey Award winner, two-time Eisner Award winner, and two-time Ignatz Award winner, Thompson weaves elements of the Koran and the Christian Bible into a masterpiece six years in the making. (Pantheon)

Momofuku Milk Bar
Christina Tosi
What do kimchee, butter, blue cheese, chocolate chips, and Fruity Pebbles-infused milk have in common? They're all used in popular offerings at Milk Bar, the dessert arm of David Chang's trendy Momofuku restaurant group. Raised in a sweet-toothed Virginia family, Tosi grew up to be "the girl who always brought cookies or a pie or a cake. Always." After being discovered by Chang — who admits in the foreword to having once believed that "baking was for wusses" — Tosi developed a daring repertoire that brings hipster irony to childhood guilty pleasures. The results are so gross, they're good: Beet-lime ganache. Saltine panna cotta. Graham-cracker frosting. Chocolaty pretzel-topped candy-bar pie costs over $5 per slice at the Milk Bar; this lavishly illustrated, wittily instructive volume shows how to make that sweet magic at home for much less. (Clarkson Potter)

Van Gogh: The Life
Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors whose book about Jackson Pollock inspired the Academy Award-winning 2000 biopic leap back into art history with this sensitive opus about a painfully shy but blazingly brilliant oddball who never lived to see the fame, fortune, or affection he spent his short life craving. At nearly one-thousand pages, this book brings Van Gogh and what the authors call his "fanatic heart" vividly to life, from a childhood spent disappointing his disciplinarian mother to his later years as a misunderstood visionary. This volume also invites explosive controversy with a detailed appendix theorizing that Van Gogh's death was not suicide but the final volley in a fatal pas-de-deux with the artist's longtime tormentor: a teenage bully who wore a cowboy costume, called himself Buffalo Bill, and "rarely went anywhere without his .380 caliber peashooter." (Random House)

The Dovekeepers
Alice Hoffman
Reading Hoffman is like being given a glass of water and realizing upon the first sip that you had unwittingly been about to die of thirst. Based on the Roman siege of Masada in 70 CE and narrated by a quartet of strange, sagely women, The Dovekeepers often reads as strikingly as the ancient liturgies its characters so frequently invoke. "My girlhood disappeared in the desert," the crimson-haired daughter of an assassin announces as the book begins. "The person I'd once been vanished as I wrapped myself in white when the dust rose into clouds. ... Now our house was the house of the desert, black at night, brutally white at noon." For the next 503 pages — through war, slaughter, passion, and prayer — the lyricism just won't let up. Not that you want it to. Hoffman has authored over two dozen novels, and this one — which took her five years to research and write — could well be her best to date. (Scribner)

The Hypnotist
Lars Kepler, translated by Marlaine Delargy

This hefty pseudonymous tour-de-force by a Swedish literary couple — a number-one bestseller in France, Holland, Germany, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and Sweden — boasts rich descriptions, engaging dialogue, and characters real enough to leap off its pages, stab wounds and all. The story starts in a hospital room, where a gravely injured fifteen-year-old boy has been hypnotized by a talented (but tormented) detective and asked to describe the crime in which his mother was knifed to death and his five-year-old sister sliced in half. "Like fire," the wounded boy stammers. "Just like fire." From there, the story sweeps across Sweden like a blood-, snow-, and psychosis-streaked storm, set ironically against the twinkling jollity of Christmastime. Whatever it is about Carlsberg, the midnight sun, and/or proximity to the Arctic Circle that sparks great mysteries, let's keep it on tap. (Farrar Straus Giroux)

My Two Worlds
Sergio Cheifec, translated by Margaret B. Carson
Yes, it's a slender book about a walk in the park, but don't be fooled by its modest mien. This obviously autobiographical account of an obscure Argentine academic's day spent strolling the urban green space of an unnamed Brazilian town is a transcendent, casually poetic philosophical treasure. As Chejfec wanders, he wonders. Circling the park's fountains, strolling its shaded paths, "I go looking for things that can't be found, are basically invisible, or don't exist." Watching strangers gives him the almost holy opportunity "to glimpse the net weight of a normal life" and examine "the skein of a person's acts, whether unnoticed, essential or absurd, which range from the unconfessable to the naïve." In a world transformed by — and at — superhuman speed, this book is a living artifact, whispering to those who will still listen that the true meaning of life almost certainly lies in long walks. (Open Letter)

Prophets Prey: My Seven-Year Investigation into Warren Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints
Sam Brower
This is the true-crime book behind one of the decade's most shocking revelations: that a polygamist Mormon sect was operating on US soil, headed by a man who was on the FBI's Ten Most-Wanted List for sex crimes and for arranging marriages between adult men and underage girls. A Utah private investigator who is also a Mormon, Brower worked for many years helping people who had left FLDS. This eminently readable first-person account details Brower's pursuit of "prophet" Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced this August to life in prison. When cops used a battering ram to enter Warren's compound, Brower writes, "the men of the church collapsed like marionettes whose strings had been cut. Some dropped to their knees in disbelief, others fell prone and scrabbled in the dirt, and still others stood sobbing like children with their faces buried in their hands." (Bloomsbury)

Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful
David Hamermesh
The news is in about how our appearance affects how others treat us — and it isn't pretty. Based on scientific research, this fascinating work of social commentary asks: How much is hotness worth? Hamermesh calculates that "ugly" women (who score 1 and 2 on a 1-to-5-point attractiveness scale) earn 4 percent less than average-looking women (who score 3). "Beautiful" women (who score 4 and 5) earn 8 percent more than average-looking women and 12 percent more than ugly ones. The best-looking men earn 4 percent more than average-looking men; "ugly" men earn a daunting 13 percent less than average-looking males, and a staggering 17 percent less than the best-looking males. "I have shown," Hamermesh notes, "that bad looks can generate an earnings disadvantage of perhaps $140,000 over a lifetime." Thus, he speculates, unbeautiful people might just constitute a protected social class. (Princeton University Press)

Vertical Motion
Can Xue, translated by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
If China not-so-secretly owns the United States of America these days, and if the US dollar is now so worthless that you can't afford an actual trip to the Middle Kingdom, visit China virtually in this collection of addictively otherworldly short stories by a Hunan-born author who — like her wildly successful East Bay-based compatriot Yiyun Li — grew up amidst the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. Can's stories are dreamscapes in which things occur in authentically gritty settings that ply the outermost limits of the possible. A plant blooms underground. A cat muses about its owner. A girl follows a stranger onto the grounds of a hospital where gigantic roses grow over the alleged burial sites of discarded babies. A crone spins breathtakingly beautiful yet preternaturally flavorless cotton candy. These are images that creep into your dreams. (Open Letter)

The World History of Animation
Stephen Cavalier
In 1941 — the same year in which Disney Studios released both Fantasia and Dumbo — China released Tie Shan Gong Zhu, an animated blockbuster based on the classic Buddhist saga, Journey to the West. In 1968 — the same year in which an American company released How the Grinch Stole Christmas — Russia released Zhil-byl Kozyavin, about a soulless bureaucrat; Japan released Kaitei Shonen Marin, about a genetically modified boy who can live underwater; and Vietnam released Ngo Manh Lan, a propaganda short about a kitten who fights off an army of invading rats. Arranged chronologically and illustrated lavishly, this educational and endlessly entertaining coffee-table tome traces the art from 1872 to 2010. "Audiences don't care about what technique or technology is involved," Cavalier concedes. "They just want to see a good story, well told." (University of California Press)


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