MY FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2011
I’m often asked for book recommendations, so I thought I’d share my favorite reads of 2011. This list isn’t definitive (my 2012 goal is to read more indie press publications!), but here are the books that stuck with me this year—and provided plenty of source material. I hope you like them too.
1. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
Sometimes I worry that nearly all of my favorite books are ones that use the adjective “poignant” in their jacket copy. So, thank you to the joyously bloody Sisters brothers for breaking me out of a rut. This novel about two morally-challenged hit men (the titular brothers) in the Old West contains not even one moving description of an awkward coming-of-age moment. What it does have is lots of offbeat humor and—yes—even a few tender moments sprinkled throughout the grittier parts. The Sisters Brothers makes rooting for the bad guys feel so right.
2. Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta
"Even the most pointless obsession can yield a certain kind of depth if it is pursued unfailingly." Spiotta’s novel reeled me in with the character of Nik Kranis AKA Nik Worth, an aging has-been of a musician who creates an imaginary rockstar life for himself with the precision of the most obsessive of record collectors. He scrupulously details his discography: the glam band, his power pop band, his one-man electroboogie side project—all fake. Nik’s story is told through the filter of his sister Denise’s memories, and the whole book is a breathtaking meditation on the narratives we construct to catalog and make sense of our lives.
3. Bossypants by Tina Fey
In an age when any celebrity with a ghostwriter can take some dumb publicity photos, do a few morning shows and become a bestselling “author,” Tina Fey is the real deal. The autobiographical essays in Bossypants contain everything we love about her: a healthy dose of self-deprecation, an appreciation for the absurd and embarrassing, and an unapologetic, take-no-prisoners attitude in describing her triumphs and struggles as a working mom who’s become one of the most successful women (people, for that matter) in show business today. Not bad for a theater nerd from the suburbs.
4. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Not since junior high, when I learned what going to second base meant, has baseball-as-metaphor-for-life pleased me so. The Art of Fielding is way more than a baseball novel, of course—it’s a comedy of manners set in academia, a psychological study of overachievers, a love story whose depiction of platonic male relationships may be even more compelling than its depiction of sexual ones. At a time when FNL had ended and left an East Dillon-sized hole in my heart, I was grateful to have a new fictional sports team to root for.
5. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
It takes a true genius to write essays featuring Real World cast members and One Tree Hill scenery, and actually make me feel smarter for reading them. Sullivan is one of those writers whose point of view is so distinct that nearly every sentence, every description—no matter the topic—makes you see the world in a whole new way.
6. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Is it anywhere near as transcendent as The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex? No. Are the characters real and relatable and beautifully drawn? Others may say no, but I say yes. Do Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell make up the most deliciously fraught college love triangle since Felicity had to choose between Noel and Ben? Yes. Unequivocally.
7. The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
My favorite dysfunctional family of 2011 is made up of parents who are performance artists and adult children who are traumatized to Tenenbaum levels. This book was the giver of many subway giggles, a clear sign that The Family Fang did good things for my overall health.
8. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
I’m reminded a bit of Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams in the way Oyeyemi tells the story of a few characters over and over again, in different pitch-perfect iterations that reveal volumes about love and loneliness and angst. Undeniably clever—but not too clever—Mr. Fox is catnip for romantics and pragmatists alike.
9. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The only reason this book isn’t higher on the list is that I start feeling itchy whenever I talk about it. Heart of Darkness for the book club crowd, set deep in the bug-infested Amazon.
10. The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard
Not since The Virgin Suicides has the first-person plural been used so effectively to communicate unrest and uncertainty in suburbia. When a local girl goes missing, the residents of a town speculate on her fate—transposing on the lost girl their own hopes and goals and deepest fears.
11. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
This is the novel that might inspire me to write fan fiction. Alan Hollinghurst’s epic story of how one WWI love affair influences generations to come is utterly captivating and so… reserved. For my part, I’d like to add just a couple of the sex scenes that take place offstage.
12. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
"I’m sick of being a teenager. Being a teenager so far hasn’t gotten me anything beyond period cramps and nameless yearning, which I had as a kid too, but this is a new kind of nameless yearning that has boys attached to it." If this quote makes you nod your head in recognition, you will like this book.
13. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
The world Karen Russell creates in her debut novel is the stuff of busted up fairy tales, equal parts whimsy and menace. HBO is going to create a TV series based on Swamplandia! (I hope it’ll be like a more accessible Carnivale), but there’s still time to read it and figure out what the book’s run-down Florida gator-wrestling theme park looks like in your own mind.
14. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
You know how you’re always looking for a book that’s breezy and fun but also really smart? This is it. A cinematic novel that’s big on old New York glamour and Best of Everything appeal.
15. We the Animals by Justin Torres
For a novel that’s volatile and messy, We the Animals is also remarkably controlled—there’s not an extraneous word to be found. It unfolds in gushes of memories, the recollections of the youngest son in a poor bi-racial family, in which rare moments of exuberance and tenderness are juxtaposed against the chaos of daily life.
OTHER TERRIFIC BOOKS FROM 2011
Sweet Valley Confidential
(Because Jessica Wakefield > Bella Swan)
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (and Other Concerns)
The Tiger’s Wife