The best books we read in 2011
Every year, The A.V. Club embarks upon elaborate voting rituals to determine the sorta-consensus best films, albums, and television of the year. But finding the best books of the year is a different experience. Since we cultivate the most eclectic selection of tastes we can for the book-review section in order to cover the widest range of work we can, there’s rarely a lot of crossover in what we read. And no one reviewer can even come close to reading all the notable books of the year. So every year, we go simple with the best-of-books piece, simply asking participants to describe the best 2011 releases they personally read this year, barring overlap between writers. Here are our recommendations for the works that most stood out for us in 2011.
The Pale King, David Foster Wallace
Tasha grabbed my No. 1 pick for the year (see below), and to find a replacement title, I decided to go in a different direction: Where Stephen King’s 11/22/63 is warm, inviting, and satisfyingly whole, The Pale King remains elusive, a fragmentary dream perpetually threatening to coalesce into a nightmare. Which isn’t to say the novel lacks warmth. David Foster Wallace’s writing is at its best when he was attempting to negotiate the distance between intellectual understanding and emotional reality, and the way smart people can find it difficult to bridge the gap between the two. King has its share of fragments and dropped beats, but for every missed moment, there are a dozen revelatory passages, and whole chapters that speak to the relentless pursuit of compassion that typifies all Wallace’s work. One in particular, which follows a young man as he answers the calling of a profession for which words like “calling” seem oddly misplaced, is satisfying enough to stand alone as one of the best short stories of the year. King isn’t always easy to like, or grasp, but its pricklier qualities add to its attraction. It’s a sharp, challenging work in a field dominated by literary safe bets.
Runner-up: Shock Value, Jason Zinoman
Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls painted a picture of the enfants terrible of ’70s cinema, but in focusing on Coppola, Lucas, Scorsese, and the rest, Biskind missed out on a revolution in the seedier side of the film industry. Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value looks to rectify that, telling the story of how writers and directors like John Carpenter, George Romero, and Dan O’Bannon transformed fake cobwebs and silk capes into cannibalistic corpses and babysitter-stalking boogeyman. Adopting a voice that embraces horror without ignoring its flaws, Zinoman tells a lively tale of maladjusted nerds, pragmatic auteurs, and taboo-flaunting intellectuals brought together for a single purpose: to scare the crap out of strangers.
Electric Eden, Rob Young
Subtitled Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, Electric Eden traces the evolution of the British folk tradition, with a concentration on its fertile folk-rock period of the ’60s and ’70s. But rather than writing a straight account of the genre, Rob Young takes an elliptical path through the tangled ancestry of acts like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, Donovan, and Nick Drake. Young doesn’t stop there, though; he deftly weaves these poignant, resonant narratives into a far vaster backdrop that ties together pop history, post-industrial cultural upheaval, and Britain’s ancient pagan worldview. Running parallel to—but in many ways surpassing—Greil Marcus’ punk-centric chronicle of the 20th century, Lipstick Traces, Young’s Electric Eden is a sprawling, multidimensional map that beautifully captures the music and mysticism of the territory it represents.
Runner-up: Nothing: A Portrait Of Insomnia, Blake Butler
Blake Butler’s brilliant experimental debut novel, There Is No Year, was released in spring 2011. As if to prove that title wrong, he followed it six months later with an even more brilliant book: Nothing: A Portrait Of Insomnia. On the surface, Nothing is an account of Butler’s chronic bouts with sleeplessness. But it quickly, queasily morphs into something else: a disorienting, fractal-edged portal into his increasingly elastic perception of consciousness, space-time, and metabolism. Amid his poetic, proto-psychedelic self-absorption, Butler cites and synthesizes a dizzying array of cultural sources concerned with the phenomenon of sleep (or the lack thereof)—from David Lynch to Jorge Luis Borges to A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Pym, Mat Johnson
There’s a fine line between satire and parody, but it too often boils down to parody being amusing but meaningless, and satire being meaningful but not garnering laughs. This isn’t the case with Mat Johnson’s Pym, a satire of modern and historical racial identity that’s hilarious and insightful from its very first line. Pym is something of a screed, but its targets are varied and nuanced, from academia’s treatment of hip, young, black professors to Edgar Allen Poe’s lone, bizarre, racist novel, from which Pym takes its name. It’s engaging, amusing, light, intelligent, and politically aware, an entirely winning combination. There's also a dog named “White Folks.”
Runner-up: Triumph Of The City, Edward Glaeser
If non-fiction can be judged by how much it improves people’s arguments, both for and against an issue, Triumph Of The City is one of the best around. Some of the sacred cows Edward Glaeser roasts by ignoring convention are marvelous, like the idea that country living is greener than city living, while others are odd—presenting financial services as “innovation” after those services innovatively destroyed the economy seems a bit tone-deaf. But the core thesis, that great ideas are magnified by close human interaction, comes off as indisputable wisdom.
The Ecstasy Of Influence, Jonathan Lethem
Jonathan Lethem has long marked his fictional landscapes with real-world cultural touchstones, from Motherless Brooklyn’s Prince-fan narrator to the L.A. rock milieu of You Don’t Love Me Yet. The Ecstasy Of Influence completes Lethem’s gradual, decade-plus turn toward cultural commentary, from op-eds in The New York Times to epic features on James Brown and Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone, from an appreciation of ’50s TV genius Ernie Kovacs in which he flatly refuses to explain who his subject is or sell his readers on him (“Young person, I’m deeply disappointed in you”) to the titular Harper’s essay, cribbed from a plurality of sources. But the book also darts into fan-id side trips, starring Drew Barrymore and Omega The Unknown; it’s porous and imperfect, huge and dazzling, a miscellany to get lost in for years to come. Lethem punctures the insularity of both the serious-lit upper crust and science-fiction conventioneers, but he’s a fan, in the thick of it, evangelical but not pious, even as he clearheadedly acknowledges his role as a “Major Writer” and answers his critics. “I felt I was a token of a world improved by mongrelization,” he writes. That could be this book’s manifesto.
Runner-up: The Chitlin’ Circuit And The Road To Rock ’N’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach
A decidedly awful year for music, and a thrilling one for music books: This slot could as easily have gone to titles from Chuck Eddy, Will Hermes, Simon Reynolds, and Ellen Willis, not to mention I Want My MTV (see below). Memphis journalist Preston Lauterbach is vivid, salty, and keen-eared, and he’s rewritten rock history from the bottom up, doing deep research on a hugely important topic: the loose network of Southern roadhouses and juke joints where blues, R&B, and early rock artists plied their trade—James Brown, Little Richard, and Ray Charles among them. It covers loads of backstage crime, too, not to mention front-stage: Just wait ’til the part where bandleader Jimmy Liggins, mid-performance, gets his jaw shot off.
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
Anyone with a passing interest in MMORPGs, John Hughes, or Idiocracy can find something to enjoy immensely in Ernest Cline’s futuristic romp through ’80s pop-culture nostalgia in a faux-Second Life game universe. Protagonist Wade Watts and his encyclopedic knowledge of cultural artifacts of yesteryear are just the tip of the hard-to-believe iceberg, but what resonates is the sheer love of everything Cline name-drops. There’s no South Park Imaginationland cynicism to the hero’s journey. Even readers without an encyclopedic knowledge of old films and videogames can still marvel at the action-packed dystopian plot, but the pileup of pastiche will handsomely reward those who do “get” every little detail.
Runner-up: Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, Melinda Moustakis
Skilled short-fiction authors are wired differently than novelists, like golfers who can crush the ball off the tee but don’t have the short game of great putters. Even in a year with strong debuts like Miroslav Penkov’s East Of The West and Daniel Orozco’s Orientation, Melinda Moustakis’ linked anthology stood head and shoulders above the rest. She creates a slowly unfolding family history around Anchorage, Alaska that reads like an unflinching blend of John Steinbeck and Jack London.
The Map Of Time, Felix J. Palma
Spanish author Felix J. Palma is far from the first to connect H.G. Wells to actual time travel, but he manages to spin a science-fiction cliché into something beautifully original. One of Palma’s cleverest moves is making the author of The Time Machine a weak character. He’s placed in the role of observer and accomplice to the more dramatic actors around him as they play out epic tales of love and murder on the rich stage of Victorian-era London. A novel told in three acts, The Map Of Time is sweet and zany without ever being saccharine or wacky. The story has lingering power, coming to a satisfying close by beautifully wrapping up the three interconnected tales. If the rest of Palma’s works are half this good, American publishers should be working on translating and importing more.
Runner-up: The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht
Death is always close at hand in the unnamed war-torn Balkan country that serves as the setting for Téa Obreht’s debut novel. The Tiger’s Wife blurs the line between myth and truth. Stories of deaths in bombings and land-mine explosions are paired with legends of a man who can’t die, but brings death to others in hopes that he can eventually earn his own rest, and the legend of a battered woman who connects with an escaped zoo tiger. But the greatest strength of the novel comes from the complexity of the characters. Obreht is fond of twisting readers’ emotions, painting a person as a cruel villain on one page, then devoting a chapter to sharing his history, revealing facets that make him sympathetic. There are no real heroes and villains here, just people with stories as rich as any legend.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend, Susan Orlean
Rin Tin Tin once had few rivals as the world’s most famous movie star, even though he was a dog. Or maybe because he was a dog. Susan Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin: The Life And The Legend revisits the curious case of the dog who took over the spotlight in the silent-movie era, and uses it to explore how attitudes toward canine companions changed across the 20th century, and how Rin Tin Tin reflected, and sometimes caused, those changes. The book is up to more than that, however, raising the question of why some pop-culture figures endure while others fade away, and most movingly, recounting the real-life story of Rin Tin Tin and his owner, Lee Duncan. Born a lonely, passed-around kid who loved animals, Duncan rescued the dog from the German trenches in World War I and set about making him a star, less out of selfish motives than a desire for the world to look at the animal with the same awe he did.
Runner-up: The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel since the sprawling, magnificent Middlesex can’t help but feel smaller by comparison. But what he loses in scale, he gains in intimacy, exploring a love triangle between recent college grads in the early 1980s: a religious seeker; a brilliant, bipolar scientist; and a budding 19th-century literary scholar. That last character supplies The Marriage Plot with a sturdy frame. She loves books in which the heroine seeks a suitable husband, but she may not be in one.
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum
I Want My MTV compresses an entire decade’s worth of pop culture with genuine good cheer. It’s fun to see former icons and relatively unknown business flunkies speaking on the same playing field, with all self-promotional motivations momentarily set aside in favor of group celebration; everyone’s on topic, and the camaraderie makes for exemplary oral history. What makes the book weightier than just a predictably entertaining string of debauched anecdotes is the larger narrative: a risky business venture undertaken with predictably cynical, monetary ends accidentally changes many teenagers’ and musicians’ worlds, for better and worse, depending on who’s talking. I Want My MTV reconstructs a much slower pop-cultural landscape from not so long ago, in the days before file-sharing, YouTube, and instant downloads; as a bonus, it inevitably prompts readers to get online to look up Martha Quinn and Van Halen’s “Pretty Woman” video.
Runner-up: Open City, Teju Cole
The ending is a huge tactical mistake, but Open City is still a chewy, provocative portrait of post-9/11 New York. Narrator Julius is a Nigerian immigrant who’s constantly thinking about race, and Cole’s dissection of uneasy, often sublimated racial dynamics is uneasily compelling. The many digressions into rarefied historical and artistic digressions (along with Julius’ penchant for long walks nowhere in particular) earned inevitable, fair comparisons to W.G. Sebald, with whom Cole shares a satisfyingly chilly patience in the face of deep historical wounds that would provoke hysteria in less steely writers.
11/22/63, Stephen King
11/22/63 is easily Stephen King’s best novel in more than a decade. The plot—an ordinary schmoe is handed access to a time portal and a mandate to stop Lee Harvey Oswald and save JFK from assassination—is reasonably compelling on its own, and its general lack of convenient telepathy, mysterious monsters, or other supernatural folderol (apart from the portal itself, which King smartly glosses over) challenges King to stick to the kind of real-world-based, humanity-centered story he does best. He grounds himself in realism and research, drawing Oswald as a compelling, believable character, and building a breath-catching thriller around the question of whether he acted alone, whether the plodding protagonist has the gumption to stop him, and whether it’ll make a difference. It’s the first King book in a long time to not just fulfill its conceptual potential, but really stick the ending, and it’s a gripping read from start to finish.
Runner-up: A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin
It’s been a long wait for the latest installment of George R.R. Martin’s Song Of Ice And Fire series, which launched in 1996 with A Game Of Thrones, but it’s no wonder the books take so long, given their sheer richness. The series’ long-awaited fifth installment continues to expand the story’s sprawling tapestry, which just keeps getting broader and more colorful. It aggressively teases fans with little touches of the information they most want, but it’s also a sumptuous, absorbing feast, both stylistically and narratively.
Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
A weird cross between coming-of-age story, family saga, and a reworking of various mythological traditions in the Florida swamp, Swamplandia! wasn’t just one of the best books of 2011; it was also one of the most entertaining. Russell, the author of the terrific short-story collection St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised By Wolves, expands upon one of her stories from that collection by following Ava Bigtree, teenage daughter of a couple that runs a faltering attraction where tourists get to see Ava’s mother swim through an alligator pit on a nightly basis. As the book begins, Ava is struggling to put her mother’s death behind her, and what follows is an often funny, occasionally moving, always fascinating story of how this little family—including Ava’s two siblings—deals with the matriarch’s death, each in their own way. By the time Russell has Ava embark on a journey for the Underworld—for reasons entirely unrelated to her mother’s death, surprisingly—the book becomes something grand and adventurous, a weird, hallucinatory look at one of the last untamed corners of the United States.
Runner-up: The Magician King, Lev Grossman
Lev Grossman continues to wed fantasy tropes to psychological realism. Those who disliked The Magicians for being too whiny will likely prefer this sequel, wherein Magicians protagonist Quentin has less of an entitled view of things, and mostly wonders whether his new role as king of a magical land is really all there is. Magicians fans will find everything they liked about that book replicated here and then some, particularly in Grossman’s reworking of assorted bits of fantasy tales gone before. But the book’s grandest achievement is its co-lead, the damaged, haunted Julia, whose jealousy of Quentin’s magical achievements led her to deeper and darker places, to a kind of pain Quentin only pretends to have.
The Forgotten Waltz, Anne Enright
The cost of economic crisis can be depicted in many ways—unemployment statistics, photos of Occupy Wall Street protesters, quotes from dour commentators on the extent to which bad luck and punishment are deserved. Anne Enright’s hard, glittering novel takes a different measure, exhibiting the toll that outsized dreams and poor decisions have carved out of a young Irish woman literally and figuratively stuck in place. Painting herself alternately as victim and survivor of the Irish economic downturn, former dot-com success story Gina (now making an unsteady freelance living out of her dead mother’s unsellable house) retraces the steps that led to her affair with a coworker and the dismantling of her tidy suburban dreams in time with the last roar of the Celtic Tiger. Unembroidered by the sentimental stuff of an old love, Gina’s account poises her—though she doesn’t realize it till the end—on the brink of another major shift in her life, in which, bruised by her attempt to take responsibility for her actions, she struggles to picture the next and possibly better way out.
Runner-up: The Art Of Fielding, Chad Harbach
The doorstop literary novel about a teenage shortstop catapulted from grocery-store clerk to college starter and Major League hopeful launched a thousand bad baseball metaphors, yet grounded its expression of his philosophical quest in a story that captivated even through its ordinariness. Henry Skrimshander’s talent allows him no exemption from feeling lost in his new life, but as he and his classmates search for meaning off the Westish College field, Harbach still allows them their few shining moments of glory without getting lost in their poetry.