My Favorite Books Read in 2011

I seem to have hit a snag in my nascent Time 100 project; namely, I started to read the third book, Catch-22, then got side-tracked about a month ago and haven’t returned to it since. But I will finish it before the end of the year and post something on it: my pre-New Year resolution.

To keep this blog semi-relevant until then, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on the 12 books I liked best in 2011 — not, mind you, books necessarily published in 2011. I haven’t ranked most of them beyond including them on this list, so the first 11 are in alphabetical order by author, and the twelfth, which I’ll post separately, is my choice for Favorite Read of 2011.

1. Abbott Awaits (2011), by Chris Bachelder
I don’t know how I came across this book, whether it was by trolling various lit blogs or what, but it turned out to be a great find. Abbott is a college professor who chronicles the 90 days he spends at home during his summer break. He has a young daughter and his wife is experiencing a second, turbulent pregnancy. He tries to help out around the house; he gets anxious about the state of the world. That’s the gist of it, and yet, as banal as the premise might seem, Bachelder finds the poetry of living a perfectly ordinary life. It’s a touching, irony-free look at domestic bliss, and I really fell for it.

2. Lightning Rods (2011), by Helen DeWitt
This book takes an utterly ridiculous idea — that a man would get rich developing a product whereby men at the office can have sex with an unknown female whose ass protrudes through a bathroom wall, in the service of relieving pent-up desire and rendering sexual harassment redundant — and turns it into a witty, trenchant satire. I see it less as a skewering of American workplace life and more of the mind-numbing vocabulary that goes with it. You will be assaulted by a barrage of cliches and corporate-speak, but at some point they take on a poetic rhythm.

3. Freedom (2010), by Jonathan Franzen
I know, how boring, right? What a safe, establishment choice. I went in with canines bared, ready to join the backlash and engage in full-throated Franzenfreude. But after about a hundred pages, I settled into this luxurious novel and let the outside noise drown out. All of the major criticisms of this book — foremost among them that Franzen’s own voice and opinions get shoe-horned into various characters and dialogues — are valid, but if you can get past the culture war surrounding Franzen, you’ll be rewarded with a wholly enjoyable reading experience, engaging and generous and yes, even sentimental.

4. The Art of Fielding (2011), by Chad Harbach
Like Freedom, this novel came freighted with a lot of baggage — an unexpected, massive bidding war finally won by Little, Brown in excess of $600,000. Good to know that Harbach has delivered a novel worthy of the attention and your time (it is 500+ pages long), an Irving-esque fable about baseball, dreams, thwarted expectations, and love. His novel is spacious enough to allow its main character to disappear for much of its back half and not lose a beat. A Vanity Fair supplement about this novel revealed that Harbach’s original draft was influenced heavily by Infinite Jest, but he was wise to tamp down the po-mo pyrotechnics and offer instead an assured, more direct narrative. (My full review can be found here.

5. Next (2010), by James Hynes
This novel is a bravura exercise in voice. It amounts to a 300-page inner monologue of one Kevin Quinn, a grown slacker who is in Austin, Texas, for a job interview, set very much in a post-9/11 landscape. As an entry in the venerable white male fuck-up genre, Next is a breath of fresh air. As an entry in the still-germinating 9-11/terrorism genre, it’s perhaps the best, most urgent I’ve yet read. It also deftly deploys pop culture references, which in lesser authors’ hands would instantly date the novel. And it’s very funny. Then there’s the ending, which has been almost universally recognized as a gut-puncher.

6. The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), by Janet Malcolm
Razor-sharp and cut to the bone, this book is a fascinating hall of mirrors that may well change how you listen to the news. The quick backstory is that Joe McGinniss (the journalist) wrote a book about Jeff MacDonald (the murderer) after he was granted full access to the defense team during the trial. MacDonald had been led to believe that McGinniss was sympathetic to his cause, only to find after the book’s publication that McGinniss thought he was a psychopath. So he sued the author for fraud. Malcolm takes that premise and then mercilessly asks a series of questions about the ethics not just of McGinniss’ behavior, but of the nature of journalism itself. When you read this, have your highlighter ready — you’ll be using it.

7. I Want My MTV (2011), by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum
I inhaled this 600-page book in two days, a book that proved as addictive as the piles of cocaine snorted by everyone in it. This oral history of MTV is about as much fun as I’ve had reading in a long time, and I presume that anyone roughly my age will get a kick out of it. I love how it made me genuinely nostalgic for an art form that featured women in cages getting sprayed by fire hoses.

8. Orientation: and Other Stories (2011), by Daniel Orozco
This is the most impressive book of short fiction I’ve read since I read The Things They Carried a few years ago. Each of these nine stories has something to offer, some off-kilter take on everyday life, a vivid re-imagining of a famous life, a stunning panorama of an American city at a pivotal moment — and it’s all jam-packed into 160 drum-tight pages. The title story is a modern classic, and demands to be read out loud, preferably by someone with deadpan delivery. Look also for “Officers Weep,” which tracks the budding romance of two cops through the droll entries on their police blotter.

9. The Human Stain (2000), by Philip Roth

I think I can safely declare that Philip Roth is my favorite author. It’s his command of language, his confidence of storytelling, his pure dedication to craft, his unwavering ability to dig deep into a character and then dig deeper still — it leaves me awe-struck, and also excited that after 10 Roth novels, there’s still many more to discover. This novel concluded his celebrated American Trilogy in grand fashion; it is bitterly angry (nobody does literary tantrums like Roth) but also an elegy. “With every passing day,” one character says, “the words that I hear spoken strike me as less and less of a description of what things really are.”

10. There but for the (2011), by Ali Smith
A language-lover’s dream, Ali Smith’s wily novel takes a curious premise — a man attending a dinner party walks after dessert into his hostess’s bedroom and never leaves — and spins it into a moving exploration of language and  how it connects four characters to the world. Smith sets up her story only to glide around it with all manner of whimsical wordplay and tenderly drawn character sketches. It also serves as a satire, touching on issues of class and culture, particularly during the dinner party and in the reality TV-infused nature of the camped-out crowds waiting for their hero to emerge. My full review can be found here.

11. Pulphead (2011), by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Something of a hybrid of David Foster Wallace and Chuck Klosterman, Sullivan’s essays run the gamut from pop culture studies (hanging out with old Real World contestants) to a travelogue of a Christian rock festival, with an audacious, maddening parody of science news along the way.  My two favorite essays, however, are the last one, where Sullivan recounts how the house his family lives in was once used as a character’s house in One Tree Hill, and a profile of Michael Jackson that I promise you is unlike any other you have ever read about him. Like the best essayists, Sullivan takes subjects you’re already familiar with and finds fresh, innovative ways to talk about them.


  1. jayme says:

    Admittedly, I don’t overlap with too many of these choices, but I appreciate your recommendations, as always, and I picked up a used copy of “Freedom” last night.

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