This was the year of displaced persons.
The Invisible Bridge, by Julie Orringer. The untold story of Hungarian Jews forced to flee as Europe’s tragedy unfolds, renders the unthinkable poetic.
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin. The story of Eilis who leaves her small village in Ireland in the 1950’s for Brooklyn, where she learns to live away from the only home she’s ever known.
Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan. Manny, the manager of a Red Lobster, wishes his last shift would never end because after tonight, the restaurant will close its doors forever and he will be demoted to a position at a nearby Olive Garden.
These stories, fueled by hope and despair, where no one leaves of their own accord, are filled with longing for the people and places left behind. With each one, I felt the way a child feels when suddenly separated from his parents on the street–that first struggle with being disconnected, a rippling anxiety, and the hopeful glimpse of a familiar skirt, that isn’t your mother’s after all.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Ambitious and genre-breaking in an unexpected and surprising way, this novel’s acclaim is well-deserved. Egan swings for the fences and hits them.
Open City by Teju Cole. Another surprising, ambitious winner, this time from a debut novelist. An elegiac tone poem to post-9/11 New York City narrated by a fascinating, complex protagonist.
Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. Like Egan, Evans has received great acclaim for her work. And like Cole, it’s her debut–in this case, a collection of short stories. Like Egan’s the acclaim is deserved; like Cole’s,it’s a book you shouldn’t miss.
A Hundred and One Nights by Benjamin Buccholz. This debut novel about Afghanistan is a spike in the heart. To quote my own blurb for it: “Fearless and seductive. . . . A powerful testimony to the insanity of war and the undeniable demands of love.”
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. I’d follow Ann just about anywhere, including the muggy, buggy Amazon.
Ten Little Indians by Sherman Alexie. What a marvelous, joyful writer. “Do Not Go Gentle” has to be one of my favorite stories ever.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson was inventive, sharp, alarming, surprising, and occasionally heartbreaking. It was everything I love in a novel, plus art, plus bad parents, plus bad children. Read it in a day.
One of my students turned me on to David Gordon’s The Serialist, which features porn, savage violence, and grown men dressing like their mothers. While these are not the sorts of things I usually go for in a novel, The Serialist was surprising in the best ways – hyper funny and fun to read.
Jesse Browner’s Everything Happens Today was also a true pleasure – the story of a too-smart, too-sensitive Greenwich Village teenager who grapples with life, death, sex, and regret all in the course of a memorable day in which he keeps forgetting to walk the dog.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. The Amazon. A missing scientist. An Anaconda about to swallow a boy. Patchett could write a grocery list and have me in a state of awe and this latest novel is absolutely enthralling.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. A thrillingly real look at a bonafide genius who could be as nasty and self-centered as he was brilliant about changing the world. Reading this, I had nightmares that Jobs was following me and yelling at me–but I’d read it again in a heartbeat.
Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson. A sympathetic portrait of a complicated, complex, and sometimes brutal man, Hendrickson’s bio shows the full beating heart of Hemingway.
Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan, who became a new favorite. I went on to read several other novels by him including Wish You Were Here and Last Night at the Lobster. A wonderfully detailed and absorbing portrayal of a old age and solitude. It’s amazing how carefully and humbly and beautifully O’Nan casts his spell.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan. I know this novel garnered a lot of praise and earned many awards, which I’d add, are well deserved! I felt mesmerized by these interlocking narratives and Eagan’s ability to capture so many different sensibilities. I also felt as an older novelist that I was getting a glimpse of the styles, wild inventions, about the concerns of a new “postmodern” generation of novelists.
Room by Emma Donoghue. Hands down, this was my favorite novel of the year, and up there with other “permanent” favorites. A haunting novel from the language and perspective of a five-year old—the voice slowly and quietly invaded my thinking so that even after I put the novel down, I was thinking about the world and hearing language in the style of young Jack —the last time I remember this happening in such an absorbing way was with A Hundred Years of Solitude by García Marquez.
Nothing I read this year gave me more pleasure than Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Getting Closer,” published in The New Yorker in January. As for books, my favorites in 2011 were the widely praised debut novels by Chad Harbach—The Art of Fielding—and Karen Russell—Swamplandia!. This year was also the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth, which the Overlook Press marked by releasing a gorgeous, illustrated edition of Peake’s peerless fantasy epic, The Gormenghast Trilogy. That was the book I most enjoyed rereading.
Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield — If the words Garamond, Baskerville or Helvetica give you a thrill, this book tells you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about how and why type faces are what they are and how they got that way. Fascinating and odd.
Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrere — A memoir-as-novel that explores the effect on two lovers of the endless aftershocks of a tsunami in Sri Lanka. A wise, kind and infinitely sad work about the ripples and quakes of the human heart.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey — This book doesn’t come out until February, but when it does, you’ll find a brilliant first novel that continues to enchant long after the snow has melted. If Willa Cather and Gabriel Garcia Marques had written a book together, this would be it.
The Ringer, by Jenny Shank: Please don’t judge this book by the cover. I happen to know that the author cried for two days when she saw it. As good as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is (and I wrote a blurb for it which started with the word “spectacular”), The Ringer may be even better. Like Harbach’s Fielding, baseball serves only as a framing device for this promising debut about such durable American themes as race, class, and family. Make no mistake though, Shank knows baseball like the sister of the major league ballplayer she is.
Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka: At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka’s debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds. Veselka has a shit-ton of voice, and you know within the first paragraph that you’re in for a ride. She could write about dog turds and I’d happily read it.
Damascus, by Joshua Mohr: The third novel from San Fransisco’s Joshua Mohr is his best to date. Mohr is the bard of the underbelly, and the Mission District is his playground. Part Harry Crews, part Charles Bukowski, and part Franz Kafka, Mohr will make you squirm, laugh, recognize, and take pause. Behind his wayward and dissolute characters, burns the clear-eyed moral vision of a very unique artist.
On China by Henry Kissinger. This is an extraordinary survey of Chinese history and culture from the beginnings to the present day. Part memoir, part meditation, part analysis and prediction, Kissinger’s magnum opus gives us a detailed and authoritative narrative of how China and the United States and the West reached the present state of their complex relations.
The Penguin Book of English Verse by Paul Keegan. Just when you thought there were no surprises to be found in the canon of English poetry along comes this selection to reveal new examples from both the famous and obscure. Poems are showcased more than the poets. Both refreshing and comprehensive.
Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont by Timothy P. Spira. The photographs are stunning, the text vivid, learned, succinct and alive. Need I say more?
Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. The truth about the West is always more amazing than the myth.
White Fang, by Jack London. Who tells a better nature story?
Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero, by Chris Matthews. JFK was….elusive, but Matthews reminds us why, in 1969, when Americans were polled on who should be added to Mount Rushmore, they picked the 35th president.