Best Books of 2011

2011 was a really good year for the début novel.  More than a handful appear on this list.  But I believe 2011 will go down as the year of Murakami.  Not only was his brilliant 900+ page book the best of the year, but sales of the book were off the charts.  That’s a great thing.  And while it’s tough to read everything out there, I did try to read as much as I could (sadly, not enough non-fiction).  Here they are, my favorite books of the year.

1)   1Q84- Haruki Murakami  

One of the greatest story tellers of our time comes out with his magnum opus.  An enthralling 944 pages of equal parts noir crime, love story and hallucinatory fiction.  A little Orwell thrown in, a pinch of Kafka and what you get is easily the most exciting book of the year.

2)   The Art of Fielding- Chad Harbach 

There is a good selection of début books of this year’s list.  This one, which was hyped as the baseball book that’s more than just baseball, was the best of the crop.  Essentially a coming of age story with the backdrop of baseball, college and Herman Melville.  Will rank along side The Natural and The Great American Novel as the best “baseball” books of all time.  There’s an equally interesting story on how the book came to be in a Vanity Fair article/e-book.  A voice to watch.

3)   The Tragedy of Arthur- Arthur Phillips

This is my first Arthur Phillips book I’ve read and it didn’t disappoint.  The story of Arthur Phillips (?) who is told by his criminal father that he possesses the only copy of an unknown Shakespeare play, “The Tragedy of Arthur”.  Is this real? Does Arthur (the son) sell the play for all the world to read or hold for himself as the only positive remnants of his father?  The author does an outstanding job of making this book about the love of books (and of Shakespeare) into an interesting and thought-provoking story.

4)   Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything – Joshua Foer

The only non-fiction book to make the list this year.  Joshua Foer (brother to that overrated author Jonathan Safran) immerses himself in the group of Americans and Europeans that memorize for a living.  Similar in scope to Stefan Fatsis’ Word Freak (about Scrabble players) this is his story of how he spent a year going from journalist to the U.S. memory champion.  He puts himself into this world head first and you learn quite a bit of the how’s and why’s of memory contestants.

5)   The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore- Benjamin Hale

Another fantastic début.  This one is the story of Bruno who young and gifted comes to live a paleontologist named Lydia Littlemore.  There she nurtures him, oversees his education and falls for him in a perverse yet loving way.  Oh, and Bruno is an incredibly deft and possibly the smartest chimpanzee in the world.  Yes, a chimp.  The story is gripping, sad, heartfelt and accomplished.  A great book.

6)   Luminous Airplanes- Paul LaFarge

Another coming of age story.  This one’s about a 30 something programmer who returns to the town of Thebes in upstate New York after the death of his grandfather.  There he reconnects with Yesim who he had a crush on growing up when he spent his summers there.  A story of love, loss and getting to know the person you are and more importantly the person you’ll be.

7)   Follow Me Down- Kio Stark

What begins with an envelope of a picture taken and lost in the mail for 20 years turns into a captivating escapade for Lucy the receiver of this lost picture.  She focuses on finding the person in this picture to give him his rightful belonging.  The author does a fantastic job of putting you next to Lucy in her trip across this desolate, vivid city.  From the very promising Red Lemonade press.

8)   Open City- Teju Cole

A modern day Ulysses?  Yes, those are strong words to compare this novel by Nigerian/American writer Teju Cole.  Julius, the 32-year-old narrator walks New York City pondering his career, his life, his family.  Part stream-of-consciousness, part fiction story telling this is a work that will resonate with the reader for some time.

9)   Tony and Susan- Austin Wright

One of the best books of 2011 originally came out in 1994?  Austin Wright’s novel was reissued to great acclaim this year.  One of the better noir books you’ll read, ever.  The story of Susan who picks up the manuscript by her ex husband Edward.  In Edward’s book, Nocturnal Animals, Tony Hastings is driving to their summer cottage in Maine when things turn for the worst.  We the reader are given not only the story of Susan but get to read this manuscript by Edward as well.  Don’t worry, it’s not confusing.  It’s enthralling and exciting.

10)   The Tiger’s Wife- Tea Obreht

Much has been written about this book by Tea Obreht.  Natalia, a young doctor, is compelled to unravel the mysteries surrounding her beloved grandfather’s death.  Told through her eyes in multiple narratives this is an outstanding work that will challenge the reader.  Another début from one of the most original voices in a long time.

And 6 more…

11)  Pym- Mat Johnson

12)  Zone One- Colson Whitehead

13)  The Storm at the Door- Stefan Merrill Block

14)  Bright Before Us- Katie Arnold-Ratliff

15)  A Good Hard Look- Ann Napolitano

16)  Go the F**K to Sleep- Adam Mansbach

Finally, someone writes the essential book for parents.  Download the free pdf here.

Least favorite book of the year:

Swamplandia!- Karen Russell

What started out as an interesting and quirky family story moves into this quest to find the lost sister.  A perfect 1/3 of a book.  That’s not a good thing.