Best Books of 2011
‘Tis the season for “Best of” lists, so here is my personal list of the best books of 2011.
Best Fiction Published in 2011
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
My admiration for Harbach’s first novel has only grown since I first read and reviewed it. Harbach writes as intelligently about curveballs as about undergraduate life as about nineteenth-century American literature. Well plotted and beautifully written, The Art of Fielding was the book I most enjoyed reading this year.
Edward St. Aubyn, At Last
I’m sort of cheating here—the novel came out in the U.K. in May, but won’t be published in the U.S. until February—but I couldn’t not include At Last, the final installment in St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose cycle. (The first four novels, Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk, will be published as a single volume by Picador next month.) These novels have dark source material, ranging from run-of-the-mill social cruelty to child rape and drug abuse, but St. Aubyn has been able to turn this incredibly disturbing stuff into something that is funny, engaging, philosophical, and, in At Last, surprisingly warm. St. Aubyn is often compared to Evelyn Waugh, and it’s easy to see why: there’s the lancing wit (“Of course it was wrong to want to change people, but what else could you possibly want to do with them?”), the snobbishness (“There was no doubt about it, he was a fattist and a sexist and an ageist and a racist and a straightest and a druggist and, naturally, a snob, but of such a virulent character that nobody satisfied his demands. He defied anyone to come up with a minority or a majority that he did not hate for some reason or another.”), and the ability to seemingly throw off aphorisms at will (“To a man of the world, the universe is a suburb.”) At Last is really a stand-alone work, and can be read on its own; it’s also one of the best novels I’ve read in the last several years.
Best Fiction I Read This Year, Not Published in 2011
Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector
Alice Munro, Selected Stories
I wrote about Goodman’s novel here. As for Munro, I’ve heard for years that she is the Chekhov of our time. This year, I gave her my first extended look, and the comparisons aren’t far off. This volume offers a great introduction to Munro’s restrained yet lyrical prose style and her extraordinary empathetic gifts.
Best Nonfiction Published in 2011
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead
Like Munro, Sullivan possesses a powerful empathetic imagination—in his first collection of essays, he imagines himself into, among others, Michael Jackson, a group of young adults he meets at a Christian rock festival, Axl Rose, his brother after a near-death experience, and a former star of MTV’s The Real World. Sullivan has been hyped as the best essayist since David Foster Wallace, and several of the essays here stand up to anything DFW ever wrote.
Best Nonfiction I Read This Year, Not Published in 2011
Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind
Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One
Two very different books, obviously, but both will stick with me for a long time: Absence of Mind simply because it reminded me that Robinson is almost as gifted a polemicist as she is a novelist (which is high praise indeed), Chronicles because it so wonderfully gives a sense of Dylan’s voice, capturing both his richly metaphorical imagination (on Johnny Cash: “Johnny didn’t have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he’s at the edge of the fire, or in the deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger”) and his absurdist sense of humor (on Balzac: “You can learn a lot from Mr. B. … He wears a monk’s robe and drinks endless cups of coffee. Too much sleep clogs up his mind. One of his teeth falls out, and he says, ‘What does this mean?’ He questions everything. His clothes catch fire on a candle. He wonders if fire is a good sign. Balzac is hilarious”). And, despite Dylan’s well-earned reputation for indecipherability, Chronicles is a surprisingly personal work, giving a real sense of Dylan as father, husband, poet, songwriter, and reluctant hero.