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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 2011Chad Harbach, The Art of FieldingMy admiration for Harbachs 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 LastIm sort of cheating herethe novel came out in the U.K. in May, but wont be published in the U.S. until Februarybut I couldnt not include At Last, the final installment in St. Aubyns Patrick Melrose cycle. (The first four novels, Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mothers 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 its easy to see why: theres 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; its also one of the best novels Ive read in the last several years.

Best Fiction I Read This Year, Not Published in 2011Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook CollectorAlice Munro, Selected StoriesI wrote about Goodman's novel here. As for Munro, Ive heard for years that she is the Chekhov of our time. This year, I gave her my first extended look, and the comparisons arent far off. This volume offers a great introduction to Munros restrained yet lyrical prose style and her extraordinary empathetic gifts.Best Nonfiction Published in 2011John Jeremiah Sullivan, PulpheadLike Munro, Sullivan possesses a powerful empathetic imaginationin 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 MTVs 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 2011Marilynne Robinson, Absence of MindBob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume OneTwo 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 Dylans voice, capturing both his richly metaphorical imagination (on Johnny Cash: Johnny didnt have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him. He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like hes 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 monks 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 Dylans 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.

About the Author

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY.

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Thanks for posting the linkback to "The Cookbook Collector." I enjoyed it (and I agree with your earlier remarks about its marketing), but, beyond having a kneejerk sympathy for the "uptight" sister I didn't feel much of an emotional connection with the characters. They felt recycled, even strained a little. Maybe it's my age; I'm too old and jaded to read earnestly written things like this. I have Munro on my wish list.

It's all in what we take to the table. De gustibus.

"Its all in what we take to the table."Yes, I think that's right. Fr. Walter Ong, in his essay "Orality and Literacy" talked about our having a kind of literary "pool" (my term not his) from which we dip what we need as a culture. This is a little facile, but it explains why some authors fall out of favor in one age and then are "rediscovered" in another. His notion is that "great literature" (again my term) is that which stays in the "pool." I think something similar happens on an individual level. We take what we need out of the pool depending on age and circumstance. I don't know when my taste shifted from the Charlotte Bronte to Jane Austen, but I don't think that should reflect badly on either lady.

"This is a little facile ..." My interpretation, I mean, not Fr. Ong's idea!

Do any of you occasionally find Munro's writing to be suffocating?

Timothy, I can't say for sure that I find it stifling, but I do vaguely remember looking at something of hers in a recent New Yorker and deciding that I would not enjoy reading further. However, I don't read for literary merit - whatever that may be - but for the pleasure of the company. That's just personal taste. I'm sure something can be suffocating, insipid, and deeply offensive and still be considered by critics a masterpiece. Different strokes.

Timothy, that's definitely a complaint I've heard others make about Munro. A lot of that has to do with the subject matter, I'm sure--the lives of Munro's characters are often suffocating, and the stories trace the ways in which these characters try (and often fail) to escape into a more expansive life. It also has to do with her restrained style, which I admire. As David would say, though, what one person considers beautifully restrained another person considers cold and bloodless.

I'm delighted to see Alice Munro's stories on this list of "Best Reads." She is, I believe, one of the finest writers alive, yet she is easy to overlook. The craft of her stories is subtle--as is said of an excellent tailor, her work doesn't "show." Somehow she manages to convey human cataclysm (albeit on the microcosmic scale) through the most casual and understated language. It's true that she gravitates towards characters who have suffered devastation in their lives. Yet they are all survivors--people who have made their peace with unimaginably horrific events. Those events are described through everyday speech in everyday voices. Reading her stories has the strange effect of mystifying the people who are all around me. Who knows what their sufferings might be? Who knows what they may have survived? And so at the same time as I feel the fragility of life, Munro convinces me of the enormous strength of the human spirit. Hers are stories that accomplish what the Masters accomplish--Chechov, yes. Tolstoy, yes. Hawthorne, yes. O'Connor, yes.

Also, it would be lovely to see some books of POETRY on this list! (Forgive me--I'm a poet and, therefore, partial to the genre.)I'd recommend Thomas Lynch's brilliant book, THE SIN-EATER (which I'm currently reviewing for AMERICA--the competition!). This is Catholic Poetry at its finest.Also, the collected poems of Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Transtromer are wise and brilliant. Though I don't read Swedish (I wish I did), the English translations available manage to convey the power and spare beauty of his voice and vision.

I certainly concur with the Best Nonfiction Not Published in 2011. I've read both, Absence of Mind and Chronicles, Volume One. I may read them again. I've never seen Dylan perform in person, but I have seen Marilynne Robinson at a writer's conference. She read from a book in progress: Gilead. I liked it but didn't think it would go over that well. Shows what I know. I hope Dylan is making progress with Volume Two. I recommend an earlier nonfiction book by Robinson, The Death of Adam. She really has star status now, after appearing on Jon Stewart's Daily Show, and getting some good laughs.

"At last" is available now. The delivery may be from the UK, however. At least, I guess, until February.

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