Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Books of 2011: Fiction and Non-Fiction

In 2011, I read a total of 37 books published during the calendar year (plus about 28 published in previous years). Of the 37, all but 5 were fiction. In this post, I present a variation of a “best of” list.

Making this list was more painful than I thought it would be. Sometimes, I can be a harsh critic; other times, I am very easy to please. Thus, in some cases, I could find just as many reasons to leave a book off this list as to why I should include it. A few good books didn’t make the list, but we always have to draw the line somewhere.

In order to equivocate some, I have broken my choices down into three categories. 

Also note: I have made some comments on some of these books, but a lack of comments does not imply anything.

FICTION

My "top tier" (AKA: Novels which I loved with almost no reservations and which I want to read again in the near future (if time and my mission to keep plowing through new and new-to-me books will allow)):

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 Booker Prize Winner)

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

This is my current frontrunner to win the Pulitzer Prize. I plan to devote a few posts to this subject before the announcement in April, but I wanted to state my current pick before the end of the year. I actually made this pick on a message board over a month ago. Having it chosen by the New York Times as one of their top five novels, only strengthens my opinion.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (2011 National Book Award Finalist)

This was perhaps, my favorite book of the year. Like a lot of people, I didn’t want to buy into the “hype” surrounding the youngest of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, but Obreht’s novel is wonderful. She skirts the edge of “magical realism,” mixing mythology and family history, into a story of a young doctor grieving the death of her grandfather, during the aftermath of the Balkan wars.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

I wrote a lengthy review of Ondaatje’s latest novel on Goodreads. Check it out, if you are interested.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (2011 National Book Award Finalist)

My "second tier" (AKA: Novels which I enjoyed, with some reservations (sometimes extremely minor), which I would recommend, will sit permanently on my bookshelf, but which I many not read again for some time):

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I think this novel suffered from unreasonable expectations. After a nine year wait, many people (myself included) hoped that Eugenides could recapture the magic and originality of Middlesex. Although engaging, at times, I found it uneven.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

State of Wonder by Ann Pachett

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (Winner of 2011 National Book Award)

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Novels which I thought were interesting, adventurous or otherwise notable

11/22/63 by Stephen King

In my previous post, I mentioned that King’s time-travel novel seems to have interested readers who have never read any of his other work, including myself and the lead buyer of my local bookstore. It was fun, quick read and showed me why King is a perennial bestseller.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

A children’s librarian “kidnaps” her favorite young patron to get him away from his parents who are treating him unfairly. Or does he “kidnap” her to get away? The latter sounds implausible until you read. The two embark on car tip adventure that at first feels creepy, but is really quite innocent. The story is full of references to YA and children’s books, which will make those who were readers as children, especially those born from the mid-70s to late-80s, smile. Although I enjoyed it a lot, is not necessarily one of my “favorite” books of the year. Still, I really wanted to mention it. It definitely fits this category for being “interesting and adventurous." For what it's worth, I read it as an ARC, but still bought a used copy so I could own a hardcover.

The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

Like The Borrower this novel was "interesting and adventurous." It is told through transcripts of therapy sessions between a psychologist and an unusual patient, as well as post-session notes regarding the transcripts. Klosterman seems to be showing off a bit, pushing the boundaries of what we will accept as a novel. Still, that is exactly what makes it interesting and notable. If you have read any of his irreverent essays and observations on modern life, you will easily see the same point of view within this story.

NON-FICTION

I didn’t read as much new non-fiction and memoirs as I wanted to in 2011, but I did catch up on some notable books from previous years. Still, here are three non-fiction books, published in 2011, which I especially enjoyed.

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer

If you didn’t know, yes, Joshua is the brother of Jonathan Safran, but Joshua is a reporter, not a novelist. This book is a cross between memoir and investigative reporting. While investigating memory competitions, where people achieve such feats as remembering the exact order of multiple decks of playing cards (say, seven packs in 10 minutes or 17 packs in 30 minutes), Joshua becomes a competitor himself, learning memory techniques from some of the world champions. Simultaneously, he investigates the science of memory, talking to memory researchers about people with memory issues. It is an informative, fun, and quick read.

Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West by Dorothy Wickenden

Dorothy Wickenden is the executive editor of the New Yorker. In this cross between family history and general U.S. history, she writes about the adventures of her grandmother and her grandmother’s best friend, as the two leave the comfort of their upper-class East Coast families to become school teaches in rugged Colorado in the 1910s.

Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love by Matt Logelin

How can you not feel utter despair at the death of a young mother, hours after giving birth? Logelin writing about raising his daughter as a single father is so simple and so full of emotion. It brought tears to my eyes. Since, I’ve found that attending a reading and signing can affect my opinion of a book, I feel like I should state that I did attend a reading by Logelin. I am not certain if I would have felt the same about this book otherwise, but I am still content to recommend it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Literary Fiction of 2011: A Recap

A friend asked me if there were more novels published in 2011 than in past years, or if there were simply more that generated buzz. I don’t think official statistics of numbers of novels (or books in general) will be available for a while, but regardless of the number published, I think that 2011 was a big year for fiction.

This post will examine some “categories” of novels which exist every year, but each which seemed to have an especially powerful “line-up” in 2011. I will be examining almost solely, “literary” fiction (with a few exceptions) because I do not follow “commercial” or “genre” fiction as closely. Additionally, this post is intended to be more of a “recap” than a “best of” list. With a few exceptions, I decided that I didn’t want to give many opinions in this post – I will do that in the future. Still, every novel that would make my “best of year” list is included in this post.

Category 1: Debut novels 

I have not tracked this phenomenon closely prior to this year, but debut novels received a great deal of attention in 2011. This may be a factor of publishers trying to develop (and market) new talent in order to build their “stables” for the future. (Whether those writers, once established, will choose to stay with traditional publishers or try self-publishing is a question for another time.) Still, the good news is that (at least in terms of the 2011 crop) publishers do not seem to be simply publishing more new writers and seeing what succeeds. Many of the debut novels from 2011 were, in my opinion, excellent. But don’t take my word for it. Consider these points:

1) Two debut novels were among the five National Book Award finalists: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak and The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. The latter was already a bestseller at the time it was chosen, propelled by Obreht having been chosen last year as one of the New Yorkers “20 Under 40.” The former was virtually unknown before being selected by the National Book Award judges. Indeed, this fact created a lot of controversy with one writer faulting the judges for choosing obscure books (see  Salon.com - How the National Book Awards Made Themselves Irrelevant) This issue was covered by many, many blogs back in October. I don’t have anything new to add, other than that The Sojourn was a worthy of being a finalist. I liked other books (debut and not) more, but can’t fault the judges for their choice. I do wonder if the judges had hidden motives, such as spotlighting books they personally liked which were not getting a lot of attention. Still, I accept the response of one of the judges where he states that the judging panel chose the books they liked best, with no ulterior motives involved. (see An NBA Fiction Judge Responds to Laura Miller)

2) Four debut novels were among the New York Times’ five best novels of the year:

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Swamplandia by Karen Russell (Note: Russell had previously published a short story collection but this was her first novel.)

(The fifth was 11/22/63 by Stephen King – see section below on “established novelists.”)

The criterion of the Times was simply that the chosen books must have been reviewed in the paper during 2011. They had no political agenda to spotlight young novelists. Thus, it says a lot that four debut novels were among the most memorable for the editors amongst the dozens (if not hundreds) that they reviewed during the year.

3) Many other debut novels have shown up on various best of year lists, including:

The Submission by Amy Waldman
The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Open City by Teju Cole
Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (more commercial than literary, but a great story and writing)
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Some might argue that separating debut novels from others is silly – that if a novel is good it is good. This is true, but sometimes writers’ first novels only receive recognition after a subsequent novel breaks out. Regardless, there were certainly many debut novels this year which generated buzz and hit bestseller lists.

Category 2: New books by previous award-winning authors

With four “major” American awards each year – National Book Award, National Book Critic Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award and Pulitzer Prize – there are going to be new books from previous award winners almost every year. Still, 2011 seemed to stick out in this respect. Consider the following:

The Astral by Kate Christensen (PEN/Faulkner winner for Great Man)
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo (National Book Award winner for White Noise)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (Pulitzer Prize winner for Middlesex)
Nightwoods by Charles Frazier (National Book Award winner for Cold Mountain)
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin (National Book Award winner for Waiting)
Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes by William Kennedy (Pulitzer Prize winner for Ironweed)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (PEN/Faulkner winner for Bel Canto)
 
There is often a great deal of expectation and pressure when a previous award winner – especially a previous Pulitzer Prize winner – releases a new book. This year the “victim” of that pressure was Jeffrey Eugenides. Coming nine years after the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Middlesex, The Marriage Plot was probably the most anticipated novel of the year.

There was also buzz and expectation (albeit less than Eugenides) surrounding Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods. His debut novel, Cold Mountain, was a runaway bestseller, and National Book Award Winner in 1998, but his sophomore effort, Thirteen Moons, was not very well received. Many people (myself included) were looking forward to seeing if he could regain the magic of Cold Mountain. 

Category 3: New books by “established” novelists

Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle
11/22/63 Stephen King
The Leftovers by Tom Perotta
The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace

My arbitrary definition of “established” was, at first, authors of more than two novels in the general “literary fiction” genre. Then I decided that the late David Foster Wallace (who had published only two novels before uncompleted The Pale King, but had published collections of short stories and essays) and Stephen King (whose 11/22/63 is more “commercial” than “literary”) both deserved mention.

King’s novel was impressive for a few reasons. First, as mentioned above, the New York Times singled it out as one of their top 5 novels of the year. Second, it introduced his writing to new people. I had never read any of his novels before because there was never a theme that interested me enough. When I spoke to the lead book buyer at my favorite independent book store (Politics and Prose), he told me the same thing.

This section is probably missing many examples, but this group stuck out to me.

Category 4: Excellent “imports”

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011 Booker Prize winner)
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
1Q84 by Hakuri Murakami
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

This category possibly does not need to be separate from the category above, since all of these writers are “established,” using my arbitrary measure. Still, I’ve made it a separate category to show that Americans are reading books by non-American writers. From my memory, at least four of these “imports” appeared on bestseller lists. While Booker Prize (given to the best book by a writer from the Commonwealth of Nations) winning novels always seem to generate buzz and sales in the U.S., the same is not always true for novels in translation. I have not paid close attention to other novels in translation from recent years, but I don’t remember many which hit #2 on the New York Times bestseller list, as 1Q84 did. Additionally, The Prague Cemetery, also a translation, has appeared on some bestseller lists.

Of the 31 novels mentioned in this post, I have read 19, and I am currently reading 1Q84. The 10 that I chose to spotlight here but haven’t read are:

The Astral by Kate Christensen
Open City by Teju Cole
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin
Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes by William Kennedy
The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

I am most excited to read The Angel Esmeralda (which my gut tells me could be an NBCC or Pulitzer finalist) and Open City.