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.


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.


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.


  1. I'll take a bet with you on The Art of Fielding. I don't think it has "the thing." It was entertaining, yes, but Pulitzer books I've read recently tend to have more going for them under the surface than I found here. Some real originality and depth of feeling that goes beyond the clever or the new setting for the same old story.

    I haven't fully defined this category for myself yet, but there are a bunch of books that have multiple point-of-view characters, usually at least two of whom are teenagers/young adults involved in some variety of growing up. The writing is clean, not poor, but never breathtaking. (I'm thinking that Ten Thousand Saints goes here too, though I'm less than halfway in. The other one for some reason occurring to me right now is 2006's The Emperor's Children. Or was that 2007? Claire Messud?)

    I think the Pulitzer has done pretty well at avoiding this trope, and will continue to do so.

  2. i agree with you about the Marriage Plot. I think I would have been extremely impressed if it hadn't been the follow-up novel to Middlesex, which I might name as my favorite contemporary novel-- or at least high on the list. As it is, I really liked it. . .

  3. I'm not betting...not yet...but I may be willing to later! :) A few factors might still change my thinking. I don't want to scoop myself -- I have a blog post planned out for about 3 weeks from now -- but there is an interesting statistical relationship between Pulitzer winners and something else. Stay tuned. Still, thanks for your thoughts, Amy. You make good points. I'll stick by my pick, for now, at least.