Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Year of Reading: The Best Books of 2011

These are the ones I loved.

These are the ones I tried to persuade others to love.

These are the ones that, when I was asked "Whatcha reading these days?", would cause my eyes to spark, my hand to leap out and clutch the other person's forearm, my face to press close to theirs within socially-unacceptable distances, and these words to tumble out of my mouth: "I'm glad you asked."

These are the ones that stood out, the electric-blue mountains upthrusting from the beige prairie.

These are the ones whose language skyrocketed above the dull, the insipid, the unnecessarily dense words found on other pages I read this year.

These are the ones still burning bright in my memory after twelve, ten, three months, like a match-flare in the dark of a coal shaft.

In short, I fucking went apeshit for these books.

In a year of great turmoil within the publishing industry--a bankrupt Borders, a groundswell of e-books (which for the first time outsold hardcovers), a bestseller "written" by Jersey Shore's Snooki--one thing remained stable: writing that soared and the writers who gave it wings.  Oh sure, there were plenty of instances where I opened books and found lazy, pedestrian writing (in some of the year's most lauded books, I might add); but I can't remember another year when I was more moved, provoked and entertained by what I read than I was in 2011.  Book after book, I found myself marveling at superior craftsmanship--both at the sentence level and in the narratives as a whole.  And many of those books did this in the tight, constrained spaces of a short story.

I know there are some readers out there who claim they're allergic to the short form, but I've never understood why this is so.  Our increasingly-distracted culture should be ripe for reading in short bursts.  But I'll save that sermon for another day.  From where I sat, 2011 proved to be the Year of the Short Story.  In fact, seven of the fifteen books on the following list are collections of short fiction.  I was impressed not just by the quantity of story collections, but by their quality.  I'll spit in the eye--ptui!--of anyone who tries to tell me the short story is "dead."  Not according to what I read this year.  It's alive and kicking, baby!  In fact, it's doing a wild Charleston across the dance floor right now, so get out of its way you big lumbering lead-footed novels!

So, without further ado, here are my favorites published in 2011, from among the 55 books I read this year.  They're in roughly the order in which I read them, from January to December.

Quiet Americans
by Erika Dreifus
Last Light Studio Books
This debut collection of short stories is the first book I started and finished in 2011 and even back in January, I knew it stood a good chance of making my year-end "best" list.  It's a small book from a small press, but Quiet Americans is powerful in its delivery.  The stories draw their soft rage from the atrocities of the Holocaust.  The death-camp horrors are only seen on the periphery, but Auschwitz and Buchenwald never stop echoing in the lives of the Jews who populate the book.  Dreifus doesn’t shy away from hard subjects, but she addresses the unthinkable--the broken histories of European Jews--with a remarkable mastery of form and sensitivity for her characters who have suffered through so much.  She’s a storyteller in the classic sense of the word and it's possible to trace a clear, direct line from Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud to her 21st-century keyboard.
Click here for the full review

Alan Heathcock
Graywolf Press
Take the Old Testament, then add healthy doses of Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy.  Stir vigorously, then plunge the sparking end of a live wire from a downed power line into the mixing bowl and you'll come close to the hair-raising energy of Heathcock's fiction.  In the course of this short-story collection, a father embarks on a cross-country odyssey after he kills his son in a farming accident, bored teens vandalize a neighboring town with bowling balls, a pastor wrestles with guilt over his son’s combat death in Iraq, yet another father enlists his son’s help in disposing of a man he’s killed when their trucks come to an impasse on a single-lane road, and--in my favorite story, "Peacekeeper"--Sheriff Helen Farraley conceals the discovery of a murdered girl’s body from fellow citizens who, she thinks, would be devastated by the truth.  As I said in my review, "Volt makes us think, makes us feel, and makes us believe in the power of short fiction once again...Sin, guilt, regret, redemption, forgiveness, and mercy wrestle like naked, greased angels of God in these pages."  Go ahead, stick your tongue on the end of Volt's live wire and see if your imagination doesn't ignite.
Click here for the full review

The Tiger's Wife
by Tea Obreht
Random House
Layered in myth, memory and folklore, this novel is one of those rare books which are full-immersion experiences. It begins with Natalia, a young doctor working in an unnamed Balkan country, who learns of her grandfather's death then makes it her goal to learn the truth about his fate.  When she does, she unleashes a flood of memories--most of them involving long walks with her beloved family patriarch and repeated visits to the zoo.  As we unpeel the many narrative layers of this novel, we also learn about a lonely butcher's wife, a marauding tiger, the superstitious residents of a snowbound village, and a certain “deathless man” who never seems to age but who always shows up just before a person’s demise.   The Tiger's Wife weaves a remarkable spell as it moves across the boundaries of time and imagination.  Obreht has paid special attention to the way a story is built.  Every truss is carefully set in place, the floorboards are squared and true, each nail is pounded with the strongest, surest blows.  The sentences in and of themselves are miniature works of art and you keep thinking each one is greater than the one before and Obreht could never top herself.  And yet, she does.  Just look at the beauty packed into the short space of this one sentence: “It was late afternoon when they came across the tiger in a clearing by a frozen pond, bright and real, carved from sunlight.”  There are many more sentences like that waiting for you inside this masterpiece of a book.
Click here for a link to the full review

So Much Pretty
by Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster
Set in the fictional upstate New York town of Haeden, So Much Pretty revolves around the disappearance of Wendy White, a well-liked hometown girl in her early 20s.  We've seen this sort of thing before in other books, movies and every third episode of Dateline: a woman goes missing, a family mourns, the case goes cold.  It's a sad sub-genre of fiction (see also: The Lovely Bones) which is all too often happening in real life outside the covers of a book.  But in her fierce, fiery telling of Haeden's latest crime, Hoffman makes this entry into Abduction Lit all her own.  Hoffman tells the story through testimony from characters, shifting points of view, flashbacks, and pieces of forensic evidence.  Throughout the novel, we move from head to head like a parabolic mic, picking up conversations and burrowing ever deeper into the lives of Haeden's residents.  So Much Pretty builds slowly--it took me a few dozen pages to really get into it--but it wasn't long before I found myself deep, deep inside the world Hoffman created, unwilling to be pulled away for any reason.  But yet, for all its appearance of a mystery-thriller, this is really a novel of ideas.  So Much Pretty opens its arms to hug some pretty big themes--the depravity of mankind, the lost Utopia of rural living, the moral cost of single-handedly trying to cleanse society of sin, and the creeping rot of rumor in small towns--but at every turn Hoffman manages to turn social commentary into a gripping, white-knuckled read.  Of all the books I read this year, this is the one which has haunted me the longest and deepest.
Click here for the full review

The Architect of Flowers
by William Lychack
Mariner Books
Long after you've finished reading The Architect of Flowers and set it aside to move on to other books, the cadence of William Lychack’s prose will continue to click like a metronome in your head.  You may forget the plots of these stories (an old woman trains a crow to steal for her, a boy confronts memories of his father at his funeral), you may forget some of the characters (a ghost-writer, a pregnant woman raising chickens, a mother and her gun-toting son), but I’m willing to bet you’ll have a hard time shaking loose Lychack’s distinct voice. For example, consider the opening lines of "Hawkins":
      Killed a deer last night. Kate and me and this creature almost completely over us. Flash of animal, tug of wheel, sound we felt more than heard, poor thing lying on the side of the road as we pulled around.
      Should have just kept driving, gone home, felt bad. Don’t know what possessed us to get out of the car. November and nothing but trees around. No cars, no houses, deer small and slender, tongue powdered with sand.
Lychack’s strength lies in his ability to render details in language so precise--at once familiar and fresh--that the stories demand multiple re-reads just to savor the gorgeous flavor of the words.
Click here for the full review

The Sojourn
by Andrew Krivak
Bellevue Literary Press
Set in the years surrounding World War One, The Sojourn is an instant classic of war literature and fully deserves a place on the shelf next to Remarque and Hemingway.  Krivak's style is simple, direct, and sedate, but when violence appears, it comes in unforgettable detail:
Miro was killed in a wave of shelling by the Russians, blown in half, this man who fought in their company said, but taking some time to die as his legless trunk of a body lay against the stump of a fallen tree and he clawed at the sky, pleading for someone to help him.
Wow.  Try shaking that image from your head.  The Sojourn is told in three parts, and Krivak paces his cadence to the beat of a three-act play, beginning with a prologue set in 1899 in a Colorado mining town, moving to the Hungarian Empire, and eventually landing its protagonist, an Austrian sniper named Jozef, on the battlefield fighting the Russians on the eastern front.  Along the way, the sharpshooter undergoes a metamorphosis from starry-eyed recruit to hollow-eyed veteran.  In The Sojourn, war can be beautiful on the page, but hell in contemplation.  As a writer, Krivak approaches combat with the placid nature of a Zen master--calmly, patiently knocking down the marble statues erected to glorify battles.  His Jozef is on an odyssey from gung-ho Soldat to steel-hearted sniper to conscience-stricken prey-on-the-run to bedraggled prisoner-of-war.  The Sojourn is an important, contemplative, necessary work of fiction--mandatory reading for those who want to gain some understanding into the psyches of our men and women in uniform returning from a long, bedraggled war in Iraq.
Click here for a link to the full review

You Know When the Men Are Gone
by Siobhan Fallon
Here's another landmark of war fiction which comes to us at just the right time.  In her debut collection of short stories, Fallon has a fresh perspective on another side of combat: the homefront.  As the wife of an Army officer, the author knows all too well about the often-impenetrable society of stoic, buzz-cut soldiers and their families.  Yes, these eight stories are about life inside the gates of Fort Hood, Texas, but they're not the cozy, frou-frou tales of a left-behind wife who fills her lonely hours baking cakes and gossiping at coffee klatches, nor are they the wildly-exaggerated soap operas of Lifetime's Army Wives series.  The Sojourn may put us in the trenches, but You Know When the Men Are Gone takes us to a place where fiction rarely ventures: the paper-thin walls of military housing through which you can hear babies burp, chairs scrape on kitchen floors, and wives sob in the days after the husband leaves.  In these stories, people try too hard, or they don't try enough; lovers are stymied by the intermittent static of phone lines between Texas and Iraq; children act out their anger and loneliness by playing hooky from school, leaving a terrified mother to wander the neighborhoods family housing calling their names; wives endure the sickly-sweet platitudes offered by chaplains at the Family Readiness Group meetings; and, in one of the most startling stories ("Leave"), a soldier comes home from Iraq unannounced and breaks into his basement where he lives for a week, hoping to catch his wife having an affair.  If Fallon was merely an accurate chronicler of the military's domestic side, then You Know When the Men Are Gone would be little more than a literary curiosity to read and forget within a year's time.  Thankfully, this is fiction than transcends novelty as it explores the universal themes of love, jealousy, anger and loyalty.
Click here to read the full review

American Masculine
by Shann Ray
Graywolf Press
Here's yet another strong debut from a writer who knows his way around a short story.  Like his fellow Graywolf author Alan Heathcock, Shann Ray scrapes away the frills of language and goes all the way to the bone.  His tales are set in the American West--primarily Montana--and they are populated with tough men and tougher women, souls knotted hard by the blistering circumstances of domestic abuse and alcohol. Ray writes not to entertain with clever plots or pyrotechnic language; his intent is to blast our souls loose with simple tales built on old-fashioned morality.  Though the stories stop short of preaching and proselytizing, some readers might be put off by the uncompromising spiritual center to be found throughout the book, but that would be their loss if they walk away from American Masculine.   This is one of the more challenging set of short stories I've read in a long time--it pokes my conscience and gently leads me to self-examination.   Am I better man for reading American Masculine?   I don't know, but I do feel refreshed and invigorated.
Click here for the full review

The Last Werewolf
by Glen Duncan
Not everything I read this year was a deep, ponderous exploration of the human condition.  Sometimes I just wanted a kick-ass, sexy thrill ride about a 200-year-old werewolf.  Glen Duncan's novel The Last Werewolf was the ticket to that amusement park.  As the story opens, Jake Marlowe is given the news by his human "handler" that the only other known member of his monster-species has just been assassinated.  From there, we're off: dodging silver bullets and replacing ripped-at-the-seams clothing every full moon.  At times, the novel reads like an espionage thriller (complete with double agents and secret identities) from John Le Carre or Graham Greene, but sprinkled with a liberal dose of sex and violence.  It's a fun ride, yes, but it's also smart in ways that a certain other twilit novel could never be.  Duncan has crafted a novel that, like last year's The Passage, could transform paranormal literature for the better. The Last Werewolf goes deep and metaphysical with frequent references to Kierkegaard and Freud, but remains entertaining enough at the Stephen King level.
Click here to read the full review

We the Animals
by Justin Torres
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
This exhilarating debut novel also has some animals at its core.  In this case, however, they are the three wild boys of a Puerto Rican father and white mother living in upstate New York.  Narrated by the youngest of the brothers, We the Animals is written with the density of poetry and the intensity of a drug trip.  Structured in a series of short chapters, the novel plants us in the fragile bubble of a family who breaks and mends and breaks again.  The parents, volatile and in love, frequently fight ("they made thunder, stomping above us, chasing each other, tumbling furniture") and sometimes put their children in danger with risky behavior.  They aren't necessarily irresponsible, they're just tired and frazzled to a nub.  Of their mother, we're told: "She worked graveyard shifts at the brewery up the hill from our house, and sometimes she got confused.  She would wake randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning, half asleep, she'd be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, 'What is wrong with you boys?  I been calling and calling for dinner.'"  Torres' prose is so mesmerizing and addictive that by the time you reach the end of this short book, you may find yourself quoting the first line of the novel: "We wanted more."

Train Dreams
by Denis Johnson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Like We the Animals, Johnson's novel is short but potent.  Technically, it's a novella, but you'll come away from Train Dreams with a tingle-dizzy sensation, as if you've been reading the book for weeks, meeting memorable characters, wholly baptized in story, and floating through the pages like you were in a passenger car of a lightweight locomotive as it smokes across the rolling landscape.  Its main character is Robert Grainier, a day laborer working in the Idaho panhandle at the start of the 20th century and its central action is the consumption of his wife and infant daughter in a "feasting" forest conflagration, "a fire stronger than God."  Grief sets Grainier drifting across Idaho and Montana working odd jobs.  Johnson presents Grainier's biography in broad strokes that sometimes go off the canvas in Biblical panoramas of misery.  At only 116 pages, Train Dream's brush strokes might strike some readers as too sweeping and Grainier's story too rushed, but this is not intended to be a sprawling tale in a thick book designed to sprain your wrist; it's an epic written on a bullet that smacks you quick and hard between the eyes.  It's told in scenes written with the dynamism of billboards.
Click here for the full review

In This Light
by Melanie Rae Thon
Graywolf Press
You don’t read Melanie Rae Thon’s short stories so much as you experience them.  Her characters are junkies, vagrants, and castoffs; they’re lonely Vietnam vets, concentration camp survivors, and Civil War slaves; and for the space of 30 or 40 pages, they are you and you are them.  Once you start any story in this volume of new and previously-published works, you're immediately pulled into the current of her energetic and uncompromising language.  It's been said that Thon is among the most criminally-overlooked writers of our time.  I have to confess I was one of those guilty as charged....until this year when I read In This Light and found myself performing a series of self-administered kicks to my butt for waiting so long.  As I mentioned in my review, I felt like an unwashed sinner wandering into an evangelist’s revival tent at the height of his sermon, blasted by the heat of salvation.  The entire collection is coated in a style which is expressionistic and highly internalized.  Put simply, Thon’s stories exist on a different plane than most fiction you’ll read.  The language is breath and smoke, keenly tuned to matters of redemption and healing.  At the end of one story, I made a note in the margin: “These stories are prayers, petitions to God for understanding and clarity.”  If you've never read Thon before, may you all come to the light and discover what all the fuss is about.  And then start kicking yourself in the butt.
Click here for the full review

The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
Little, Brown
College baseball, sexual politics and Herman Melville sound like uneasy bedfellows, but in Chad Harbach's hands, they combine into one of the richest novels of the year.  Like the other buzz-hyped debut author of 2011, Tea Obreht, Harbach comes out of the starting gate at a full, confident gallop in this never-dull novel about Henry Skrimshander, the up-and-coming shortstop for Westish College's Harpooners.  The small school on the shores of Lake Michigan is famous for the discovery of some of Melville's unpublished papers.  The undergrad who found those papers, Guert Affenlight, is now Westish's president who is also tortured by lust for Owen Dunne, the Harpooners' Zen-like player (and Henry's roommate).  The Art of Fielding is populated with wonderfully-drawn, idiosyncratic characters--not a single one of them are given short shrift by Harbach.  I won't give away too much of the plot for fear of ruining the wonderful surprises to be found on these pages.  Suffice it to say that these are flawed characters who commit errors both on and off the field and spend a good portion of the book working out their emotional tangles.  The comparisons to Bernard Malamud's The Natural and John Irving's The World According to Garp are equally apt.  Harbach throws his words with an easy grace and wit, his fingers barely breaking a sweat as he makes the white-knuckle process of writing look effortless.

The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt
by Caroline Preston
Easily one of the most unique reading experiences I had all year, Preston's novel is told entirely through the pages of a young woman's scrapbook she kept during the 1920s.  The fictional Frankie Pratt saves relevant scraps of her life and pastes them in an album, giving us a window into the heady, champagne-bubble whirl of Jazz Age life.  Preston, an archivist and scrapbooker herself, lovingly reproduces pages which burst into life with actual keepsakes like postcards, sheet music, wine labels, playing cards, charm bracelets, gum wrappers, swatches of fabric, photographs and ads for freckle cream.  When we first meet her in 1920, the titular heroine is a spunky high school senior with worldly ambitions.  The first page of her scrapbook is headed with the paper label “The Girl Who Wants to Write.”  On the next page is a picture of her father’s old portable Corona typewriter (“Mice had chewed the case but it still works!”).  And from there, we’re off on a whirlwind tour of Frankie’s life as a blossoming woman which will take her to Greenwich Village, Paris, and straight into the heart of her readers.
Click here for the full review

Men in the Making
by Bruce Machart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
This is one of the last books I read in 2011 and it turned out to be one of the most wrenching (it's neck-and-neck with Heathcock's Volt as Gut-Gripper of the Year).  As he did in his debut novel The Wake of Forgiveness, Machart sets these short stories in the fertile land of Texas and populates them with hard-bit men who go all soft for women and babies (at least some of them do).  Here you'll find guys who work in lumber mills, hospital burn centers, refineries, and in one particularly memorable story ("What You're Walking Around Without"), the front seat of a car as a medical courier delivering body parts on his daily route.  In another stand-out story, "Among the Living Amidst the Trees," Machart writes: "These are rough-hewn and heavy men, men with calluses thick as rawhide, men who aren't afraid to keep something tender beneath their rib cages, and to expose it to the elements when occasion calls for it, no matter how it hurts."  Machart's style slips easily from the vernacular ("Teeth on him, he could eat corn on the cob through a picket fence") to achingly beautiful sensual details ("With the windows down, the forest smells akin to what you might get if you boiled Pine-Sol on the stovetop while roasting a sack of rain-soaked soil in the oven").  I was so moved by his fierce prose that, midway through reading Men in the Making, I posted an enthusiastic message on my Facebook Wall: "I can only read one story per day because they are like miniature razor blades bumping through my bloodstream. This is fiction that excoriates and scrubs the reader from the inside out."  Well now I've finished this sharp-edged collection and I'm still bleeding--in a good way.  I'll have a full and proper review of Men in the Making sometime in the near future, but for now I'm going around to everyone I see, my eyes sparking, my fingers grabbing their forearms, and insisting they do themselves a favor:  Buy.  This.  Book.

For what it's worth, here are the books I never got around to reading, which may or may not have made this list:

What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes
Crimes in Southern Indiana: Stories by Frank Bill
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean

These are just some of the many, many books I couldn't squeeze into my schedule.  I mention them because I think they're books you'll want to make time to read.

One more thing: here's a link to my favorite books of 2010.


  1. I liked We the Animals well enough. It's an impressive freshman effort. But it does have freshman effort written all over it. Mostly in the way it tries so hard, too hard, to make it more meaningful with those painfully awkward endings to some of the anecdotes.

    The example of the text you chose for the Lychack is enough for me to avoid the book like the plague. It just sound precious and contrived, to me.

    Do read The Sisters Brothers. It's quite fine (but, also, not perfect).

  2. I also loved Quiet Americans--I won it as a Friday Freebie!

  3. Dang! You sure know how to tempt a person. I think I need to read Volt most of all but there are some real temptations here.

    Agreed on 'We the Animals,' and 'The Tiger's Wife.' TTW also made my top 10 of 2011. 'The Sisters Brothers' is smart/funny. A fun romp though not sure why it was Booker nominated. I mean, it's a recommended read but not THAT good.

  4. What a unique and wonderful list. A few of these are already on my to-read list, but you've introduced me to a few others I will now explore. Thanks!

  5. I agree...great list. I only have 2 of these "We the Animals" and "American Masculine." Need to find a way to carve more reading time...

    Thanks David.

  6. Wow! Great list for my 2012 reading ideas. So pleased to see Quiet Americans on here as well as some new titles (new to me).

  7. Nice list. You've got both my favorites: William Lychack's The Architect of Flowers and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams.

    I'm looking forward to checking out some of the others.

  8. Love your list, David. I haven't read any of these books, but some are on my to-read pile. I'll disagree with one of your commentors and say that I thought The Sisters Brothers IS perfect. It tops my list for 2011.

  9. I've been wanting to read "The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt," but it got lost in the shuffle. Thanks for the reminder!

  10. I just finished "The Art of Fielding". Loved it. Spent most of the book wondering if you had read it and what you would have to say about it. I thought the relationship of Guert and Owen a little improbable. Most likely due to the fact that I have an athletic college aged son and NONE of his friends seem capable of sustaining the interest of anything other than a bubble-brained-bow-headed coed. I think I'll try Volt next.

  11. Laura, Glad to hear you like "Art of Fielding." You've got a real treat in store for you with VOLT. Just be prepared for the gritty and occasionally grim (though that's actually an endorsement in my book).

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