2011: The Year In Books

I will have written another book by the time you finish this sentence.

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At Ben’s place of employment (a bookstore), we have a running joke that if you missed the latest James Patterson novel, just wait three weeks for the next one. (We also have a running joke that James Patterson and James Caan are in fact the same person. Have you ever seen them together? No? Us either.)

So it seems only fitting that Mr. Patterson, who officially “wrote” eleven books in 2011, introduce our “Year in Books” post with his trademark door-kicking bravado. Brace yourself!

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“Killer” entertainment, get it?

As is usually the case, the majority of our favorite books this year were fiction. One technically came out in 2010: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The main character of Rachman’s book is an English language newspaper in Rome, with each chapter focussing on a different staff member at the paper. Rachman’s comic, bittersweet tone hints at a prevailing sense of decline; these characters are an endangered species in an era of shrinking profits and online journalism. Rachman instills them with honor even though they are on the verge of becoming extinct. “This room once contained all the world,” Rachman writes of a deserted newsroom. The Imperfectionists does likewise.

Before plunging ahead with the rest of the fiction, we’ll highlight the two non-fiction picks on our best-of-the-year list. And for the record, in case it needs to be stated, we have really in fact read all of these books. We promise.

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LITTLE PRINCES, Conor Grennan. We were surprised how much we liked Grennan’s account of volunteering at a Nepalese orphanage called the Little Princes Children’s Home. Surprised because it was billed as “inspirational,” a word we typically associate with the latest Mitch Albom book and therefore avoid like the plague. But Grennan’s story is genuinely uplifting without being melodramatic or schmaltzy. A three month volunteer stint turns into a full time calling after Grennan realizes that these orphans are anything but and travels into the remote mountain villages of the Himalayas to reunite them with their families. What’s most appealing about Grennan is that while his story is extraordinary he is unremarkable. Little Princes reminds us that virtue possesses no special skill, except sometimes stubbornness.

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THE DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC, Candace Millard. James Garfield probably got scant mention in your high school history class, and the worst thing that can be said about Millard’s The Destiny of the Republic is that it perhaps makes Garfield out to be a slightly more consequential figure than his tragically brief presidency allowed. The best thing that can be said about the book is that it is highly readable, even gripping popular history — the kind of story you read and think, “How did I never know about this moment in American history?” If you read and liked Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, this is better. Larson’s book is fine enough, but whereas Devil was a smattering of historical details that all occurred in the same time and place, Destiny is a masterful narrative where every seemingly disparate thread fits together by the end.

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And now on to the fiction. We’ll start with our favorite young adult book of 2011:

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN, Ransom Riggs. Ben may be slightly biased as he attended school with Ransom, but even if we didn’t know Mr. Riggs, Miss Peregrine (soon to be a movie) is the kind of offbeat read that imprints you with its strangeness and peculiar charm. If the creepy picture of the levitating girl on the cover didn’t tip you off, it won’t take long before you realize you’ve entered a world that makes the “Twilight Zone” look mundane. That Riggs can bridge the fantastic with the commonplace and do so in a way that feels completely fresh in the burgeoning field of “Strange YA Novels” bodes well for whatever he does next. (He’s already promised a sequel.)

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THE ILLUMINATION, Kevin Brockmeier. The Illumination starts with a simple premise — what if our pain expressed itself in light? — and spins it into a fantastical but grounded meditation on love and suffering. This conceit could easily devolve into a gimmick in the hands of a lesser writer, or played for easy sentimentality or blunt allegory. Brockmeier is craftier. It helps that he really knows how to write a sentence. The lives of his characters may ripple with pain, but in wrestling with that pain they escape superficiality. Brockmeier, to his great credit, does the same.

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FAITH, Jennifer Haigh. This is a tough one to recommend because of its subject matter — a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. Ben tried numerous times to put it in the hands of customers, but the second he revealed what it was about they thrust it back at him, as if the book itself was stained. So, please, just hear us out: Faith is a beautiful book that handles a delicate subject with grace. Haigh is less concerned with religious belief than the kind of feeling that holds a family together — or tears it apart. In less capable hands the subject matter would be the stuff of tabloid drama. Not with Haigh. She proves you can write a beautiful, redemptive story about an ugly subject.

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STATE OF WONDER, Ann Patchett. State of Wonder is Patchett’s play on Heart of Darkness, with a feminine twist: Her Kurtz is Dr. Anneck Swenson, a tough, compelling, single-minded force of nature  laboring deep in the Amazon jungle on a miracle drug that would extend a woman’s fertility into old age. Dr. Marina Singh is her ex-student who goes to the jungle in search of the remains and affects of a deceased colleague who worked with Swenson. Patchett is a skilled writer, and she does a masterful job painting the Amazon as “the beating heart of nowhere.” There are many surprises in store in State of Wonder, and she dispenses them patiently, all in good time.

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THE ART OF FIELDING, Chad Harbach. The jacket designer for The Art of Fielding was careful to convey baseball without saying baseball, for fear of scaring away potential readers who loathe the sport (a k a, women). However you feel about the sport should not keep you from The Art of Fielding, a college baseball book which may outwardly resemble a Jonathan Franzen novel but is superior in several ways, not least of which is the warmth and humor Harbach demonstrates towards his characters. They all go through miserable stretches, but Harbach’s touch is light and his writing both precise and expansive. He makes it a pleasure to read about people going through unpleasurable circumstances.

(Incidentally, James Patterson himself blurbed this book, saying, “Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is one of those rare novels — like Michael Chabon’s Mysteries of Pittsburgh or John Irving’s The World According to Garp – that seems to appear out of nowhere and then dazzles and bewitches and inspires until you nearly lose your breath from the enjoyment and satisfaction, as well as the unexpected news-blast that the novel is very much alive and well.” We can’t say we lost our breath, but maybe Patterson said this right after he kicked that door down.)

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And finally, our favorite book of 2011:

THE TIGER’S WIFE, Tea Obreht. Set in the war-torn Balkans, The Tiger’s Wife moves between multiple storylines and characters, central among them the narrator Natalia and her deceased grandfather, both physicians; a “deathless man” who haunts the narrative with his cheerful inability to pass on; and a tiger and the deaf-mute woman who shares an uncommon bond with it. The novel evokes the rhythms and language of an elaborate folk tale. Everything in the book — not just the people but the animals and the ravaged landscape itself — has a story to tell, and Obreht’s balance between myth and fact, superstition and reason, is consummate, belying her youth. (She is all of twenty-six years old.) The Tiger’s Wife is, above all else, a family saga, the story of those people who came before us and how their stories shape our own. We can’t wait to see what Obreht does next.

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Previous Best of Year in Books: 2008, 2009 and 2010.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “2011: The Year In Books

  1. I so, so, so, can’t wait to read Mrs. Peregrines. I might pass out just thinking about it.

  2. Emily Webster

    Any favorite picture books for 2011?

  3. voreblog

    Why yes. The favorites as voted by Sam would be Cat by Matthew Van Fleet (not technically a picture book, we know, but he’s seventeen months old); Where Is Tippy Toes? by Betsy Lewin; and I Love You Through And Through by Bernadette Rossetti-Shustak and Caroline Jayne Church. Also Good Night Gorilla by Peggy Rathman. Our personal selection would be The Man in the Moon by William Joyce, the first in the Guardians of Childhood series, which is awesome.

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