Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Susan's Top 10 Books of 2011

Now, in a normal year, paring down a top 10 list is a torturous process for me.  This year, it was just ridiculous.  Oddly enough, in some ways, having to be so ruthless with the cuts made it easier.  What I've compiled below is a very idiosyncratic list.  I'll tell you right now, from an objective viewpoint, these are not necessarily the best books I read this year.  There were a lot of highly acclaimed novels that I read and loved that surely deserve to be on this list more.  A few examples:

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides was the 11th book on my short list.  I thought it was fantastic.  But it didn't effect me as strongly as some of theses others that I did choose. 

And I wrote a review of The Art of Fielding, the acclaimed novel by Chad Harbach, the other night.  I read the book months ago, but reflecting on the book in order to finally write the review, I realized more than ever how much I'd enjoyed reading it, and what an accomplished debut it is.

And I read Haruki Murakami's massive and impressive 1Q84 this year!  And I enjoyed it so much!  The language, especially, was just unbelievable.  I still want to carry the tome around and make people listen to me read from it.  But truthfully...  It was just a little too much work to make my top 10 list.

So, what did make the cut?  And how did I choose?  Well, simply put, these are the books that I felt that I had the strongest response to.  Perhaps I can explain that a little better in the notes that accompany each pick.  What you'll notice is that about half of these books are on every mainstream reviewers' list, and about half of them are on no one's.  That seems like a good balance to me.  But the single most interesting thing about this collection of titles?  Seven of the ten are debut novels.  Me and the NYT, we're simpatico, yo.  (And we are.  Three of their five fiction picks overlap my own.)

As is my tradition, only the #1 pick is ranked.  The rest are in no particular order.  And without stalling any further, here are my top ten books of 2011:

1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - I started hearing the buzz about this book months and months before it was published.  Months before the galley was in my hands.  And I believed it.  I passed it on, forcing other reviewing friends to read the title before I'd ever picked it up myself.  But when I finally did, wow.  Magic.  I've known that this would be my top pick of the year since I was about midway through the book, and when I've tried to explain how I feel about this book, I tell people, "This book didn't entertain me; it made me happier to be alive."  It's true.  You can tell me that it needed more character development, or that debut novelist Morgenstern is still learning her craft, but I don't care.  What an imagination!  What beauty!  It made me happier to be alive.  And that's not just rare in books, it's rare in almost everything.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline - Okay, this is the pick on my list that I'm most uncomfortable with, so I may as well get this over with first.  It's arguably insane to list this book rather than Eugenides, Harbach, Murakami, or any number of other serious literary novelists I read this year.  This debut is not a brilliant literary work.  But it is probably the most out and out fun I've had reading any book in years.  It's an homage to my formative years, and it was just a nostalgic blast!  Shoot me; I think reading should be fun.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - Okay, I'm regaining a semblance of literary street cred with this pick of this year's Man Booker Prize winner.  It will be no surprise that this novella is beautifully written, but what really elevated it above other major literary works I read this year was that kick in the stomach that the novella's end evinced.  Wow.  I did not see that coming.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell - I didn't love this debut novel when I started reading it.  It's told in three parts, and I had a fairly mixed reaction to part one.  It wasn't what I expected.  It was a lot sadder, for starters.  But things picked up a lot in part two.  By part three, you couldn't have pried the book from my hands.  by the end, I was won over completely by this quirky story full of humor and pathos.  It is truly unlike anything I've read in recent memory.  But more than anything, I loved the language, which was beautifully crafted and unexpected at every turn.  This book has been highly polarizing among readers, who seem to have a love it or hate it response.  Clearly I'm in the "love it" camp, but this won't be the only polarizing choice on my list.

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht - I'm right on the bandwagon with this one.  Early in the year, this became one of the most acclaimed debut novels in recent memory, and the young author something of a wunderkind.  All hype aside, I thought this was a gorgeous, beautifully-written book.  Unlike some readers I know, I'm not turned off by a little magical realism.  In fact, in my book it's a plus.

I'll Never Get Out of this World Alive by Steve Earle - I was not familiar with Renaissance man Steve Earle in his incarnations as a musician, playwright, political activist, or actor.  And the description of this novel's plot--dealing as it does with junkies, dealers, prostitutes, and the ghost of Hank Williams on a Texas Skid Row in the early 60--was distinctly weird and unappealing.  I'm pretty sure I only picked it up because it was so short.  Well, thank goodness I'm lazy!  This was surely the surprise of the year.  It was heart-warming, bittersweet, and uplifting.  I loved it.

The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard - This was another short debut novel to which I brought absolutely no expectations.  It was also a book I read in the first week of the new year, in a single day.  This is what I remember most about the experience of reading it:  By the time I finished, I felt like I was going to jump out of my skin if I couldn't discuss it with someone--immediately!  (This is a very rare response.  And a problem; the novel had not yet been published.)  This book has been compared to Eugenides' debut, The Virgin Suicides, and it is likely that had I read that novel, this one would not have affected me so powerfully.  But I haven't, and it did.  I thought the strange first person plural voice and structure of the novel was fascinating, effective, and beautiful.

11/22/63 by Stephen King - As I wrote in my review of this book, it's amazing and awesome that Mr. King is still finding inventive ways to tell new stories at this stage of his career.  This was just great storytelling pure entertainment.  And there are few authors as adept at character development.  All of his characters wind up feeling like friends--especially when you spend nearly 900 pages with them.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett - Two of my favorite literary genres are thrillers and literary fiction.  It is incredibly rare to find the two blended in the manner that Ann Patchett did with this book.  Really, this was like my dream novel, and unlike some others, I thought she did an amazing job pulling it off.

The Submission by Amy Waldman - This one sneaked up on me.  If you had asked me at the time I read it, I would not have expected it to make my top 10 list.  This is one of the most provocative novels I've read in years.  It made me angry.  It was totally fictional, but so realistically (and yet still somehow satirically) depicted that I fumed for weeks over an imaginary situation.  This one is really going to stick with me for a long time, and that counts for something.

So, for better or worse, those were my top 10 for 2011.  Agree?  Disagree?  Feel like sharing your own list?  I'd love to get the year started with a good discussion!


  1. I almost had Ready Player One on my list this year but it did't make the final cut. I'm currently reading 11/22/63 and am really enjoying it, so maybe it'll be on 2012's list. My 2011 list is posted on my blog, check it out and let me know if you think I'm up in the night on any of my picks.


  2. Hey Sean,

    That's a pretty excellent list you've put together!

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with your #1 pick. I loved that book, primarily for the imagery, the evocative language, that captured my imagination. Ready Player One is also a favorite of mine. The only other book on your list that I attempted is Swamplandia!, which I guess I should give another go. I don't think I got beyond Part 1, but I can't remember.