Lots of outstanding books were published in 2011—here are our favorites. Click a title link, where applicable, to jump to our full review of that book, or a page with more information. Find our favorite books from past years here.
Table of Contents
Pym is flat-out the funniest book I read this year. Mat Johnson turns Poe’s weirdest novel (actually, Poe’s only novel; but it’s weird as hell) on its head and mocks it to hilarious effect, all the while showing an unabashed love for the book and its writer.
An Office Space-style corporate drone takes a DNA test and discovers that he has some Inuit blood, which turns upside-down everything he thought he knew about himself. So of course he quits his job and travels to the very northern tip of Alaska, a place called Point Halcyon, to hunt whale on the frozen Chukchi Sea with a tribe that doesn’t really want him there (except for the mostly-blind pot-smoking former chief). Meanwhile, his wife stays home and contemplates engaging in a bit o’ melodramatic suburban adultery. Watch out for some very funny scenes set in an REI.
Luminarium is a darkly funny novel set in the weeks leading up to 9/11’s fifth anniversary. Fred Brounian has just lost his company and job, has moved in with his parents, and, while visiting his (maybe-) comatose brother in the hospital he signs up for one of those “scientific studies” you see advertised in train stations and college dorms. The study promises a non-religious spiritual awakening, a “Faith without ignorance.” By the end, it’ll be more than just Fred’s faith that is tested. (Cue foreshadowing music.)
Failed musician Nik Worth is writing his Chronicles, a compendium of newspaper clippings, interviews, and album reviews—all of them fake. Nik never hit it big as a musician, and neither did he ever take on the responsibilities of a mature adult (good for him); leaving his sister Denise to take care of him and their ill mother. Much of Stone Arabia is comprised of Denise’s Counterchronicles, her handwritten attempt to set the record straight. This is probably the best brother/sister novel I’ve ever read—though it’s about so much more than just sibling relationships.
Stories that bounce back and forth across the Texas/Mexico border, protagonists who are down on their luck and attempting to keep their severe demons at bay. There’s a Special Ed teacher who straps his mentally-disabled students into flak jackets to rob a bank; a father who considers tipping his deformed and obese son into a lake while fishing together; a group of dudes who slip into Mexico to buy cheap anti-psychotics, and to bury a severed foot under a banana tree. These stories are dark, funny, and relentless.
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt
Charlie and Eli Sisters are a pair of ruthless killers hired to track down a fugitive inventor in the old West. The brothers are not anti-heroes or vigilantes or freedom fighters. They do not conform to an unconventional moral code, they conform to no moral code at all. But they are not sociopaths and deWitt’s nuanced characterization of such men makes this novel great. It’s also fantastically well-written, and funny to boot.
Machine Man, by Max Barry
A thought-provoking, hilarious adventure-comedy about a socially stunted engineer named Charlie who accidentally cuts his leg off in a lab accident. He becomes frustrated with his limited prosthetic, so he builds himself a new one, a very good one, a prosthetic so good that he cuts his other leg off so he can have two. Things only get weirder from there, but Charlie’s pitch-perfect voice keeps the novel grounded in humanity.
Reamde, by Neal Stephenson
Neal Stephenson, over the years, has transitioned away from tight, stylish novels like Snow Crash, and toward sprawling, expansive everythingscapes, like Anathem, and, most recently, Reamde. This latest features virtual worlds, Chinese gold farmers, ransomware, gangsters, terrorists, and much more. While its writing is not Stephenson’s best, he’s good enough to make even this slightly flabby thriller a great novel, if also an exhausting one.
Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner
This novel in fragments covers the lives of three generations of the Popper family as they try (and fail) to hold on to love. It’s beautifully written, and while many of the brief chapters are tiny jewels, the artful gaps between them sometimes rob the larger narrative of its impact. If you like your reading material to ask a lot of you, this is your book. If you want lighter fare, this isn’t it. Orner, though, is one to watch.
The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco
Eco is one of the smartest and most talented novelists alive right now, and this book proves it. He combs recent (anti-Semitic) European history for real-life characters and uses them to help build an imperfect everyman, ultimately telling a more humanitarian story than you realize until the final pages.
The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides
Set in the early 1980s, this novel focuses on three characters just graduating from Brown University: Madeleine, an English major; Mitchell, a Religion major; and Leonard, a biologist. Manic depression and spiritual searching are other key themes, along with love and relationships.
The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell
The consistent, harrowing tone Woodrell manages to conjure and maintain in this collection of semi-linked stories is quite a feat. Definitely an author worth a look for short story fans.
Guadalajara, by Quim Monzó
This short collection of quirky post-modernist stories offers more surprise per square inch than any other book this year. This Catalan has got some serious writing chops—reminiscent of Barthelme—and these stories can hang with the best of them.
The Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma
A time traveling steampunk romp with H.G. Wells front and center? This book sounds awesome and does not disappoint. In the end, it’s nothing like you think it’s going to be—and that’s in part why it’s such a great novel.
Bullfighting, by Roddy Doyle
Thirteen poignant short stories about middle age set mainly in Ireland. Doyle’s ear for dialogue and his witty observations make these tales about men reacting to dying, to diminished vigor and the prospect of the “empty nest” both wise and entertaining.
Field Grey, by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther, former Berlin police detective during the rise of Nazism, returns to Germany after several post-war years in exile in South America and Cuba. In Field Grey, Gunther gets caught up in the morally ambiguous Cold War retribution between the Communists and the Fascists.
The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
This short, lyrical novel paints a picture of the Japanese “Picture Brides” of the early 20th century, girls who emigrated from Japan to the United States to marry other Japanese. The story goes up through the start of World War II and the internment camps to which the U.S. government sent Japanese-Americans.
The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman
A fascinating novel about two sisters at the end of the twentieth century during the dot-com boom and culminating at 9/11. Along the way, Goodman involves themes of Jewish mysticism, antiquarian book collecting, food and love.
Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch
A novel that swerves from coming-of-age to high-adventure to tragedy. Strung together by the wide-eyed narrator and Birch’s deft writing, this novel would be a shame to miss.
Us, Michael Kimball
A gutsy little book that begins as a step by step account of a husband’s life as it is remade by his spouse’s seizure. Kimball performs an incredible balancing act by switching between concurrent narratives, a difficult feat to pull of in any novel and especially impressive in one so short as this.
Townie, by Andre Dubus III
Townie is a disciplined, well-crafted memoir. And at it’s core, under many gut-wrenching, heavy layers, Townie is a heart-warming tale about a father and his son.
The Convert, by Deborah Baker
This is an unconventional biography about an enigmatic Jewish woman from New York who decides to convert to Islam and move to Pakistan. The book’s central figure, Maryam Jameelah, is a complex and troubled individual, who is increasingly idolized by radical Muslims. The Convert makes for a fascinating read and also highlights and questions the role of a biographer. Readers will be left with plenty to ponder.
How does a first responder, a Muslim-American EMT who died in one of the collapsing towers, get labeled a terrorist? Why must his mother suffer through those heinous allegations. Why must we detain a 16-year-old because of her religious head scarf? Now that Congress has decided it’s legal to indefinitely detain US Citizens, Patriot Acts is increasingly important. We were forced to make a choice between our freedom and our security. We chose security, and Patriot Acts shows us what we have ahead of us.
Forbidden Zone falls somewhere between a long magazine article and a short book. For lack of a better term, it’s a nonfiction novella published by the good folks over at Byliner. The book is Vollman’s account of his trip to Japan shortly after the Earthquake. It opens with a search for a Geiger counter, a scene which is at first humorous, but throughout the course of the book it becomes eye opening, and then extremely important.
Shivani is the guy who occasionally gets everyone all up in arms with his HuffPo posts like “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers,” but he’s not one of those easily-dismissible Internet attention seekers; Shivani clearly has strong, and genuine, emotions about literature. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says—and there’s no way you can—these pieces are insightful, passionate, and often razor-sharp and laugh-aloud funny.
Open-eyed Sneeze, by Jess Martin
Martin’s candor and wit mix together brilliantly in this satisfying little memoir. This is one of the best self-published books we’ve ever read.
You Are Not So Smart, by David McRaney
Freelance journalist David McRaney’s first book is part psychology survey, part self-help guide, and part humor column. Each of its 48 chapters details a different way in which our fallacious instincts deceive us. The result is a winning formula perfect for just about anybody who doesn’t have a psych degree.
At Dock’s End, Volume 2, by L.D. Brodsky
The second of three volumes of poems in which Brodsky, the modern day Thoreau, returns to his beloved lake in Wisconsin to observe nature throughout its spring and summer changes.
Collected Body, by Valzhyna Mort
Last year, I ended my “Best Poetry of 2010” post by looking to the future. I wanted to plug Valzhna’s Mort’s upcoming collection because I’d hear her read locally, and I just about fell in love with her. Now here’s the reminder I promised you: read Collected Body. It doesn’t disappoint. I could try to give you a thorough rundown of what makes this collection distinctive, but I don’t know that I could do a better job than L.A. Grove has already done at the California Journal of Poetics. Read the review here and then give Collected Body the attention it deserves.
Flies, by Michael Dickman
Michael Dickman’s second collection won this year’s James Laughlin Award for the best second book by an American poet. His verse is spare and often unnerving, leaving lines precariously balanced on the backs of single words. I found a lot of what I read in Flies funny, if darkly funny, without really being able to say what exactly it was I was laughing at, as if I were laughing just to break the tension in the room even though I was alone.
The Back Chamber, by Donald Hall
Stumbling across Donald Hall’s new collection felt like running into a favorite old teacher at the supermarket on a trip back home. I remember hearing Hall read when I was in high school and thinking for the first time that maybe it was possible for real live people to write poetry, too; that poetry wasn’t the sole province of the legendary dead I read about in my English classes. I still think of that as one of Hall’s greatest achievements: demonstrating the literary potential of every day. His simple diction and formal clarity continue to testify to the power of ordinary events so long as we are prepared to pay attention.
Come, Thief, by Jane Hirshfield
Not a poet I know much about, this collection came as a pleasant surprise. Come, Thief is Hirshfield’s seventh collection, the followup to After, which was shortlisted for the 2006 T.S. Eliot Prize. Hirshfield’s voice is commanding, moving the reader effortlessly through images and scenes that often appear at disjunctive, or sometimes seem to appear out of nowhere, but which inevitably yield some resonance, as if each poem produced an echo to fill the moment of silence that it created. Aphoristic and colored by Zen philosophy, Come, Thief invites long consideration of its smallest gestures.
Detective Comics #871-881, written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla
Tension and anxiety drive the story as much, if not more, than superhero action, and it all builds to a devastating climax. Snyder’s story has, for the moment, supplanted Grant Morrison’s as the new direction for the Bat-titles in the relaunched DCU—no small feat.
Secret Avengers #16, written by Warren Ellis, drawn by Jamie Mckelvie
Every issue of Ellis’s abbreviated run on Secret Avengers has been a model of brisk, economic storytelling, but nothing since this first issue has quite matched its energy and sense of spectacle. An outstanding single episode.
The Rocketeer Adventures #1-4, written and drawn by various creators
The quality of the talent who contributed to this anthology title make it a must-read, even if the Rocketeer isn’t your favorite character. Four issues of short, pulpy, awesome adventure stories.
Catwoman #1-3, written by Judd Winnick and drawn by Guillem March
Despite the now-famous scene of Batman and Catwoman consummating their love in-panel, this is one of the best titles out there. The indelible specter of Bat-coitus isn’t enough to mar what’s turning out to be a compelling, exquisitely rendered comic.
Daredevil #1-6, written by Mark Waid, drawn by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin
Though this is a new series featuring a character that’s been around for nearly 50 years, it isn’t a relaunch or a reinvention or a re-anything—it’s simply a veteran writer bringing exciting, dynamic concepts to a troubled, but beloved, property and knowing when to step back and let his artists discover new possibilities in the medium.
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
This 1000-page beast has a lot of great stuff going for it. If you like weird fiction, be sure to check it out.
The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman
Interesting, amusing, quintessential Klosterman. It won’t stay with you long, but it’s an engaging novel, and you can breeze through it quickly. Full review here (paywall).
The Devil all the Time, by Donald Ray Pollock
Like Klosterman’s, this one is entertaining but forgettable. Full review here.
Remember Ben Clayton, by Stephen Harrigan
Not my bag, but if you’re a fan of historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy Harrigan’s portrayal of a sculptor battling inner demons while on commission to build a statue for a grieving father of a WWI casualty.
Hellhound on His Trail, by Hampton Sides
This book reads like a thriller; it’s a fast paced, well constructed mystery. More importantly, it is a round portrait of King during his final days, and an only slightly less round portrait of King’s assassin (Ray’s motives remain still somewhat fuzzy, but hey, so do Hitler’s—some things will always remain a mystery.) Quite simply, this is a masterpiece.
Honorable Mentions—Graphic Novels
Xombi #1-6, written by John Rozum, drawn by Frazer Irving
Batman, Incorporated #1-8, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by various
The Red Wing #1-4, written by Jonathan Hickman, drawn by Nick Pitarra
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1-10, written by Nick Spencer, drawn by CAFU with guest spots by about a dozen legendary artists
The Homeland Directive, written by Robert Vendetti, drawn by Mike Huddleston
Late additions from 2010
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
One of our favorite books of the last few years, Skippy Dies is the perfect mix of smart and entertaining, and it turns out to have a lot to say. Think A Separate Peace meets The Goonies. It’s not a particularly difficult read, so almost all readers will find something to like.
The Dream of Perpetual Motion,
by Dexter Palmer
In an alternate-history twentieth century, mechanical men perform nearly all the jobs in a futuristic city. Their creator, genius (and possibly insane) inventor Prospero Taligent, has also created a real-life unicorn and a zeppelin which runs on a tiny perpetual motion engine that might not exist. Against this backdrop, debut novelist Dexter Palmer tells a witty, mesmerizing postmodern sci-fi story, rich with invention and depth. A must-read for any fan of sci-fi or postmodernism.
In a way, this novel is like a collage: McCarthy borrows freely from other texts, using work by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Maurice Blanchot and Jean Cocteau, among others, as direct inspiration for several key scenes, all organized around the principle of transmission: of messages, of ideas, and of life.