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To complement magazine contributor Joshua Bodwell’s Baker’s Dozen 2011, we're featuring, during the month of January, our readers recommendations of the best books they read in 2011. We've offered our own picks to start things off. Submit your favorite read of 2011, along with a few words about why you'd recommend it, to email@example.com. Happy reading!
“Two thousand eleven was a year of seismic change—I held my breath and leapt into self-employment, got a house, got a dog, and set foot in three separate countries (not including New Orleans at Mardi Gras, which, believe me, should also count). It was hard to find a second to read, and when I did, I seemed to gravitate toward novels preoccupied with place and class: Money (Viking, 1985) by Martin Amis, Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), Ship of Fools (Little, Brown, 1962) by Katherine Anne Porter. When I finally settled down toward the end of the year, I found myself craving something more expansive, a world to get lost in rather than observe. Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner, 1997)—a novel about contemporary art and baseball and garbage and the Internet and J. Edgar Hoover—is quintessentially American in its interests and its democracy, a welcome respite from my months spent in the drawing rooms of fiction. What stands out is DeLillo’s elliptical, inscrutable dialogue. When pitted against the novel’s more lyrical ruminations, it is the dialogue that comes out on top, monosyllabic and human. Though Underworld is vast and covers large swathes of the twentieth century, no period feels dated or out of place. The dialogue acts as a polarizing force, bringing all of the characters into equal focus. That skill, combined with DeLillo’s spookily accurate predictions about the Internet (it was 1997, remember), had me running back and forth to my notebook, eager to jot down a stray quote or observation. My personal favorite? “Om does not rhyme with bomb. It only looks that way.”
Sarah Almond from Durham, North Carolina
"In 1999 the noted Dutch historian Geert Mak, author of The Bridge (Vintage, 2009) and In Amsterdam (Atlas, 1995), set out to travel through Europe and take stock of the tumultuous century that was then just passing. His account, In Europe (Pantheon Books, 2007), is part travelogue, part history, and takes the unique approach of tying its historical and culture themes to specific European cities, cities that Mak returns to in recurring chapters at different times. So, for example, there is Berlin in 1914 at the delirious beginning of the war that was to have ended all wars, and Berlin in 1945, when the broken German survivors of the second war grappled with the horror of their crimes. There is the Berlin of 1929, the Berlin of ‘decadent’ Weimar and of Isherwood's Berlin Stories (later immortalized in Cabaret), inter-leavened with Red Petrograd and the Vienna of Freud. But alongside the expected (Budapest in 1956, Srebrenica in 1995), Mak throws in places such a Bielefeld: a small, prosperous Germany city that just so happens to have rare photographic evidence documenting the burning of Bielefeld's main synagogue during Kristallnacht—an invaluable, if chilling, refutation of those who would deny the truth of the Holocaust. Or he turns to the curious case of Lourdes in the fifties before traveling to Lisbon, never failing (even with the most well plowed of historical ground) to find aspects both interesting and profound. It may be that such a book can really only appeal to those committed Europhiles like myself. But one does not have to love, or even be interested in, the history of Europe in the twentieth century to find value in reading of Mak's peripatetic wanderings; the ecstasy and horror alike should be quite enough to hold your interest."
Paul Houseman from Madison, Wisconsin
“Though novels are what inspired me to want to be a writer—those of Salinger, Atwood, Nabokov, Winterson—I’ve spent most of my actual writing career publishing memoir and personal essays. Now that I’m knee deep into my first novel, though, I’ve been gorging on fiction again. In 2011 I loved Elissa Schappell’s Use Me (Harper Perennial, 2001), Kate Christensen’s The Astral (Doubleday, 2011), Helen Schulman’s This Beautiful Life (Harper, 2011), Eileen Myles’s Inferno, and Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia (Scribner, 2011). But the book that captured me most of all turned out to be a collection of personal essays. I've long been a fan of Jennifer Baumgardner's work as a writer, activist, and educator, but I especially love how accessible her writing is, and how she defies the reductive idea that writing about feminism need be academic—that feminist writing is sexless, humorless, and inflexibly intellectual. Baumgardner's latest work, F'em: Goo Goo, Gaga, and Some Thoughts on Balls (Seal Press, 2011), is the antithesis of this stereotype. Besides being rollicking fun, I also appreciate Baumgardner’s willingness to play with the genre of creative nonfiction. Between her funny, honest personal essays on middle-aged Riot Grrrls, breast-feeding, and bisexuality, she's tucked candid interviews with a number of my other favorite multidimensional, pop-fluent feminists, such as Kathleen Hanna, Debbie Stoller, Ani DiFranco, and Björk. As a writer, the book reminded me to be flexible in thinking about what a book (of any genre) need consist of; that it’s possible to be intellectual and playful in the same sentence; and that honesty is always the best, and most compelling, policy.”
Melissa Febos from Brooklyn, New York
“I read a lot of poetry in 2011 as I was working on my own collection, looking at other contemporary poets’ books to see how they make the poems work together, how the poems hold together, or fail to cohere, or purposely resist easy cohesion. Despite this analytic approach, of course I fell in love with poems and poets along the way. My favorite and perhaps the bravest book I read was Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's Love Cake (TSAR, 2011). First of all, it’s such a great title—it’s so evocative and also the name of a dessert from the poet’s father’s ancestral land, Sri Lanka. Samarasinha’s known to San Francisco and Toronto area audiences as a firebrand, a self-described ‘femme shark,’ a performance artist who’s just as likely to be at an Occupy protest as on stage. So the poems have that up-to-the-moment timely feeling, but also go back through the history of colonization and ancient roots—for example, there’s a prayer to Oshun that references earrings from H&M. (Right!?) Sometimes I find that performance poetry doesn't hold up on the page, but Samarasinha's really does. I adore the tight rhymes and deep passions and the way the poems move from grief and trauma to hot sex to a poignant image, so fast and smooth and gorgeous. These poems work across identities and oceans ‘to document, to sing / to remember, insist / to incite, to call: peace, peace.’”
Minal Hajratwala from San Francisco, California
"When it occurred to me I'd never read Wise Blood (Harcourt, Brace, 1952) by Flannery O'Connor, I felt I'd be missing something if I didn't. I'd read a book of her short stories and saw the movie Wise Blood long ago so perhaps I imagined I'd read it; though, I'd never knowingly substitute the movie for the book. As expected, it's an amazing read. A minor annoyance is wading through the dialect spellings she uses, but beyond that the book is a marvelous mix of clear writing and language with impenetrable yet vivid characters. Well, the characters are impenetrable at first, but also beautifully whole and unique—mysteries themselves that need solving. In Wise Blood O'Connor creates a world both of this world and apart from it. The book has taken root in my head in such a way that I couldn't think of another book to mention from the past year."
David Krancher from Cambridge, Massachusetts
“Last year was a big year for me. I birthed a baby (my second) and a book (my first). Unfortunately, reading for pleasure was a casualty of all this creative activity. I found time to read exactly four books last year. One was a book about how to put your baby to sleep; another was Tamar Adler’s phenomenal paean to better living through simple-yet-righteous eating, An Everlasting Meal (Scribner, 2011). The third was Chang-rae Lee’s epically sad, hard-to-forget-even-if-I-wanted-to war novel, The Surrendered (Riverhead Books, 2010), which I wept my way through during summer vacation. The fourth was Ann Patchett’s magnificent State of Wonder (HarperCollins, 2011). I’ve read every one of her novels, from The Magician’s Assistant (Harcourt Brace, 1998) to Bel Canto (HarperCollins, 2001), even Taft (Harper Perennial, 2003) and Run (Harper, 2007)—her only misfire, in my opinion. State of Wonder left me breathless and energized, anxious to get back to writing and nervous that I’ll never be as good a writer as she is. In it, an unlikely heroine—a scientist! approaching middle age!—embarks on a perilous journey to uncover the truth behind a colleague’s disappearance in the Amazonian delta. The narrative is richly populated with complex, interesting characters, including the emotionally repressed protagonist and her former mentor, who’s gone rogue on the pharmaceutical company they both work for and refuses to report on her progress in developing a miracle drug that will cure malaria. The story centers around these two morally compromised, deeply fallible, highly intelligent women. Patchett’s expansive imagination drops them into a story that includes a giant anaconda, cannibals, water snakes, a deaf indigenous boy, and tree bark which, when nibbled, will make a woman fertile forever. That’s some skillful storytelling right there. If my own prose strikes anything near the same exquisite balance between down-to-earth and lyrical, I’ll be ecstatic. State of Wonder made me glad to be a writer, and a mother—and glad that I didn’t squander my precious reading time on anything less.”
Amy Brill from Brooklyn, New York
“I had to read Honoré de Balzac’s A Distinguished Provincial at Paris for a grad school lit class. I was expecting it to be boring or inaccessible because a lot of my other favorite books this year, and in general—Emma Donoghue's Room (Little, Brown, 2010); Melinda Moustakis' Bear Down, Bear North (University of Georgia Press, 2011); and Tayari Jone's Silver Sparrow (Algonquin Books, 2011)—don't use elevated language and are narrated in the first person by characters who have strange voices and skewed perspectives. A Distinguished Provincial at Paris is certainly concerned with plot and character, but not half so much as it is concerned with being pithy. Every page of this book is crammed with aphorisms. Scarcely a paragraph in, Balzac has already attached a moral to Lucien and Mme. de Bargeton’s on again off again relationship, “A woman, whose nature is large as her heart is tender, can smile upon childishness, and make allowances; but let her have ever so small a spice of vanity herself, and she cannot forgive childishness or littleness, or vanity in her lover.” However, as the book progresses, it becomes clear that many of these aphorisms are laced with sarcasm and cynicism and are simultaneously deep and deeply shallow, wise and patronizing; eventually, they grow so loud that they fall on the exhausted reader’s deaf ears. Of course, it is precisely this tone that makes the writing so successful, since it makes the reader feel just as inconsequential and uniformed as Lucien feels when mixing with the Parisian upper class. It is as if the reader were also stumbling through the streets of Paris (or in my case, the streets of Manhattan), thinking he had figured a few things out only to realize, “You are somebody in your own country, in Paris you are nobody.” And Balzac is so good at giving long sentences movement and power that I felt encouraged to be less minimalist in my own writing. The book showed me that any perspective—whether it's that of a nineteenth-century writer in post-Napoleonic France or a little boy in the twenty-first century who's never left a room—can be exciting when the details are well observed and the themes timeless.”
Amy Gall from New York, New York
"I recommend Aracelis Girmay's Kingdom Animalia (BOA Editions, 2011). Girmay is a poet-friend, and my friend Carla provided the cover artwork, so I came by it naturally and eagerly awaited its release for some time. Still, I could not have anticipated the ways in which this book moved me. There is such honesty, clarity, and passion to these poems, soaring directly to the heart. Mid-book, I found myself rushing to old journals to discover poems in them—suddenly desperate to write my own truths as accurately as possible. What greater gift can a writer give than the wild urge to write?"
Maya Pindyck from Brooklyn, New York
“Every year, my reading list is split into two parts: books I read for myself, and books I read for my job. I work at the National Book Foundation, the nonprofit organization that presents the National Book Awards (NBA). Starting in mid-October, when we announce the year’s twenty finalists, I spend every spare moment reading the books that are up for the Awards. In 2010, one of the finalists in fiction was So Much for That (Harper, 2010) by Lionel Shriver—a dark, moving novel about a man who must abandon his dream of retiring to a remote Tanzanian island when he finds out his wife has cancer and needs him to stay at his job for the health insurance. It’s bold and bleak and upsetting, and I couldn’t put it down. So, in 2011, when I was again free to stray from the NBA list, I decided to pick up another book of Shriver’s. For no particular reason, I chose We Need to Talk About Kevin (Counterpoint, 2003), an epistolary novel told from the perspective of Eva, a woman who is essentially ostracized from life after her son, Kevin, brutally murders seven of his classmates, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker at his high school. In her letters to her estranged husband, Franklin, Eva discusses her reticence to have children in the first place, and her utter inability to connect with Kevin, beginning in pregnancy and continuing through to the present in her visits with him in prison. The narrative builds to the scene of Kevin’s heinous crime, which Shriver writes in excruciating detail. But just when you think you’ve read the worst of it, you discover she’s not through with you yet. You might be thinking, No thanks, that’s just not my thing, and I have to say, it’s not mine either. I don’t like horror. I don’t like blood and guts. The only Stephen King book I’ve read in the last fifteen years was his memoir, On Writing (Scribner, 2010). But there was something about We Need to Talk About Kevin that compelled me to, well, talk about it, constantly and to everyone I knew—except my pregnant friends, of course. Shriver is fearless and uncompromising; she doesn’t shy away from the darkest, most painful parts of life. But the novel isn’t a freak show either. It’s a provocative, expertly crafted, and at times beautiful story about the choices we make, those we don’t, and the people they collectively make us. I read a lot of other books in 2011, including the wonderful finalists for the National Book Awards, but I’m still thinking about We Need to Talk About Kevin, and it’s still influencing my own work as a writer. I strive to be as daring as Shriver, to worry less about who I’ll please and who I’ll offend, and to simply tell my story as it was meant to be told.”
Katie McDonough from Brooklyn, New York
“My reading habits this past year have been all over the map—a lot of nonfiction and fiction, mostly contemporary. I tend to choose what to read based on what I stumble upon through excerpts, National Public Radio, random finds via Kindle selections, that sort of thing. In doing so, I realized that the actual journey in finding something good to read is what I like best about reading. I came across Nothing to Envy (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) by Barbara Demick as I was randomly flipping through an old issue of the New Yorker (or was it the Paris Review—I can't remember); it contained an excerpt, which immediately caught my attention not in the least because I am Korean but also because the stories were so riveting. The book quickly became my favorite because it gives voice to so many North Koreans whose political status often takes focus. Most ‘outsiders’ have a gross curiosity about North Korea and its citizens (as seen recently in press coverage of the death of Kim Jong Il), and most Westerners assume it is a terrible place to live, which it is. But what I liked about Demick's book is that these stories show that the sadness isn't just in the suffering and deception, it's in the idea that even so, Korea is still home. It's similar to the idea that those in abusive relationships can still hold something akin to love for their abusers; it's not as simple as 'Oh, you have freedom now. Isn't that wonderful?' Demick's book showed me that there needs to be a certain respect for the fact that North Koreans aren't all just gullible lemmings, but they are bound to their homes as passionately as Americans are.”
Sylvia Lee from Baltimore, Maryland