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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy reading!
“I read contemporary writers, and, since I'm writing nonfiction these days, I tend to read memoir. I also try to reread, pulling some Chekov, Flannery O'Connor or Virginia Woolf down from the shelf. My favorite book is usually the most recent book I've read, and the last book I read in 2011 was The Free World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) by David Bezmozgis, a surprise choice by a member of our small Jewish book group. None of us except the person who chose the novel had heard of Bezmozgis. Set in the summer of 1978, the novel tells the story of the Krasnansky family, Soviet Jews who have landed in Italy on their way to new lives in the West. What I love about the book is that Bezmozgis has managed to tell a multigenerational story in a small space, Rome where the family spends six months waiting for their visas. Rome for this family is a no man’s land, a strange and dangerous place where they deal with ruthless hustlers, dislocation, and nostalgia. The characters are unforgettable: Samuil, the old communist father; his two sons, Karl, a smart opportunist, and Alec, a playboy; Polina, Alec's wife, who married him in spite of her doubts. So often we read stories of before and after. This story of transition showed me a world I hadn't known existed. Just wonderful.”
Sandell Morse from York, Maine
“My favorite book of 2011 was ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010). I read the book in three days during a trip to Mexico over the summer, and I embodied the ‘could-not-put-it-down’ cliché. I brought the book with me to meals and read it while eating. I sat in a room by myself for hours with this book, ignoring the beach, the sun, and all human contact. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cancerous cells were taken from her without her knowledge in the 1950s. After her death, Lacks’s cells strangely multiplied indefinitely, becoming ‘immortal,’ and were subsequently used in groundbreaking scientific research around the world. Skloot interweaves Lacks's history with encounters with Lacks's surviving family members, science writing, explorations of ethics and racism, and Skloot's own personal experiences as a journalist trying to enter into the lives of a troubled and wary family. I was stunned both by the story itself and Skloot's expert and seamless craft; I felt personally invested in following Skloot on her obsessive and passionate journey toward discovering the truth about a woman whose story challenges us to think deeply about the ethical questions raised by science.”
Hila Ratzabi from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
"I have been a huge fan of Chris Bachelder for years, ever since happening upon a copy of his wonderful road trip epic Bear v. Shark (Scribner, 2002). U.S.! is both a post modern look at disintegrating socialist dreams as well a truly enjoyable parody of political thrillers.The plot loosely follows various characters in their attempts to physically revive Upton Sinclair from the dead, who then work with the zombie Sinclair to advance Utopian ideals. The concept of celebrity is applied to both the zombie Sinclair as well as a cast of assassins intent on gunning down the undead man. Sinclair's works, both the predeath real and postdeath hypothetical, are put on display through various postmodern prisms—like online reviews and transcripts from cable talk shows. However, Bachelder never falls prey to the folly of many writers employing pomo devices—his writing never seems contemptuous of his subjects or detached from his intent. He also manages to write a beautifully political novel without taking a blatant stance on either side. Bachelder is as introspective and reserved as he is brilliant and hilarious, and I will make a point to not wait too long before reading his latest, novel, Abbott Awaits (Louisiana State University Press, 2011)."
Jeff Davidson from Los Angeles, California
“I found Carol Shields’s Unless (Fourth Estate, 2002) at our local Friends of the Library used-book sale fund-raiser. I recognized Shields as the author of a novel I had really enjoyed back in the early nineties—The Stone Diaries (Viking, 1993). I knew anything written by her would be a treasure and I was not disappointed. A rush of storytelling, like a wave crashing upon an empty beach at dawn, suddenly the reader is pulled under and moving with the tide. What is more beautiful than a novel that finds a way to worship the process of writing as Shields’s does in the first chapter of Unless: ‘I thought I understood something of a novel’s architecture, the lovely slope of predicament, the tendrils of surface detail, the calculated curving upward into inevitability, yet allowing spells of incorrigibility, and then the ending, a corruption of cause and effect and the gathering together of all the characters into a framed operatic circle of consolation and ecstasy, backlit with fibre-optic gold, just for a moment on the second-to-last page, just for an atomic particle of time’? My mind drools, so in love with this language am I.”
Elaine Joy Lambert from Montoursville, Pennsylvania
“After a year of reading books that ranged from the all-time classics to the recently acclaimed, I was surprised to realize that the best book I read in 2011 was Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan (Spiegel & Grau, 2010), a book I was given as a gift and which I’d never heard of before. It was by no means the most intellectual or emotional book I read in the past year, but it was by far the most unique, engaging, and simply enjoyable novel I’ve read in a while. The Thieves of Manhattan is a literary novel disguised as a mystery-adventure, somewhat reminiscent of Motherless Brooklyn (Doubleday, 1999) by Jonathan Lethem, but with a voice all its own. Set in the literary world of New York City, the story revolves around young writers, old publishers, and a mysterious book at the center of it all. The novel explores the ideas of storytelling, of truth, and of identity, while keeping the reader guessing at what will happen next. As a writer, I definitely didn’t expect the book to have an impact on my own writing when I first started reading it. Yet, by the end of the novel, I felt that The Thieves of Manhattan had reminded me of something important as both a writer and a reader: Intelligent literature doesn’t have to be an intense meditation on the human condition; it can be funny, and colorful, and larger than life, and it can be incredibly entertaining.”
Jonathan Horowitz from Brooklyn, New York
"The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House, 2010) by David Mitchell was a volume I purchased on a whim. I had previously read Mitchell's 2004 novel Cloud Atlas (Random House) and was not very impressed by it, but the glowing review from Dave Eggers on the Thousand Autumns cover gave me a great deal of hope. I probably would have liked the book from the start if I had not read the cover copy, but burdened with this information, I found the book very hard to read initially. In fact, I stopped half way through. I had developed a great deal of compassion for the main character and the Japanese midwife he was attracted to. According to the back of the book, something terrible would happen, morally speaking, and I was concerned that I would find this upcoming twist unbelievable, or unbearable. However, after putting the book down for four months, I returned to it and found myself reading it compulsively. The twist I feared never came, the warning on the back was false. The book instead became more and more preoccupied with faith, a word not even mentioned on the back. Thousand Autumns has stayed with me in a way few modern books do, the names of characters bringing the same smile to my face as the names of old friends do. The writing is elegant, memorable, and strangely charming. The story is unlike any you would commonly encounter in contemporary literature."
Caitlin Thomson from New York, New York
“Victor Shklovsky in 1916 posited that one crucial function of art is estrangement, defamiliarization or making the commonplace strange again and that's just what Alice Notley has accomplished in Culture of One (Penguin Books, 2011) by inventing the compelling voice of Marie who lives in a dump in the desert and has to construct her life with the materials found there, the detritus and ephemera becoming her book of wisdom. These disposable texts, which swamp our collective imaginations, are very much a part of our shared culture of disregard, and Notley, as she has for decades, reorients our attention to the ‘robotic jewels [that] can be stroked or focused’ and the essential cri de coeur that just wants ‘to SEE, without brambles like you in front of me, / stressing me out.’ Blending a fragmentary narrative from the internal cognitive landscape of a wounded but perspicuous heroine who walks inside a lucent force and projects it too, Notley is an underrated treasure, an American living in Paris as the genuine inheritor of the Left Bank expatriate genius of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Gertrude Stein, and Chester Himes, and this latest book finds her at the top of her game.”
Ravi Shankar from New Haven, Connecticut
“My reading tends toward innovative fiction, especially fiction written by novelists unafraid of exploring the possibilities of language and style—those such as Nathanial Mackey, Percival Everett, Mary Caponegro, Joanna Scott, and Brian Evanson. When I discover authors whose work I admire, I try to find out whose work they admire, then track down their work and so on. I also tend to choose titles from publishers I respect (e.g., Dalkey Archive, New Directions, and Coffee House Press). Dave Kress’s Hush, published by MAMMOTH Books in 2010, which published my first novel back in 2002, is a fascinating work of sheer fiction that jigs in a kind of snake handler’s ecstasy at the dangerous four-way intersection of religion, language, sex, and…bowling. To spin his narrative, which is at once otherworldly and down to earth, Kress has produced a startling narrative voice in protagonist Reanne Mone, sole member of the Church of God the Silence and sporadic freshman at Bristol County Community College in fictional Awnry, Massachusetts. Mone’s is the voice of a young woman whose intelligence outreaches her vocabulary but who nonetheless crafts an outrageous, sexualized, hilarious, and highly personal bible out of her own harrowing circumstances. She does so with a charming fearlessness, and ants-in-the pants brio, and a philatelist’s attention to detail. To say the least, Kress’s uproarious blend of sex, slapstick, scripture, and semiotics gave me whiplash of the mind that had me, on reaching the final page, turning immediately back to the first.”
Ed Desautels from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“I stumbled across Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010) by David Shields in a quirky bookstore called Auntie’s in Spokane. In 2011 my reading habits tended toward nonfiction and genre bending works, and in Reality Hunger Shields presents a case for the melding of genres (fiction and nonfiction), questions who owns art, and discusses both through our rapidly changing digital landscape. What I found most striking is that he addresses these issues through a series of statement-fragments, some of which are lifted quotes from other writers, without the use of quotation marks. Reality Hunger should be required reading for anyone interested in genre blending and trying to make sense of what we mean by 'the truth.' When I read Shields’s book I felt as though he had transcribed my own cacophony of thoughts onto the page. And yet, seeing these words in type has done more to revolutionize my thoughts about my own writing than anything I've read in a long time.”
Anne Hays from New York, New York
"In 2011 my reading list included, as always, primarily poetry. A longtime admirer of Kevin Young’s work, I am excited to report on his latest offering—twenty years in the making, according to interviews—Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Knopf, 2011). Being familiar with the subject matter of the collection—the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship Amistad, which sailed first to Havana and then ended up in Connecticut where the mutineers were put on trial—and, as a writer interested in exploring the history of rebellion on the island of my own family’s birth, Saint Vincent, West Indies, I was curious to see how this poet-professor would approach the material in terms of craft. Young is nothing if not original in his technique (see: Jelly Roll; To Repel Ghosts, both published by Knopf in 2003 and 2005, respectively) and that originality and singular inventiveness is on full display in Ardency. The chronicle is composed of fragments of voices, translations, letters, and in the final section, a libretto that Young proposes might have been sung by the insurgency’s leader, Cinque. Perhaps one of the most important gifts a poet can provide is an open door to imagination and curiosity. For example, were the Mendi truly converted from their own faith to Christianity? (“And toward the east / like a letter,—unsealed / delivered /// we ride—“). Musings like this abound in this powerful and necessary work. It adds to the braid of our stories. It should be mandatory for every reader concerned with American history."
Lynne Thompson from Los Angeles, California