In Part I of my blog on my Favorite Fiction from 2011, I talked about some great reads by Chad Harbach, Adam Ross and Emma Donahue. There’s always so many great ones I miss (sorry to Eleanor Henderson, Karen Russell and others—but I did just start Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, which The New York Times named one of the top 5 fiction books of the year). Let’s continue with Part II of my list of the year’s best in fiction.
Paul Chowder has been asked to write an introduction to a new poetry anthology—and he can’t do it. He misses his girlfriend Roz (who left him because of his procrastinating, among other reasons), his house is falling apart, and his poems aren’t really being published anymore. Haverford College grad Nicholson Baker is a writer wonderfully out of the mainstream who writes slim novels with the pleasing contradiction of being very entertaining despite not a whole lot happening. In his novel Room Temperature, the entire novel takes place during the bottle feeding of an infant, Vox is a phone-sex conversation, U and I, a fan-like appreciation of John Updike, and The Fermata is about a man who can stop time and chooses to use that amazing ability to undress women. The Anthologist features what I thought was Baker’s most likeable protagonist yet, and it really is a love letter to poetry. I think The Anthologist also serves a lesson on why we like rhyme and poetry, the great poets in history, and a thoughtful meditation on how poetry affects our life.
What is with these Scandinavian writers and the great mysteries they write? Publication of The Snowman set off a fun, silly debate over who’s better, the late Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbo. Both are excellent. In The Snowman, Detective Harry Hole is drawn into a complex and grisly murder that looks like it might match a series of unsolved murders. Norway has never had a serial killer, so many around Hole are suspicious when he starts to link the crimes together. In so many murder mysteries, every character seems like a cut-out caricature, but not in this gritty and creepy thriller. I don’t read many mysteries, but I really enjoyed this one.
John Casey is best known for his wonderful novel Spartina which none other than the New York Times called “possibly the best American novel . . . since The Old Man and the Sea.”). In this follow-up, the focus is less on Dick Pierce (the main character in Spartina) and more on his daughter from his affair with Elsie, Rose. Casey’s novels (including the also-excellent The Half-Life of Happiness) have more to do with people than plot, and there sure isn’t much to criticize in the natural, estuary Rhode Island world Casey creates, or his lyrical writing. For me however, the characters that were so compelling in Spartina are a lot less interesting—and likeable–in Compass Rose. Still, I’m glad for Compass Rose, not just because we get to revisit the lives of these characters, but because it gives me an opportunity to recommend a truly great and unfairly underrated novel. Read Spartina today!
Another great first novel. The Imperfectionists follows the writers, editors and publishers of an international English language newspaper in Rome. Each of the main characters gets a chance to tell his or her story from their own point of view—I know that sounds like a bit of a gimmick, but it really works here. This novel is very funny and very sad, and the characters seem both crazy and completely real. The novel also deals with the chaos in trying to put out a paper, and how the Internet has changed newspapers forever. Fiction is so subjective, but I’ve yet to meet someone who read The Imperfectionists who hasn’t really liked it. One of my favorites of the year.
A Sense of an Ending
Fantastic. This is one of those slim, literary novels that packs more depth and narrative punch between its cover than a ponderous 800 page epic. Tony Webster and his school friends welcome the brilliant Adrian into their pseudo-cool group where they talk philosophy, smoke cigarettes, drink and vow to be friends forever–until things take a tragic change. The novel then picks up 40 years later with Tony, alone and living a quiet life of humdrum routines. A lot of wisdom and insight is squeezed into this novel, especially on the subject of the everyday, and how we all have our own version of the past that we can’t help but constantly edit and embellish. I’ve heard this novel accurately described as a “mystery of memory.” Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize and, along with Skippy Dies, my favorite novel of the year.
Want to read a 672 page novel about boys at a catholic prep school in Ireland? If you said no, you’re really going to miss out. The pacing is great, it’s both hilarious and heartbreaking, and it captures adolescence in all its wincing, cringing glory. Even though yes, Skippy dies (he’s actually a goner on the first few pages), the way the novel unfolds and builds back to that moment—especially once we learn about all the pain and drama surrounding his demise–makes his death all the more heartbreaking. This novel also smartly captures what it means to be a teenager today, where everything is available on the Internet, friends text instead of talk, etc. What I think I liked best about Skippy Dies is how Murray takes what seem like the most obvious stereotypes (the smart, fat kid; the pretty, rich girl; the shy student, the nerdy teacher; the psychotic bully;) and makes them into fully rounded, sympathetic characters without resorting to clichés or epiphanies. Skippy Dies isn’t the type of novel that gets the snooty literary awards and fawning press, but for pure storytelling and reading entertainment this was my favorite novel of the year.
That’s it for me, but please help add to this list. I’d love to hear what novels made your best-of list in 2011!