Best Books of 2011, Part 8: Nonfiction Edition

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]

Best Nonfiction of 2011

Townie, by Andre Dubus III

Because, holy shit, I wasn’t expecting this book to be what it was. Yeah, I knew it was going to be about a street-tough kid knocking heads around an old mill town, but I didn’t expect the introspection, the redemption. 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.

Read my full review here.

The Convert, by Deborah Baker

This is an unconventional biography about a Jewish woman from New York who decides to convert to Islam and move to Pakistan. Weirdly, I didn’t like it as much right after I read it as I do now, months later. This book got under my skin. The book’s central figure, Maryam Jameelah, is increasingly enigmatic. Her public life and writings have become a rallying point for radical Muslims, yet Maryam herself is a complex and troubled individual who shouldn’t be put on a pedestal. This book also highlights and questions the role of a biographer. Readers will be left with plenty to ponder.

Read my full review here.

Patriot Acts, edited by Alia Malek

This book’s subtitle—Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice—more than aptly describes its contents. The narratives are puzzling. How did these acts go unnoticed? How is it that we accept them? 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.

Into the Forbidden Zone, by William T. Vollman

I don’t know much about William T. Vollman, but I know that he has many dedicated (cultish?) fans. After reading this, I think I could perhaps become one of them. 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.

Late add from 2010

Hellhound on His Trail, by Hampton Sides

Hellhound on His Trail is an in-depth account of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the manhunt for the assassin, James Earl Ray. In the afterword, the book’s author, Hampton Sides, balks at those who have described his book as a thriller. Given the weight and historical significance of the crime detailed in the book’s pages, I can understand his hesitancy. But 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.) If Sides isn’t ok with “thriller,” perhaps he’s more comfortable with what I feel is a more apt description: Masterpiece.

Best Books of 2011: Part 7

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]

Pym, by Mat Johnson

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.

Poe, as we all know, was a big-time racist honky, and nowhere does he prove that more than in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Want me to boil that novel down to four words? Okay. White good, black bad.

It’s hard to reduce Pym to as brief a snippet, but here’s the shortest manageable version: a black literature professor discovers that Poe’s novel might in fact be nonfiction, so he joins an expedition to Antarctica to find Poe’s “Tsalalians,” a black-skinned, black-toothed tribe living in monoracial isolation. Instead, the crew is kidnapped and forced into slavery by 7’-tall albino snow creatures. Meanwhile, civilization on the other six continents is crumbling due to some sort of unidentified Armageddon. And so on.

Pym is captivating, exciting, very, very funny, and almost as bizarre as the novel it plays off of. You can see my full review here.
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Best Books of 2011: Part 6, Poetry Edition

All in all, 2011 was a pretty good year for poetry. Not only did a poet win this year’s Nobel Prize for literature (way to go Tomas Transtromer), not only did this year’s National Book Award for Poetry winner give an awesome acceptance speech (really well done, Nikky Finney), but a bunch of my favorite poets all published new books to boot, including Dean Young, Billy Collins, Adam Zagajewski, Stephen Dunn, and Derek Walcott.

Below, you’ll a find a few more reasons to celebrate some of the

Best New Poetry of 2011


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.

Best Books of 2011: Part 5, Comics Edition

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


The Third Annual Aaron Block Awards, Celebrating Excellence in the Comics I Read This Year, presented by Aaron Block


“Best Story Mostly Published In 2011” Award – Detective Comics #871-881, written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla

When Scott Snyder began his eleven issue run on Detective Comics towards the end of 2010 Grant Morrison was already waist deep in a multi-year Batman story in which he’d introduced Bruce Wayne’s maniac son, reinvented the Joker, and finally killed Wayne and introduced Dick Grayson, the first Robin, as his replacement. Even Morrison’s detractors had to admit he was steering DC’s Bat-books, and any title that wasn’t directly involved in his story felt like an also-ran. But from the first issue Snyder made a compelling case for Batman stories firmly set in, but stylistically and thematically distinct from, Morrison’s status-quo. Snyder grounded the character, replacing fantastic, supernatural villains with a more disturbingly ordinary evil – interwoven in Batman’s investigations is the story of Commissioner Gordon’s estranged son, James. Jr., who may or may not have committed some horrible acts as a child and has returned to Gotham with uncertain motives.

Tension and anxiety drive the story as much, if not more, than superhero action, and it all builds to a devastating climax. That same tension is due in no small part to the efforts of Snyder’s artists, Jock and Francesco Francavilla, each of whom develops one of the two storylines – Jock on the Batman thread, Francavilla on the Gordon thread – rather than alternating issues. Their styles are radically different, but both capture the dread and uncertainty that creeps into every scene.

Snyder rode the success of his work on Detective to become one of DC’s top writers, playing a key role in the recent relaunch. In fact, Snyder’s story has, for the moment, supplanted Morrison’s as the new direction for the Bat-titles in the relaunched DCU – no small feat.
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Best Books of 2011: Part 4

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

The brothers of the title are Charlie and Eli Sisters, a pair of ruthless hired killers tracking 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. This “revisionist Western” was well-received and shortlisted for the Booker Prize; it’s perfect for any Western or adventure fan with a tolerance for violence. (Full review)

Machine Man, by Max Barry

A thought-provoking absurdist adventure-comedy about a socially stunted engineer named Charlie Neumann 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. An outstanding read for anybody. (Full review)

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.(Full review)

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. (Full review)


You Are 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. (Full review)

Late addition from 2010

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. (Full review)

Best Books of 2011: Part 3

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


Best Books of 2011 (and one of late 2010)


Us, Michael Kimball

Us is a gutsy little book. Kimball’s 184 page novel begins as a step by step account of a husband’s life as it is remade by his spouse’s seizure. A quarter of the way through, Kimball presents a chapter in new voice, a plea from the comatose wife. Soon another voice is added, that of the couple’s grandson who is meticulously imagining his grandparents’ last days in order to understand the strength of their love. Although these storylines might have been hard to sustain alone, together they even each other out. Kimball performs an incredible balancing act by switching between these concurrent narratives, a difficult feat to pull of in any novel and especially impressive in one so short. [Read Mike’s review.]


The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

This hip western owes more to Quentin Tarantino than John Wayne. Brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters are two hired guns in the Gold Rush Era of American history contracted to snuff out a man in Oregon. Much of this books reads as a road novel, following the two unpredictable brothers as they blunder westward, where they meet the fantastic turn DeWitt has in store for them. By turns bleak and surreal, always darkly funny, this novel moves so quickly it practically reads itself. [Read Nico’s review.]


Jamrach’s Menagerie, by Carol Birch

Where The Sisters Brothers is a western road novel, Jamrach’s Menagerie is at turns a coming of age tale and a swashbuckling adventure. Birch’s novel follows Jaffy Brown, an orphan in Dickensian London who, in true Dickensian fashion, is rescued from his life of poverty (and the jaws of an escaped tiger) by a rich, benevolent stranger. Jaffy’s rescuer is the owner of a menagerie and exotic animal emporium, Mr. Charles Jamrach, a historical figure in nineteenth-century London. Sent on a long ocean voyage whose expressed purpose is both whaling and the capture of a dragon, the novel 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. [Read Mike’s review.]


Honorable Mention from 2010


C, by Tom McCarthy

McCarthy’s C begins at the turn of the twentieth century and ends in the inter-war period of WWI and WWII. The novel follows Serge Carrefax, tracing the full scope of his short life. McCarthy uses Freud’s Wolf Man as a model for Carrefax, who becomes his everyman, and the fun of this largely plotless novel is watching McCarthy deftly move Serge through the era’s touchstones. 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.

Best Books of 2011: Part 2

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


My Picks for the Best Books of 2011


The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

I was pretty late to the Eco party; this is just my second of his novels. It is excellent. He is one of the smartest and most talented novelists alive right now, and this book really demonstrates that. He combs recent (anti-Semitic) European history for real-life characters and then uses them to help build his imperfect everyman, ultimately telling a more humanitarian story than you realize until the final pages. Read my review here.


The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell

None of Woodrell’s stories are particularly great, but the consistent, harrowing tone he 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. Read my review here.


Guadalajara, by Quim Monzó

This short collection of quirky post-modernist stories really took me by surprise. This Catalan has got some serious writing chops–reminded me quite a bit of Barthelme–and these stories can hang with the best of them. Read my review here.


The Map of Time, by Felix J. Palma

A time traveling steampunk romp with H.G. Wells front and center? This book just sounds awesome. 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. Read my review here.


Open-eyed Sneeze, by Jess Martin

Martin’s candor and wit mix together brilliantly in this satisfying little memoir. I’m not kidding when I say this is one of the, if not the, best self-published books I’ve ever read. Read my review here.


Honorable Mentions


Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

This 2010 novel is my favorite book of the last few years. It’s 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 most all readers will find something to like. Read my review here.


1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

I’m not actually done with this book yet. So far it’s pretty good. Weird, but not in the way Murakami usually is. Still got six or seven hundred pages left, so I’ll save the verdict for now.

Best Books of 2011: Part 1

[As each year comes to a close, we ask our contributors to give us their picks of the best books that came out in the previous 12 months–and we let a few older ones slip in as honorable mentions. You can follow the entries through the rest of the year here, and check out the picks from 2009 and 2010 while you’re at it.]


Field Grey, by Philip Kerr.

The seventh volume in the noir series about Bernie Gunther, former Berlin police detective during the rise of Nazism, this novel finds Gunther returning to Germanyafter several post-war years in exile in South America and Cuba covered in the last two novels). In Field Grey Gunther is 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.


At Dock’s End: Poems of Lake Nebagamon, Volume Two, by L.D. Brodsky.

The second of three volumes of poems in which Brodsky, the modern day Thoreau, returns to his beloved lake inWisconsin to observe nature throughout its spring and summer changes.


The Cookbook Collector, by Allegra Goodman.

An intriguing novel about two sisters at theend of the twentieth century during the high tech boom and culminating in the September 11,2001 attack. The story takes place in California and Boston. Along the way, Goodman involves themes of Jewish mysticism, antiquarian book collecting, food and love.


The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Set in the early 1980’s, this novel focuses on three characters just graduating from Brown University: Madeleine, an English major; Mitchell, aReligion major; and Leonard, a Biologist. Manic depression and spiritual searching are other key themes, along with love and relationships.


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.