Our list of the best books of 2011 includes twenty titles, half non-fiction and half fiction, but there were at least twice as many that got a mention when we were hashing out the final results. In the headline above I referred to them as near misses, but it’s probably more accurate to say that those books didn’t miss what they were aiming at, we just moved the target. As we keep pointing out, the list is inherently arbitrary and at a different time under different circumstances, any of the also-rans might have appeared on the medal stand. They’re the equals of our so-called winners, they just didn’t fit what we were thinking of as “The Best of 2011” that day.
For example, Embassytown by China Miéville is an outstanding book by any measure. Set on an alien planet inhabited by a bizarre, insectoid species, it’s solidly in the science fiction camp, but will defy many people’s expectation of what that means. Miéville’s always been known to string sentences together in a more sophisticated manner than the stereotypical raygun and rocketship author, but in his latest novel language itself is the focus. The aforementioned multi-mouthed alien race speaks an unfathomable tongue in which their words are more than just signs for other things, they’re in a sense the things themselves. So literal they cannot lie, for these aliens a concept must exist in the real world before it can be uttered. The human protagonist of Embassytown has to become a living figure of speech by enacting a strange ritual so that they can employ her as a metaphor of sorts. She is “the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given to her.” And that’s just the beginning of a lyrical, richly philosophical work that doesn’t neglect the pure fun of a carefully-drawn fantasy world or an action-filled plot. Wonderful as the book is, in the end we decided its appeal wasn’t quite broad enough to warrant a “best-of” slot.
Similarly, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Chris Boucher (not to be confused with the hippieish 1969 repair manual of the same name) is a stellar piece of fiction, but it’s definitely an acquired taste. A paperback original by a 21st-century Richard Brautigan, it partly takes the form of an automotive guide, but it’s really about parenting, loss, confusion, and love. The single dad at the heart of the story just happens to be the father of a 1971 Beetle, and the son of a man felled by a Heart Attack Tree. It’s a strange setup, to be sure, but if you give yourself over to the rhythm and creative vocabulary of the book, you’ll feel tremendous emotion behind the quirky novelty. After a chapter or two, a universe where a child’s sufferoil needs constant changing and the clocks measure dollars instead of hours won’t seem strange at all.
A far more traditional novel fell off the list only because not enough of us were yet familiar with it. 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson takes place after World War II as a woman and her child travel from Poland to England to be reunited with their husband and father, but despite their determination to make a fresh start, the past threatens to destroy their dreams. Infidelity, the horrors of war, and even deeper secrets come into play before all is said and done. Miriam sums it up: “Hodgkinson’s poetic voice is impossible to forget, and the shocking and hopeful ending of her remarkable historical novel will leave readers reeling—and satisfied.” Given this strong support, it’s clear that the book didn’t fail to make the list, we failed the book.
It was largely length that cost We the Animals a place in the winner’s circle. Justin Torres tells his story in the collective voice of three high-energy brothers, sons of a Puerto Rican father and a white mother living in Brooklyn. It’s an intense and beautiful depiction of childhood and beyond, and it’s so tautly written that it needs less than 150 pages to pack a real wallop. But with one novella-sized book on the list, Train Dreams, Roger decided that we didn’t need another, even though he was probably Torres’s biggest fan.
I haven’t even touched on the non-fiction side of things yet, and that’s another oversight. See how we prove our fallibility over and over again? We don’t mind our mistakes being pointed out to us, so do let us know what other books were your personal bests of 2011.