Message in a Bottle
Best Of 2011

Those who subscribe to our email newsletter already know that the biggest awards of the year have just been handed out, the equal of the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Tonys put together. We’re speaking, of course, about the prizes for appearing on our list of the best books of 2011. Weighty gold statuettes depicting a book-holding castaway on a desert island, colloquially known as Rogers, are on their way to the winners now, along with the customarily exorbitant honoraria. 

Closer to the opposite is true, of course. We put a list like this together every year, and if there’s one concept always in mind, it’s that it doesn’t mean very much. It’s impossible to rank any kind of art, literature included, in terms of objective quality, for one thing. Even more significantly, it’s impossible for anyone to keep up with everything that’s published in a calendar year, even avid readers like us. Who knows what wonderful books escaped our attention in 2011? Knowledgeable as we are, we do like to remind people that we’re not authority figures or cultural gatekeepers. When we make recommendations, think of us not as drill-sergeant principals wearing severe suits with power ties, but as friendly, sweater-clad guidance counselors in argyle socks. All that said, it’s fun and even useful to look back at the year and choose some outstanding titles to feature. So much so, that I’m taking a further step and highlighting the highlights here.

Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife is the kind of book it’s a pleasure to promote. The author has described it as “a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.” It’s a delicately balanced mix, juxtaposing the hard-hitting truths of urban life against the myths and superstitions of family and village history. It’s a richly-written, assured, ambitious novel that’s all the more impressive when you consider that Obreht was born in Belgrade as recently as 1985 and came to the US at the age of twelve. Shades of Nabokov and Joseph Conrad. I’d like to resent this upstart whippersnapper’s success, but the book is just too good for that.

Moonwalking with Einstein is another debut work that I was glad to stumble on before the hype machine got hold of it. At a glance it seemed like a wacky, disposable thing, almost an overgrown magazine article, but the title was enough to get me to open the advance copy I’d been sent, and within a few pages I was hooked. I subsequently learned that Joshua Foer had taken home a substantial advance and the book was getting a major push from its publisher, and after finishing it I could see why. Recounting Foer’s involvement with the U.S. Memory Championships, it’s an extremely engaging and amusing memoir that’s also remarkably informative. He refers to the book as an example of participatory journalism, but it’s a model of popular science and history writing, too. This level of talent seems to run in his family.

Both of the above titles have enjoyed considerable publicity, but flying slightly below the radar we find Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. We’ve blogged about this one previously, so I won’t say more about it now except that it’s the kind of story we love—I’m talking both about the story the book tells and about the story behind the book’s (re-)publication. Without dedicated readers who didn’t honestly love it, Tony and Susan wouldn’t be around to appear on our list at all.

There’s more to say about every book on the list, really, but I don’t want to take up too much of the time you could be spending reading them. I’ll just throw in some honorable mentions, first to Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams for accomplishing so much in so little space, and then to Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve for making Roman-era philosophy and Renaissance-era handwriting so fascinating, and finally to Ken Jennings’s Maphead for having the cutest dust jacket photo of 2011. 

—James

PNBA Shortlist Announced

The Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA), if you didn’t already know, is a consortium of bookstores from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and of course, Washington. The association does many things to promote free speech, literacy, and independent bookselling, but it’s probably best known for recognizing the best books published each year, both fiction and non-fiction, by Northwest authors. Nominations (hundreds of them) are solicited from member stores (like us) and then winnowed to a shortlist (of a dozen) before a final deliberation is made in December and the awards (as many as six in total) are handed out in January. 

    

We’re partway through the process, and this year’s shortlist has been released. It’s a pretty eclectic bunch, including novels, poetry, natural history, memoir, comics, and young adult fiction. Kudos are due to all the authors below:

We don’t have a particular rooting interest, but we’ve previously blogged about at least a couple of these, Maphead and Ed King, and we’ve featured more on our website, including Reamde and West of Here, so we can at least say we were ahead of the curve if any of those books takes a prize. Stay tuned for the results in early 2012.

James

Celebrinerd! (His Term, Not Mine)

While riding the ferry the other day—and by the way, can we bring a route back to Mercer Island? It’s much nicer than the freeway—I had a star sighting. Not a magnitude 1 Clooney/Oprah kind of thing, but at least magnitude 5, still quite visible to the naked eye. It was Ken Jennings, someone you may remember for his record-breaking run on Jeopardy. He’s still the biggest money winner in American game show history, thanks to some subsequent appearances on a variety of programs. I suppose he’s a reality TV star, in effect, although he doesn’t seem like one because he has actual talent and accomplishments.

Jennings has gone on to prove that he’s more than the celebrinerd he seemed when he first came to the public eye. He’s an active blogger and the author of three books. One, not surprisingly, is an outsized collection of trivia questions, and another is Brainiac, which relates some of his own quiz show experiences and goes on to relate the wider world of college quiz bowls, local trivia challenges, and more. On the page, he’s an extremely engaging guy with a snarky sense of humor.

His latest is Maphead, about all things cartographic. It’s not just a collection of fun facts, although it’s chock full of those as well:

  • Atlases are named from Atlas from Greek myth–but not the Titan who held the sky on his shoulders. They were named for another Atlas, a mythical king said to have made the first globe.
  • Right after opening Google Earth, zoom in as close as you can–you’ll arrive at a nondescript apartment building in Lawrence, Kansas. It’s a secret tribute to Google VP Brian McClendon, who grew up in that building.
  • The first surveyed map of France took over a century to finish, and proved that France was much smaller than it had usually been drawn. “Your work has cost me a large part of my state!” King Louis XIV raged to his mapmakers.
  • Even today, maps aren’t perfect. A mythical African range called the Mountains of Kong was still appearing in Goode’s World Atlas as late as the 1990s.
  • The first “Earth sandwich” was completed in May 2006, when one team in Spain laid a half-baguette on the ground at the same time as another team laid another piece of bread at the exact opposite point on the Earth’s surface, in New Zealand.
  • Map geeks believe that 1010th Street west of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is America’s highest-numbered city street.
  • The official 1978 state map of Michigan featured two non-existent towns called “Goblu” and “Beatosu.” The cartographer was a Michigan grad cheering on his beloved Wolverines: “Go Blue! Beat OSU!”
  • Bir Tawil, Africa, is one of the last bits of unclaimed land on Earth. It lies between Egypt and Sudan, but neither nation claims it—by treaty, if either did so, it would lose its claim on another, better piece of disputed land.

All this info and much more is seamlessly woven into the story of Jennings’s own lifetime love affair with maps. He proves he’s not alone in this obsession as he visits with the precocious contestants at the National Geographic Bee, investigates the imaginary landscapes created for fantasy novels, and tracks GPS satellites in orbit. There are any number of books about how apparently insignificant things have changed history, but maps are history, so no one should need convincing about the importance of his subject. The real attraction of the book is how much fun it is to read. It may have the most adorable author photo in print, too.

I extracted a promise from Ken—I can call him by his first name now, right?—that the next time he swung through Mercer Island he’d drop by and sign his book, so when you’re here to corroborate the cuteness of his picture, you might find an autographed copy.

James

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