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.