The List of Lists
It’s that time of year...when every publication is obliged to generate a "best of year” reading list. The New York Times weighed in with mostly predictable choices - The Art of Fielding, which TQO blogger Mark Rentfro wrote about here, Stephen King's new time portal novel 11/22/63, and Arguably, essays by the late Christopher Hitchens, whom the Times describes as an "intellectual omnivore." I was surprised to find Karen Russell's Swamplandia! - a spectacular book about an alligator theme park, that, um, I'll admit I purchased at Anthropologie. Incidentally, it's being turned into an HBO series.
Salon took a slightly different tack, instead asking writers to choose their favorite 2011 books; Jeffrey Eugenides chose The Empty Family, a collection of stories by Colm Toibin; Ann Patchett went with The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson, which delves into a family of performance artists; and Paula McLain, in turn choosing Patchett’s State of Wonder, about a research doctor in the Brazilian Amazon, sent on a mission to discover the mysterious circumstances of a friend’s “murky death.” Swamplandia! gets another mention here, chosen as Caitlin Horrock’s 2011 favorite.
Not to be outdone, The Atlantic also had their writers and editors share their favorite tomes, (not necessarily from 2011). Among the honorees were Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending; The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides , Open by Andre Agassi, and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (the winner of the Pulitzer).
The Guardian organized their 2011 list in a "best books for giving" series with helpful categories. Their fiction list included Goon Squad; also Barnes’s above-mentioned Booker winner, The Sense of an Ending, “a meditation on memory and regret slyly conveyed through the unreliable voice of a complacent man.” Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 made the list with its “cults, conspiracies and lost lovers aplenty in this vast labyrinth of a novel,” as did Roddy Doyle’s Bullfighting, “tales of deceptively ‘ordinary’ middle-aged men.” (As a book-gifter, I appreciated the vast array of categories; everything from music, art, science, psychology, quirky, stocking fillers, and biography.)
NPR's list also categorized helpfully, sorting titles into the best "book club books" and "bookseller picks." I was happy to see that the Publisher’s Weekly list included not only The Marriage Plot and State of Wonder, but also mentioned Tina Fey's Bossypants, a laugh out loud summer read of mine, and described Fey as “a celebrity who can write.” They also mentioned Robert Massie's Catherine the Great, Paul Hendrickson's Hemingway's Boat, and Christopher Hitchens “being himself” in his previously mentioned collection of essays, Arguably.
Taking a slightly different approach to end-of-year reading, Ploughshares listed winter reads, noting, “There are many different ways to respond to the weather that is bearing down on this part of the world. Alcohol is an old strategy; SAD lamps are a newer one. For our money, nothing beats books. Here is a wintry mix of our literary strategies for getting through the season.” They go on to list Dostoevsky, Bronte, Harper Lee, and local writer Dan Beachy Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary, among others. The Ploughshares list is my favorite, but if I was conducting an extremely unscientific popularity contest of my small sampling, I’d find the clear “winners” of the 2011 lists to be Goon Squad, Marriage Plot, Swamplandia, Arguably, State of Wonder, and The Sense of an Ending. But whether you follow these lists to the letter or use them as points of departure, they provide a nice jump-start to your holiday gifting.