Best Best-Books-of-2011 Lists
If you're the sort of avid reader who carries around a half-dozen novels and biographies on your iPhone to read in checkout lines (as I do), you've been looking forward to the perennial best-books lists as eagerly as college basketball fans wait for the NCAA tournament brackets to be released.
The lists are both a chance to spot some overlooked gems and to kvetch about what Philistines various critics and publications are for not giving the proper accolades to my particular favorite volumes.
Here are some of the must-read book lists of 2011, and (warning: spoiler alert!) a few of the surprise choices that they contain.
1. The Washington Post's best-books list, as usual, is stocked with enough weighty tomes about economics and history to fill any inside-the-Beltway policy wonk with glee. But the Post also mention Haruki Murakami's mind-bending novel 1Q84, combination sci-fi thriller and love story in which a young woman gradually slips into an alternate reality and a writer's life unravels as he becomes immersed in a peculiar ghostwriting project.
2. National Public Radio crowns The Pale King -- an unfinished novel by the late David Foster Wallace that was pieced together posthumously from the author's drafts and notes by editor Michael Pietsch -- as one of the year's 10 best novels. I'm always leery of these literary exhumations because there's no way to know how much -- if at all -- they actually resemble what the original author ultimately would have created. On the other hand, critics almost uniformly bowed down before The Pale King, so maybe it is an exception to my rule.
3. NBC's Today show opted for a curious stunt, inviting former President Bill Clinton to join actress Mindy Kaling from The Office in picking the year's best books for holiday gift-giving. Apparently aides didn't brief Clinton on the concept of picking books published in 2011 because his list included The Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, which was a bestseller in 167 AD. On the other hand, Clinton deftly managed to spin the Roman emperor's treatise on disciplined, dispassionate decision-making and ethics as a cautionary tale for voters in the 2012 presidential election. He also kept the common touch by expressing his enthusiasm for Kaling's choice of Tina Fey's Bossypants.
4. Publishers Weekly touts Ann Patchett's novel State of Wonder, which depicts the struggle between two female adversaries in the exotic setting of the Amazon rainforest; the book also made other lists. PW also offers two less-publicized but intriguing books: Alisa Bronsky's The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, the darkly humorous tale of an overbearing matriarch's struggle with her teenage daughter over the latter's out-of-wedlock son. I was also happy to see Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, the seventh novel in the "Albany cycle" by William Kennedy, who achieved his greatest fame several decades ago with Ironweed.
5. Salon once again offers a clever variation of the critic's list, inviting acclaimed authors -- including Jeffrey Eugenides, Ali Smith and Ann Patchett -- to each pick their choice for the year's best read. As you might expect, they come up with some wonderfully obscure choices. The one that caught my attention was African-American essayist and TV commentator Toure's choice of Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, a nonfiction memoir of the author's training for the U.S. Memory Championships. Toure admitted that he bought the book only because he mistook it for a novel by the author's more famous older brother, Jonathan Safran Foer. "My mistake was fortuitous -- it turned out to be a great book -- and serendipitous because it helped me with my memory," Toure says.
6. Kiger picks. Now that I've critiqued the critics, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my own choice for this year's best nonfiction book: Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs, a biography that provides a provocative, unvarnished psychological portrait of the master marketer and design maven who brought us the Mac and the iPhone. Beyond that, it's also a meditation in the fashion of the play Amadeus, on the perplexing synergy of genius and immaturity. Here's my SecondAct piece on the initial reaction to the book. Also, here's the SecondAct reading list for re-imagining retirement.
SecondAct asks: What was your favorite book of 2011? Please share your choices in the comments section below.
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