Category Archives: Best Books 2011

PW Best Books of 2011 Readers’ Poll

Craig Morgan Teicher -- November 7th, 2011

We’ve just released our Best Books of 2011, the 100 adult and 40 children’s titles of 2011 we think everyone should read.  Now we want to know what you think.  Vote on which of our top 10 picks is your favorite in the poll below, or write in your favorite 2011 book.  We’ll announce the winning book in an upcoming issue of PW!

PW Best Books 2011: The Call by Yannick Murphy

Mark Rotella -- November 4th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Twenty years ago, a friend handed me a collection of short stories called Stories in Another Language by Yannick Murphy. Her voice was spare and taut, and her themes were largely family and death, as I recall. It was a slim book, but the stories resonated beyond the pages.

The Call (Harper Perennial), Yannick Murphy’s newest novel, is also slim, spare, uniquely structured—and absolutely beautiful.

The novel begins:

Call: A cow with her dead calf half-born.
Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.
Result: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs, and torso still inside the mother.
Thoughts on drive home while passing red and gold leaves on maple trees: Is there a nicer place to live?
What children said to me  when I got home: Hi, Pop.
What the wife cooked for dinner: Something mixed up.

Your average day for the New England farm veterinarian, David. Murphy (she lives in Vermont and her husband is a veterinarian) utilizes this call-and-response conceit throughout. The “call” is often a farmer in need of veterinarian help, though sometimes, it’s an event, a hang up, or even a “spaceman.”

Yet tension builds, and the seemingly mundane takes on greater significance.

On the first day of hunting season, David takes his son Sam out the woods behind the house, there they each climb into a tree and perch on hunting stands waiting for deer.

Call: My son. I can’t get to him fast enough. He has fallen from the wooden tree stand on our property.

Sam has been shot by another hunter, who apparently mistook him for prey. David drives him to the hospital where he lies in a coma for weeks. During this time David continues to take calls, eat dinners with his wife and two daughters as they await a call from the hospital with any kind of news of Sam’s recovery. And with each visit to a farm, David tries to find the hunter who shot his son.

But then he receives a totally unexpected “call,” that will forces him to make a decision that will change his life.

It’s as if for Murphy, the world sends out a call, but it’s how we respond that defines who we are.

Best Books 2011: Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman

Jessamine Chan -- November 2nd, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

I suspect that the term “page-turner” doesn’t usually appear in reviews of Lynne Tillman’s story collection Someday This Will Be Funny (Red Lemonade), but I’ll go out on a limb and call it one. I’m new to Tillman’s fiction, and having eagerly read the book while standing on packed trains during rush hour, trying not to stab my fellow commuters with my pencil, I can testify to her ability to hold the attention of an otherwise distracted reader. How does Tillman, author of five novels and three story collections, do this, considering that these 21 stories offer little in the way of plot, that narrative element which keeps us such good company in transit?

Take the first paragraph of “The Shadow of a Doubt: “Imperfect knowledge accompanied him across the field to a big tent. It was strange, it was just like the tent Thomas dreamed about the night before, with green and white stripes and billowing white flaps spread wide like labia. Inside the tent, a three-piece band played “All of Me,” a beguiling smell of gardenias insinuated itself, and five veiled women, their naked fleshy bellies curling and uncurling—maybe the gypsy women from a small circus in southern Turkey—waved and pointed behind him, and there she was, Grace, his love, embracing him, lustily biting his lips. You’re eating me up alive, he dream-talked, and everything was right in the world, until he awoke.”

Given that the story is about a man, Thomas, attending the wedding of his former beloved, Grace (a banal, romantic comedy premise), Tillman’s ability to begin in a place of enchantment and keep us there deserves high praise. In the rest of the collection, she playfully tweaks politics (“Give Us Some Dirt,” which delves into the mind of Clarence Thomas), and popular culture (“Later,” in which Marvin Gaye goes to the Dakota to collaborate with John Lennon). She writes a letter to a novelist named Ollie, chastising him for his fictional rendering of her, and signs it “Lynne Tillman, New York, New York.” She takes each character’s logic system to its furthest potential, such as the woman in “More Sex,” who sets a timer to force herself to think about sex every seven minutes (to mimic the sexual thoughts of men), only to realize that thinking about sex that often is more challenging, and requires more imagination, than she assumed.

Tillman’s prose is as natural as everyday speech, but the rhythm of each sentence suggests poetry. In “That’s How Wrong My Love Is,” the narrator, who has been reflecting on a pair of mourning doves across the street, says: “My greatest and most enduring problems in life are ethical, but living ethically is necessarily a conscious endeavor, the unconscious is not ethical, and questions and riddles about correct behavior are endless in variation, new issues coming along all the time—stalking on the Internet, for example.” Tillman’s characters think the thoughts you or I would want to think, if this was our mind’s best, most playful and curious day. That such a mind may only be Tillman’s is entirely possible, but one dares to dream.

However, many writers give us beautiful, intelligent sentences. What sets Tillman apart, and what kept me reading, thoroughly charmed, is her sense of humor, especially her depictions of romance and sex. In “The Subsitute,” Helen is obsessed with her therapist, but dallying with Rex: “They flirted, she and Rex, the new, new man with a dog’s name. Did it matter what he looked like naked?…Looking at him staring out the window, as if he were thinking of things other than her, she started a sentence, the let the next word slide back into her mouth like a sucking candy. Rex held his breath. She blushed. This was really too precious to consummate.”

Does a reader really need plot with sentences as revealing, humane, and funny as these? I think not, and I will now happily seek out her other books, while encouraging you to read this one.

PW Best Books 2011: I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

John A. Sellers -- November 1st, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

During the painstaking, often painful process of narrowing down Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Books of 2011, I couldn’t help but notice a “less is more” trend among our selections, especially with regard to picture books. You’re not going to get any more hints from me about what books we picked—all will be revealed in next Monday’s issue—but I can’t think of a book this year that embodies this idea better than Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back (Candlewick).

Everything about this picture book is deceptively simple and wonderfully understated: the premise (bear loses hat, tries to get it back); the pared-down dialogue (no need for quotation marks or attributions); the muddy palette (except for some important use of the color red); and the blank stares of his stoic forest animals, who gaze out unnervingly at readers as though uneasy about our presence.

For example:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Klassen trusts readers to fill in the blanks and piece together their own version of events, especially when it comes to the book’s seemingly sinister ending, after the bear realizes that he has seen his missing hat—as well as the animal responsible for stealing it. Despite the expressionless faces of the characters, the emotions at play—melancholy, nervousness, rage, satisfaction—come through clearly, a real testament to how much Klassen is able to convey in just a few brief sentences per page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is Klassen’s debut as an author, and while he’s amply demonstrated his talents as an artist in this book, as well as in Cats’ Night Out (2010) and the forthcoming Extra Yarn (which received a starred review in this week’s PW), count me among the many readers looking forward to finding out what future story ideas Klassen has up his sleeve.

PW Best Books 2011: The Cold War by Kathleen Ossip

Craig Morgan Teicher -- October 31st, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

The biggest surprise in poetry for 2011 is this second book by Kathleen Ossip.  It’s got everything one could wish for in a new collection of poems, except, of course, like all fulfilled wishes, one didn’t know one had wished for it until the wish was granted.  The poems, lyric essays, poems in prose and harder to classify pieces all bring with them a sense of the past–poetry’s long tradition and history, as well as history in general: “We were born in a tangle,” begins the title poem, which transmutes the tension of the unending US-Russia deadlock into the realm of the personal: “It was not that there was no enemy./ It was that we would never come to blows.”

This is a highly personal book, make no mistake, but set against the backdrop of the very public anxiety of the post 9/11 world, in which enemies are everywhere and nowhere.

The best stuff here is in the mode of the lyric poem, though–taut, tight, leapy lyrics that pack a ton of punch per inch:

I looked in the family and there was Armageddon too.
(Ego, undiluted, waddled fat and scared upon the earth.)
Hopelessly, we listed characters: Princess Rayanne, Hell-No,

the chunky boy with X’s for eye.  Far too hip for this trip,
Avery read the encyclopedia.  Removed her lifejacket.
Groped for her father’s wisdom.  Laid end to end,

her mother’s love would no road pave.

Look how many registers the poem moves in and out of, how many time periods, how many tiny senses of the world.  And yet this is the family, stuck together, stuck on vacation, stuck in their own minds, looking for a way in and out.  It’s just beautiful.  And terrifying.

PW Best Books 2011: Field Gray by Philip Kerr

Peter Cannon -- October 28th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

This past winter, having heard good things about British author Philip Kerr, I read March Violets (1989), the first volume in his Berlin noir trilogy, set during the Nazi era and featuring Bernie Gunther, a cop and later PI in the tough, wise-cracking mold of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. I was impressed with the ease with which the author integrated a crime plot involving stolen jewels with the politics surrounding the lead-up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. How does an honest detective keep his integrity when he’s doing a job for Heinrich Himmler? Kerr brilliantly portrays what life was like in the early years of the Third Reich for everyone from high-ranking Nazis to their victims.

I followed March Violets with If the Dead Rise Not (2009), not a part of the Berlin trilogy, though the main action also concerns the 1936 Olympics. The last section takes Gunther to 1952 Cuba, where he gets in trouble with the local mob. The double twist at the end caught me by total surprise. One anachronism: a college-age female character is looking forward to attending Brown University, then all male. Why didn’t the U.S. editor change that to Pembroke?
More recently, I read the rest of the Berlin trilogy, The Pale Criminal (1990), about a serial killer of “Aryan” German girls, and A German Requiem (1991), which is set in 1947 Vienna, where Nazi war criminals are escaping prosecution amid rising tensions between Russian and American occupying forces. The way Gunther turns the tables in the final book on his old police boss, real-life Nazi Artur Nebe, is a treat.

This year’s Field Gray is perhaps the most harrowing installment yet. It opens in 1954 Cuba, where Gunther runs afoul of the U.S. Navy. Under interrogation, first in a New York City prison and later Germany’s Landsberg Prison, Gunther fills in the gaps in his past not covered in previous books, including his mercifully brief experience as a member of an SS police battalion on the Eastern front; his extended time as a POW in the Soviet Union after the war; and his efforts in 1940 France to locate Erich Mielke, the future East German spy master, wanted for the 1931 murder of two Berlin police officers. Once again, the ending caught me completely off-guard, if only because I wasn’t used to thinking of Americans as bad guys.

PW Best Books 2011: Unpossible by Daryl Gregory

Rose Fox -- October 27th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Earlier this week, I put up a post at Genreville talking about strange books, unclassifiable books, books that blow off the top of your head. As I was writing it, I was thinking of (among other authors) Daryl Gregory, whose work unfailingly fits into this uncategorizable category. If you want to try to slap a label on his books, you can call them fantasy, or horror (as we did with his 2009 novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, when putting it on that year’s Best Books shortlist), or dark fantasy, or slipstream, or New Weird; but sooner or later all those labels will fall off, or perhaps peel themselves off and skitter away into the shadows, and you’ll be left only with a deep uneasy sense that maybe the world really is as he describes it, an amalgamation of the astonishingly glorious and the quietly terrible, and what we call reality is only a comforting illusion.

UNPOSSIBLE cover artUnpossible is Gregory’s first collection. The stories are all quite short, with no time wasted on lumpy exposition or treacly morals, but each one carries all the grim weight and peculiar beauty of his novels, simmered down to a deceptively sweet syrup that goes down easy and then twists in your guts. They poke at complex, difficult notions, not so much trying to answer questions as trying to figure out how to begin asking them. In “Second Person, Present Tense,” “Dead Horse Point,” and “Damascus,” he combs through the mysterious and often troubling links between neurology and concepts of selfhood, free will, and religious belief. “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm” and “Message from the Bubblegum Factory” ruthlessly deconstruct the American fascination and identification with superheroes, revealing our costumed idols as overgrown children whose destructive rampages are abusive and fascistic. These are not comfortable stories, which is a good part of what makes them worth reading.

To make the medicine go down, Gregory builds sympathetic and interesting characters out of a few well-placed sentences, as in this opening scene from the title story:

Two in the morning and he’s stumbling around in the attic, lost in horizontal archaeology: the further he goes, the older the artifacts become…. The territory ahead is littered with the remains of his youth, the evidence of his life before he brought his wife and son to this house. Stacks of hardcover books, boxes of dusty-framed elementary school pictures—and toys. So many toys. Once upon a time he was the boy who didn’t like to go outside, the boy who never wanted to leave his room. The Boy Who Always Said No.

Or this portrait of Eddie, a superhero’s disillusioned sidekick, from “Message from the Bubblegum Factory”:

“When I was hanging out with Soliton and the Protectors, I must have been kidnapped once a month. Held hostage, used as bait, snared in death traps. They especially liked to dangle me.”

“What?”

“Over tubs of acid, piranhas, lava pits, you name it—villains are very big on dangling. Twenty years of this, ever since I was a kid. You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve been shot at, blown up, tossed into rivers, knifed, pummeled, thrown off buildings and bridges—”

…I lean forward, and the guard puts a hand on my chest. I ignore him. “See, here’s the thing. I should be dead a hundred times over. But the rules of the universe don’t allow it. I’m not bragging—that just seems to be the way it works.”

This is a collection to linger over, or to set aside for as long as you can manage (a day, maybe two) and then compulsively return to. Reading it all at once leaves you feeling like poor Eddie after a few rounds with the villain du jour. But there’s nothing like Gregory’s super-powered punches to knock you out of your comfortable literary rut and leave you staggering, dazed, through an extraordinary new landscape that was somehow there all along.

PW Best Books 2011: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Mike Harvkey -- October 26th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Johnson begins his deceptively slim book with “In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.” This compact paragraph blooms into a brief scene of the attempt which, like the book, resonates with meaning greater than the sum of its small moving parts. Grainier helps three railway men make “every effort” to chuck the guy off a bridge. But he has a desperate hold on life and breaks free; either frustrated or impressed, his would-be executioners are by then happy to let him go. He squirrels his way to safety and Grainier, on his walk home with a bottle of Hood’s Sarsaparilla for his nursing wife, sees the man everywhere: “Chinaman in the road. Chinaman in the woods. Chinaman walking softly, dangling his arms like ropes. Chinaman dancing up out of the creek like a spider.” Again and again Johnson uses a moment to reveal character and show how easily the trajectory of a life can be changed.

The novella traces Grainier’s life, with Johnson flitting dexterously in time, sometimes covering decades in one chapter and then, in the next, a single event. Always, he uses a few precise words to convey a great deal. As in this sentence, which ends the attempted killing: “Though astonished now at the frenzy of the afternoon, baffled by the violence, at how it had carried him away like a seed in a wind, young Grainier still wished they’d gone ahead and killed that Chinaman before he’d cursed them.” What a wonderfully odd choice Johnson has made to repeat the “a,” evoking wind in the singular and complicating the rhythm of his sentence. This is a expertly-crafted book, more etched from granite than written down, it seems to me. Continue reading

PW Best Books 2011: The Information by James Gleick

Alex Crowley -- October 25th, 2011

Leading up to the November 7th publication of PW’s Best Books of 2011, our reviews editors are blogging about some of their favorites from our top 100.  Here’s the latest post:

Until James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood came up in “best books of the year” discussion I’ll admit to having entirely forgotten about it. When it was published earlier in the year I was a graduate student working in a bookstore and under those circumstances there were no “available” slots on my reading list. A co-worker seemed to enjoy it, as I had two of his previous works (Chaos: Making a New Science and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything), but I knew it would be a while before I would have a chance to pick it up, particularly given it’s slightly intimidating size.

Fast forward to September and I tore through it over a weekend. At first I couldn’t tell whether The Information really was one of the year’s best books or that I just happened to be fascinated by the material and appreciated it for that reason alone. Admittedly it’s not “light” reading, though once again Gleick demonstrates his remarkable ability to not only illuminate obscure mathematical & philosophical concepts, but also to then utilize milestones within the development of those concepts as the basis for the narrative. Instead of foregrounding the scientists or philosophers he portrays them as vessels or transmitters for some larger, undirected scheme: a curious, yet profound decision whose repercussions are fully realized later.

The central revelation Gleick lays out in the beginning is that our story, is really one of information becoming aware of itself. However, though we may live in the “Information Age”, the ubiquity of that idea doesn’t make it any easier to define. As he points out early, what we recognize today as “information” refers to a fairly young concept that, much like a computer, would be wholly unrecognizable to anyone alive before the World Wars. He quotes intercellular communication specialist Werner Loewenstein: “[Information] connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.” Histories of language and measurement come into play as do that of obscure topics like African talking drums.

Some of the most enjoyable and mind-bending sections of the book happen as Gleick explores the mathematical and logical paradoxes (from Godel’s incompleteness theorems to properties of quantum mechanics) out of which our modern conceptions arise. For instance, information’s relationship to “surprise” or “uncertainty” is counterintuitive: if one can deduce what symbol is to come next in a pattern, that symbol is redundant and contains no actual “information”. Towards the end of the book these abstractions become entwined with biology and things come full circle. The study of genetics ultimately reveals the evolutionary pressures that operate on information in the form of “memes”.

While it may seem helpful to be familiar with some of these topics before reading, Gleick’s history turns so much common sense on its head that a blank slate may actually be preferable. However, regardless of how “informed” you believe yourself beforehand, you’ll finish the book with an enlightened and expanded perspective on the universe in which we find ourselves.

PW Best Books 2011: The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

Louisa Ermelino -- October 24th, 2011

For the next two weeks, leading up to our Best Books of 2011 Issue on November 7, the PW reviews department will be blogging about a few of the books from the top 100.  Here’s the first post:

I’ve always gravitated towards the exotic. It started with Chinese and Norse myths when I was a kid and moved on from there. But it’s seeming to me these days that the most exotic is right here, maybe even too close for comfort. Specifically, Donald Ray Pollock territory, that area of America that starts in southern Ohio and bleeds into northern Kentucky. And bleeding is Pollack’s specialty.

A colleague from Nebraska told me to read The Devil All The Time, Pollock’s first novel. Pollock grew up in Knockenstiff, Ohio (Knockemstiff is the title of his first book, a collection of stories) and worked in a paper mill for thirty years. On the book jacket he’s wearing work boots and a white crew neck T-shirt that you know came in a packet of three and he writes like the smokestack in Meade, Ohio, that he describes on the first page of chapter one: “The smokestack across town, by far the tallest structure in this part of the state, belched forth another dirty brown cloud. You could see it for miles, puffing like a volcano about to blow its skinny top.”

Pollock’s prologue sets you up with nine year-old Arvin Eugene Russell following his father into the woods to kneel at the “prayer log” in a clearing his father will turn into a sacrificial pit of blood and carcasses in a futile exchange for his wife’s health.

Arvin will appear and reappear among Pollock’s gruesome and lost characters: a husband and wife serial killing team trawl the interstate for young male victims, a preacher who victimizes an innocent girl and throws spiders over himself at sermons accompanied by his wheelchair bound guitar playing cousin, crippled after ingesting poison to prove his love of the Lord.

“The one with the good legs wore a baggy black suit and a pair of heavy, broken-down brogans. His brown hair was slicked back with oil, his sunken cheeks pitted and scarred purple from acne….The cripple nodded and smiled at the crowd. His overalls were mended with patches from a feed sack and his thin legs were twisted up under him at sharp angles…one looked like the Prince of Darkness and the other like a clown down on his luck.”

Pollock gives us over to despair and destitution and an undiluted primal evil; he raises the grotesque to art. You can’t believe what you’re reading but you do, and you can’t stop reading it. There’s resolution and it’s not pretty.  He’s a conjurer, a magician, a prophet with a modern day Old Testament.

All I can tell you is that when a guy from Nebraska gives you a book, read it.