Wednesday, December 21, 2011

my best of 2011--fiction

For the first time, I've gone back through my reading journal to officially determine my favorite books of the year. As seems to be happening more and more every year, this was the year of the many-hyped novels. I read a lot of them (most before they were hyped...that's the beauty of getting review copies and reading the books before everyone else!) and many of them were truly wonderful (The Night Circus, The Art of Fielding, The Marriage Plot). A few I wasn't crazy about (State of Wonder, The Paris Wife). I think the truth is that a lot of the people who are doing the hyping have good taste--they know what they're talking about! At the same time, so, so many wonderful books are published each year to no fanfare at all. Luckily for me, my job brings these books to my attention.

I wrote up all of my favorites but two (The Art of Fielding and The Marriage Plot), mostly because someone else on staff wrote them up for the store, but also because they've both gotten such amazing reviews. Read those!

#1 most favorite novel of the year is...

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Cambell
I can’t wait for you to meet Margo. She is the beautiful, striking-looking tomboy of 15 who is the heart of this story. She is twisting up like a weed from childhood to adulthood, curious about her power over men while also longing for her mother who abandoned her. After several deeply traumatic events, Margo is left alone, on the river she loves in rural Michigan. In her grandfather's teak wood boat, she takes off upriver in search of her mother, in search of somewhere to belong. Realizing that she can't survive alone, she uses the men she meets for protection and companionship. Though she has the gun skills and guts of her hero, Annie Oakley, Margo is still a little girl in the end, needing a home and a love that won't ask questions and won't leave her.

I knew from the first page that Campbell's writing was exquisite, her cadence melodic and language deliberate. It only took a few more pages for me to be totally hooked.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Morgenstern has created a compelling, complete world with The Night Circus. From the lovely, intricate graphics inside to the interspersed circus attraction descriptions, reading this book was like parting the curtains of a tent at the circus
and entering. Every detail of the clothing, food, and attractions are perfectly described and the love story between the magicians is simply mythic. The plot is unspooled from two points in the story decades apart and as the dates get closer together, the feeling that something explosive is going to happen is truly palpable. Cinematic, unique, memorable.

This book is great for anyone who needs a little wonder in their life or for those who know that true love is always magical. And it lives up to the hype.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
If you want to get all nestled into a good story with great characters you’ll actually care about, this debut novel is a great choice. Jude and Teddy are

The writing is wonderful and moving. Henderson writes about her characters like she really believes in them; her confidence in them, the way each character is a person and an idea, is quite Irving-esque. best friends living in a VT city (feels like Burlington) in the 1980s. They are teenagers doing the normal things teenagers do, playing in their band, doing drugs, and scrounging for money to buy drugs. Relatively speaking, they are two innocent kids. Until one night, when Teddy overdoses and dies. Jude is sent to live in the East Village with his father and the story just explodes from there. This is about music and New York and growing up and is just wonderfully done.

The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
If you’re one of those people who loves a novel for its characters, for the beautiful, evocative writing, and despite the fact that “not much happens,” then I think you’ll love The Forgotten Waltz. Enright is one of our most talented wordsmiths; her books are absolutely to be cherished and savored. Logophiles rejoice: you’ll never find a cliché in a book by Anne Enright. This story, about a woman’s affair with a married man, has been done before and has been done poorly, but Enright handles it carefully--Gina, Sean, and their spouses are all real people, with real struggles. No one is romanticized or vilified. Anne Enright writes the real thing.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell
This is an awesome collection of connected short stories by Vanity Fair columnist (she writes the Hot Type column!) and Tin House magazine co-founder Elisa Schappell. Most likely, if you are a girl you will get these stories. Were you unsure of who you were in high school? Did you date the wrong person? Did you go to college? Did you maybe make a few mistakes? Are all your friends having babies? Do you have a weird relationship with your mom? The writing is lovely and sharp and clever and sad and beautiful. Give short stories a shot. They are difficult to write, so if they got published, you know they’re good. That’s my logic anyway.

Lightning People by Christopher Bollen
This book reminded me that small publishers today are making great books and their books deserve a second look. Lightning People tells the intertwined story of four transplanted New Yorkers, part of the lost and wandering Generation Y—Joseph, a superstitious sometimes actor whose handsome good looks get him his acting gigs, Delphine, his Greek girlfriend who hates her job as a zoo assistant so much she persuades Joseph to marry her for a green card, and siblings Madi and Raj Singh, second generation Indian immigrants struggling with their Indian identity (and much more, of course).

This is one of those novels where the characters’ paths cross drastically and passionately, like struck lightning. You know it’s bound to happen, since it often does in novels like this, but it’s still both magnificent & dreadful, managing to feel both surprising & fated. Fresh language, precise details, and realistic feelings (so much angst!) make this a great novel from a new talent.

There But For The by Ali Smith
This book is simply delightful. Here's the premise: at a dinner party, a man the host doesn't know very well (he's the plus-one of one of the guests) leaves the table, goes upstairs, and locks himself in the host's guest bedroom and refuses to leave. He stays there for months (don't worry, it has an en suite bathroom). Each section is told from a different character, all loosely connected to Miles, the man in the bedroom.

Ali Smith uses clever, delightful wordplay throughout (especially to do with the words "there," "but," "for," and "the"), but her greatest gift is the tenderness that she brings to what could otherwise be a silly tale. A jewel of a book; I loved every page.

The Family Fang
I just loved this novel about the dysfunctional family Fang. Camille & Caleb Fang are performance artists who conscript their children Annie & Buster (or Child A and Child B as they are known by the Fangs’ many admirers in the performance art community) at very young ages to take part in their pieces. Being forced to basically trick strangers over and over seems to take its toll on Child A and Child B. Annie grows up to be a nearly famous actress, and Buster a nearly failed novelist. This story is about the seemingly irrevocably damage family can do and how sometimes they’re the only ones who can make a person whole again. Just a note: this book isn’t as quirky as the cover makes it seem. It’s just good.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

No comments:

Post a Comment