Book ‘Em: 10 Best Reads from 2011

10 book titles that renewed our love for reading.

It would be nice to say that the books you’ll find here are a little off the “Best of 2011” beaten track on purpose – that, after pouring over the year’s more mainstream winners, these less-nodded-at tomes are overlooked gems that deserve more attention than they’re getting. But the fact is I have The Marriage Plot, Swamplandia! and The Tiger’s Wife sitting right here on my desk, uncracked for no other reason than different books – the following choices among them – happened to catch my interest. In any case, if you’ve found yourself surrendering to the (perhaps deserved) hype of the big players this year, consider dropping a little further down the bestseller list and giving these a spin.

1. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

A fictional A Moveable Feast as seen through the eyes of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, The Paris Wife offers a rich, compassionate and often troublesome view of life as the first wife and support system of the young Papa. Set and centered around the Paris expat life of the 1920’s Lost Generation, McClain’s story features Hemingway’s quick, simple storytelling strokes and structure that build fictional truth and emotional power in a unique way. A manifesto of sorts, the read declares and defends Hadley’s choices, emotional leaps and missteps as she seizes her story as her own, as opposed to His.

2. Cain by José Saramago

The late Nobel-prize winner’s final offering, Cain is a parable-like retelling of the early chapters of the Bible – with Cain as our hero. Goaded, punished, dissed and dismissed by a vindictive, petty and self-centered God, the less-than brother roams Old Testament scenes ranging from Isaac’s near-death experience at the hands of his frightened father, to the sudden confusion at the base of the Tower of Babel, to the Noah’s DMVish efforts to save innocent life as we know it. A treat for the less-than-pious, Cain is a lovely, yet melancholy endnote to José Saramago‘s troubled relationship with life, authority and The Lord.

3. The Angel Esmeralda by Don DeLillo

A collection of stories from America’s postmodern master, The Angel Esmeralda – Nine Stories brings together the author’s short-form work from 1979 to 2011. Both within themselves and taken together as a collection, these snapshot tales present the often abstract and fragmented darkness that hovers over our transition from the 20th to the 21st Century. Some see Don DeLillo’s work as prescient, but a more accurate description is unflinchingly mirror-like, allowing every trick of modern hyper-light to illuminate our way forward. Each story here pokes at often mundane instances and interactions, fascinations and obsessions that are arrestingly lifelike in both chance and relevance.

4. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The posthumous unfinished novel by the great writer presents a kind of inverse space to his epic and celebrated Infinite Jest. While the earlier work snaked deeply into our society’s addictions, obsessions and ultimate relationship with entertainment, The Pale King examines the reality of tedium and workaday, existential survival in the face of boredom. Brilliantly reconstructed from David Foster Wallace’s left-behind manuscripts by his editor, Michael Pietsch (Wallace took his own life in 2008), the novel is in many ways more accessible than Wallace’s earlier work as it lacks some of his trademark literary and intellectual gymnastics (which will delight some readers). But don’t go in lightly; you need to “show up” to read “DFW.” If you make the effort, you’ll come out enlightened and deeply touched.

5. Disaster Was My God by Bruce Duffy

A fictionalized biography of the much-romanticized Arthur Rimbaud, the poet and enigma who ushered in new forms of poetry and thought that served no-less than to predict and unleash modernism just prior to dawn of the 20th century. Well known today as the muse of the likes of rock-auteurs Patti Smith and Jim Morrison, the bratty, explosive, prodigy/savant began his legendary work during his mid-teens only to cease writing before he turned 20, disappearing from the literary world and ending up in shady and shocking African trade, never to write another syllable again. Even as Bruce Duffy (who gave philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein a similar treatment in The World as I Found It) demystifies the myth, the literary legend is as no other.

6. Absolute Monarchs by John Julius Norwich

Our one non-fiction entry is an engaging 2000-year history of the Papacy that takes us from the birth of the Church through to the controversies and challenges that plague the Lord’s reps-on-earth today. In Absolute Monarchs, John Julius Norwich (an “agnostic Protestant” who casts little, if any, what would certainly be understandable judgment) engages multiple levels of interest, from historical to spiritual, while maintaining a solid storytelling thrust to this mostly dramatic tale of power and spirit. Dig in and find yourself wondering aloud: “Oh, my God! They didn’t!”

7. Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Yeah, yeah, Chuck Palahniuk is the “rock star” writer who’s widely cited as one of the greatest literary examples of “Becoming Your Own Cliché.” But he cracks me up, and shocks and unsettles me in a world that’s often far too serious in its shocking and unsettling nature. In Damned, the author of Fight Club and Rant seems to don a young adult lit cloak, telling the story of an overweight, snarky teenage girl who finds herself in h-e-double toothpicks. Our unique and mouthy little heroine takes on the biggies “down there” (Hitler, Idi Amin, et al.), and we get at least one great insight into the underworld’s impact on our lives “up here.” Those during-dinner survey phone calls? Yep. Nine-to-5ers manning Satan’s phone banks.

8. Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt

Fabulous old-school satire targeting the most modern of issues, Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods is insane raunch that skewers everything from sex and sexism, to American political and business culture. If you can handle the bizarre anonymous sex (I mean, you’re into that right?), it’s total fun. Not for the sexually inhibited, it’s about a strange dude’s masturbatory fantasy and how he turns it into big business, and then the FBI gets involved and then… wait, was this what we expected from the author of the award-winning and lovely The Last Samurai? You’ll never visit the office restroom the same way again.

9. The Buddha In the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Like a prose poem from a lost culture, The Buddha in the Attic is a beautiful and ghostly novel from the author of When the Emperor Was Devine. The short work tells the story of Japanese “picture brides” who came to join their unknown husbands working the fields and towns of West Coast America shortly after the turn of century, and how their lives progressed through the beginning of World War II to their criminal incarceration in internment camps. Employing an often-poetic voice to represent this group of women (the main “character” is a distinct, though sometimes contradictory “We”), Julie Otsuka asks the question: “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans.”

10. Tres by Roberto Bolaño

The author of the masterworks The Savage Detectives and 2666 (and numerous other fine novels and novellas published since his untimely death in 2003), Roberto Bolaño never hid his desire to be a great poet, or that he held the form in greater regard than he did prose. His previous collection, The Romantic Dogs, established the writer a fine poet indeed, and this years release of Tres, shows the writer wonderfully weaving between poems and prose to spin the ethereal magic that inhabits his great novels. In three sequences, Bolaño explores art, love, secrecy and literature, often with his trademark noir texture that effortlessly takes us from dream to reality and back again.


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Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at