I read a lot of books this year but, as is typically the case, most of them were older than 2011. Here are the books published this year (or close to it) I most enjoyed and why.
Andrew Foster Altschul, Deus Ex Machina – Reality television taken to its extreme in this tale of a nameless television producer falling apart during an apocalyptic season of a Survivor-like TV show
Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda – A collection of nine short stories from a man known more for his novels, these are fascinating and at times frustrating stories, replete with DeLillo’s trademark faculty with language, equal parts tragedy and comedy, and often with an undercurrent of fear.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad – A wildly imaginative novel, with each chapter told by a different character, at a different time, and in different styles and/or perspectives. Running underneath the literary gymnastics is a very good story.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom – I much preferred this to The Corrections if only because I liked most of the characters this time around. Cutting social observations, a keen sense of the political and social milieu, a strong story and generally good character development make this a great read.
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet – Although this takes place during a fascinating period in Japanese history – the rule of the Edo shoguns when foreigners were excluded and trade only occurred through one Dutch East India Company post on an island in Nagasaki Harbor – and it is exceptionally well researched and full of exquisite historical detail, I wouldn’t necessarily call this an historical novel. To me, it’s really a beautiful and tragic cross-cultural love story.
Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur – A story written by Arthur Phillips from the perspective of a man named Arthur Phillips whose father may or may not have created a near-perfect fraud of an “unknown” Shakespeare play called The Tragedy of Arthur, the culmination of a life of cons. The story is the “introduction” to the play, which is included at the end in full Elizabethan glory.
Josh Ritter, Bright’s Passage – The first novel from one of my favorite singer-songwriters is the story of Henry Bright, a World War I vet, who escapes from his in-laws with his newborn after his wife dies during childbirth - accompanied by a ghost who inhabits his horse. Equal parts comic dialogue and exquisite imagery, this is a short and powerful read.
Karen Russell, Swamplandia! – The Florida Everglades are the setting for this tale about the Bigtree family and their failing theme park. Themes of family loyalty, development, the “Disneyfication” of America, and ecology are narrated by Ava Bigtree, one of the most memorable characters in recent years.
Jeffrey Sachs, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity – The economist known most for his focus on the less developed world turns his attention to the American political situation. His analysis is spot on – and a devastating critique of the current political parties, particularly the Republicans. His solutions occasionally run to the simplistic but within this book is everything that needs to be done to get this country back on track.
Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition – How did a policy that few people supported become the law of the land? And then why was the policy overturned only a few years later? And did it work? Daniel Okrent looks at America’s great experiment with prohibiting alcohol in this coherent, comprehensive and entertaining book.
David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers – “America was founded as a Christian nation” is taken as an article of faith by many Americans. But what of the founding fathers? As religious scholar Holmes shows in this somewhat dry (but brief) history (covering Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents), it’s not possible to understand their beliefs fully – but it is unlikely that any were Christians in the sense that anyone would understand it today.