Who reads more books than the review staff at Publishers Weekly? Hardly anyone, and that’s why their year-end “ten best list” always attracts attention. With five fiction titles and five nonfiction, here are the 10 books that most impressed the PW readers in 2011.
According to their intro, these are the books that “stayed with us, that we talked up, handed around, and of course argued about among ourselves.” – Molly Driscoll
1. “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Marriage Plot,” the latest offering from the acclaimed author of “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides,” tells the story of a very literary love triangle formed on an American college campus. The novel also asks the question: Are 19th-century love stories relevant to our lives today? Monitor critic Yvonne Zipp found that “speaking as a lover of 19th-century novels, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Eugenides’s defense” of the great works of that century.
2. “The Devil All The Time,” by Donald Ray Pollock
Following a small cast of characters in rural Southern Ohio and West Virginia from the end of World War II to the 1960’s may not sound like the premise of a shocking novel. But the characters of “The Devil All The Time” have dark, even bloody, secret lives (like a husband and wife pair of serial killers), and this work by Donald Ray Pollock (author of the acclaimed and equally gritty novel “Knockemstiff”) is gritty and tense.
3. “State of Wonder,” by Ann Patchett
Even better than “Bel Canto”? That’s what some readers are insisting about Ann Patchett’s latest. This new novel is set in the Amazon, where a young pharmaceutical worker has been sent by her boss (who also happens to be her lover) to investigate the death of a colleague. Monitor fiction critic Yvonne Zipp wrote about “State of Wonder” that “Patchett has included everything from cannibals to giant snakes, and in the process, created the literary must-read of the summer.”
4. “After the Apocalypse,” by Maureen McHugh
Pick your society-gone-wrong doom scenario and you’ll find that McHugh has covered it in her short story collection: bird flu, bombs, drug cartels, food poisoning, zombies. The author humanizes each dystopian vision with characters including a girl living in an American suburb during a food poisoning crisis, an inexperienced activist, and a poor artist.
5. “There but for the,” by Ali Smith
A guest at a Greenwich dinner party locks himself in an upstairs bedroom and refuses to come out in Ali Smith’s new four-part novel, a book that Monitor fiction critic Yvonne Zipp calls both “agile” and “clever.”
6. “Bossypants,” by Tina Fey
“Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream,” reads the inside flap of the book by the “30 Rock” creator, writer and star. “A recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV. She has seen both these dreams come true.” The former “Saturday Night Live” star known for her Sarah Palin impersonation discusses her childhood, the creation of her NBC series, and how it felt to put on the distinctive accent of the former vice-presidential candidate.
7. “Catherine the Great,” by Robert K. Massie
The Russian empress who began life as a little known German princess comes to life in Massie’s biography, which details her correspondences with leading minds of the time, her relationship with her family, and the challenges she faced during her rule, including rebellion, wars, and the revolutionary spirit kindled when the French Revolution changed Europe forever.
8. “Hemingway’s Boat,” by Paul Hendrickson
Award-winning writer Paul Hendrickson offers a fresh interpretation of the last decades of Hemingway’s life, built around his attachment to his boat, Pilar. Interviews with all three Hemingway sons add new insight to our understanding of the writer. Monitor reviewer Steve Weinberg says of this book that “Hendrickson writes so well that every page is a pleasure to absorb.”
9. “One Day I Will Write About This Place,” by Binyavanga Wainaina
The Kenyan author’s memoir covers his life growing up with his brother and sister, his reunion with family members in Uganda, his bid to become a computer programmer, and his return to Kenya after becoming a reporter – at which time he discovers how much both he and the country that he left behind have changed. Wainaina was the winner of the Caine Prize – an award given for a short story written in English by an African writer – in 2002.
10. “Arguably: Essays,” by Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens discusses George Orwell, Charles Dickens, why Karl Marx is still relevant, and the role of jihad in our world today in his new collection of essays, a book that the PW reviewers praised as “Christopher Hitchens being himself.”