the 10 Best Books of 2011

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12/21/2011 4:00 AM |

The Art of Fielding
by Chad Harbach
In their athletic, academic and amorous adventures, Harbach’s characters, both on the Westish College baseball team and in the bleachers, seek their portion of the grace promised by America’s national pastime and literary canon. Sociable, compelling, beautifully written and insightful, this long-gestating, much-ballyhooed debut is an American novel to validate its author’s faith in such a thing.

The Submission
by Amy Waldman
The former Times reporter’s novel, about the fallout from a 9/11 memorial-design competition when an American Muslim wins, is a perfect tenth-anniversary read, voicing with fairness and respect an impossibly broad range of viewpoints, across a panorama of contemporary NYC from white one-percenters to Bangladeshi immigrants in Kensington.

House of Holes: A Book of Raunch
by Nicholson Baker
Baker might not have been waxing his kielbasa while writing these farcical vignettes about a fantastical sex resort, but he gets the fractured phantasmagoria of sexual ecstasy familiar to anyone who’s allowed her mind to wander shamelessly. The “blood-pulsing truncheon[s]” and “pedal-powered Masturboats” are unsettlingly accurate encapsulations of the fantasies of desensitized Americans.

You Think That’s Bad
by Jim Shepard
Shepard’s stories have a quirky, crabwise relation to reality, peopled as they are by extreme mountain climbers, Japanese special-effects wizards, 15th-century witch hunters, and other denizens of life at the margins. Diffuse as they are, however, the experiences of Shepard’s characters inevitably gravitate, with something like grace, towards the humane and poignant.

Fair Play
by Tove Jansson, trans.
Thomas Teal
An episodic, semiautobiographical portrait of two female artists whose lifelong relationship strikes a delicate balance between quiet intimacy and respectful solitude. With its spare prose and elegant restraint, it’s an excellent introduction to the consummate artistry of Jansson’s novels, thankfully revived by NYRB.

Once
by Meghan O’Rourke
Addressing, elliptically, her mother’s death from cancer, Brooklynite high-flier O’Rourke transforms the raw material of her suffering into convincing art. She deftly mixes the abstract language of philosophy with the concrete and absurd; the best poems suggest, consciously or otherwise, something dangerous and overheated and crazy lurking underneath the tightly controlled surface.

The Last of the Live Nude Girls
by Sheila McClear
In 2006, McClear, a self-confessed wallflower and late bloomer, started dancing behind glass at Gotham City Video, a “profoundly unsexy” Times Square porn emporium. There’s plenty of danger, sex and drugs in this artful memoir of late-aughts Manhattan, but the moments that shine brightest are McClear’s hilarious, searching vignettes about herself and her coworkers.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
by David Graeber
Graeber, perhaps the world’s foremost anarchist anthropologist, traces the history of the social norms surrounding debts, from social allegiances to the current depersonalized, adversarial web of laws built to protect lenders at all costs—a system which Graeber has also laid bare in a rather different way this year, as one of the leaders of Occupy Wall Street.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
As the New Yorker’s first pop music critic and later a Voice columnist, Willis wrote landmark pieces in a style as lethally incisive as it was personal. She so believed in the power of rock and roll that she quit writing about it in the early 80s, when she found that it had stopped believing in itself.

Otherwise Known As the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews
by Geoff Dyer
Dyer’s liveliness and insight comes from his participatory willingness. Some of his journeys, like his search for the lost Algiers of Camus, feel like pilgrimages; others, like his dispatch from an East Asian hotel with Def Leppard, mix social critique and ironic humor; all help the reader navigate the world, both real and imagined.