Talk About Getting Lost In a Book: Our Favorite Fiction of 2011

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Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like...

The barriers to publishing fiction seem to tumble lower and lower to the ground every few months. The number of self-published fiction titles (much of it solidly in the erotic-dystopic-vampire-magical detective slumgullion that constitutes today’s genre stewpot) continues to exponentially, clogging up search results and simultaneously raising and dashing the hopes of would-be Amanda Hockings everywhere. Though this would seem to auger the death of traditional publishing, with those pesky editors finally shoved aside to allow frustrated novelists everywhere to unleash their visions upon the world, that has yet to be proven true. (If so, there would be no need for the small guerrilla publishing imprints that continue to spring up, alongside the multiple efforts to bring out-of-print gems back to life.) What is true is that the hunger for new literature of almost any kind continues unabated.

Look at Nielsen's list of the bestselling novels in 2011, and there was nary a self-published effort to be seen anywhere near them. At the top of the list was the trade paperback edition of The Help; its movie tie-in edition was number two. Older titles like Water for Elephants, Emma Donoghue’s Room and the second and third installments of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander trilogy took up more space.

All of that left just a few slots for new works, which ranged from John Grisham’s newest, The Litigators, to the fifth fantasy brick from George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons. James Patterson alone was responsible (mostly as co-author) for some dozen new novels in 2011 alone. Book coverage actually seems to be increasing, with the Wall Street Journal now devoting an impressive amount of space to reviews of new titles, and Slate having just announced the launch of a monthly book feature. Almost all of those reviews will be of books put out by mainstream publishers.

In other words, the dinosaurs still rule the earth, while the agile mammalian upstarts scurry around on their stumpy legs, in ever-greater numbers. But there’s more than enough room for everybody, with plenty of erotic-dystopic-vampire-magical detective stories to go around, no matter who writes them.

As for the novels that made our writers sit up and take notice, they didn’t for the most part come from either the peaks of the bestseller lists or the valleys of micro-targeted indie or self-publishing. There were a lot of names in the lists of our favorites who were familiar, and for good reason. In Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a Minnesota woman travels deep into the Brazilian rainforest to discover what happened to her husband, reported dead. We thought it was a return to form for Patchett after a comparatively weak 2007 novel (Run) and also a “serious, returning-to-school book, a book you should share with all of your friends who love seriously good fiction.”

In his newest novel, The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides, whose novels The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex seem to have been required reading for commuters on the train for some years now, was found to be an “an apt, canny, capacious portrait of three individuals finding their way, wherever that may lead.” (Our reviewer also dismissed those who criticized the comparatively slow rate of production on the part of Eugenides – three novels in 18 years – and his contemporaries like Jonathan Franzen and Donna Tartt, stating that “good writing is not a race.”) Even Stephen King knocked out a corker of a mind-twister with 11/22/63, in which a man discovers a wormhole that allows him to travel back in time and possibly undo the Kennedy Assassination; only the mechanics of actually doing this prove much harder than the actual act of time travel.

Newer voices were heard from as well, such as Tea Obrecht’s stunning and fanciful The Tiger’s Wife, Jesmyn Ward’s heartbreaking tale of impending Katrina doom, Salvage the Bones, and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (which caused us to declare: “Read this book, pass it on to those who deserve it, and be thankful that the world contains artists like Karen Russell”).

Chris Barsanti

Book: The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3

Author: Ellen Datlow (editor)

Publisher: Night Shade

Publication date: 2011-05


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The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 3
Ellen Datlow (editor)

Anthologies in horror, fantasy and science fiction seem to come at us like a horde of zombies. This is a good thing. Much of the best work in these genres (especially horror) appears in short-run magazines, collections from small independents and numerous webzines. It’s too easy to miss some of the best scare out there. Master editor Datlow makes sure we don’t miss out in her continuing series, The Best Horror of the Year. In the midst of that horde of anthologies, Datlow's work has proven consistently the best, her selections ranging from little known authors to the true masters of the dark arts. A culture gets the monsters it wishes for and the nightmares it deserves. Datlow obviously made her fine choices for aesthetic rather than thematic reasons but it's striking how many of these “best of” share some basic premises. Many of them feature isolated individuals, abandoned in various ways at a lonely still-point even as a maelstrom of events swirls around them. Even nature and the natural world prove predatory or at least bleak and empty, a stage for human destruction. Good horror is more than good cultural studies and the real strength of this collection is the editor’s perfect eye for terror. Reading this collection though, you’ll be stuck with how much these “best of” tales mirror the anxieties of the moment. W. Scott Poole

Book: Busy Monsters

Author: William Giraldi

Publisher: W.W. Norton

Publication date: 2011-08


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Busy Monsters
William Giraldi

Charles Homar, Giraldi’s wholly untrustworthy narrator in this 110-proof jug of moonshine of a novel, isn’t one for half-measures. Though ostensibly an adult of independent means, he moons and glooms like a lovesick teenager at nearly all times. He’s given to flights of rhetorical excess so severe that the state police could likely write him up for it. The lies tumble forth from his mouth and pen in a nearly unstoppable flood. And he’s driven to altercations as though a moth to flame, particularly over the most innocuous of subjects. Charles doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, which is of little surprise; this is not a man who knows how to turn himself off. (Neither is Giraldi with his writing, but for the reader, that’s a very very good thing.) He’s an overgrown slacker of a guy who channels all the energy he doesn’t put into life into his columns -- the ones that had him pegging himself a “memoirist of mediocre fame” -- or his relationships, which seem only to have one speed: overdrive obsessed.Giraldi’s ravaging way with the language is so dexterous and sure-handed that his comic romp of a novel fairly detonates. Chris Barsanti

Book: Damned

Author: Chuck Palahniuk

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

Publication date: 2011-10


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Chuck Palahniuk

The prospect of a 13-year-old girl who has gone through as much as Damned’s protagonist Maddy Spencer has being relegated to Hell for something as innocuous (and impossible) as a marijuana overdose seems a terrible subject to read about. Maddy was victim to many unfortunate things, notably two movie-star parents who viewed her as nothing more than a means for propping up their careers. But for Maddy, eternal damnation isn’t what world religions have made it out to be. This spirited, hilarious, and insightful girl realizes what many grown adults don’t realize: the adversities we all face in the world can only drag us down if we let them. Hell is not a condemnation to submit to powerlessly; one must, like Maddy does, take on the challenge of torment, even if with fear and trembling. After a slip-up in the boring Tell-All, Palahniuk demonstrates his skill in creating stories that bewilder us, shock us, and overturn some of our most deeply held assumptions. Damned, despite the devil on its cover and the flames of Hell within, is a deeply resonant work that douses the fiery flames of hell with the power of individual will. And, as an alternate conception of Hell, it’s at least twice as good as Rob Bell’s notorious Love Wins. Brice Ezell

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