Best (and worst) books of 2011

Authors contemplated family, suicide and the IRS as the industry spun around.

Photograph: Jolie Ruben

Matthew Love

The best

The Free World by David Bezmozgis (FSG)
Bezmozgis's first novel lived up to the promise of his acutely sensitive short-story collection and then some. This tale of Russian immigrants waiting for papers in an Italian limbo compassionately assesses notions of duty and fidelity at a moment in which the nuclear family is anxiously drifting away from home.

2 We the Animals by Justin Torres (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
As wild as the title suggests, the punchy and poetic vignettes in this coming-of-age story surge with an electric, emotional power the year's big books couldn't match. But Torres's debut isn't just about waking up to the world, it's about the entanglements required to keep a family together and the betrayals that tear it apart.

3 Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press)
With Lamb, Nadzam created a highly unsettling, yet entirely palpable, tale of a middle-aged man, a preteen girl and the way in which the pair cling to one another to keep from drowning. The queasy ambiguities of their road trip are set to the pulse of Nadzam's precise and playful prose; they also remain stuck to the reader once the ride is over.

4 Big Questions by Anders Nilsen (Drawn and Quarterly)
The accumulation of writer and illustrator Nilsen's comics adds up to one airy, heady modern fable, complete with cynical sparrows, mistaken gods and humans clueless to the complexities of the world unfolding before them. Its elegant lines make pondering the natural order of things feel like a necessity. Also, it's quite funny.

5 Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books)
We swallowed no other book this year with as much glee as Fey's hodgepodge of autobiography, advice and anecdotes. Not only is it chock-full of jokes, it's packed with surprisingly practical advice. This is the only book that we'd hand out indiscriminately to any young woman planning on entering the entertainment industry.

My next five
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Knopf); The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (FSG); The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbarch (Little, Brown); The Tiger's Wife by Ta Obreht (Random House); and Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG)

Worst book trend
Five years ago, it was marginally original but at least it was fun. By now monster books, monster-romance books and monster-romance books that pillage the classics and beg for movie deals are rote and downright painful.

Best justification of literature's future in apps
The iPad app for T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land dazzled: Replete with easy-to-use footnotes, multiple audio recordings, minilectures and a performed interpretation from Fiona Shaw, it set the bar for future like-minded projects.

Most surprising realization
Record label and occasional book publisher Drag City proved that the book on tape had potential to be, um, cool? Its clanky, chaotic take on Neil Hagerty's Victory Chimp and the sad, measured Slow Fade by Rudolph Wurlitzer (the latter voiced by Will Oldham and D.V. DeVincentis) made us eager to see what's to come.

Drew Toal

The best

1 Suicide by Edouard Lev (Dalkey Archive Press)
Lev submitted the final manuscript for his novel Suicide mere days before taking his own life, so the question of how much of the book is actually a lengthy suicide note rather than pure fiction is debatable. Either way, Suicide remains a compelling portrait of a man at odds with his continued existence.

2 River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh (FSG)
The second installment of Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy transports the reader directly into the noise, squalor and opium dens of 19th-century Canton. The first book in the series—Sea of Poppies—was great, and River of Smoke is even better, featuring a wide cast of old and new characters against the background of the infamous Opium Wars.

3 Paying for It by Chester Brown (Drawn and Quarterly)
Brown's unconventional graphic memoir recounts his sex life from the moment he stopped participating in normal relationships and started consorting with prostitutes. As the author debates the nature of love with his friends and coworkers, the reader is forced to admit that the whoremongering cartoonist makes some solid points.

4 The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown)
We'll never know what this book about the tedium of life working for the IRS would've eventually looked like had its author, David Foster Wallace, not committed suicide in 2008, before its completion. But editor Michael Pietsch's painstaking collation of Wallace's manuscript and notes into "an unfinished novel" is worthy of the late tormented genius.

5 Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer (Graywolf Press)
Dyer admits that collections of already-published journalistic pieces such as this one are considered "a pretty low form of book, barely a book at all." It's the kind of format in which a writer like Dyer is at his best, though, and whether his topic is Richard Avedon, the Olympics or Def Leppard, you know he will treat it with humor and intelligence.

My next five
House of Holes by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster); Behavior of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kurt Rinehart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Thor by Matt Fraction (Marvel); Us by Michael Kimball (Tyrant Books); and Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (Other Press)

Best euphemism for penis
Nicholson Baker is definitely an outlier when it comes to conventional novels. Case in point: Malcolm Gladwell, just one of the penile euphemisms in House of Holes.

Worst Shakespearean adaptation
Chris Adrian is a well-known and talented author, theologian and doctor, but Adrian's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night, makes us think it's time he settles down and starts to narrow his focus a little.

E-book we will probably finally finish reading on our phone in 2012
The 960 pages on the development of post--World War II Europe in Tony Judt's Postwar require a lot of thumb swipes.

Nothing blew us away this year, but then again, who can focus on writing when the publishing industry can't stop wringing its hands over the future of its medium? The prevailing feeling is one of reactionary fear, though some (like Richard Nash of Cursor/Red Lemonade) are hopeful, embracing technology and community to aid lit distribution. True, some commutes see as many iPads and e-readers as traditional, bound tree-killers, but when the smoke clears, we imagine books will carry on in both paper and digital formats. Still, like all industry pronouncements at the moment, this is just a guess.

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