11 of the Best Books of 2011

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Ed. Note—We’ve been naming the best of everything this month, but we only put a tiny dent in the world of new books this year. Instead Paste books editor Charles McNair lists his favorite books of the year.

Leonardo da Vinci got it right 500 years ago—“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Here’s a simple sampler from an idiosyncratic editor of the books that most intrigued me this past year. I won’t claim these are the best books or books-you-have-to-read-before-you-die. I will confide that my year burned brighter with these publications. Enjoy.

11. Burial for a King
by Rebecca Poynter Burns


The former editor of Atlanta magazine dug through history to recreate, almost hour by hour, the most important funeral week in our nation since JFK’s. Riots broke out in cities all over the country after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Not Atlanta. The story of the heroes who helped the city dodge the bullets and who buried the hero deserves broader attention. There’s still time.

10. Great Soul
by Joseph Lelyveld


A wee little man in a diaper may have been the greatest figure of the 20th century. An ex-editor of the New York Times writes smartly on Mahatma Gandhi’s accomplishments and his failures, with a focus on social reform efforts. It’s easy to consider Gandhi now as something from mythology. Not here. Lelyveld lets us know a Gandhi of human proportions.

9. Skull Orchard Revisited
by Jon Langford


Verse Chorus Press
Jon Langford, a Paste favorite, co-founded the Mekons and Waco Brothers. This year, he reworked his first solo album, Skull Orchard, and gussied up the CD presentation with a book. It includes Jon’s paintings, based on the songs, a short story on the sad passing of Moby-Dick, and family contributions – his brother David’s South Wales Alphabet and photographs by their father, Denis. Langford reminds me of Elvis Costello in his ceaseless search for new forms. Langford even goes a step further, with arresting words and images between book covers.

8. The Revisionists
Thomas Mullen


Mulholland Books
Come and listen to my story ‘bout a man named Zed … Mullen’s third book is Blade Runner meets John LeCarre. A time traveler, Zed, returns from the future to do a dirty job. He has to make sure that all the terrible events of history – the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Verdun, New Jersey Shore – take place exactly as they happened. Past imperfect preserves a future perfect (we are led to believe) free of problems. Zed must hunt down other time travelers who want to change the past … so the future changes. The sci-fi premise, once you take the bait, leads to a thoughtful, suspenseful novel of intrigue.

7. When She Woke
Hillary Jordan


Oh good—another dystopian novel. I mean it—reading fictional accounts of how bad things could possibly get, then closing a book to take a deep breath of sweet free air seems lots better than paying $225 an hour for psychoanalysis. This time, Jordan, who made a fine literary entrance with Mudbound a few years back, updates The Scarlet Letter. Authorities transform a shamed woman into—literally—a scarlet lady, dying the transgressor’s skin bright red. (And I thought being a redhead was tough…)

6. 1Q84
Haruki Murakami


Here, before your very eyes, the dazzlingly original Japanese writer throws his heart and soul into a bid to win a Nobel Prize. The book bulges (900 pages) with the spun dreams and fantasies of a writer you read with simultaneous awe and bewilderment. Plot and dream intersect in Murakami, but for the record, this book offers a female protagonist who flumps into a taxi … and then can’t be sure afterward what time and place she’s in. Murakami is a marvel. Days later, like ghostly koi in a pond, his meanings rise to the surface.

5. The Tragedy of Arthur
Arthur Phillips


Random House
Arthur Phillips might be the cleverest writer in the world. His plots in all five novels crackle with the challenge and intelligence you don’t find nearly often enough in a world dumbed by Internet reading to toe-counting and slobbering along with YouTube videos. How’s this for a novel plot? A missing Shakespeare play turns up (maybe) and prompts a few acts by a Minnesota family sired by a dad who might be the greatest flim-flam artist since that salesman in The Music Man. Phillips even has the chutzpah to write the missing Shakespeare play, The Mystery of Arthur. Audacious.

4. Nightwoods
Charles Frazier


Strange kids. Two lonely people sniffing around one another at a derelict mountain lodge. A really really bad guy. The 1960s. Can this really be the Charles Frazier of astonishing historical novels like Cold Mountain and 13 Moons? You bet, and his first (nearly) contemporary setting feels genuine. Frazier unspools a tale so true to the North Carolina in his bones and blood that it’s like sitting on a porch on a summer night listening to a good friend tell his adventures.

3. Salvage The Bones
Jesmyn Ward


This book roared out of the Gulf Coast like a hurricane to win this year’s National Book Award for fiction. Appropriate—it’s a story of a poor Gulf Coast family waiting out the hours before a killer hurricane strikes. But nevermind the hurricane—there’s a pit-bull fight in these pages that will leave you limp, spent, appalled and dazzled. Full disclosure here—Ward teaches writing at my old alma mater, University of South Alabama, but my partisanship is justified. You’ll be as blown away as I was by this book.

2. The Stranger’s Child
Alan Hollinghurst


A sprawling, gorgeously written English castle of a novel in the great tradition of … well, who? Nobody in England writes like Hollinghurst, who won the Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, his last novel. His new one covers a century of life in a family with a central mystery concerning the work of a promising young poet, a figure like Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I. Hollinghurst’s previous books, graphically sexual, get in your face. This one gets under your skin.

1. Swamplandia!
Karen Russell


Here’s the great novel of 2011. Russell’s story, in its surface, seems preposterous, like something Carl Hiaasen would dream up – the Bigtree family runs another roadside attraction, Swamplandia!, in strange Florida. The clan has wrestled alligators for tourists for generations. Russell writes brilliantly about the potentially campy subject, in sentences like the moths she describes: “… sapphire-tipped wings, a sky-flood of them…They had fixed wings like sharp little bones, these moths, and it was astonishingly sad when you accidentally killed one.” Read it and weep.