Best of 2011 – Books

A year-end roundup of books is too big a challenge for any one man, and I don’t come even close to meeting it. Because of the necessary time investment, I’m very judicious with my reading material, only picking up a book if it’s got either a) overwhelming establishment praise or b) a premise I can’t ignore. Sometimes I get lucky, and find a book that’s both. Anyway, here’s what was published this year that I found worthwhile:

Arguably – A massive 800-page compendium of essays by the inimitable Christopher Hitchens. Cherry-picked from his decades of work at The Nation, Vanity Fair and others, Arguably houses within its bounds everything from a rewritten Ten Commandments to a takedown of Stieg Larsson to a groundbreaking theory on “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” nearly all of which scream with wit and sing with force. You’ll laugh at some and shake your head in disgust at others, and that’s what made Hitch Hitch.

The Art of Fielding – Earlier writeup here. Impossibly personal, strikingly well-written, this novel about the tribulations and triumphs of those connected to a college baseball team will make your heart soar and crash, thankfully not in equal measure. You won’t find Westish college on any map, but after reading The Art of Fielding, I’ve been there just the same.

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore – Earlier writeup here. This angry “memoir” of a precocious chimpanzee who acquired language is not easily forgotten. From his early days at a Chicago zoo to his educational years at a lab to his adventures on the subways of New York City, Bruno tells his story with elegant scorn for humans and erudite derision of our world, all the while raging against himself for being so utterly seduced by it. Bitterly funny and pointedly perceptive, Bruno Littlemore holds up a mirror and asks us if we’re really as great as we think we are. And its answer is: go fuck yourselves.

Kings of Colorado – A thirteen year-old boy stabs his father to protect his mother, and is rewarded with a long stay at a juvy ranch in the mountains of Colorado. There’s your requisite greedy warden, sadistic patrolmen, helpful nurse, inmates both friend and foe – Kings of Colorado is not what you’d call a genre-buster. What you can call it, though, is well-paced, suspenseful, chilling and heartfelt. It’s a damn good prison yarn combined with a well-drawn coming of age story. Doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but still well worth taking for a spin.

The Leftovers – Not Tom Perrotta’s best, which is to say it’s still better than most anyone else’s best, The Leftovers puts an intriguing spin on its author’s usual dissections of the struggles and depredations of suburban lemmings (that’s being far less kind to his characters than Perrotta’s hallmark tenderness, but I kinda fell in love with the phrasing as it came to me). It takes place in the aftermath of The Rapture, where one day millions of people (seemingly selected at random) abruptly vanish into thin air, never to be heard from again. Perrotta gives us a mostly stellar cast of characters, including religious fanatics angry that they weren’t “chosen,” emotionally damaged and adrift people who’ve lost a family member (or two or three or four), and a silent cult of chain-smokers called the Guilty Remnant. The Leftovers comes off as a novel Rod Serling could’ve written, if he were funnier and less preachy, and that compliment overwhelms the novel’s occasionally flagging pacing and irrelevant interludes.