2011 In Review (In Lists of Two)

You’re tired of end-of-the-year Top 10 lists already? I don’t blame you. But it’s okay. Here’s a different take on the Top 10 list — five Top 2 lists! Enjoy this review of the literary year that was, in short, attention-span-friendly groups of two:

My Favorite Non-Fiction

1. In The Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson — I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but this tale of Berlin in the ’30s told through the eyes of the American ambassador and his daughter might actually be better than The Devil In the White City — and that’s coming from a Chicagoan.

2. Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell — Most Vowell fans would say this probably isn’t her best, but having read this soon after returning from a trip to Hawaii (the subject of this narrative non-fiction), I loved it!

Biggest Bookish Stories

1. Borders Goes Belly Up  — What a shame! But the company — which seems to have kicked and screamed its way into the 21st century — has no one to blame but itself.

2. Amazon Proves To Be Just As Evil As We All Thought — The company’s ostensible “eff you” to local businesses and independent bookstores — offering $5 off any item you bought from them after “showrooming” it at a local store — provoked a seemingly unprecedented level of outrage.

Most Disappointing Novels

1. The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides — Higher-than-average hopes for this novel may have contributed to my disappointment, but this novel felt less like a novel and more like a book report on the novel it was supposed to be.

2. The Year We Left Home, by Jean Thompson — A comparison to Jonathan Franzen’s dysfunctional family sagas piqued my interest in this novel. But it turned out to be less like Franzen and more like…a much, much duller version of Franzen.

Most Annoying (Read As: Rage-Inducing) Bookish Articles

1. The Orange Prize Has Let Us Down — In this ridiculous piece someone named Ruth Fowler sanctimoniously and self-righteously whines about Tea Obreht’s Orange Prize win. But that’s only the jumping-off-point for a pages-long jealous gripe about other writers she deems pretentious, merely for having the gall to earn an MFA. Stupid is as stupid does.

2. President Obama: Why don’t you read more women authors — This one really stuck in my craw. The author takes President Obama to task for his male-centric vacation reading. If you’re interested in the specific reasons this pieced bugged me, here you go.

(…and finally) My Favorite 2011 Novels

1. The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins — We’ve already covered this one in last week’s Top 5 Overlooked Books post, but let me reiterate: This novel is beautifully brilliant.

2. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — As a huge fan of baseball, literary fiction and Wisconsin (I went to college in Milwaukee), this coming-of-age story about a shortstop at a small college on the banks of Lake Michigan is an absolute grand slam. (Sorry about the annoying baseball metaphor there…couldn’t resist.)

Honorable Mentions: The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace; Domestic Violets, by Matthew Norman; Faith: A Novel, by Jennifer Haigh.



Greg Zimmerman is a trade magazine editor and blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.