Best Books of 2011: Under the Radar

2012 quickly approaches, so Book Riot contributors are sharing some of the best books they read in 2011. Check out the previous entries.

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I try to avoid being one of those people who recommends everything they read, see, eat, visit, or buy. I read a lot and like most of it, so for my friends and family who don’t read as much as I do, I can easily become a recommendation firehose. So, I came up with a simple rule for myself: I only recommend 10% of what I read. When someone asks for a recommendation, I go back over the last 10 things I’ve read and pick one.

When it comes to year-end lists, I stick to it. This year, I read 53 new book-length works of American fiction (my bread and butter), so I get to recommend 5 titles. Two of my favorites have been widely read, covered, and included on such lists already, so I’ll just mention State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami in passing. So different, so great.

The rest of my picks haven’t gotten quite as much attention, so I’ll spend a little more time trying to get you to consider reading them.

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Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Good historical fiction conjures an era with language as much as with setting. Bethia Mayfield, the narrator of Caleb’s Crossing, is a being of thought and language, so much that the way she sees and understands mid-17th Century New England is a virtually frictionless way for the reader to see and understand it.

The daughter of an influential member a Puritan community in Massachusetts, Mayfield lives a small, proscribed life. The novel isn’t ultimately as interested in Mayfield as it is in a young Indian man who begins studying with her father and eventually goes on to Harvard. Caleb, as he comes to be known, sees the technological advantages the colonists have and tries to study with them, even as he tries to keep apart from them. It’s a compelling story, but it is Bethia’s narration and Brooks’ writing that make this a winner. To my mind, only E.L. Doctorow is doing historical fiction as well as Brooks, and I’m not entirely sure she’s not a little better at this point.

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The Curfew by Jesse Ball

The protagonist of The Curfew is William Drysdale, a widowed “epigraphist” raising his daughter in a police state. His signal professional virtue is being able to write, in the space of a headstone, a few perfect words for the families of the recently deceased. This task lies at the cross-roads of two paradoxical needs: the permanence of writing about someone’s life in stone and the ethereal, virtually inexpressible feelings that those left behind had about that person’s life. William’s ability to synthesize those forces in the space of a half-dozen or so words becomes an allegory for the artist’s mission, which is to take the whirling mess of human life and transcribe it, through language, music, paint, or dance, into a fixed, observable, and enduring work.

The other half of William’s life revolves around his daughter, who is precocious, precious, and deaf. In the midst of an oppressive, faceless regime that has outlawed music and the arts, father and daughter construct a world of surprise, devising puzzles, treasure hunts, and games that re-enchant their otherwise terrifyingly real world.

The great achievement of The Curfew is that it is both weighty and fanciful. And not only that, but the issue of “heavy lightness” or “light heaviness” (it’s not clear to me which formulation is more accurate) is itself a subject in the novel. One of the pleasures of reading The Curfew is that it takes on an idea even as it uses that idea to take it on.

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I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck

This one hit me the hardest. Sweetly sad title. Cover with two empty chairs. Story  about the death of one-half of a long-term couple. I saw the warning signs, but I still wasn’t quite prepared.

The story picks up just as Philip Hoffman has died. His wife, Anna, holds his hand as it grows cold and continues to sit by him through the night, remembering their life together. It turns out to have been a life of not inconsiderable happiness and not inconsiderable difficulty. Theirs is a marriage like many others, filled with equal parts intimacy and distance, fulfillment and longing. What makes I Married You For Happiness extraordinary is that it gets beyond the artificial happy-marriage/bad-marriage scheme to a larger truth: that even happy marriages have brokenness and even bad marriages can have moments of contentment. And then it presses further still–to the realization that even if you work hard and get it right, those wonderful relationships that provide many decades of abiding joy must come to the end.

There are many things I ask of a great novel, but foremost among them is that it inspire me to think about my own life and how I should live it. Almost six months after reading I Married You For Happiness, I still can’t quite shake it. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for.

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