Best Books of 2011: The Superlatives

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


I know, I know: You want these lists to stop. You’ve had enough of Best of and in a few cases even Worst of…however, I come neither to praise nor blame any books, but to highlight a few that have struck me as “all that and a bag of chips” in some way. Think of this list as a senior-year Wall of Fame: A mention doesn’t guarantee anything except joy in the moment.


So good, so neglected

Most Under the Radar

The Astral by Kate Christensen
What happened to this stellar novel by Christensen, set in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood and perhaps the greatest examination of a middleaged male psyche since (yes, I’m saying it) Leopold Bloom of Ulysses? It finally wound up on The Boston Globe Best of 2011 list by Jane Ciabattari, but it should have graced a dozen more.

Longest Novel Still Worth Reading
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Trust me, when it comes to long books, I’ve read them all (did you notice the Ulysses mention above?), and that includes Remembrance of Things Past as well as the Harry Potter series. Want a hand workout? Pick up King’s latest 944-page tome and revel in its time-traveling plot and paeans to everything from swing dancing to homecooked meals.

Highest Degree of Difficulty

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante
Orthopedic surgeon Jennifer White is suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease–and her closest friend has been found murdered and mutilated in her house. Whodunnit? It will be especially hard to tell from White’s perspective, as her mind degenerates and her various caregivers, including her two adult children, work their own agendas while a well-meaning police detective unravels the truth.

Most Re-Readable
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Truly a category difficult to fill, “most re-readable” to me means not simply a book with a timeless quality and complicated themes, but one with a protagonist whose struggles continue to foment long after the last page has been turned and the book placed back on a shelf. In Katy Kontent, Towles has created a character with individual will trapped in a particular era’s web.

Unusual plot, beautiful prose.

Most Sublime Sentences
Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
Who would believe that a novel about a convicted sex offender (to put your mind at ease, not a child molester), his pet iguana, and a morbidly obese academic could be among the best books of the year? Few people, alas, which is why this superbly written and observed novel of social ills by literary giant Banks has not received as much attention as it deserves.

Greatest Escape
Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Some critics grumbled that Sullivan’s follow-up to her successful Commencement was imprint Knopf’s turn to too-commercial fiction. However, others agreed that this young novelist’s exploration of female lives and choices centered on a close knit yet dysfunctional Irish-Catholic family’s coastal home is the kind of close-lens treatment that makes commercial fiction turn classic.

Lowest Highbrow
House of Holes by Nicholson Baker
It was Chief Justice Potter Stewart who opined in 1964 of “hard-core pornography” that “I know it when I see it.” He might have a tougher time telling with text, but even a skin-deep skim of acclaimed novelist Baker’s new novel might convince Justice Stewart of this book’s status. Set at a fantastical resort where anything goes (and goes anywhere), House of Holes leaves no position untried.

The next classic monster story? Just might be.

Highest Lowbrow
The Last Werewolf by Glenn Duncan
Not many supernatural-beast stories make it into the “highbrow” category–and it’s too soon for Duncan’s supremely readable werewolf picaresque to be canonized along with Frankenstein, Dracula, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Kidding on that last one! The point is, Duncan’s shapeshifting protagonist Jacob Marlowe is the epitome of a wolf in bespoke clothing and gives good narrative.

Narrative Smorgasbord
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is, at first glance, a straightforward biography. However, it’s also all of these: A corporate history, a business manual, a family narrative, and a comeback tale. Is it perfect? Not at all, but then neither was its subject.

Best Substitute for Time Travel
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff–Here’s another book that should have been on more “Best of” lists–maybe its early-2011 release date worked to its disadvantage, because Schiff’s meticulous research and storytelling skills bring the fabled Queen of the Nile to brilliant life. It’s rare that a nonfiction book of any sort, let alone a biography, sweeps the reader up, up and away–but Cleopatra does.