Best Books of 2011: Grace’s Picks
I love the fact that doing this show forces me to keep up with contemporary fiction. I read so many great books this year that I want to include a few honorable mentions: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was a major highlight, especially for being the first novel I’ve read that deals with alternative music in a thoroughly convincing way. I also loved the Booker Prize winner, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Maile Meloy’s first entry into YA adventure-fantasy, The Apothecary; The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt was a great slice of Western escapism, and like Amy, I greatly enjoyed catching up on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, up to the new entry, A Dance with Dragons. That said, the following are my absolute favourite reads from 2011:
1. Open City by Teju Cole
While the narrator wanders the streets of New York City and visits Europe, the real action of the book takes place inside his mind. Julius, a Nigerian-American psychiatrist, spends the course of the novel observing his surroundings, contemplating art and culture, looking back at his life, visiting friends, meeting new people, all the while remaining oddly detached. This is a gripping and confronting read, raising questions about what it means to connect with other human beings.
2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’ last novel, Middlesex, is one of my all-time favourite books, so I was eager to get my hands on his new one. And The Marriage Plot doesn’t disappoint. Even as it questions the idea of traditional storytelling, it’s based on one of the most traditional plots in literature: the love triangle. Following three friends who meet on at a prestigious US college in the 1980s, it highlights the uncomfortable interplay between intellectual ideals and mundane reality.
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Published posthumously after Wallace’s suicide in 2008, and edited together over the following two years from the notes he left behind, this is very clearly an unfinished novel. It’s about IRS auditors, in the same way that Infinite Jest was about tennis – Wallace was capable of focusing intently on something boring in order to reach profound insights. It’s impossible to say what The Pale King would have looked like in its finished form, but there’s enough there to make you incredibly sad that the literary world has lost his unique voice.
4. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Jane Harris’s second novel is a dark, subtly creepy tale of paranoia and obsession. Harriet Baxter, a wealthy spinster, is working on a memoir of her friendship with the Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, whom she regards as an unsung genius. After meeting Gillespie at Glasgow’s International Exhibition in 1888, Harriet befriends his family and soon becomes an important figure in their lives. We soon realise that there are dark currents beneath the surface of this impressively restrained, unsettling work of historical fiction.
5. Habibi by Craig Thompson
Craig Thompson’s third graphic novel is his most artistically stunning, with a strong influence from Islamic art and calligraphy. It takes place in an indeterminate Middle Eastern country where ancient and modern cultures seem to exist side by side, giving the story a timeless, mythological feel. A young girl escapes from slavery, rescuing another woman’s baby with her; she raises him as her own child, and after they are separated, they each suffer incredible hardships trying to find one another again, as their stories are intertwined with tales from the Koran and Islamic mysticism. If you don’t think you like graphic novels, Habibi may win you over – it’s a hauntingly beautiful story, and the gorgeous illustrations alone make it worth your while.