The idea of consensus might seem ridiculous at the close of 2011. There are thousands of books published for every personality, micromood, and attention span‚ and in multiple formats. Critics abound in the blogosphere and legacy review media, making for a 24-hour buzz chamber.
It’s precisely these conditions that make best-of lists valuable. As every librarian worth her readers’ advisory spiel knows, when faced with an overabundance of choice and a deficiency of waking hours, patrons want to know about good stuff, fast.
That’s why we repeated last year’s exercise and voted on a top ten. It means something that eight intelligent though vastly different editors agreed on standards of excellence across widely disparate fiction and nonfiction. Quality, regardless of label, exists, and this is a quick, high-impact way to present it.
Under More of the Best you will find outstanding long-list contenders that in some cases reflect our individual tastes. Note as well our expansion of the other lists to fulfill your requests for deeper coverage: there are more titles under staple categories like mystery, and we broke out women’s fiction and historical fiction. Longtime favorites business, consumer health, and sci-tech appear under Core Nonfiction, a new section coming December 1.
For even more discussion of the year’s standouts, see our blog series Librarians’ Best Books of 2011. Chances are, between our picks and theirs (totaling over 200 titles), we’ve got you covered. Happy book overdose, and check back December 1 for the publication of our bests in Core Nonfiction, How-To, Graphic Novels, and YA Lit for Adults. Best Media will follow on December 15.
Bolton, Andrew & others (text) & Sølve Sundsbø (photogs.). Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty. Metropolitan Museum of Art, dist. by Yale Univ.
ISBN 9780300169782. $45.
Many will say this Grimm’s fairy tale of an exhibition catalog to the blockbuster Metropolitan Museum of Art show of the same name is haunted. Indeed, the otherworldly clothes worn by otherworldly models seem to flutter and rustle on the page. But make no mistake: the beauty you will chase here is meant to resuscitate and empower. Visual narrative as therapy and inspiration for even the most fashion averse. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 8/26/11)
Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. Holt. ISBN 9780805091533. $29.
Dismissed in too many histories as an insane fanatic, to quote one well-received recent book, John Brown rises here in his full complexity‚ but this is no conjuring act. Horwitz faithfully renders Brown’s life through the use of original sources and his own considerable narrative gifts. Gripping, disturbing, and heartbreaking, it can no more be put down than should John Brown. (LJ 9/15/11)
Jones, Tayari. Silver Sparrow. Algonquin.
ISBN 9781565129900. $19.95.
My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist. That knockout opening sentence launches readers into a gripping family drama about two African American half sisters (only one is aware of the other) and the father who tries to keep them apart. A sensitive and beautifully written coming-of-age novel with a twist. (LJ 2/15/11)
Murakami, Haruki. 1Q84. Knopf.
ISBN 9780307593313. $30.50.
In 1982 Tokyo, Aomame leaves a cab to avoid gridlock and finds herself in a brave new world, while Tengo labors to polish a manuscript a teenager has submitted to a literary contest. These two stories wind around each other and eventually conjoin in Murakami’s shining magnum opus, which tells us everything we need to know about the world today. (LJ 9/15/11)
Obreht, Téa. The Tiger’s Wife. Random.
ISBN 9780385343831. $29.
A tiger that’s fled the zoo during World War II and the deathless man who collects the souls of the departed: two tales told to young medic Natalia by her grandfather that frame this bold, imaginative debut, effectively capturing the fearfulness that precipitated the recent fighting in the author’s native Balkans. Obreht’s storytelling is complex, humbling, and sheer magic. (LJ 1/11; see also Maura Deedy’s guest post.)
Otsuka, Julie. The Buddha in the Attic. Knopf.
ISBN 9780307700001. $22.
In iridescent colors that flicker, blend, and shimmer between light and dark, Otsuka crafts a communal self-portrait of Japanese women who came to America as picture brides for California’s Japanese laborers after World War I. Across four decades of anticipation, bewilderment, backbreaking work, survival, and disillusion, they seek fulfillment, but their hopes may die slowly from accumulating betrayals. Unforgettable. (LJ 8/11)
Phillips, Arthur. The Tragedy of Arthur. Random.
ISBN 9781400066476. $26.
Herewith the publication of a previously unknown play, long in the possession of the author’s family, by none other than William Shakespeare himself. There’s also an extended introduction that doubles as a memoir focused on Phillips’s art forger father and reflecting dizzyingly on how we judge what we see. Can we trust this novel’s veracity? No matter, the imagination’s the thing. (LJ 2/15/11)
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking. ISBN 9780670022953. $40.
In this mammoth book, Harvard psychologist Pinker (The Blank Slate) takes readers on a tour of human history, arguing persuasively that violence has declined since our origins. Don’t let the small print and plethora of charts scare you off: Pinker is funny, light, and engaging. A rare book that will make you feel good about government. (LJ 10/15/11)
Tillyard, Stella. Tides of War.
Holt. ISBN 9780805094572. $27.
Moving from the drawing rooms of Regency London to the bloody battlefields of Spain, this sweeping and assured debut novel by an acclaimed British historian reveals how war was as transformative for the women who remained at home as for the men who fought Napoléon. (LJ 9/1/11)
Tóibín, Colm. The Empty Family: Stories. Scribner. ISBN 9781439138328. $24.
Though better known on these shores as a novelist, Tóibín (Brooklyn) here proves his mastery of the too-often-dismissed short story form. Each narrative is an all-encompassing world that will stop readers on their axis and cause them to reconsider the suddenness, ecstasy, and isolation of human connection in settings as divergent as 19th-century England and post-9/11 Spain. (LJ 11/15/10)