The Best Books of 2011

Voice writers pick their favorites of the year

Julie Phillips: There but for the, by Ali Smith (Pantheon, 256 pp., $25). Smith's playful novel is about occupation as a political statement, only what’s occupied isn’t Wall Street, it’s a stranger’s spare bedroom. Fiction with a conscience, erudite, ingeniously structured and highly enjoyable.

Tony Ortega: Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion, by Janet Reitman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 369 pp., $28) Reitman proclaims in her introduction that she has set out to tell the first modern, objective, journalistic history of Scientology. That's a big project. And by the end of its 369 pages, you should be convinced that Reitman has not only made good on her promise, but has put together the most masterfully written, narratively rewarding, and thorough yarn about L. Ron Hubbard, David Miscavige, and Scientology and its strange past, present, and possible future. At the heart of the book lie four chapters that tell the heartbreaking story of Lisa McPherson, a young woman who fell in love with Scientology, and then descended into madness and death at the hands of negligent church members. Reitman explains how Scientology's policies and narrow thinking helped contribute to McPherson's demise, and also keep the church from evolving into a less controversial enterprise.

Nick Murray: Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan (FSG, 365 pp., $16). Thirteen essays into this collection, Sullivan profiles Marc Livengood, a ponytailed comparative zoologist who, we come to find out, is a complete fiction. And yet, brought to life by Sullivan's prose and distinguished by his rogue theories on Planet of the Apes–style animal revolt, he appears as a real any of the other people—such as Axl Rose, the Miz, and a group of teenage evangelicalsintroduced to us in this chronicle of a time when mass culture enters our daily lives not only figuratively, but also literally—as happens when Sullivan allows One Tree Hill to film their show in his North Carolina house.

James Hannaham: Quiet Chaos, by Sandro Veronesi (Ecco, 432 pp., $13.99). Italian author Veronesi's award-winning novel might be one of the drollest books about grief ever written. While its protagonist Pietro Paladini saves a stranger from drowning, his wife dies at home. He waits for his daughter to get out of school every day, concerned that neither of them is mourning properly. But then the townspeople decide he's a grief guru and begin to confide in him. Still later, he meets the woman he saved from drowning and they have an affair. You see, it's also a sexy book about grief.

Angela Ashman: The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka (Knopf, 129 pp., $22) In her captivating second novel, Otsuka uses spare, understated prose and a chorus of narrators to tell the harrowing stories of Japanese mail-order brides who come to San Francisco in search of the American Dream in the early 1900s. With vivid detail, she swiftly draws us into the unhappy lives of her characters whose voices will continue to haunt you long after you've turned the last page.

Maura Johnston: Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle (Basic, 384 pp., $28.95). The interconnectivity offered by the Internet seems on its face like a boon. But is being awash in Facebook status updates and 140-character missives helping mask an epidemic of dissatisfaction and solitude? Turkle, a longtime explorer of the relationship between humans and technology, has answers that might shock net-utopianist types convinced that our current wired world is the best of all possible places—although they will also likely help those people alienated by the digital thicket feel a bit less alone.

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