The Best Books of 2011


We asked our noble scribes to name the best 2011 book they read this year. Below, their very diverse replies.

J. Hoberman: Beauty Is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May ’68 Paris Uprising, edited by Johan Kugelberg with Philippe Vermès (Four Corners Books, 272 pp., $40). This sturdy, well-designed, capacious assemblage of militant handbills, wall posters, cartoons, manifestos, and photographs (many documenting graffiti) is both a chunk of history and a material paradox: Agitprop has seldom been better designed, ephemera never seemed more substantial and a gift book felt more timely.

Christian Viveros-Fauné: Rome: A Cultural, Visual and Personal History, by Robert Hughes (Knopf, 498 pp., $35) This biography of the Eternal City, written by the Dean of art and culture critics, is also an authoritative, powerfully encyclopedic rendition of the origins of Western art and civilization. Ranging from Caesar to Berlusconi, from Michelangelo to Fellini, Hughes unspools an ancient and modern history of the one city that trumps all museums because, essentially, “all Rome is a museum inside out.”

Deborah Jowitt: The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (Random House, 368 pp. $15). My reading habits are unsteady. Sometimes I’m playing catch-up—burrowing into books I should have read long ago. Or I might instead grab a Kate Atkinson mystery to counter a slew of recent dance books. That unsteadiness is, in part, what made Obreht’s novel charm me. The places and people encountered by a young woman doctor on a professional (and personal) mission in an unnamed Balkan country emerging from civil war seem as surreal as the village tales that wind around and into her days. A man who cannot die, a viciously abused wife who (perhaps) cohabits with a tiger; such stories begin to seem as likely as the heroine’s task of delivering medicine to an orphanage.

Michael Musto: Learning to Live Out Loud: A Memoir, by Piper Laurie (Crown Archtype, 368 pp., $24.99) Laurie was a much-ballyhooed Hollywood starlet who loathed the shallowness of the system and bolted to do quality work in theater and TV, eventually returning to make better films and amass three Oscar nominations. Her memoir drips with integrity, sense, and lots of good names.

Tom Sellar: Ai Weiwei’s Blog: Writings, Interviews, and Digital Rants, 2006-2009, by Ai Weiwei (MIT Press, 336 pp., $24.95). The volume contains selections from the Chinese artist’s controversial 2,700 philosophical postings on art, social justice, and cultural memory—before the blog was censored, the contents deleted, the author imprisoned, and his studio demolished. The edition is an eye opener in every way, one of those books that challenges the reader’s perceptions of the world we think we live in.

Carol Cooper: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern (Doubleday, 384 pp, $26.95) Leave it to Morgenstern, a professional graphic artist, to build a brilliant debut novel around the sensuality of form and the symbolism of color. As precisely crafted as the Taj Majal, The Night Circus is a labyrinthine description of people and situations so surreal that only this masterful combination of romantic fantasy and metaphysical horror could do them justice.

Michael Feingold: Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present, by Jeff Madrick (Knopf, 480 pp., $30). I think this big, dense-packed tome is the definitive history of how we got into our current financial mess as a nation (and it reverberates globally). Madrick starts back in the 1950s with the first stirrings of the anti-tax, anti-government regulation movement that became neocon dogma, and he traces the story through to the bursting of the Bush-era mortgage bubble. He does it in short chapters, each one focusing on a key figure involved, showing step by step the dismantling of the New Deal regulatory system that had kept our economy in balance until well into the 1970s—after which the story becomes increasingly harrowing: a tale of crookedness and mismanagement being allowed to repeat their mistakes on an ever larger scale. In terms of knowing what we’re up against, it’s a must-read.

Alexis Soloski: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (Crown, 384 pp., $24). Cline’s debut, a delirious, crypto-nerd fantasia, concerns a near-future kid from the wrong side of the trailer park who just might solve a billion-dollar hunt for the world’s most elusive Easter Egg. Crammed with ’80s nostalgia and sugar-high prose, it’s ridiculous and addictive and full of toy surprises.

Robert Shuster: The Scale of Maps, by Belén Gopegui (City Lights, 176 pp., $14.95). Published almost 20 years ago in Spain and now given an elegant English translation by Mark Schafer, Gopegui’s beguiling, richly descriptive novel follows the romantic travails of Sergio Prim, an unstable geographer whose overriding obsession with a woman named Brezo leads him to flee into mysterious psychological states he likens to sanctuaries. Prim’s grandiloquent claims and confessions—paying homage to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and the metaphysical tangles of Borges—take the reader on an increasingly enigmatic journey into the madness of doomed love.

Lauren Shockey: Plenty: Vibrant Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi, by Yotam Ottolenghi (Chronicle Books, 288 pp., $35). My favorite cookbook of the year because it made vegetarian cooking truly exciting. The London-based chef uses Middle Eastern and international ingredients to add vibrancy, color, and intense flavor to a bounty of meat-free dishes. Don’t miss the green couscous or the caramelized garlic tart. Both are simply delicious—and I’m a die-hard carnivore!

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.