Penina Roth is the director of the Franklin Park Reading Series, which debuted in 2009 and has been garnering praise from writers and fans alike because of her ability to bring together two things we love: readings and beer. We were able to get her to curate a list of her favorite 2011 books so far, and there’s something for everyone on this list, from devastatingly sad novels to stories about alligator wrestlers in the Florida swamplands. She writes, “At the Franklin Park Reading Series, our watchwords are ‘provocative, humorous and poignant.’ It’s a tricky balance, but the ten authors on this idiosyncratic list – from indie superstars like Blake Butler and Emma Straub to New Yorker “20 Under 40″ designee Karen Russell and internationally heralded first-time novelist Teju Cole – have mastered this feat.” So read on, dear readers, and let us know what your favorite books have been so far this year in the comments section below.
Open City by Teju Cole
Roth writes, “Teju Cole’s peripatetic narrative, echoing his aesthete narrator’s meandering thoughts while winding through New York and Brussels, was a fascinating departure from conventional, plot-driven novels.” This is the debut novel for Cole, the Brooklyn-based writer, historian, and street photographer.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
“We were mesmerized by Karen Russell’s plucky heroine as she waded through swamps and battled ghosts in her magical and heartrending coming-of-age saga,” Roth writes. At Flavorwire, we enjoyed the gorgeous descriptions of the theme park where much of the action takes place, and were haunted by the memory of Ava’s mother, the slicked-up alligator wrestler who was fearless in the pit.
Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth
In 1987, Deb Olin Unferth dropped out of college and traveled around Central America with her boyfriend in search of liberation theologists and revolutionaries ready to take down the government. Roth writes, “In a new twist on memoir, Deb Olin Unferth mined the humor in her often-treacherous youthful adventures.”
Other People We Married by Emma Straub
We interviewed the author about her short story collection in March, and found that Emma Straub unabashedly loves Twitter and enjoys doling out pithy words of advice or comments such as “I promise never to invite you to a party where somebody asks you ‘what you do.’ Except my cats, who only watch tennis.” Roth writes, “In her deft take on the short form, Emma Straub formed full-bodied characters from a few wry details.”
There Is No Year by Blake Butler
Roth writes, “Watching Blake Butler bend time and space – and the boundaries of contemporary fiction – in his story of a sentient house and its haunted residents was a transformative experience.” Butler is the editor of HTML Giant and finished a first draft of his debut novel in a little over a week, which is a feat we can only imagine leads to a nervous breakdown. In an interview, the Atlanta-based author said, “I asked for ‘Infinite Jest’ for Christmas. I didn’t know books could talk that way. I literally walked out of my physics class one day while reading it. I realized, ‘I can’t do this science bullshit anymore. It’s not making sense to me, but this book is.'”
A Heaven of Others by Joshua Cohen
This novel was originally written in 2004 (but was re-released this year) and concerns a young Israeli boy that dies in a suicide bomb attack and enters paradise. Roth writes, “We also like a healthy dose of fantasy, so Joshua Cohen’s tale of a 10-year-old lost in an alternate heaven – not to mention his playful command of language – captured our fancy.”
Us by Michael Kimball
“Structurally, hybrid genres of fiction and memoir intrigue us,” Roth writes. We wrote about Kimball’s novel in our 10 Devastatingly Sad Books post in May, and its meditation on grief and loss have been torturing us ever since. The story of a couple, with the better half slipping away from her devoted husband, is told through the eyes of one who has been left behind.
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block
In his second novel, Stefan Merrill Block tries to piece together why his grandmother would have burned his grandfather’s letters after his death in the late ’80s. Teddy Wayne at the Huffington Post interviews Block about the fictionalized account of the events that culminated in his grandmother’s decision to erase the memories here.
Follow Me Down by Kio Stark
This novel is part of Richard Nash’s Red Lemonade online publishing venture, which promotes great work from indie authors. Roth writes, “Since we’re based in the rapidly changing, culturally diverse Crown Heights neighborhood, Kio Stark’s account of a young NYC transplant finding her footing in a gritty urban environment struck a chord.”
The Great Frustration by Seth Fried
“Seth Fried daringly incorporated farce and tragedy into his debut story collection,” writes Roth. We enjoyed reading “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre” in One Story back in 2009, and we loved discovering how the story came about. Fried says, “While generating ideas for the story, I had a page in one of my course notebooks that I titled, without realizing how creepy I was being, Ideas for Massacres. I filled it up with as many ideas for ridiculous massacres as I could think of while pretending to take notes in class.”