Our Favorite Authors’ Favorite Books of 2011: A Compendium

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There are so many books out there these days that sometimes — even with every media outlet doing their own Best-Of list this month — it’s hard to decide what to read. To combat the deluge of recommendations, we generally lean towards taking advice from those we consider to be most in the know: our favorite authors themselves. After all, if they can write prose that delights us so much, they must surely be able to recognize it in the work of others, right? Right. And as Henry David Thoreau said, “read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” With that in mind, we’ve collected a few of our favorite authors’ year-end recommendations from around the web. Now, authors are flighty creatures, and many of their 2011 book lists include books published in other years. But we’re confident that you’ll still manage to glean some holiday vacation reading suggestions or last-minute gifts from their choices. Click through to check out our favorite authors’ favorite books from the past year, and if your to-read stack isn’t monumental enough by the end of this list (or even if it is), we highly recommend that you check out the sources for each list for many more recommendations from many more great writers.

Jeffrey Eugenides As told to Salon:

My favorite book of 2011 is Colm Toibin’s latest collection of stories, The Empty Family. I attended a reading of Toibin’s in Princeton, and when I mentioned that I was going to give the stories to my mother, he warned me not to: too much explicit gay sex, apparently. Well, that’s true about a couple of stories here, but I think my mother could have handled it, if only because she’s a good reader, knows what art is, and would have enjoyed the range of subjects and lives treated here. Toibin doesn’t make the mistake of yoking his groundbreaking material to an outlandish style. He works in a more traditional Irish mode, or traditional-seeming, so that what you get is the best of both worlds: the embrace of an old-fashioned storyteller telling the newest of tales.

Jonathan Franzen As told to The Guardian :

Ben Lerner’s recent novel Leaving the Atocha Station and Joshua Cody’s new memoir [sic] are undoubtedly the kind of books that the former Swedish Academy secretary Horace Engdahl had in mind when he faulted American authors for their insularity and self-involvement. Both books are also hilarious and cracklingly intelligent, fully alive and original in every sentence, and abuzz with the feel of our late-late-modern moment; and one senses that these are the qualities of American literature that actually annoyed Engdahl.

Jesmyn Ward As told to Salon:

Will Boast’s story collection, Power Ballads, works as beautifully as a good album. From the first page, this book transports the reader into a collection of linked stories that are not bound by reoccurring characters (well, not mostly), but by music. The characters in this collection live for rhythm, are aspiring musicians or failed musicians or successful musicians, and the joy and pain of music resounds through every word. We meet a young polka prodigy, a former jobber, an artist on the rise, among others, and each character’s story is so essential, so alive, so immediate. With a line, an image, Boast’s prose acts like a long forgotten melody, and will make you remember your best day, your worst moment, that small thing you loved that was swallowed by all the other things of your life. And in the end, like the best songs do, these stories will break your heart.

Justin Torres As told to New York Magazine :

If You Knew Then What I Know Now, by Ryan Van Meter Ryan Van Meter’s memoir-in-essays is worth reading for the etymological-riff essay on the wordfaggot alone, but because each and every one of the other essays are equally moving and finely crafted, the book is one of the year’s best.

The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka Another is this refreshingly unusual and stylistically perfect novel. A catalogue of experiences, objects, births, and deaths and disappearances, all vividly portrayed. I was shocked by how much Otsuka managed to squeeze into such a short book.

Julian Barnes As told to The Guardian :

Is there a better short story writer in the world than Alice Munro? In her New Selected Stories she gives the long story the meatiness of a novel, and moves through time with an ease few can match. The Wine of Solitude continues our rediscovery (in Sandra Smith’s fine translations) of Irène Némirovsky’s work: it’s an unerring portrait of a neglected, baleful and punitive daughter. Among homegrown fiction, I most admired Edward St Aubyn’s At Last, and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child – the most originally and brilliantly structured novel I’ve read in a long time.

Ann Patchett As told to Salon:

[Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang] was my favorite for the sheer force of its creativity. Mr. and Mrs. Fang are performance artists whose art consists of public disturbances, usually centered around their children, Annie and Buster. As Annie and Buster grow up they have to deal with the repercussions of their crazed family and figure out the relationship between art and life. This book is powerful, funny and deeply strange. You won’t read anything else like it.

Jonathan Evison As told to Algonquin:

The Ringer, by Jenny Shank: Please don’t judge this book by the cover. I happen to know that the author cried for two days when she saw it. As good as Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is (and I wrote a blurb for it which started with the word “spectacular”), The Ringer may be even better. Like Harbach’s Fielding, baseball serves only as a framing device for this promising debut about such durable American themes as race, class, and family. Make no mistake though, Shank knows baseball like the sister of the major league ballplayer she is.

Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka: At turns hilarious, unsettling, and improbably sweet, Veselka’s debut is, above all, a highly engaging, and totally unique experience, which will have you re-reading passages and dog-earing pages. But best of all, in the end, Zazen is that rare novel which dares to be hopeful in the face of despair, and succeeds. Veselka has a shit-ton of voice, and you know within the first paragraph that you’re in for a ride. She could write about dog turds and I’d happily read it.

Damascus, by Joshua Mohr: The third novel from San Fransisco’s Joshua Mohr is his best to date. Mohr is the bard of the underbelly, and the Mission District is his playground. Part Harry Crews, part Charles Bukowski, and part Franz Kafka, Mohr will make you squirm, laugh, recognize, and take pause. Behind his wayward and dissolute characters, burns the clear-eyed moral vision of a very unique artist.

Lorrie Moore As told to The Guardian :

I read two books that won prizes in the UK this year, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and Julian Barnes’sThe Sense of an Ending, and found them exquisitely written and deeply engaging. Obreht’s novel is written so authoritatively if obliquely, one of its themes being what it is to have once been on the right side of history and then find oneself later on the wrong, but the writing, sentence by sentence, is what really impresses. The same is true ofThe Sense of an Ending, with which in some ways it shares a theme.

Justin Taylor As told to FSG:

“These next books are mostly titles published this year, but also a few things that I finally got around to.”

The Bigger World by Noelle Kocot A wonderful, bizarre, epiphanic collection. Each poem is a little blast of well-bent wisdom—and fun, too! Some good points of comparison from the fiction world might be Lydia Davis, Diane Williams, and Lou Beach, but really it’s its own awesome thing.

Nobody Ever Gets Lost by Jess Row A finely wrought collection of short stories linked by theme and moment rather than by character or place. Enormous empathy and scope. I praised it to the skies in Bookforum: http://bookforum.com/review/8374.

And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould I liked the episodic structure and I loved the voice—not overly self-assured, not affectedly blasé, but alert from within a calm. It reads like a nonfiction novel (maybe a novel-in-stories). I thought of Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel, Eileen Myles’s Inferno, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang.

The Marbled Swarm by Dennis Cooper Finally, a new Dennis Cooper novel! Just gonna quote my own blurb here, because I meant it when I said it: “The Marbled Swarm is a mind-bending masterpiece from one of my all-time favorite writers. It is vivid, slippery, ferocious, and rich with secrets. Nobody else could have written this novel and nothing else like it exists.”

Humboldt’s Gift, Herzog, and Collected Stories by Saul Bellow This was my year for discovering Bellow. I mean yes, I knew about him before, but this was the year I really got him—and then couldn’t get enough of him. Such intelligence! Such style! Such vitality! Such heart!

Also: The Shadow of a Great Rock by Harold Bloom The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo Disaster Was My God by Bruce Duffy Train Dreams by Denis Johnson Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines Jeremy Schmall and the Cult of Comfort by Jeremy Schmall You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff

Lev Grossman As told to Salon:

The best book I read this year was George R.R. Martin’s A Dance With Dragons.

I don’t say that lightly. I read a lot of fiction, of all genres, literary fiction very much included, but in every way that matters — its craftsmanship, its ambition, the emotions it stirred up in me — Martin’s novel was the most satisfying reading experience I had this year.

It’s easy to dismiss Martin’s books as commercial, or populist, or whatever derogatory label you want, but that’s a mistake. The work he’s doing, reinterpreting the epic fantasy tradition of Tolkien, is vital cultural work, and he’s doing it with ridiculous brilliance and ruthlessness. He’s turning epic fantasy from a myth into a novel: a story that tells us things about how we live now, our moral confusions and particular sorrows, and that consoles us for them.

As for craft: Yeah, on the level of sentence, you couldn’t stack A Dance With Dragons up against Jeffrey Eugenides’The Marriage Plot, or Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. But as a plotter, an orchestrator and pacer of narratives that weave around and resonate with each other, Martin leaves them far, far behind. Is that important? Maybe not to the people who give out Pulitzers. But it’s important to me. It’s why A Dance With Dragons is the best book I read this year.

Julia Alvarez As told to Algonquin:

Emily Alone by Stewart O’Nan, who became a new favorite. I went on to read several other novels by him including Wish You Were Here and Last Night at the Lobster. A wonderfully detailed and absorbing portrayal of a old age and solitude. It’s amazing how carefully and humbly and beautifully O’Nan casts his spell.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan. I know this novel garnered a lot of praise and earned many awards, which I’d add, are well deserved! I felt mesmerized by these interlocking narratives and Eagan’s ability to capture so many different sensibilities. I also felt as an older novelist that I was getting a glimpse of the styles, wild inventions, about the concerns of a new “postmodern” generation of novelists.

Room by Emma Donoghue. Hands down, this was my favorite novel of the year, and up there with other “permanent” favorites. A haunting novel from the language and perspective of a five-year old—the voice slowly and quietly invaded my thinking so that even after I put the novel down, I was thinking about the world and hearing language in the style of young Jack —the last time I remember this happening in such an absorbing way was with A Hundred Years of Solitude by García Marquez.

Colm Tóibín As told to New York Magazine :

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot wields a tone filled with sympathy for its characters and their plight, which sees into their souls, allows them to live fully in the world. But there is an undertone that is oddly comic, that allows the reader to see, or sense, that there is an author at work, and the author’s talent is to offer us a version of the human predicament that is ambiguous and slyly dark.

Evening’s Empire: A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe, by Craig Koslofsky Evening’s Empire is proof that how we control the night (by sleeping, walking the streets, or just turning on the light) or how the night controls us (by keeping us indoors, afraid, or just in the dark) tells more about our civilization than anything else. The book is an ingenious study of how we, or people like us, conquered darkness and what a difference that made to belief and daily life.

Meg Cabot As told to ChickLit Club:

I’m a sucker for a good mystery, especially a well-written one with a lot of strong female characters, and that’s exactly what I found In Search of the Rose Notes by Emily Arsenault. Rose, a teenage babysitter, vanishes mysteriously after walking home from the house of her preteen charge, Nora, one evening. Nora and her best friend, Charlotte, work as “kid detectives” to try to find their beloved babysitter (thus, “the Rose notes” of the title), and the narrative shifts back and forth between Nora and Charlotte as pre-teens and Nora and Charlotte as adults. Twenty years after the night of Rose’s disappearance, adult Nora is disturbed to learn that the skeletal remains of a girl have just been recovered … it could be the long-lost Rose. Nora reluctantly accepts Charlotte’s invitation to reunite in their old hometown as adults to try to discover what REALLY happened to Rose. Was she murdered by the married father of one of her charges, with whom she might have been sleeping? Or did she merely run away, as she always said she might? And what about Charlotte’s older brother? Could he really know nothing about Rose’s disappearance? In Search of the Rose Notes is a totally engrossing, creepy psychological thriller that had everything I love – precocious pre-teens, a beautiful, smart missing girl, lush writing, a small town, and plenty of suspects who could have done it … or maybe Rose is actually alive, and simply ran away from her terrible life, the way Nora always hoped and dreamed. A perfect read, and one that will stay with you long after you put it down!

Junot Díaz As told to New York Magazine :

The Enculturated Gene: Sickle Cell Health Politics and Biological Difference in West Africa, by Duana Fullwiley For the hard-core braniacs, I recommend Duana Fullwiley’s The Enculturated Gene. A vigorously argued, meticulously researched, disturbingly fascinating ethnography about the politics of sickle-cell anemia in contemporary Senegal that lays bare the tragic consequences that international medicine’s disease ideologies have on the developing world.

Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman For those not willing to go the full nerd, Francisco Goldman’s searing novel Say Her Name is for me the book of the year. This fictionalized account of the heartrending death of Goldman’s wife, Aura Estrada, is a soaring paean to a brilliant young woman and to the infinite invincible power of love.

Paul LaFarge As told to FSG:

Summer camp is on my mind for some reason—maybe things have got so bad, finally, that I miss it—and so my list of favorite 2011 books takes the form of an end-of-camp awards ceremony. Please step up to the campfire when I call your name.

For Most Perplexing Novel of 2011, the award goes to Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, especially the last third, when all the main characters are sitting in their rooms, waiting for something to happen. The award for Hardest Novel to Put Down goes to Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, which, at 575 big pages, is also hard to pick up. The award for Best Sex Scene Involving a Teenager goes to Rebecca Wolff for The Beginners, which has changed the way I think about New England. Now I’m thinking, yikes. The award for Most Thinking in the Fewest Pages goes to Anselm Berrigan for Notes from Irrelevance, which is about everything I know and many things I don’t. And finally, the award for Most Shocking Rhythm Change near the End of a Long Novel goes to Marcel Proust for Le Côté de Guermantes, in which the narrator, having done more or less nothing for many hundreds of pages, finally, in a fit of rage, stomps on the Baron de Charlus’s hat.

Hilary Mantel As told to The Guardian :

Two history books written with flair and dash, both gripping and enjoyable, both filling gaps in the imagination.Thomas Penn’s Winter King is a lively and alarming study of the strange and ferocious Henry VII, the first Tudor king. Helen Castor’s She-Wolves is subtitled The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, and includes a fascinating study of Margaret of Anjou, who rages through Shakespeare’s history plays, dauntless and ferociously energetic, battling on behalf of her fragile husband Henry VI. Penn shows us how an instinctive Machiavellian with a feeble claim to kingship transformed himself into a despot and founded a dynasty. Castor shows how her heroines fought and flourished, despite the affront to the moral order represented by women on the battlefield and women on the throne.

Helen Oyeyemi As told to Salon:

Marina Endicott’s The Little Shadows is my book of the year. It’s mainly about four women: Aurora, Clover, Bella and their mother — a family trying to make a living on the early-20th-century Canadian vaudeville circuit. Here are all the highs and lows and uncertainties that are part of the business of entertaining people. Not that this is a narrative about becoming famous, it’s about getting enough to eat and finding ways to improve your work. The sisters are alert to the kind of pragmatism that enables you to finish a delicious oyster dinner despite just having had bad news. Think of your favorite stories about sisters — the gravity, levity and subtlety with which the lives of siblings are woven together; Endicott puts her own spin on that. She also thinks and writes wonderfully about art and artifice. Vaudeville puts sentiment up for sale, but the thing is not to surrender it cheaply, and this story asks that the performance of feeling be approached with care. After all, as a character in the novel points out, art does such uncanny and essential things with the experience of being alive: “Perfecting it. Making it — realer, or less real. We are only pointing at the moon, but it is the moon.”