This year, I'm going to list these notable releases in reverse order, with commentaries reserved for the top five books:
25. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
24. David Anthony Durham, The Sacred Band
23. Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
22. Moacyr Scliar, Kafka's Leopards
21. R. Scott Bakker, The White-Luck Warrior
20. Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones
19. Julie Otsuka, Buddha in the Attic
18. David Abulafia, The Great Sea
17. Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
16. Debby Dahl Edwardson, My Name is Not Easy
15. Helen Oyeyemi, Mr. Fox
14. Andrew Krivak, The Sojourn
13. Catherynne M. Valente, The Folded World
12. Jesse Ball, The Curfew
11. Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
10. Anders Nilsen, Big Questions
9. Carlos Ruiz Zafón, El Prisionero del Cielo
8. Javier Marías, Los enamoramientos
7. Péter Nádas, Parallel Stories
6. Michael Cisco, The Great Lover
Zone One manages to do something I thought would be nigh-impossible: get me interested in a story that has zombies. Looking beyond Whitehead's near-tone perfect prose (if such a thing is possible; the prose is integral to the story), he hints at moving, tragic stories in just a few sparse descriptions of the more benign zombies' appearances and the places they haunt. Too often the focus of zombie fiction is on the "BRRRAAAAINNNNSSSSSS!" aspect of shoot or be munched upon. What Whitehead does here is turn everything around and explore the idea of a zombie apocalypse through the traumas of the survivors, showing the world (itself often resembling the mindlessness associated with the undead) as a much more complex and brutal place than what is typically glossed over in zombie fiction. The thoughts and digressions of the protagonist "Mark Spitz" (the origins of this cognomen is revealed late in the novel) serve to accentuate the emotional state of someone who may be killing more than the straggling remnants of a decayed, corruptible society.
4. Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again
I reviewed this National Book Award-winning YA novel last month, so I'll keep my thoughts relatively brief here. Lai's story was one of the most moving I read, in part because of my two years teaching immigrant students in Florida a decade ago. The emotion that underlies Lai's simple, direct poem/prose lines is powerful because it is not just a single note played over and over again, but a multitude of emotions, many of which are jumbled up in the narrator's mind, that build a complex, moving story out of fragments and youthful (mis)understandings of the world.
3. Blake Butler, There is No Year
When I reviewed Butler's book back in July, I described it as being:
"Using a mixture of disturbing scenes (the footnoted section on the photographs the son receives a little over halfway through the novel might be one of the most chilling things that I have read in years) and short, staccato passages, Butler has crafted a novel that will linger long in the reader's mind and even longer in her subconscious after the final page has been turned. Not many narratives prove to be the stuff of which dreams (or nightmares) are made, but There Is No Year might be one of those rare examples. It is one of the most original, disturbing, moving novels that I have read in 2011 and it certainly will be part of my annual Best of Year reflective essays."
Those thoughts still stand, as this fractured, weird fiction still lingers in my head nearly six months later.
2. Téa Obreht, The Tiger's Wife
Ever since I read and reviewed The Tiger's Wife right after its March release, I had thought it would be the favorite to be my top selection. It certainly is worthy, as it won this year's Orange Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Obreht's combination of a poignant war story (drawing in part upon her own experiences as a refugee from the fighting in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s), a family narrative, and magical elements creates a powerful novel that I certainly will re-read with delight in the years to come.
Yet there is another book that has haunted me ever since I read it back in September. I have not reviewed it in large part because of it, but it is one of those novels that might stay with me for a lifetime, a rarity in this day and age of disposable novels that are obsolete within six months. Like five others on this list, it's a debut novel and this book may signal the rise of an important new writer in American literature.
1. Justin Torres, We the Animals
At 128 pages the shortest book on this list, We the Animals belies its brevity with its ability to pack an emotional punch. It is an autobiographical novel featuring three boys of a mixed-race marriage of two working class individuals who struggle with their situations. Told from the perspective of the youngest child, the novel unfolds as a series of short, sharp vignettes (rarely more than three or four pages) that show the casual brutality of their lives. Take for instance this passage devoted to the narrator's seventh birthday:
In the morning, we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her throat. Three days ago she had arrived home with both cheeks swollen purple. Paps had carried her into the house and brought her to the bed, where he stroked her hair and whispered in her ear. He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that's how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out. Ma had been in bed every day since – plastic vials of pain pills, glasses of water, half-drunk mugs of tea, and bloody tissues cluttered the floor around her bed. Paps had forbidden us to set foot in the bedroom, and for three mornings we had heeded, monitoring her breath from the doorway, but today we would not wait any longer. (p. 12)
So much is contained within this paragraph. We see the lies that parents will tell to cover up their abuses, the mystery surrounding what could have led to it (the actions of both parents continually puzzle the children throughout the novel), the combination of curiosity and quick acceptance of what the father says – an entire other story laying beneath what is outlined here. Torres does not linger upon the many events of this childhood; we see the traumas and the brutalities and the humiliations that parents and children alike endure and we may paint for ourselves according to the numbers embedded within the plot. Torres' decision to pare We the Animals down to its narrative bones allows readers to develop their own conclusions. For myself, being a teacher of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, what he describes resembles what so many of my former students have told or hinted to me over the past three years.
We the Animals is a searing reading experience. We see the heartaches, the confusion, the outburst of tempers. We see children neglected for most of their lives. We see the struggles that the narrator has with his own sexual identity as he ages and how that impacts the family. Torres easily could have provided a nice, pat ending where either everyone comes together or some other emotional/developmental milestone is reached. Instead, he purposely concludes at the point where the narrator begins a new stage in his life as a young adult. These lingering questions about how casual violence can be, how neglect occurs, and how children deal with traumas have no easy answers; sometimes, there are no answers at all. We the Animals is one of those rare novels that captures the darker sides of families without becoming mawkish. It simply is the most brilliantly executed novel published this year that I've read and therefore the most notable 2011 release.