I wish I could say I liked more books than I did in 2011. I really do. There were so many books I was excited to read, and so few of those lived up to my expectations. I also know I've missed some winners—there are still only so many 400-, 600-, and 800-page tomes I can work my way through. (Sorry, Murakami.) Still, if your reading is limited to just a few books a year, here are some of the ones that shouldn't be missed (and one that should).
State of Wonder (Harper)
It may be flawed, and it may have a problematic ending, but State of Wonder remains the most satisfying novel I've read in 2011. Patchett's Amazonian reimagining of Heart of Darkness contains some of the most beautiful writing of the year. As I wrote in June, "If there is one thing above all else that makes State of Wonder worth reading, it is Patchett's prose. Both lyrical and entrancing, her descriptions envelop you like the tropics envelop her protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh."
Best First Novel
The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown)
The Art of Fielding didn't live up to the hype, and it probably wasn't worth the reputed $650,000 advance paid for it. But unlike a lot of books I read this year, there was joy in it. The novel was too long, the plot was predictable, and the characters weren't fully developed—yes, it was a first novel. But the plot's mixture of romance, academic life, and baseball made the book hard to put down. The Art of Fielding is slight, but it was nothing but a pleasure to read, and I look forward to Harbach's next work. Ditto with runners-up Karen Russell (Swamplandia! [Knopf]) and Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang [Ecco]), whose tales of a quirky families made 2011 a notable year for young Southern writers.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (Andrews McMeel Publishing)
Tomatoland may not have the sparking prose of some of this year's other nonfiction standouts, but its original investigative reporting and important subject matter make it easily the top choice for the best nonfiction book I encountered this year. I wrote in August, "It is a must-read for anyone interested in food, farming, or simply eating—and you will never look at the produce in your grocery store the same way." It's true. I think about this book every time I see stacks of shiny red tomatoes and wonder if modern slavery was behind their trek from farm to store. And if your reaction to Tomatoland is anything like mine, you won't be eating any fresh tomatoes all winter long.
Best Light Reading
The Summer of the Bear (Atlantic Monthly Press)
Attachments is a quiet romance about a slow-blooming IT guy and the girl he loves (whose e-mail he monitors); The Summer of the Bear is a tale of a family suffering from grief in the throes of the Cold War. Both books couldn't be more different, but both go far beyond their premises in terms of emotional honesty and understated storytelling. I discovered both these books by happenstance at the library, and they stand out as two of the better reads I came across this year. Attachments perfectly walks the fine line between its creepy and sweet subject matter, while Pollen's book is almost a John le Carré novel in reverse—what happens to the family after the spy dies (that is, if the man in question is indeed a spy)? Neither novel has the depth of a work like State of Wonder, but that's not a bad thing at all. Light reading can be well-written too.
The Marriage Plot (Farrar Strauss Giroux)
Eugenides' book was the most tedious thing I read all year. I was really excited about this tale of a love triangle between three recent college graduates, but after 80 pages and several bad sex scenes, it became a struggle to slog through the rest of the novel. In my November review, I said, "Eugenides writes at one point, ‘There were some books that reached through the noise of life to grab you by the collar and speak only of the truest things.' If only this could have been one of those books." I still feel the same.