56 of the books I read in 2011 were fiction. Naturally, I had a much harder time choosing my favorites this year. After some tough decisions, here’s what I came up with. The first three are my absolute favorites of the year. I didn’t rank the rest; everything after the jump is listed in alphabetical order by author, but I adored them all.
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (2002 ed.)
Originally published in 1952, East of Eden is a modern retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Set in California, the book follows two generations of the Trask family and the devious woman that binds them together. Everything about the book is breathtaking. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. In my entire life.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (2008)
Revolving around the tenants of 7 rue de Grenelle, Hedgehog is filled with excellent writing and a memorable roster of characters that includes an underestimated concierge and a suicidal twelve-year-old. I laughed. I cried. I wanted to move into that building. This book was so satisfying that I’m sure I’ll be revisiting it again many times in the future.
Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam (2011)
This book is about a middle-aged man and an underage girl that he coerces into going on a cross-country road trip; it’s definitely one of the darker books I read this year. I still get unsettled if I start dwelling on Lamb for too long, but I think that speaks to the power of Nadzam’s writing. Read my review here.
32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter (2011)
A small-town Southern girl leaves behind her painful past and reinvents herself as a successful lounge singer in LA. She learns the hard way — John Hughes-style — that you can’t run away from your problems. If only all chick lit were this well-written. Also: why can’t all book covers be this awesome? Read my review here.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000)
Beginning in 1939, Samuel Klayman and his cousin Josef Kavalier make a name for themselves in the nascent comic book industry. Joe is new to the U.S. and has narrowly escaped Hitler’s occupation of Prague; his primary focus is to get his family to safety. This book won its Pulitzer for a reason.
Galore by Michael Crummey (2011)
Reading this book was like being transported to a different planet. Close enough: readers are transported back in time to cold, isolated regions of Newfoundland. Add in a dash of folklore and some magical realism, and you are left with a strange and unique piece of literary fiction. Read my review here.
The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey (2011)
Jesus has returned for the second coming, but he’s a grungy dude who wastes his money on video games and strippers. He spreads his gospel in non-traditional — some might say blasphemous — ways, and regards the Bible as an outdated book of stories. The book is fabulous. Read my review here.
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (2011)
A fictionalized account of real-life events, Say Her Name is Goldman’s tribute to his vibrant young wife, Aura; she died in a tragic accident just before their second wedding anniversary. The book had some of the most gorgeous writing I encountered all year. Keep a box of tissues nearby. Read my review here.
Faith by Jennifer Haigh (2011)
Set in Boston around the time when news of the Catholic church scandals first broke, Faith is about a priest who is accused of molesting a young boy; his family is left trying to cope with the fallout. Devastating, and I’m now on a mission to read everything Haigh has ever written. Read my review here.
What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz (2011)
This book kind of, sort of, but not really revolves around a real-life murder that took place in Bakersfield, CA right around the time that Hitchcock & Co. was in town to film Psycho. If you like noir, Hitchcock, film history, or literary fiction (or any combination of the above), you might need to pick this one up. Read my review here.