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Year-End Wrap-Up: The 10 Best Novels Of 2011

This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.

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Swamplandia!

Swamplandia!, a novel by 30-year-old Karen Russell, is my absolute favorite of these debut dazzlers. Set in the Florida Everglades at a derelict alligator wrestling theme park, Swamplandia! tells the story of gutsy 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, who struggles to save her father and siblings from sinking down into the primordial ooze. Ava's mother — the headliner of the family's gator act — has just died of cancer, and a rival theme park called the World of Darkness is muscling in on traditional Bigtree territory. There's so much to love about this inventive novel: the squishy, overripe setting; the haunting meditations on death and change; and that exuberant exclamation point (!) in the novel's title. Mostly, though, it's Ava's cocky Huck Finn-sized voice that carries this story forward into the realm of literary magic.

Open City

Open City, by 30-something-er Teju Cole, is set a world apart from palm trees and swamp things. Cole's novel follows a despondent Nigerian doctor named Julius, as he wanders around Manhattan. Here's how Julius introduces his geographically specific story:

And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park ... In this way, at the beginning of my final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.

Open City resurrects the ghosts of Dutch settlers and investigates the new Gotham peopled by Asian, African and Hispanic immigrants. In doing so, it relies on that most elemental of all New York story plots: the tale of a walker in the city.

The Submission

Amy Waldman's debut novel, The Submission, is that rare animal: a political novel that's also elegantly written. It imagines the angry fallout when a jury chooses an anonymous design for a Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero, and the architect turns out to be Muslim American. Although that premise may sound suspiciously "high concept," The Submission ventures far beyond the contrived and, through an ensemble cast of characters, tackles issues like identity politics, the rights of undocumented workers and the stress fractures of democracy. Maybe the most audacious question that's posed by Waldman's novel is the implicit one that lingers long after a reader has finished it: Namely, could it be that a decade after the attacks, America finally has the Sept. 11 novel — one that does justice, artistically and historically, to the aftershocks of that day?

The Art of Fielding

The Art of Fielding, an appealingly goofy debut novel by Chad Harbach, is a baseball novel, cross-pollinated with an academic novel, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age novel. Our hero with a lot to learn, Henry Skrimshander, is recruited to play baseball at little Westish College on the shores of Lake Michigan. Westish's claim to distinction is its fleeting association with Herman Melville; thus, the baseball team is called the "Harpooners" and the college itself is "captained" by a tormented Melville scholar. As in Moby Dick, themes of forbidden love and destructive quests inform The Art of Fielding. Any novel that can make this reader care about the s-l-o-w-e-s-t game ever invented by man is a literary home run worth applauding.

The Illumination

Kevin Brockmeier is no fiction novice, although, until this year's publication of his novel The Illumination, he's gotten more critical attention for his short stories than his longer works. The Illumination is an unnerving spiritual fantasy about how we humans would (or would not) respond if we could actually see each other's wounds — physical and emotional — glowing through our bodies. Structured as a series of linked stories in which characters hand off a dead woman's collection of love letters to each other (and, by the way, these are some of the most affecting love letters any writer has ever dreamt up), The Illumination itself glows with the awareness of its characters' sufferings and the bright light of inspiration.

The Leftovers

Another compelling spiritual fantasy, of sorts, was brought out this year by Tom Perrotta: The Leftovers looks at some folks left behind after a Rapture-like event has spontaneously vaporized their (perhaps more fortunate) friends and family members. Perrotta's characters must cope with the empty chairs at the family table, as well as with the shame of their own loser status. Although The Leftovers displays the wry sensibility of Perrotta's best-known suburban social novel, Little Children, like that predecessor, it also morphs into a more elegiac reflection on loneliness and the existential mystery that lies beneath our everyday routines.

The Marriage Plot

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides is a deft academic satire set in the 1980s that spins out a romance as it merrily eviscerates the Invasion of the Literary Theorists in English Departments across the land. Our lovely heroine, Madeleine Hanna, is a creature out of joint with the times: She's an English major at Brown who immerses herself in Austen and George Eliot because she actually thinks their great novels edify and entertain! Hipster boyfriends surround Madeleine, waving copies of Derrida and preaching ruthless skepticism in literature and love. Will Madeleine's scrupulous close reading skills help her discern which suitor is the truest of heart? If you know your 19th-century novel, as Eugenides clearly does, you can anticipate the answer here.

State of Wonder

Readers go deep into another treacherous terrain — the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil — in Ann Patchett's State of Wonder, an ingenious female twist on the Heart of Darkness plot. Dr. Marina Singh, a single 42-year-old research scientist working for a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota, is sent to Brazil to locate the remains of her deceased lab partner, a gentle soul who was himself sent into the jungle to find a researcher gone rogue. Apart from a secret, tepid affair with her boss, the most profound human connection Marina has had for years has been the daily round of small talk she's shared with her dead colleague. With so little to lose, Marina sets off for the jungle, dully suspecting that what awaits her there may well be "the horror, the horror."

Train Dreams

This spare and vivid novella was first published in The Paris Review in 2002. Since then, Denis Johnson won the National Book Award for his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke (2007). Train Dreams transports readers deep into the landscape of American mythology, stripped of heroics. Set primarily in 1920, it evokes the quiet, harsh life of those solitary men who built the railroads and felled the trees of the Pacific Northwest. The novella's main (and practically only) character is a man named Robert Grainier. Grainier loses his wife and only child to a wildfire; but, like the scorched forest that surrounds him, he slowly and stoically finds a way to return to life.

The Pale King

David Foster Wallace's posthumously published, unfinished novel, The Pale King, clocks in at over 500 densely printed pages. No matter. Every few block paragraphs or so, a sentence will bubble to the surface that's so genuine, it makes you realize how artificial, by comparison, so much other fiction is. The Pale King, which is ostensibly about an IRS agent and his officemates, is an epic about work — its dullness and its demands. This is a singular novel, and the fact that it exists in its present form is a testament to Wallace's dedicated editor, Michael Pietsch, who pieced the novel together from manuscripts and notes left behind after Wallace's death in 2008. Both Jeffrey Eugenides and Chad Harbach pay implicit tribute to Wallace in their novels mentioned earlier in this list; The Pale King further illuminates why — to lay readers and writerly colleagues alike — Wallace's work was so profound and startling.

To End All Wars

Adam Hochschild's To End All Wars is a pensive narrative history of the pacifist resistance to World War I. Hochschild says that "by conflict's end, more than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft." To his credit, Hochschild renders the pacifists' tales no less compelling than those of the soldiers in the trenches. It's an oddity of history — and a boon to Hochschild's narrative — that some of the most vocal critics of the war were closely related to its military leaders and most vocal civilian supporters. Hochschild's account ultimately investigates the deeper social and moral questions of how conventional wisdom is formed and what it takes to stand up against it.

The Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, which won this year's National Book Award for nonfiction, unearths the riveting story of an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini, who, one fateful day in 1417, stumbled across what was then the only known surviving copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's On the Nature of Things. It was a discovery, Greenblatt says, that would kick-start the Renaissance and usher in all manner of thought that we consider "modern." Pretty huge claims, but Greenblatt is both scholar and storyteller enough to support them. Among other radical notions, Lucretius claimed that all matter is composed of atoms and that human beings simply return to this cosmic atomic dance when we die. The Swerve makes readers appreciate the fragility of cultural inheritance and the need to safeguard books — especially the good ones — from the ubiquitous dust of neglect and casual indifference.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that 2011 was a banner year for fiction, especially novels written by first-time novelists. That's why her best books of the year is dominated by fiction, but a couple of non-fiction titles make the cut as well.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This was a year of terrific first novels, some of them written by writers so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. "Swamplandia!" a debut novel by 30-year-old Karen Russell, is my absolute favorite of these dazzlers. Set in the Florida Everglades at a rundown alligator wrestling theme park, "Swamplandia!" tells the story of 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, who saves her economically struggling family from sinking down into the primordial ooze.

It's Ava's cocky, Huck Finn-size voice that carries this story forward into the realm of literary magic. Another standout debut novel, "Open City," by 30-something-er Teju Cole, is set a world apart from palm trees and swamp things. Cole's novel follows a despondent young Nigerian doctor, a resident in psychiatry, as he wanders around Manhattan thinking about the ghosts of Dutch settlers and encountering the city's newer immigrants from China and Africa.

"Open City" resurrects that most elemental of all New York plots – that is, the tale of a walker in the city. Amy Waldman's debut novel "The Submission" is that rare animal - political novel that's also elegantly written. It imagines the angry fallout when a jury chooses an anonymous design for a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero and the architect turns out to be Muslim-American.

Although that premise sounds suspiciously high-concept, "The Submission" ventures far beyond the contrived and probes the stress fractures of democracy. "The Art of Fielding," a striking debut novel by Chad Harbach, is a baseball novel cross-pollinated with an academic novel all wrapped up in a coming-of-age novel.

Any novel that can make me care about the slowest game ever invented by man is a literary home-run worth applauding. Now it's time to turn to wonderful novels written by writers who've been around the block a few times. "The Illumination" by Kevin Brockmeier is an unnerving fantasy about how we would respond if we could actually see each other's wounds, physical and emotional, glowing through our bodies.

It also contains some of the most effecting everyday love letters any writer has ever dreamt of. Another compelling spiritual fantasy of sorts was brought out this year by Tom Perrotta. "The Leftovers" wryly looks at some folks left behind in suburbia after the Rapture has happened.

"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides is a deft, academic novel that spins out a romance as it merrily eviscerates the literary theory invasion of the 1980s in English departments throughout the land. Readers go deep into another treacherous terrain: the Amazonian rainforest in Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," an ingenuous female twist on the heart of darkness plot.

Finally, two literary triumphs of contrasting proportions round out my best fiction list. Denis Johnson's spare and extraordinary novella "Train Dreams" transports us deep into the landscape of American mythology stripped of heroics. Set in 1920, it evokes the quiet, harsh life of those solitary men who built the railroads and felled the trees.

David Foster Wallace's posthumously published unfinished novel "The Pale King" clocks in at over 500 densely printed pages. No matter. Every few paragraphs or so, a sentence will bubble to the surface that's so genuine it makes you realize how artificial by comparison so much other fiction is. "The Pale King," which is ostensibly about an IRS agent and his office mates, is an epic about work, its dullness and its demands.

I've just named 10 books in this best books list and I haven't even mentioned any non-fiction yet. So let me quickly squeeze in two unforgettable works of non-fiction that came out this year. Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars" is a pensive narrative history of the pacifist resistance to World War I. Hochschild says that by conflict's end, more than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft.

His account also investigates the larger moral question of how conventional wisdom is formed and what it takes to stand up against it. Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve," which just won the National Book Award, unearths the riveting story of an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini who one fateful day in 1417 stumbled across the sole surviving copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's work on the nature of things.

It was a discovery, Greenblatt says, that would kick-start the Renaissance and usher in all manner of thought that we consider modern. "The Swerve" makes readers appreciate the fragility of cultural inheritance and the need to safeguard books, especially the good ones, from the ubiquitous dust of neglect and casual indifference.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You'll find her list of the best books of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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