2011 was a great year for fiction — novels and short story collections alike. Many “Best of” lists published so far are spot-on, but let's face it: although literature has some notable guidelines for what makes it “good,” individual taste still has a lot do with it. Below are the page-turning titles that had me staying up late, avoiding chores, not looking at Facebook, and inspiring that splendid submergence in a story that never, ever gets old. In fact, the older I get, the closer I come to sprouting a third eye just so I can read more.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
You'll follow 13-year-old Ava Bigtree anywhere she wants to go, including several islands modeled on the Everglades off the coast of Florida, where the Bigtree family — once purveyors of a successful alligator theme park — has unraveled after the death of Mrs. Bigtree. The novel also follows Ava's older brother as he barely survives on mainland Florida as an employee of a competing theme park modeled on Hell. This is a deftly written work of American magical realism, but the real magic in this novel dwells in the perceptions of its protagonists and in the breathtaking imagination of first-time novelist Karen Russell.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
English author Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for this compact, albeit emotionally packed, new novel. The mystery at the heart of this story is not just an interesting plot point (although there is one), but the mystery of a whole life reflected on by the book's narrator, who is a bit of a mystery to himself. The book thrums with regret, but in true Barnesian fashion, there is always something quizzical in the tragedy, something perversely unresolved as characters grope toward meanings that remain irretrievable.
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Few books are as much fun as this faux memoir, which chronicles the life of Arthur Phillips, son of an incarcerated forger, a hater of Shakespeare, and a reluctant spokesperson for a newly discovered Shakespeare play. In fact, one-fourth of this novel is the play — a remarkable feat of mimicry and a testament to Phillips's abundant gifts as a writer. I highly recommended for the Bard-loving obsessive romantics in your life.
There But For The by Ali Smith
In between dinner and dessert, Miles Garth locks himself in a guest bedroom and stays there for several months. But this is only the story happening in the background. In the foreground are four characters whose minds we traverse via internal monologue and whose observations, wordplay, memories, and habits of mind build the momentum for this mysterious book. Would time exist without language? Why did the man throw the clock out of the upstairs window? (So he could watch time fly.) Ali Smith is one of the most playful and virtuosic writers using the English language today.
Ladies and Gentlemen by Adam Ross
In this collection of startlingly suspenseful stories, a man desperately seeks employment with a mysterious corporation while bonding with a neighbor's troubled son; a group of college students tries to one-up each other with tales of tragedy that turn suddenly real; and a world-weary English Professor finds himself intrigued by — and then embroiled in — his college handyman's gritty personal life. Adam Ross's stories are full of tense moments and surprise endings that give this collection the pace of a thriller, while his prose shines with the clarity and depth of literary art.