Every time year-end list season rolls around, I get gun-shy when it comes to ranking my picks. I mean, I love all of these books—why do they have to compete with one another? So what usually happens is a kind of flip-floppy Everybody Gets A Trophy Day, where it’s impossible to tell what’s the best of the best, and what just barely made the cut.
Well, no more! This year, I’m putting numbers down.
A little context: as of this writing, I’ve read 44 books released in 2011 (not counting translations). Most I’ve already written about in some capacity; links to full reviews are provided wherever possible.
Okay. Here we go. I hope you enjoy it. It’s taken me fucking weeks to pin this thing down. I will sleep soundly tonight.
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(5) Kate Beaton, Hark! A Vagrant (Drawn and Quarterly)
My knowledge of Canadiana is spotty at best. So thank goodness for Kate Beaton, whose long-beloved webcomic starts with a deep understanding of our nation’s history, then runs it through a filter of petty bickering, yeti cameos, and dick jokes. If you’re not careful, you might learn something between the guffaws. (And don’t worry, internationals: she also takes on everything from King Lear to Wonder Woman’s weird costume to an entrepreneur shouting, “Gentlemen, I propose my bottom!”) Lovingly collected in one beautiful volume by Drawn & Quarterly, it reads like the world’s greatest textbook doodling.
(4) John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
GQ's best-kept secret does an elegant high-dive into the depths of American culture in this, his first collection of essays. Sullivan is a modern virtuoso of the form, and his instincts are impeccable: from Michael Jackson to murderous stingrays, cave paintings to One Tree Hill, he digs up the weird and the wonderful every time. Best of all is Sullivan’s authorial voice, whose curiosity and humanity are enviably evergreen. If I put it out there that I think we’d make great pals, that’s not weird, right? Right?
Sure, using the first-person plural will automatically lend your book a kind of stately resonance, but Hannah Pittard’s debut novel actually deserves to keep it. The chorus in Fates is a pack of hormonal, secretly grieving teenage boys, obsessed—for years—with a suddenly departed female classmate. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is how Pittard conducts her headstrong choir: it shifts and coalesces into several distinct shapes, each boy given small moments of individual mourning before slowly retreating into the anonymous blob.
(2) Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers (House of Anansi)
Let’s not be coy. The multi-award-winning sophomore novel from Vancouver Island native Patrick deWitt is every bit as good as the hype, and anyone who says otherwise is probably just playing some kind of weird contrarian game. DeWitt’s revisionist, picaresque Western mixes in exhilarating dashes of black humour and cover-your-eyes violence—but these have been written about a million times. Instead, let me praise the oft-overlooked climax, which brings Eli and Charlie face to face with the inventor they’ve been hunting, as well as a gold-rush claim whose spoils literally glow in the dark. (Repeat disclosure: deWitt is my friend. Do with that what you will.)
(1) Chris Bachelder, Abbott Awaits (Louisiana State University Press)
Reason #863 why mainstream publishing deserves to go down in flames: it let the third novel by the brilliant Chris Bachelder slip right through its fingers. Abbott Awaits is a novel-in-vignettes about a father struggling to get through the day-to-day of his summer vacation, and it deserves to be trumpeted on Eugenidesian billboards across the continent. Hilarious, not to mention structurally daring and gorgeously rendered, it captures middle-class masculinity in all its rudderless, petulant, cripplingly self-conscious glory. Yet you won’t find it in any bookstore, and that is a goddamn crime.
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