This wasn't a stellar year for books, but 2011 did see a number of fine works, including a few that should stand the test of time.
The book industry itself is in transition, with "old-school" publishers taking it on the chin (except for such mega-selling literary litter as James Patterson and Danielle Steel). The e-books market is growing, but still waiting for its first major, quality bestseller, while recent foreign fiction is getting easier to find despite the dismal economy.
So here's a list of eight favorite books of 2011, offered as always with a reminder that these are only one person's favorites — and that no critic can possibly read every acclaimed book published each year. To broaden the selection a bit, I've added a list of well-reviewed books I wish I had had time to read. Consider these extras as recommendations, too.
Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind (HarperCollins). This telling inside look at the Obama White House paints a picture of an inexperienced new president who inherited a financial disaster, and then, for some reason, ditched his campaign's economic advisers, and so found himself dependent for advice from Wall Streeters who "had contributed to the very financial disaster they were hired to solve."
The Chitlin' Circuit: And the Road to Rock 'n' Roll by Preston Lauterbach (W.W. Norton). A lively, eye-opening look at the network of clubs, mostly Southern and black in the pre-Civil Rights era, and run by a collection of rough-edged, colorful characters, which became a major influence on the development of rock 'n' roll.
Rock The Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World by Robin Wright (Simon & Schuster). Wright, a well-traveled expert on the Middle East, gives much-needed context for "the epic convulsion across the Islamic world." This is lively writing, portraying the inspiring rise of a vague yet determined "counter-jihad," more interested in personal liberties, including for women, than in fighting infidels and foreign devils.
Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt). Horwitz, an excellent storyteller, uses a well-paced narrative to relate the extraordinary events surrounding the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid by abolitionist/religious fanatic/terrorist John Brown and a couple dozen followers. Sharp character studies of Brown, his fractured family, his idealistic "soldiers," and financial backers enrich a story already filled with deep American cross-currents — race, religion, freedom, the rule of money, political terrorism — that still roil the national consciousness today.
Also Recommended: The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan by Bradford Martin (Hill & Wang); Into The Vinyl Deeps by Ellen Willis (U. of Minnesota Press); Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (Ecco). Smart, funny fiction, and one of this year's more delightful surprises, The Family Fang is the story of two acclaimed performance artists and their two children, Annie and Buster, who were raised to take part in their parents' very public, and frequently illegal, art form. Years later, the kids are grown, their lives are a big mess, and they reluctantly move back in with the folks. Soon, they get the impression they're possibly being ensnared by one last big performance art piece.
Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet (W.W. Norton). A UNC graduate and 2010 Pulitzer finalist, Millet's reputation has soared the past couple of years. Ghost Lights, the second part of a trilogy, is about Hal, a drab IRS employee, who is so addled and bored, he volunteers to find his wife's employer, lost somewhere in Belize. Millet's elegant, serene narration belies the inner tumult of her characters, at odds with the natural world and pining for deliverance of one sort or another.
You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik (Europa). Set in Paris at a private high school for children of the wealthy, this riveting, challenging debut novel is about Will Silver, a brilliant teacher whose charisma and openness make him a student favorite. He's careful to respect normal boundaries between student and teacher. Well, up to a point — which is where the novel rockets from charming school story to blistering examination of idealism, modern moral quandaries, and difficulties dealing with power and self-worth.
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead). Wolitzer is uneven at times, but when she's on, she writes novels as smart, insightful and moving as The Uncoupling. With a penetrating eye for telltale details and a wicked gift for comedic timing, Wolitzer transcends the "gabby suburbanite" genre to which she's often relegated in this tale of a town where ancient Greek theater unexpectedly blends with events that could be supernatural or simply all-too-natural.
Books I Wish I'd Had Time To Read
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann (Knopf); Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. (Random House); The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel by David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown); Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. (Ecco/HarperCollins); 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Knopf); Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson (Ecco/HarperCollins).