I won’t claim these are the best books of 2011, but I really enjoyed them and most of the titles have appeared on other "best of the year" lists.
The Art of Fielding: a Novel by Chad Harbach
Harbach's first novel examines life, love, and baseball at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. Like a baseball season, the story goes up and down and brings you to a conclusion that can leave you feeling a little frustrated, but it's still a great book.
Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
A family of performance artists finally come to terms with just how important art is to each of them. It's all very clever and knowing, but it's also as dark and funny as anything you'll read all year. Wilson writes stylishly, with a clear eye for family dysfunction and the absurdity of the contemporary art world, but his real skill is technical, building up a slow-drip mystery.
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Set in the early 1980s, three recent college graduates embark on a journey towards love, God, self-discovery, and impending adulthood in this heartbreaker of a book. The author said that he wanted to write a Jane Austen novel, and there is just about as much detail as is in her books. Many readers think one of the characters is based on David Foster Wallace.
My New American Life by Francine Prose
Lula, a twenty-six-year-old Albanian woman living surreptitiously in New York City on an expiring tourist visa, hopes to make a better life for herself in America. Unlike many immigrant novels, this one is light-hearted, and you will learn some Albanian history.
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson
A private investigator sets out to find a woman's natural parents, and a very likeable retired woman police officer embarks on a new life. Witty, sardonic, literate, often more than slightly surreal, the Jackson Brodie mysteries are anything but routine whodunits.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The author of Bel Canto poses many intriguing ideas about how we live in her modern-day Heart of Darkness, which swaps the Congo for the Amazon and ivory hunters for pharmaceutical researchers but probes some of the same issues of imperialism, guilt and responsibility, of power and its use and abuse. The story includes two very strong, brave women.
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Russell's story at first seems preposterous and campy - the Bigtree family runs a roadside attraction, Swamplandia!, in Florida, but Russell writes brilliantly about the characters and the Florida swamps. The clan has wrestled alligators for tourists for generations, but now the family business is in trouble.
Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson
It starts dark - the accidental overdose of a Vermont teenager on the last night of 1987 and goes darker - the AIDS crisis, drugs, hardcore punk, secrets, lies. But the grittiness of this book never overshadows its poignancy.
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson
An enthralling reinterpretation of The House of Mirth that reminds us that there are contemporary Lily Barts. In debt and unmarried, Esther Wilson works at a clothing boutique and lives with her wealthy grandmother, Eileen, whose financial generosity is orchestrated to "encourage dependence". Esther's sense of integrity and her desire for love are so understandable, yet they continually bring her into conflict with her materialistic family and acquaintances in Newport Beach.