Best Books of 2011

The Bureau Editors on the most arresting fiction and nonfiction reads of the year.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

By reputation, The Art of Fielding is this year’s Freedom. It’s a much-buzzed about (Harbach’s Vanity Fair piece nearly rivals Franzen’s TIME cover) lengthy, deeply American literary work. But as a novel, Fielding is Freedom‘s polar opposite. While Franzen’s tome embraced messiness — of ambiguous politics and family drama — Chad Harbach’s debut is a perfectly elliptical story, methodically paced and elegantly told.

Fielding sets its scenes on the campus of Westish College, a fictitious liberal arts school in the Midwest, where the lives of five people become complicated by a single baseball thrown horribly off course. Harbach writes with the confidence and patience of a seasoned novelist. The Art of Fielding has the feel of a classic novel, inviting you not just to read but to settle into it. — Kevin


The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper by Kate Ascher

Sometimes, the right book reaches you at the right time. For the last nine months or so, a construction crew has been building a low-rise next to my office, so I’ve been able to watch the whole thing from start to its current state of partial completion (they’re pouring concrete on the eighth floor now).

No surprise, then, that one of the books that I enjoyed the most this year was The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper. It’s a visually arresting tour of every aspect of skyscrapers, from foundation to penthouse, re-bar to glass curtain wall, architectural history to the philosophy of space layout.

As The Heights points out, we spend about ninety percent of our time indoors, many of us in skyscrapers old and new—so you don’t have to be a technology or architecture buff to find something interesting in the book. — Assistant Editor Darryl Campbell


Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler & Maira Kalman

Why We Broke Up takes the form of long letter, written by the recently heartbroken Min and addressed to her first love, Ed. She’s returning a box of sentimental tokens, each summoning a bittersweet memory of their relationship. Daniel Handler (best known as Lemony Snicket) has imagined Min and Ed broadly enough to be relatable, yet specific enough to feel like people of their own. Their courtship reads like the dream; the heartbreak feels devastating and inevitable. To make the book even more precious, each item in Min’s box is wonderfully illustrated by Maira Kalman (The Pursuit of Happiness). Every young adult book is hankering to be a crossover hit, but in a year flooded by even more dystopian Hunger Games wannabes than the last, Why We Broke Up reaffirms why teen fiction is worth reading as an adult. — Kevin


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The Magician King by Lev Grossman

In 2009’s The Magicians Lev Grossman wanted to show that discovering the existence of magic, a la Harry Potter, would not suddenly solve all of life’s problems. In fact, he focused so much on ensuring that his angsty teenage main character, Quentin Coldwater, learned this lesson that he forgot to make the book fun.

He didn’t make the same mistake twice. In this year’s follow-up, The Magician King, Grossman gives his magic users cool and exciting lives, and as if by some sorcery of prose, those properties transfer to the book itself. In this installment, Quentin sets off on a grand adventure, as he storms castles, chats up dragons, confronts gods, and sails to the end of the world. His narrative burden is lightened too, as the backstory of Julia, a minor character in The Magicians, takes up half the book. Her sections offer a much needed change of perspective, serving as a dark and desperate foil to Quentin’s comparatively lighthearted journey.

To its credit, The Magician King preaches no simple lessons. But this time around, the magic of Grossman’s world and the magicians who inhabit it are, more than anything, just plain interesting. And that’s how it should be. — Editor Nick Martens


Big Questions by Anders Berkhus Nilsen

Big Questions is a 600-page comic about finches who, among other things, ask a lot of existential questions. Anders Berkhus Nilsen has been working on the darkly funny Big Questions since 1999, which has appeared in part as various mini-comics. The illustrations are decidedly inconsistent, but there’s a surprisingly uniform vision throughout the book. Between the parallel story lines that involve a plane crash, a bomb, a bird lost underground, and a bullying pack of crows, there’s a sweeping tale that confronts loneliness, survival, and the meaning of life. It’s impressive how cohesive the book is, but maybe the ten years Nilsen spent trying to answer those big questions just made them all the more resonant. — Kevin


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Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myrhvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet

Innovation is slow in the world of cookbooks. Every year, you can count on the usual crop of celebrity chef cookbooks (Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, and someone from Top Chef), household references (Williams-Sonoma, Betty Crocker, America’s Test Kitchen), and contributions from the hot new restaurants of the year. Most of these will be pretty good cookbooks, but won’t offer much new.

Not so for Modernist Cuisine, the Plexiglas-encased, six-volume, 50-pound monster. Yes, a lot of the coverage has focused on its more ridiculous recommendations, of which there are many — the book recommends a $2,500 rotary evaporator to help you concentrate fruit juice, without a trace of irony, for instance. But Modernist Cuisine’s rigorous look at the science behind “traditional” cooking, from wok-frying to the RonCo Rotisserie Oven, will teach you a lot about topics you thought you knew about already. It’s impossible to go even ten pages without re-thinking your culinary convictions.

In short, this is no mere catalog of food trends. Even if you don’t have $650 to blow on a cookbook, it’s a cookbook that’s worth browsing — which might involve no more than a trip to your nearest college library. — Darryl


The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

With The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips has crafted a cleverly structured novel that takes place within the introduction to a fake Shakespearian play. The story is told by a fictionalized version of the author, whose father has uncovered an unpublished work by the Bard. But when Phillips starts to question the play’s authenticity, it tangles up ideas about truth, honesty, and the inherent subjectivity of written language. Beneath the wit and self-winking, The Tragedy of Arthur is an affecting family drama about a complicated father-son relationship with echoes of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. — Kevin


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We the Animals by Justin Torres

We the Animals might be best enjoyed in a single sitting. Torres’s prose is swift, fierce, and often lyrical. The book opens with narrator at age 7, who speaks in the plural “we” alongside his brothers Manny and Joel. They’re inseparable, and together they witness frustrations of their working-class parents. But this isn’t simply a story about an abusive father or a broken home (though at times both appear to be true). Through the domestic chaos, Torres illuminates moments of happiness, fear, and loss in a loving and sometimes dangerous household. Over the final chapters, the “we” shifts to “I,” marking a transformation to adulthood. Torres has done an impressive thing with We the Animals: he’s reinvented the coming-of-age story. — Kevin


Orientation: And Other Stories by Daniel Orozco

Writers love to explore friendship, domesticity, and love, but the workplace is still relatively virgin territory. At worst, office fiction insists on the utter soullessness of working life, and in that respect feels like warmed-over Marxism (“in this estrangement… the proletariat feels annihilated”). But this year, there were a few notable books that broke out of the confines of soft political theory, including David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King and Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, a collection of stories edited by Richard Ford.

For me, the standout was Orientation by Daniel Orozco. Each short story in this collection comments on one aspect of involuntary association, from the resentment of bodyguards assigned to an ex-Central American dictator to the psychosis lurking underneath the placid surface of professionalism (whether it’s played for laughs, as in the title story, or used to brutal effect, in “I Run Every Day”). Most of all, Orozco isn’t obsessed with the complaints of the white professional class: he covers a much broader swath of human experience. — Darryl


Supergods by Grant Morrison

It takes a lot of talent to make Superman interesting. He’s a bland superhero without any human weakness. But, as Grant Morrison identifies in Supergods, it’s what Superman says about us that makes him endlessly fascinating. Superhero mythologies are a reflection of the eras from which they were born (Superman, for example, was a post-Great Depression hero, built to symbolize the strength of blue-collar individualism). And perhaps nobody is more qualified to give a full history of superheroes than Grant Morrison, considered by many to be the great superhero storyteller of modern comics (read All Star Superman and you’ll understand why). I didn’t love the autobiographical rambling toward the end of the book, but overall, Supergods is a tremendous 20th-century history of comics, superheroes, and most importantly, the human race. It’s like if the Superman monologue from Kill Bill Vol. 2 was a 400-page book. — Kevin


Photos taken at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.