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Find more Booklist Editors' Choice, 2011
The Adult Books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public library collections. Our scope has been intentionally broad, and we have attempted to find books that combine literary, intellectual, and aesthetic excellence with popular appeal.
Arts & Literature
33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day. By Dorian Lynskey. Ecco, paper, $19.99 (9780061670152).
British music critic Lynskey offers a completely absorbing look at 33 protest songs, spanning seven decades and hailing from five continents. Comprehensive and beautifully written.
The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ’n’ Roll. By Preston Lauterbach. Norton, $26.95 (9780393076523).
In this major work of cultural history, Lauterbach portrays seminal musicians and uncovers the intriguing secrets of the “chitlin’ circuit,” a thriving African American subculture that nurtured early rock ’n’ roll.
Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. By John Updike. Ed. by Christopher Carduff. Knopf, $40 (9780307957153).
The last collection of occasional pieces by the late, great man of American letters is a book to be kept at hand and appreciated for a long time to come.
The Paper Garden: An Artist (Begins Her Life’s Work) at 72. By Molly Peacock. Bloomsbury, $28 (9781608195237).
Poet Peacock marvels over the remarkable life of English artist Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700–1788) and her “flower mosaiks,” exquisitely detailed paper botanical collages, in this exalted inquiry into creativity.
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. By Susan Orlean. Simon & Schuster, $26.99 (9781439190135).
In a passionate work of discovery, Orlean chronicles the never-before-told, genuinely dramatic, and surprisingly consequential story of canine hero and film and television star Rin Tin Tin, shining light on many overlooked facets of American history. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theater. By Garry Wills. Viking, $25.95 (9780670023042).
Wills’ joyously engaged and scholarly yet personable essay is not just a treat but also a banquet succulent enough to make Shakespeareans and Verdians of all who partake of it.
Becoming Dr. Q: My Journey from Migrant Farm Worker to Brain Surgeon. By Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa and Mim Eichler Rivas. Univ. of California, $27.50 (9780520271180).
Quiñones-Hinojosa tells the inspiring story of how he left Mexico to pursue a better life and ended up becoming a Johns Hopkins University neurosurgeon, professor, and brain-cancer research scientist.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. By Robert K. Massie. Random, $35 (9780679456728).
Ace biographer Massie’s dramatic account of Catherine the Great’s ascent from minor German princess to absolute autocrat of Russia humanizes the real woman behind the imperial persona.
The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President. By Candice Millard. Doubleday, $28.95 (9780385526265).
This is a splendidly insightful, dynamic three-way biography of our second assassinated president, James Garfield; Charles Guiteau, the president’s assassin; and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who attempted to locate the bullet in the dying president’s body.
Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock. By David Margolick. Yale, $26 (9780300141931).
This dual biography takes a complex look at two women at the center of a historic moment—the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957.
George F. Kennan: An American Life. By John Lewis Gaddis. Penguin, $39.95 (9781594203121).
This biography, with its documentary thoroughness and lucidity about its enigmatic, fragile subject, must stand as the definitive portrait of the uniquely influential diplomat and historian.
John Huston: Courage and Art. By Jeffrey Meyers. Crown Archetype, $30 (9780307590671).
Veteran biographer Meyers steps into the ring with legendary movie director John Huston and proves adept at wrestling the larger-than-life figure onto the page. A multifaceted picture of how a flawed man produced many nearly flawless films.
Obama on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President. By Justin A. Frank. Free Press, $26 (9781451620634).
Using psychoanalytic techniques, Frank examines Obama’s memoirs and speeches to explore the reasons for the seeming gaps between his behavior as candidate and as president. A completely intriguing look at a complicated man.
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark. By Brian Kellow. Viking, $27.95 (9780670023127).
In a greatly revelatory portrait, Kellow details all of the major and minor stages in the life of vastly influential movie critic Pauline Kael.
Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation. By Andrea Wulf. Knopf, $30 (9780307269904).
Wulf argues that the passion for horticulture shared by Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison profoundly influenced the shape of American governance in this exceedingly well-researched, dynamic, and insightful history.
The Greater Journey: American in Paris. By David McCullough. Simon & Schuster, $37.50 (9781416571766).
The author relates the fascinating tale of the many Americans, most of them in the arts, who were soul-drawn to Paris between 1830 and 1900.
Jerusalem: The Biography. By Simon Montefiore. Knopf, $35 (9780307266514).
While sometimes painful to read, this is an essential book for those who wish to understand a city that remains a nexus of world affairs.
Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels. By Kevin Young. Knopf, $27.95 (9780307267641).
Young’s magnificent cycle of poems, which takes many forms, including a libretto, tells the signal story of the Amistad rebels with galvanizing artistry and insight.
Dear Prudence: New and Selected Poems. By David Trinidad. Turtle Point, paper, $19 (9781933527475).
Trinidad’s lucid, amusing, and sad autobiographical poems evince fascination with the feminine and mass-media entertainment while offering soulful candor about gay life.
The Book of Universes: Exploring the Limits of the Cosmos. By John D. Barrow. Norton, $26.95 (9780393081213).
In a narrative laced with humor and poetry, Barrow conducts readers on a tour of the dazzling array of Einsteinian universes. A mind-expanding look at the world of cosmology.
Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,000 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them. By Donovan Hohn. Viking, $27.95 (9780670022199).
In this dazzling science travelogue, Hohn journeys from beaches to factories to the northern seas to determine what happened to 28,000 Chinese-manufactured plastic animals after they fell off a container ship en route to Seattle.
A Planet of Viruses. By Carl Zimmer. Univ. of Chicago, paper, $20 (9780226983363).
Viruses are everywhere, Zimmer tells us in his information-packed, superbly readable scientific inquiry, and what matters is not that we have to live with viruses but that we cannot live without them.
The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments. By Jim Baggott. Oxford, $29.95 (9780199566846).
Laid out in 40 episodes clustered around seven themes, Baggott’s engrossing chronicle of the making of quantum physics portrays the icons of nuclear science battling one another in an ongoing struggle to fathom the universe.
The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water. By Charles Fishman. Free Press, $26.99 (9781439102077).
Fishman presents a lively, eye-opening, and invaluable assessment of the politics, economics, and culture of water; warns us about deteriorating infrastructure; and calls for a reasonable “water-use revolution.”
Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. By Steven Brill. Simon & Schuster, $28 (9781451611991).
Writing with amazing energy and excitement, journalist Brill makes a compelling argument that the forces at work behind school reform are making slow but steady progress toward reversing the failure of public schools.
Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris. By David King. Crown, $26 (9780307452894).
This true-crime account of respected doctor Marcel Petiot, who tortured and dismembered at least a score of victims during the WWII Nazi occupation of Paris, has a top-notch thriller’s immediacy and the power to make the reader gasp.
The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Inequality around the Globe. By Branko Milanovic. Basic, $25.95 (9780465019748).
Milanovic defies the typical image of an economist by presenting research overlaid with humor, literary insights, and fully imagined portraits of daily life as he examines inequality across time and continents.
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. By James Gleick. Pantheon, $28.95 (9780375423727).
Best-selling Gleick’s tour de force is the first book to fully chronicle the amazing story of information, our hunger for connectedness, and how profoundly information science has transformed human thought and life.
The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White. By Daniel J. Sharfstein. Penguin, $27.95 (9781594202827).
Legal scholar Sharfstein demonstrates the fluidity and arbitrariness of racial classification as he chronicles the lives of three African American families who passed themselves off as white during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska. By Colleen Mondor. Lyons, $22.95 (9780762773619).
In this gripping memoir, Mondor, formerly an operations manager for an airline servicing Alaska’s remotest settlements, chronicles the rigors of wilderness flying and portrays pilots professional and daredevil.
The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War. By David Willman. Bantam, $27 (9780553807752).
Investigative reporter Willman deftly chronicles how Bruce Ivins’ life of suspicions and obsessions merged with the panicked atmosphere following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and led to the anthrax murders.
The Most Human Human: What Talking to Computers Teaches Us about What It Means to Be Alive. By Brian Christian. Doubleday, $27.95 (9780385533065).
Drawing on philosophy, neurology, linguistics, and computer science, Christian offers a fascinating exploration of what it means to be human.
News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media. By Juan González and Joseph Torres. Verso, $29.95 (9781844676873).
This is journalism history from an entirely fresh perspective, one that challenges the old heroes and shines a sharp light on the role of the media in revealing social inequities in a democratic society.
The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. By David Brooks. Random, $27 (9781400067602).
In this utterly engaging analysis, Brooks synthesizes research on human unconsciousness, meshing sociology, psychology, and economics to show how character is formed and how we strive for happiness and success.
1Q84. By Haruki Murakami. Knopf, $30 (9780307593313).
Murakami’s vividly imagined parallel-world epic, about a woman who walks off a Tokyo expressway and enters a two-mooned universe of confounding complexity, expertly melds fantasy, realism, and romance. Literary alchemy of the highest order.
American Boy. By Larry Watson. Milkweed, $24 (9781571310781).
Watson’s powerful coming-of-age story about a teenage boy shocked into maturity by a moment of sudden and unexpected violence drives home the melancholic and morally ambiguous point that growing up is as much about failure as it is about growth.
The Art of Fielding. By Chad Harbach. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316126694).
First-novelist Harbach draws readers into the lives of his characters, plumbing their psyches with remarkable psychological acuity and exploring the transformative effect that love and friendship can have on troubled souls. And it’s a hell of a baseball story, too.
Broken Irish. By Edward J. Delaney. Turtle Point, paper, $18.95 (9781933527505).
In this elegantly written and compellingly plotted novel, six haunted people, the “broken Irish” of South Boston, see their lives converge in heart-wrenching fashion.
Caleb’s Crossing. By Geraldine Brooks. Viking, $26.95 (9780670021048).
Pulitzer Prize winner Brooks incisively imagines the life of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk, the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, as seen through the eyes of Bethia Mayfield, a preacher’s daughter.
The Cat’s Table. By Michael Ondaatje. Knopf, $26 (9780307700117).
In 1953, an 11-year-old boy’s life is permanently upended when he leaves Colombo, Ceylon, to begin a new life in London with his mother; his 21 unsupervised days aboard an ocean liner prove momentous.
Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes. By William Kennedy. Viking, $26.95 (9780670022977).
Kennedy, the bard of Albany, is back with a jazzy, seductive, historically anchored novel of politics, race, and revolution, featuring journalist Daniel Quinn; Renata, a gorgeous Cuban gunrunner; and civil rights activists.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany. By Susan Vreeland. Random, $26 (9781400068166).
In beautifully wrought pages, Vreeland brings to life the world of Clara Driscoll (a real-life figure), who in all likelihood conceived the famous Tiffany lamp shade.
Conquistadora. By Esmeralda Santiago. Knopf, $26.95 (9780307268327).
Santiago’s extraordinary historical novel, set in nineteenth-century Puerto Rico and featuring a strong-willed woman determined to escape her boring upper-class future, is full of emotion and tropical sensuality. A book-group must.
Emily, Alone. By Stewart O’Nan. Viking, $25.95 (9780670022359).
In this sequel to his marvelous domestic drama Wish You Were Here (2002), O’Nan presents the minute mapping of the lay of the domestic land as he, the sociological cartographer, views it.
The Empty Family. By Colm Tóibín. Scribner, $24 (9781439138328).
Tóibín’s new collection of short stories beautifully shows his ability to instill life and contemporary interest into historical figures; the result is short story writing as dazzling yet as serious as it is practiced today.
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. By Benjamin Hale. Twelve, $25.99 (9780446571579).
In this account of a chimpanzee who ascends the evolutionary ladder, first-time novelist Hale explores what it means to be human, holding up a remarkable, riotous mirror to mankind.
Faith. By Jennifer Haigh. Harper, $25.99 (9780060755805).
With an exquisite sense of drama and mystery, Haigh portrays Father Arthur Breen, who lives a quiet life of determined faith in Boston until an accusation of sexual abuse rocks the archdiocese.
The Forgotten Waltz. By Anne Enright. Norton, $25.95 (9780393072556).
Enright illuminates the vicissitudes of extramarital love and the obstructions to its smooth flow with a raw clarity expressed in magnetically precise prose. (Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction.)
The Glass Demon. By Helen Grant. Bantam, paper, $15 (9780385344203).
This exhilarating page-turner offers a cerebral blend of horror and mystery as it focuses on the family of a medieval scholar intent on finding lost stained-glass windows, long rumored to be haunted.
Lost Memory of Skin. By Russell Banks. Ecco, $25.99 (9780061857638).
Banks masterfully pairs the Kid, a naive paroled sex offender, and the Professor, a gargantuan man of epic mysteries, in a robustly compassionate and courageously inquisitive novel of chaos and yearning, illusion and truth.
Luminarium. By Alex Shakar. Soho, $25 (9781569479759).
With his twin in a coma and the virtual world they created hijacked by the “Military-Entertainment Complex,” Fred seeks guidance in spiritual healing, an experimental electromagnetic treatment, and love in Shakar’s brilliantly cosmic and funny tale.
The Marriage Plot. By Jeffrey Eugenides. Farrar, $28 (9780374203054).
During the Reagan era, an English major and devotee of classic literature at Brown University gets involved in a love triangle in Eugenides’ beautifully written evocation of place and personality.
The Matchmaker of Kenmare. By Frank Delaney. Random, $26 (9781400067848).
An elderly Irishman remembers a wild adventure during WWII and immediately after, which took him from neutral Ireland into hardly neutral continental Europe on an assignment for the U.S. Army.
Millennium People. By J. G. Ballard. Norton, $25.95 (9780393081770).
A revolution is under way in Chelsea Marina, an upper-middle-class enclave of London: its salaried professionals are opting out. Brilliant, funny, disturbing, and quotable: “The next revolution is going to be about parking.”
Saints and Sinners. By Edna O’Brien. Little, Brown/Back Bay, paper, $13.99 (9780316122726).
These 11 stories will hold lovers of literature rapt as the Irish author displays her clear, immaculate style; brilliant selection of detail; nimble plot construction; and astute characterization.
The Secret History of Costaguana. By Juan Gabriel Vásquez. Tr. by Anne McLean. Riverhead, $26.96 (9781594488030).
Vásquez spins a multitextured tale of a Colombian man who has endured multiple revolutions and personal tragedies only to have the story of his life and country stolen from him by Joseph Conrad, who turned it into Nostromo. A deeply lyrical, stylistically and thematically rich historical novel.The Time in Between. By María Dueñas. Tr. by Daniel Hahn. Atria, $26 (9781451616880).
Flawlessly researched and breathlessly paced, this debut novel captures the beauty and decadence of pre-WWII Europe without minimizing the very real suffering of Spaniards following Franco’s rise to power.
To Be Sung Underwater. By Tom McNeal. Little, Brown, $24.99 (9780316127394).
In this thoughtful and compelling look at the road not taken, an unhappily married woman agrees to meet her first love in what turns out to be a bittersweet reunion.
Turn of Mind. By Alice LaPlante. Atlantic Monthly, $24 (9780802119773).
Part literary novel, part thriller, LaPlante’s haunting first novel traces the deterioration of a surgeon suffering from dementia. An often startling portrait of a fiercely intelligent woman struggling mightily to hold on to her sense of self.
West of Here. By Jonathan Evison. Algonquin, $24.95 (9781565129528).
Evison’s audacious historical novel, bridging more than 100 years of life in Washington State, is grounded in the vividly realized daily lives of characters who exist completely in their individual moments but whose actions reverberate back and forth across time.
When God Was a Rabbit. By Sarah Winman. Bloomsbury, $25 (9781608195343).
A wonderfully wise and compellingly readable tale of love and friendship in all their forms, of family uncircumscribed by biological bonds, and of loss worse than death—all laced with humor that borders on black.
When She Woke. By Hillary Jordan. Algonquin, $24.95 (9781565126299).
Jordan takes on hot-button issues in her slightly futuristic, overtly dystopian, and utterly engrossing take on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
The Winter Palace. By Eva Stachniak. Bantam, $26 (9780553808124).
This brilliant, bold historical novel of eighteenth-century Russia is a masterful account of Catherine the Great’s ascension to absolute monarchical rule.
The Year We Left Home. By Jean Thompson. Simon & Schuster, $25 (9781451619218).
In Thompson’s episodic, wryly comic, and astute multigenerational family saga about the Eriksons of Iowa, her characters’ struggles reveal depthless truths about human nature, including the lure of away and the gravitational pull of home.
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