A year of favorites: Tobias’s Best Of 2011

Posted by Tobias Carroll

This is the first of two lists of the books I read this year that I most enjoyed. This one focuses on books released this year; the other will focus around books that I encountered for the first time in 2011 that first entered the world in preceding years.

Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia is an intentionally messy book with shifting and sometimes overlapping narrators and a sense of history, both familial and musical, looming in the background. Not long after I finished it, I found the narrative ambiguity somewhat frustrating; a few months later, I find myself appreciating it a lot more. It’s about the ambiguity of art and the toll that making art can bring, on both the artist and the people around them. The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s final novel, reads like a collage, its characters and narratives overlapping and sometimes crystallizing for moments of almost unbearable revelation or violence or horror. (Or all of the above.) 
I wrote about Vanessa Veselka’s Zazen and Justin Taylor’s The Gospel of Anarchy for The Contextual Life’s seasonal gift guide, which I urge you to check out. Short version: they’re two novels that feel deeply relevant in today’s protest-heavy culture, and they make a fine double bill.

If you’re a reader of (to use one example) Brian Wood’s fantastic comic DMZ, you know just how effective and evocative a ruined New York City can be. Colson Whitehead’s Zone One follows a small group of survivors attempting to rebuild part of New York following a virus that has, for all intents and purposes, turned much of the country catatonic or full-on undead. But it’s as much about reinvention, memory, and optimism (whether warranted or not). Nathan Larson’s The Dewey Decimal System also places its protagonist in a decimated New York City, fighting off damaged memories and unraveling a mystery that itself involves fallout from other broken cities.

There’s been a lot written about Ellen Willis’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps this year, and for good reason: even after decades, Willis’s take on music and the themes and issues that power and emerge from it resonates. This is smart criticism that feels just as relevant now as it did then. And the essays collected in Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition cover an expansive range of topics, from fashion to jazz to the joys of Doughnut Plant. It doesn’t hurt that each of these books serve as fine introductions to their respective authors.

[music + politics]
I read Jeff Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die and John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead back to back, and the two essay collections complimented one another astonishingly well. Sullivan and Sharlet have similar political concerns and (I’d wager) similar record collections, but their approaches are very different: Sharlet’s prose is precise; Sullivan’s tone is more freeform. Both fuse the personal and the analytical, but in decidedly different ways. Lisa Wells’s Yeah. No. Totally. has a narrower focus, but also brings in sharp observations about the people and culture around her; it’s a terrific debut

[handy list form]
Dana Spiotta, Stone Arabia (Scribner)
David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Little, Brown and Company)
Vanessa Veselka, Zazen (Red Lemonade)
Justin Taylor, The Gospel of Anarchy (Harper Perennial)
Colson Whitehead, Zone One (Doubleday)
Nathan Larson, The Dewey Decimal System (Akashic)
Ellen Willis: Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press)
Geoff Dyer, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition (Greywolf)
John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead (Farrar Strauss & Giroux)
Jeff Sharlet, Sweet Heaven When I Die (W.W. Norton)
Lisa Wells, Yeah. No. Totally. (Perfect Day Publishing)
[bonus track]
I can’t write with any real objectivity about Daphne Carr’s Pretty Hate Machine — the author’s an old friend, and I’m thanked in the book’s acknowledgements section. But I can’t not include it here in some capacity: it’s at once a smart piece of culture writing, a sociological look at the Rust Belt, and a fascinating oral history of a particular place and time.
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