Best Books of 2011
Slate writers and editors pick their favorites.
Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade, by Vladimir Nabokov
Well, a year and a half ago when this one-of-a-kind book was conceived I forecast here in Slate that when published, it would create the next major Nabokov controversy, as heated as The Original of Laura fracas I helped stir up. And in fact the controversy has already begun.
Which is a good thing, because it may finally prompt those who have yet to read the 999-line poem called "Pale Fire" that originally opens Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire, to read the poem—and the novel, which takes the form of footnotes on the poem by a madman pedant. (If you have yet to read it, I regret to say, you have deprived yourself of one of the sublime pleasures of world literature.)
What Gingko Press has done is—with the blessing of the foremost Nabokov scholar, Brian Boyd, and the author's vigilant son, Dmitri Nabokov –presented the poem alone, authorship ascribed to its fictional creator in the novel, the poet John Shade (along with persuasive essays by Boyd, the poet R.S. Gwynn, and beautiful illustrations by Jean Holabird).*
This jewelbox of intellectual, polemical bookmaking is a defiant shot across the bow of those dull-witted critics who, over the decades, have denigrated the poem as a pastiche, a parody even (the truly tin-eared) a "prank," because they are unable to (literally) think outside the box and read the poem as an unconventionally presented integral work of art, a meditation on fate, death, and art that in my view is the pre-eminent work of verse in American literature in the past century. This does not mean it doesn't work as well as the central element within the novel, but (to use the Shakespearean metaphor in the title) the poem is the sun, the footnoted text its reflected lunar luminosity. At last it emerges from eclipse.
—Ron Rosenbaum, “Spectator” columnist
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
Of all of David Foster Wallace’s much-discussed and much-avoided fiction—his three novels and his three collections of short stories—I submit that The Pale King is, contrary to what you might guess, the best place to start. Yes, it’s unfinished, and yes, it’s uneven. However, no David Foster Wallace novel was ever really finished (Wallace was suspicious of tidy endings), and The Pale King entertains more consistently than any of Wallace’s other fiction. Centered around a plurality of IRS agents in 1985, Wallace’s final, posthumous novel is concerned with the superabundance of information that now defines our age. Through a series of existential set pieces and some of DFW’s most mature writing (he was reinventing his style, and you’ll get substantially fewer footnotes here), The Pale King argues convincingly that real heroism is a matter of second-by-second, minute-by-minute mental discipline. Thankfully, it’s also full of jokes—metaphysical banana peels, metafictional pie gags, some weapons-grade neuroses—so it doesn’t take a tremendous amount of mental discipline to read.
—Forrest Wickman, editorial assistant
The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson
If you’ve ever wondered if you’re a psychopath, take heart, the fact that you’re wondering means you’re not. Jon Ronson’s engrossing book is a first-person account of what he calls “the madness industry” which is made up of the influential health care professionals who make diagnoses via the famous 20-point Hare PCL-R Checklist, and the people who rightly or wrongly fit the bill. It’s chock-full of all the stuff I love: hoaxes, checklists, true crime, Scientologists, naked therapy, self-proclaimed gods, and one inward gazing journalist who wonders if writers are attracted to these subjects because they’re well ... just the right amount of crazy. Once you finish the book, you’ll inevitably feel the urge to diagnose many people in your life as a psychopath, including that jerk who cut in front of you at the grocery store (Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth, Item 6: Lack of remorse or guilt, and Item 10: Poor behavioral controls). But be warned, he could probably say the same thing about you.
—Emily Calderone, video producer
Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones
The most immersive novel I read in 2011, that is, the book that allowed me to forget my own world and fall head first into someone else’s, was Tayari Jones’ Silver Sparrow. It is the story of Dana Lynn Yarboro, who grows up knowing that her father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist, and her attempt to get to know and understand James’ other, more privileged family, especially her half-sister, Bunny Chaurisse Witherspoon. It’s one of those “just one more chapter” kinds of books that requires much last-minute changing of plans, because real life feels far less amusing, appalling, shocking, and loving than the world of its characters.
—June Thomas, culture critic
Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men, by Mara Hvistendahl
Hvistendahl’s thorough examination of how the combination of population control policies and a cultural preference for boys has led to a frightful number of sex-selective abortions is the most important book I’ve read in a long time. Sex-selective abortion is the engine driving a huge population imbalance—Hvistendahl calculates that 160 million women are missing from China and India alone—and the author paints a bleak picture, in which men travel to Vietnam to buy brides from poor families, girls are kidnapped into sex slavery, and where cities with skewed sex ratios suffer higher rates of crime and unemployment. Life is hard for men who can’t find women to share their lives with but it’s even harder for women: Contrary to what economists might think, a scarcity of women doesn’t increase their value in the way a scarcity of a material good does. The future the world faces as a resultis summed up by an unnamed Chinese woman who underwent an abortion in China. “During the operation, I realized that it was not easy to be a woman. It is painful. Very painful.”
—Rachael Larimore, managing editor
The Whore of Akron: One Man’s Search for the Soul of LeBron James, by Scott Raab
My podcast compatriot Mike Pesca recently described Scott Raab’s The Whore of Akron as “a modern Portnoy’s Complaint … standing in for the piece of liver is LeBron James.” Along with their ample descriptions of hand-to-genital contact—there’s a chapter in The Whore of Akron called “The Handshake and the Handjob”—both books revel in the joys and torture of home. Raab’s book is less about LeBron James than it is about Cleveland, a place he loves “with a patriot’s heart, not a schoolboy’s.” His homicidal passion for the city’s sports franchises is at once irrational and totally understandable. For a boy like Raab, growing up without a dad in an abusive household, the Browns and the Indians and the Cavaliers served as a meager support system. LeBron James’ crimes against Cleveland, then, carry the weight of a personal attack, and the Midwestern patriot—the world’s most introspective heckler—responds in kind. In “a world of pure will and no consequences, I’d pay to have him knee-capped, with no sense of guilt at all,” Raab writes. “And at the same time, I know that this says far more about me than it does about LeBron James.”
—Josh Levin, executive editor
Zone One, by Colson Whitehead
The great zombie boomlet that started with 28 Days Later is in its eighth year, and good artists are still pulling gold nuggets out of the mine. As much as we all love The Walking Dead, Whitehead's out-of-nowhere novel was the great zombie story of 2011. He set it some untold number of years after the apocalypse, made a protagonist out of a "sweeper" who has to clean out an infested, decrepit Manhattan, and crammed the whole narrative into three days. It reads like it was written at that pace, too, as if the sweeper poured the story out in a 72-hour meth binge. This leads to some ropey prose (zombies attacking an old man were "on him like ants who received a chemical telegram about a lollipop on the sidewalk"—well, OK), but only a little bit, and it is veined inside a gripping, ugly, meaningful riff about civilizational collapse.
—David Weigel, political reporter
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- The Inventor in Hollywood: Richard Rhodes explores Hedy Lamarr’s other career.
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- Love in the Ivy League: Jeffrey Eugenides explores real depression, not just preppy romance.
- Geography Wonks for $2,500: A Jeopardy! star explores the world of map obsessives.
- Norwegian Mood: What makes Jo Nesbø's books so addictive.
*Correction Dec. 7, 2011: This article orginially misspelled the name of Jean Holabird.