The best books of 2011

No single person can read the thousands of new books every year -- let alone pick 10 best. Luckily, there are helpers who, like Santa's elves, divvy up the work.

No single person can read the thousands of new books every year -- let alone pick 10 best. Luckily, there are helpers who, like Santa's elves, divvy up the work.

Every December, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compiles a list of some of the best books of the year after quizzing freelance reviewers, polling a few book sellers and considering some of the books chosen by other publications or award committees.

This year, a look at other best-book lists reveals as diverse a selection as seen in a long time. Few books seem to show up on every list, unlike last year's endorsement of several heavy hitters, such as "Autobiography of Mark Twain," Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" and Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad."

And of this fall's widely reviewed novels, such as Haruki Murakami's "1Q84" and Chad Harbach's "The Art of Fielding," critics were wildly divided (our reviewers weren't wowed by either book).

In fact, Nikki Furrer, owner of Pudd'nhead Books in Webster Groves, Mo., says she was underwhelmed by fiction this year.


"I call it the year of nonfiction because I was disappointed by some of the big novels and surprised by how well-written and well-told the nonfiction was," Furrer said.


We don't know why, but several fascinating novels seemed to take place outside of cities and deep inside dark woods.

Daniel Woodrell's first collection of short stories, "The Outlaw Album," is a stunner. Woodrell has the rare ability to tell compelling stories rooted in familiar soil that are simultaneously simple and complex, local and universal, funny and tragic.

Another riveting book set in the Ozarks is John Dalton's second novel, "The Inverted Forest." Dalton daringly sets his unusual, low-key story in a summer camp for mentally disabled adults.

Two children who were struck mute by the vicious murder of their mother are pursued by the killer -- their stepfather -- in Charles Frazier's gripping "Nightwoods." Frazier masterfully evokes the interaction between man and nature as the taut but elegant novel of suspense unfolds in the Southern Appalachians.


One of the most popular history books this year is "In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson. An account of the first year of William Dodd's ambassadorship in Nazi Germany (1933-34) and a tale of his daughter Martha's coming of age in Berlin, it offers something for both serious students of the 1930s and for lovers of charming stories.


Candice Millard also weaves a fascinating history in "Destiny of the Republic," the story of the assassination of President James Garfield, who might have survived a bullet if doctors had washed their hands and taken a few other precautions.

James Carroll has applied his writer's skills and scholarly mind to the conundrum of one of the world great metropolitan areas: Why does a 3,000-year-old city holy to the three Abrahamic religions have such a wretched, bloody history? He discusses the modern importance of an ancient city in "Jerusalem, Jerusalem."

Biography & memoir

"Catherine the Great" by Robert Massie is a logical successor to Massie's biography of Peter the Great, as the author seems to be working his way through the Romanov rulers of Russia, not all of whom were so great. In Catherine's case, the transformation of a nervous, relatively poor German girl into a confident, imperious empress was the marvel of the 18th century.

In "The Oil Kings," Andrew Scott Cooper deals with the kings of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the 1970s and our policy in that part of the world. Much, naturally, is relevant today.

Not all crises take place halfway around the world. "The Wizard of Lies" by Diana Henriques tells the fascinating story of the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff, crook extraordinary. The sum he stole (through what now seems rather transparent fraud) is unequaled in our time.

The mercurial genius behind Apple died this fall, and, soon after, Walter Isaacson's intriguing "Steve Jobs" made it to the top of best-seller lists.



Military writers made the year interesting for history buffs. One of the best-selling books of the year was by a Vietnam War veteran. Karl Marlantes, author of the epic Vietnam novel "Matterhorn," tells of the complex reactions of men who go to war and how values are affected for the rest of their lives in "What It Is Like to Go to War."

In "Brute," author Robert Coram draws a compelling portrait of Marine Gen. Victor Krulak, the man who stood up to Lyndon Johnson over Vietnam -- and tells why Krulak got the nickname "Brute."

Writer Adam Hochschild uses "To End All Wars" to explain the antiwar movement in World War I Britain. He stresses the war's role as the key to all that followed in the 20th century.

Three key American generals in World War II -- Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley and George Patton -- get a close-up look from author Jonathan W. Jordan in "Brothers, Rivals, Victors." They make for a fascinating triangle.

Crime thrillers

Readers enjoyed a bumper crop of crime thrillers. One of the best was "Damage," in which author John Lescroat takes a challenging approach. Right away, he identifies the bad guy in a series of San Francisco killings. Even so, Lescroat holds readers fast for almost 400 pages.

In "The Collaborator," Briton Gerald Seymour mixes the Mafia and deadly toxic waste. In this book, his characters rise to a level of literature that goes far above the genre.

Wyoming native C.J. Box brings his home state to literate life in "Cold Wind," another in his series starring game warden Joe Pickett. As this tale opens, Pickett finds a murder victim in an unlikely place: chained to a vane on a big wind turbine.


In "Field Gray," British author Philip Kerr brings back Berlin detective Bernie Gunther. In a tale that runs from 1931 through 1954, Gunther must deal with nagging ethical questions in pursuing a cop killer.

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