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Best Books Of 2011

From time travel to the Amazon to Catherine the Great to new Murakami, we’ll look at the best books of 2011.



So, book means something new now.  Not necessarily paper and ink and binding at all.  Could be purely digital, a stream of characters on a Kindle, an i-Pad. It doesn’t matter.  The act of imagination and searching and presentation that goes on in a book – whatever its form – is catnip to the amazing human mind.

Nourishment.  Insight.  Challenge.  Escape.  This year’s crop came in many flavors.  From the Everglades to the grassy knoll to the chambers of Catherine the Great.

This hour,  On Point:  the best books of 2011.

-Tom Ashbrook


Laura Miller, book critic for Salon.com and one of its co-founders. She is an occasional contributor to The New York Times Book Review and editor of “The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.”

Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s bookshops, with locations in Naperville and Downer’s Grove Illinois.

David Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times, author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time.


Best Book Reading Lists

You can find Tom’s pick of the year, in addition to listener and caller picks here.


The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides
Pym – Matt Johnson
State of Wonder – Ann Patchett
The Tragedy of Arthur – Arthur Phillips
The Pale King – David Foster Wallace

Townie – Andre Dubus III
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution – Mary Gabriel
The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood – James Gleick
Catherine the Great: The Portrait of a Woman – Robert K. Massie
Lost in Shangri-La – Mitchell Zuckoff


Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern
Rules of Civility – Amor Towles
Turn of Mind – Alice LaPlante
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Death in the City of Light – David King
The Orchard – Theresa Weir
Rin Tin Tin – Susan Orleans

Prudence Wants a Pet – Cathleen Daly, illus. Stephen Michael King

Blizzard of Glass – Sally M. Walker



“1Q84” by Haruki Murakami
“Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman
“The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.” by Jonathan Lethem
“The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood” by James Gleick
“Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews”
by Geoff  Dyer

“Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music,” edited by Nona Willis Aronowitz
“Stone Arabia” by Dana Spiotta
“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson
“A Widow’s Story: A Memoir” by Joyce Carol Oates
“You Think That’s Bad: Stories” by Jim Shepard

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  • Dawn Opstad

    “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach gave me hope in an otherwise disillusioning baseball season (for Red Sox fans). Pure joy!

  • Kate – Plattsburgh, New York

    I really liked the debut novel Bumblef**k from Garret K. Woodward…a tale of a college student and his trials and tribulations during his last winter break, Woodward bridges the madness and boredom of coming home, for good or ill…

  • Anonymous

    I’m currently enjoying The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst. 

  • Nancy Kitchen

    Mark Twain’s autobiography, sublime!

    • Dayle Ann Stratton

      And for people who are intimidated by the size, they should know that the first part is explanatory preface by the curators, and the last part is an extensive collection of notes related to and in many cases clarifying the context of Twain’s words– which were entirely dictated.  Thus, one can skip the beginning and the end, and simply enjoy Twain himself in the middle.  (Though, I hasten to add, the explanatory notes help keep the reader from always taking Twain at his word!)

  • Erika

    I loved Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding”  It is a unique take on the “campus” novel and the “baseball” novel.  The characters were so interesting that I missed them when I finished the book. 

    • Frank

      This is the most engaging book I’ve read this year.  Can’t put it down. Can’t see why it’s not on everyone’s list!

  • Kathy from Sudbury

    This fall I picked up “The Leftovers” by Tom Perrotta on whim.  Loved it!  Funny, witty, apt and very thought-provoking.

  • Vanessa Deniston

    Hi Tom and OnPoint Guests!
    Great topic! For my non-fiction pick, I would HIGHLY recommend “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer. It was absolutely fascinating and I think anyone could enjoy it!For my fiction pick, I would recommend “Before I Go to Sleep” by  S.J. Watson for thrill-seekers and people who love a good plot twist! Happy Holidays!-Vanessa Deniston (Jamaica Plain, MA)

  • Soli

    Please tell me you’ll compile a list of the titles that your callers recommend, and perhaps Twitter and FB contributions as well.

    • E Ketchum

      I’d like to see the list, too.

      • ChrisCallahan

        Me three.  I couldn’t catch the caller’s recommendations whilst in the car

  • Boston fan

    Loved the Steve Job biography!  Should be required reading for MBA students who can learn from Jobs’ failures and successes.

    • Nutricj

      my husband has it on audio in his car, comes home every night raving about it too (he’s an mba himself)

  • George – Burlington, VT

    I also loved Bumblef**k. Couldn’t put it down. Brought me back to my college years with the chaos and rural silence Woodward finds himself in coming home to the North Country for the last time before venturing out into the world…

  • Fbteditor

    The reason for the explosion of tomes is not due to readers demanding a counter to the rapid-eye speed of everyday media but the lack of strong editors – like Robert Loomis and Robert Linscott (Capote’s editor) – who are willing to collaborate with their ‘superstar’ authors on improving the works. Fiction, especially, has become a challenge to read because you just want to tear out pages to advance the plot or story. Ugh!!!!!!

    • Dayle Ann Stratton

      Some people prefer to read action. Others, like me, like to get behind the action and explore context and character.  Yes, some books are simply bloated, but book houses are finally realizing that intelligent readers WILL read a well-written book that is complex and thought-provoking.

  • sK

    Charles Frazier, of Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons fame, has come through with another great read, Nightwoods. Not as research-based as his previous two books, the story moves a little faster but the writing remains top notch.

    • Dcani

      I also loved this book. It is offbeat, but the writing, the characters, and the exploration of uncharted terrains of
      the human heart, when affected by love, fear, and authenticity, are terrific.

  • Atlanticgull

    Julie otsuka’s beautifully written, The Buddha in the Attic. Her prose borders on a combination of chant and poetry. Should be required reading.

  • Frank – New York

    Bumblef**k. I guess a couple others already beat me to it on this forum…great book…check it out…

    • Andy – Syracuse

      Bumblef**k…nice to see it getting some press on here…can’t wait to see the next one from Garret K. Woodward

      • Tom

        Bumblef**k…boo yah!

    • Music Man

      This book is a must read —-> Bumblef**k

      Could there be another Hunter S. Thompson among us? I believe so!!

      • Amy ~ Rouses Point, NY

        YES!  A talented author, indeed.

  • Grace

    My favorite was “Motor City Shakedown” by D.E. Johnson. It’s a historical murder mystery and sequel to “The Detroit Electric Scheme.” They are very exciting and will knock your socks off! http://www.amazon.com/Motor-City-Shakedown-D-Johnson/dp/0312644574/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1323966589&sr=8-2

  • Terry Tree Tree

    “War is a Racket”, by General Smedley Butler, U.S.M.C., two-time Medal of Honor awardee, should be required reading for everyone!

  • Vanessa – Jamaica Plain

    I would recommend “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman.  I am in the middle of the sequel “The Magician King” which is excellent!  It’s Harry Potter meets Narnia – a fantasy lover’s dream!

    • David in brooklyn

      I thought this book was filled with theft of other authors and Lev Grossman’s resentment of kids brave enough to be openly “weird” while at the same time wish he could be the same ones.

  • Soli

    Oh and since I just got a reminder, two fantastic fantasies which came out this year by the same author, Catherynne Valente. First is Deathless, a retelling of a Russian folk tale set starting in 1920s Russia. Second is a young adult, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Apparently it’s made one of NPR’s list too. Both books feature very lush language and imagery. Deathless is a bit darker, but if you’re looking for something for a teenager, Fairyland is it!

    Also, Lauren Destefano’s Wither is another great YA title.

  • Rick

    The Submission by Amy Waldman
    The Leftovers by Tom Perrolta

    Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by David Orkent

  • Nutricj

    I loved Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser and Blood, Bones, Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton non-fiction and while I eagerly await the January beginnings for Downton Abbey Season 2 on PBS, The Trouble with Mr. Darcy by Sharon Latham has kept me satisfied

  • Karis

    My husband is reading the Lord of the Rings series to me. I love books but had only ever seen the LOTR movies. It’s great! He does all the voices and sings all the songs. I am on my way to being one of those people who watches the movie and says “psh, THAT isn’t how itwas inthe book!”

    • Smiclops

      haha, thats really weird…I’m reading the same thing to my fiance’. We are currently starting the the third book (or as you would know now it’s really the fifth) I feel that I do a passable Gollum but does it ever strain the vocal chords! The series plus the Hobbit was read to me as a child and I always feel reading aloud improves your comprehension and who doesn’t like having a story read to them? Enjoy!

  • Andrew – Pittsburgh

    The caller in Providence must have missed Super Sad True Love Story, which presaged the occupation of NYC parks directly. Granted, not a 2011 book, but I think the gauntlet may have been picked up before it was thrown.

  • Liz

    The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, is my favorite book of the year, possibly even of the last ten years. A must-read.

  • Amy ~ Rouses Point, NY

    Great to see one of our hometown boys doing something magnificent!  Hats off to Garret K. Woodward and his fascinating, captivating work, “Bumblef**k”.  We’re ready for another one, Garret!

  • Diane B

    My passion is reading about real women.  I am always looking for women who can inspire me.  I have created a website with the books that I have read about real women.  You can access is it at http://www.booksaboutrealwomen.com.  There are lots of my favorite books listed!

    • margbi

      To Diane B.
      How about “Once Upon a River” by Bonnie Jo Campbell? A Michigan writer who has done good work. She won the National Book Award in 2009 for “American Salvage”. An unusual story about a woman who leads an unusual life on the river.

      • margbi

        To Diane B.
        Campbell’s work is fiction but is based on her real life. Worth your time.

      • Dayle Ann Stratton

        I just finished reading this myself, having picked it up at the library just to give it a try.  I was quickly hooked: this book is marvelous and beautifully written, full of the kind of characters that may seem improbable to some but that I can identify from the stock of characters in my own life.  Not a romantic book at all; but a story of courage and hard-won growth.  Nor is this entirely “fiction”: there are young women all over this country who live some version of this story.

        • margbi

          You should also read “Q Road” a prequel to “Once Upon A River”, although written before “River.”

  • Nancy Black

    I loved “The House of Six Doors”, by Patricia Selbert. It’s a coming of age story about a Caribbean girl uprooted from her island of Curacao to drive across the US and end up homeless in LA with her mother and sister… learning English as a fourth language, rising through adventures, trials and challenges. I discovered a new culture and gentle indigenous wisdom hiding in the pages, getting a taste of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s a story that really grows on you.

  • Tomvdigangi

    Don’t see how no one has “Ratification” by Pauline Maier.  The seminal work on the ratification debates of the Constitution in the 13 states.  A must read for anyone with even the slightest interest in history, politics and or law.

    • Dayleann Geo

      Thanks for mentioning this book. It is now on my “must read” list.

  • David

    “Abbott Awaits” by Charles Bachelder – each chapter is a domestic haiku, lovely, and enchanting.

  • Theo S

    A sci-fi adventure called Odyssey Rising by Michael T. Best is great escapist fun and a first novel that is a reverse of Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain — sort of what if an alien microbe infected astronauts.  It’s available at Amazon, BN.com and Apple, among other sites.

  • ChrisCallahan

    Highly recommend, Touch by Alexi Zentner and Galore by Michael Crummey.  Both wonderfully wrought spiritually rich tales of rural interest.

  • Cndomer

    Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman made the Booker short list and should be required reading, especially in light of the riots in England this past summer. Protagonist Hari keeps the brutality at bay with his ebullient personality.

  • Larry

    So many great books!  Best fiction for me this year – Patrick Ruthfuss’ book 2 – “A Wise Man’s Fear”.  Enriches the magic, music and adventure of book 1 “The Name of the Wind”!  Great read -can’t wait for Day Three.  Non-fiction – Charles Mann’s “1491″ – eye opening look at our “new world” roots before Columbus.  Enjoy!  Larry

  • Julie

    My favourite book this year is Fatal Exception from first time author Derek Dukes. It’s a great read and my only complaint is that it was far too short!

  • Olivaa

    For the book aunt try “Ella Enchanted” and books by Tamora Pierce. Meg Cabot 

  • Anonymous

    “Silenced” should have made your list. This scholarly work, if read by BUR staff, might put an end to the shallow reporting on issues related to Islam.

    • Dayle Ann Stratton

      Author and publisher?  Do you have any idea how many books are titled “Silenced”?

      • Anonymous

        Paul Marshall and Nina Shea


        Sent from my iPad

  • mike

    Seriously, you have a small bookstore award winner on the radio with you and all your book links go to amazon? Why not have Bezos on (for laughs) and link to small bookstores? 
    I’m going to recommend On Point to my friends but suggest they listen to the story on BBC Newshour.
    Cognitive dissonance writ large!

    • Andrew

      They link to amazon because when people click the link and buy books it helps support the news.

      • mike

        I will not subscribe to the notion that public media is so desperate for money that the cut they get from Amazon makes that big a difference. If it does then lets cut the pretense of having a small bookstore owner on the panel and bring in the big dogs…I’m sure Amazon has people happy to flack their books

        • Andrew

          Ya! Corporations are bad!

  • Lapplady

    I just got done reading The Orchard.  Wow.  I was born on a farm myself, and remember back in the 40s having an orchard with about 10 kinds of apples.  We had a few wormy apples, but never sprayed.  Very moving, well-written love story.  It’s a book with a message that doesn’t read like a book with a message.  Even though it was a serious book, it was fun to read.

  • Brandstad

    I loved the book: Trickle Up Poverty: Stopping Obama’s Attack on Our Borders, Economy, and Security.

    Everyone should read it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1322826843 Michelle Hilgemann Daugherty

    Running Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson – amazing story about searching for and finding what is important.

  • Noelle

    My favorites this year were the Paris Wife, Rules of Civility, and the Dovekeepers. Great year for reading. Now in the midst of The Tiger’s Wife and loving it

  • Mo1600

    The best book I have read this year was A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron. It is told from a dog’s perspective, but the narrator remains always a dog with a dog’s understanding of the world. I laughed and cried but the sad parts are so ultimately right with the world that I left the book feeling better about every dog I have loved and lost. Marianne

  • Bernie

    My favorite book this year wasThe Information, A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick. Lots of fascinating stuff about how humans have communicated through history-drumming, telegraphy, bits and bytes.and lots more!


  • Pmcconnell

    I really enjoyed Russell Bank’s Lost Memory of Skin. Banks is great at depicting characters at the fringes, and here he goes to the farthest fringe. A wonderful meditation on societal mores, identity and redemption.

  • Abby Klein

    Loved YA book, One Is Not A Lonely Number by Evelyn Krieger because it is about a Jewish teenage girl who thinks about numbers in a really cool way.  She is an only child, like me, and all her friends come from large families. The characters are really interesting.  The book one a Sydney Taylor silver medal.

  • drc

    I really liked “1493″ by Charles Mann, a history of the impacts of the Columbian Exchange, a process that is still going on. Many are familiar with the introduction of European diseases to native Americans, but less well known is the impact of the cultivation of the imported sweet potato on the ecology and history of China. Fascinating connections. 

  • Terrapin

    Small independent book stores are a nice idea, but the ones around here either have a really limited, lousy selection or, in exquisite irony, are owned by a person who retired from the NYC corporate life and sits on the board of directors for what was one of the last local banks which has been converted (via decisions made by this board) into a wholly owned subsidiary of a huge mega bank. I’ll go to Barnes and Noble, thanks.

  • Jwittsch

    Two history-themed books made my 2011 favorite list,
    Caleb’s Crossing my Geraldine Brooks and Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard, about the assassination of James
    Garfield.  The Millard book combines history, politics, and the medicine of the time.  Alexander Graham Bell was a major
    character in trying to saving Garfield’s life.  Both books were
    informational, entertaining, and great reads!

  • Dwmlaw

    Want wit, relevance, satire, political commentary ala Catch 22? Read Carl Hiaasen…. he has it all.

  • Mark

    Blue Nights by Joan Didion!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_C2STBLZJK4VKQBV27DVQX3I6CU FAX68

    The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo -Stieg Larsson.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_C2STBLZJK4VKQBV27DVQX3I6CU FAX68

      NPR is getting a comission from Amazon.

  • Glen3456

    The Cabinet of Curiosities by Preston and Childs is a good fiction book with historically correct info. It was very entertaining and pulls you in.

  • Suemcvee

    Marriage Plot is my nominee for the WORST read of 2011–pretentious characters I’d never want to know, sophomoric, sloppy writing that drops the theme in the middle.  Except for some insights into lithium use and mental illness,  a waste of time

    • Belfman

      Totally agree. Stopped reading this book after about 50 pages. Don’t understand the hype! Loved middlesex but thought this was awful.

  • Dinah164

    The Sea Captain’s wife, Beth Powning
    . fab read

  • Erniemcc22

    My favorite for 2011…  Catherine The Great – Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie. A perfect biography with remarkable insights into life in those times. I’d hate to get a tooth ache back then!

  • Fred Dulaney35

    What are you doing to me, Tom Ashbrook? Your program on best books of 2011 totally overwhelmed me. Your excitement and your guests’ descriptions of so many books left me exhausted and humbled at how little I read. Where do you people find the time?

  • David in Brooklyn

    Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer.
    “1970: Fourteen-year-old Tony becomes seduced by Britain’s neo-Nazi
    movement, sucked into a world of brutal racist violence and bizarre
    ritual. It’s an environment in which he must hide his sexuality, in
    which every encounter is potentially deadly.

    2003: James is a
    young writer, living with his boyfriend. In search of a subject, he
    begins looking into the Far Right in Britain and its secret gay
    membership. He becomes particularly fascinated by Nicky Crane, one of
    the leaders of the neo-Nazi movement who came out in 1992 before dying a
    year later of AIDS.”

  • Warrenbarrett

    Deep Truth by Gregg Braden

  • Marcia

    Really enjoyed first of three, A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, history of science, magic – fun and scholarly. Delicious.
    And for YA (and loved by others)…A Return to Bordertown (the series returns after 13 years). Ellen Kushner and Holly Black

  • Bernard

    For Children’s books – William Joyce’s The Man in the Moon is one of the best and most-moving I have come across in a long time. perfect for kids of all ages!

  • Sue

    Do you have suggestions for reads for a mother-daughter book group with 16 year-olds?

  • Soesdkeoqlorr

    This means when you’re in action you get warm. So you should dress yourself appropriately in your ‘action suit’. An action suit is usually a thermal baselayer, a fleece type midlayer and a shell on top it takes a thief dvd . Thin and not too bulky to climb in, but not all that warm either.

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