our year in fiction

R.C.M. finished 2011 having read over 100 novels; for me the number was more like 50.  Despite our often divergent tastes, we agree on what was our favorite novel we read last year: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. This was probably the most hyped debut novel of the year, and there is some backlash against it as a result, but I urge you to keep the haters at bay–and, hey, it’s good for rousing enthusiasm about what special places small colleges can be.  

Other shared favorites: The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (wins you over with its charm), The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (wins you over by being completely unsettling), The Zero by Jess Walter (wins you over by being, well, not like any other 9/11-inspired novel you will ever read, and in a good way).

Our major disagreements for the year: The Night Circus by Erica Morgenstern (she loved it; I didn’t finish) and Busy Monsters by William Giraldi (I thought it was hilarious; she sort-of-snickered once).

As always, your suggestions for further adventures in fiction are welcome.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

8 thoughts on “our year in fiction”

  1. I just bought The Art of Fielding and I am really happy to see your review. I don’t know how you could possibly get through a book a week. I think I read 6 books this year. I loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close the best, I think.


  2. I enjoyed Donogue’s “Room” and am reading and enjoying Whitehead’s “Zone One.” Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” is a must-read but don’t audiobook it. I think “Freedom” by Franzen is worth your time, too. And–although it sort of falls into the “beach literature” category, I had fun reading “Operation Mincemeat” (Macintyre).

    Despite my respect for the enterprise (and that it isn’t fiction), I would not recommend “Malcolm X.” I hated the Keith Richard’s autobiography (“Life”), but I know loads of people who loved it. I also didn’t love the Bailey biography of Cheever (“Cheever”), or the Tina Fey autobiography, so maybe I just wasn’t in the right mood?


  3. Thanks for the recommendations.

    Looking over my Audible library, the novel I’d give a shout-out to is Marlon James The Book of Night Women, which is “about” a Jamaican slave woman and slave rebellions, but it is the voice that makes it special. I was blown away by this book, just listened entranced all the through. I’ll warn you though that it is best in audio: the book is written largely in dialect and the narrator brilliantly captures both the cadences of Jamaican dialect and the shifts into the voices of English or Irish or French plantation owners, and the book just marches along when you listen to it. My daughter (who read rather than listened) found the book more of a slog, and I think I would not have enjoyed the book so much if I were reading it, as it is harder to parse dialect in writing.

    I did Goon Squad on audio and absolutely agree that the “PowerPoint” chapter, which is really pivotal in the book, is an epic fail in the audio version (the narrator reads the graphs as number pairs for ten minutes!). The animated PowerPoint on the author’s web site is even better than the print version as it includes sound clips that are the whole point of the chapter.

    On the non-fiction front, my favorite book of the year is Jack Weatherford’s book on Genghis Khan; this book had the highest “new and important information” index of any book I’ve read recently, and really completely re-shaped my understanding of world history. (This is doubtless because I knew zero about the Mongols before reading the book, whereas I already know quite a bit about the other non-fiction topics I like to read about.) It is accessibly although not beautifully written; the life story of Genghis Khan and the anthropological details of Mongol society were fascinating.

    I read and liked Marable’s Malcolm X; not an easy read but full of information. Dave Egger’s Zeitan is a well-written, gripping and infuriating tale of the aftermath of Katrina.

    Other older books that I liked a lot that may appeal to some are: (1) John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, which I did like despite being annoyed by the ending, and liked better after listening to the interview with Irving about the book); (2) George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which I read after my daughter said “now I understand 1984 and Animal Farm, Catalonia broke his heart”, and which I’m tempted to assign to social movement students for its beautifully-written accounts of revolutionary Barcelona, its disentangling of the politics of the Spanish Civil War, and its insight into the worldview of a committed political activist; (3) Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, my all-time-favorite genre fiction writer, especially the Vorkosigan series, which start as swashbucking space operas with a physically fragile teenage hero who turns out to be a military genius and grow up as the central character and the author mature. The books are often laugh-out-loud funny, grow in emotional complexity across the series, and have a strong feminist and gender-bending sensibility. Best read in order, even though the later ones are better.

    Hmmm — too long, but whatever.


  4. I forgot, other non-fiction that I think is wonderful are Charles Mann’s books 1491 and 1493. Both are fascinating and, again, told me a lot I did not already know.


  5. I feel totally inadequate reading this. I read two non-sociology books last year, neither that is worthy of repeating here.

    That said, the post did give me an idea. I always knew I’d throw a party if I got tenure. Now I know what I’ll ask guests to bring. Forget booze (I’ll supply plenty, I promise). Bring your favorite book.


    1. “Goon Squad” was my favorite novel of those I read last year and some may recall my going on on a quasi-evangelical spree about then. Her earlier novels are both quite good although not as daring, but I would particularly imagine “Look at Me,” in which the central character is a fashion model Going Through a Very Difficult Time.

      The thing about the PowerPoint chapter of “Goon Squad” as an audiobook is hilarious. It reminds me when I listened to an unabridged “Cod: The Fish That Changed the World” as an audiobook and it included recipes.

      My Nook has had a dramatic increase in the number of novels I read. So easy to just pull it out and keep turning pages.

      The party idea sounds great.


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