Why we picked them: #96 to #100.
Something about Best of the Year lists seems a little unfair. There are great books and brilliant authors all up and down the 2011 Amazon Best Books of the Year, and yet it’s always the Top 10, or maybe the Top 20, that gets the majority of the attention. Because we’re not all the same and (thankfully) don’t all share the same tastes, one person’s 98th-ranked book might be included in another’s Top 10. And vice versa. So, in honor of our differences, and to highlight the lower ranked but still great books farther down our Best of the Year list, I thought I might explain why we picked them, five at a time. I hope to work my way to the top five by the end of the year, but if I don’t it will be ok—the top books are going to get their share of attention anyway.
#100 – Delirium by Lauren Oliver
The 100th pick this year is a young adult book. There aren’t a lot of young adult books on the Top 100 list, so it’s good to see one get the last spot on BOTY. In this case, Delirium was a February Best Book of the Month, and in her review, Jessica Schein (the books team’s primary YA expert) described it as a “powerful and beautifully written novel.” The hook of the story—that in the near future love has been identified as a disease—immediately grabs hold of your imagination. The Amazon customer reviews echo this point, and a number of our editors loved the book as well. It’s one that readers of The Hunger Games might find appealing, a book that, in Schein’s words, “throws readers into a tightly controlled society where options don’t exist, and shows not only the lengths one will go for a chance at freedom, but also the true meaning of sacrifice.”
#99 – The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry edited by Rita Dove
There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the physical book over the past couple of years, and The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry is about as beautiful a counter-argument to that line of thinking as I can imagine. From the cloth cover to the exquisite end papers to the paper itself, this book is about the most appealing thing a book lover (or a lover of poetry) could hold in his or her hands. I have a copy on my bedside table, and I love it. I’ve found it enriching in ways that I didn’t realize my life needed to be enriched, and it’s gotten me to read and rediscover poets and poetry that I’d forgotten I even knew. I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow. And I owe it all to this lovely book.
#98 – Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
John Jeremiah Sullivan is one of those authors who you’ve probably read but don’t realize that you have. His essays have been published in a variety of magazines and newspapers, and even if you don’t read those publications regularly you might find that you’ve read something by Sullivan. I had this experience several times while reading Pulphead. In considering how to describe just-how-plain-great-and-enthralling this collection is, I realized how difficult it is to sound convincing about a collection of essays without sounding like you’re trying to sell miracle tonic. Essays, by nature, don’t seem exciting. So I sought the assistance of the New York Times, which—because it’s the Times– seems perfectly comfortable making declarations that I might think inside the confines of my own head but would be too self-conscious to utter: “Sullivan seems able to do almost anything, to work in any register, and not just within a single piece but often in the span of a single paragraph…Pulphead is the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again…Sullivan’s writing is a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” He has fans all through the editorial team.
#97 – The Paris Wife: A Novel
Speaking of the Times, this book spent weeks and weeks and weeks on the fiction bestseller list. The Paris Wife deals with a seldom visited category of literature—books about the spouses of famous people—and author Paula McLain has written a captivating portrait told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Anyone who has read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast will remember reading of their time in Paris as it was portrayed by Hemingway. But what was it really like to move abroad with an exceptionally talented and ambitious young writer for a husband? What was it like to be a member of the Lost Generation—spending your days with the likes of Fitzgerald, Pound, Eliot, and Stein? What was it like to be young and in love with an artist in Paris? And what was it like to contend with that burgeoning ego? McLain’s research was tireless in preparing to write this book, and all that effort shows. This is a novel that’s as informing as it is entertaining.
#96 –Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton writes funny comics about historical figures. She has legions of fans who tend to go on endlessly about her talent and her sense of humor, and frankly, she deserves all the love she gets. Hark! A Vagrant is a collection of her comics, at once wry, witty, ironic, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Beaton publishes her comics online here, so you can read her without having to take a financial plunge. There is a restraint and an intelligence dancing behind everything Beaton writes, and it’s smart enough to stay out of view.