This was a terrific year for fiction and a particularly strong year for first-time novelists. Some of the literary debutantes who glide through this "10 best" list are so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. Majestically bringing up the rear of the procession are some much-decorated veterans whose sustained achievements in fiction should ensure that the young 'uns don't rest too comfortably on their laurels.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that 2011 was a banner year for fiction, especially novels written by first-time novelists. That's why her best books of the year is dominated by fiction, but a couple of non-fiction titles make the cut as well.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This was a year of terrific first novels, some of them written by writers so young, their wisdom teeth probably haven't had time to become impacted yet. "Swamplandia!" a debut novel by 30-year-old Karen Russell, is my absolute favorite of these dazzlers. Set in the Florida Everglades at a rundown alligator wrestling theme park, "Swamplandia!" tells the story of 13-year-old Ava Bigtree, who saves her economically struggling family from sinking down into the primordial ooze.
It's Ava's cocky, Huck Finn-size voice that carries this story forward into the realm of literary magic. Another standout debut novel, "Open City," by 30-something-er Teju Cole, is set a world apart from palm trees and swamp things. Cole's novel follows a despondent young Nigerian doctor, a resident in psychiatry, as he wanders around Manhattan thinking about the ghosts of Dutch settlers and encountering the city's newer immigrants from China and Africa.
"Open City" resurrects that most elemental of all New York plots – that is, the tale of a walker in the city. Amy Waldman's debut novel "The Submission" is that rare animal - political novel that's also elegantly written. It imagines the angry fallout when a jury chooses an anonymous design for a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero and the architect turns out to be Muslim-American.
Although that premise sounds suspiciously high-concept, "The Submission" ventures far beyond the contrived and probes the stress fractures of democracy. "The Art of Fielding," a striking debut novel by Chad Harbach, is a baseball novel cross-pollinated with an academic novel all wrapped up in a coming-of-age novel.
Any novel that can make me care about the slowest game ever invented by man is a literary home-run worth applauding. Now it's time to turn to wonderful novels written by writers who've been around the block a few times. "The Illumination" by Kevin Brockmeier is an unnerving fantasy about how we would respond if we could actually see each other's wounds, physical and emotional, glowing through our bodies.
It also contains some of the most effecting everyday love letters any writer has ever dreamt of. Another compelling spiritual fantasy of sorts was brought out this year by Tom Perrotta. "The Leftovers" wryly looks at some folks left behind in suburbia after the Rapture has happened.
"The Marriage Plot" by Jeffrey Eugenides is a deft, academic novel that spins out a romance as it merrily eviscerates the literary theory invasion of the 1980s in English departments throughout the land. Readers go deep into another treacherous terrain: the Amazonian rainforest in Ann Patchett's "State of Wonder," an ingenuous female twist on the heart of darkness plot.
Finally, two literary triumphs of contrasting proportions round out my best fiction list. Denis Johnson's spare and extraordinary novella "Train Dreams" transports us deep into the landscape of American mythology stripped of heroics. Set in 1920, it evokes the quiet, harsh life of those solitary men who built the railroads and felled the trees.
David Foster Wallace's posthumously published unfinished novel "The Pale King" clocks in at over 500 densely printed pages. No matter. Every few paragraphs or so, a sentence will bubble to the surface that's so genuine it makes you realize how artificial by comparison so much other fiction is. "The Pale King," which is ostensibly about an IRS agent and his office mates, is an epic about work, its dullness and its demands.
I've just named 10 books in this best books list and I haven't even mentioned any non-fiction yet. So let me quickly squeeze in two unforgettable works of non-fiction that came out this year. Adam Hochschild's "To End All Wars" is a pensive narrative history of the pacifist resistance to World War I. Hochschild says that by conflict's end, more than 20,000 British men of military age refused the draft.
His account also investigates the larger moral question of how conventional wisdom is formed and what it takes to stand up against it. Stephen Greenblatt's "The Swerve," which just won the National Book Award, unearths the riveting story of an Italian book hunter named Poggio Bracciolini who one fateful day in 1417 stumbled across the sole surviving copy of the Roman poet Lucretius's work on the nature of things.
It was a discovery, Greenblatt says, that would kick-start the Renaissance and usher in all manner of thought that we consider modern. "The Swerve" makes readers appreciate the fragility of cultural inheritance and the need to safeguard books, especially the good ones, from the ubiquitous dust of neglect and casual indifference.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You'll find her list of the best books of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.