These are books I read in 2011, not necessarily published this year. What a great year of books this was for me.
An Object of Beauty. Steve Martin's second novel, a well-crafted book with a fun setting (the art market at the Sotheby level), and intriguing characters. The central figure is Lacey who never hesitates to do whatever it takes to further her career.
Wolf Hall. Perhaps my favorite book of the year. Hilary Mantel's book about Thomas Cromwell (ancestor of Oliver) makes him a smart appealing advisor of Henry VIII, while Thomas More's willingness to die for the Pope looks like misplaced loyalty.
Cello Suites. Eric Siblin fell in love with the wonderful Bach cello suites and wrote his first book. He considered the suites from all angles, writing about Bach and his family, Pablo Casals, who made them known to modern audiences, and of course the music itself.
River Town and Oracle Bones. Well, maybe it's cheating to count these as a single book, but Peter Hessler's first book River Town flows naturally into Oracle Bones. The first describes his two years of teaching English in China and the second, his time in Beijing and his growing knowledge of people there.
Seven Types of Ambiguity. Seven narrators tell the story of a particular event, their own background stories, and the consequences of this event on their lives. I loved each narrators' story, but most of all I loved that Elliot Perlman's story never let me down as often happens by the end of a book. Maybe this is my Number 2 book of the year.
Decartes' Bones. Russell Shorto tackles that endlessly fascinating topic, the conflict between faith and reason. He begins with the premise that Descartes put us on the path toward modern thinking, and then wends his way through the Enlightenment and French Revolution. Getting to the heart of the matter, he reminds us that our efforts to follow reason has many times taken us down wildly mistaken paths in science and understanding our place in the world. I found this to be one of the most exciting books I have read in years.
Caleb's Crossing. Geraldine Brooks has done it again. She started with one unadorned fact, that a Native American graduated from Harvard in 1665, and spun a complex and satisfying story. The characters are appealingly complicated and the historical setting is an interesting one.
Remembering Babylon. David Malouf's lyrical book about a 13 year old boy who was cast ashore in Australia by a shipwreck in the 1840s has universal themes, but is the quintessential book of Australia. In my top five for the year.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The title of David Mitchell's book refers to a proverb meaning rapid change, and the fortunes of the clerk in the Dutch East Indies Company in the early 1800s does fluctuate. The story comes to us from three points of view, Jacob's life and nasty interactions with his fellow Dutchmen on the island where they are confined off Nagasaki, the stunningly unpleasant interactions of the Japanese of Nagasaki, and the captain of a British ship off the coast that plans to take over the Dutch trading position. I found it an intense and satisfying story.
Blood Bones and Butter. Gabrielle Hamilton's book works perfectly as fiction; the story of her childhood, the abandonment by her parents, her messy teenage and young adult years to her eventual creation of a highly regarded restaurant in New York is masterful. I was left wondering about the next phase in the story, but then she hasn't finished living it yet. The backdrop of the food industry in many of its forms was fascinating.