The 20 Best Books of 2011 You Should Read Over Winter Break

Bibliophiles, along with pretty much everyone else (except for maybe super harried parents), rejoice once school lets out for the winter holidays. And no matter what state you attend college in: South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont – chances are you need a break. No longer crunched beneath the stress of finals, projects, professors, extracurriculars, and other hallmarks of college-dom, they may now decompress with the simple, satisfying companionship of a hot drink and even hotter new read. Textbooks give way to something far more voluntary, and the break provides an excellent opportunity to catch up on everything assigned reading precluded. This year saw the publication (or English-language publication) of some truly fantastic fiction and nonfiction works, a few of which may very well enter the realm of the classics in due time. One could certainly do worse when picking out something to snuggle with next to the fire…

Fiction

  1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

    Lovers of the magic realism style might want to spend their winters in Florida’s sweltering Everglades, following the noble journey of a teen girl hoping to pull her beloved family from ruin. Their gator park livelihood stands threatened when the matriarch, as its main draw, winds up severely sick and sets off a chain reaction of total uncoolness.

  2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The lives of three Brown seniors congeal into a strange love triangle that follows them through a year past graduation and pays homage to the romantic narratives of George Eliot and Jane Austen. While everything twists and turns and intertwines, the gorgeous story also plays as a lit crit tug-of-war between the postmodern and the more traditional tales from the nineteenth century.

  3. Pym by Mat Johnson

    University of Houston professor Mat Johnson possesses contemporary American literature’s keenest pen for racial satire, as evidenced in his provocative, positively searing parody Pym. Tired of treatment as a token, an English professor indulges his lust for Edgar Allen Poe’s only novel and sets forth to find an Antarctic utopia where he and his crew might very well find their niche…or not.

  4. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

    Although unfinished, the late David Foster Wallace’s 2011 release still earned it a right fair amount of attention and accolades, so fans of His Royal Footnote Enthusiast should certainly give it a read if they haven’t already. Challenging and dense, The Pale King opens up crushing and humorous insight into human emotional suffering through an absurdist corporate espionage tale.

  5. Divergent by Veronica Roth

    In a dystopian future Chicago, all 16-year-olds are required to pledge their lives to specific virtues; protagonist Beatrice Prior (or “Tris”) allies herself with Courage despite hailing from a family devoted to Selflessness. Young adult literature fanatics will love following the heroine as she learns that building up her stores of bravery requires more than just surviving a bit of the old ultra-violence.

  6. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

    Another haunting masterpiece by quintessential postmodernist author Haruki Murakami, this time exploring one woman’s experiences trapped between two different realities in 1984. She eventually crash-lands in with a ghostwriter on a particularly strange assignment, and the pair unite to meander the brave new divergent reality world in search of something that makes sense.

  7. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

    Folklore and family collide when a doctor in the war-ravaged Balkans decides to investigate the myriad questions surrounding her grandfather’s passing, believing answers may lie in the stories he used to tell and the books he used to read. Her research, however, unearths more tales he never spoke of – tales which might very well unlock some of the mysteries she’s encountered along the way.

  8. Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Elissa Schappell

    Over the course of eight vignettes, a diverse selection of new twists on familiar female stock characters ruminate on the qualities that make them them and bridges between daughterhood and motherhood. Each narrative connects with the others around it, and they unfold over decades in order to illustrate how things have changed for women over time.

  9. The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

    Rapture fervor engulfed some demographics in 2011, and things only get crazier as 2012 conspiracy theorists edge closer to humanity’s alleged date with doom; Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, suffice to say, hit shelves at a very appropriate time. His lauded novel covers what happens to those remaining after something quite unexpected causes millions of people to just up and disappear one day.

  10. The Call by Yannick Murphy

    A hunting accident leaves a veterinarian’s son in a coma, sending his formerly idyllic existence into a tense frenzy of finding out who’s to blame for the tragic accident. Humor, strength, and a task delegated to him by an odd stranger guide Dr. David Appleton and his wife through their trying new situation.

Nonfiction

  1. Bossypants by Tina Fey

    Whomever touts that women just can’t write comedy – as well as those who know and love the fact that they can – should add Tina Fey’s essays to their winter read pile. Here, she wrings humor out of pretty much everything imaginable, sprinkling it with liberal dashes of insight into the realities of nerd-dom, womanhood, and nerdy womanhood.

  2. Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

    Foodie bibliophiles eager to add something to their shelves alongside Anthony Bourdain and Fergus Henderson now have another critically-acclaimed culinary delight to explore. Popular Prune owner Gabrielle Hamilton covers her transition from lover of all things gustatory to a celebrated restaurateur, which involves some fascinating people, places and events that eventually molded her career.

  3. Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

    Three survivors of a horrific plane crash during World War II must maneuver the potentially lethal New Guinea jungles, home to violent indigenous peoples and the Japanese military along with the usual milieu of toxic flora and predatory fauna. It’s a strange-but-true adventure story about testing the very limits of everything the human body, mind, and spirit can endure.

  4. The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem

    Celebrated largely as a novelist, Jonathan Lethem allows audiences to witness the true extent of his literary knowledge in this lovely essay collection celebrating everything he finds inspiring. One can easily enjoy his musings on pop culture, family, Brooklyn, drugs, and other eclectic topics without previously picking Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, As She Climbed Across the Table and other novels, though doing so certainly helps broaden understanding of his mindset and creative process.

  5. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

    In 1933, William E. Dodd ended up serving as the U.S.’ ambassador to Germany, which just so happened to coincide with the mounting persecution of Jews under the Third Reich. Despite all attempts to alert the State Department about their atrocities, his pleas for intervention end up largely ignored; add in the fact that his daughter harbored quite the Nazi fetish and one ends up with a glimpse into a complex, engaging historical moment.

  6. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer

    Half journalistic research, half memoir, Moonwalking with Einstein stands as a super cool analysis of the human memory – specifically, why some people possess particularly adroit ones and what strategies they use to keep their skills in tippy-top shape. Author Joshua Foer ended up competing in the U.S. Memory Championship a year after embarking on his quest, utilizing many of the age-old techniques he picked up on along the way.

  7. Townie by Andre Dubus III

    Following his parents’ divorce, the son of a recognized author ends up coming of age amongst grotesque violence, believing that physical prowess remains the only conduit for survival. What little time Andre Dubus III could muster with his father opened him up to the therapeutic benefits of writing, providing a far safer, peaceful outlet for frustration – not to mention an eventual escape from the cycle of horrors.

  8. 1493 by Charles C. Mann

    One year after Cristoforo Colombo started conquering the indigenous peoples of the Americas, massive biological changes began occurring around settler and native alike, forever altering the continents’ ecosystems. Both botanical and zoological species hitched rides on Atlantic-spanning ships (oftentimes to the crew’s complete ignorance) and only spread from there, resulting in what some believe to be one of the most significant life scientific moments in history.

  9. The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins

    Geek culture reigns as one of the more mainstream, influential lifestyles out there these days, up from the former fringes to which it was once pushed. High school, however, continues trying to suppress those who do not conform to some arbitrary (often media-induced) standards – but after graduation, the supposed “undesirables” frequently end up better off than their bullying peers.

  10. Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

    Pretty, pretty pink princesses aren’t inherently problematic, but an oversaturation of pastel royalty does lead to some interesting – and potentially damaging – sociological phenomena. Specifically, the creation of arbitrary gender norms, which lead to the ostracizing of those who do not sit inside a narrow definition of acceptability; not to mention the infantilizing of young girls who grow up into severely entitled adults.

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