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Analyzing the ABBC: 2011 Literary Fiction, Pt. 1

The version 4.0 spreadsheet of the All-the-Best-Books Compilation (ABBC) is available for download at my other blogging home at Williamsburg Regional Library. There will be one more release in March before the most complete best-of-the-year collection you’ll find anywhere is complete for another year. Here at Book Group Buzz, I’ve been highlighting the most mentioned books in each category. Since so many of these books have received frequent mention, and they’re the titles most often selected by book groups, I’ll divide coverage of the literary fiction into two posts, starting the countdown today with the books in the 8th through 5th positions.

The tragedy of David Foster Wallace’s suicide continues to resonate. References to his work and echoes of his influence are everywhere. The Pale King was unfinished at his death, but thanks to the work of his editor Michael Pietsch most reviewers found it as polished as any of Foster Wallace’s work, which was never about plotting so much as about interesting prose and complex themes. Reading the 19 best-of-the-year mentions given to the book, one gets the sense that these are not sympathy votes, but sincere appreciation for this book about, of all things, a man who works in a Peoria IRS service center. It looks at boredom and hope, the value of work, and the place of the individual in the system. This writer’s long novels probably aren’t for everybody, but a look at the man and his career would be a good choice for any group. Those who don’t want to attempt his novels can get a sample of his writing in his excellent essays.

The sixth spot is shared by two novelists, each with 24 mentions to date. Teju Cole’s debut, Open City, has stayed amazingly under the cultural radar for a book with over 20 best-of-the-year nods. The book documents the walks that a Nigerian psychology graduate student takes through Manhattan as he attempts to clear his head of work, a recent breakup, and the burdens of his past. There’s plenty of political and social subtext as he encounters people from many backgrounds and a panoply of immigrant cultures. It’s got to be one of the most interesting attempts at the stream-of-consciousness style that we’ve seen in recent years.

Tied for 6th is the veteran Ann Patchett, with her latest, State of Wonder. It concerns a research scientist sent to the Amazon by a pharmaceutical company to discover what happened to another doctor. The story blends wilderness epiphanies, philosophical questions about science and anthropology, and melodrama about infidelities, parenting, and dark secrets in a compelling and engrossing mix. It’s a great book group choice with plenty of pithy ethical questions to discuss, strong characters, and an atmospheric setting.

Karen Russell’s debut Swamplandia! has the 5th spot, receiving 26 mentions so far. It’s a thoroughly original work set, of all places, in an alligator wrestling theme park in the Everglades. The title park is under duress from a competitor, the “World of Darkness,” and the family that owns it is coming apart. Their mother, the headliner, has recently died from cancer, the oldest brother has defected to the competing park, the middle sister has disappeared on a spiritual quest, and only young Ava remains to find her sister and save the park. It’s a quirky coming-of-age story, an examination of environmental and historical ethics, and a funny family epic, all compressed into 320 pages.

I’ll be back next week with the top four books in literary fiction.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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