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Top Books We Read in 2011, by L.A. Weekly Writers

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Fri, Dec 30, 2011 at 1:08 PM

click to enlarge Fighting the good fight
  • Fighting the good fight

Yes, bookstores are closing all around us, from the giant Borders to the tiny Village Books.

But Angelenos still read, and to prove it, we asked LA Weekly's staff writers, editors and freelance contributors to tell us their favorite book they read this year, and why. Answers after the jump.

What's your favorite book you read in 2011? Add it in the comments.

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

It's a wholly enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York, namely the monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan's first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Blum's book charts the exhaustive work this pair did to discover tests for common poisons that could be used as evidence during court murder trials. The chapter on radium is especially illuminating and chilling! --Pauline Adamek

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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The characters in Tom Rachman's debut novel about a struggling international newspaper in Rome reminded me of the various flawed, lovable, deplorable, idiosyncratic, mildly villainous, occasionally heroic hacks I've met while working in journalism. As Rachman says, "Journalism is a bunch of dorks pretending to be alpha males." --Gendy Alimurung

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

In the last months just before World War I, handsome bisexual poet Cecil Valence writes a beautiful poem that might be for his male lover George. Cecil dies in the trenches -- but the poem lives on and becomes a classic of British literature, even as its meaning is usurped" by George's sister, who marries into Valence's literary family. The piece says as much about repression and loss as it does about the often comic mistakes we make in attempting to analyze and interpret the past. --Paul Birchall

About A Mountain by John D'Agata

For the stylish and deeply personal navigation of the paper trail that littered the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository debate. I loved the story of an indestructible sign that's meant for visitors 10,000 years in the future ("This is not an honorable place"). --Sam Bloch

Happy Accidents by Jane Lynch

I loved the shocking honesty and hilarity of Lynch's prose. She is fearless in the examination of her life and the anger, passion, confusion, self-discovery, and happy accidents that helped her grow into the woman she is today. For dreamers looking for a little inspiration on their road to greatness, this is a must read. --Stephanie Carrie

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Murakami's latest tome turns reading into a prolonged waiting game: waiting for things to happen, characters to meet, and conflicts to be resolved. But in this book more than any of his others, the author finds poetry in his low-action plot, and the payoff moments -- featuring a cult overlords, a time-less sanatorium, and a hash-smoking nurse -- are staggering. --Kyle Chayka

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

Sculptor Edmund de Waal's memoir is ostensibly about reconstructing the provenance of a family heirloom; but his narrative condenses to examine the most minute ancestral detail, expands to encompass the sweep of modern European history and art history, and ultimately ends up as a fresh form of autobiography. The way he marries the personal to the historical, and his avuncular, sincerely curious, and evocative prose is a joy to read in its own right. --Shana Nys Dambrot

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

It is at once a wildly inventive and almost believable book about two young adult siblings scarred by a lifetime of largely involuntary involvement in their parents' careers as performance artists who carry out their work in the public domain (restaurants, shopping malls, etc.) Funny and touching, it raises questions about both contemporary art strategies and family ties. --Roni Feinstein

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Best nonfiction: Sybil Exposed: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case by Debbie Nathan

It's hard to decide who comes off worse in this expose -- psychologists or journalists. In Nathan's telling, both did extraordinary harm by letting their ambition get in the way of the truth. Devastating.

Best fiction: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, which tells the story of freed slaves who went on to own slaves of their own, detailing the terrible ways that slavery destroys both victim and perpetrator. The trick is that it somehow manages to be uplifting: Jones knows his characters well enough to forgive them their trespasses, and the small flashes of the future he allows us to glimpse offer the promise of redemption.

--Sarah Fenske

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

A sparse, arresting novella about movement, loss, and development of the American frontier. It echoes Tolstoy in its concerns about industrialization and Hemingway in its starkness. --Kai Flanders

The Dogs of Babel: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The impressive story of a linguistics professor who mines his own deep grief after the death of his wife by trying to teach his dog to talk. --Katharine Gammon

Look, I Made a Hat by Stephen Sondheim

Pulitzer Prize winning composer-lyricist Steven Sondheim astonishes in this memoir not by exalting the artistry that went into transcendent works like Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. Instead, he plays the role of self-critical master craftsman who thrives on creative conflict and grueling revisions in the pursuit of three guiding virtues: Less is More. Content Dictates Form. God is in the Details. --Hugh Hart

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

I'll take Harry Potter over Edward Cullen any day. I am in awe of Rowling's wondrous imagination, and I have been a Potter enthusiast since Year One. --Jessica Koslow

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead emerged in 2011 as the Hunger Games of essay collections, but I don't think the hype was undeserved. Like David Foster Wallace, Sullivan can take any facet of pop culture -- from Bunny Wailer to One Tree Hill -- and turn it into fodder for a mini epic, complete with subplots, reversals, great men and fatal flaws. --Sarah LaBrie

Vida by Patricia Engel

Besides being a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Fiction Award, Vida -- the stunning debut by Colombian-American Patricia Engel -- has become the female counterpoint to Junot Diaz's classic, Drown. Every story glistens as it follows Sabina through Miami, Colombia, New Jersey, and New York City on her way to understanding and enlightenment in a violent, ugly, and stunning portrait of an American experience. --Joe Lapin

The Lulu plays: Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box by Frank Wedekind (Carl R. Mueller's translation)

These are the plays that inspired the now-infamous Lulu album, by Lou Reed and Metallica. Wedekind epitomizes German Expressionism, challenging bourgeois social mores with characters whose moral compasses point only toward their own selfish interests. The central character Lulu is ingeniously written to provoke ambivalence both from the characters who interact with her and from the reader. Her sexual openness is modern, ahead of its time in turn-of-the-century Germany. The plays are violent and irreverent, and the controversy the Lulu album has sparked serves well the nature of its theatrical inspiration. --Linda Leseman

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

I recently devoured all 925 pages of this dreamy thriller, ending with a 200-page spree in the middle of the night on the cold floor of a hotel bathroom. I'm convinced this is Murakami's most satisfying and successful novel; never before has he so seamlessly integrated the unfortunate truths and contradictions of contemporary Japanese society with elements of magical realism and an accessible, compulsively readable narrative. --Amanda Lewis

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

The story that every City Hall reporter yearns to write: a tale of power, corruption, and land use. --Gene Maddaus

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music by Ellen Willis

This compilation of The New Yorker's first pop critic pulses with unbridled passion for artists as diverse as the Who, Bowie and the Boss. The unsung Willis had a keen eye for the importance of her subjects that helped to elevate the status of both the artists she wrote about and the genre of criticism she helped to create. --Sean J. O'Connell

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson

I came away thinking about William Goldman's famous quote about Hollywood, and how it could apply equally to the art world: "Nobody knows anything." --Zachary Pincus-Roth

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

Set in an era when Americans' close relationship with horses was being replaced by their love for the automobile, I adored this sometimes punctuation-free book's irreverent marriage of realism, romanticism, beauty and bleak brutality. Though I've never lived on a ranch and seldom ride horses, the protagonist's gorgeously portrayed pursuit of a vanishing lifestyle south of the border triggered lasting pangs of loss and longing. --Paul Rogers

How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher

Fisher's narrative weaves an acute commentary on unnecessary opulence together with recipes (yeah, so it's kind of a cookbook) while pointing out that, oh yes, you can find enjoyment in the simple things. As more and more of our time these days seems devoted to the lame exploits of tastelessness (in food, culture, and dare I say...art), the book itself is an an allegory that seems, eerily, perhaps even more relevant today than when she wrote it in 1942. --Megan Sallabedra

A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami

I read it in a hotel in Tokyo (jet lag, insomnia), so maybe I was predisposed to like the book. But it's strange and wonderful and -- did I say strange? -- I loved it so much that I've not been able to read any Murakami since, as the rest of his novels seem to pale by comparison. Which makes me like Sheep even more, retroactively.

--Amy Scattergood

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Hitch 22 by Christopher Hitchens

In the wake of his death, this is the sentimental choice -- a distinction Hitch would have abhorred. Hitch 22 might not have been the best book I read this year (that's American Pastoral), but no book offered a broader education on everything from Wodehouse to the Battle of Thermopylae. Best consumed with scotch and sulfur. --Jeff Weiss

American Gangbang: A Love Story by Sam Benjamin

Sam Benjamin tried and failed to make art while a student at Brown University, so he did the next best thing and came to Malibu to make porn. American Gangbang is hilarious and honest about sex and pornography; it's also intellectual enough to make you feel good about yourself. --Ben Westhoff

How To Make Love To Adrian Colesberry by Adrian Colesberry

Since it was all about sex, it was way more fun than my second-favorite book, which was all about cancer (that would be The Emperor Of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee). Rather than being self-centered and full of himself, as some might assume from the title, Colesberry is thoroughly self-effacing, coming clean as much about his flaws and humiliations as much as his personal proclivities. The book is really an autobiography disguised as a sex manual, and Colesberry as the hapless-yet-sexy-nerd tour guide is endearing to girls and sympathetic to guys. It's got lots of laugh-out-loud moments and lots of graphic sex -- and that's a can't-miss combo. --L.J. Williamson

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