Ellen Ullman’s Favorite Reads from 2011

Ellen Ullman is the author of a novel, The Bug, a New York Times Notable Book and runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and the cult classic memoir Close to the Machine, based on her years as a rare female computer programmer in the early years of the personal computer era. Her novel By Blood will be published by FSG in February 2012. She lives in San Francisco.

The Death of the Adversary by Hans Keilson, translated by Ivo Jarosy
A disturbing book that explores the interior relationship between an unnamed narrator—presumably a German Jew—and his mortal adversary, named B., but surely Hitler.

Keilson describes hatred as “voluptuous,” an animating force, a “powerful will to live that is rooted in the will to suffer.” He both longs for and dreads the death of B., saying, “Who can break the community that secretly establishes itself between the persecutors and their victims?”

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt
Judt died last year. He wrote his last works while paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease. This sad yet inspiring book mourns the loss of “social democracy,” the slow death of the idea that we are all in this together. His voice will be missed.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
The novel takes place in 1920, amid loggers, carters, train-track layers, men who go from job to job with the seasons. The main character, Robert Grainier, has lost his wife, child, home—everything he cares about—to a huge forest fire. Beautiful, spare prose. Emotion portrayed through the smallest gesture and turn of phrase.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Hilarious and scary. The most accurate description of the near future I have read, a time of perpetual connectivity via tiny, handheld devices, where the overwhelmingly common activity is digital shopping.

Room by Emma Donoghue
In this novel about a woman kept locked in a room for several years by a sexual predator, told from the viewpoint of the boy born as a result the woman’s having been raped by her captor, what seems improbable—that the story can be told through the eyes of a five-year-old whose entire life has been spent in one room—becomes an almost hallucinatory description of an entire world his mother helped him create.

The Great Reflation by J. Anthony Boeckh
Written as a guide to investors, this book is nonetheless a frightening description of a twenty-five-year expansion of credit, the “false prosperity” created by a capitalist world gluttonous for borrowing.

March by Geraldine Brooks
A retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women but from the viewpoint of the family’s father, who leaves to serve as a chaplain in the Civil War. The writing is luminous. Just one of the many sentences I have underlined: “The heat of the late afternoon closed in around us like an animate thing; you could feel it on your skin, warm and moist, like a great beast panting.” And one of the metaphors I wish I could have written: “A rat’s tooth of an uneasiness gnawed at me . . .”

All Authors’ and Editors’ Favorite Reads of 2011

The Introduction