I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was about 13 years old. Below is the complete list of the books I read in 2011. You can read the rest of the list on my website.
From this list–which this year, ended up being about a book a week–I’ve picked my ten of my favorites. Not all of these were published this year, but I just encountered them this year. I left out old favorites that I read again–Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though reading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish was an entirely new experience). I have also left out Paul Auster, because I love everything Paul Auster writes, so why go over old territory. Here, in no particular order:
1. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
This book was over 900 pages, but I flew through it. It was a gripping thriller, with the spare language and quirky details I love in Murakami. This book deals with cults and all the fake realities we live with all the time, and how we try to sort them out. Plus, it was a love story with a very satisfying ending. Maybe what I love about Murakami is that he can write such a traditional story with so many metaphysical twists and high and low cultural references casually thrown in, without announcing themselves.
2. Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks
This book, about a young sex offender trying to make his way in the margins, was simply amazing. Just read it.
3. The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown
Maybe I loved this book so much because I have three sisters, so a lot of the themes and interactions were familiar. But I found her descriptions of human relationships to be nuanced and fresh; I felt as if I were living in that weird family for a few days.
4. The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks
The Plague, by Albert Camus, is one of my favorite books, and I’ve had a fascination with books about the plague since. Geraldine Brooks came across a plaque near an English village describing how it had quarantined itself during the time of the plague in the 16th century; she imagined the rest. She did such a wonderful job with the history and language that I immediately got two other historical fictions she did–Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American at Harvard, and March, about the imagined life of the March girls in Little Women, who went to the Civil War and was pals with the transcendentalists and abolitionists of the day (including my ancestory, John Brown). Impeccably researched novels.
5. Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard
I guess every MFA teacher around has read Jo Ann Beard’s essays, each one a little gem. I hadn’t read them, and was amazed at their economy of language, structure, and ability to say so much so profoundly in so little space.
6. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres
This book is essential reading for San Franciscans, telling the tale of one of the darkest chapters of our history from a humane point of view. Scheeres did meticulous research from FBI files and survivors to tell the story of Jonestown from the perspective of the people who were drawn into that world because of their ideals. A tale of 60s idealism going very, very wrong. Reads like a novel.
7. Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner
Like One Thousand Lives, this novel is written by a fellow member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, but trust me that I’m not biased when I say this is a wonderfully-written book. Through vignettes scattered in time, we learn about generations of a Chicago family and the themes of love and loss and shame that run through them. Lovely.
8. Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls
This wasn’t written this year, but it’s an earlier novel by the author of the Glass Castle, and worth a read. What I loved about the book was that she wrote a kind of memoir of her grandmother, who was quite a character–a tough, independent woman of the West.
9. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
Of course, I get this book mixed up with The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which I also loved, and which is completely different. But this tale of a lower-caste Indian’s rise in the world of entrepreneurship was funny, revealing, and a heartbreaking portrait of two Indias. I think you can read anything published recently with a tiger in its title. Except–wait–the Tiger Mother? Forget that one. Stick to the novels and you’ll be safe.
10. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee
I can’t believe I’m already at 10. I was going to mention Great House by Nicole Krauss, and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. But this spot is for The Privileges, which is a lively, funny, sarcastic novel about ethics and amorality among the wealthy insider trading set. Completely entertaining.
I’m happy that Santa et al brought me a big stack of books from the Booksmith, which gives me a great start to 2012 with The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie; Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon; Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga; Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, and In One Person, by John Irving.
My 2011 booklist:
I’m starting a five-star rating system this year (before the books on the list were either starred or not)
Man in the Dark****
The Cookbook Collector***
La Bella Lingua***
Boys of My Youth*****
Jo Ann Beard
The Flaming Corsage***
The Widower’s Tale****
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents****
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks***
The Toughest Indian in the World*****
Orange is the New Black*****
The White Tiger****
Half Broke Horses****
The Year of Wonders****
The Tiger’s Wife****
Pride and Prejudice*****
Before Night Falls***
Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures**
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman
The Weird Sisters*****
Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater***
Amor en los Tiempos del Colera*****
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Nowhere City****
Blood, Bones, and Butter***
Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America***
The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts***
Louis de Bernieres
Food is Culture***
Lost Memory of Skin*****
A Short History of Women****
Love and Shame and Love****
The Voyage of the Rose City****
John Moynihan (dear departed friend)
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown****
The Custom of the Country****