Monday, January 9, 2012

Favorite Books of 2011

I doubt anyone actually noticed but at some point during 2011 I slipped a little list into my sidebar to keep track of books I read throughout the year. This was mostly for my own benefit as, ever the efficient German American, I like lists and being able to look back and see what I was reading a year ago. Since reading is such a big part of my life I can often look back and see where I was as a person based on what I was reading at the time. Sometimes it's my life that directs my book selection; sometimes it's the book that molds my life.

Note that these aren't all books published in 2011, just books I read during the year.

My Life in France
by Julia Child

I started the year off with a book I'm kicking myself for not reading sooner: My Life in France. I of course knew of Julia from reruns of her cooking show on PBS as I was growing up and my mother's own amused recollections of certain episodes, but this book shows how much more there was to her than just cooking. Her enthusiasm for life, her ability to roll with the punches and make the best out of every situation, and her spirit of adventure all shine through in this gem of a book. She was truly a marvel and a great role model for anyone looking to squeeze as much out of life as possible.

by Emma Donoghue

I follow a few literary prizes to get book recommendations and The Man Booker prize is one I rely on a lot. I carefully go through the list and read reviews and descriptions of each nominee before deciding to read one, and even with those precautions I occasionally wind up with an unenjoyable read. Happy to say that Room did not fall into that category. The basic premise is something we've recently seen in the news: a woman is abducted, held captive for years, and impregnated by her captor. What Donoghue does with that setup is clever, unexpected in many ways, and well thought out. Through her choice of narrator and her focus on the victims Donoghue takes a disturbing subject and keeps it from turning into something tawdry and exploitative. I'm avoiding describing the plot in too much detail as I think it's one of those books that's best to encounter without any prior information. I later had my book club read this and everyone came away feeling impressed by the book.

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

2011 was the year I finally caught up to the rest of the world and read The Hunger Games. I'd been hearing people recommend them for over a year but dragged my feet for fear it was another Twilight-like series, i.e., popular without merit. Of course, once I broke down (partially based on hearing recommendations from friends with verified good taste in books) I couldn't stop until I'd torn through the entire series. It's one of the rare series I wouldn't mind re-reading and I find myself eagerly awaiting the movie along with what seems like everyone else in the world.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Lionel Shriver

Another book I can't wait to see as a movie is We Need to Talk About Kevin. A subtly creepy book that, like Room, takes a unique angle on the sort of thing we see in the news all too often.

The Handmaid's Tale
by Margaret Atwood

As I write this post I'm seeing a trend. It seemed to be a year of catching up on books I should have read long ago. The Handmaid's Tale is another of those modern classics that turns up on "best of" lists all the time but I managed to ignore until last year. It actually wasn't the first of Atwood's books I'd encountered. I was introduced to Oryx and Crake as a book club read and loved her style of dystopian fiction informed by Atwood's knowledge about our current world, both its science and its society. They are two very different books and, despite The Handmaid's Tale's notoriety, I found I enjoyed Oryx and Crake a little more. Which isn't to say that The Handmaid's Tale isn't worth your time, just that you should read them both. As with any good dystopian novel it's easy to see how our world could end up in such a state with the path that we're currently on. Atwood is a brilliant writer and excels in creating these potential future societies in a way that makes them believable and chilling.

A Novel Bookstore
by Laurence Cossee

A Novel Bookstore, translated from the original French, tries to be a bit like The Elegance of the Hedgehog but never quite succeeds. It was an enjoyable enough read for me as a bibliophile but some of the plot fell short. The premise is great: a bookstore is opened in Paris that promises to only sell "good" books. That is, books that teach us, enlighten us, enchant us, and, most importantly, move us.

"We have no time to waste on insignificant books, hollow books, books that are here to please. We have no time for those sloppy, hurried books of the ‘Go on, I need it for July, and in September we’ll give you a proper launch and sell 100,000 copies, it’s in the bag’ variety. We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels."
-A Novel Bookstore

The proprietors of the shop are ordinary people struggling with various issues in life who retreat to books for comfort. Who can't relate to that at times? What I got out of this was how far behind my reading education is as I'd only read a handful of the books they included in the store. I kept notes as I read and later discovered that the publisher has a website up listing many more "good" books.

A Frozen Woman
by Annie Ernaux

That list led directly to my next book selection: A Frozen Woman. I'm not usually so bold in my proclamations but I will say that I loved this book. That said, I can see how this could be a divisive book, that many readers wouldn't "get" it. I think one's enjoyment of the novel is dependent on where the reader is in life and she he/she has experienced. Heck, it might not be a book for men at all as the mind of a women is already such a strange and complicated place beyond their comprehension. And this particular woman makes some decisions and reacts to life in ways not every woman can sympathize with. Still, I have a hard time imagining that anyone but the most sheltered woman wouldn't find at least one passage, one stage of the character's life that she can relate to. It's a deeply emotional book full of the resentment and apathy that life can force upon us. Honestly, it's the sort of book that the twenty-year-old version of me wouldn't have liked. Amazing how living life a little more opens up a whole new world of understanding.

The Magicians and The Magician King
by Lev Grossman

I heard The Magicians described as Harry Potter for adults, and while we won't even get into the issue of how Harry Potter is for all ages and has many dark themes, I have to agree that The Magicians seems a little more... mature. Perhaps because it's more explicit about things like sex and jealousy, perhaps because the characters are a little less lovable and affable, but the connection to Harry Potter will always be made because it too takes place at a school for, you guessed it, magicians. This particular school is for college-aged magicians and while there are elements of other-worldly things much of the book is about the struggles any kid would face at that age. It's less fantastical than your average book full of wizards and spells. It may not be a perfect book as even the main character started to irk me by the end, but both this and its sequel, The Magician King, are worth a read if you're into that genre. In fact, I found my opinion of the first book improved upon reading the sequel as I saw how certain plot points in the first set up the story in the sequel.

by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

What an interesting idea to present a biography of physicist Richard Feynman in a graphic novel format. If you or anyone in your life is unfamiliar with the genius that was Feynman and his unique way of looking at and explaining the world this would be a great place to start. He's long been a fascinating person to me between his role in the Challenger explosion inquiry and his work on the Manhattan Project so it was nice to learn a little more about him in this easy-to-read format.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
by Ransom Riggs

I wanted to love this book so much. It's right up my alley what with a WWII subplot, the sort of characters you'd see in a circus sideshow, and funky vintage photos interspersed throughout of the peculiar children displaying their various peculiarities. My favorite scenes were the ones that took place at the school, encountering new peculiar inhabitants and learning their stories. The overall plot of the book, however, was a little dull and lacked in creativity. I also felt as if I was reading a YA book, which is usually not the case with the YA books I choose to read. This one felt simplistic, as if the language and story were deliberately dumbed down for that audience. Disappointing because I couldn't help comparing it to Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is also written for children/young adults but manages to do so in a way that elevates the reader, whatever his/her age. That said, I hope the author's writing improves in subsequent novels as I like what he was trying to do.

The Night Circus
by Emily Morgenstern

Ended the year with a bang by reading our book club's latest selection. Now this is a book that sets up a fantastical, magical world and populates it with interesting characters and a compelling story. Reminds me a bit of The Prestige as two talented magicians battle it out but there are unique elements to The Night Circus that let it stand on its own. It's the kind of book that sucks the reader into its world, a world infinitely more interesting than our own. I don't even know how to describe the plot, which just means that you'll have to read it for yourself to figure it all out. A lovely, lovely book!

How about you? Read anything interesting lately?

Books read in 2011:

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk

• My Life in France

• Salem Brownstone

• Dead End Gene Pool

• Room

• Bespelling Jane Austen

• The Hunger Games

• Catching Fire

• Lullabies for Little Criminals

• Mockingjay

• Zombie Raccoons & Killer Bunnies

• The Beach

• The Handmaid's Tale

• Out Stealing Horses

• The Gates

• My Last Supper

• A Novel Bookstore

• A Frozen Woman

• A Scattering

• The Magicians

• I Capture the Castle

• The Woman in White

• Vanilla Ride

• Infected

• The Psychopath Test

• We Need to Talk About Kevin

• Through Black Spruce

• Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

• Spiced

• How Hard Can it Be?

• Jane and the Canterbury Tale

• The Magician King

• The Hare with Amber Eyes

• A Jane Austen Education

• Packing for Mars

• The Sea

• Feynman

• The Night Circus


Baye said...

First, I have noticed the sidebar of books and used it on a number of occasions--thank you from my book club.

Second, is this a new web design or am I getting old and forgetful. I do like that strange little creature/human in particular. It's like he's stalking me while I'm reading down through.

Mim Smith Faro said...

I like the new spooky background.

I'm sorry you didn't like Miss Peregrine. I liked it a lot. My students are loving it. Did you enjoy the entire Hunger Games trilogy? I loved the first book, mostly liked the second, but really didn't like the way she ended the series. It didn't seem true to the characters.

I'd really like to read The Night Circus soon.

the cape on the corner said...

i loved room, although i did find it difficult to read since it's jacks's point of view. i recommended it to everyone this year, and my mom's book club read it.

i've been on a waiting list for moooonths for the miss perigirene one, i hope i find that it was worth it.

liked the hunger games, but felt like there were just too many characters, and too much info about not all that important characters. did you think that way at all?

i just read a random one i picked up at the library called the art of everything by megan abbott, and it was lovelybones/room eqsue, and i still have questions about it.