It’s January 31st, and time to finally make my list of favorite books read for 2011. This year I read twenty fewer books than last year, and I imagine I can chalk it up to more time spent watching movies, more time painting, and yes, more time spent playing Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook.
Many of the books I read in 2011 were art related, and I eliminated them from this list, since books on the qualities of watercolor paint, or the history of the Fauves probably aren’t very interesting to most of my other reader friends. I also eliminated books I read for a second or third time, even though both Ann Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces and Johanna’s Spyri’s Heidi gave me hours of delight. Ditto with the excellent Travels of Jaimie McPheeters.
All book lists are personal, and I will resist the urge justify my choices. These were simply books those rose like cream to the top of my annual list of books completed, titles that I thought about after I closed the covers of the book, or popped the last disc out of the CD player in the car. These were titles I found myself talking about to my husband, recommending to friends, and going to the internet to learn more about.
In alphabetical order, there are my top ten favorites for this year.
1. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Fiction. I found this book in the young adult section of the library, and while the main character is a high school freshman, I found the story to be funny, touching, and altogether enjoyable. The main character is Junior, a want-to-be cartoonist, who leaves the Spokane reservation to attend mostly white high school. I loved his determination to make something of himself.
2. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Fiction. I discovered Gaiman through listening to Coraline in audio format, and the going on and also listening to Anansi Boys and Stardust. I read and adored his young adult novel The Graveyard book last year. This year was the 10th anniversary of the publication of American Gods so I dove in. It’s hard to write a short summary, the the idea for it is, what if gods from all sorts of religions around the world came to the New World with immigrants, and had to do battle with the things people worship today - like commerce? A young man, Shadow, gets out of prison, and soon after his wife is killed. Then strange people come and Shadow is involved in an epic battle between old gods and new. There is a great scene set at my all-time weird favorite local roadside attraction, the House on the Rock.
3. Hideous Kinky, by Esther Freud. Fiction. Hideous Kinky is an awful title for a charming and interesting book, The story follows two young English girls and their rather Hippie-like mother on her travels through Morocco. The author is the daughter of artist Lucian Freud, and the story is a fictionalized version of events that happened to her and her sister. We rented the movie afterward, and liked that too.
4. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave. Fiction. While I have mostly dropped out of organized book groups, I read this title with a discussion group that meets at our library. This luminous book is about the intertwined lives of a Nigerian refugee and an English magazine editor. The title character differs hideous cruelty in her homeland, but her determination and optimism shine. The ending was the only thing I disliked, but it was probably realistic.
5. My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy. Nonfiction. I listened to Conroy read his memoir about growing up in the deep South, and of the people and books who shaped him as a reader and as a writer. I found myself driving around, sitting in parking lots with the CD running, just so I could listen to that man talk. I even ended up reading a whole book of challenging poetry by James Dickey as a result of having spent time with this memoir.
6. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fiction. My husband had started and abandoned this novel, and it does start slowly. It takes a long time to come to understand that the young people in the English boarding school are being raised to be organ donors in a future time. They will gradually sacrifice their lives so that others may live. In a time when people do donate organs, and genetic research does make cloning possible, Ishiguro creates a story that is haunting, about everyone’s need to be loved and to feel important, and about the implications of certain lines of scientific inquiry. I’m glad I read it before I watched the film version. It was also interesting to read just before I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a book that also looks at scientific ethics, though it is nonfiction, and was less compelling for me.
7. Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific, by J. Maarten Troost. Nonfiction. I actually listened to two of Troost’s autobiographical travel stories on CD. Both were informative, sometimes a bit shocking, and always very very funny. Troost went to Tarawa , a South Pacific island with his girlfriend and later wife. He reports on the tremendous heat, some horrific critters, incompetent government officials and all sorts of colorful locals. Remind me not to book a cruise to this place.
8. The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Fiction. I find myself being attracted to Westerns in my dotage, something I would never have predicted as a younger woman. Maybe it’s all the family history work I’ve been doing, or maybe its just having enjoyed the Deadwood series. I don’t know. This story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two guns for hire, has everything I like, interesting characters, entertaining dialog, action, history, and humor.
9. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. Fiction. I read this one after hearing it recommended on an NPR podcast (I listen to these items while I play games online). This is another book with with unusual characters, entertaining dialog, and a little magical realism. It probably isn’t for every reader. The story centers on a family in Florida who run a roadside attraction, an alligator wrestling place, and who are losing the enterprise to a bigger amusement park - World of Darkness. I couldn’t help thinking of Noahs Ark, at the Wisconsin Dells. Anyway, this one kept me happily turning pages and sometimes scratching my head, right up to the end.
10. The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. Fiction. This was another library book discussion title that I ended up liking. Apparently it is the second book in a trilogy, with the third book still to come. Oryx and Crake is the first title in the trilogy, though I have not read it. Atwood is back writing literary quality speculative fiction, this time imagining that most of the world has been killed off by a waterless flood, some sort of virus. The world is run by giant multinational corporations. The survivors of the “flood”, young women Ren and Toby, must use their survival skills to get along in a very frightening imagined future. I loved the way Atwood played with language in this book, and the way she takes current trends in science, pop culture and even music and spins them out into what they could some day become. I also enjoyed the dystopian future novel The Hunger Games, but it could not compare to this book in scope or quality of writing.