Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beth's Best Reads of 2011

By now, you all know the drill on this one.  Here's the rules: The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2011. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching my original review for each book.

2011 was a great reading year, mainly because my friends and family members were suggestion superstars this year, constantly tossing great books my way.  The pickings this year were so good that I expanded my usual list of 10 books to 15 this year. Of course, all these good books made it extra hard to decide what should top the list.  It was especially hard to decide a winner between my top 2 books, but one of them emerged the victor nevertheless.  I hope you enjoy this list, and please be sure to tell me what your favorite reads were this year!

15.  A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr.  My biggest weakness in fiction is for brief, poetic novels, and A Month in the Country is the perfect example of this type of book.  Carr tells the story of a physically, morally, and emotionally wounded World War I veteran in just a hundred and some pages, but it feels like the stuff of an epic.  What makes this novel so wonderful is the amount of things that go unsaid.  It's what the narrator doesn't tell us that is most devastating, making this one of the loneliest books I've ever read. 

14.  Silk Is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase.  Laugh all you want.  Just as I was losing faith in the historical romance, Loretta Chase's new book swooped in and saved the day this summer.  Marcelline is without a doubt my favorite in a long line of awesome Chase heroines, and her romance with Clevedon is organic and well-deserved.  This is just the first book in a new series by Chase, and if the others are half as good as this one, I will be a very happy Beth. 

13.  I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak.  I've made it no secret on this blog that I'm a huge Zusak fan.  His most famous novel, The Book Thief, topped this list last year.  I Am the Messenger is a deceptively simple story about a young man looking to make his life better.  The plot is implausible, but that doesn't matter.  Because this young adult novel is all about what it means to find the courage to change your life.  The narrator, Ed Kennedy, and his friends and family aren't always great people, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve the chance for forgiveness or love in their lives.  I love how non-cynical Markus Zusak is, and I think his streak of humanity is what makes his books so memorable. 

12.  The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson.  As an unflinching look at the mistakes parents can make in raising their children, The Family Fang can feel a little heavy at times.  Luckily, Wilson finds the humor and warmth in his two protagonists, the screwed-up siblings Annie and Buster Fang.  This novel can make you laugh and wince at the same time, which is no small feat. 

11.  Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link.  This book made the list simply for the fact that it contained my two favorite short stories I read this year: "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" and "Louise's Ghost."  The former is a series of love letters from beyond the grave and the second is an extremely bizarre examination of friendship and jealousy.  I think Link is one of the best short story writers out there, and I really wish she'd hurry up and publish a new book. 

10.  The River King, by Alice Hoffman.  If Neil Gaiman was the de facto master of my 2010 list, then Alice Hoffman has taken his place in 2011.  I went on a Hoffman rampage this summer (see No. 4 below), and even though this isn't her best work, I think it might just be her most evocative.  I've never read a book so deep in mood.  By the book's end, I felt as waterlogged as the drowned boy at the book's center.  Seriously, the pages began to smell like a mildewed dorm room while I was reading them.  Hoffman isn't afraid to go dark, and this book is a testament to her supernatural strengths as a straight-up storyteller. 

9.  A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  I was so impressed by the structure of this award-winning novel this summer that I was sure it would place higher on this list.  Unfortunately, it didn't stick with me on an emotional level the way a lot of the books on this list did.  But I still think Egan is crazy-talented, and the construction of Goon Squad blows me away just thinking about it.  The book has some really wonderful and moving chapters, even if it did feel overly clever as whole.  Egan shows just what narrative derring-do can accomplish in contemporary fiction.

8.  My Year of Flops: One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, by Nathan Rabin.  I've been reading Nathan Rabin's AV Club column on movies that bombed at the box office since my freshman year of college, so I knew I'd eventually pick up the book that came out of those columns.  But what I wasn't expecting was how rewarding an experience this hilarious collection would be.  The first movie Rabin tore apart was Elizabethtown (which just so happens to be one of my least favorite movies ever), and this essay appears at the beginning of the book.  Then, after years of writing his flops column, Rabin rewatched Elizabethtown and found that his life had changed so much for the better that he could no longer mock the film's heart.  The resulting essay from that experience is actually quite moving.  Never in my life did I think the snarky Rabin would make me cry, but he did. 

7.  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë.  When I read this classic novel back in July, I never thought it would make this list.  I found the whole thing to be batshit crazy.  But you know what?  I haven't been able to stop thinking about Wuthering Heights since.  It features some of the least sympathetic characters of all time - crazypants Heathcliff, bitchy Catherine, annoyingly spineless Edgar Linton.  But the things that come out of these people's mouths ranks among some of the most beautiful sentences in literature, and the book certainly entertained the hell out of me.  Had anyone told me how nuts this book was, I never would have believed them.  I'm glad I finally found out for myself. 
6.  The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, by Brenda Coultas.  This strange little book - half poetry and half ghost stories - is unlike anything else I've encountered in recent poetry.  Coultas writes poems about Indiana and its surrounding states using the language of place and time, creating a kind of elegy for the abolition movement in her native Midwest.  The ghost stories in the second part of the book are creepy and elusive, hitting just the right nerves in their brief tellings.  Coultas lurks outside of the contemporary poetry scene, and this outsider perspective does wonders for her work, which is entirely her own. 

5.  A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Edited by James L.W. West III).  Rumors of this book began way back in 2010, and I was literally counting down the days until it came out this summer.  Fitzgerald scholar James West put together Fitzgerald's most personal essays in chronological order, creating the first ever view of Fitzgerald's life as told from the author's own point of view.  This book seems tailor-made for a Fitzgerald fan, and I really appreciate its existence.  The essay "Author's House," a feigned interview between a fictional reporter and a one-time famous writer who is clearly Fitzgerald himself, is particularly heartbreaking and worth the price of admission alone. 

4.  The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman.  This is one of those books that flies well below the critical radar, which I think is unfortunate.  Alice Hoffman might not be a future classic author, but she creates atmosphere in her books like no one else writing right now.  The Red Garden is immensely entertaining, an unfolding of characters and moments centered on the ficitonal town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.  This series of connected short stories features some really lovely scenes, ones that I've carried around with me since I read the book back in May.  If you're looking for a book that just tells a great story, this is the one for you. 

3.  Crush, by Richard Siken.  Yes, this book has been around since 2005.  But I didn't pick it up to read until this last February.  I should never have waited so long.  This is a truly great collection of poetry.  Violent, erotic, and energetic, the lines in Crush continually knocked me out while I was reading them.  Poems like "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out" feel completely vital to not just contemporary poetry, but to the longer view of poetry as well.  Crush is the kind of book that really exemplifies what poetry is capable of doing. 

2.  The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.  The second I finished Percy's 1961 novel, I knew it was making this list.  I really, really love this book.  Jack "Binx" Bolling is in the middle of a life crisis just before his 30th birthday.  Unhappy with his womanizing, his constant moviegoing, and his transitory ways, he's forced to reckon with his soul and his lifestyle.  The thing that sets this novel apart from other similar stories is its beautiful writing.  Some of Percy's sentences had my head spinning from their sheer perfection.  The Moviegoer is the kind of short, rich novel that deserves to be savored slowly. 

1.  The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker.  This short, conversational novel just barely managed to beat out The Moviegoer as my favorite book I read this year.  It won based solely on what it meant to me personally.  Baker's story about Paul Chowder, a poet who agonizes over writing the introduction for an anthology of rhyming poems, is funny and sad in equal measure.  Baker gets into the head of a poet in a way I rarely encounter, and the things Chowder says about poetry are the kinds of arguments poets have been having for centuries.  But whether you're a poetry fan or not, this novel manages to be entertaining in its breezy and fast style.  I read The Anthologist at just the right time in my life, and it's become the best kind of book to read: the kind that becomes a friend.

1 comment:

  1. You and I have some similar tastes! I loved The Family Fang and A Visit from the Goon Squad this year. The Moviegoer is my least favorite Walker Percy novel (and put "least favorite" in the context of knowing that I have a son named Walker after this author).