Top 10 Books of 2011

January 23, 2012 § 5 Comments

With January almost over, am I too late to tell you my favorite books read during 2011? I do like list-making and the different ways you can measure the passing of a year. So I took a look back and picked ten books whose writing or characters continue to stay with me.

I don't think Mr. Darcy got into politics.

1. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy. I’d never read this classic before and thought it would be some slow-paced social comedy of the Jane Austen type (which I do enjoy), but this novel zips along like a contemporary adventure movie with all the necessary cliffhangers, twists and turns, and political intrigue of a modern thriller. It was an unexpected delight and I was hooked.

2. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccomatios by Yann Martel. In this collection of short stories, the story titled “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” (I’m a sucker for lengthy, involved titles) kept this book on the list. When I finished it, I remember abruptly sitting up, emitting an audible gasp. It’s not that this story is the next 21st century classic, but the masterful way in which Martel wraps up all the story’s themes made me admire and envy his extraordinary talent for storytelling.

3., 4., and 5. This year three books of poetry made it to my list. The volumes of Lucifer at the Starlite by Kim Addonizio and The Need to Hold Still by Lisel Mueller quickly made these women some of my favorite poets. (I posted two of their poems here.) The volume Here, Bullet by Brian Turner deals with his time as a solider in Iraq. War seems such an unpoetic topic, yet Brian Turner paints vivid pictures of soldiers and civilians, culture and history, the brutality of war and the beauty of life.

“This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.”

(from “A Soldier’s Arabic”)

6. Blankets by Craig Thompson. I’m not an avid reader of graphic novels, but I really enjoyed this quiet story of a Midwest teenager growing up in a small conservative town and wrestling with ideas of religion, love, and family. It’s honest, sometimes hard to read, and beautifully drawn. Also worth checking out is Thompson’s recent Habibi, which also deals with hard issues, love and religion in the Middle East.

"How satisfying it is to make a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of my movement...no matter how temporary."

7. Zeroville by Steve Erickson. With a tattoo of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift on his head, the the main character shows up in Hollywood in 1969, knowing nothing else of life but movies. It’s a quirky book with a muddled plot, but through it Erickson explores the history of movies: of acting and editing, of trends and innovation. It’s a story told via the written word that captures well the magic of movies.

8. Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. Of all the WWII stories of hiding and escape that I’ve read over the years, this novella is unique in that the Jewish man who is hidden by a Dutch couple grows sick and doesn’t survive. The story deals with the aftermath and the guilt of a couple who have tried to help out their neighbor and must go into hiding themselves.  It’s an interesting point of view by a German Jew who survived by hiding with strangers in Holland.

9. Bossypants by Tina Fey.  It’s just so funny! Pakou introduced it to me first when she excerpted it here. With several of my friends  taking interest in improv, I enjoyed learning more about the craft and the way an improv mentality can influence the way you live. Like always responding with a “yes, and…” so that you always contribute something to the scene, so that the scene can always move forward. And did I mention? She’s so funny! “I am a big believer in Intelligent Design,” she writes. “And by that I mean I love IKEA!”

10. How to Keep Your Volkswagon Alive by Christopher Boucher. This is a quirky novel that is partly about maintenance (the Volkswagon runs on stories), partly about parenting (the 1971 Volkswagon Beatle is actually the protagonist’s son), and partly about a journey (as the protagonist deals with his father being carried away by a Heart Attack Tree). It takes awhile to get into the surreal rhythm of the story since Boucher makes up some words and redefines others, but it’s worth it when you stumble across so many beautiful passages like this one:

Once I was on my way towards Route 116 in Amherst when, in the middle of those cranberry turns, I looked over and found my passenger to be an old, creaky mechanical bull. This bull rode with a bottle of wine between his legs, and he wore a wide-collared shirt, and his face told me that he’d been forced over the course of his trip to say goodbye to people that he loved. He was holding in that love. It burned inside him like a soldier.

What were your favorites of the year?

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§ 5 Responses to Top 10 Books of 2011

  • Laura Mettler says:

    Ok, I love The Scarlet Pimpernel! Just sayin’. And I can’t wait to read Bossypants.

  • danny says:

    I recently read The Life of Pi by Martel, which totally blew me away. Highly recommend that if you haven’t read it yet!

  • Laura says:

    The Scarlet Pimpernel is definitely one of my all-time favorites. Maybe I’ll reread it soon, it’s been a while. :)

  • Becky says:

    i haven’t read any of these. After I’m done with Ender’s Game I may try Scarlet Pimpernell.
    I’m surprised Hunger Games didn’t make your list.

    • Becky, I read the Hunger Games last year in 2010. So I think it made my list then (though maybe not – there were several other good books this year that did not make the list – like American Gods by Neil Gaiman, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie, An Invisible Sign by Aimee Bender, and The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Micahel Chabon).

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