Best of 2011

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you all have had a fabulous weekend. It’s time to write up my best of 2011 list, and I thought I’d do it in categories rather than a simple list. I’d love to be able to pick the best book of the year, but there isn’t really one that stands out. Instead, there were a bunch of great reading experiences:

  • Reading the Little House books and books about the series, including Wendy McClure’s The Wilder Life and Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow. It was great rereading Wilder’s books, of course, but also fascinating to read other’s responses to and interpretations of them. I don’t usually read multiple books about the same subject all at once, and it was fun.
  • My Dorothy Wordsworth reading, including her letters, her Grasmere and Alfoxden journals, and Francis Wilson’s biography of her, The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth — another example of reading into a subject more deeply than usual. The Wilson biography is fabulous.
  • Two books by Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking, this last one connected in my mind with Joyce Carol Oates’s book A Widow’s Story. Didion is amazing, and reading the Oates book was a powerful experience.
  • Two books by Scarlett Thomas, PopCo and Our Tragic Universe. Both of these books I felt ambivalently about as I read them, but they made me think so much I couldn’t help but admire them, and just recently I bought The End of Mr. Y. I love how strange her novels are, how they break the “rules” of good fiction, or at least the ones I have in my mind, but are great and fascinating anyway.

Some great nonfiction:

  • Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, an absolutely fabulous essay collection, one that got me interested in whatever subject Dyer took up, no matter how far from my usual interests.
  • Sarah Bakewell’s biography of Montaigne, How to Live, a model of a great biography.
  • Deb Olin Unferth’s Revolution, a memoir with a wonderfully understated, funny, fabulous voice.
  • Lauren Slater’s Lying, a book that got me to think about truth (and lying) in memoir like no other book I’ve read, plus one that’s simply a wonderfully entertaining read.
  • Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, a book that has inspired my dedication to aimless reading purely for pleasure in 2012.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I have become a huge fan of William James’s calm, thoughtful, incisive, tolerant persona.
  • Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, an incredibly entertaining and thought-provoking meditation on what it means to read and not read.
  • Honorable mentions: Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, Andre Dubus III’s Townie, Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book.

It wasn’t the greatest year for fiction, but here are the novels I liked best, other than ones mentioned above:

  • Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. The quiet power of this book has stuck with me.
  • Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. She’s a challenging, strange novelist, qualities I think I like very much.
  • Arthur Phillips’s The Tragedy of Arthur. I loved the playfulness of this book, and Phillips’s gentle mockery of memoirs. Plus he wrote a fake Shakespeare play, which takes guts.
  • Teju Cole’s Open City. The story of a guy walking around New York City, thinking about stuff. But more complicated than that, of course.
  • Lars Iyer’s Spurious. This book is funny, witty, strange, a little like a Beckett play. All good things.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A wonderfully strange, Gothic novel that uses first person point of view to great effect.
  • Honorable mentions: Dana Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, with a protagonist I came to love; Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending for its mix of excellent plotting and philosophical musings; David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, for its, well, strangeness is the word of the day, it seems, and this book was one of the strangest of them all.

Best mysteries:

  • Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women
  • Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time
  • Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman

Biggest disappointments:

  • Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination. Lots of people loved this book, but it didn’t work for me at all.
  • Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale. I was all set to love this book, especially since I like The Painted Veil so much, but I’m beginning to think Maugham isn’t a favorite of mine after all.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This book has some good points, but I really loved Edgeworth’s Belinda and wanted to feel the same about this one but didn’t.

I think I’ve mentioned at least 1/3 of all the books I’ve read this year, so this is hardly a best-of list. But I would be at a complete loss to come up with a list of the 10 best or whatever, so a larger survey felt like a better thing to do. All in all, it was a great year for nonfiction and an okay year for fiction. Perhaps I’ll dedicate myself to finding as many novels to fall in love with in 2012 as possible.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “Best of 2011

  1. I’m sorry to see Cakes and Ale didn’t work for you. I’m a fan of WSM, but this book has been a TBR for decades! I liked The Painted Veil too. Let’s hope your last sentence will bring us your blog readers some interesting reviews. ;) Wishing you all the best reading in 2012!

  2. I added Dorothy’s letters and the biography to my Kindle after reading your reviews. They are on my TBR list for 2012, and I’m determined to get around to them as I didn’t read enough nonfiction this past year.

    Good reading and good biking for the new year!

  3. Geoff Dyer’s Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, an absolutely fabulous essay collection, one that got me interested in whatever subject Dyer took up, no matter how far from my usual interests.

    Dyer’s new book (Zona), due in late January, judging by the excerpt I’ve read, looks very promising; it is definitely the new publication I am most excited about for 2012.

  4. I love the way you’ve organised your reading here – I think it really works! And lots of books I’ve either loved myself or am very interested to read. As ever, you find the most excellent non-fiction!

  5. Some of the best books I’ve read have come from recommendations by other bloggers, so keep it coming!

  6. How interesting that Scarlett Thomas made it to your best of list! Now I’m going to have to give her a try sometime. I have the Bakwell book and hope to read that in the coming months. I’m in line for The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction at the library because of you. so glad I have some good reading to look forward to! Happy New Year!

  7. I am so glad you discovered the joy of Scarlett Thomas this year. I know exactly what you mean about her books needing a bit of time to sink in before you can truly appreciate them, because I felt exactly that way when I read Our Tragic Universe. It wasn’t until a few weeks had passed after I finished it that I realized I was still thinking about it… I really do love that her books are ones that you can revisit again and again because the ideas are so provocative. I haven’t read PopCo. yet, but I’m hoping I get a copy of it soon and will have the chance to dive in!

  8. I agree wholeheartedly with you about The Year of Magical Thinking by Didion. It is the only thing I’ve read from her, but not the last, and was one of my favorite books read in 2010. The only Maugham I’ve read is The Razor’s Edge, which I did like a lot. I never got around to reading Cakes and Ale, although I had every good intention. Somehow, I lost track of what I read this year, although Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro stands out as the best one of 2011.

  9. I’m glad to see Laurie King on your list–the other two you mention are books I’d like to read this year as well. I have Popco on hand and I just brought home the Barnes book, so I am glad to see you enjoyed it. Even if it wasn’t the best year for fiction it still looks like you had a good reading year in general. Happy New Year a little late! :)

  10. Some wonderful books on this list, and some that you’ve reminded me I want to read, as well!

    And you’re not the only one with Brockmeier issues. I couldn’t even pick up The Illumination. Argh.

  11. “Perhaps I’ll dedicate myself to finding as many novels to fall in love with in 2012 as possible.”

    This is my favouritest reading goal yet! ::contented sigh::

  12. And a happy new year to you! I don’t count my books so I can’t give as thorough a report; however, I would have to say that “Yotsuba to” has been a joy for me and the 11th volume arrived in time to stuff in my wife’s stocking. It is a comic about a precocious pre-schooler and her guardian who is a single man doing translating work from home. Odd adventures ensue and I learn a lot of everyday Japanese in the process.

    Santa was good to me and delivered me a challenge in the form of a unicycle: something I have wanted for a quarter of a century. I soon hope to be mobile, but am using a slow (effective) learning style.

    Also I discovered Amazon.co.jp who have unlocked my access to books in English with inexpensive prices, vast availability, and speedier than speedy delivery.

  13. Edna

    I purchased the William James book at the used book store. It is on my 2012 reading list. I read the biography of James by Robert Richardson and it was very good.

    I read the Montaigne based upon your review and i was not disappointed. However, I read it while recovering from surgery and I think I missed a lot so I am thinking of reading it again which is something I never do.

  14. I just recently finished the Montaigne biography by Sarah Bakewell and I totally agree with you. It was an amazing, well-written, wonderfully interesting book.

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