My favorite books of 2011

I’ve kept a list of all the books I’ve read since I was about 13 years old. Below is the complete list of the books I read in 2011. You can read the rest of the list on my website.

From this list–which this year, ended up being about a book a week–I’ve picked my ten of my favorites. Not all of these were published this year, but I just encountered them this year. I left out old favorites that I read again–Jane Austen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (though reading Love in the Time of Cholera in Spanish was an entirely new experience). I have also left out Paul Auster, because I love everything Paul Auster writes, so why go over old territory. Here, in no particular order:

1. 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

This book was over 900 pages, but I flew through it. It was a gripping thriller, with the spare language and quirky details I love in Murakami. This book deals with cults and all the fake realities we live with all the time, and how we try to sort them out. Plus, it was a love story with a very satisfying ending. Maybe what I love about Murakami is that he can write such a traditional story with so many metaphysical twists and high and low cultural references casually thrown in, without announcing themselves.

2. Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks

This book, about a young sex offender trying to make his way in the margins, was simply amazing. Just read it.

3. The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown

Maybe I loved this book so much because I have three sisters, so a lot of the themes and interactions were familiar. But I found her descriptions of human relationships to be nuanced and fresh; I felt as if I were living in that weird family for a few days.

4. The Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

The Plague, by Albert Camus, is one of my favorite books, and I’ve had a fascination with books about the plague since. Geraldine Brooks came across a plaque near an English village describing how it had quarantined itself during the time of the plague in the 16th century; she imagined the rest. She did such a wonderful job with the history and language that I immediately got two other historical fictions she did–Caleb’s Crossing, about the first Native American at Harvard, and March, about the imagined life of the March girls in Little Women, who went to the Civil War and was pals with the transcendentalists and abolitionists of the day (including my ancestory, John Brown). Impeccably researched novels.

5. Boys of My Youth, by Jo Ann Beard

I guess every MFA teacher around has read Jo Ann Beard’s essays, each one a little gem. I hadn’t read them, and was amazed at their economy of language, structure, and ability to say so much so profoundly in so little space.

6. A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown, by Julia Scheeres

This book is essential reading for San Franciscans, telling the tale of one of the darkest chapters of our history from a humane point of view. Scheeres did meticulous research from FBI files and survivors to tell the story of Jonestown from the perspective of the people who were drawn into that world because of their ideals. A tale of 60s idealism going very, very wrong. Reads like a novel.

7. Love and Shame and Love, by Peter Orner

Like One Thousand Lives, this novel is written by a fellow member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, but trust me that I’m not biased when I say this is a wonderfully-written book. Through vignettes scattered in time, we learn about generations of a Chicago family and the themes of love and loss and shame that run through them. Lovely.

8. Half Broke Horses, by Jeannette Walls

This wasn’t written this year, but it’s an earlier novel by the author of the Glass Castle, and worth a read. What I loved about the book was that she wrote a kind of memoir of her grandmother, who was quite a character–a tough, independent woman of the West.

9. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

Of course, I get this book mixed up with The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, which I also loved, and which is completely different. But this tale of a lower-caste Indian’s rise in the world of entrepreneurship was funny, revealing, and a heartbreaking portrait of two Indias. I think you can read anything published recently with a tiger in its title. Except–wait–the Tiger Mother? Forget that one. Stick to the novels and you’ll be safe.

10. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

I can’t believe I’m already at 10. I was going to mention Great House by Nicole Krauss, and Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta. But this spot is for The Privileges, which is a lively, funny, sarcastic novel about ethics and amorality among the wealthy insider trading set. Completely entertaining.

I’m happy that Santa et al brought me a big stack of books from the Booksmith, which gives me a great start to 2012 with The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje; Catherine the Great, by Robert Massie; Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon; Queen of America, by Luis Alberto Urrea; Zeitoun by Dave Eggers; Between the Assassinations, by Aravind Adiga;¬†Perfume, by Patrick Suskind, and In One Person, by John Irving.



My 2011 booklist:

I’m starting a five-star rating system this¬† year (before the books on the list were either starred or not)

Man in the Dark****
Paul Auster

The Cookbook Collector***
Allegra Goodman***

Celeste Ascending***
Kaylie Jones

La Bella Lingua***
Dianne Hales

Boys of My Youth*****
Jo Ann Beard

Kate Moses

The Flaming Corsage***
William Kennedy

Stacy Schiff

The Widower’s Tale****
Julia Glass

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents****
Julia Alvarez

By Nightfall****
Michael Cunningham

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks***
Rebecca Skloot

The Toughest Indian in the World*****
Sherman Alexie

Orange is the New Black*****
Piper Kerman

Don’t Cry***
Mary Gaitskill

Sunset Park****
Paul Auster

Empty Family****
Colm Toibin

Jane Austen

The Privileges****
Jonathan Dee

The Believers****
Zoe Heller

The White Tiger****
Aravind Adiga

Northanger Abbey****
Jane Austen

Half Broke Horses****
Jeannette Walls

Bite Me***
Fabio Parasecoli

The Year of Wonders****
Geraldine Brooks

The Tiger’s Wife****
Tea Obreht

Pride and Prejudice*****
Jane Austen

Before Night Falls***
Reinaldo Arenas

Jane Austen

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures**
Robert K. Wittman with John Shiffman

The Weird Sisters*****
Eleanor Brown

Lola, California****
Edie Meidev

Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater***
Frank Bruni

The Ask***
Sam Lipsyte

Amor en los Tiempos del Colera*****
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Nowhere City****
Alison Lurie

Blood, Bones, and Butter***
Gabrielle Hamilton

Something from the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America***
Laura Shapiro

The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts***
Louis de Bernieres

Great House****
Nicole Krauss

Food is Culture***
Massimo Montanari

Lost Memory of Skin*****
Russell Banks

A Short History of Women****
Kate Walbert

Philip Roth

Geraldine Brooks

Caleb’s Crossing****
Geraldine Brooks

Love and Shame and Love****
Peter Orner

The Voyage of the Rose City****
John Moynihan (dear departed friend)

A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown****
Julia Scheeres

Stone Arabia****
Dana Spiotta

The Custom of the Country****
Edith Wharton

Tina Fey

Haruki Murakami