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2011 in books

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This is mostly a blog-housekeeping issue, so I won’t be crushed if you hate me a little for posting this. (Let’s still be friends, though, ok?) Rather than shuffling all my literary commentary off to dusty little corner of the blog, I thought it would be better to give it its very own category. At any rate– last year, I wanted to read forty books. And lo, I made it to  forty-one! Details and commentary below.

January

  • Anne of Green Gables (Kindle, re-read) – Some of the Amazon reviewers seem annoyed that this version is “incomplete,” and all I can say is that re-reading this book I loved as a kid reminded me of my first literary crush (ahem, Gilbert Blythe) and the first time I was absolutely crushed at the death of a character. Let’s not forget the liniment-tainted cake or the accidental drunkenness of Diana Barry– both of these also hold up well against the passing of time.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Kindle) – I am still sort of hesitant to include this in the list because of its length– about 100 pages in paperback (the lack of page numbers in the Kindle is sort of weird, I will admit)– but I don’t imagine that it will be the make-or-break item in this “did I complete the resolution?” list, so whatever. It was a quick read, and so familiar because I’ve seen it in so many iterations (from Disney to aBlackpoolPleasureBeach dark ride).
  • Water for Elephants (Kindle) – yes, part of the reason that I read this was because it has been so popular and they’re going to be making a film version. Yes, I am a little apprehensive about the casting, particularly because I am uncertain about the chemistry possible between Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson (whose appeal is completely lost on me, sorry). Oh, and yes, I really enjoyed this one. It made me want to read some more circus-related historical fiction, but I’m a little worried there isn’t much out there. Suggestions?
  • The Confession (library) – Ok, so…I love The Grish. So much so that I made a little nickname for him. This book, about a wrongly convicted young man being executed days after the actual perpetrator comes forward, really stuck with me. Yes, Grisham can be formulaic, but I am already mentally casting the film version of this book.
  • Room (Kindle) – This was a book club also-ran whose description so intrigued me that I included it in my Big Kindle Binge Purchase of January 2011. Having the story told through the eyes of the child, rather than his mother, gave this story an interesting dimension– and only sort of gave me nightmares.

February

  • The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment (library) – I’ve liked A.J. Jacobs ever since I borrowed The Know-It-All from an ex-boyfriend (who, in retrospect, was completely a know-it-all), and this was no exception. Each chapter of this book contains an “experiment,” many of which are fully mental exercises, but some of which require a certain amount of behavioral discipline. From his adventures in Radical Honesty (really, a terrible idea) to attempts to live like George Washington, I found this book enjoyable, if not as satisfying as his longer-form writing.
  • Secret Adversary (Kindle) – I’d never read any Christie before this, and it seemed culturally important to have done so (if only to fully understand all the references made to her works in The Simpsons and the like). This was a pretty classic twist-after-twist mystery, with the added bonus of happening in a place and time in which people called their friends “old bean.”
  • Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (Kindle) – This was my first experience with Mary Roach, who has also written on sex, the afterlife, and death/funerals. I found myself devouring this book club selection, fascinated and horrified by all the effects of space travel. There was maybe a touch more, um, bathroom content than I’d have preferred, but all in all I really enjoyed this.

March

  • The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise (library) – A random selection that I picked up as I was retrieving some held library books, this one was a solid B. I think that, rather than focusing on so many threads and characters, it might have been better suited to a couple stronger narratives. Then again, I am an incurable Anglophile…so I can’t complain very much.
  • Atypical: Life with Asperger’s in 20 1/3 Chapters (library) – While I’d read several books that took an academic or personal look at the autism spectrum, this was the first first-person narrative that I’d come across. I’m happy that I picked it up from the library’s “New Releases” section, if only to have been thoroughly touched and entertained by Jesse Saperstein’s account of his child- and young-adulthood with Asperger’s.
  • Freedom: A Novel (library, Kindle) – Franzen’s previous book, The Corrections, was something that I always carried around in my car for occasions on which I was “between books” and wanted to drop into something familiar (I’ve probably read it about four times by now). I waited patiently as my hold came up on the library’s copy of this one, and then proceeded not to finish it before it came due. Luckily, I had a few Amazon gift certificates to cobble together and make sure I could get through the rest of this book’s 576 pages 0ne way or another. I don’t know that I liked this one as much as I liked The Corrections, but Franzen does a good job of creating characters that I feel ambivalent about (yes, that’s a good thing) and surprising me with his plot turns in a non-gimmicky way.
  • Sing You Home (inherited) – My mother-in-law is an avid, voracious reader, which is handy for me because she is also great at passing along books. Because of this, I’ve read tons of these Jodi Picoult books (beginning with My Sister’s Keeper, which I sobbed all the way through), and have enjoyed most of them. Picoult is well-known (notorious?) for the topical-with-a-twist plots and multiple narrators (which also makes it more interesting to write, I would imagine), and this was no exception. I started and finished this book, which comes with an accompanying CD that contains songs co-written by Picoult (which I haven’t listened to yet, but still, interesting idea), on a cross-country flight. That’s how her books are to me– once you’ve started, you might as well finish in one sitting…because it’s not like you can very well put it down.
  • One Day (Kindle) – this caught my eye because was one of Amazon’s best sellers at the time, and I had also heard that it was to be adapted into a movie. Eager to get through the book so that I could more easily justify what will likely be a little date with myself to see the movie, I devoured it over the course of about two or three days. The easiest, quickest description I can give is “British When Harry Met Sally,” but I don’t know that that gives appropriate respect to the specific friendship that develops over the course of the story. Nicholls (who looks a bit like Tim from the UK version of The Office, right?) does really well with writing a plausible and engaging male-female friendship, and I found myself rooting for them the entire time.

April

  • Italian Shoes (library) – Last year, in a fit of enthusiasm over Swedish authors brought on by Stieg Larsson,  I read my first Henning Mankell book. I really enjoyed The Man fromBeijing, and expected more of the same thrilling, a-little-afraid-to-read-it-when-home-alone action…but this was different. Not bad, but different, more of a reflection on one’s life as the end approaches. Never maudlin, thankfully, but certainly not exactly what I had expected out of Mankell my second time around.
  • Emily, Alone (library) – A big influence on my “Books I Need to Read, Like, Yesterday” list is, of course, NPR. This time, though, I can’t give all the credit to NPR– it was actually GP who brought this book to my attention. When he sent me a link to the NPR review of O’Nan’s follow-up novel to Wish You Were Here (which I haven’t read, but let’s not get bogged down in the details, ok?), I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. NPR refers to “the joy of the mundane” in their review, and it was just that which made this novel so enjoyable; it was sort of like reading The Corrections, but I actually liked the characters and felt that the author did, too. Bonus points: I’ll probably never get around to visitingPittsburgh, but I did enjoy the descriptions of its changing seasons and locations (through the years, through the eyes of the main character) in the book.
  • I’d Know You Anywhere  (Kindle) – This was one of those Kindle Best-Sellers that was well-reviewed enough for me to pick up, and I was pleasantly surprised. A story of a woman being confronted with a part of her past that she and her family have worked hard to conceal and forget, it was a nice departure from the other “abducted female” stories that I’ve come into contact with. The main character is conflicted, of course, about coming into contact with the man who kept her captive as a teenager, and the most interesting part of the story is tracking her state of mind by what is revealed throughout, both about her childhood and the choices she’s made as she becomes an adult, wife, and mother.

May

  • Breathless (purchased) – Sometimes, let’s say at least once each winter (I bought this book awhile ago, but had set it aside for awhile, clearly), you are fairly flattened by some mystery illness, but still somehow willing and physically able to go to work (this was in the days before paid time off, when I was still an eterna-intern). On these days, one wants two things: tom kha gai soup, as spicy as you can get it, and a trashy drugstore- (or airport-) purchased novel, preferably also…spicy. Given my reading habits, this is usually more of a thriller than a romance (what? I feel too dirty reading a romance novel), and given the Walgreens selection, it’s usually a Koontz/Crichton/King-type book. This one, in keeping with my recent not-what-I-expected trend, ended up being more of a Super Secret Government Science novel than a Horribly Terrifying Serial Killer Rapist novel, but with more animals and fewer super-viruses than you might expect from that description. Bottom line: it was worth the $7 I paid, but I’m not eagerly pressing it into the hands of friends anytime soon.
  • The Lincoln Lawyer (borrowed) – So, apparently this was made into a movie? I don’t think I’ve seen a single trailer or read anything even resembling a review, but there it is on the movie-theater marquee. At any rate, yes, Matthew McConaughey is on the cover, thus making it a little shameful to be reading this book in public. But! I love a good legal thriller, and this one delivered to that only-medium-height bar. (See what I did there? Bar? Shut up.) Defense lawyer with disposable Towncars gets involved with murderer/rapist, mayhem ensues.
  • Bossypants (library) – I was never an avid Oprah viewer, but I’m pretty sure that my Tina Fey ardor comes close to that of most hardcore Oprah fans. When I imagine encountering her in a busyNew York deli, I am invariably saying something idiotic, and she’s just sort of looking at me, like, “…and?” Anyway. I loved this book as much as I expected to, and want to buy a copy for everyone I know. You know, like Oprah would do.

June

  • The Secret Life of Bees (borrowed) – This had been rattling around in my trunk for– seriously– years. When I was getting ready to part ways with Klaus the Jetta, I cleaned up, found this, and tore through it in a couple days. I really enjoyed it because it was an interesting take on family, sisterhood, and forgiveness with the backdrop of the 1960s American South (tumultuous!). Added bonus: newfound (well, rediscovered) fondness for honey.
  • Two Kisses for Maddy (library) – I’ve been reading, enjoying, and becoming teary-eyed at Matt’s blog for years at this point, so I was eager to pick this up. For those not familiar, it’s the (completely true and available on the internets) story, told by a now-single father, of his life and early marriage which ended twenty-seven hours after their first child (a daughter, Madeline) was born. I love Matt’s voice on his blog, and was pleased to find that it was a familiar companion through the book. Yes, there were points at which I was sobbing, but it was such an honest story of love, loss, and legacy that I couldn’t put it down.
  • The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (library) – While I’m pretty sure that I’m not exactly the target audience for this book (I imagine that, for instance, parents of teenagers might find the information more relevant to their immediate lives), I really enjoyed it. Sure, it’s been about a decade since I was a high school student, but it was so interesting to read through the struggles of high school from the viewpoints of several different students from across the U.S. The author suggests (correctly, in most cases) that students who possess some form of “quirk” are more likely to be picked on on high school, but actually make more interesting and successful adults; this, in my experience, has been generally true– who was really all that psyched to be in high school? More than anything, it reminded me how glad I am to be out of high school, and how I want to hug every high school student I meet and tell them that, no matter how awful or great things are at the moment, they will change so, so much.
  • My Fair Lazy (library) – I’m a Jen Lancaster fan, so I knew I’d love this one. This book cracked me up (as I knew it would), and I’m glad that she recognized that there is a spectrum (continuum? I don’t know) of “culture,” and that it’s possible to enjoy both reality television and haute cuisine.
  • Big Machine (library) – This was an NPR recommendation (one of my favorite sources of answers to the ever-present, “What should I read now?” question), and it took me a little outside what I usually read. I’m happy that I ventured off my typical path, because I really liked the mix of redemption and tinge of paranormal that pulls you through this story.

July

  • The Book of Fires (library) – Even though I usually just use the library like Netflix, requesting as many titles as they allow (five) and then waiting for them to be available, I am still a big believer in the serendipity of happening upon something in the New Release shelf. This book was one such case, and tells the story of a young woman, Agnes, who, pregnant, leaves home forLondon, where she avoids becoming a prostitute in favor of becoming the maid/assistant to a maker of fireworks. The relationship that Agnes forms with her patron and the others in the house is truly compelling, so I’ll count this among the highlights of my random selections this year.
  • Divergent (library) – “Even better than the Hunger Games!” people on Twitter were crowing, so I thought I’d give this YA dystopian novel a shot. While I did enjoy it, and will likely read the rest of the books in the series, but I did not like it as much as I liked Hunger Games. Divergent felt a little “fluffier,” and also presented the different divisions of society as based on choice (for the most part), rather than chance/birth. The world presented in Divergent felt a little less complete to me, but I am still interested in seeing what else Veronica Roth has up her sleeve.
  • A Fatal Grace (library) – The way that I found this book was through a search on fiction about Montreal, but it turns out that my library’s selection of Montreal fiction is pretty limited. Yes, A Fatal Grace is a story that takes place in Quebec and touches on some of the social and cultural differences between the anglophone and francophone people, but it’s mostly a murder mystery. I really enjoyed it, not least because it takes place during a frigid Canadian winter, and it was w-a-r-m outside. I will definitely be seeing out more Inspector Gamache novels…who doesn’t love a murder mystery? (I mean, probably a fair amount of people, but that was rhetorical.)
  • House Rules (library) – No, this was not the Picoult novel. Rather, it was a memoir by twenty-something Rachel Sontag about her emotionally abusive father, passive mother, and slightly-less-victimized sister. I don’t know if this is actually true, but it doesn’t seem that very many people with happy childhoods or fortuitous adulthoods write memoirs; at least, those aren’t usually the memoirs I end up reading. House Rules was most interesting because there are a fair number of “primary source” items, such as letters that Sontag says she was made to write by her father– also, perhaps most insanely, there is an entire website created by her father (/parents) basically disputing everything that she says in the book.

August

  • Adam (borrowed) – At my work, there is a bookshelf with books that people have read and are willing to lend (I’m sure that you could keep what you borrowed from this shelf, but I haven’t been compelled to do so just yet), and Adam was on that shelf. While I enjoyed it as a zingy serial killer story to read on the elliptical, it wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized that i had just accidentally read a Christian novel. Now, it’s not that this was particularly offensive to me, but I was a little annoyed. Just let me read books, Christians! I don’t need to find Jesus at the end!
  • The Lonely Polygamist (Kindle) – I think I bought this for my Kindle around the beginning of the year, and just ended up getting around to it at the end of the summer. I expected it to be similar to Big Love, as that’s been my only pop culture experience (or, fine, experience…period) of plural marriage, and it wasn’t too dissimilar. Rather than being set in the present, however, it takes place in the early 80s. It does a good job of presenting the experience of three different family members– the husband and father, Golden, one of the wives, Trish, and one of the children, Rusty (my favorite)– and may well be the Great Mormon (sorry, LDS) Novel.
  • The Swan Thieves (Kindle) – I really liked Kostova’s debut novel, The Historian, so it was an easy decision to pick up this book. It’s as well-researched as its predecessor, and focuses on art and mental illness, jumping between periods as it tells the stories of artists, their processes, and their creations. Given how much I liked both this and The Historian, I’m eagerly awaiting whatever she dreams up next.

September

  • The Geography of Bliss (Kindle) – Written by an NPR correspondent, this book attempts to find “the happiest places in the world” as measured by a Dutch algorithm. It’s interesting to see how people attempt to quantify happiness, and was a good opportunity to learn about what so many cultures consider to be the zenith of good living. In what seems to be a growing set of literature on happiness (off the top of my head, I can think of at least three or four books that seek to examine and explain happiness specifically, and are only sort of self-help), this is a worth entry. If nothing else, it made me cross Moldova off my “have to go there!” list.
  • The Leftovers (Kindle) – I went through a phase a couple years ago where I read several Perotta books in the span of a couple months, so I certainly count myself as a Tom Perotta fan. I believe The Leftovers is his most recent, and it’s about a typical middle-class town in which some people have disappeared as what many believe may have been the Rapture. I knew that I could trust Perotta not to go down the path of spiritual explanation for this event, and The Leftovers is a funny, wry look at what happens to and among those who are “left behind.”
  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (Kindle) – Part synesthesia and part superpower (and slightly reminiscent of Like Water for Chocolate), the main character, Rose, possesses the ability to tell the state of mind of the person who has prepared food simply by eating it. This is mainly a burden to her, as she seeks out food that has been untouched by human hands, and is particularly troubled by her mother’s cooking. As Rose grows up, we see how her life is so profoundly impacted by this ability, and how others in her family have to deal with other “abilities” or the possibility thereof.

October

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (hardcover, re-read) – In the middle of a conversation about feminist literature, I realized that I didn’t own a copy of one of my favorite dystopian novels. (Yes, I am weird.) After remedying this at a local used bookstore (holla, Recycle!), I tore through The Handmaid’s Tale with as much zeal as I remember having the first time I read it (high school, maybe?). It’s complicated, it’s extreme, and it’s more than a little troubling. If you want to have an argument about reproductive anything…you need to read this.

November

  • The Snowman (library) – Look, Scandinavian thrillers: I like them. I can’t explain it. I’ve read all the Steig Larsson books, and I think I like Jo Nesbø a little better because I sense a little less male-fantasy fulfillment in the (mis)adventures of Harry Hole than I did in those of Mikael Blomqvist. Between Nesbø and Henning Mankell, I’m planning a winter of icy terror…punctuated with spiked hot chocolate, of course.
  • The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir (library) – I realized, in the midst of reading this, that I had in fact heard Elna Baker read a chapter of this on some public radio show– I’m going to guess that it was This American Life. I laughed when I heard the chapter (possibly years ago? Clearly it stuck with me), and I laughed like A Crazy at other parts of this book. It was interesting, too to see her changing (evolving?) relationship to her church and her faith, even if much of it completely boggles my mind.
  • Headhunters(library) – Yes, another Scandinavian thriller. I can’t get enough, clearly. Also, please note the clever title, for this book that deals with the corporate world  and people trying to kill each other (/avoid being killed).

December

  • Still Life (library) – Having determined that I would revisit the Louise Penny Inspector Gamache mysteries in a more seasonally-appropriate time of year, I made this my first stop. It didn’t much matter that I was reading them “out of order,” as each one stands so well on its own. Now, my problem is that I’m running out of them!
  • The Brutal Telling (library) – Yes, another Inspector Gamache mystery. I can’t help it! French Canadians solving murders…I can’t get enough. (As it turns out, there are at least six books that can tide me over. To the library!)
  • The Little Stranger (library) – It turns out December was a pretty dark month for me, as this one is a pretty wonderful, nearly-Gothic novel. A creepy, crumbling English mansion drives its inhabitants crazy– I could feel the damp chill as I read this one.

About Megan

I read, I write, I drink wine while watching way too much tv. Let's be friends.

3 responses »

  1. I’m glad you did post this — I’m picky about what I read, so I like to read reviews from like-minded people.

    Reply
  2. The 2 Stewart O’Nan books are on my list, and I’m glad to hear that you liked at least one of them. But I just went and bought a huge stack from used book sales, so my library visits have to go on hiatus until I chip away at that.

    Reply
  3. Totally agree with you on Divergent. Everyone was telling me how great it was and then I read it and didn’t love it at all. I think the world wasn’t as complete as I would have liked it to be and I felt like everytime it seemed like something was about to happen, it happened and then ended super quickly.

    And Handmaid’s Tale – one of my absolute favorites!

    Reply

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