Monday, January 2, 2012

Top 10 Books of 2011

Another year, another chance to look back and appreciate the fabulous reading I've been doing. This is an activity I continue to look forward to and a lot of time and effort goes into my now-annual Top 10 of the Year book list. As I've said in posts past, I love looking back at what I've read this past year that surprised me (my love of The Hunger Games), disappointed me (Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks and the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman), challenged me (I just could not get through Little Dorrit as much as I love Dickens), and consistently kept my love for reading at an all-time high (Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, Sula by Toni Morrison, The Cider House Rules by John Irving).

My year has been chock-full of changes and new things--a new apartment, a new job, a new Master's degree--and through all that change (and if you know me, you probably know how I feel about change. I mean, you're talking to a girl who eats the same lunch every day, here) my constant reading has kept me grounded while letting me explore new worlds and ideas. It's why I love reading--there my be disappointments, but there is always something new and exciting to dive into that has the promise of greatness.

I know that I have not updated the blog as much as I've wanted to (read: at all), but I'm hoping to change that this year. It is one of my "25 things to do while I'm 25" which also includes writing a letter to someone once a week, finding the perfect lipstick color for me, reading five books from my "to read before I die list," and writing a short story among other things. Although my new year started with a whimper (seeing as I lost my purse/had it stolen at the bar on NYE with my iPod, camera, and pretty much everything but my phone in it), I'm determined to make 2012 as baller as possible. So, as I say so long to a pretty fabulous 2011, I give you my Top 10 List of 2011.

Out of the 54 books that I read this year, I've chosen the 10 that I considered to be the best. These are typically the ones that I have been recommending to people (both upon request and randomly to strangers or anyone who will listen), but it was hard to choose this year because I read so many amazing things. A reminder-these are books that I have read between January 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011. These books were no necessarily published in 2011 (though 3 of them were and 4 were published in 2010) and anything that I have reread this year is not eligible for the Top 10. At the end of the top list, you'll find the list of all the books I have read this year.

So here goes:

Stephanie's Top 10 Books of 2011
10) The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)-- This was my first Kingsolver book, and I picked it up on a recommendation from a friend. The story follows a boy whose parents are separated and lives both in the US and Mexico. During his time in Mexico, he works for then becomes part of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera's inner circle and later becomes Leon Trotsky's secretary when he is exiled to Mexico. The story chronicles his entire life and is mostly taken from his own diaries. When he becomes an adult, he becomes an author and tells his secretary to burn one of his diaries, but she doesn't, and from that we get a fuller story of his life. Obviously well researched and a wonderful telling of the story, The Lacuna is a longer book, but anyone interested in history, art, or the 1930s-1950s in general will enjoy it (and if you're anything like me, learn a little about something, too!)
9) The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins (2008-2010)-- As always, I am hesitant to follow any kind of fad when it comes to books (one of the many reasons I'm not going to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but my roommate was pretty excited about the series after finishing it, so I took a chance even though it's not my usual style. Am I glad I did. If you are one of the few people on earth who have not read it, Suzanne Collins weaves a thought-provoking story of Katniss who lives in a post-apocalyptic world where two kids from each"district" is chosen to compete in the Hunger Games which is a televised competition in an arena where the object of the game is to remain the last one alive. With a brilliant plot that has so much relevance in our reality television-obsessed world and pretty good writing and detail, this series will probably take you less than two weeks to read because you won't be able to put it down. Don't let the fact that it is technically a "young adult" book deter you!
8) Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire (2011)-- I'll admit that I may be biased on this one due to my undying love for Wicked in general, but I'll also admit that although I adore Wicked, I was not a huge fan of the second and third books in the series. But when I heard that Maguire was publishing the fourth and final book in the series, I pre-ordered it on Amazon. Out of Oz brings Dorothy Gale into the mix a little more and takes us through the wars that are happening on Ozian soil. G(a)linda is held captive, the Grimmerie makes another important appearance, and Liir's daughter plays a huge role. This is one that I debated putting on the list because I can't really recommend it to people unless they've read the previous books, but it was so good that I had to. Also, I saw Gregory Maguire at the National Book Festival this year and he was amazing. Here's the link to his speech: Even if you're just a fan of the musical, you should watch because he talks about it quite a bit!
7) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (2007)-- After finishing this book, I had to take a step back and appreciate its beauty. Diaz is an unbelievable story teller and does an amazing job of chronicling the short life of Oscar de Leon and his family. Oscar is an overweight kid who loves fantasy and science fiction and just wants to be loved. His family is followed by a curse that was inflicted upon them long ago in the Dominican Republic and they can't seem to escape. A very raw, real voice permeates the story and the overlapping individual narratives of the de Leon family fit perfectly together. The story shifts between the US and the Dominican Republic and relates a tragic story with hints of magical realism, family fable, and rife with the search for identity.
6) Just Kids by Patti Smith (2010)-- Although this might not come as a surprise seeing as it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, Just Kids is amazing. When I picked it up, I was prepared for a lot of drug-riddled stories of rock stars, but although there is a little of that, it is not what you might expect. What this is really about is a deep, abiding friendship between Patti Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe who died from AIDS complications at the age of 42. Smith details the pair's friendship through the rough times they both had getting started and the love story that they had, though their love was not romantic. Smith's memoir is about the beauty and strength of true friendship even in the face of differences and the existence of soul mates.
5) The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)-- You're probably not surprised that this book is on my Top 10 list. This has to be one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Wilkerson relays this history of the Great Migration, during which African Americans traveled from the South and settled in Northern cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago between 1915 and 1970. It is obvious how well researched this book is, but what makes it outstanding is the way that Wilkerson relates it. She interviewed three individuals who participated in the Great Migration at one point or another to three different cities, using their experiences to depict the true heroism of those who migrated and the immense challenges they faced. I know it's long and non-fiction, but it is worth picking up. You really learn something about an oft-untold part of American history and you get an inside look at three amazing people. Wilkerson was also at the National Book Festival this year, and though I didn't get to see her in person, I did watch the recording and am providing it here:
4) State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)-- This was my first Patchett book and I was blown away. The story follows a research scientist Marina Singh who is sent to the Amazon to find the remains of a dead colleague. A new drug is being researched and the head of the research team is studying and living among previously unknown natives, and has become the domineering and unmanageable leader of the project which is studying the women of the group who continue to get pregnant well into their 70s. Singh goes to find her dead colleague and ends up becoming engrossed in the project and almost swallowed by the Amazonian "heart of darkness" as it were. Well written and very plot-driven, you will not be able to put down this one and will audibly gasp at many parts.
3) The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht (2011)-- I hate flying. It makes me nervous and one of my worst fears is literally falling out of the sky and plunging to earth. With that said, I was reading this novel on my way to Ohio at some point this year, and I didn't even realize that we had taken off because I was so engrossed in The Tiger's Wife. This is Obreht's first novel (and I kind of hate her because she's only 26 and she's brilliant) and I cannot wait for her second. The story takes place in the Balkans, where a young doctor is faced with her grandfather's death and she is determined to find out about the mystery behind his death. Interwoven with stories that her grandfather told her about his life, the narrative takes on a magical realism quality. I actually liked the stories that were told about the grandfather's life more than the overall plot, but it all fits together so well that they become almost indistinguishable. You won't be able to put this one down.
2) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)-- Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this is one I have recommended to pretty much everyone I know (and some random people in bookstores and libraries). This is my favorite kind of narrative--each chapter is told by a different person with different but overlapping stories. It's hard to explain unless you read it, but it does focus a lot of the music industry and mainly around a group of people who were friends and band members in high school. Egan is an amazing writer who even has one of the characters tell her story in Powerpoint slides. With a fresh format and characters that are so relatable, I highly recommend Good Squad. Not only is Egan's book fantastic, but I was lucky enough to see her at the National Book Festival, and she was outstanding. I'm really bummed because it's not online yet to share, but when it is, I'll post it, because it was great. Seriously. Read this book.
1) Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)-- This book was my choice for the "book club" I had with a few friends earlier this year. I don't even know if I can convey the crazy awesomeness that this book is. The story is told by five year old Jack who has been held captive in a room with his mother "Ma" for his entire life. Donoghue does an amazing job of capturing the five-year-old's thoughts and way of looking at things and how he is forced to eventually grow up and assimilate into a strange world. Though this is a seriously disturbing story, there is hope and wonder that shine through as well. I was addicted to this book while I was reading it and zipped through it pretty quickly. Do yourself a favor and pick it up!
And that's it! It was really hard to choose this year, but I'm confident in my choices. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Did you read something spectacular this year? I'm always looking for recommendations, so please comment or email me! :) As always, if you'd like a book list, all you have to do is ask! It's one of my favorite things to do.

Here is a list of all the books I've read this year in order:
(an asterisk indicates an honorable mention and a double asterisk designates the top 10)
*The Cider House Rules by John Irving
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore
**The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
**Room by Emma Donoghue
Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown by Louise S. Robbins
Anthropology of an American Girl by Hilary Thayer Hamann
**A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
*Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard
Satchmo Blows Up the World by Penny Von Eschen
Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz
Running the Books by Avi Steinberg
*Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
*An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin
My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares
*The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
*On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton
*The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy
*The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn
*Bossypants by Tina Fey
**Just Kids by Patti Smith
The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma
*As Always, Julia edited by Joan Reardon
Van Gogh: His Life and Art by David Sweetman
The Memory Palace by Mira Bartok
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
**The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
**State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
The Soloist by Steve Lopez
*Faith by Jennifer Haigh
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
**The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
**The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht
**The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
*Drown by Junot Diaz
*Sula by Toni Morrison
*Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos
**Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire
*White Teeth by Zadie Smith
Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares
*Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
*Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street by Michael Davis
*Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

And that's all I got! I hope that your 2012 started out most wonderfully!
Happy New Year and happy reading!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stephanie. Thanks for the list, I've been looking forward to it and I am happy that I have read 4 of your top 10 and pretty sure that I am the one who recommended The Lacuna to you. You mention that you haven't read any other Ann Patchett should read Bel Canto by of the all time bests. beautiful book.
    I am happy to report that I have completed my third year of keeping a book journal and reached my goal of reading 36 books in 2011...I actually read 38 - hurray. Will try for 40 in 2012.
    I got an ipad for Xmas so already have some of your recommendations reserved from the online library and will looks for some more for your list.
    Happy New Year.