Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Best Books of 2011

These are all the books who got a 5 star rating out of me in 2011:

(in no particular order)

1.  White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

This is a completely unvarnished view of India. Two friends of mine lived in India for 2 years with their children and it reminded me of how she would often sigh and day "Oh India...", how they loved and were so frustrated with it at the same time. The main character is an admitted murderer from the outset of the story, but you spend the majority of the book trying to figure out the motivations and the particulars of the murder itself, which is not revealed until more than 3/4 of the way through the story. So that it places you in this interesting position of not being sure if you should sympathize with the character or not. In the end, I'm not sure if that conflict is really resolved. The book has 2 great things going for it - a very engaging plot, but also a dialogue about India itself that is very worthwhile and mind provoking. Some of the best fiction I read so far this year.  There was something about this that just stuck with me - portions of it which I would think of off and on months later or ways in which complicated aspects of humanity were described which really struck me as being particularly astute - especially where culture is concerned.  

2.  Homicide by David Gregory

This is a very long and detailed book of non-fiction. At first I think I found it slightly daunting, and not as easy to delve into as a work of fiction. Just trying to keep all the various detectives straights seemed like a task. But then around 100 pages in - something happened. This book became better than fiction. Because it isn't fiction. It's real. And it has a sick poetry. A demented beauty that I could not put down. Almost literally, from 100 pages in, I carried this book with me everywhere. I read to the exclusion of other chores and tasks I should have accomplished - and I have devoured it and finished it and then found myself with that disappointed feeling a person has when the thing that they've devoted themselves to for a long time is suddenly over.

This book is a thing of beauty about some of the ugliest humanity has to offer. 

3.  Lit by Mary Karr

I've always liked Karr's writing. I think this may be her best yet. She writes beautifully composed sentences and expresses her thoughts with gorgeous language. It is likely her background as a poet which makes this so easy for her as compared to most memoirists. I loved this story. If her life is a trilogy - with Liar's Club and Cherry being parts I and II, here in part III we get the real pay off. An unfailingly honest portrayal of her life - she neither paints herself as better than she should nor worse - probably something only a person who has been through lots of therapy can do with such clarity. Some memoirs read like a sordid re-telling of events, some read as an accusation of those who surrounded them, hers reads like a personal triumph. 

4.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Once I began this I could hardly put it down. In fact, I had to finish it - practically reading it straight through - so that I could accomplish something else with my life.

The genius of Rebecca is not so much in the prose itself - though at times, it can be quite lovely - the genius of Rebecca is in the plotting, pacing and exquisite ability du Maurier brings us a sense of place and time, as though we ourselves are the protagonist of the novel experiencing the sweet cut grass of Manderley ourselves, discovering the dusty abandoned cottage on the beach, walking with Jasper through the woods, and worrying over the cold glance of Mrs. Danvers.

The plot thickens and thickens much like when you stir a home made pudding on the stove - slowly at first, unsure of when it will finally turn into a pudding, but then gradually sensing how thick it is becoming until suddenly we have a bubbling delicious dessert. Rebecca is something to be enjoyed in all it's macabre and gothic glory.

*spoiler-ish alert*

I do wish for a different sort of ending for Max and his bride. I long for the story having a different twist and sudden happiness thrust upon them. But I believe the author gives us a fair compromise under the circumstances. A murder has been committed. We could not, in good conscience enjoy our "happy ending" under those auspices. No, instead, morality dictates we be content with what is.

*spoiler-ish alert ended*

I only wish I had read this as a younger girl - perhaps around the same time Jane Eyre enthralled me so. As it is, I enjoyed it very very much. But I think a younger version of myself would have been even more enchanted by the story of the Mrs. de Winters, Manderley and the gardens would have been all the more vivid, and Mrs. Danvers all the more sinister.

5.  Bossypants by Tina Fey

Not since David Sedaris, has someone written a memoir style book so thoroughly entertaining and laugh out loud hilarious. I adored every minute of this and will definitely read it again. The chapter on her Dad is so perfect, I've read it aloud to anyone who will listen.

6.  We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver

One of the most provacative and well-written novels I've read in a long time. Shriver's voice is uniquely dark, captivating and sharply brilliant. Her writing makes me envious. Her language is delicious. Her vocablary delectable. And her subject matter is complex and timely. Do we make monsters or are they born? Can we ever know for sure? There are usually two modes of thoughts on this nature vs. nurture debate. Three, if you count the folks who would rather take the ambiguous path of saying "both"..."maybe". The complications in trying to arrive at a conclusion to that question are immense and I don't mind not really having the answer, though the question endlessly fascinates me. I devoured this book in less than a day. Though we often say "I couldn't put it down" a rarely mean it with the ferocity to which I attended to this book. I'm sad it's over, if not relieved at the same time.

7.  The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog:  And other Stories by Bruce D. Perry

A fascinating read for anyone interested in psychology, particularly where the brain development and nurturing are involved. Perry presents some cases which help us understand better the ways in which humans develop into healthy people and what might happen when something goes awry with that process. More importantly though, he gives us a road map of practical remedies that have the potential to make a big difference when things don't go as planned in lives of children and their nurturing.

8.  The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure

I loved this book. I always really enjoy Wendy's writing, so I knew I would like it, and the fact that I really loved Laura Ingalls Wilder when I was a kid - it was pretty much a given that I would enjoy this. But I was suprised at how touching I found Wendy's explorations of just why exactly, Laura became such a big part of my 70s childhood. Well that sounds weird, Wendy was exploring her own reasons for why Laura was such a big part of her childhood AND trying to figure out why this was still something she was carrying around in her heart. But I felt like Wendy was trying to figure this out for all of us, every one of us who cared about the Little House books, and maybe sort of the Laura and Mary from the tv show too. I discovered the books first, but later, because I did watch the TV show for several years, the whole thing became of a piece in my head. Wendy's writing is funny and deeply contemplative all at the same time. Sometimes I feel like Wendy is some long lost sister or something because she just thinks in ways that I relate to, and she can make me laugh. If you loved Little House or if you love Wendy, you love this book.

9.  Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Murakami has an incredible ability to pull me into a story and keep me entranced, even when, in the case of this book, the bare bones of the story are pretty spare. He has a way with mood and he has a way of making seemingly mundane things seem enchanting. As a meditation on love and it's various permutations, I thought this was lovely.

10.  The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

I thoroughly enjoyed my time reading this rather long novel. Collins writes what is considered one of the most classic thriller stories of all time. The most enjoyable thing about this is that you're never quite sure what's going to happen next though you sort of see where it's going. I liked the device of having the different sections of the book written from differing perspectives - even sometimes marginal characters who make an interesting contribution to the arc. The characters are very interesting, especially the sinister Count Fosco who is quite complex. I also thought that rather surprisingly, the novel has quite a feminist perspective - though I am unsure how purposeful that was. I think one thing I liked most might be considered a draw back by some, which is the length of the novel - it is QUITE long - but I liked that I could read a few pages every night and feel like someone was telling me a complex and interesting bedtime story. Because on final analysis the story really isn't very realistic or believable, but that's rather besides the point. The fun is in the journey, and feeling like a kid again in rapt attention to a story that lets our imagination roam.

11.  Little Bee by Chris Cleave

A really beautiful, though sad, and moving story. There were so many sentences and paragraphs in this book which I thought were gorgeously constructed. A great discussion book for a book club, there are a lot of great themes explored here. The story of a Nigerian girl who tries to immigrate to England after experiencing some extreme hardships in her own country. But really, the book is about so much more than that. I hesitate to describe it too much because I think the way it unfolds is important to preserve for the reader. Just know you'll be moved.

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