Now that we’re officially into the new year, I’m finally posting my list of top reads for 2011. It’s a good thing I waited until the last possible moment to compile my list, too, because two books from the last weeks of December made it onto the list!
As usual, I’m not compiling a list of “best books” or even favorites. There are just books that stand out to me as I look back over the year. (And if you suspect that I make up my awards categories to fit the books I want to highlight, you won’t be wrong.)
Book of the Year: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Robinson is among my favorite authors, and it was wonderful to finally read her first novel. It’s quite different from Gilead and Home, but it does have the beautiful writing I always expect from Robinson.
Favorite 2011 Release: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, with its well-drawn (but not always likable) characters and true-to-life depiction of the early adult years.
Favorite Nonfiction: Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick is a well-written examination of the racial divide in the U.S. South as experienced by two women, one white and one black, both bound together in a single historic photo.
Favorite Memoir: Small Memories by Jose Saramago. As you might expect, Saramago plays around with the conventions of memoir to make this short book into something that is as much about the nature of memory as it is about Saramago himself.
Favorite Audiobook: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James. Although I also listened to The Marriage Plot (listed above), this particular book belongs here because the use of dialect made it a particularly amazing listening experience.
Biggest Laughs: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis was chock-a-block with things to chuckle at.
Favorite Unreliable Narrator: A tie between Philip Ashley in My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier and Barbara Covett in What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller. (Review to come.) Honorable mention to 29 Barton Road from White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi.
Best Sea-Faring Adventure (Western division): Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian. I may not have been able to tell a fo’c’s’le from a mizzen, but I thoroughly enjoyed the banter between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin and look forward to more.
Best Sea-Faring Adventure (Eastern division): River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh. I was disappointed not to spend as much time with favorite characters from Sea of Poppies as I would have liked, but I still enjoyed this second volume in the Ibis trilogy.
Best Sea-Faring Adventure (Comic caper division): Pirate King. Laurie King took a risk by making the latest Russell/Holmes adventure a slapstick farce, but it worked for me.
Best Travelogue: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s account of his trip around the U.S. with his standard poodle, Charley, is a fun and thought-provoking slice of history.
Most Unusual Book: Nox by Anne Carson defies the usual definition of a book with its accordion-fold format and fragmentary style. Just beautiful.
Best Reread: Silence by Shusaku Endo. This powerful book was just as good the second time, and perhaps even better because it sparked some wonderful discussions in my book group. Rereading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series was also a treat.
Biggest Accomplishment: Finishing the 34-volume Morland Dynasty series. I’ve been reading these books for three years now, and it will be hard to saw good-bye to just reliably entertaining reads.
Favorite Crime Novel: Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson. Atkinson is always a pleasure.
Most Empowering Book: The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life by Wendy Shanker convinced me that I’m much better off thinking about being healthy than about being thin—because the two aren’t always synonymous.
And in the tradition of stealing categories from Jenny…
Worst sex: Hands down, no contest, and will not be beaten ever: Martin Misunderstood by Karin Slaughter and read by Wayne Knight. Once heard, some things cannot be unheard. Trust me, you do not want these sounds in your head. (You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik probably deserves a special mention here, not because of the writing, which was fine, but because of the allegations that the skeevy scene may be based on real life, which is disgusting in a whole different way.)
And I realize I still haven’t mentioned such great books as The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Little Big by John Crowley, The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, Lady Susan by Jane Austen, Bad Marie by Marcie Dermansky, The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey, A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid, and so many others.
Having too many books I want to mention is indeed a good problem to have. Even better, I realize that the books I didn’t like turned out to be forgettable, and I see no need to mention them again. (I read lots of middling books this year, but very few that seriously annoyed me.)
And Now for Some Stats
And just a word about these stats: I enjoy keeping track of what I’m reading, not because I have any set goals that I hold myself to, but because I find it interesting. Whatever vague guidelines I have regarding gender balance, author nationality, and so on, are just that—vague guidelines, something to keep in mind when I’m deciding what to read next.
For example, I do want to read more books by international authors and people of color, and I know their books don’t often get as much publicity as books by white US and UK authors. For that reason, it helps me to check in with how I’m doing and remind myself to seek out books by those authors. However, if my reading muse carries me in a specific direction that doesn’t fit these guidelines, I go with it and don’t beat myself up about it.
The math here isn’t perfect, partly because I probably made some cataloging errors and partly because some books appear in multiple categories. I’m not taking the time to look for the discrepancies, because the details aren’t that important to me.
Books Read in 2011: 138 (134 in 2010).
Review Copies: 30 hard copies, 12 e-galleys (31%). I’d be happy for this to go down next year. A third is about my limit of how much review-copy reading I want to do.
TBR Books from before Jan 1, 2011: 45
Books Acquired in 2011: 88 (Hmm, I sense a problem here. At least I read 39 of these, leaving 44 for the TBR pile. The remaining books are mostly review copies I gave up on.)
Fiction vs. Nonfiction: 111 fiction, 26 nonfiction (81% fiction)
Audiobooks: 16 or 12%
New to Me Authors: 67 or 49%
Male vs. Female: 75 female, 62 male, 1 various (54% female). Last year, men had the edge at 53%.
Pre 1900 Books: 5 (This was a surprise to me because I do love my 19th-century literature.)
20th Century Books: 43, with at least two from every decade, except 1900-10. (Seriously? I do like old books. Really! I do! I’m just not reading them.)
21st Century Books: 91, with 37 (27%) coming from 2011. As much as I insist I won’t be lured by the siren song of the shiny new book, it still happens. Next year, I’m going to do my best to limit myself to 24 books published in 2012.
Translations: 13 books/9% (same as last year)
Books by Authors of Color: 19 books/14% (13% in 2010)
US vs. UK Authors: 62 US/50 UK (Last year was 61 UK/50 US.)
Non-US/UK Authors: 30 books/22% (17% in 2010).
Author Nationality Map:
visited 21 states (9.33%)
Create your own visited map of The World
Last year, I was only able to check off 14 nations. Besides the US and UK, India and Japan tied for the most “visits” at four each. Now I’m wondering how long it would take me to check off every country on the map.
So that’s my 2011 reading in a (very large) nutshell. Now on to 2012!