Since I wrote this post before Christmas, I read one more book, THE SUBMISSION, during the holidays that I would like to add to my My Favorite Reads of 2011. It was an incredible book and is worthy of my list.
Rather than call this a Best Books of 2011 like many holiday round-ups, I’m calling this roundup My Favorite Reads of 2011, because some books that made my list, such as GREAT EXPECTATIONS, were not even published in this century. And I didn’t get a chance to read several books on my “must read” list last year, so I read them this year. But this list will give you an idea of literary taste.
The books in my favorite list range from literary and contemporary fiction, popular fiction, memoirs and history to a delicious, gossipy book about Elizabeth and Richard Burton. I’m not including detailed descriptions because you can find those in the many reviews that came out or on Amazon.
(An asterisk indicates that the book is one I promoted this year.)
RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles. This brilliant debut novel is my absolute favorite and best read of the year. A Fitzgerald-like tale set in New York in 1938. Included in The Wall Street Journal’s Best Fiction 2011.
THE SUBMISSION by Amy Waldman. This novel should be required college reading. It is absolutely brilliant in so many ways. Poignant, heartbreaking, it captures the post 9/11 politics and grief in a remarkably realistic rendering. It will raise your consciousness and open your heart. A different kind of book from RULES OF CIVILITY, it ties with it for my favorite book of 2011. Included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011.
STATE OF WONDER by Anne Patchett: Brilliant. Loved it! Mesmerizing.
THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach: Excellent debut novel about baseball in the way the Malamud’s The Natural is about baseball. The sport is the setting to a novel about growing up, hopes and dashed dreams, friendships and romances and family, and ultimately what matters most in life. Included in The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2011.
MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson: Great. A PBS Masterpiece-like classic. Transported me to England. Loved the story.
NEMESIS by Philip Roth : Excellent novella about the polio epidemic in Newark in the fifties. Vintage Roth. Brilliant.
LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave: Finally read this bestseller in a day or two. Heartbreaking, poignant.
THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST by Steig Larsson: Loved this third in the trilogy. Brilliant. Especially the details about the inside workings of the espionage agency and the different levels within the agency..
THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR by Allegra Goodman: Loved this contemporary novel about relationships and food. Ending was predictable, but still enjoyed it.
THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain: About Hemmingway’s time in Paris told from the point of view of Hadley, Hemingway’s first wife. Inspired me to read a MOVEABLE FEAST, the story of the same years from Hemingway’s point of view (see below under Favorite Nonfiction).
A TALE OF TWO CITIES and GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens: After Oprah selected these two Dickens classics for her bookclub picks, it gave me an excuse to re-read these classics which I never finished and didn’t really enjoy in high school. My teacher gave away the ending to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, so I never finished it. But I remember plodding through it and thinking it was way too long. As an adult, I thought it was an absolute page-turner! And as an adolescent I lacked the attention span needed to really savor GREAT EXPECTATIONS, which I absolutely loved as an adult. Must have had my mind on other things when I was a teenager!
* BRIDGE OF THE SINGLE HAIR by Candida Pugh: A fictional memoir written by a Civil Rights Activist who was a Freedom Rider. Pugh’s historical account of actual events as well as her story, told through her protagonist, of the harrowing experiences she endured when she was incarcerated in a maximum security prison at the age of 18 for demonstrating in the Deep South against segregation is what Kirkus hailed as an “evocative novel [that] effectively encapsulates the physical and emotional volatility of the Civil Rights era.” “Named to Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011.”
*SLEEPING WITH MORTALS: The Story of a New York Mistress by Cathrine Goldstein. This cautionary tale is loosely based on the author’s young adult years. Disturbing, dark and engaging, this debut novel debunks the myth of the glamorous life of mistresses.
FAVORITE NONFICTION BOOKS OF 2011
IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. My favorite non-fiction book of 2011. Another brilliant and riveting must-read by the author of the captivating THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. A disturbing look at Hitler’s rise to power from the perspective of America’s first ambassador to Germany and his family, who accompanied him. Included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011.
FICTION RUINED MY FAMILY by Jeanne Darst: Heartbreaking but hilarious. Poignant memoir of a family living on the edge in the upscale town of Bronxville, a wealthy suburb of New York. The father is an unsuccessful writer who devotes his entire life at the cost of his family to writing even though he makes no money at it. The mother drowns her sorrows in drink. The father can’t get published and consequently the family is destitute living off the mother’s inheritance. Sad, sad story about wanting to be a novelist at the expense of everything else in life. But there’s hope at the end of this tunnel: the daughter becomes a successful writer.
TOLSTY AND THE PURPLE CHAIR: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch: Beautiful memoir. The author read a book a day to get over the loss of her sister. A must-read for all bookaholics and those who suffered a recent loss.
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DRESS by Vicky Tiel: Delicious insider’s look at Hollywood, Liz & Burton, by the dress designer who designed Liz’s clothes, the mini skirt and other fashions. I loved it.
A MOVABLE FEAST: by Ernest Hemingway. I was inspired to read this book by A PARIS WIFE. It’s the same story from Hemingway’s perspective. Then I went to see Midnight in Paris, which came out right after I read A MOVABLE FEAST. A great year for Hemingway fans.
COMMITTED by Elizabeth Gilbert: The reviews were not as good as for EAT, PRAY, LOVE but I love Gilbert’s writing and this is an interesting look at marriage in her vintage style. If you like Gilbert’s voice, you’ll like this book.
I’ve read a lot more books this year, and enjoyed almost every book I chose. Some are worth an honorable mention:
CHILDREN AND FIRE by Ursula Hegi. Good story about the early days of The Third Reich and the impact of Hitler's Germany on a teacher and the young boys she teaches.
THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE by Helen Schulman: Included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books. This novel got a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review about an upscale Manhattan family who seems to have it all until their lives are upturned by their son’s posting a sexually explicit video on YouTube sent to him by a high school classmate who has a crush on him. The video goes viral and the family’s lives are in upheaval. A cautionary 21st century tale.
A DAY AT THE BEACH also by Helen Schulman is set on 9/11.
AN AMERICAN HEIRESS: A must-read for Downton Abbey fans!
ORDINARY THUNDERSTORMS by William Boyd. I am a huge fan of William Boyd and have read every novel he’s written. This is good but not his best. My favorite is still ANY HUMAN HEART, which is a must-read and was adapted by PBS Masterpiece, although I did not think the adaptation captured the brilliance of the book.
THE WEIRD SISTERS: Enjoyable novel about sibling rivalries.
THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta. Did not like this as much as his previous novels.
WHAT I’M READING NOW:
THE SUBMISSION, a debut novel by Amy Waldman, that has been hailed by some critics as the definitive 9/11 novel. It was included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011. I’m just in the beginning, but it promises to be a compelling look at the politics of post 9/11, Muslim Xenophobia and grief.
BOOKS ON MY HOLIDAY READING LIST:
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes: Included in The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011.
LOST MEMORY OF SKIN by Russell Banks: included in The Wall Street Journal’s Best Fiction list and The New York Times 100 Notable Books 2011.
THE GATHERING and THE FORGOTTON WALTZ (included in The Wall Street Journal's Best Fiction 2011), both by Anne Enright.