The year in books

Books read in 2011: 125

You'll find 10 memorable books read in 2011 here.

January (reviews/discussion here)
The Nest Home Design Handbook (Carley Roney)
Decorating Ideas That Work (Heather J. Paper)
Speed Decorating (Jill Vegas)
Flip! for Decorating (Elizabeth Mayhew)
Home Decor: A Sunset Design Guide (Kerrie L. Kelly)
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Amy Chua; memoir, parenting)
Macbeth (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
The Other Side of the Island (Allegra Goodman; fiction)
A Lantern in Her Hand (Bess Streeter Aldrich; fiction)
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson; fiction)

March (reviews/discussion here)
The Source of All Things: A Memoir (Tracy Ross; memoir, review copy)
Heaven Is for Real (Todd Burpo; memoir, religion)

April (reviews/discussion here)
Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart; YA fiction)
Illyria (Elizabeth Hand; fiction)
The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
Model Home (Eric Puchner; fiction)
Mouse Guard, Volume 1: Fall 1152 (David Petersen; graphic novel)
Mouse Guard, Volume 2: Winter 1152 (David Petersen; graphic novel)
The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child (Barbara D. Rosof)
Beyond Tears: Living after Losing a Child (Ellen Mitchell)
Love Never Dies: A Mother's Journey from Loss to Love (Sandy Goodman)
After the Death of a Child: Living with Loss through the Years (Ann K. Finkbeiner)
Trapped (Michael Northrop; YA fiction)
Sherlock Holmes: Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
The Colony (Jillian Marie Weise; fiction)
The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country (Neil Gaiman; graphic novel)

May (reviews/discussion here)
Daughters-in-Law (Joanna Trollope; fiction)
Sempre Susan (Sigrid Nunez; memoir)
Gardening Step by Step (Phil Clayton, et al.)
John Brookes' Natural Landscapes (John Brookes)
Month-by-Month Gardening in Illinois (James A. Fizzell)
The New Gardener (Pippa Greenwood)
Glorious Gardens (Jacqueline Heriteau)
Midwest Top 10 Garden Guide (Bonnie Monte, ed.)
Midwest Gardens (Pamela Wolfe)
Low Maintenance Garden (Jenny Hendy)
The Complete Beginner's Guide to Archery (Bernhard A. Roth)
Know the Sport: Archery (John Adams)
Sherlock Holmes: More Short Stories (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton; YA fiction)
The Raising (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
The Life before Her Eyes (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
No Time for Goodbye (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
Too Close to Home (Linwood Barclay; fiction)

June (reviews/discussion here)
The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth (Alexandra Robbins; non-fiction, education)
Confessions of a Prairie Bitch (Alison Arngrim; memoir)
Pitch Uncertain (Maisie Houghton; memoir)
The Silent Land (Graham Joyce; fiction)
A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; fiction)
Robopocalypse (Daniel H. Wilson; science fiction)

July (reviews/discussion here)
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss; graphic biography)
A Short Course in Canon PowerShot S5 IS Photography
Short Stories (Doyle, Henry, Poe; fiction)
The Winter's Tale (William Shakespeare; classic, play)
Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card; science fiction)
The Sister Knot (Terri Apter; psychology)
My Man Jeeves (P.J. Wodehouse; fiction, audiobook)
Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges--and Find Themselves (Dave Marcus; non-fiction)
The Millionaire Next Door (Thomas Stanley; non-fiction, personal finance)
Fear the Worst (Linwood Barclay; fiction)

August (reviews and discussion here)
The Time Machine (H.G. Wells; classic science fiction)
Umbrella Summer (Lia Graff; YA fiction)
Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosay; fiction)
Never Look Away (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
Blank Confession (Pete Hautman; YA fiction)
Joy for Beginners (Erica Bauermeister; fiction)
Boy Heaven (Laura Kasischke; YA fiction)
Feathered (Laura Kasischke; YA fiction)
Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon; graphic novel)
In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs; non-fiction)
One Day (David Nicholls; fiction)
The Idle Parent (Tom Hodgkinson; non-fiction)
Drawing Birds (John Busby; non-fiction)
Be Mine (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
Suspicion River (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Laura Kasischke; fiction)
Want to Go Private? (Sarah Littman; YA fiction)
Mid-Life (Joe Ollmann; graphic novel)
A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind; non-fiction)
A New Culture of Learning (Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown; non-fiction)
The Accident (Linwood Barclay; fiction)
The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler; fiction)
This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman; fiction)
Beginner's Guide to Traditional Archery (Brian Sorrells; non-fiction)
This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson; YA fiction)

September (reviews and discussion here)
Before I Go to Sleep (S.J. Watson; fiction)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith; fiction)
101 Things I Hate about Your House (James Swan; non-fiction)
DMZ: Volume 9: MIA (Brian Wood; graphic fiction)
The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta; fiction)
Barns of Illinois (Larry and Alaina Kanfer; non-fiction)
Gunn's Golden Rules: Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work (Tim Gunn; non-fiction)

October (reviews and discussion here)
The Sibling Effect (Jeffrey Kluger; non-fiction)
The Magic Flute (P. Craig Russell; graphic retelling)
Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes; fiction)
Henry IV, Part I (William Shakespeare; classic, play)
The Belles Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry Prince of France (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1956; art)
Très Riches Heures: Behind the Gothic Masterpiece (Lillian Schachert; art)
The Walking Dead: Rise of The Governor (Robert Kirkman and Jay Bonansinga; fiction)
Feynman (Jim Ottaviani; graphic biography)

November (reviews and discussion here)
Blue Nights (Joan Didion; memoir)
Henry IV, Part II (William Shakespeare; play, classic)
Elizabeth Rex (Timothy Findley; play)
Food Rules: An Eater's Manual (Michael Pollan; non-fiction)
Toxic Parents (Susan Forward; psychology)
DMZ: Volume 10: Collective Punishment (Brian Wood; graphic fiction)

December (reviews and discussion here)
The Schwa Was Here (Neal Shusterman; YA fiction)
My Lobotomy (Howard Dully; memoir)
World War Z (Max Brooks; fiction)
Mean Mothers (Peg Streep; psychology)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs; fiction)
Twisted Summer (Willo Davis Roberts; YA fiction)
The Grounding of Group 6 (Julian F. Thompson; YA fiction)
Lord of the Flies (William Golding; fiction)
Brain Jack (Brian Falkner; YA fiction)
Tomorrow Code (Brian Falkner; YA fiction)
Missed Connections (Sophie Blackall; art)
Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler; YA fiction)
Drawing from Memory (Allen Say; graphic biography)
Pilgrimage (Annie Leibowitz; photography)
The Heights (Peter Hedges; fiction)
The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp; non-fiction)
The Kitchen Madonna (Rumer Godden; juvenile fiction)


Reading life review: December

Books read this month: 17
Books read in 2011: 125

I've got a rapidly advancing bookmark in Lily King's The English Teacher, and both The Autobiography of an Execution (David R. Dow) and Like Shaking Hands with God (Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer) are poised on my nightstand for all-in-one-gulp consumption. But this seemed as good a place as any to call it a month... and a year.

The Schwa Was Here (Neal Shusterman)
YA fiction. A delightful and clever story from the author of Unwind, this reminded me of Richard Peck's work, as well as Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars and Trouble.

My Lobotomy (Howard Dully)
Memoir. Although it seems clear that the author's message is one of hope and triumph through research and self-knowledge, this was still one of the saddest, most horrifying stories I have ever read. Related link here.

World War Z (Max Brooks)
Fiction. Gosh, it took me forever to finish this! But that's really more a remark on my distractedness over the last couple of months than on this compelling novel. Published three years after his popular The Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks' post-apocalyptic tale is related through a series of eyewitness reports, a device which makes the audiobook particularly compelling, according to Mr. M-mv. (Note that the full-cast audiobook, while superlative, is an abridgment.)

Mean Mothers (Peg Streep)
Psychology. Subtitled "Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt," this exploration of a provocative subject provided background material for a recent research project.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
Fiction. The photos were a neat "hook," and I appreciate genre "shake-ups" (e.g., Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer), but, in the end, Peculiar fell short for me. Related aside: I began reading this on the Kindle but finished reading it on the iPad. This is definitely a book that should be read in the traditional format or on a larger format e-reader; the Kindle simply couldn't offer the clarity needed to appreciate the photographs.

Twisted Summer (Willo Davis Roberts)
YA fiction. A cozily predictable mystery for the youngest YA readers, Twisted Summer features Cici, a fourteen-year-old girl who wants to be acknowledged as one of "big kids." What I appreciated about this simple story was that Cici demonstrated her maturity through her displays of tenacity, intellect, and loyalty -- not through, say, sexual and/or substance experimentation. I know, right? How positively old-fashioned.

The Grounding of Group 6 (Julian F. Thompson)
YA fiction. When it was first published in 1983, Grounding caused a bit of a stir with its blend of satire and psychological thrills (to say nothing of its frank sexual content, which, though tame by today's standards, was quite taboo then). I was nineteen when it was first released and missed its ascent into cult classic status (enthusiastic review here). And though I had rediscovered the merits of YA fiction by the time Grounding was re-leased in 1997, I somehow missed it again. Arriving at the book sans hype, then, I would say that it is both competent and compelling, though not nearly as memorable as a more recent entry into the "really, really bad parents" sub-genre of YA fiction: Neal Shusterman's Unwind.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
Fiction. With the Misses. This was my fourth go-round with Golding's classic, and I see something new each visit. What a startlingly perceptive view of people and what little holds us together, eh? And how eye-opening to read this after having seen, loved, and dissected "LOST." I'll have more to say about this one in January.

Brain Jack (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. This fast-paced blend of cyber-geekery and thriller put me in mind of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Wake: Teen hacker Sam Wilson lands a position with a national cyber defense organization in lieu of a jail sentence. His job? To help protect the world from a malicious presence on the internet.

Tomorrow Code (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. Not quite as seamless as Brain Jack, this was still a competent effort from New Zealand author Brian Falkner. This time, the protagonists race against (and through) time to save humanity from a virus.

Missed Connections (Sophie Blackall)
Art. This collection of illustrated love stories is delightful and touching. Have you seen the Australian illustrator's whimsical art before? If not, start with the blog that inspired the book.

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)
YA fiction. Written by none other than the man behind the pen name Lemony Snickett and illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, this is, quite possibly, my favorite book of 2011. Imagine Ellen Page's Juno narrating the unlikely (and short-lived) romance between a smart-talking, "different" girl and the co-captain of the high school basketball team. Now couple that sarcastic and searingly honest insight with the detritus of a failed relationship -- the ticket stubs, books, shirts, combs, matchbooks, and so on that hold so much meaning. Voilà! It's magic. It's also wonderfully cinematic; I will not be surprised when plans to translate it into film are announced. Highly recommended.

Drawing from Memory (Allen Say)
Graphic autobiography. I agree with the Chicago Tribune: "This visual memoir is captivating and always unexpected."

Pilgrimage (Annie Leibovitz)
Photography. Elsewhere, folks are rather awed by this volume, but I was left somewhat cold by the effort. The photographs are stunning, but that admission addresses not Leibovitz's eye or art but rather the compelling subjects themselves: Emily Dickinson's dress. Virginia Woolf's sitting room. Charles Darwin's specimens. John Muir's field notes. Annie Oakley's boots. Unfortunately, these fascinating subjects suffer from a poor, disjointed layout and a, for lack of a better word, distant text. Call me soulless, but when Leibovitz notes that her journey began with the headline-grabbing financial crisis that sent her into personal and professional turmoil, I didn't think she was experiencing some sort of life-altering epiphany. I thought, Yes, so you decided to get to work, put out another book, and make some money. Smart woman. All of that said, I urge you to seek out the volume for the valuable history-museum-in-a-book that it is. How many of these amazing places and objects might we miss if not for such books?

The Heights (Peter Hedges)
Fiction. Told in alternating voices, The Heights chronicles, as one reviewer put it, "marital claustrophobia." The dark humor, crisp narrative, and wickedly wise social observations put me in mind of Tom Perrotta and Meg Wolitzer.

The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp)
Non-fiction. Chapbook entry here.

The Kitchen Madonna (Rumer Godden)
Juvenile fiction. In search of something different but also sweetly simple, even childlike, for our Christmas week read-aloud (because (a) they are never too old for read-alouds -- just ask them; and (b) "sweetly simple" just feels right by the glow of the Christmas tree, whether you are four, fourteen, or forty-seven), I pulled out The Kitchen Madonna, which I first heard about over at Here in the Bonny Glen. The Misses and I loved this beautifully moving story.


Ten memorable books read in 2011

At this writing, I have read 123 books this year. Many of them were quite good. Others? Maybe not my cuppa. (I'm thinking particularly of the tedious hours spent with gardening books earlier this year.) So which books were real stand-outs? Setting aside the Shakespeare plays and all of the Sherlock Holmes adventures since, as the Misses have pointed out, “Those are obviously the favorites,” I am left with the following (presented in the order in which I read them):

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson)
Fiction. Girl Detective recommended this, calling it "cheering." And it was. It was also old-fashioned and improbable, both of which likely contribute to its appeal. First published in 1938, this breezy novel is a fairy tale of sorts, in which a down-at-heel nanny is sent to the wrong address for her next assignment and is thrust into the romantic and glamorous circle of one Delysia LaFosse. Witty banter and unlikely entanglements ensue.

Things a Brother Knows (Dana Reinhart)
YA fiction. After a long period of listlessness, this book reminded me that I am, in fact, a reader. (Thank you, Dana Reinhart.) A well-wrought examination of one Marine's journey home -- and, perhaps more significantly, the impact this difficult journey has on his family -- Things a Brother Knows is both excellent and timely.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout (Lauren Redniss)
Graphic biography. An artful combination of science and romance, Radioactive manages to be both informative and beautiful. From "The Curies, Seen Through an Artist’s Eyes" (New York Times, December 21, 2010):
Described simply, “Radioactive” is an illustrated biography of Marie Curie, the Polish-born French physicist famous for her work on radioactivity — she was the first person to win the Nobel Prize twice — and her equally accomplished husband, Pierre. It lays bare their childhoods, their headlong love story, their scientific collaboration and the way their toxic discoveries, which included radium and polonium, poisoned them in slow motion.
Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon)
Graphic novel. How can it be that a book in which every chapter concludes with the protagonist's death is so, well, life-affirming? From a review earlier this year (Publishers' Weekly, January 11):
A stunning, moving story about one man's life and all the possibilities to be realized or lost along the way. Brothers Bá and Moon take readers through the life of a man named Brás de Oliva Domingos, selecting a series of individual events of great significance to Brás, showing each as if it could be the day Brás dies, and in so doing creating an examination of family, friendship, love, art, life, and death that urges the reader to turn the same careful inspection on their own life.
In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. As I mentioned when I first wrote about this book, as much as I enjoyed my whirlwind tour of Kasischke's oeuvre, I was fairly certain she could no longer surprise me -- until this novel. In a Perfect World coyly misleads an inattentive reader to believe it is simply an exploration of otherwise mundane subjects: a doomed marriage and an equally doomed foray into step-motherhood. And then it blossoms into a beautifully written and melancholy meditation on the end of the world as we know it and how we might become our most authentic selves when it all falls apart. If my previous recommendations didn't persuade you to give a Kasischke a try, let this one do so.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
Non-fiction. The appearance of this title on my list will not surprise regular readers. I did rather carry on about it. Chapbook entry here; two other related entries here and here.

A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind)
Non-fiction. Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the series of articles that grew into A Hope in the Unseen, the chronicle of Cedric Lavar Jennings' journey from an impoverished and dangerous Washington, D.C., public high school to Brown University. Subtitled "An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," Unseen unflinchingly and repeatedly points out that Jennings didn't graduate from Brown (and later, Harvard and the University of Michigan, according the afterword in this revised and updated edition) because of extraordinary academic gifts; he succeeded through hard work alone -- the grueling, single-minded study of a "headstrong monk." I was transfixed by the story, a result of its compelling subject as well as Suskind's assured narrative style.

Feynman (Jim Ottaviani)
Graphic biography. Both the private and public lives of Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman are described in this wonderfully accessible biography, which is illustrated by Leland Myrick. You'll find an excellent review here: "The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers." Note: I gave this book to Aunt M-mv for Christmas. Is there a higher recommendation than that?

Elizabeth Rex (Timothy Findley)
Play. Again, regular readers will be unsurprised by the inclusion of this book. (Chapbook entry here.) The excellent CBC Stratford Festival Reading Series recording accompanied my reading of this wonderful work, and in addition to seeing Diane D'Aquila in the recent Chicago Shakespeare Theater production (related entry here), we also had the pleasure of seeing the CBC Television production from 2002, the year after D'Aquila originated the role at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)
YA fiction. Written by none other than the man behind the pen name Lemony Snickett and illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, this is, quite possibly, my favorite book of 2011. Imagine Ellen Page's Juno narrating the unlikely (and short-lived) romance between a smart-talking, "different" girl and the co-captain of the high school basketball team. Now couple that sarcastic and searingly honest insight with the detritus of a failed relationship -- the ticket stubs, books, shirts, combs, matchbooks, and so on that hold so much meaning. Voilà! It's magic. It's also wonderfully cinematic; I will not be surprised when plans to translate it into film are announced.