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.


Carol in Oregon said...

I love these lists, both for the nods of recognition and for the intrigue of new titles.

Alan Jacobs just arrived on my radar this year. I read The Narnian, listened to several podcasts, and received The Pleasures of Reading in the mail the week before Christmas. I been basking in anticipation.

Thank you, MFS!

Kate F. said...

I read about 60 non-work-related books this year, which keeps up my goal of a book a week.

Memorable ones I would recommend to others included:

The Hare with the Amber Eyes (I LOVED this book)

To The End of the Land (ditto--probably a top ten book of all time for me)

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

The Cookbook Collector

The Sentimentalists

Tomatoland (reinforced my belief in local tomatoes only, much to my northern clime sadness)

The Sisters Brothers (a thumping good read, as GD might say)

The Art of Fielding