In 2011 my reading led me on a trek with a tiger, brought me to the Australian countryside during WWII, took me to Mauritius, brought me to a small town where a whale took center stage, allowed me inside the walls of a New England college, and introduced me to memorable characters such as Esch, Sophie and Emma, the youngest child of a dysfunctional family, and three sisters whose lives involved a lot of Shakespeare. I learned about the connection between people and animals, read letters by a favorite author, saw a Japanese POW camp during WWII, and cried when families struggled. I was transported by beautiful prose, moved by profound observations, devastated by grief, and enraptured by descriptions of place. The best literature sticks with the reader, makes them laugh and cry, and elevates their lives. I feel really lucky that I had so many of these kinds of books in my reading stacks this year.
Because of the volume of wonderful books I read in 2011, I decided to follow the lead of the literary awards and create a long list, a short list and a winner for the best books I read this year.
So, drum roll please, here are the books that touched me the most in 2011. I have evaluated nonfiction and fiction separately; short and long listed books are in no particular order.
The Short List for Nonfiction
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten – Penguin (April 1989) / ISBN 978-0140042887 / 928 pages
Steinbeck: A Life in Letters should be mandatory reading for Steinbeck fans or for those scholars who wish to learn more about the inner workings of a great author. In this day and age of computers, cell phones, and digital communication – handwritten letters are becoming a thing of the past. Reading this book made me realize how sad it is that we are losing the art of letter writing. There is something fantastic and confidential about reading someone’s letters – often people reveal more of themselves in a letter than they would ever verbalize in conversation. I think this was certainly the case with John Steinbeck. (read my full review)
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Random House (November 2010) / ISBN – 978-1400064168 /496 pages
Hillenbrand is a gifted author, one who carefully uncovers the essence of what it means to be human in the face of cruelty, degradation, and hopelessness. Although graphic at times, I could not stop reading this amazing book. (read my full review)
Being With Animals by Barbara J. King – Harmony/Crown (January 2010) / ISBN 0385523637 / 272 pages
Barbara King knowledgeably provides the reader with a plethora of well-researched information that helps define not only why animals are so important to humans, but how that relationship has evolved across time and cultures. Being with Animals narrows the gap between humans and animals, and reminds us of what we share vs. what separates us. (read my full review)
The BEST Nonfiction Book of 2011
The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown – St. Martin’s Press (April 2011) / ISBN 978-0312671839 / 304 pages
Brown is nothing if not brutally honest in his memoir. He does not pretend that he is a saint, or that his love for his child is not filled with ambivalence. He lays it all out and bares his emotions on the page. As difficult as his story is to read, I still found myself laughing at times…because Brown has discovered something that many people have not – that humor can elevate us above the worst situations and make our most difficult challenges bearable.
This was a profoundly moving memoir and was easily the best piece of nonfiction I read all year (read my full review).
The Long List for Fiction
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown – Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam (January 2011) / ISBN 978-0399157226 / 336 pages
Eleanor Brown is a talented storyteller who has crafted a novel that will resonate with anyone who has had a sister. But, you do not need to have shared your life with sisters to appreciate the skill of Brown’s writing. Her work is honest, heartfelt, funny, and full of the truths which make us human. (read my full review)
Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich – Harper Collins (February 2010) / ISBN 978-0061536090 / 272 pages
Shadow Tag is not an enjoyable read – it made my mouth grow dry and my heart ache. There is an element of inevitability which informs the story. How can things possibly be fixed between these two characters? How can the children ultimately be saved from the wreck of their family? (read my full review)
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 2011) / ISBN 978-0374203054 / 416 pages
The Marriage Plot is all about the journey of its characters. Filled with humor, sadness, and an honest look at growing to adulthood during the 1980s, the novel drew me in completely. (read my full review)
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) – Graywolf Press (February 2011) / ISBN 978-1555975753 / 208 pages
This book demonstrates the redemptive value of stories, how telling a story can somehow bring healing to our broken hearts. Nathacha Appanah explores grief, loss, loneliness, domestic violence, and the loss of childhood innocence. Her language is evocative and lyrical, heartbreaking and joyous. (read my full review)
The Marriage Artist by Andrew Winer – Henry Holt and Co. (October 2010) / ISBN 0805091785 / 384 pages
What Andrew Winer does with his words is paint a portrait of his characters’ lives against the backdrop of history. And yet, although history is certainly important in the novel, it does not define it. Winer’s gift is his ability to demonstrate the timeless nature of our ruminations about life, death and faith. (read my full review)
Men in the Making by Bruce Machart (short story collection) – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (October 2011) / ISBN 978-0156034449 / 208 pages
Readers will find themselves pulled into the lives of the characters, feeling their sadness, their anger, their regret…they will wish for their redemption and their healing. Highly recommended for those who enjoy the art of the short story and who love beautiful writing which evokes the deepest of emotions. (read my full review)
Little America by Diane Simmons (short story collection) – Ohio State University Press (May 2011) / ISBN 978-0814251782 / 136 pages
And it is this stubborn persistence, this focused effort to make something of one’s life, to be better, or happier, or to find self-understanding which runs throughout all the stories in Simmons’s beautifully wrought book. (read my full review)
The Short List for Fiction
The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom – Picador (March 2011) / ISBN 978-0312674502 / 384 pages
This was Goldie Goldbloom’s first novel – and it was breathtaking. The language was vivid and original, and the characters were unforgettable.
Many readers will wonder where the beauty is in this novel among the scarred and damaged characters, and the dry and desolate countryside, but I think those most observant will discover that the beauty lies in how the story is told – its honesty and its acute examination of what it means to be different in a society where uniqueness is often perceived as negative. (read my full review)
Galore by Michael Crummey – Other Press; Reprint edition (March 2011) / ISBN 978-1590514344 / 352 pages
Crummey hit it out of the park with this delightful and quirky family saga set in Newfoundland during the latter part of the 18th century. Rich and sprawling, Galore was nominated for several literary awards.
Crummey’s skill at character development is evident from the beginning. Despite their oddness, his characters are believable, intriguing, and very real. So many of these characters were memorable. (read my full review)
You Are My Only by Beth Kephart – Egmont USA (October 2011) / ISBN 978-1606842720 / 256
Beth Kephart’s prose is stunningly beautiful, and this YA/Adult cross-over novel swept me away with its poetic language, lovingly developed characters and something difficult to define which made me want to re-read it as soon as I had turned the final page.
…a book that takes the reader into the darkness and then shows them a way to return to the light. Beautifully written and astonishing, this is a book which I highly recommend for readers of all ages. (read my full review)
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen – Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition (March 2011) / ISBN 978-0812976885 / 352 pages
Wow – this novel stunned me. It left me sobbing, my heart shattered. And it was truly, one of the more unforgettable books I have ever read.
Anna Quindlen is an extraordinarily gifted writer who has given her readers a novel which is unforgettable. Poignant, beautifully rendered, achingly sad, but joyously hopeful…Every Last One is a book which left me emotionally drained. (read my full review)
We the Animals by Justin Torres – Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (August 2011) / ISBN 978-0547576725 / 144 pages
Sometimes the best gifts are those which come in small packages. Justin Torres has crafted a debut novel which packs a huge punch in less than 150 pages.
As the story unfurls, it becomes apparent that this is a novella about individual identity. How are we formed? Do our families define who we become? Can we tear away from our heritage and our upbringing and find our own unique place in the world? (read my full review)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht – Random House (March 2011) / ISBN 978-0385343831 / 352 pages
Tea Obreht’s debut novel won the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction – and it is easy to see why. This was a beautifully wrought story which was sprawling and nearly dreamlike with an incredible description of place and fantastic characters.
This is a memorable novel, a magical novel, one that had me dreaming of tigers and snow capped mountains and a man who cannot die. (read my full review)
The BEST Fiction Book of 2011
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward – Bloomsbury USA (August 2011) / ISBN 978-1608195220 / 272 pages
I have been talking about this book for weeks now, so it should come as no surprise that my choice for the best book I read this year was Jesmyn Ward’s raw, amazing, and riveting novel Salvage the Bones. Ward captured the 2011 National Book Award for her efforts. Her ability to draw the reader into a world which is sad, brutal and nearly hopeless, speaks volumes about her talent.
Salvage the Bones is like nothing I have ever read before. I found it hard to tear myself away from these characters whose lives were so fragile and yet were defined by an inner strength which was both admirable and grim. (read my full review)