Favorite Books of 2011

In writing out the list of books I read over the past year, I realized that I never think about books chronologically. Instead, I tend to think of them thematically, regardless how disparate the ties may seem. It was strange to see the books listed chronologically – it made me think more of the events that had happened in my own life when I was reading each book. I naturally gravitate towards thinking of books thematically, so hopefully this list shows a little bit more of why I choose to read a book.

Favorites of 2011

J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country
I wrote an entire post on this book when I read it over the summer and even six months later, I remember the very common themes of alienation and distant love, but he captures it in a way that is novel and achingly real. What I liked most about J.L. Carr’s writing was that for his contemporary audience of the 1970s, he tried to recreate the pastoral they would vaguely remember or have heard their parents discussing, and somehow these threads of some past life echo on, seeming all the more real and vivid. (I also have to credit this book for helping me determine what themes I wanted to propose for graduate school academic statements of purpose – poor book! It probably shouldn’t have such a fate.)

Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment
Another British author who is unfamiliar to most, Barbara Pym has been credited as one of the most underrated writers of the 20th century and akin to a modern Jane Austen. While Pym does attack social issues and characters like Austen, there is something much dark at the core of her novels. In this book, the lovely vicar’s wife, who we later learn is dissatisfied in her own life, tries to set up her Beatnik/Mod sister, Penelope, with a possibly gay anthropologist 10 years her senior. Throw into the mix the “spinster” librarian, Ianthe Broome, who know one knows whether they should love or hate or even consider a rival, a crazy cat lady, and plenty of do-going neighbors in an “unfashionable” neighborhood of London and it’s bound to be an entertaining read. While ever lighthearted, Pym is also incredibly literary, although you won’t realize it until you have finished the book.

Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists
I also blogged about this book and I still think it was one of my favorites this past year and perhaps the most contemporary in tone. Rachman delves into the world of an international newspaper based in Rome and describes its demise through each employee. Simultaneously, he imparts his own views on journalism, the characters who flock to it, and the messy personal lives that can only ensue.

Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn
I am still upset about the ending of this book, a year later. While I don’t know how much this was influenced by the fact I finished it on an airplane and only had the last, unread articles in a New Yorker, or whether it was actually Toibin’s emotional manipulation, I highly recommend this book. Documenting an Irish immagrant who goes to Brooklyn in the 1950, it documents the tale of the isolation of immigrating, the strange role of fate, and the ongoing ties between the US and Ireland. Some reviewers hated the distant qualities of the protagonist, but I thought that her distance was what created emotional power when we learn of her ultimate decision.

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz
W.G. Sebald is a German academic who started writing novels in the 1990s. This book is his most recent and documents the life of Austerlitz, a boy who was sent to Wales during WWII, and is raised as British. It is not until he is an adult that he discovers that he was a war refugee and suddenly, it opens up an entirely new world of possibilities to his identity and sense of reality. Sebald writes in an almost surrealist manner, swiftly moving from thought to thought and is credited as having some of the most rambling sentences in contemporary literature. While the book is a bit of a maze to read, it is one of the only Holocaust books I have read that was poignant, beautiful and truly unusual. And, in it’s own way, it was strangely calming.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness
Normally, I hate distopic literature, but I found a copy of this and given my recent trip to Portugal, I thought I should try to read some of their Nobel prize winning author. In an unnamed city, a sudden epidemic hits, causing people to randomly go blind – no one knows how it is transmitted or why – but the government starts locking people in an old psychiatric facility and soon, there becomes a basic day to day fight to survive. Of course, this brings to light the true nature of humanity and while I would normally hate a book like this, Saramago’s use of language is incredible and his characters force you to continue you on. There is no way you can stop without knowing what happens to this strange city.

Julia Child’s My Life in France
Given how much I read about food and food writing, it was kind of amazing I had never read this. In general, there is a lot of bad food writing out there, but there is something incredibly delightful about reading about Julia Child’s search to understand modern French cuisine. It probably does not hurt that she was a magnificent character herself, worked for the precursor for the CIA, and had a great sense of humor. Probably the most enjoyable book I read all year, and is a must for anyone who likes food, France, or understanding American post-war cultural relations.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies
I’m not much for the recent trend of post-colonial literature and I definitely was not one of short stories, but Lahiri restored my faith in both. This collection of short stories documents various tales of Indians and Indian Americans, their interactions with one another, and the way the world views both. At times hilarious (the family visiting India and encountering monkeys) and at other times incredibly sad, it was easy to see why Lahiri has gotten such great acclaim in the past decade.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
There was a horrible moment a few years ago when my friend Ana and I realized we had rented the wrong version of Brideshead Revisited from the video store. Instead of a story of epic drama and lost British high society with scandalous undertones, we faced three hours of bored British actors acting monotone. The book is far from any of that – it is filled with the hedonism of Oxford life, the strange sexual appetites of those within, the secret oddities of British upper society, and what happens to friendships when one leaves university. It is both a classic ode to lost generations and a contemporary account of how people can become lost.

Charles Portis’ True Grit
Who knew that a book could be a close to a movie and even more entertaining! Portis’ novel documents the Mattie Ross’ quest to find justice for her father by bringing the outlaw Tom Chaney to justice. If you saw either version of the movie, the Coen brothers’ version follows the novel much more closely than the John Wayne one. However, the book stands in its own right as an ode to the old West, the adventure and danger found there for the most ordinary of people, and why it was immortalized time and time again. Another great read, especially if you don’t have a lot of time.

Honorable Mention:
Lolly Willows: or the Loving Huntsman by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
The Quiet American by Graham Greene


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