Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Ten Best Books I Read in 2011

As I explain on my “What I’ve Read This Year” tab (up there! just below the picture!), a few years ago, to make sure I was still reading new things after graduating college, I started the Two-Books-A-Day Project. I pick two books I’ve never read before, a YA book and a classic, and I read them. If I start a book, I have to finish it. I can read other books, but if I’ve read them before, they can’t be considered part of the project.

In the end, I read over 30 new books, from Gravity’s Rainbow to Going Bovine, and I’m excited to keep the project going into 2012. You can see my full list of books here, and after the jump, check out my top-ten favorites from 2011.

10. White Cat, Holly Black
Awesome start to what promises to be a great series (the sequel, Red Glove, also was a fun read), and I loved the world that Holly Black created, a dense but believable alternate reality where people can be magically “worked” just from a touch. This is intriguing enough, but Black upped the tension by throwing in a mystery, a love story, and family secrets. I completely fell for Cassel, the youngest brother in a family of thieves and criminals, as he struggles to figure out his place within society and within his own family and solve the mystery of his best friend's death.

9. Leviathan, Scott Westerfeld
Another fun series. I was dubious about this one, since it seemed more middle grade (the characters, Alek and Deryn, are in their early teens), and focused on steampunk, a genre which I still don’t really understand. BUT! I loved Uglies and so I gave it a chance. And I’m glad I did! Scott Westerfeld creates a beautiful, deep world, so intricate and complete that it barely feels like science fiction. With not one but two narrators, Westerfeld shows other YA authors how to have split narratives that work: there was never a single moment that Alek sounded like Deryn, and vice-versa. Instead, coming from opposite sides of the burgeoning World War I, both characters see their lives in completely different terms. The effect was a fuller image of the complex reasons for the war, as well a more complete understanding of the world they lived in.

8. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
It’s hard to write much about this crazy tome without sounding too pretentious, so I’ll just come out and say that the plot is silly-hard to follow, the characters number in the dozens, and the meanings and metaphors are so densely layered that you would need another book at least twice as big to try to understand it (and you’d still probably fail). And yet, I loved diving into it. I loved the self-contained little scenes, the moments of hilarity, the rational illogic of some of the characters. Every once in a while I’d stumble across a sentence that was just so damn perfect, rich and dense and evocative. For example: “Death has come in the pantry door: stands watching them, iron and patient, with a look that says try to tickle me.” Makes lugging around all those 754 pages worth it.

7. Going Bovine, Libba Bray
I don’t think I’ve come across a more imaginative, trippy, hilarious read, which is crazy when you remember that this is a story about a road trip with a teenage boy dying of an incurable disease. I’d heard so many good things about this book that I knew I had to pick it up. Although the snappy teen-style dialogue threw me for the first couple of chapters (reminded me too much of homeslice Juno), once I caught onto Cameron’s unique voice, the entire structure fell into place: a world gone completely crazy, a hyped-up modern playground filled with its own illogical rules. Although essentially it’s a road story (supposedly based on Don Quixote), the mystery at its center kept me reading. And the end, when Cameron finally reaches his destination and discovers the meaning of his journey, is one of the saddest, happiest, most wonderful things I’ve ever read.

6. Graceling, Kristin Cashore
A unique world, a strong female character, and a quick plot kept me reading Graceling, Kristin Cashore’s debut novel. I’m not usually into fantasy novels (I tend to get hung up on where exactly this planet exists…), but I loved Cashore’s layered world, and Katsa comes across as one of the most unusual characters I’ve ever met. A strong woman warrior, haunted by her role as a court torturer, Katsa stumbles across a mystery that offers her both freedom and redemption. It’s the brutality of her actions, set against the sensitivity she tries to cultivate, that made her so captivating to me--a hero or a monster, trying to decide between the two.

5. Fire, Kristen Cashore
Another Cashore book! I read Fire before Graceling, effectively ruining the ending of Graceling (although the stories aren’t strongly linked), and as much as I loved Graceling, I found Fire tighter, more compelling, and more interesting. Fire, the main character, has been literally born a monster, blessed and cursed with unworldly beauty and the ability to sense the minds and emotions of others. Like Katsa, Fire also has to choose whether she’ll use her abilities for good or for evil, and she similarly struggles to determine who and what she really is. But where Katsa’s bold strength made her somewhat impenetrable, Fire felt warm, compassionate, seeking to do the best in the world to make up for evil committed by her father.

4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
Oh oh oh how I loved this book! Carson McCullers tells the story of how four different people in a small southern town--a young girl, the owner of a local diner, an alcoholic socialist, and an idealistic black doctor--form separate friendships with Singer, a deaf-mute. It is so painfully, heart-breakingly real, these relationships, as each person seeks out Singer in answer to their individual needs. Singer, the patient, kind deaf-mute, anchors the story, without becoming overly sentimental--he has his own needs and his own heart-break, too. This was one of the few books that made me cry, as McCullers slowly reveals the chasm of loneliness inside us all and shows, all too well, how difficult and desperate true connection really is.

 3. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
For all its violence, hatred, complex psychology, A Clockwork Orange is so beautifully paced and written that you can practically sing it. I’ve seen lots of writers try to come up with a unique language for their characters; only Alex’s Nadsat convinced me that it was real. Alex, a British teen who participates in nightly gang rampages, is also probably one of the most compelling characters I read this year. Although I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley, he leaps off the page with a force and a violence that make him feel real. And the central question--is it better to be a monster by nature or a good citizen by force?--drives the narrative deeper as Alex transforms from a violent gang leader to meek penitent (and, if you watch Stanley Kubrick’s movie, back again to violence).

2. Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
This was one of the first books this year that I consistently recommended to friends and fellow readers. I was so captivated by the world, a post-disaster New Orleans populated by bands of working children. Like A Clockwork Orange, Paolo Bacigalupi gave his characters a unique language, and although not as rich as Nasdat, there was a distinct cadence and rhythm that lent authenticity to the characters. I loved Nailer, the main character, a tough teenage boy trying to figure out how best to survive, his life complicated when he discovers a rich girl on a wrecked clipper ship. Suspenseful, unique, complex, it’s no wonder this won the 2011 Printz Award.

1. The Good Earth, Pearl Buck
Where was I in eighth grade, when this book should have been on my summer reading list? Although not as complex as some of the books on this list, nor as challenging, no other book so completely pulled me in, to live and die by the characters. Following Chinese peasant Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, The Good Earth presents an image of a China on the verge of change. The rich history and realism is only underscored by the characters, fully three-dimensional, flawed, complex. As Wang Lung grows older, making mistakes, understanding and misunderstanding himself and his family, I wanted so badly for his life to turn out well, for his patient and faithful wife, O-lan, to receive the praise she deserved, for his spoiled sons to put aside their grievances and learn to love their father’s land. The end, however, presents a much more complicated perspective on love, family, and fate, pushing the tension and unease of the entire narrative up to the very last sentence. I read it three times.

What were some of your favorite books from 2011? And what are you looking forward to reading in 2012?


  1. Their Eyes Were Watching God is painfully beautiful. A classic I could read every year. I think I will. Is it too late to add another New Year's Resolution?

    Ali B.

  2. I agree--gorgeous writing. Sounds like a good resolution :)