Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Laura Hillenbrand

Each year, I try to keep track of every book I read (and every movie I watch). Partly, it serves as an easy way to think of gifts and suggestions for people who ask (when you work in the book industry, people frequently ask for reading recommendations), partly for my own interest; and mostly so I can look back and go “oh, that’s where my time went”. When I see proof of time well-spent, it helps keep me from curling into the fetal position because time goes too fast and I am quietly growing old before my eyes.

This year so far, with 6+ weeks left in 2011 (as of my writing this), I have read 45 books. Not my best, quantity-wise – I usually manage to average at least one book a week. But it’s been a busy year. See above neurosis about time slipping away.

But this year’s ratio of “loved-it” to “loathed-it” is very good. Perhaps I’m improving at knowing my own taste, perhaps I’m becoming less hung-up on the books I feel I should read (classics; philosophy; poetry; biographies of important people, disaster-preparedness tomes etc.) and more happily embracing the books I want to read (contemporary fiction, graphic novels, tales of horror and the paranormal, comedian biographies, books about cats etc.). Whatever the reason, I wholeheartedly enjoyed a higher percentage of my reads than usual in 2011.

So, in the spirit of one big recommendation, here's a look at the 25 books I enjoyed most this year. They’re across the board – some new, some old ones I’d been meaning to read for ages.  Mostly fiction, but not all, some funny, some sad, some literary, some pulpy.

Some of the books that didn’t make the top-25 included Summer Sisters by Judy Blume – I worshiped Blume as a child, and wanted a crack at her more grown-up writing. I enjoyed this fine, and would have loved it if I’d read it at 18, but into my 30s it felt too indulgently summer-campish to take seriously. Roseannearchy by Roseanne Barr was left off, as well – what could have been a funny, revealing insight into what makes Barr tick – her business sense, her belief systems, her experiences in the comedy industry – was too often derailed by disjointed, barely coherent and occasionally paranoid asides and ranting. It’s entertaining, to be sure, but I felt a bit like a rubbernecker watching a car crash at times.

 A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was a decent enough read, but I found many of the characters (it’s one of those one-character-leads-to-another series of vignettes books) so blasé, shallow, and cynical that I had difficulty connecting much to them.  The writing was skilled, and the flow and pacing kept me reading, but I wasn’t sad to let go of the characters at the end.

But overall, this year was pleasingly devoid of real lemons – though I must confess, it’s disappointing not to have even one absolute stinker to sarcastically lampoon. I do love a good lampooning.

One of the books I loved best was The Book of Small, by Northwest Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr.  Carr was born here in Victoria in 1871, and her vivid depictions of early British Columbia life were riveting and delightful to me living here now – many of the streets and areas she described are still the same, if only in name. The Book of Small is a collection of short stories about Carr’s childhood, and she captures the joy and wistfulness of being little just beautifully.

Another worth mentioning in detail is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. For me, this book is a classic example of why it’s important not to paint oneself into a corner, genre-wise – a good book is a good book. I am indifferent to sports, and reading about them bores me to tears. I dislike war books as a rule, and prefer fiction to true account. So when someone enthusiastically recommended Unbroken  to me, I thought. “Oh, good. A non-fiction account of an Olympic-grade runner being shot down during the war and ending up in a Japanese POW camp, from the author of the horse-racing book Seabiscuit.” Fully expecting to snore within minutes, I reluctantly embarked.

And then I was completely entranced from the very beginning, irritated at pesky necessities like food and sleep. I thought about it at work. I actually gasped aloud a few times while reading. It still had the detailed bits about sports, and the horribly upsetting passages about war atrocities, but Hillenbrand’s writing is so skilled, so strong and so balanced that I was captivated with every word. Fantastically done, and has actually convinced me to put Seabiscuit on my 2012 list.

So, here are my favorite 25 books I read in 2011. And because I need to start stocking my shelves with 2012's fare, please be sure to leave a comment at the bottom and your own suggestions from recent reads.

Beth's Best Books of 2011

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
Bad Blood
by Lorna Sage

A memoir told with such well-crafted writing that even the banalities of childhood take on meaning. Sometimes tragic and sometimes ordinary, Sage’s story is told with such matter-of-fact prose as to make it riveting. It very much feels like the experiences of a child, while the writing is fully mature.

How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers
How We Are Hungry
by Dave Eggers

I enjoyed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and especially Zeitoun so much that I wanted to check out some of Eggers’ short stories, and How We Are Hungry didn’t disappoint. He veers occasionally into the realm of the overly sardonic hipster, but his strength as a writer is evident throughout the pages.
Annabel by Kathleen Winters
by Kathleen Winters

As Canadian a novel as I’ve ever read, Annabel is the story of Wayne, born into a remote, small East-coast town, was a little bit different from day one, and the other side – Annabel – who lives, thrive and celebrates inside Wayne, right alongside him.
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker
The Anthologist
by Nicholson Baker

Among the most relatable books I’ve ever read, The Anthologist is a novel about a poet named Paul Chowder. His life is in a bit of a rut – his girlfriend has left him, because he lacks motivation and can’t get his career going, but he continues to procrastinate and flail. Cringeworthy but endearing.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage
by Justin Cronin

An excellently creepy cautionary tale of morality whose perhaps not-so-subtle message against humans meddling too much with nature is awesomely overshadowed by its eventual culmination: a future with a virulent breed of vampires, preternaturally strong, psychic and  all-consuming.
Through Black Spruce by Joseph Boyden
Through Black Spruce
by Joseph Boyden

I loved this book. I read Boyden’s Three Day Road, first, and loved that too. Through Black Spruce is more contemporary, but like Three Day Road, it juxtaposes tradition, legend and nature with modernity, and in the case of Through Black Spruce, technology and urban city life. A wonderful story set in two very different backdrops, with two very different but equally compelling characters who find their way to commonality.
The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
The Island of Dr. Moreau
by H.G. Wells

Good Lord, how creepy is this book? One of the ones I had intended to read for years, it definitely didn’t disappoint. Wells’ dystopian tale of horror, pain and the perversion of nature on a secluded island made my skin crawl. He who breaks the law goes back to the house of pain!
Breath by Tim Winton
by Tim Winton

Two adventure-starved Australian teenagers become enthralled with an older, inscrutable surfer who leads them into a dark world of extreme boundary-testing, danger, and troubling behavior. As a grown woman, it was interesting reading the perspective of a teenage boy.

The Book of Small by Emily Carr
The Book of Small
by Emily Carr

Victoria artist and author Emily Carr tells beautiful, simple and touching stories of her 19th-century British Columbia childhood, when Vancouver Island and Victoria were first being settled and developed. Fascinating historically, and touching emotionally.
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
The Martian Chronicles
by Ray Bradbury

Can you believe I had never read this? What is wrong with me? Presented as a series of varying-length vignettes, these tales from the settling and colonization of Mars are creative and fascinating. Some are bittersweet and surprisingly wistful, others are dark and violent, others eerie and unsettling. I enjoyed every page.
The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis
The Best Laid Plans
by Terry Fallis

Fans of wonderfully nerdy satire, the ludicrousness within bureaucracy, or the Canadian political system will rejoice in this fun, funny novel about a man who accidentally ends up a member of parliament. Also, there’s the building of a hovercraft!
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese

Set in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Ababa and surrounding areas, Cutting for Stone beautifully tells the story of an unlikely love between an Indian nun and a European doctor, and the resulting twins, Shiva and Marion, and their journey to adulthood by way of medicine, political and sexual turmoil, and family.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen

The Corrections is a lengthy, involved novel about the Lambert family – their interactions with each other, struggles as individuals, and the almost psychotic patterns that can emerge within families as a whole. As endearing as it is infuriating – indulgently detailed, but extremely well-written.
The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption and Pee by Sarah Silverman
The Bedwetter
by Sarah Silverman

Sarah Silverman is so funny she makes me snort-laugh. It isn’t pretty. She’s so vulgar and shocking and horrible, and then so kind and unguarded and guileless, and this book explains all about how she got like this, while still being funny enough to elicit snort-laughs. I loved it.
The River Midnight by Lillian Natel
The River Midnight
by Lillian Natel

A fictional small Polish village called Blaska is home to Misha the midwife, and the other three Vilda Hayas – wild creatures. The River Midnight explores the friendship of these four women, but circles out to include the other members of the village, through this rich, complex, multi-generational story. Beautiful.

Watership Down by Richard Adams
Watership Down
by Richard Adams

Has a story about burrowing ever been so harrowing? This tale of a group of rabbits trying to find a safe new warren after humans encroach on their habitat is tense, serious and frightening. Dogs, cats, humans, even evil, power-hungry rabbits stand in the way of Hazel, Fiver and all the rest. A long overdue read.

Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Half Blood Blues
by Esi Edugyan

Winner of the 2011 Giller Prize, and shortlisted for many other prominent awards, this novel traverses the experience of black jazz musicians in WWII Europe while exploring themes of friendship, betrayal and forgiveness. A riveting read, for which the war is the backdrop, not the forefront.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
by Rebecca Skloot

From a scientific perspective, this book is fascinating and enlightening as the reader sees the origin and traces the path and effect of the HeLa cells. And from an emotional perspective, seeing the effect of the discovery on the Lacks family, and learning their history was interesting as well.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Fun Home
by Alison Bechdel

An unusual, thoughtful graphic memoir told by Alison Bechdel, about growing up gay with a closeted homosexual funeral home director for a father, and trying to find her way in the world. Heavy on literary references and blunt honesty - not a comic book.
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods
by Bill Bryson

Celebrated travel-writer Bill Bryson reluctantly takes on the Appalachian Trail with his faithful companion, Katz. Neither are very experienced hikers, and as someone not-so-athletically-inclined myself, it was a joy to read about their challenges as they trudge grudgingly through nature. It doesn’t hurt that Bryson is incredibly funny.

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
The Strain
by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Both The Strain, the first book in this modern vampire trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan, and its follow-up, The Fall, are very entertaining reading. Actually frightening in parts, these vampires are far from the sparkling, lovelorn mood-machines of recent fictional fare. Instead they are ancient and dominant and view us as a food source. Creative and scary.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
by Alan Bradley

I was skeptical to read this, as I generally have a dislike of precocious children, but 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, the protagonist, is entirely charming and disarming. She is lonely and misunderstood, picked on by her older sisters but adored, and entirely brilliant, with a rich inner imagination and a passion for chemistry. I enjoyed the second book, The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag, as well.
Starter for Ten by David Nicholls
Starter for Ten
by David Nicholls

The first novel from the author of the critic’s darling One Day, this is the story of Brian Jackson, a first year university student in England who manages to land himself a spot on the University Challenge quiz team. But being a total human disaster, Brian manages to muck up his year horribly and hilariously time after time, from ill-advised romance attempts and beyond.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story
by Gary Shteyngart

This dystopian future in which the world has been reduced almost entirely to sex and money, language has been reduced to abbreviations and brand names, and love has been rendered an embarrassing, delicate eggshell in a sea of sarcastic eye-rolling is as clever and tender as it is grim and unnerving.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
by Laura Hillenbrand

The incredible, horrific and amazing true experience of Olympic-grade sprinter and lieutenant/bombardier Louis Zamperini’s time in a Japanese POW camp in WWII after surviving his plane being shot down in the Pacific.


What was your best read of 2011?

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