2011 Books in Review

I’ve recorded every new book read since age 16 in a small blue notebook. Gone are the days of endless free reading time and 80 or 100 books a year. These days I select my reading more carefully, and enjoy reviewing the books as each year ends. This year I finished 51 new books (not counting re-reads, partially read books, or “skims”). I’ve classed them into “Must Read” favorites, good books, fine books, and books I disliked in rough note form below.

“MUST READ” RECOMMENDATIONS

This year I consciously sought out lesser-known classics. Two favorite discoveries were So Long, See You Tomorrow and They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell. Maxwell is the only author I’ve encountered who exactly captures Illinois’ unique flavor on paper. This new-to-me author works compelling stories in beautiful prose. Despite his relative anonymity I think Maxwell stands head and shoulders above the typical “great American novel” contenders.

My husband recommended An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears for four years before I finally read it. He was right (as usual). It’s a cleverly done historical mystery, and hard to put down. It loses momentum in the second half and the main mystery is easy to guess, but somehow it’s still an irresistibly good and thoroughly fun read. Caveat – not for the easily grossed-out.

Many of the most enjoyable stories in contemporary fiction are found in the children’s and young adult section. The Penderwicks books by Jean Birdsall are among the very best new youth novels, and the third book The Penderwicks at Point Mouette just came out this year. Lovable characters, and side-splitting humor made this a favorite for both of us.

Topping the religious/theological reading list were Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas and This Momentary Marriage by John Piper. This new Bonhoeffer biography does a great job reviewing Bonhoeffer’s life and writings. While it is occasionally marred by awkward similes or clunky prose, and also by a few explanatory gaps, overall it’s a thorough and well-done look at a modern hero of the faith. This Momentary Marriage is the best book I’ve found so far on the theology of marriage. I still have a question mark about one section in this book, but overall think it’s a very good resource for any married couple.

Three non-fiction books stood out from the crowd this year. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby is a hilarious and engaging account of Newby’s comedy-of-errors 1950’s trek through Afghanistan. The letters between a New York reader and a London bookstore collected in 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff make perfect light entertainment for a bookworm. While I disagree with parts of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, I have to give him major points for making me stop and think long and hard about what we eat. Portions of the text use catchy rhetoric to provoke emotional reactions, and others tell only one side of the scientific story but his overall points are well worth consideration.

Charles Dickens died just days after writing the sixth chapter of his twelve chapter novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Vivid characters and moody, brooding scenes still make this incomplete text a new favorite. You can guess the ending from clues in the chapters. Once you’ve finished (but not before!) look online to read Dickens plans for the book’s conclusion.

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield retells the Battle of Thermopylae from the standpoint of Spartan retainer. It’s full of gripping dialogue and vivid scenes. A Green Beret friend recommended this as the most realistic depiction he’d read of warfare. This is not for children or young teens due to violence and adult content.

My mother-in-law gave me The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey for Christmas. The writing itself is fine (not bad, not stunningly good) but the story is one of the most complicated and interesting mysteries I’ve ever read. I can usually guess the end of a mystery in the first few chapters, but this book kept my brain whirling all the way through and I couldn’t put it down. This is not your typical detective fiction; a bored police officer stuck in the hospital after an injury re-investigates the alleged 1400s murder of Richard IIIs nephews by their uncle. Brilliant, fun, gripping – read it!

GOOD READS

The Man from Snowy River and other Verses by Banjo Patterson has many fun, easily accessible poems. These would make great read-alouds with kids. On the opposite end of the poetry spectrum Ezra Pound’s Poems: 1918-1921 is frequently complex and cryptic, but often beautiful.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier continued the year’s “read classics I’ve missed” theme. It started very well, building the suspense and foreboding to a fever pitch. However, it lost momentum in the more predictable second half, bumping this one to “very good” rather than “must read.” My father-in-law gave me another lesser-known classic for my birthday: Neils Lhyne by Jens Peter Jacobsen. This is one of the first books I’ve encountered where the individual paragraphs and beautiful prose fascinated me more than the overall story. If I’d started underlining quotes not a page would have escaped unmarked.

Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery, and Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Capricorn Bracelet and Sword Song are all enjoyable youth fiction. The Sutcliffe books are not her best (she died before revising Sword Song for publication), but even her worst work still beats most fiction on the market.

A few more good books in summary form: Sick Heart River by John Buchan is also not his best, but beautifully depicts Canada’s northern wilderness and a man’s courageous sacrifice. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and Letters from New York by Helene Hanff are both light fun reads. A Diary without Dates records a World War 1 nurse’s whimsical but observant sketches from a London military hospital. The Children of Men by P.D. James far excelled the movie, and told a surprisingly insightful and thoughtful tale. The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett and Two Years before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana are both classics. Life Together is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book on Christian community and family life – helpful, albeit imperiously opinionated at times. Moneyball is great for anyone who likes baseball or statistics (which I do).

FINE BUT NOT FAVORITES

Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, both by Steinbeck, did not particularly grab me. I’ve never really gotten into Steinbeck, no matter how many of his works I try. Blood Done Sign My Name by Timothy Tyson and The Color of Water are both non-fiction books about race and Civil Rights in America. The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy takes a fictional look at the same theme played out at in a military college in the South. Bright Center of Heaven by William Maxwell is an early example of his writing, and is not as good as his mature works. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak felt like an overly artsy reprise of a fairly common children’s war story theme, though it wasn’t bad. A history of our town (unnamed since our location remains private) told me facts I needed to know without much crafting. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt had good parts but I didn’t love it. The King’s Speech by Mark Logue and Peter Conradi was an interesting factual supplement to the movie, but devolved into a recitation of events by the second half of the book – more of a record/diary than a crafted storyline. Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery, How I Found Livingstone by Stanley, and The Magic City by E. Nesbitt round out the list.

BOOKS I DISLIKED

There’s a great reminder in the movie Ratatouille about criticism: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

I try to keep that in mind when discussing work I didn’t enjoy. Real junk should be designated as such, but sometimes it’s just my personal taste rather than quality issues that keep me from liking a book.

The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands by Laura Schlessinger had good points, but covered the subjects less thoroughly than my favorite marriage books. Direct Red: A Surgeon’s Story by Gabriel Weston was well-written, but not my style. The Old Peabody Pew proved that not all old books are good books. Sinclair Lewis’s classic Babbitt falls into the slow modern depressing school. Unfortunately I found myself on a 15 hour car trip with only this audiobook for entertainment, and then I got my first ever speeding ticket while listening, so I might be biased. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole and Evelina by Francis Burney are both interesting as background reading for the works of Jane Austen (Otranto as an early example of the Gothic literature discussed in Northanger Abbey, and Evelina as an early young-woman-enters-society classic novel), but in and of themselves are just not that well-written or interesting. Greetings from Afghanistan: Send more Ammo had several hauntingly good sections. It also housed some oddly vitriolic rants. Maybe it interests me less since my husband and all our friends here have deployed themselves? Funny Letters from Famous People by Charles Osgood looked good, but unfortunately most of the “Letters from Famous People” weren’t actually funny. The Sport of the Gods is another lesser-known classic. I found the story of the author much more interesting than the book itself, which had a predictable plot and mediocre prose. I was excited to read The Portrait by Iaian Pears after loving his Instance of the Fingerpost. In the end though, the long artistic monologue felt self-indulgent and the plot was easy to guess.

What did you read this year? Anything you loved? Anything you loathed? Anything on your list for the coming year?

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6 thoughts on “2011 Books in Review

  1. I’m so impressed you have kept a running log for years! Always love book reviews, thanks for some new ideas:) Maybe you got your speeding ticket because you were trying to outrun the book;)

    • It started as a homeschool requirement to track my reading. I’m hopeless at consistent journaling (there are stacks of childhood diaries with five entries each on my shelves) but find a book list serves the same purpose. When I see a book on the list it calls up not just the content, but where I was and what I was doing and who was around when the book was read – like journaling in code, almost :). Happy New Year!

  2. I find it so interesting that you keep track of the books you have read this way. What a great way to look back! Thank you for sharing your reviews. I haven’t read much fiction as an adult and I find that I’m overwhelmed when I try to pick a piece of fiction, so I love to hear what other people are enjoying.

    • I have a hard time picking fiction too, since so much is a matter of taste. My library is helpful at narrowing things down – not because they have great suggestions but because they have such a poor selection. When there aren’t any options it’s much easier to pick ;).

  3. Sarah – Thanks for visiting my blog. I see we have a lot of favorite books in common – I’ll have to check out some of the others you liked that I haven’t read. Congrats at keeping the book log consistently. I kept a list as a teenager and then lost track for about 15 years before picking it back up again as a blogger – part of the reason I started blogging was that I wanted to make myself think more about what I read.

    • The one moment of panic happened when I lost the notebook for several days. All those records, gone! That’s about when I started the annual backup system of reviews online. And I agree, I like having to stop and think about the books when they’re done.

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