The Best Books I Read in 2011

I realize this is post is little late, but I was otherwise lazy preoccupied.

Since Mr. B gave me an iPad for my birthday and I started commuting by train, I have been going through books like crazy. I think I must have read around 30 books last year. The hard part is finding really good books. Those are the books you don’t want to put down even though it’s 11:49 and you have work tomorrow.   Fortunately, I’ve sifted through the piles and found some real gems this year.

 Choice quote:

“He wanted to stick his finger in it and see what happened. Some story, some quest, started here, and he wanted to go on it. It felt fresh and clean and unsafe, nothing like the heavy warm lard of palace life. The protective plastic wrap had been peeled off”

I love fantasy books, but they have to be smart, too.  So right around the time that The Magician King was coming out, I decided to pick up its prequel The Magicians .  I don’t know why I didn’t read it before.  I just wasn’t feeling it, I think because the premise (boy Quentin is different from everyone else, attends a school of magicians and has adventures with his friends from the school) sounded too much like Harry Potter and as much as I love Harry Potter, I hate knockoffs.  I was wrong.  These  two books have quickly made their way into my top ten favorite books of all time.  They not only take you into another universe, they make you understand our world better. They’re both creepily dark and ridiculously hilarious, and Lev Grossman is incredibly talented; he leads you to where he wants you to go.  You feel like you’re right along with Quentin and the others on their adventures, and they perform magic in a way that seems actually possible.  Once you’re done with this book, you’ll be so sad that we really don’t have magic in this world.

 Choice quote:

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”

After I was finished with that pair of books, I suffered from withdrawal pretty badly.  I was extremely lucky that The Night Circus was published just around that time. It’s definitely not as savoury, thick, and badass as Magicians, but it’s beautiful and delicate and mysterious in its own way, and Erin Morgernstern capably takes you into a magical world that takes place during the night but is definitely not as dark and brooding as Brakebills. There are two magicians, a love story that spans a decade, and a circus that arrives out of thin air in fin de siecle Europe.  I saw the dead tree version in stores, and it is so beautiful. Creates exactly the right atmosphere. Also, Marco is hot.

 

 

 

Choice quote:

Many phenomena — wars, plagues, sudden audits — have been advanced as evidence for the hidden hand of Satan in the affairs of Man, but whenever students of demonology get together the M25 London orbital motorway is generally agreed to be among the top contenders for Exhibit A.

From schools for magic and circuses that vanish into thin air,  it’s only a short step to heaven and hell, and I am so, so glad I’ve finally gotten into Neil Gaiman, because he is just as amazing as everyone says he is, especially when he’s writing with Terry Pratchett in Good Omens. This book is told from the point of view of a Legionaire of Hell, the suitably British Crowley, and an Angel, Azirophale. Long-time enemies, they’re now more or less friends and have the annoying burden of saving the world from Armageddon. But first, they have to get past the traffic on the London orbital.    I read this right before we went to England and it is just such a perfect description of the British disposition and understated humor that I could not recommend it more highly.  Also, Crowley is hot. One of my other Gaiman favorites is Neverwhere, in which he creates a whole new layer of London out of thin air.  I believe it was this book that invented the steampunk genre.

Choice Quote: 

“Raffy has this magical, abracadabrical ability to transform all his “ifs” into “whens”.”

 

From there, it was a straight shot into magical realism with Karen Russell’s short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  Just the title makes you want to read it, right? The short stories are all stand-alone, but they all take place in the Florida swamplands, a place rife with magic and misunderstanding, but woven into the ordinary ordinariness of growing up.  There is  the story of a boy who searches for his dead sister with magic swimming goggles, a girl who gets stuck in a conch shell, and the title story about an boarding school for girls with wolf parents which, in my opinion, is the best one.  Karen Russell has such a knack for choosing the exact right word that it’s a pleasure to read.

 

 

 

Choice quote: 

“I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

And, grudgingly, after that, I moved on to literary fiction. But what I didn’t know is that I’d found another book in my top 10: Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  I forget how I found it; I think someone in my Goodreads friends recommended it, but, oh my god. This is the book I wish I’d written.  Such a biting, succinct satire of modern society, of men who are schmucks, racism, bureaucracy, capitalism, academia, a beautiful depiction of New Orleans, and just everything wrapped all together into, really, The Great American Novel. If you haven’t read this book yet, you haven’t read American literature.

 

 

 

 

Choice Quote: 

“Literature could turn you into an asshole: he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.”

Speaking of TGAN, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is another obvious contender. It’s been on every book list in the country over the past year.  I don’t think it’s a 10, but definitely a solid 7 or 8.  If you don’t understand baseball, it can be a slog at times, but you technically don’t need to: the novel is not about baseball, but about people.  About how people are flawed, go to college, grow up, and do stuff in between.  Beautifully written, beautifully characterized, with tons of passages about Moby Dick, it’s just a good chunky read.

 

 

 

 

Choice Quote:

“Warp threads are thicker than the weft, and made of a coarser wool as well. I think of them as like wives. Their work is not obvious – all you can see are the ridges they make under the colorful weft threads. But if they weren’t there, there would be no tapestry. Georges would unravel without me.”

 

Next, we have The Lady and the Unicorn, by an author I’ve enjoyed before for her girl with her pearl earring, Tracy Chevalier.  Chevalier also creates worlds, but with history instead of fantasy.  Here, she literally weaves the story of the famous tapestry, The Lady and the Unicorn, the tortured painter that painted the original image, and the women caught up in his wake.  What was really, REALLY cool is the way Chevalier describes the making of a tapestry. AND. OMG. NERD BONUS POINTS HERE.  When we were at Stirling Castle, they had a tapestry BEING MADE LIVE with the ARTISTS RIGHT THERE DOING STUFF and you could ASK THEM QUESTIONS.  I geeked out for 20 minutes watching what Chevalier had only described in words.  It was better than Nutella.

 

 

We also have one non-fiction book: O Jerusalem!  Completely 100% awesome history book that is, really, as non-biased as it possibly can be, an account of Jerusalem in the time leading up to Israeli statehood and the battle for the city in 1948.  I’d learned a lot about Israeli early history before in books and on tours in the city, but this book is so well-researched and with such a good tone that it makes you feel like you’re reading a novel instead of a history book.  There are anecdotes and pictures of everyday life, an examination of the Arabs’ and the Jews’ motivations, and bits of songs from the time. The way Collins and Lapierre describe the part when Israeli paratroopers decided to storm the old city on 2 hours of sleep, using diet pills to keep themselves awake, as well as descriptions of how the city was kept fed during the blockade, really make you appreciate what people will do for a cause.

 

Any good recs for 2012? Leave them in the comments.

Vicki

23 thoughts on “The Best Books I Read in 2011

  1. Thanks for sharing, Vicky! 30 books, that’s great. I think I’ve read like 10 (and that’s coming from a girl who used to read 10 books about every two weeks during summer school breaks). I am going to start The Magicians today — good thing you reminded  me about this book.
    As for the suggestions, did you read anything by Pat Conroy? I stumbled upon him by accident, and I really like his style. I would recommend “The lords of discipline” as a place to start. I also think that you might enjoy “City of Thieves” by David Benioff.

    1. I can’t believe you had time to read 10 with a new baby in the house! Also, thanks for the suggestions. Lords of Discipline sounds pretty interesting…I put it on my Goodreads list. Re: city of thieves, I’m reading  Vassiliy Grossman with the Red Army right now and I think WW2 Russia stuff, you have to be in a specific mood for. It is very hard emotionally. 

  2. Thanks for the suggestions! I’m going to check out a few. If you loved Good Omens, have you checked out American Gods, also by Neil Gaiman? It’s very cleverly done– layered and with gods in disguises, living in plain sight, similar to Crowley or Azirophale. Last year, I also read The Book Thief; it’s billed as a YA novel but is wonderful. It made a huge impact on me, so much that I went out and bought a paper copy after reading the ebook.

    1. I picked up American Gods at the bookstore, started reading, and it didn’t appeal to me for some reason.  I’ll take another go at it because it sounds like I can’t afford not to :)

      1. American Gods is a little more dense than GO, but once you’re in, it goes by very quickly. Last night, I started reading Pay Me in Flesh by K. Bennett (it was free via B&N). Silly read about a zombie lawyer, but I’m loving it. Sorry, I’m a bibliophile who reads lots of random stuff all at once… I’m rereading Good Omens, a bio of Catherine the Great (=Russian history major), Bleeding Kansas, and now Pay Me in Flesh. :) 

          1. Definitely thick, but Massie has an easy style… it reads almost like a conversation or a college-level class; he doesn’t use a lot of big words to impress. :) Plus, he’s got a bit of familiarity with Russian history, so I haven’t seen him get caught up in the confusion of patronymics and such. That helps.

  3. I’m also a fan of Neil Gaiman. Have you read his “Stardust”? They also made a movie out of it but the book was better I must say. Never really enjoyed the movie much as I enjoyed reading the book.

    Thanks for sharing these books. I must read some of them because I love fantasy like you do.

    -Charmaine 

  4. The Magicians and The Magician King were highlights for me as well. Among my other top books of 2011 is Neil MacFarquhar’s book on serving as Times Middle East correspondent.
    And a book I’d read several times that you might like: Neal Stephenson’s Snowcrash. I’m not really a fan of his latest, ReamDe, which just didn’t go for me, or the Quicksilver trilogy. But Snowcrash and Cryptonomicon are awesome! Come to think of it, Mr. B. might steal Snowcrash from you …

    1. He probably will…he likes Stephenson, but I’ll give him a chance :)  I loved the MacFarquhar book, the title is the best. 

  5. Chad Harbach, Toole and Russel have been added to my list. I´m not sure about Grossman, I think I´m going through the same kind of reject that you have must felt while hearing about it the first time – it really does sound like Harry Potter. Do I need another young magician in my library? I tend to side with “no”, for various reasons. It took me a long time to admit even young Potter in that sacred space. I don´t know if I´m ready for another exception.
    But all the titles you´ve mentioned have something worth checking out, probably. Good list, you´ve given me something to research!

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