Best Books of 2011 (& Happy New Year!)

I seriously can’t believe it’s the end of the year. This holiday season is passing in a blur of grad school applications, parent/boyfriend initial meetings, and much-needed recovery from a horrendous semester. (Bzzzzzzzttt—there it just went, zipping by from left to right like horses at the races.) (C’mon Dover! Move yer bloomin ass!) We had a beautiful and relaxed Christmas Eve and Christmas (oh, the cookies! the turkey! the mulled wine!) but the past few days have been… phew!

However, regardless of how I’m feeling about the end of the year, here it is. And that means I get to talk about the books I read this year! And that makes me very, very happy. I passed my major numerical goal (110 books), I reviewed most of them (24/110), I cut way down on the rereads (26/110–that’s actually a huge improvement); so all in all I’m happy with my reading this year.

And here are (drum roll, please) the Best New Books of 2011 (obviously these are books new only to me. I can’t imagine trying to read only newly published books in a year. Sounds incredibly dull. But these aren’t that, though I’m a little impressed that the majority was written after 1950. Go me!) (These appear in no particular order.)

The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

Completely heartbreaking. I wanted to shake Stevens half of the time and just make him change his views… but that’s the point. The transformation of British society from early 1920’s to late 1950’s—not really all that long in terms of years–creates a nearly unrecognizable terrain. I love the format of this book—it’s just so quiet, Stevens is so mild-mannered and unassuming, but so complicated. The juxtaposition of his memories—when he knew exactly who and what he was—and the present is, yep, heartbreaking.

Howards End, E. M. Forster

I love the way Forster uses words. I haven’t read everything of his—only this and A Room with a View—but I can’t wait to read ‘em all. I love the ideas being debated in this book: the place of money and intelligence in society, and the tension between progress and love of the past, and family loyalties and disloyalties and drama and peace… so wonderful. (And this concludes the Merchant-Ivory Emma Thompson/Anthony Hopkins portion of the post.)

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

I put off reading this for ages—I’ve always been a Catherine/Heathcliff kinda girl—but finally this spring I tried it. And it was fantastic. And way less doom and gloom than I was expecting. Why am I so stubborn? I’m still a bit conflicted about Rochester—I hate hate hate his manipulation (letting poor Jane think he was engaged to Blanche Ingram, of all people!) but I guess uncomplicated heroes are boring.

 

The Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber

Victorian society, post-modern sensibility. This is the book that I’m most looking forward to rereading in 2012. I read it in one 36 hour gulp that, in retrospect, was just a blur of oooh I love this and very vague impressions of what happened. Sugar, the prostitute and (arguably) the main character was one of my favorite characters… but I really liked the mad wife with the growth behind her eye that she’d never know about. I think I need to slow down and concentrate this time.

On Beauty, Zadie Smith

I desperately need to reread this book—I listened to it on audio book (never really a good idea—I don’t focus as well) during finals in the spring (don’t ask me why—I really need to stop reading during finals week, forcryingoutloud) and though I loved it, I’m having trouble pinpointing why I thought it so fantastic. The women were written so well, and the horrid teenage daughter, and that poor kid working in the music archives—Smith creates such a perfect picture that I really felt I’d lived in that world. But even more than writer-craft, which of itself is quite admirable, the ideas she approaches through the fiction kind of tug the world view in another direction, making you see everything a little differently. And I bought the book a while back, so I should be able to concentrate this time!

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

Holy mother, I loved this book. I say that a lot, but holy mother. Read The Woman in White first, then stand back and be prepared to drop your teeth. I loved this book. (Of course, I’m a sucker for Victorian sensation fiction—I’ve read TWiW at least five times and presented papers on it twice. So you definitely need to read that. And Lady Audley’s Secret, and East Lynne, and Aurora Floyd.) I loved how Waters updated and perhaps deepened the themes while keeping many of the sensation fiction earmarks (asylum, doubles, unexplained noises, unprotected women) safely intact. Good stuff.

A Very Long Engagement, Sebastian Japrisot

Five French soldiers were condemned to death for the crime of self-mutilation. Although there are rumors that a pardon was granted, they were thrown over the trench into No-Man’s-Land, provoking a firestorm that allowed the French troops take the German trench. Mathilde is determined to learn what happened to Manech, one of the five, and in her investigation learns each man’s story. Beautiful book. I sobbed several times (it’s just so freaking senseless) but Mathilde is so brave and clever and interesting that the story is more hopeful than not.

Of those seven, four stand out as books I’m dying to read again, immediately, right now, if only Mount TBR didn’t look quite so enticing. In the case of The Crimson Petal and the White and On Beauty it’s because I really enjoyed them but kind of feel I didn’t get everything out of them that I should have (like sticking your gum on the bedpost because there’s still some flavor there. Of course, I live in 2011, and not 1950, so I don’t do that. Besides, do you get up to brush your teeth after taking out your gum? Inquiring minds want to know.) I did that with The Children’s Book (read it too fast/had to reread)last year, and this year’s attempt took it to top ranking (see below). The other two, Fingersmith and A Very Long Engagement, I want to return to, not because I think I missed anything, but because I was absolutely blown away by them.

And finally, my favorite rereads. These are the books that I’ve read before and will read again, the ones that come to the desert island with me (click on the image for more info):

And there you have it! Stay tuned, I’ve got some big plans for 2012, books and movies and recipes galore! And …

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