Best and Worst Books 2011

Looking back I must say that this was a very good reading year. That’s fortunate for me because to be honest in many other areas it was a nightmare and I hope that next year will be better. But readingwise it was wonderful. So many new authors, so many really great books. It couldn’t have been much better.

It’s always so difficult to say which books I liked the most but I noticed that whenever I thought “Best Books” and started to make a mental list, the same 12 books popped up again and again and only when I went back to the blog and looked at all the posts, did I remember many more. So, like last year, I’m cheating and do not present a Top 10 but a best of per category.  The 12 that popped up immediately can all be found under the category beautiful and enchanting.

All the quotes are taken from my reviews.

Most beautiful and enchanting books 

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

“The calm, quiet and floating feeling that permeates Saraswati Park makes this one of the most beautiful novels I have read recently. Saraswati Park is about love and marriage, loss and discoveries but also about the power of imagination and memories, the beauty and danger of reading and ultimately also about writing.”

Three Horses by Erri de Luca

Three Horses was my first Erri de Luca but it will not be the last. “The scent of earth, sage and flowers pervades a story of love, pain and war.”

Games to Play After Dark by Sarah Gardner Borden

“It is hard to believe that Games to Play After Dark is Sarah Gardner Borden’s first novel. The topic, a marriage that falls apart, may not be the most original, the young mother who tries to combine the demands of her children and her husband and her personal needs, isn’t new but how she describes it, the details she evokes, the way she looks at what has been swept under the carpet and the bed and what is hidden in the closets is extremely well done.

Back When We were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Back When We Were Grownups is a novel about possibilities, lost dreams, second chances, family and love and ultimately about chosing the right path and belonging. I really loved this book. I liked Rebecca and many of the other characters, especially Poppy, the great-uncle. I liked how it shows that choosing a partner also means choosing a life and that maybe sometimes when we feel we are just drifting we are actually just sliding along because we are on the right path.

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Have you ever read a book and caught yourself smiling almost all the time? The Fish Can Sing is so charming I couldn’t help doing it. It’s also quite funny at times and certainly very intriguing. I’m afraid I can’t really put into words how different it is. As a matter of fact, Halldór Laxness’ book is so unusual and special that I have to invent a new genre for it. This is officially the first time that I have read something that I would call mythical realism.

The Square Persiommon by Takashi Atoda

I think the most intense reading experience is one that connects you to your own soul, that triggers something in you and lingers. Atoda’s stories even made me dream at night. I almost entered an altered state of consciousness while reading them.  The Square Persimmon managed to touch the part in me where memories lie buried and dreams have their origin.

Stranger by Taichi Yamada

Strangers is an excellent ghost story but it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser

Hot summer nights have a special magic. In the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping and only night creatures are awake, the hot still air is heavy, time seems to stand still and the world is indeed enchanted. This is the magic captured by Steven Millhauser in his beautiful and poetical novella Enchanted Night. I have never read this book before but the images, the atmosphere felt so familiar. It was a bit like looking into my own imagination.

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

Reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove felt at times like holding the clothes and belongings of a dead person in my hands. While I read it, and for a long while after I finished it, I felt as if I was grieving. It’s a really sad novel but at the same time it’s a very beautiful novel. It also reminded me of the series Six Feet Under. There is something very similar in the mood and the characters. Although I absolutely loved this novel I could imagine it isn’t for everybody.

Nada by Carmen Laforet

 Nada deserves to be called a classic. However it isn’t a classic because of the plot which can be summarized in a few sentences but because of the style. This is a young writer’s book who manages to capture the intensity of living typical for the very young and passionate.

The Cat by Colette

La Chatte has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow  is a beautiful and melancholic short novel that explores a wide range of themes like memory, the past, isolation, loneliness, friendship, jealousy and violence. The central theme is that of the omission and the following regret. There are so many things left unsaid, things not done or too late in a life, that this core theme will speak to almost all of us. It’s often little things but they resonate for a long time in our lives and we might wish to turn back time and undo what has happened.

Most engrossing reads

These were the books where I never checked how many pages were left because I had finished them before even getting the chance to do so. In other words, the page-turners.

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

Les Heures souterraines or Underground Time is a chillingly good novel and shockingly topical. It’s accurate in its depiction of life in a corporate setting and of  life in a big city. It’s a very timely book, a book that doesn’t shy away to speak about the ugly side of  ”normal lives”.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

Whatever You Love is a book of raw emotions. And that from the first moment on when we read about the police knocking on Laura’s door to inform her that her daughter Betty has been killed. Laura is a very emotional woman, she feels everything that happens to her intensely, her reactions are very physical. There are many elements in the book that made me feel uneasy.

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing was certainly one of the most entertaining reads this year. It offers an interesting mix of alternating and very realistic sounding voices, a Parisian setting and a wide range of themes.

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Asworth

I already jokingly “said” to Danielle in a comment that her top 2010 might become my top 2011 and,  yes, this book is certainly a candidate as it is astonishingly good. Very dark, absolutely fascinating, engrossing, and very well executed. While starting it I had forgotten Jenn Ashworth was compared to Ruth Rendell but the association immediately occurred to me as well.

everything and nothing by Araminta Hall

everything and nothing was one of those super fast reads, a book that I could hardly put down. Really riveting. The only complaint I have is that this is labelled as a psychological thriller. Although there is a part of it reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, it is like a background story and not really very gripping. At least not for me. Still I consider this to be a real page-turner for the simple reason that it captures chaotic family life in so much detail and explores some of the questions and problems parents who work full-time would face.

Best Books – Literature and War Readalong

How Many Miles To Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

I loved How Many Miles to Babylon? I think it is a beautiful book. It doesn’t teach you as much about WWI as Strange Meeting (see post 1) but it says a lot about Irish history. I found this look at the first World War from an Irish perspective extremely fascinating.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed.

The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll

Böll has a gift for description which is rare. And he represents a rare model of moral integrity, he is an author who wrote for those who have nothing, who tried to unmask hypocrisy and uncover everything that was fake and phony in post-war Germany. I don’t know all that many authors who are so humane.

Most touching

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. I read this novel in the summer and it’s one of a few books I haven’t reviewed. In this case because the reading caught me completely unawares. I had such an emotional reaction that I had to talk about it all the time. I still feel like reviewing it but I need some distance

Best classics

Mme de Treymes by Edith Wharton

Madame de Treymes has a Parisian setting which always appeals to me, as sentimental as this may be. It is a cruel little book and a very surprising one. All in all there is not a lot of description of the city itself, the novel rather offers an analysis of the society. It is interesting to see how Americans perceived the Parisian society and the differences in their respective values.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

Hotel Savoy has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind  while the next one is announcing itself already.

Grand Hôtel by Vicki Baum

Grand Hôtel is set in a luxurious hotel in Berlin between the wars. It’s walls shelter a microcosm of German society. The novel draws a panorama of the society and the times, reading it is fascinating and gives a good impression and feel for the time and the people. Vicki Baum includes a wide range of characters, the porter who waits for his wife to give birth to the first child, the aristocratic head porter Rohna, the many drivers and maids as well as some very interesting guests. Including the employees of the hotel gives the book a bit of an upstairs-downstairs feel and permits insight into the lives of the “simple people” who earn just enough not to starve.

Pedro Parámo by Juan Rulfo

It’s a powerful novel infused with the spirit of the Mexican Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead at the same time it is an allegory of oppression and freedom that comes at the highest cost. When you read Pedro Páramo it becomes obvious that “magic realism” has many faces.

Best non-fiction books

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

I found Making Toast wonderful. It contains a lot of little endearing episodes like the one that gave the book its title, in which Rosenblatt states that the only thing he is really good at is making toast for the whole family in the morning. He describes how he gets up very early and, taking into consideration each family member’s taste, he produces a multitude of personalized breakfast toasts.

The Film Club by David Gilmour

The relationship between these two is unique. So much honesty, trust and friendship between a father and a son is wonderful. Not every parent has the chance to spend as much time with his kid, that is for sure, but every parent has certainly spent enchanted moments with his/her child and will be touched by this story. For us film lovers The Film Clubis  a great way to remind us how many movies there are still to discover, how many to watch again and in how many different ways we can watch them.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read Howards End is on the Landing. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a researcher, specialized in topics like shame and perfectionism and analyzing how they are linked and keep us from living wholeheartedly. She is an incredibly honest and open person who is able to show her vulnerability.

Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald

On the Natural History of Destruction is one of the most amazing books I have read this year. For numerous reasons. It is in line with the topic of my reading projects and readalong and contains descriptions that I have never read like this. On the other hand it gave me the opportunity to see another side of Sebald. One that I didn’t expect.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

What happens when a feminist who knows exactly how things should be, gets pregnant and the child is – horror on horror – a girl? This is pretty much how Peggy Orenstein opens her entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally quite shocking account Cinderella Ate my Daughter about what she sub-titles “Dispatches from the front-lines of the new girlie-girl culture”.

The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK . Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened.  The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.

New Author Discoveries

These are the authors that made me think “I would like to read all of his/her books”.

Beryl Bainbridge,  William Maxwell, Jennifer Johnston, Peter Stamm, Annie Ernaux

The worst book this year

There is a lonely winner this year and it has so far not even been reviewed. I’m still determined to do so but I find adding quotes so tedious, only in this case it’s necessary to illustrate the problem I had with the book. Now you are dying to know the title, aren’t, you?

In a Hotel Garden by Gabriel Josipovici

46 thoughts on “Best and Worst Books 2011

  1. Wait a minute – are these the best of 2011, or a list of everything you read?! Good to hear that you only had one really bad book this year :)

    My list will be out on new Year’s Day (I think you might know the worst book of 2011…).

    • My personal Best of, the book can be published any time.
      Well there were a few genre books I didn’t think too good but only one so-called literary fiction book that I found awful.
      I’m looking forward to see your list.

  2. Great list. Some are on my TBR already, some I’ve read after you too.

    I urge everyone who trusts your reading tastes to read Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan. It’ll be on my list too.

    When I saw the non-fiction books, I thought “what? no Josipovici?” :-) Then I saw in which category he was elected… Btw, I enjoyed the Peggy Orenstein even if it was more American than European on some aspects.

    I’ll publish mine on New Year’s Day, the year isn’t over yet. I have more bad books than you. I must improve my method for book picking.

    • Thanks Emma. The categories are a way of adding more books to the list. Underground Time is absolutely great but it’s not exactly a beautiful book, it’s profound but still a page-turner.
      I haven’t finished Josipovici’s non-fiction book.
      I don’t know if I picked differently from you. Sometimes a book is not very good but I still enjoyed parts of it and would not mention it as bad. The Josipovici wound me up for different reasons and I’d like to write a proper review, hera what others think.

  3. Excellent list, full of books that I want to read, and some that I loved and hadn’t thought about in a while (I love how you described The Fish Can Sing and Pedro Páramo – so spot on). The Anne Tyler in particular really appeals to me. I absolutely loved Breathing Lessons but have yet to read more by her. And I have The Cat on my TBR pile, which is very exciting. I’ll get to it sooner rather than later.

    • Thanks, Nymeth. I hope you will like The Cat. This was my first Anne Tyler and I really think I need to read more of her. I also need to read more of Laxness. Such an incredible book.

  4. So glad to see The Things They Carried on your list. Truly an excellent book. Thanks again for hosting the Lit and War Read-along. One of my favorite events this year, but unfortunately wasn’t able to participate much in the latter half. I didn’t have a chance to read Cold Mountain with the holidays being so busy, but I am looking forward to the discussion.

    • I loved The Things They Carried and thanks so much for joining in the readalong.
      I’m about to finish Cold Mountain today which is very late. I will post torwards the evening tomorrow I guess. The writing is stunning and great characters…

  5. I agree with Tony, Is this the best or the books you have read? lol

    I could never come up with such list, it’s wonderful how you can categorize them like that. For me, it’ll just be a normal top5.

    glad to see The square persimmon in that list, it was also in my top5 of 2010. I am planning to read it again one day. A very beautiful book.
    Ah…I am still looking for that Babylon book, but haven’t found it yet.

    hope you have better reading year in 2012 :)

    • Oh, that’s what he meant, I wasn’t sure. No, these are the best of those I read. I managed to read 110 books. :) I couldn’t do a Top 10. I had to include more and still I forgot a few I loved.

  6. My copy of Underground Time just arrived (I wanted to read it after Emma’s review). Jenn Ashworth has another book (Cold Light) coming out in 2012 and I will be reading it as I loved A Kind of Intimacy.

    You must read Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here.

  7. That’s a whole book chart (top 32 plus 1 bogey) in one post! Of the 33 I have heard of only 13 and have read a paltry 3. I have two others in the TBR. Unfortunately not the one that appeals most – The Square Persimmon ….

  8. Cool list. It’s awesome to see all the thought provoking literature you’ve read. I’m trying to broaden my reading horizons, but maybe not with Edith Wharton…I’m wondering if all her books end sad?

    • Thanks, Skye. I’m quite glad with my choices. I remember one or two years in which I sort of managed to read one dull book after the other. This year even some of those I didn’t mention were great fun like Darkfever and the one or the other crime novel.
      I think the House of Mirth isn’t sad. I’ve read The Age of Innocence and while I liked it I can’t remember whether the ending is sad but I think, yes.
      I wanted to read my first Willa Cather this year and Thomas Hardy. Next year hopefully.

  9. Pingback: thebookishowl.com » Blog Archive » Online “Best Books of 2011″ Lists Update – December 29th

  10. Really glad to see several books on you list that I own in my TBR. But oh what a shame about Josipovici’s In a Hotel Garden, which I really love. Ah well, we can’t all like the same things. I’m really looking forward to reading Saraswati Park next year, and the Araminta Hall.

    • I hope you will like Saraswati Park and everything and nothing.
      I have problems with bad dialogue and mannerisms, especially when every single character has the same speech mannerism and I have a problem when I feel an author exploits the Holocaust. I think Josipovici is “guilty” in both departments. I will write a proper review one of these days and am looking forward to an interesting discussion.

  11. I’m happy to see William Maxwell on your list–I loved The Folded Leaf, and like so many other authors I find I love–I want to read more of his books! A Kind of Intimacy was one of my own favorites last year–was her second book as good? It is finally being published here in the spring! A number of these I had already noted when you first wrote about them–my reading list is so huge I will never need to go looking for a new book (though you know that won’t happen). And I think I might try and read that Laxnor next year–I found the book at a library sale some time ago–must dig it out finally!

    • William Maxwell was a find, I want to read more of him.
      Ashhworth’s second is very good but completely different. I had so many great books this year, I didn’t want to have an author with two books on the list and A Kind of Intimacy is better.
      Professor Batty has told me that I’m finally ready for The Glacier now… It’s one of Laxness more challenging books it seems. I want to read it soon.

  12. What a long and elaborate list! I may need to do something like this next year.

    You definitely added lots of books to my wishlist, most of all Saraswati Park, I think.

    • I didn’t pay attention to the number of titles but I couldn’t cut down anymore, I enjoyed these such a lot.
      I hope you will like Saraswati Park.
      These lists are so dangerous, arent’t they.

  13. What a fantastic list of books! I have loved several of them, but a lot are new to me. I loved Independant People, but haven’t heard of The Fish Can Sing before – I’ll ensure it is the next Laxness book I read. You are also the second person to speak highly of Jenn Ashworth today so A Kind of Intimacy will go straight to the top of my pile. I’m so pleased I discovered your blog in 2011 and look forward to following you next year. Have a wonderful 2012!

    • Thank you so much Jackie. We owe the mutual disovery to German Literature Month, I think. I’m glad for that.
      I wish you a great 2012 as well.
      I’m sure you will like A Kind of Intimacy. It’s so good. I hope you will find a few others you will like. It was a great year for reading.

  14. What a wonderful list of books, Caroline. You’ve reminded me that I want to reread Maxwell and have me adding many titles to my TBR piles. Wishing you and your a joyful New Year.

    • Thanks, Gavin. I want to read more of him. I hope you will like whatever I inspired you to read. I always enjoyed your suggestions. I realized I forgot Among Others on my list. A great year to you as well.

  15. Wonderful list, Caroline! I loved the descriptions of all your beautiful and enchanting reads. I want to read ‘The Fish Can Sing’ by Halldór Laxness after reading your description of it. I also want to read ‘The Silent Angel’ and ‘Pedro Parámo’ – I loved your reviews of both of them. I also want to read Andrew’s ‘On the Holloway Road’. It is one of my plans for this year. I hope you get to post your thoughts on it this year. I read David Gilmour’s ‘The Film Club’ a couple of years back and loved it. Glad to know that you liked it too. I keep recommending it to all my film-loving friends. Your description of ‘Cinderella Ate My Kids’ made me smile :) I want to read that too.

    Glad to know that you had a wonderful reading year in 2011. Hope you have a wonderful reading year in 2012, too :) Happy New Year!

    • Thank you Vishsy, it was a great year for reading. All those books are great and I could imagine you would like quite a few. Laxness is one of a kind. This is one of the most original books.
      I liked the way Cinderella Ate my Daughter was written. Never preachy, on the contrary, she showed exactly what a gap there is between theory and practice.
      I’d love to fin a nother book like The Film Club.
      Yes, do read Andrew’s novel, I’d love to hear what you think of it. It’s quite sad.
      Happy New Year, Vishy.

        • Hope we get to read as many great books as last year. I bought a few that you reviewed ans some that you recommended. The Book of Lost Things, The End of Mr Y and The book edited by Nancy Butler and Katie Fforde… And of course Narayan. :) I’m looking forward to read him in February I hope.
          Cindereall Ate My Daughter is very American but I read it almost in one sitting. It was so fascinating.
          I’m looking forward to Andrew’s next novel, I must say. I really liked this one.

          • Nice to know that you got those books I reviewed, Caroline :) Hope you enjoy reading them. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on them. The Nancy Butler one was really good and I have a soft corner for the Katie Fforde book because of the literary background of the story.

            • That’s why I bought the Fforde. I’m not that keen on romance unless there is something that makes the story stand out. But maybe I’m prejudiced. I’m often amazed about how many intersting things people who love romnace can say about the novels they read.

    • I tried leaving a comment on your post but it didn’t work. No idea why.
      I hope you will like whatever books you try. I’d be interested to read your thoughts.

  16. Wonderful to see Enchanted Night on your list. It is one of my favorite reads of the last few years and I enjoyed re-reading it again this past summer. If you get the urge to read more of Milhauser’s work you should check out his short story collection, Dangerous Laughter. It has a wide range of stories with varying degrees of quality, but there is some truly remarkable stuff there.

    • Thanks Carl, I’m so grateful that you mentioned it. I loved this book. Someone else has seen it on my blog, read it and loved it as well. I will read more of him this year, thanks for the suggestion.

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