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
“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 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.
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
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