The literature that carried me through: Best books of 2011

I read a lot of books this year.  That’s an understatement in the same way saying the New York Yankees have won a lot of World Series.

This is the first time I’ve kept track of how many books I’ve read (76 as I write this), but I’m pretty sure I’ve never read this many in one year.  Peace Corps has not only opened my eyes to a new culture, but it has also helped me read some of the great literature of this world.  I have the time to read War and Peace, but I really don’t feel like it.  Besides, Bukowski said it wasn’t good, so I’ll trust his opinion.

With New Year’s Day approaching, I thought I’d give a quick wrap up of the best books (fiction and non-fiction) I’ve read this year.  To see the full list of everything I’ve read, click here.

Non-fiction

 6 – The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy
A very-true story of Mickey Mantle told by a great writer who was hit on by Mantle in the early eighties.

“I hate it when people say how much he wasted.  Jesus Christ, how much better could he have been?” – Clete Boyer

5 – Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
The story of a Muslim American and his ordeal during and after Hurricane Katrina.  The man stays in New Orleans during the disaster and is put through hell, and it has little to do with the storm.

4 – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
This one took a while, but was well worth the time.  It’s amazing to learn how Lincoln became president and then how he succeeded with a group of rivals turned allies.

“I opposed one war [War of 1812].  That was enough for me.  I am now perpetually in favor of war, pestilence and famine.” – Justin Butterfield, Chicago politician

3 – Berlin: The Downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor
I’d been eying this book at the Eau Claire library for years.  After finding it in a Chiang Mai used-book store, it wasn’t long before I bought it and read the story of the Soviets and Nazis at the end of WWII.  Chilling.

2 – John Adams by David McCullough
It’s rare when history books are page turners, but this is one.  Although he’s one of the founding fathers and the second president, Adams can be overlooked.  McCullough lets you know he shouldn’t be.

“Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” – Adams

1 – Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
Call me a lesbian, but I love the writing of Gilbert.  Her story of trying to get her Brazilian lover back to America so they can get married (against their wills) is filled with intelligent insight on relationships and great stories.  Gilbert has a fantastic sense of humor and a down-to-earth persona.

“Unlike so many of my friends, I did not ache with longing whenever I saw an infant.  (Though I did ache with longing, it is true, whenever I saw a good used-book shop.)”

Elizabeth Gilbert

Fiction

20 – Firestarter by Stephen King

19 – Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

“Because like all whores you value propriety.  You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical that your beauty is no more than the beauty of gold, which is to say false and cold and useless.”

18 – Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

17 – A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving

“THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN GET AMERICANS TO NOTICE ANYTHING IS TO TAX THEM OR DRAFT THEM OR KILL THEM.”

16 – Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

15 – The Stranger by Albert Camus

14 – The Cider House Rules by John Irving

13 – The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

12 – On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

11 – I Married a Communist by Philip Roth

10 – Nemesis by Philip Roth
The story of a playground director in Newark in the early 1940s during a polio epidemic, Roth’s most recent novel does not go light on suspense.  If I were to recommend a Roth novel to family back home, this would be it.  It’s short, concise and tells a great story.

Philip Roth

9 – American Pastoral by Philip Roth
Five years from now, this could be higher on the list.  Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, American Pastoral was perhaps overhyped in my mind.  However, it was still great and is calling for a second reading.

“You don’t have to revere your family, you don’t have to revere your country, you don’t have to revere where you live, but you have to know that you have them, you have to know that you are part of them. Because if you don’t, you are just out there on your own and I feel for you.”

8 – Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
That’s right, a new and popular novel.  If you haven’t tried the work of Franzen (The Corrections), you’re missing out on one of America’s best novelists.

7 – Indignation by Philip Roth
The story of a college student escaping his overbearing father during the days of the Korean War, Indignation is another great Roth short with a lot of punch packed in few pages.

“A bunt dropped for a base hit can be one of the most beautiful things to behold in all of sports.”

6 – Exit Ghost by Philip Roth
The final Zuckerman novel finds the narrator attempting to switch homes from his rural Connecticut house to an apartment in a post-9/11 New York City with a young couple.  Current, funny and the usual Roth brilliance makes Exit Ghost one of my favorite Zuckerman novels.

“I’d hardly held myself aloof from the antagonisms of partisan politics, but now, having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century, I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child—the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult.”

5 – All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Don’t watch the movie.  It doesn’t do this masterpiece justice.  I’m told the second and third of the trilogy (The Crossing and Cities of the Plain) bring it all together and conclude an epic of literature.  I’m working on it.

“She came from the shower wrapped in a towel and she sat on the bed and took his hand and looked down at him. I cannot do what you ask, she said. I love you. But I cannot. He saw very clearly how all his life led only to this moment and all after led nowhere at all.”

4 – Operation Shylock by Philip Roth
Roth writes himself in as the narrator in which he learns of another man named Philip Roth impersonating the novelist in Israel.  I usually don’t consider Roth laugh-out-loud funny, but this book was.

“I didn’t want this temptress, I wanted to be ten; despite a lifelong determinedly antinostalgic stance, I wanted to be ten and back in the neighborhood when life was not yet a blind passage out but still like baseball, where you came home, and when the voluptuous earthliness of women other than my mamma was nothing I yet wished to gorge myself on.”

3 – How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers
I have yet to read an Eggers book that didn’t blow me away and his short story collection is no exception.  Some of them are so short and powerful, I could copy and paste them to you in a short e-mail.

“God is the sun. It makes sense, if you think about it. Why we didn’t see it sooner I cannot say. Every day the sun was right there burning, our and other planets hovering around it, always apologizing, and we didn’t think it was God. Why would there be a God and also a sun? Of course God is the sun. Everyone in the life before was cranky, I think, because they just wanted to know.”

2 – A Widow For One Year by John Irving
I still have yet to read an Irving novel that tops The World According to Garp, but this one gave it a run for its money.  Irving writes long novels that feel like a warm blanket on a chilly autumn day – you never want to leave its comfort.

John Irving

1 – The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth
Have you noticed the author’s name a lot on this page?  There’s good reason for that.  I started getting into the 50 years of Roth novels heavily just before leaving.  Then I met my friend Dev Banerji (blog forthcoming).  Dev has read every Roth novel (I’m over halfway there) and even wrote a college thesis on the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral.  If Roth’s brilliance didn’t persuade me enough, Dev would.

As of now, The Ghost Writer is my favorite Roth novel.  It tells the story of a young up-and-coming writer, Nathan Zuckerman, and his trip to visit the home of his literary hero, E.I. Lonoff.  It’s a short novel, but Roth has no trouble fitting a lot into a little.  Also staying in the house is Lonoff’s wife and his student assistant, Amy Bellette.  Bellette’s vague past and Zuckerman’s wild imagination leads him to believe Bellette could be Anne Frank.

I read The Ghost Writer twice this year and it likely won’t be the last time.

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