Friday, December 16, 2011

Top Reads of 2011

There are certain subjects you know you shouldn't raise in company if you want to avoid unpleasantness. Politics, religion, how to raise children, just for starters. Among the Material Witnesses, one subject is guaranteed to prompt pained howls from Georgette Spelvin: best-books lists. For some reason, she just hates making lists of favorite authors and reads.

I enjoy looking back over the year and thinking about the books I've read and how they stacked up. I keep a notebook of the books I've read, but all I do is write down the author and title. If I really liked it, I put an asterisk next to it. One of my book club friends has a card file and has a comment card in it for every book she's read for the last 30 years or so. I'm not that organized, but I wish I did have a record of every book I'd ever read, except for the part where people would look at me like I was some kind of compulsive nutcase.

But back to the subject at hand. This is the time of year when the newspapers, magazines and websites tell us what were the best books published in the past year. I always look at those lists and consider myself lucky if I've read 20% of them. It makes me feel like a cultural deadbeat, but that somehow doesn't ever seem to result in my rushing out to get the books they rate the highest.

I'm going to list my top reads of this year, more or less in order, and ask our readers to do the same in comments. They don't have to be 2011 publications; just books you read this year and particularly enjoyed. I think I can guarantee nobody will feel like a cultural deadbeat after reading my list.

Top Mystery Reads

Louise Penny: A Trick of the Light (Maybe not quite as good as Bury Your Dead, but still terrific. Of course, the Armand Gamache series is my weakness.)

Kate Atkinson: Started Early, Took My Dog (This entry in the Jackson Brodie series picks up shortly after the Masterpiece Mystery! dramatization left off. Atkinson is one of the best writers out there.)

Cyril Hare: An English Murder (A classic British country house murder mystery, but with incisive commentary on British attitudes about class, ethnicity and religion.)

Fred Vargas: An Uncertain Place (Yet another quirky title in the Inspector Adamsberg series.)

Jill Paton-Walsh: The Attenbury Emeralds (A continuation of Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey series.)

Peter Lovesey: Stagestruck (This book about murder in a theater in Bath is part of the Peter Diamond series.)

G. M. Malliet: Wicked Autumn (This is the first in a new series featuring a former MI-5 agent who is now an English country vicar.)

Robert Barnard: A Stranger in the Family (There's nobody like Barnard. This is his 28th standalone mystery and he's already published another one this year. Not to mention his three series and his four books written as Bernard Bastable.)

Alan Bradley: I Am Half Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce at Christmastime.)

Top Non-Mystery Fiction Reads

Anthony Powell: A Dance to the Music of Time (Four big volumes telling the story of British society and the empire from the 1930s to the 1970s.  I was mesmerized by it and didn't know what to do with myself for weeks after I finished it.)

Muriel Spark: A Far Cry From Kensington (One of the most mordantly witty books ever.)

Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son (An tour-de-force about contemporary life in North Korea.)

Jane Gardam: Old Filth (Funny, sad, touching tale of the life of Sir Edward Feathers. Like A Dance to the Music of Time, it's as much about the British Empire as it is about the characters' lives.)

Stephen King: 11/22/63 (On one level, a time-travel book about trying to prevent the JFK assassination. On a deeper level, about connectedness.)

Chad Harbach: The Art of Fielding (A coming-of-age story about baseball and much more.)

Fannie Flagg: I Still Dream About You (Fannie Flagg is one of my guilty pleasures and this book was just as satisfying as the rest.)

D. E. Stevenson: Miss Buncle's Book (A real find.  Set in England in the 1950s and about a spinster who decides to write a book to make some much-needed money. She can only write what she knows, so she writes a thinly-disguised book about the people in the village. Complications ensue. This title has been issued by Persephone Books, which reprints neglected classics of 20th-century authors, usually women.)

Top Nonfiction Reads

Erik Larson: In the Garden of Beasts (Novelistic story of a college professor made ambassador to Germany in the 1930s Nazi era, and his adult daughter who accompanied him to Berlin, along with his wife and adult son.)

Siddhartha Mukherjee: The Emperor of All Maladies (A compellingly readable biography of cancer.)

Laura Hillenbrand: Unbroken (Astonishing story of Louis Zamperini, who went from juvenile delinquent to Olympic runner, to POW of the Japanese in World War II.)

Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich (You'd think there isn't any more that can be said on the subject, but Evans proves that wrong.)

Nella Last's War (Just before the outbreak of World War II, Britain established the Mass Observation Project, in which ordinary people were asked to write diaries and answer questionnaires about their views on contemporary events.  Nella Last, an ordinary housewife in a seacoast town, wrote a diary that is full of everyday detail, but also reveals her deepest feelings about married life, her children, the war, her country, her neighbors, the role of women and more.)

Now it's your turn . . .


  1. Glad to see your list, Sister Mary. I hope the other bloggers and readers post theirs.

    Some of mine in 2011:

    Mysteries: Adrian McKinty's The Dead Yard (infiltration of an Irish terrorist group); Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca (I'd seen the movie but this year I read it, a classic); Lenny Kleinfeld's Shooters and Chasers (unusual police procedural I read about here); James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo (mysterious North Korea); Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon thriller The Messenger

    Fiction (not mysteries): Roberto Bolaño's big book, 2666; Sam Savage's The Cry of the Sloth (funny but tragic decline of a literary mag's editor), Paolo Bacigalupi's sci fi book The Windup Girl (set in dystopian future Thailand obsessed with calories)

    Nonfiction: Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth; Julia Child's My Life in France; Jim Newton's Justice for All (biography of Earl Warren)


  2. Nikki, Rebecca was always one of my favorite movies, but I didn't read the book until two years ago. We read it for my book club and all enjoyed it. And I think every one of the Material Witnesses is a huge fan of Lenny Kleinfeld and Shooters and Chasers.

    I love it when people recommend books I've never heard of. I'm fascinated by the descriptions of The Cry of the Sloth and The Windup Girl in particular. Thanks for telling us about your favorites of this year.