2011: My Year in Books

Welcome back, dear readers, and happy 2012! After taking a bit of a hiatus over the winter holidays, I’m back and looking forward to a new year filled with new books. But before we start afresh, I’d like to take a look back at the books that made up my 2011. Maybe this is an indulgent exercise, but we all have ways of reflecting at the new year, don’t we? And, as an avid reader, what could be more telling indicator of myself and the sort of year I’ve had, than my book list?

This was an atypical year for me, reading wise, on several counts. For one, I read more books this year than I probably ever have–72 total, or 6 books a month. (To be clear, I’m including some graphic novels, novellas, and YA fiction in my count–not just 400+ page works of canonical literature. But still.) This was also a very English year for me, both in terms of the language many of the books I read were written in, and in terms of nationality. I also read several series and/or several books written by the same author. During the first part of the year I was interning at a public library in Manhattan and programming a artist panel and comic art competition for teens, so with the advice of a well-versed friend, started dipping my toe into the immense pond of Graphic Novels. Regardless of the motivations, all of these are fairly unusual reading selections for me, given my typical predilections.

So, here goes: my 2011, chronologically (oldest to most recent), in books:

  1. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them: Elif Batuman
    • The first book I read in 2011 and by far one of the best, most illuminating, and funniest books I read all year. As a creative writer (essayist, novelist) who moonlighted as an academic in a Comparative Literature Ph.D. program at Berkeley for seven years, Batuman manages to lampoon academia while still making an earnest, credible case for the value of studying something that you love (such as Russian literature) in depth for nearly a decade, even if it means flying in the face of practicality. Also, being a Turkish-American who grew up speaking Turkish (she was born in New Jersey, to Turkish immigrants), she both understands and articulates the many reasons that studying something just because it is part of your direct heritage or ancestry is completely irrelevant. I loved this book. I will probably re-read it in 2012.
  2. Sleepover Sleuths (Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew #1): Carolyn Keene

    • Knowing that I love mysteries–and was once a devoted Nancy Drew fan–my nine year old sister gave me this first installment in yet another Nancy Drew spin off series. Here, Nancy solves mysteries as a kid–her first case is to find a lost, American Girl sort of doll that disappeared at a sleep over.
  3. Real Murders: Charlaine Harris

    • A reissue of the first installment in Harris’ Aurora Teagarden series, which caught my eye because the main character is a public librarian. One of the worst books I read all year, hands down. (Link above to review.)
  4. Fables (Deluxe Edition, Book 1): Bill Willingham

    • My first successful foray into graphic fiction was with this series, in which all of the world’s most well-known fairy tale creatures, characters, and legends have been driven out of their homeland by some nameless evil power and forced to live undercover in New York City.
  5. Talking About Detective Fiction: P.D. James

    • I was thrilled to read James’ nonfiction exploration of the mystery/detective genre, even if it was–as she freely admitted–almost completely biased toward a particular (Golden) era of British writing. She can be harsh with her opinions, but always in context. And it gave me a lot of classic British mystery authors to write down for future reading.
  6. Fables (Deluxe Edition, Book 2): Bill Willingham
  7. Dark Entries: Ian Rankin

    • Another graphic novel, recommended by the same friend who recommended Fables. I was interested particularly because I’ve been meaning to read some of Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels set in Edinburgh. The horror/occult plot here was really thin, though, and didn’t work for me.
  8. Strictly Murder! A Writer’s Guide to Criminal Homicide: Martin Roth
    • Strictly terrible. Picked up while shelving–thought it might have some good procedural sort of tips for a mystery novel I was kicking around some ideas for. Hilarious mini chapter on female murderers which float “Hormonal changes/premenstrual syndrome or post-partum depression” as some of the most common reasons that women commit murders.
  9. The Monsters of Templeton: Lauren Groff

    • A contemporary American novel set in a fictionalized version of Cooperstown, New York. I was looking for something with a magical realist/East Coast MFA vibe and this fit the bill nicely.
  10. Fair Play: Tove Jansson, Trans. Thomas Teal

    • Another brilliant novel by Jansson, reissued by the New York Review of Books. My favorite Jansson book thus far, hands down, and another of the best I read last year. (Link to review.)
  11. Fables: March of the Wooden Soldiers (Vol. 4): Bill Willingham
  12. Fables: The Mean Seasons (Vol. 5): Bill Willingham
  13. Fables: Homelands (Vol. 6): Bill Willingham
  14. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: Nicholas Carr

    • Reading selection for the New York Librarians Book Club
  15. Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico: Javier Marias, Trans. Esther Allen

    • I wish I had written about this when I read it, because I don’t remember enough about it now. But it was a wonderful, breathless, and frantic novella and I do remember that much of the plot line is dependent on an unassuming interpreter getting himself into all sorts of chaos because of the way he interprets a conversation between two parties. The sort of scene I would have gotten at least a ten page paper out of in college.
  16. The Girl in the Green Raincoat: Laura Lippman

    • Serialized mystery with a great sense of place (Baltimore), character, and more Rear Window references than you can shake a stick at. Really fun. (Link to review.)
  17. Frozen Assets: Quentin Bates

    • Bates (British) tackles a mystery set in rural Iceland, starring a Fargo-esque female detective. Another good one for armchair travel. (Link to review.)
  18. The Adults: Alison Espach

    • This book–written by a young Brooklyn author who lives in my neighborhood–has a truly fantastic beginning. All downhill from there.
  19. The Last Kingdom: Bernard Cornwell

    • My mother of all people recommended this to me. Epic mayhem and manly honor in the viking age. An Englishman is kidnapped and adopted by Danes and then spends the next several decades of his life battling both for and against them (sometimes with King Alfred the Great). Great on the historical details/rituals/context; was unfortunately not in an epic enough mood for this at the time I read it.
  20. Love in a Cold Climate: Nancy Mitford

    • I am so sorry it took me so long to find Nancy Mitford. Wit and eccentricity and gossip: the lives and loves and missteps of the British upperclass, as observed by someone near to, but outside of, the whole mess.
  21. Plain Kate: Erin Bow

    • YA novel, gifted to me by a dear friend. Eerie, medieval alterna-verse, in which cats can talk and young women really do have an awful time of it.
  22. Translation is a Love Affair: Jacques Poulin, Trans. Sheila Fischman

    • A lovely, multi-layered story by a little known (or at least, little known here) Quebecois author which says more about human relationships in its thin volume than many more showy books do in double the page count.
  23. Baltimore Blues: Laura Lippman

    • I so enjoyed The Girl in the Green Raincoat that I decided to go back and begin at the beginning. This is the first in Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series. Baltimore is still one of the main characters, and it was good, if a little uneven.
  24. Stitches: David Small

    • Graphic novel memoir–not for the faint of heart–about a man’s childhood struggle with cancer and troubles at home with his withholding/domineering parents.
  25. Bone: Out from Boneville (vol. 1): Jeff Smith

    • A classic of the graphic novel genre–addicting, and hard to put your finger on. A mix of fantasy, adventure, satire, and really classic storytelling. Great art–very clean and simple, but gets a lot across in each panel.
  26. SideScrollers: Matthew Loux

    • Loux was one of the panelists at my comic event at the public library I interned for. This graphic novel of his was widely acclaimed and very successful when it was released. Sort of a Scott Pilgrim meets Clerks vibe.
  27. Northanger Abbey: Jane Austen

    • Having finally accepted the fact that I do actually like reading Austen (it took me awhile to get there), I started working on reading some of her lesser-read works. Very much enjoyed this one. Could be retitled Frenemies in Regency England and be successfully repackaged as a chick-lit novel, I think.
  28. Beasts of Burden: Evan Dorkin

    • Graphic novel: animals solve mysteries about animals.
  29. Jane Eyre: Charlotte Brontë

    • My first time reading the novel, admittedly after I saw the movie. What a character! What writing! I was reading this while on vacation with some friends and it was all I could do not to ignore them the whole time and stay stashed away in a back bedroom reading this. I spent the entire time wishing that I had read this when I was in high school. It would have meant a lot to me then–probably something a lot different than it did when I read it this time.
  30. Apartment Gardening: Plants, Projects, and Recipes for Growing Food in Your Urban Home: Amy Pennington

    • This book corresponded quite neatly with the dawn of my urban-prairie wife phase. I joined a community garden, got doubly serious about my canning endeavors, and started sewing–all in one season. And although Pennington isn’t so much talking about gardening in an apartment on the East Coast (she’s actually got a whole deck to work with in the Pacific Northwest), I got a lot out of this anecdotal, DIY book.
  31. Happy Birthday, Turk! : Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo

    • I reviewed four of Arjouni’s newly reissued crime novels set in Germany and starring a German detective of Turkish descent, Kemal Kanyankaya. This installment (the first) is pretty great–some of the others belabor (important) issues of racism, immigrant rights, and cultural assimilation to the point of farce. (Review of series and the Melville International Crime imprint via link above.)
  32. Bone: The Great Cow Race (Vol. 2): Jeff Smith
  33. The Imperfectionists: Tom Rachman

    • Sometimes you find some great surprises on your own bookshelf. (I wrote a fairly extensive, though informal, review of this book which I posted on the blog. Review via the link above.)
  34. Bone: Eyes of the Storm (Vol. 3): Jeff Smith
  35. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake: Aimee
    • I found this book while I was shelving at my library internship and picked it up because I liked the cover. It gave me a serious craving for lemon cake (this was around my birthday, it bears noting) and was a wonderful spontaneous, unexpected find. Very much out of my usual aesthetic.
  36. The Brutal Telling: Louise Penny

    • Another ‘novel of place,’ this one set in a small snowy village in Quebec. I actually read this book (the 5th in Penny’s Inspector Gamche series) because I really wanted to read the following book, Bury Your Dead. I had it on good advice that Bury Your Dead absolutely depended on plot points in the prior novel, which intrigued me. It’s not often that a plot line will carry across two (crime) novels. I ended up liking this one a lot better than its successor, even though there are some red herrings at the end that are a bit unnecessary. But great characterization and tone, and it definitely made me want to visit Quebec (again).
  37. Under the Bright Lights (The Bayou Trilogy 1): Daniel Woodrell

    • I had been very interested to read one of Woodrell’s “country noir” novels, after seeing and enjoying the movie adaptation of Winter’s Bone. His “Bayou Trilogy” set in St. Bruno, Louisiana starring police detective Rene Shade have some qualities to recommend them–he’s got a great ear for dialog, for one–but overall, these didn’t totally light my fire. (Review of all three in the series via link.)
  38. Muscle for the Wing (The Bayou Trilogy #2): Daniel Woodrell
  39. The Ones You Do (The Bayou Trilogy #3): Daniel Woodrell
  40. Bury Your Dead: Louise Penny
  41. One Man, One Murder: Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo
  42. Uglies: Scott Westerfeld

    • I had had this YA title on my shelf for some time and, loving Westerfeld’s “Midnighters” series and his one-off novel Peeps, was expecting to love the post-apocalyptic world of Uglies. It really didn’t work for me, but I’m certainly not giving up on Westerfeld for future reads.
  43. The Unfinished Clue: Georgette Heyer

    • Thus began my foray into the plentiful oeuvre of Georgette Heyer. I went to a talk hosted by the Jane Austen society of New York at which an academic discussed the parallels between Austen’s work and many of Heyer’s regency romances. Heyer was a dedicated Austenite, a prolific researcher who stressed incredible historical accuracy in her work, and the author of 50+ novels (both romance and crime novels) which were incredibly successful in their time. (She wrote from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s.) I was going to write a piece on Heyer that didn’t end up coming to fruition, but I did have a very fruitful run reading four of her novels last year.
  44. Tender at the Bone: Ruth Reichel

    • A very spontaneous read that definitely changed my previously disparaging opinion of food-themed memoirs. Reichel is a wonderful prose writer and her reflections on food are just as interesting as the life she’s led.
  45. The Year of Secret Assignments: Jaclyn Moriarty

    • A spontaneous YA read (I found it on a book list somewhere). I think it will suffice to quote the Goodreads blurb I wrote at the time, which read: “A million times fun. With the pranks, and the cleverness, and the epistolary format, and the wonderful friendship shared by the three female protagonists, I am sold, sold, sold.”
  46. More Beer: Jakob Arjouni, Trans. Anselm Hollo
  47. Borkmann’s Point: Håkan Nesser, Trans. Laurie Thompson

    • Inspired by a summer screening series at the Scandinavia House of the Swedish TV show based on Nesser’s Van Veeteren series. Neither version–the book or the TV adaptation–worked for me, and I wrote about both here (link above).
  48. The Best of Everything: Rona Jaffe

    • A working-girls-in-the-late-50s novel cited by Mad Men and apparently quite scandalous at the time for its portrayal of women’s sex lives, abortions, etc. Jaffe takes a sympathetic insider’s view of the typing pool and the romantic misadventures of her young female protagonists, but I couldn’t help feeling that not only did it go on too long, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that the dream closest to each young woman’s heart (even those who become successful in the publishing world) seems to be to find a man and settle down. Still, many of the characters really have stuck with me, and it’s a great ensemble portrait of an era that seems entirely of the past, and yet really wasn’t that long ago.
  49. Ruined: Paula Morris

    • A post-Katrina gothic YA most memorable to me for the fact that the ghostly character on the front cover (white, blondish) is, quite pointedly, a black girl in the novel. Arg. You’d think we were past such whitewashing (see here for an incident in 2009 which got a lot of coverage), but we’re not.
  50. Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?: Johan Harstad, Trans. Deborah Dawkin

    • I wish I had written about this when I read it, because I loved it. It’s a great book–quirky, meandering, emotional (but not in a gimmicky way) and makes brilliant use of its Faroe Island setting and, more importantly, many, many Cardigans songs. About a young, aimless Norwegian man who allows himself to be carried along by a series of unusual events (many of which he can’t remember at the outset) until he’s making tourist-baiting souvenirs at a sort of permanent half-way house for people with mental and emotional issues on the Faroe Islands. There is an emotionally redemptive Thor Heyerdahl-esque boat journey to the Caribbean, too. It’s really great.
  51. Aiding and Abetting: Muriel Spark

    • I was considering a trip to Scotland and so decided that I should give Dame Spark a try. This book (and Spark’s prose style/narrative approach/and perhaps her social positions as well) is not without its issues, but overall, I loved it. The momentum reading this one took me to one of her others: Loitering with Intent. This book also features one of my new favorite quotes: “She wasn’t a person to whom things happen. She did all the happenings.” (Informal review of book linked above.)
  52. The Little Book of Icelanders: Alda Sigmundsdóttir
    • Could also be called “fun facts about Icelanders!” And it is. By one of my favorite Icelandic bloggers. (Linked review above.)
  53. Egil’s Saga: Trans. Bernard Scudder

    • I have a deluxe Penguin edition of The Sagas of Icelanders that I’ve been trying to make myself read for probably two or three years. It’s not that I’m not interested–it’s honestly that the book is really rather huge and difficult to take on the subway (no e-version as of yet, I don’t think). Nevertheless, I took my first real trip to Iceland this year and couldn’t go without reading at least one saga.
  54. Snobs: Julian Fellowes

    • What can I say? Fellowes hooked me with Gosford Park and Downton Abbey and so I went in search of his first novel. It’s much harder to care about the marital troubles of a young woman who marries for money and is stifled by life in the country when the book is set in the 1990s and said female character refused to go to college. However, I liked the POV–the narrator is a friend of the main characters and observes on all from the sidelines.
  55. The Headhunters: Jo Nesbø, Trans. Don Bartlett

    • I was really sold on the back story of this novel–that Nesbø was donating all proceeds (from the book, all its translations, and also its movie adaptation) to a charity he set up to fund world literacy projects–but the book is simply not for me. Nesbø is hit and miss for me, but this book made me really miss Harry Hole.
  56. Wonderstruck: Brian Selznick

    • A simultaneous feat of illustration and narrative. Recommended by my mother and little sister. (Informal review linked above.)
  57. Season to Taste: How I Lost My Sense of Smell and Found My Way: Molly Birnbaum

    • Since I had done well with one food memoir last year, I thought I’d try Birnbaum’s–not the least because I too love to cook and have a very limited sense of smell. But this was way too self-pitying for me, particularly because Birnbaum had access to amazing people (which she seemed pretty ungrateful for) and after all her whining, got almost all of her sense of smell back. Didn’t finish this whole book, but rather, aggressively skimmed for quotes that would frustrate me.
  58. The Masqueraders: Georgette Heyer

    • One day, I’ll write a long piece about this book and its amazing gender subversion, ironical inner logic regarding manners and propriety, and the myriad delights of a swashbuckling masquerade. This book is (if you go for such things) pure enjoyment, well wrought.
  59. Karaoke Culture: Dubravka Ugrešić

    • Reading this book is, I’ll quote myself–forgive me, “like sitting with a highly caffeinated intellectual over tea.” My first exposure to Ugrešić, but not my last.
  60. Night Watch: Sergei Lukyanenko, Trans. Andrew Bromfield

    • Some thematic reading around Halloween.
  61. Mr. Fox: Helen Oyeyemi
    • Another rewarding challenge to my usual literary sensibilities.
  62. The Greenhouse: Auður A. Ólafsdóttir, Trans. Brian FitzGibbon

    • Another one of the best books I read all year. Also the first of ten Icelandic translations into English being published by Amazon’s new imprint, AmazonCrossing, in the coming year.
  63. The Vegan Slow Cooker: 150 Recipes for Intensely Flavorful, Fuss-Free Fare Everyone (Vegan or Not!) Will Devour: Kathy Hester

    • One of my best cookbook purchases of all time, and (although I’m not a vegan) it’s become a really integral reference for me. Hester actually makes use of fake meat in her recipes, which adds some nice variety; the collection has a broad range of unique recipes (not just the regular stews and soups, but baked goods in a crock pot?! + lots of Indian-inspired dishes); all the recipes are broken down into what needs to be done the night before and what’s done day of; and lastly, there is just an abundance of practical tips. I haven’t tried a recipe yet that I didn’t like.
  64. Cotillion: Georgette Heyer

    • Another Heyer. For fun, I started inter-library loaning these (rather difficult to track down in local branches) through the NYU library. Never failed to give me a kick to pick up a pink, Harlequin paperback with a very official inter-library loan sticker from an academic library.
  65. Loitering with Intent: Muriel Spark
  66. These Old Shades: Georgette Heyer

    • I convinced a friend of mine who is a real devotee of romance novels to read this one with me. My least favorite of the Heyer books I’ve read thus far. Very little romance, and way too much inter-generational paternalizing for my taste.
  67. The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Brian Selznick

    • Not as good as Wonderstruck, but worth it for the automaton and the film lesson.
  68. Call Me Princess: Sara Blaedel, Trans. Erick J. Macki and Tara F. Chance (no cover credit)

    • Blaedel is supposed to be “Danish Queen of Crime,” but this was just awful. Took me three starts and I only finished because I was months late on a review I’d promised.
  69. Tales of the City: Armistad Maupin

    • Serialized in a San Francisco paper originally, reading these stories is much like watching a TV show (it was adapted later). Bubbly and just salacious enough with a fun ensemble cast.
  70. Mister Blue: Jacques Poulin, Trans. Sheila Fischman

    • Not as good as Translation is a Love Affair, but in keeping with the same tones and themes.
  71. A Study in Scarlet: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    • A return to an unread classic, which I dipped into while sitting on an afghan on the couch over Christmas. Kind of a strange little tale, but very funny in places, and ideal for the moment in which I read it.
  72. Innocent Blood: P.D. James

    • I stalled out on James’ A Taste for Death while visiting my family in Arizona over the winter holidays and so picked up this title from a local used bookstore chain instead. It has much of what makes James’ work so enjoyable: complex plotting and deeply realized characters. Also, a lot of the sort of twisted relational scenarios that pepper her stories. But it wasn’t really a mystery–at least in the way the cover sold it–and it didn’t really work for me. So I turned my attention to a mixed bag of short stories (Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” most notably) to close my year.

And that’s it! 2011, chronologically, in books.

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