Friday, November 25, 2011

Books of 2011

It’s that time again! The annual “best” lists have begun. They seem to be happening earlier and earlier each year, including The New York Times’s 100 Notable Books of 2011, which was published today on their website. As I’ve noted in the past, I rarely read these books as they’re published, but their potential sustainability appeals to me. After all, a good book (song, movie, etc.) needs to transcend its momentary popularity. If you read it years later and you can still feel its impact, then the author has proven him/herself. The NYT list is divided into fiction/short-stories (no poems this year) and non-fiction, although they haven’t yet published their usual explanation for how they came up with their list. Only 5 of the titles on Amazon’s Top 10 Fiction & Literature Books of  2011 made it onto the NYT list, which once again seems strange to me. In any case, based on the NYT recommendations, I’m adding to my wish list the novels The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (sounds like a Japanese twist on The Joy Luck Club) and Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (must catch up on his earlier books too). In biography I’m going for Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. I’m also tempted by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, but another Vincent van Gogh biography? (Try Judy Sund’s Van Gogh [2002], which people I've told about always seem to love.) Of course, you can’t always trust lists like these, as I discovered this past year. In 2010 the NYT had Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (stories about people working at an English-language newspaper in Rome) on their list, but I read it and I wasn’t nearly as thrilled by it as they seemed to be (I’m convinced there’s some journalististic nepotism at work here).

Since last year’s post on this topic, I’ve read 29 books. This is down a bit from the 44 of last year, but 2010 was an exceptionally intense year studying for my PhD Oral Exam. Among my noteworthy art historical reads were Alex Potts’s Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (1994) and Henry Fuseli by Martin Myrone (2001). One of my favorite non-fiction books was The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: Or, The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale (2008), an 1860s true-crime murder mystery which every mystery buff should read. I also couldn’t resist reading Betty White’s memoir If You Ask Me (And of Course You Won’t) (2011). Between her comedic sense of living and her devotion to the proper care of animals, how could you not love Betty White?

Last year at this time I was reading Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster. The Schlegel sisters are divine, but it was even more fascinating how Forster was able to anthropomorphize the homes themselves so that even they became characters in the novel. I was sitting in a coffee shop reading one afternoon and a non-descript gray-haired woman saw me and squealed in delight because it was one of her favorite books and I had now saved her from the despair of thinking no one ever read Forster anymore. Among some of the other novels I read, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (2002) was thought-provoking and worth reading, but The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (English ed. 2008) was an incredibly smart, witty, tour de force of a novel (thank you, PR, for the gift). Shermania has more than one blog post about this book, so that should tell you how good it is. My big fiction discovery this year was British novelist Barbara Pym (thanks to TC giving a paper at the Barbara Pym Society earlier this year). Excellent Women (1952) will have you chuckling aloud as you pour a cup of tea and join the witty, thirtysomething spinster Mildred Lathbury through another seemingly boring day with her fellow church ladies and her high-strung neighbors. Another must-read. Since I’ve been here in New Haven, I’m reading The Night Watch (2006) by Sarah Waters. It’s a World War II-themed story and includes both a lesbian and gay male couple, both living under the radar since it was illegal then. Curiously, the story moves backwards through time, which should prove interesting, although I have to confess right now it’s moving a bit slowly. Waters is great storyteller though, as bklynbiblio readers will recall me saying not too long ago.


Sherman Clarke said...

The first Hollinghurst book I read was The swimming-pool library and nothing has quite come up to it. I don't know if it's because it was the first (my favorite Pamuk is also the first I read) or because it's really more to my taste.

Anonymous said...

Oh, thank you for reminding me of Mr. Whicher, which I meant to read when it was just published and getting plenty of attention, and had of course forgotten all about meanwhile.

bklynbiblio said...

Mr. Wicher is a great read. I hear they are making a movie too, which is inevitable but could be interesting.