Best books I read in 2011

This has been an odd year for me. I read fewer books than usual, but among them are some that will go on the best-of-a-lifetime list.

1. To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is one of the most deeply moving books I’ve ever read and it has stayed with me long after I closed the cover. No other fiction I’ve read comes close to capturing as this book does what it means to be a parent or what it means to belong to a land.

2. Precious Bane, by Mary Webb

First published in 1926, Precious Bane is a novel about life in a village in the Ellesmere district of Shropshire. It captures the sumptuous beauty of rural life in the pre-industrial past but also the superstition, brutality and terror, thus providing a realistic picture of what is often sentimentalised as Merrie England.

3. In the Temple of a Patient God, by Bejan Matur

Matur’s poems ache with power. Her words and images barely control the deep, rumbling force that threatens to explode in blinding light. A Kurdish Alevi from Southeastern Turkey, she draws on that dark heritage of war and defeat and loss and exile to create the poems in this collection.

4. Winter's Bone, by Daniel Woodrell

Everyone talked about the film, but the book is better. Woodrell’s economical prose captures life in this remote valley in the Ozarks without sentimental hand-wringing, with just the calm clarity of purpose that moves sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly through her day.

5. The Forest of Sure Things, Poems by Megan Snyder-Camp

I ended up reading this collection four times. The first time I just enjoyed the words, the sound of them, the flow. The second time I read for images, lingering over each poem and letting resonances collect in the space between them. The third time I read for meaning. I let everything go for my fourth reading, allowing words, images, and meaning to merge into an extraordinary experience.

6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In compelling prose, Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor black woman from rural Virginia, who died of cancer in 1951 in Johns Hopkins Hospital. Cells harvested from her tumor, in accordance with the standard practice of the time, became the first cells that could be grown in a laboratory, a huge advance for medicine because they enabled researchers to run tests in laboratories instead of on live people. Yet Henrietta’s family knew nothing of the continued existence of her cells nor of the contributions to society they enabled.

7. Journey from the North: Autobiography of Storm Jameson

In her long life (1891-1986), Jameson wrote over 45 novels and served as President of the London center of the P.E.N., the first woman to do so. This narrative captures the vitality of life as we live it: a jumble from beginning to end, sprinkled with mistakes, false starts, and moments of unreasoning joy.

8. The Solace of Leaving Early, by Haven Kimmel

Langston Braverman has come home to her small town of Haddington, Indiana, simply walking out of her PhD orals and abandoning that life and all its dreams. She takes refuge in the hot attic of her parents’ home where she imagines that she is writing a novel. Or maybe an epic sonnet sequence. In reality she is mostly sleeping and contemplating the wreck of her life. I found the book smart and funny and unexpected.

9. Breaker, by Sue Sinclair

This is the third book of poetry from the Toronto-based Sinclair, though the first one I’ve read. Or rather, immersed myself in, since I’ve read and reread it, set the book aside for a few months, and read it again. Poets are often advised to go deeper, to make space for more profound meaning to emerge. Sinclair’s poems make me look at the things of this world in a new way.

10. Searching for Caleb, by Anne Tyler

In discussing The Help, I said that the relationship between domestic help and their employers was more complicated than Stockton’s book indicated. For a more nuanced view, I went back to this Anne Tyler novel from 1975. While the relationship between the Pecks and their long-time maid Sulie is a very small part of the story, it is a crucial one and Tyler nails it. In just a couple of scenes she captures the conflicting emotions that drive their behavior towards each other. It is a privilege to read this woman’s writing.

11. Sketches from a Hunter's Album, by Ivan Turgenev

Beautiful descriptions, fascinating characters, and a realistic picture of the plight of the Russian peasants just prior to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.

12. The Most Dangerous Thing, by Laura Lippman

The death of Gordon “Go-Go” Halloran brings together four people who had been inseparable for a few years in the late 1970s but have since lost touch. Dickeyville, where the story is set, is a most peculiar neighborhood even in a city known for its colorful neighborhoods. The quality of memories, individual and shared, and the use to which we put them are always concerns of Lippman’s, but here there is also the idea of venturing out of the everyday world into woods where, as in a fairy tale, anything can happen.

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