2011 in Review: Books Read

Unfortunately, I did not get to read as many books this year as I wanted to. Make no mistake: With the start of graduate school this August, I definitely read more this year than at any other time in my life. But so much of that was reading essays and journal articles for research that the actual number of novels, short story collections, or volumes of poetry was significantly lower than usual. Still, though, I can easily select what the best were. A year ago I read sixty books (the top ten list can be found at the link at the top of the page). This year I read thirty, so I think it makes sense to just cut it down to five (less writing for me and less reading for you).

Like last year, this was a good year for literature. I had a good amount of time to read this summer while recovering from shoulder surgery, and the books I read for school this autumn were equally enjoyable. Of the best, some were more literary, some were more entertaining, and some were both. Of the thirty, though, these were the five best.

5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
This didn’t make the list simply because it’s Gone with the Wind. If anything, I approached this novel with a heavy amount of skepticism. Is it really as good as everybody says it is? Surely it’s garnered a sort of mythical status over the decades, ballooning into something beyond itself to where it’s been augmented to a buxom plateau of “classic” it doesn’t truly deserve. I mention all of this simply to note that, if Mitchell would win me over, the novel would truly have to be remarkable. And it was. I don’t feel like it’s a slight to John Milton or excessively praiseworthy to Mitchell to say that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the most complex characters in literature I’ve ever read only behind Satan in Paradise Lost. Rarely can you simultaneously hate and love a character at the same time, but Mitchell fleshes out her protagonist with such depth to where it’s possible. For those who just love a good story to sink their teeth into, there’s plenty here. For the academic types, there’s plenty of historical crossover. For the literary snobs, feminist themes abound and I would love to hear what a Marxist would think about Scarlett after the war. The breadth and scope of Mitchell’s work is breathtaking. Her talent as a writer, storyteller, and keen observer cannot be emphasized enough (especially in just one paragraph). Is it more than 1,000 pages long? Yes, it is. Is that a problem? Not one bit. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in this one. You may even find yourself wanting to read it again once you’re done.

4. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
I wrote one of my research papers on this collection of a novella and five short stories by Philip Roth. The titular novella is incredible. Hilarious, poignant, a scathing societal critique, and repetitiously irreverent, Roth’s first book still feels fresh and timely even though it was published in 1959. The novella’s critique of the American suburban culture calls into question our fascination with capitalism that occurs across generations. Such a story is timelier than ever as our system of capitalism continues to grow weaker and weaker. The desperation we employ today to make the system survive at all costs is odd to say the least and such fanaticism makes Goodbye, Columbus all the more poignant decades later. The novella, though, is not meant to crowd out the five short stories. Among them, one of the best is the highly anthologized “Eli, the Fanatic.” It showcases the movement away from Jewish Orthodoxy when the affluence of the suburbs takes precedence and shoves out the Jewish culture. Within this story, though, is an honest examination of a paranoia still around in our culture: What will people think if they us associating with the foreign minority whom we vilify?

3. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Mistry’s lengthy novel is set in Mumbai during the tumultuous period of The Emergency from 1975 to 1984. The lives of two tailors, a widow employing them, and a college student all collide and influence one another in a cramped apartment. Cultural divisions of class, caste, and overall comfort lend an electric dynamism to a novel that is historical as much as it is intimate and personal. Though Mistry wants us to see the suffering of his people (and it is a very gritty, unbearable picture for much of the novel), he never quite gives himself over to despair. While some characters may perish senselessly and meaninglessly, there is still a resonance of hope in the midst of this bleak picture at the end of the novel: In the community of relationship, we are sustained against the suffering of life. Mistry’s skill as a storyteller is most apparent in that, in a 600-page novel with over twenty different characters introduced at different times, the novel never becomes confusing. His is a story clear as crystal, and his craft at weaving together a complex plot in an understandable manner contributes to the overall enjoyment of this story. You must read this.

2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
This novel could just as easily occupy the number one slot for 2011. It’s the coming-of-age story of Irish-American Francine Nolan in Brooklyn, and Smith’s novel is one of the most heart-rending books I have ever read. This is not to say it drips of sappy sentimentalism. Though the conclusion of the novel will have your heart aching with that sense of painful joy that only literature can bring, there is plenty of hardship within its pages as well. Smith does a remarkable job of presenting reality through the eyes of a young woman looking back on her childhood. We journey with Francine from age eleven to seventeen by the end of the book, and Smith’s adept writing lends an authenticity to where we forget she is the one holding the pen that writes the words on the paper in our book and not this young girl herself. Often painful, often hilarious, and often pointing to a brighter horizon, Smith’s novel makes you appreciate the American struggle many first- and second-generation immigrants had. While I’m not much of a patriot myself, Smith’s novel is the kind that can make you proud of your country and ancestors. Francine’s family’s struggle is the type of story undergirding our nation’s growth, and it is this family specifically that is Smith’s focus. More than any other novel I’ve read, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn highlights the importance of family and the societal glue that it is. My hope is to reread this book several more times before I die.

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I almost forgot this was a 2011 read since I finished it in the middle of last January. The scope of this novel is phenomenal. Steinbeck wrote this much later in his life and captures the Salinas Valley in which he grew up with incredible grace, precision, and poeticism. Thrown into his old stomping grounds are two families that represent a sort of “beginning of time” quality and echo the story of Cain and Abel, and the delicious conflict Steinbeck provides for us is how this story replays itself throughout the generations of the Trask and Hamilton families. Contained within the pages of East of Eden is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read about in a novel: Cathy Ames. Her conniving, manipulative, and sexually sadistic soul doesn’t grow cold because it’s always been icy, even since childhood. Through her, Steinbeck brings about a reckoning of shame, guilt, and the need to cover up the hurtful skeletons in these families’ histories. The ultimate climax will have to involve forgiveness if resolution is ever to be found, and Steinbeck digs deep into what exactly this forgiveness is in both a biblical and immediate sense. I could not put East of Eden down. I was surprised 600 pages went by so quickly.

When looking back over this, I realize now that maybe it makes sense only thirty books were read this year. Four of the five on this list are anywhere from 500 to 1,000 pages. While there could be room to expand this list, these are the ones that stood out the most. There are some books worth referencing, though.

Honorable mentions: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison; Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck; The History of Love by Nicole Krauss; A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor; and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.

If you haven’t read any of these, they just might be worth your while. Support your local used bookstore or go get a library card, and may your new year be filled with many books.

Much love.

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