My Favorite Books From 2011

According to my Kindle, I bought 17 new books this year, twelve of which were published in 2011. Here are my favorites that were published over the past year.

Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan is a Southern Chuck Klosterman. He writes about music, culture and American life from the perspective of someone who grew up going to church every Sunday and quoting the Bible. Mr. Sullivan writes about oddballs and eccentrics, the staples of every good Southern story. Mr. Klosterman writes about ordinary people who find themselves in odd and weird situations.

A Killing in Iowa: A Daughter’s Story of Love and Murder by Rachel Corbett. Ms. Corbett takes artistic license with the title of this Kindle single. She was not related to the murderer in the story. He was her mother’s boyfriend for a short period of time. I believe her though when she says his death had an impact on her. Particularly when she found out he killed another woman before he took his own life within 12 hours of sleeping on her mother’s couch. She also does a good job of putting his life and death in context. What is it about Southeastern Iowa that gets to people?

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. This is a woman’s story. Both the protagonist and antagonist are women. It is also a Midwesterner’s story. The protagonist grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of an East Indian father and Minnesotan mother. She had one foot in both cultures, but felt most at home in the place where she did not look like she belonged. “Being the child of a white mother and foreign graduate-student father who took his doctoral degree back to his country of origin after he was finished had become the stuff of presidential history, but when Marina was growing up there was no example that could easily explain her situation.”

Before I Go To Sleep: A Novel by S. J. Watson. What would your life be like if you woke up each day with no memory of what happened the day before? This is an engrossing detective story. You may figure out whodunit long before the book ends but you will want to read on to find out whether our heroine safely navigates her way to freedom.

Bossypants by Tina Fey. Tina (I don’t think of her as Ms. Fey) is writing from the perspective of every woman who has been in a position of authority and been less than comfortable wielding her power. I hear you girl! She is witty, self-effacing, and endearing. She tells a good story and makes us like her even more.

The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula McLain. This is the story of how Ernest Hemmingway met and married his first wife, Hadley Richardson. She is eight years older than he when they meet and then marry. He is ambitious and devoted to his craft. She is his best reader and critic. They did not live well but did live fully. If you touch brilliance once, are you tainted forever or can you move on and accept an ordinary but constant life? This book was not published in 2011 but I got so much out of it I have to share it.

Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do by Michael J. Sandel. I bought this book because Tom Friedman recommended it. I was intrigued by his description of the political philosopher who speaks to standing-room-only crowds in China. Mr. Sandel is a professor at Harvard Law School. His goal is to give students a framework for answering some of the tough questions confronting every citizen. He doesn’t provide answers, just questions and a roadmap for developing your own answers. Is the role of government to produce the greatest happiness for its citizens, ensure free markets, or promote virtue? Professor Sandel explains the political philosophy and historical context for each answer. His own view — promote virtue — may be surprising, but perhaps is one that we should (re)consider.

Note: This post also appears on Indie Moines’ New York-based sister site, Indie Albany.

Top 10 Books of 2010

Happy New Year, Indie Albany!

A new year is the time for reflection, so I begin 2011 by looking back at the books that I read and enjoyed during 2010. One of the benefits of having a Kindle is that you can easily assemble such a list.  Here are my top ten books in reverse order that I read them (some of the books were published earlier but I did not read them until 2010):

1. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  This is a multi-character study that shows how the choices that people make when they are young reverberate throughout their lives.  Good reading for college-aged children.

2. Freedom – A Novel, by Jonathan Franzen.  This is an obvious choice for me. The main characters are about my age and lived in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 1980’s. I enjoy reading about things I know (and did) from another perspective. In my neighborhood, the University of Minnesota was where the smart kids went, and not a “mediocre state school” that you chose to get away from your parents.

3. Room, by Emma Donoghue.  I did a prior post on this book. I still find myself thinking about the characters and how she captured the child’s voice so well.

4.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. If you worked with  HeLa cells, you should read this book to learn about the woman who generated them. If you have never heard of HeLa cells, then you should read this book to find out what a huge impact these cells had on health care and science.

5. The Philosopher’s Apprentice, by James Morrow.  This novel presents an interesting and disturbing ethical conundrum, whether you are pro-choice or pro-life. Reading Morrow’s books is like taking a college-level course in philosophy, only you don’t have to slog through the original texts and can understand what the professor is saying.

6.  The Girl Who . . ., by Stieg Larsson.  I read all three of these books this year. I devoured them like popcorn. They are an entertaining read.

7. Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin. This is an insider’s view of the financial meltdown that occurred in September 2008. It’s scary to learn how close we were to a complete collapse. Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner are my heroes.  If you don’t understand the need for government regulation of the financial markets after reading this book, you are not paying attention.

8.  That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo.  A study of two marriages and how easily they can get off-track.  He writes interesting characters and has a keen sense of place.

9.  Financial Lives of Poets, by Jess Walter.  Another view of the financial crisis, but from the perspective of someone who was impacted by it and is trying to put his life back in order without losing his wife and his house.  Funny, witty and heartbreaking.

10.  A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore.  I loved her descriptions of how Midwesterners think and interact with others.  Did you know “sounds good” is the Midwestern girl’s reply to everything?  Sounds good.  Another good book for college-aged children.