Thursday, December 15, 2011

My 2011 Reading List (and the year's not over yet)

  • I have not included cover art for all books because I don't have time. I may finish this task or I may not. No personal slights intended!
  • Included are lists of books I reviewed, books I read for pleasure, and books I read in order to grow as a person. There's something for everyone.
  • Happy reading!

Books I reviewed or wrote about:

Books I read for entertainment:

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (Highly recommended! This is a brilliant suspense novel, and precisely the sort of masterwork that would never get published now because it takes 50 or so pages to get going, but when it does, watch out! Thank you to my favorite book catalog, Bas Bleu, for the spot-on recommendation.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society  (I adored this book, although I resisted reading it for a long time because it was such a commercial hit. Now I understand why everyone loved it. This novel--about WWII-era Guernsey and London and the Nazi occupation of the Channel islands--should be a film) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Linger by Maggie Stiefvater  (I read YA because I write YA. This particular novel is very good, even better than its predecessor, Shiver. I really enjoyed the werewolf novel, Shiver, and found it intelligent and well crafted, except for the very, very end...but that's what happens when a sequel is planned, I suppose.)

Forever by Maggie Stiefvater  (Final book in the changing-into-wolves trilogy; I think the series should have ended with Linger. My verdict is, unfortunately, negative. I really hate the multiple narrators thing, and in this case, I didn't like the characters who got the focus; they were the unlikeable characters. When different narrative voices are used in a novel--by any author--they always end up sounding alike to me. That trick is getting tiresome, and I wish the trend would die.)

Mockingjay (last Hunger Games book) by Suzanne Collins (Why does the final book in a series that started out so strong always feel like a waste of time and money? I loved The Hunger Games. I seriously loved it. The second novel, Catching Fire, felt much weaker. Mockingjay was weaker still. From now on, I will not read the third book in a trilogy…no more three part series, please, commercial publishers! The Hunger Games was awesome, but I think the story was simply pushed too far, and it read as though the author was rushed to pump out the next two books, or maybe her heart wasn't in it anymore.)

My mother lent me Tina Fey’s Bossypants (read it on the Kindle). I live next to Fey’s parents and see her several times a year. She seems nice, but I always feel like a loser when the driver in the Escalade pulls up. Fey wrote a book that will give readers some laughs (and provides great behind-the-scenes gossip about the Palin thing), but I am glad I didn't pay for this considering the gaping wage discrepancy between Fey and myself. That's just my way of evening the playing field...I am kidding. I still hold out hope that she will play me someday in the movie version (if one is ever made) of my memoir...I get, "You are just like Tina Fey as the teacher in Mean Girls!" all the time when I am teaching. 

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard (Jaycee was the girl who was kidnapped and lived with her captor for decades, bearing two children by him...the story is so creepy. Dugard is largely self-taught, and I think she had ghostwriting help, but she's still an inspiration. This book is not literature per se, but it's an interesting story and sheds much light on Stockholm Syndrome and brainwashing.)

The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert   (Utterly lovely novel from a great small press. I was enchanted by this book about an eccentric family. I don't recall specifics because I read it months ago, but I really enjoyed the novel. The title is from left field; it's a sweet, quiet, literary story--just what I like.)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery; Translated by Alison Anderson (Intelligent, impressive, thought-provoking and truly amazing for a translation. I see that its Amazon reviews are not fabulous, but maybe you have to be a Philosophy major, like me, to get it...)

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell.  (A fine novel that is engaging, haunting, and leaves you thinking. There is a strong, young female protagonist, and interesting details about American poor in the Ozarks. I have been recommending this book as supplemental reading for all the AP English students I tutor because it has many relevant themes and something interesting to say about human nature and resilience.)

The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. It took me a while to get to this novel by Patchett (I greatly admire her memoir, Truth & Beauty), possibly because it's about unwed mothers, strict Catholicism, giving babies away, etc. (Disclosure: I am an adoptee and found many parallels between my own birth and this novel.) I found the main character unsympathetic and inscrutable, but nevertheless, I loved the story. It disturbed me in some ways, but I am impressed by Patchett's ability to imagine a world she probably doesn't know at all.

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler. I found this book in our beach house. Anne Tyler is always good. Always. What a prolific and talented writer! This novel is about a catering hall of sorts, and it's about the strange, sudden choices we make that alter our lives forever; it's also about accepting ourselves for what we've become and not trying to rewrite the past.

Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. I was so looking forward to this book (all the dirt about the Clintons, Obama, McCain and Palin), but I found it a bit of a let-down. It's impressive from a reportage standpoint, but all I really learned is that the presidential candidates apparently cuss like sailors...and that Palin is as doltish as I already thought she was.

Books I read for my own personal edification:

The China Study by T. Colin Campbell (Very interesting; about the health dangers and heart problems caused by our consumption of animal-based foods, written by a scientist who used his own family story as the basis for his research. )

Jesus Land  (a memoir) by Julia Scheeres. (Why I read so many books about hard-core Christianity this past year, I do not know. But this one was great. Scary, disturbing, traumatic, and sad. This is what happens when people focus on religion and their church but don't actually care for other people--what I would term hypocrisy. Scheeres had two adopted brothers--one of whom raped her constantly, but the other  she loved dearly and tried to protect, to no avail.  Her parents were modern-day Puritans and obvious racists. The kids, Scheeres and one brother, got sent to a frightening Christian reform school that they barely the book.)

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.   (Absolutely brilliant graphic novel about a family and young woman enduring the Iranian revolution. You'll learn so much about this horror, and, ironically, you'll laugh and love the cartoons. For all ages.)

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell  (This is a great book about one of my favorite topics--Montaigne's essays--and one I will surely re-read. Includes fascinating biographical information about Montaigne; this book is so well crafted. What I learned most of all is that life for Montaigne hundreds of years ago was not all that different--from a human perspective, from an emotional and intellectual standpoint--as it is now.)

Innovation You: Four Steps to Becoming New and Improved by Jeff DeGraff  (Part business consulting, part life coaching, this is the type of book I would ordinarily never read, but I found much food for thought here and plenty of useful advice. In fact, I racked up a big library fine because I didn't want to bring the book back...I should just buy it. And so should you!)

90 Minutes in Heaven  by Don Piper and Cecil Murphey (I picked this up because one of my daughter’s friends told her to read it. My child didn’t like it because I think it scared her…it wasn't scary, but I thought the description of heaven was vague and unsatisfying—Piper, by his own account, didn't see much of heaven and never even went through the pearly gates before he was sent back—but I liked the parts about recovering from injury. I know what that's like.)

Note: I also read The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin Malarkey and Alex Malarkey (I found it relentlessly evangelical and freaky. It sort of feels like one of those chain letters. Now, as a huge fan of The Tibetan Book of the Dead and other classic works of mysticism, I am always interested in books about the life of the spirit and "proof" of God and angels, but I am definitely not a Bible thumper, as one would probably have to be in order to connect with or love this book).

Then They Came for Me by Maziar Bahari  (A scary and enlightening memoir about a journalist's recent imprisonment in Iran under the Ahmadinejad and Khamenei regime. It may be TMI in some areas--tons of background info on the big Iranian pols and religious figures that starts to blur, in a way. Still, it's an apt warning for all societies about what can happen when intolerant religious fundamentalists feel threatened by open-minded academics, journalists, etc. That happens all the time, and it could even happen here (and has). Fortunately, Bahari escaped execution; he got out of prison, but just barely, and endured countless beatings and savage, absurd interrogations. Of course, Bahari hadn't even done anything wrong. As I told my students, this is the type of cautionary tale that potentially applies to any and everyone--and then I explained the title, based on the Pastor Niemoller quote. I understood much more about Iran after reading Then They Came for Me; my attention to the topic had initially been grabbed by Persepolis. This new memoir was the perfect follow-up.)

Main book I taught this year:

Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder (Needless to say, I recommend this interesting nonfiction biography of the amazing and saint-like Dr. Paul Farmer; it's about poverty and public health in Haiti--and in Russia and Peru. It's also about how much we can accomplish if we actually have purpose in our lives, and it's about the truth of life: work never ends, and there is always more we can do to be of use to humanity.)

Books I read to be on same page as my daughter

Revolution is Not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine (lovely middle grade novel--based on the author's own childhood experiences--about the 1970s Communist revolution in China under Chairman Mao. This one made my pre-teen think...and I found the writing crystal clear and perfect.)

The Code: The 5 Secrets of Teen Success by Mawi Asgedom (This book--half memoir, half self-help guide--is hugely inspiring, a keeper for life. Motivational speaker and Harvard grad Mawi Asgedom is the best role model a kid could probably ever have. Do your own kids a favor: give them this book. It's basically a Mawi lecture in book form, but for those of us who don't have Mawi speaking at our schools, get the book!


  1. Great recommendations! Plenty of books on your list I'm looking forward to reading in 2012.

    The books you're drawing a blank on might be:
    1)"A stolen life" by Jaycee Dugard
    2)either "Innovation You" by Jeff deGraff or "The power to transform: 90 days to a new you" by Chris Maier and John Brant.

  2. Aurelie, you were exactly right on both counts (Jaycee Dugard and Jeff de Graff). Thank you! I hate when things are on the tip of my tongue. I was so busy yesterday that this was extra difficult. Will add more covers today.