Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

This year began with a mystery, The Last Lie by Stephen White, and included several somewhat unsatisfying mystery-reading binges. Although the year isn't yet over, I'm willing to say it has ended with The Astral, a look at marriage too negative even for me--and I thought I had a jaded view of the institution. Here are the best books I read between the two:

Best Novel: The Submission, by Amy Waldman

The Submission is a complex look at the tragic effects of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001--both impacts on individuals, on the Muslim and non-Muslim communities of New York City, and even on the national psyche. Two characters are central to the book-- Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who is representing families on the jury choosing a design for the memorial to built at Ground Zero, and Mohammad ("Mo") Khan, the Muslim-American architect who submitted the winning plan. This choice is, not surprisingly, controversial, and that controversy gives first-time novelist Amy Waldman an opportunity to explore ideas about right and wrong, ambiguity, and the ways in which people deal with powerful emotions--and she takes up the challenge with grace and insight. The Submission is not a perfect novel, but it's a very good one that raises issues all of us should spend time thinking about.

Honorable Mention: Private Life, by Jane Smiley

Best Mystery: The Girl in the Green Raincoat, by Laura Lippman

For the second year in a row, a mystery by Laura Lippman tops this category. The fact that this was a very slim book, originally written to be published as a serial in The New York Times Magazine, indicates something about the Italicquality of many of the mysteries being published (and read by me). Its origin as a serial story is one of its interesting features, as Lippman has structured it so that each chapter contributes to the overall story (which pays homage to Rear Window and The Daughter of Time) while presenting a mini-mystery of its own. The story also marks a major turning point in the life of Lippman's character, Tess Monaghan. While Tess made a brief appearance in Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing (which I did not like), we are still waiting to see how Tess will cope with parenthood. Hopefully, we will not have to wait too long--it's one of the few things in series mystery that I am still interested in!

Best Short Stories: Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer

I often find short stories a bit too opaque for my rather literal and logical-sequential mind. In reviewing this year's reading, however, I notice that I read a lot of short story collections and enjoyed quite a few of them. Swim Back to Me, by Ann Packer, includes six stories. The first and last are linked by characters who appear in both; the four in the middle are stand-alone stories. I found all but one moving examinations of how people deal with pain and loss. In a relatively small number of pages, Packer creates multidimensional characters and places them in authentic relationships and places.

Honorable Mention: You Are Free, by Denzy Senna, and You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon

Best Nonfiction: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In 1951, Henrietta Lacks was a young African-American mother with cancer. The cells taken from the tumor on her cervix lived much longer than she did--becoming the first ever to live and reproduce in lab cultures. Rebecca Skloot weaves together the stories of Henrietta and her children with an examination of how the HeLa cells, as they became known, were used and the controversies that arose around them. Through these narratives, she explores issues of poverty, race and medicine, and the ethics of research that uses tissue taken from human beings. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a good story that also raises important sociocultural and ethical issues.

Honorable Mention: The Long Good-Bye, by Meghan O'Rourke

Best Poetry

Once again, I have read precious little poetry this year. I do read the poem that comes out every day in Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac ( and enjoy the poetry posted on FB by Wisconsin poet (and old friend) Norma Gay Prewett. Gay is an early riser, and her FB friends are happy on those mornings when she crafts an early morning poem and drops it on FB for us to savor.

Resolution for 2012: Make more of an effort to read poetry (perhaps making time for poetry by reading fewer mysteries)!

Odd Stylistic "Trend" of the Year: First-Person Plural Narration

I read three books that were written in the first-person plural this year. Each author used this rather odd device for a different purpose. In The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown used first-person plural to show how closely bound the three sisters were, even though they appeared to have taken very different paths in life. In The Fates Will Find Their Way, Hannah Pittard used first- person plural to heighten the mystery around the disappearance at the heart of the novel. The only use of this technique that I found to be effective was in The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka. Because she does not create individual characters, Otsuka's book is truly the story of a group--Japanese picture brides who came to the United States in the early 20th century. By not individuating, the author gives the story of the struggles of these women a power that the stories of a few individuals would not have had.

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