Best books of 2011

I can’t say I was looking forward to reading Salvage the Bones, the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction. The subject matter, Hurricane Katrina, was an ugly period in American history. But I was intrigued when Jesmyn Ward won the award over Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a fantastic book that critics felt was a shoe-in. Well.

The Tiger’s Wife was fantastic. Loved it. But it would have been the movie with the big studio behind it winning the Oscar. You can’t help but root for the little independent. I had heard Ward, the underdog, on NPR saying how she was thrilled just to be nominated for Salvage the Bones. She sounded so sincere that I wanted her to win. When she won, I committed to read it.

The writing is harsh in the most beautiful way, punched-up to a poetic level, and tight. You like the protagonist, her brothers, and even a pit bull so much that you’re worried from page one about the storm that’s coming. The tension builds like the winds that sweep across their Mississippi land.

I read 30-odd books this year and found it hard to choose a fop five from among the many contenders. And then I remembered that no one’s making me choose five. I just like to put five in my book widget, but that I can choose 10 if I want. And I want, so here’s a recap:

I finally got around to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a fun flight through the philosophical that everyone read when it came out in 2008. I’m slow to the table, OK? Plus, I put it down twice when I tried reading it back then. This time it stuck and I was duly rewarded. If you’re not feeling pressured to read the most newly minted novels (The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, enough already), read it.

I also brushed up on a classic or two, reading Jane Eyre at last (very slow to the table). Jane and I would have been fast friends had I lived in the English countryside way back when. We could have roamed the meadows bundled in our layers, arms linked, stopping to talk about books and our crush on the quirky Rochester.

Forging on with my resolution last year to read books I might not normally pick up, and failing by page two of The Hunger Games, I gave in to the critical acclaim for last year’s National Book Awards nonfiction winner and devoured Just Kids by Patti Smith a memoir of her years spent with Robert Mapplethorpe. Oh, to have such a supportive artist and quasi-lover who champions your growth and creativity, while coming of age in New York City. What a power duo.

Under the category of titles I’d rattle off while awaiting laughter, I read and loved two books. The first was The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Seriously, if you don’t go out searching for snails to love after reading this, you are not human. The second, while not as lyrical, was Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien. If you don’t go out looking for your own owl to mother after reading this, you are definitely not human.

Dog Years: a Memoir by poet Mark Doty that interweaves the loss of his partner  and dogs, another not-so-new book, was phenomenal and heartbreaking. And I’m not even a dog owner.

And finally, the most entertaining read, judged by how much I have to suppress laughter on the train: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.

Go forth and read, people.

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