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The Year in Reading: Best Literature 2011

76 books, over 20,000 pages read. The year of 2011 has been a rewarding year for reading. Several of the newly discovered authors have become instant favorites. Books that are overdue to be read I have finally conquered. A great year of reading means I have to wreck my brain to choose the best ones. Let’s have a roll of drum as I present to my readers the best literature I read in 2011, in no particular order.

Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner.
I fell in love with Stegner’s lyrically contemplative and quietly majestic prose before I did with the story. It unfolds slowly and graciously, revealing the story in natural arcs. It’s really a love story, not in the sense that it explores romantic dialogues and actions, but in the sense that it explores private lives.

A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway.
My first Hemingway ever and this one really made a huge impression in me. It is evocative of that lost generation of artists living in 1920s. I’m living vicariously through Hemingway’s Paris. The mood that Paris creates affects those who visit today as it did in Hemingway’s time.

In the Lake of the Woods Tim O’Brien.
Very rarely does a novel with ambivalent ending finds favor in me, but it is the ambivalence of this novel about the aftermath of war that makes it shine. It’s almost the only best way to tell the story. O’Brien turns the mystery from inside out, replacing answers with plausible hypotheses as he provides a harrowing glimpse of a marriage that has built upon deception. It’s a love story, a decayed marriage, with deferred dreams and withheld intimacies.

Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel.
I’m glad I have read this one, which was very intimidating in both size and subject matter. At the center of the book, which overflows with private and public incidents, is the emerging doctrine of royal supremacy over the church. Working diligently on Henry’s divorce both in the courts and politically behind the scenes, Cromwell brings before the Parliament a number of acts that recognize the king as the head of the church, thus finalizing the break with Rome.

The Crying Tree Naseem Rakha.
This was my first book in 2011 but its poignancy and impact has sustained throughout the year. It explores the most mysterious sanctuary and evasive impulses of the human heart: forgiveness. You will be stunned that the ending, when the ultimate secret is revealed, is much more profound than you may have first noticed.

Safe from the Sea Peter Geye.
I read this book for Independent Literary Award. Set against the dramatic, sometimes turbulent Northern Minnesota lakeshore, the debut novel examines the effects of a person vanishing from his loved ones’ lives and the ripples it causes in their character. It’s the best father-and-son book I have read.

The Fountainhead Ayn Rand.
Finally I conquered the book I meant to read for extra credit in 11th grade. Rand believes that there is only black and white in moral issues; there is no gray. Therefore, giving in a little is not compromise but rather forfeiting one’s values and surrendering to evil. She argues that society, tainted by collectivism, has a herd mentality that corrupts individual mind. Whether you buy her outlandish ideals, the book itself is gripping and riveting.

The Postmistress Sarah Blake.
What a great surprise. This book, my last for the year 2011, is ingenious in the way she tells the story. I know the book has very mixed reviews. The consensus of negative reviews is that it’s very loosely written as a historical fiction. But this is not historical fiction, even though it draws on historical facts and figures. It’s more about the lives of ordinary people who are caught in history’s tide and how they cope with loss. The Jews’ stories on the edges are what set the book in action

The Hand That First Held Mine Maggie O’Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell’s poetic prose truly brings Lexie Sinclair alive. In her pursuit of a rewarding career and freedom from men and conventions, she is also confronted by change—especially sudden deep, unprepared-for change, and the ways in which an instant can change a life forever.

The Sound and the Fury William Faulkner
I consider a landmark achievement to have fully read this book. Form and style alone are more than suffice to put it on the all-time best novel list, despite its difficulty. The second half of the novel puts Benjy’s tale into a clear and kaleidoscopic perspective, as if the w
hole story suddenly becomes actual to one at a single moment. The effect that the obscurity produces is unparalleled and it mandates readers to re-read in order to appreciate the meaning. This is a winner on the merit that it begs to be re-read and it affords new meaning.

The Glass of Time Michael Cox
A sequel to The Meaning of Night (best of books in 2010), it digs even deeper into the secrets that provoke and justify Edward Glyver’s calculated, punctilious murder in the first novel. On top of revenge, the book is about the struggles to honor one’s personal history, to break free of the weight (mistakes) of the past, and to form lasting ties even while holding on to secrets kept in plain sight.

In Cold Blood Truman Capote
This is a deeply haunting and disturbing book. I don’t know which is more chilling: the atrocious crime itself, or Capote’s chronicle of the crime with surgically precise writing. It’s an exceptional piece of literature that captures America in time for one of its most notorious incident. It stands out among many a crime fiction and true crime documentary with its reality, that which if heard out patiently (Truman Capote committed to his memory the event and its dialogues thoroughly), can orchestrate its own full range.

The honorable mention books include The Translation of the Bones by Francesca Kay (scheduled to release Jan 2012),  The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar.

27 Responses

  1. A Moveable Feast is one of my favorite books, so glad to see it make your list for the year! I also completed Wolf Hall just a few weeks ago and loved it. It will be on my list tomorrow and am so excited for the second in the series to come out in May next year.

    Have a safe and Happy New Year!

    • I read the book before my trip to Paris and saw the movie after I returned. Hemingway is really the master of his thoughts and he captures that momentary romance that Paris has to offer its visitors. Although ephemeral, the literary, artistic and cultural feast that Paris has to offer will always stay in the fringe of mind for those who have visited.

  2. Keep rereading The Sound and the Fury. I’m of the opinion that it gets more beautiful and clearer every time.

    • The first couple times made no sense, just juggling from one incident to another in random order. But the subsequent narratives actually make sense of the very first, slowly revealing the nuances and elucidate the events of the family.

  3. I am absolutely in love with your list this year, Matt!!! I have been busy planning some of my reads for next year and it was a toss up between East of Eden or Moveable Feast to include on my reading challenge. I’m still not sure which way I’m going to go yet. I love your thoughtful writing.

    Happy New Year! 😀

    • I’m so glad, Staci! Moveable Feast is in for re-read, and so is The Sound and the Fury. The Wallace Stegner book is also becoming my all-time favorite. Ayn Rand totally surprises me, instead of intimidating me. I’m so excited I have read quality literature and discovered new authors.

  4. Good choices and not surprising–a few overlap with my own favorites! 🙂 I also read and ‘loved’ In Cold Blood. I read my first Tim O’Brien–The Things They Carried, which I thought was exceptional! And Crossing to Safety was one of my faves last year (he’s wonderful). I really want to read Wolf Hall–next year maybe? And Michael Cox is also on my list. Have a Great New Year, Matt!

    • Tim O’Brien captures humanity through a blurring of reality and mixing the unrealistic elements. I need to dig more of his works. If you like The Things They Carried, make sure you read In the Lake of the Woods, filled with quiet tension and unsaid emotions. It’s almost like you have to read between the lines. Crossing to Safety is just a beautifully rendered story. I grapple the power of literature and the quiet prose. I now have Angle of Repose waiting.

  5. All of these books sound SO GOOD. I just ordered Wolf Hall for my reading list next year (because the sequel is coming out in 2012) and you’re right – it’s massive. To be honest, it really scares me. But, cheers to reading – I’ll just keep on, keepin’ on.

    • My advice is to keep the glossary of characters handy while you read because I got confused over who is who, especially when you have three characters with the name Thomas. Mantel tends to refers Thomas Cromwell in his first name. The book is massive but it’s filled with very compelling historical facts.

  6. I love The Fountainhead, and seeing that on your list makes me want to read it again, along with Atlas, Shrugged.

    I have Wolf Hall, but have yet to read it again.

    Safe From The Sea is another one I want to read someday.

    Great list.

    • The Fountainhead is begging a re-read, and now I have acquired Atlas Shrugged. I’ll have no shortage of Ayn Rand. Wolf Hall is a heft of a book in both size and content. It’s however very straight-forward if you keep track of the characters.

  7. Matt, have a prosperous and healthy New Year!

  8. […] The Year in Reading: Best Literature 2011 […]

  9. Matt, everything sounds amazing! I’m hoping to get to The Hand that First Held Mine sometime soon. Happy New Year!

    • My first Maggie O’Farrell is more than satisfying. She’s very lyrical and observant of human foibles. I’m looking forward to her other works.

  10. I almost chose Wolf Hall as a best, but another historical novel won for me. seer my whole recap: http://wordsandpeace.com/2011/12/30/year-of-reading-2011/

  11. The Sound and the Fury drove me crazy when I read it in college. I actually hated the book but mostly myself for not being able to grasp it and take it in the way I wanted to. This one sits on my list to be read again. I have a feeling I will feel differently about it the second time around!

    • I almost aborted the book when I had to read it for a class. I barely finished it and had no time to reflect upon it before the term paper was due. I’m glad I have re-visited it and read it at my own pace. The many re-readings and backtracking certainly help understand the book better, especially the first part.

  12. That’s great! I managed to complete 28 out of 59 books which I picked up and started on throughout the year. Not as impressive a figure but a personal achievement, no doubt.

    Happy new year.

    • What matters is you’ve read some books that make you reflect on yourself as a person. Quality is always preferred over quantity. 🙂 Wish you an awesome reading new year.

  13. Nicely laid-out post!

    Happy Reading in 2012!


  14. A MOVABLE FEAST is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it too. I’ve had mixed results when I’ve recommended it to others.

    • I think it’s a book whose rhythm you have to synchronize with when you read. It’s after all a non-fiction so readers would not be prepared for the incoherence. It’s a great read and truly brings Paris alive in his words.

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