After the hustle and bustle of Christmas, it’s time to sit back and reflect; and so, here are the 10 books (plus one) that I found most compelling in 2011.
Eleanor Brown’s debut novel The Weird Sisters takes its title from Shakespeare’s trio of witches in “Macbeth,” yet the main characters are not witches, but sisters who come back home supposedly to care for their ailing mother - but really, they are home to heal themselves. I love that the sisters are voracious readers.
Eleanor Henderson, an associate professor at Ithaca College, wrote her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, set in the late 1980s in Vermont and the Lower East Side of New York City.
A teenage boy loses his best friend, but remains tied to him through the dead boy’s brother and the girl he got pregnant. I did not want this book to end, and the characters worm their way into your heart. It reminded me of the classic teen novel, The Outsiders, right down to the fight scene.
The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, the debut novel from screenwriter Jenny Wingfield, echoes another classic novel, “To KiIl a Mockingbird,” with its depiction of a small town in the 1950s, and the character of Swan Lake, a young girl trying to understand the world around her. I loved the entire Lake family, including the laconic and heroic Uncle Toy, and the relationship between Swan’s parents was tender and real. It also depicts the real evil that is present in the world through the character of Blade Ballenger. It is a powerful, lovely story that made me cry.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett transported me with her tale of terrorists in a South American country holding an embassy of hostages, and her new novel, State of Wonder, does the same for the Amazon jungle. It has been compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but here a female researcher travels to the Amazon to find her missing colleague and confronts her former mentor, a female doctor who has made an amazing medical discovery. You can actually feel the heat and bugs of the jungle as you read. I did not want this novel to end.
Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding, is a dense book with unforgettable characters. Set in a small college, it tells the story of a fantastic shortstop for the baseball team, the catcher and team captain who recruited him, the college dean who has a secret relationship with another player, and the dean’s adult daughter.
Although this book is not for everyone, it speaks to the pressures placed on young adults on their journey to adulthood, what it means to be exceptional at something, and the difficulties of finding love. HBO has optioned it as a miniseries.
Jennifer Haigh wrote one of my favorite novels, Mrs. Kimble, a few years ago, and this year her novel Faithmade my list. Set in Boston, a sister tells the story of her half-brother, a priest accused of a crime by a woman he befriends. It is a story not just of faith in religion, but faith in your family. Beautifully written, it will make you think.
I am not a big mystery reader, but Julia Spencer-Fleming’s One Was A Soldier, the latest in the Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne mysteries set in the Adirondacks, made me a fan again.
Fergusson is a minister and combat helicopter pilot in the reserves, recently returned from Iraq. When a returning soldier ends up dead, Fergusson and Van Alstyne investigate. The novel addresses the problems facing returning veterans in a sympathetic and realistic manner. This is the seventh book in the series, and the characters were so intriguing and the story so well-written, I have vowed to read all of the series.
The spot for male-driven comedic novel, last year taken by Jonathan Topper’s This Is Where I Leave You, goes to Matthew Norman’s debut Domestic Violets. Tom Violet hates his job writing ad copy for corporate clients, fears his wife is having an affair and has to deal with his famous writer father, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I laughed out loud several times at this sparkling story, more often than not at the interaction between Tom and Gregory, the Dwight Schrute-like obnoxious co-worker whom Tom loves to drive crazy. If you like TV’s “The Office” - give this novel a try.
On the nonfiction side, Tina Fey’s Bossypants has spent the better part of the year at the top of the best-seller list for good reason. It is hilarious, honest and brilliant (like Fey).
She tells some of her story, from good girl growing up near Chicago to working for little pay at Second City to head writer at “Saturday Night Live” to creator/writer/star of “30 Rock.” She talks about what’s like to be married, a new mom and boss to Tracy Morgan and Alec Baldwin at work. Props to her for the section on the writers at “30 Rock,” including their best lines from the show. Fey is an inspiration to women and a class act all the way.
Ben Ryder Howe recounts how he and wife bought My Korean Deli and ran it with his mother-in-law in Brooklyn.
It is an interesting look at their journey, from finding the right store to getting to know everyone in the neighborhood to working with your in-laws, who are of a different culture. This book will give you a newfound respect for people who work to make the American dream come true. (Bonus points for the George Plimpton section.)
I am a huge baseball fan, and Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game fascinated me. Barry, a New York Times columnist, tells the story of the rebuilding of the Pawtucket Red Sox and the longest game ever played in baseball between them and the Rochester Red Wings. Another great book of Americana told through the eyes of baseball.