My favorite reads of 2011? Ask me this question in a week and the composition of my list might change just slightly because I can never choose just a few. There is a handful of books that I loved unequivocally. And then another handful that at the time of reading were really exceptional (and I would happily reread). And since I decided to keep the list to a mere ten, I thought it would be fun to tack on a few other 'awards' inspired by other readers' creative lists--see here and here.
My top three reads:
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham -- I was captivated by this story when I read it. It's about one woman's spiritual and moral awakening set against the backdrop of 1920s Hong Kong. Maugham's prose is absolutely exquisite.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell -- I loved the book, loved the film adaptation, and now am enjoying it once again on audio. I suppose really this is a love story, but of course it is so much more than that--there's a bit of politics, economics, religion, class strife and questions on women's roles in Victorian society. Margaret Hale and John Thornton representing England's north and south clash on nearly every regard. Of course their tempestuous relationship only masks a deeper attraction.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien -- This is a set of interlinked short stories about O'Brien's experiences in Vietnam. He plays on perception and reality, as you never know what actually happened and what is fictional, but it's all very moving. I was surprised how much I loved this book as he wasn't someone I had even planned on reading.
My other favorites:
What Was She Thinking: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller -- This book totally blew me away and I think I must have consumed it in only one or two sittings. It's a disconcerting character study of two women--both obsessed--one for the other and one for her student.
Strange Meeting by Susan Hill -- This is a World War I story about the friendship between two very different young men. Predictably tragic, but beautifully told.
Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor -- Yet more gorgeous prose. A fictional account of the love affair between playwright J.M. Synge and actress Molly Allgood, this was another book where I had no expectations and no experience with the author's work and walked away totally impressed.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote -- Considering how much crime fiction I seem to be reading these days this was surprisingly shocking to me, probably because it was a true crime and Capote made it all too easy to imagine. It's a classic and deservedly so.
This is How by M.J. Hyland -- This was both painful to read yet oddly compelling. It's a disturbing story about a man who commits a senseless act of violence, but Hyland somehow makes you feel compassion towards him nonetheless.
Across the Common by Elizabeth Berridge -- After I read this I told myself I was going to read my way through her work and next year I will start to make good on my promise. This is a novel of middle class domesticity with a fine veneer of suspense laid on top. And she creates some marvelous characters, too.
The War in Val D'Orcia by Iris Origo -- Born in America to an American father and English mother, Origo was raised in Europe and married an Italian. She was living in Tuscany when the Second World War broke out and her diary is a riveting account of what the Italians endured living first under Mussolini and then under German Occupation and their many acts of courage and generosity towards the Allied POWs. This is an excellent introduction to learning more about the Italian Front during the war.
Best comfort read:
Most disappointing read:
Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer -- A rare misfire (for me anyway) when it comes to Heyer's usually enjoyable Regencies.
Book I can't believe I waited until 2011 to finally read:
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway -- I expected to like it and I did, but I also found it surprisingly hard considering his 'simple' prose style. Why did I wait so long to read him and how long will I wait to pick up another?
Book that sat on my night table (and on my sidebar to right) longest unread:
Mad Puppetstown by Molly Keane. I swear I'm going to read it next year. Really.
Book I had no clue what was going on:
The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard -- Glad I read it, but I totally missed some 'oh, I see' moments. I never really understood what an elliptical prose style was until I read this one. Elliptical prose incarnate. Good thing I read it in a group.
Most interesting character:
Katey Kontent in Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (I wish I were as clever as she!).
Most obnoxious character:
Oh, lordy, hands down Anunciata Morland in The Long Shadow by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles. I've rarely wanted a character to exit the stage (permanently) as much as I've wanted her to leave. One more Morland novel with her in it to go (can't wait to move from Restoration England to Georgian England). Three books with Anunciata as a main character is far too many.
Character I wish would step out of the pages of a book into real life:
John Thornton in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. Am I really so obvious? Apparently so.
Best new find of the year:
Rose Macaulay. I loved The World My Wilderness. Must read all her books now, too.
And now onwards to 2012!