Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

I realize this may seem like a cop-out (especially after I took last week off for the holidays), but rather than post a recommendation today I offer you my top 5 books of 2011, plus a few I read this year that were published earlier. There are lots of year-end lists going up right now, and my usual year in review post will go up on New Year's Day (or thereabouts) as it always does. 

I thought about doing this last week as a last-minute gift guide, but decided instead to wait so it could be a list of books to enjoy in the New Year rather than a stress-inducing buybuybuy reminder. Anyway, here are my Top-5 books that came out in 2011 (please bear in mind that I have not read all the big books of the year yet – my to-read pile is not empty) – links go to the full review, in case you missed it the first time around.

1. The Sister's Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press)
What can I say about this book that I didn't already say? When I read it, I had no idea I was going to enjoy it so much. Cowboys? I thought, I'm not sure about this. Then of course I realized it wasn't really about cowboys, but instead a vision of the Old West that is just as wild and funny and violent as I could ever have wished, told through a voice so distinct I can still hear Eli Sisters rattling around in my head complaining about his horse. If you have been avoiding this book because of the hype, I suggest you let it cool off and pick it up in February or something – it is really and truly not to be missed.

2. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart)
In the interest of fair warning, if you're in a relationship beware the power of Enright's writing. I'm not saying this book will make you cheat, but the Gina's voice is so consuming I'll admit it stressed me out a lot. Written as a kind of confessional about an affair, The Forgotten Waltz is a love story that picks apart relationships and love and feels very much like a conversation with an over-analyzing (but perhaps not very self-aware) good friend. It's honest, beautiful, and deeply moving, and even though it made me think all kinds of crazy things, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

3. Various Positions by Martha Schabas (Doubleday)
A lot of people seem to search "ballet sex" on Google, and a number of those people have found my blog (and my review of this book, specifically) with that search term. They don't usually stick around. Various Positions was one of the most surprising books of the year for me, because Schabas' treatment of physicality, femininity, control, and sexuality – all explored through ballet and the life of 14-year-old Georgia – were so stunning that I found myself captivated by the beauty of the writing and the darkly original story it told.

4. Midsummer Night at the Workhouse by Diana Athill (House of Anansi Press)
I love short stories, and this collection of Diana Athill's early stories felt like one of my great discoveries this year (I can't really take credit for it though, since it was sent as a review copy). This collection is mostly stories about women in their 20s, feeling their way into an adult life. The stories are all set in the 1950s and maybe the early 60s (as far as I can tell), but nonetheless resonate because of their humour, language, and incredibly distinct voices. I loved this book, and already its stories are on my re-read list.

5. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)
I love a layered narrative, where stories fold into other stories getting put down and picked up as the larger plot progreses, and The Tiger's Wife is perhaps the best example of that I read all year. It's sad, beautiful, and filled with the kind of wonder that comes from hearing about the life of someone older than you. After the death of her grandfather, Natalia returns to the mythology he offered about his life as a way to deal with her grief and attempt to understand him better – the result is one of the rare books you hope will never end, but manages to leave you gracefully when it inevitably must.

I would also recommend The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott and Blue Nights by Joan Didion. 

I also read lots of books that weren't new releases, so here were some of my favourites (not all of which I wrote about):

1. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock
2. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (I actually managed to read all the books so-far released in this series in the last year – they were excellent)
4. Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner
5. Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

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