Since I did rate so many of the books I read in 2011 at the higher end of the scale, it was especially challenging to choose the standouts. My “Books of the Year” selections are not strictly the highest-rated reads, however, although none received less than a 4/5 rating. They’re also the books that have stayed with me best, and have continued to come up in conversation. Since my nonfiction reads were especially strong, I’ll lead off with those.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This was the thoroughly deserving winner of the first Indie Lit Award in Nonfiction.
“When we talk about the mid-20th-century civil-rights movement, we’re usually thinking of the struggles to end legal segregation in the American South. But Wilkerson’s book demonstrates the ways that black people who left the South and its Jim Crow system for city life in the North and West changed that system from the outside – not by political means, but by the very fact of making lives away from it. It also illustrates that racist systems are more than capable of developing on their own, via cultural forces rather than force of law.”
Bossypants, by Tina Fey (audio)
The book that initiated me into the pleasures of reading by ear would be on my Books of the Year list for that reason alone, but it would still be here if I’d read it in print.
“Tina Fey’s autobiography isn’t terribly remarkable. She had a middle-class upbringing in the Philadelphia suburbs as the younger child and only daughter of parents who are still married to each other; college; a move to Chicago to work, study improvisational theatre, and eventually join the Second City comedy troupe, which led to another move – this time to New York and a job as a writer for Saturday Night Live; creation of and a starring role in a critically-acclaimed, Emmy-winning sitcom inspired by her experience on SNL…and marriage and a family. Okay, some parts of her autobiography are pretty remarkable.”
Just Kids, by Patti Smith (audio)
This book made me a Patti Smith fan.
“Smith and Mapplethorpe were far more than best friends. As struggling young artists, they were roommates and, for a time, lovers (until they both accepted Robert’s homosexuality). And as their artistic paths diverged – Robert’s toward photography, Patti’s to poetry and music – they were one another’s muses. In Just Kids, Smith doesn’t over-analyze their complex relationship; she simply shares it intimately and openly, and makes it absorbing and engaging.”
“Within this framework, Perry delves into the stories of several other Chicago murderesses of the time, the reporters who told those stories to the public, the way things operated and the challenges faced by women at the newspapers where those reporters worked, and the unrestrained climate of Prohibition-era Chicago, where underground jazz clubs flourished and illegal liquor flowed freely. He’s got great material to work with, and he crafts it into a page-turner with a firm sense of its time and place. The pace is brisk, and the writing is vivid and occasionally breathless, but Perry succeeds in putting the reader right in the midst of events, including Watkins’ application of her satirical eye to shape them into a hit, prize-winning stage comedy.”
“You Are My Only explores attachment from a number of perspectives; the fierce protectiveness of mother love is a primary theme, with the unconventional family across the alley–two elderly lesbian aunts and the teenage nephew they are raising–considered in counterpoint. These themes largely emerge between the lines, which is a hallmark of this author’s storytelling style. Kephart’s writing is poetic and evocative, and it rewards attention paid to it…and to the things she doesn’t actually say. One of her great strengths is that she can tell a powerful story without hammering all the points home. And this is a powerful, memorable story, ambitious in structure and emotionally affecting.”
“I was quickly drawn into the story, and despite feeling that being filtered through Sheila’s perspective keeps the other characters at a slight remove from the reader, I still found them complex and convincing. The story’s path wasn’t entirely predictable, and I appreciated being surprised by some of the turns it took. But Haigh’s strength in this novel, as it has been in her previous ones, is depicting the complications of family relationships – here, they’re colored by the multiple meanings of the title. Religious faith, as reflected in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, obviously plays a large role, but so does the concept of “faith” conveyed through belief and trust in those we know and love.”
“Drawing on her own experience as a late 20th-century child immigrant from Hong Kong, Kwok creates a memorable character in Kimberly Chang, who arrives in Brooklyn with her mother, few possessions, rudimentary English-language skills, and a lot of pressure to succeed. Kimberly was a stellar student in China, and knows that repeating and exceeding her achievements in America is the best hope that she — and her mother — have for making a good life in their new country.”
“Much of Fathermucker sounds like everyday conversation, actually–everyday right now. I’m torn over whether this is a strength or a weakness. Olear uses some very specific pop-cultural references and gives his characters dialogue that places them firmly in the 2010s. I appreciated that the novel was so current, but wonder if those details might cause it to become dated quickly–can a book be too contemporary? Then again, Fathermucker could just as easily turn out to be an artifact marking and elaborating on a particular point in our social history.”