The Best Books I read in 2011

Toni Morrison, A Mercy (2008)

Beginning the story in 1682, Morrison sets out to address the early colonial settlement of North America  through the stories of four women over just 165 pages.  Opinions vary as to her success, but this poetic book says something profound about the foundation of the USA in slavery, the suppression of women and a toxic mixture of capitalism and religion.  It’s been called a sort of prequel to Beloved and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone who liked that book.

Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (2009)

I can’t actually remember much about this book because I read it when my father was dying and that time is a blur, but I do remember thinking it was very good, if not quite up to the standard of Runaway.  Munro is one my favourite writers when it comes to the lives of women.  I’ll have to read it again though.

Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth(1905)

Wharton’s tremendous critique of consumerism, social convention and the sexual double-bind is still gripping.  A beautiful, but poor, socialite called Lily Bart falls foul of the wealthy New York elite when she finds that she can’t reconcile her desires with making a marriage of convenience.

Irvin D. Yalom, Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death(2008)

I found this book very helpful while my father was dying and also for my own subsequent death anxiety.  Death anxiety, Yalom argues, is the price we pay for our self-awareness.  Honest, humane, sensible, and free from the cliches and superficial platitudes that often infect the “self-help” genre.  Yalom is an atheist, but I think there’s useful stuff in this book for anyone facing death, or experiencing death anxiety.

Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga (eds) This Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color

One of the seminal texts that should be read by anyone who’s serious about getting to grips with feminist theory and the history of the women’s movement.  This book is an incisive critique of a feminism dominated by white, middle-class women and a powerful assertion of the need for theory produced by radical women of color.  But reading this book 30 years on from its publication, it’s disturbing to see  how little has changed.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Wind’s Twelve Quarters(1975)

The best collection of short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin that I’ve read so far.  If you’re interested in her shorter fiction, I’d start with this one because it’s wide ranging, showcases her at her best and includes nice introductions by the author contextualizing each story.

Emma Donoghue, The Sealed Letter(2008)

The Sealed Letter is an entertaining fictionalisation of a scandelous Victorian divorce case. Donoghue is a very good writer of middlebrow fiction, great for when you want something that’s not too challenging to read but isn’t silly either.  You know it’ll be readable and well-researched and, for me, it’s nice to find a good middlebrow writer who deals with lesbian themes.

Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower(1995)

This is relentlessly harrowing and bleak speculative fiction and also a stern warning about the path that our current economic and environmental policies might be taking us down.  Like most of her books, it makes for uncomfortable reading, but what I love about Butler is the uncompromising nature of her stories and the way that she’s prepared to take her readers all the way into hell.

Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (1996)

A Jesuit-funded mission to another planet goes horribly wrong.  Perhaps that doesn’t sound very promising, but The Sparrow is a rather brilliant piece of science fiction which draws on Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K Le Guin and Carl Sagan to create something new.

Daphne Du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel (1951)

I haven’t got around to writing about this one yet, but I will because I loved it.  It’s a gripping mystery in which Du Maurier pulls off the difficult trick of using a dislikeable (stupid & misogynist) narrator to tell her story and, in so doing, creates a fascinating book about the misogynist construction of femininity.  I’m not sure if I liked it more than Rebecca, but it’s a close run thing.

Dorothy Allison, Two or Three things I know for Sure (1996)

Another book that deserves a longer post.  Dorothy Allison is a literally life saving lesbian writer who doesn’t get enough attention from feminism or lesbian criticism, possibly becasue she’s too honest and hard-hitting and makes people uncomfortable.  This short memoir about survival packs an enormous amount of power into its 94 pages.

George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (1996)

Required reading, I think, for anyone who wants to become a fantasy writer.  It’s a big soap opera, but one heck of a well-written one.  Martin cleverly provides so many characters that his readers are almost bound to find at least one to identify with.  I’m not one for tearing through books in general, but I got through the 800-odd pages in about a week.

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2 thoughts on “The Best Books I read in 2011

  1. Thank you for this awesome 2011 run-down (and the movies too!). I actually got a couple of these for Christmas and look forward to some hot n’ heavy reading this year. Happy New Year to you and Andy!!

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