When it comes to books, a year-end best of list is slightly more difficult (for me) than a similar list of music or films. For starters, I tend to read all over the map, not just current releases. This year, I finally got around to reading The Bell Jar! I also picked up She's Come Undone, which I had been meaning to read for a decade. Due to the nature of my job, I also read a lot of new stuff in order to recommend titles (and because my huge love is contemporary fiction). This makes it difficult to do a straight up Top 10 books for the year, because what would it consist of? Top 10 books of 2011, top 10 recent reads, top 10 of everything I read this year? I managed to do one last year, but this year, I am going to mix it up a little, and simply present my First Annual Book Awards. Enjoy.
My Greatest Discovery: Antonya Nelson. This category was a toss up between Nelson, who has been writing for years, and Victoria Patterson, who is only on her second book. Both of them were new discoveries for me, although I was vaguely familiar with Nelson's name. Over Memorial Day weekend, I read her novel Bound, which was a 2010 release. The story is engaging, the writing is first-rate, and most impressively to me was the way in which she made about twenty characters seem necessary in a relatively small book. You can check out my original post here: http://shane-malcolm.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-bound-by-antonya-nelson.html.
Best Biography/Autobiography/Memoir: August Gale by Barbara Walsh. I read several books in this category in 2011, but the most well-written was certainly Walsh's tribute to her enigmatic grandfather, Paddy. This book gets you more bang for your buck, because it's actually two tales in one. Walsh traces the story of the August gale that rocked Newfoundland in 1935 and its momentous effect on the fishermen (one in particular) with painstaking historical accuracy, while also chronicling the present day saga of she and her father hot on the trail of family secrets ... all in the name of love and redemption. Riveting from the first page.
The Well Worth the Wait Classic Award: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Again, this could have gone to any number of books, but Plath takes the trophy simply because I've been hearing about The Bell Jar all my life. The story of Esther Greenwood, this could almost be viewed as the female Catcher In The Rye, although the dark tones and themes are much more overt here. The book spoke to me as I read it at age 34. If I'd encountered it earlier in life, I'm not sure how I would have reacted. Very real, very haunting, entirely timeless.
Most Disappointing Read: Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers. I feel like this is a sacrilegious statement, but don't worry, I am definitely going to give this Grande Dame of mystery another chance. I had wanted to read her for years, since she's considered to be as good as (and in some cases better than) my beloved Agatha Christie. Alas, I may have chose the wrong title to start with. I certainly enjoyed Clouds of Witness, but it didn't live up to the hype. I didn't find myself blown away by her talent like I do at the end of each Christie book. I also found Lord Peter Whimsey to be quite annoying. Still, it was nothing short of impressive in terms of plotting and technical achievement.
Most Memorable Book: The Magus by John Fowles. No contest here. This is one of the most unforgettable books I've ever read, and unlike anything else out there. I cannot even speak properly about this novel yet, but here's the link to my previous blog http://shane-malcolm.blogspot.com/2011/10/magus-by-john-fowles-wild-ride-into.html
The "I Feel Like I'm Not Alone" Award: Rob Sheffield, and the late May Sarton. This year, I read Sheffield's heartwarming, genuine tribute to music Talking To Girls About Duran Duran. I have long loved this man, since his columns in "Rolling Stone" magazine, and this book was laugh inducing and tear-jerking at the same time. I also read May Sarton's 1973 memoir, Journal Of A Solitude, which chronicles one year of her life and her inward search as an introvert. Words cannot express how thankful I am to Sheffield and dear departed Sarton. I feel like they are kindred spirits of mine, and reading them, I'm less alone in the world.
Most Underrated Novel: By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. This one sort of got lost in the shuffle when it was released in 2010. Sure, it garnered some good reviews, but it didn't have the buzz of Cunningham's earlier works like The Hours and A Home At the End of the World. I absolutely loved this book, which details the personal collapse of art gallery owner Peter Harris. His life is in shambles, although he doesn't exactly know this when the book begins. His marriage, seemingly solid, is crumbling. A visit from his brother in law, Mizzy, stirs up feelings and attractions that are far more devastating than they first appear. Because the entire book is told from Peter's viewpoint, there is a lot we miss, but you'll have fun filling in the blanks. As always, Cunningham's writing is top notch.
Greatest Use of Talent: Sarah Braunstein, The Sweet Relief Of Missing Children. Braunstein's novel is as dark as they come, and it's equally amazing. My book group was vociferous in its reaction to this novel, which involves an abduction, as well as several parents who make "wrong" choices. People were disturbed by the book, but wow, did we ever have a great discussion. And even those who were most put off by the novel rose up to praise the writer for her shimmering prose. When Braunstein spoke at the Bailey Library, she was engaging and won over the crowd. Only the most talented can win unanimous praise even when their books are so divisive. As for me, I liked the book enough to put it in my Top 3 for the year if this was a traditional Top 10.
Most Deserving of the Hype Award: Room by Emma Donoghue. Sometimes a book is so good that it's actually deserving of all the great press, five star reviews, and award nominations. Room is one such book. It's also one of only two books that every single person in my book group loved, and let me tell you, this is a group of diverse and serious readers! I recommended Room to my mother, and it promptly became one of her favorite books of all time. My brother read it, and he's not usually a fan of contemporary literary fiction. People talk about it on the street, in the shops, on the bus. Emma Donoghue took a dark and disturbing storyline and wove it into something larger than life. Ma and Jack will stay in your hearts forever. I will go out on a limb and say that books like this are why we read. Here is the link to my original post: http://shane-malcolm.blogspot.com/2011/04/no-room-for-improvement.html
And now, at last, we come to our final award. Out of dozens of books read this year, only one can take the equivalent of Oscar's Best Picture. If this were a live broadcast, I'd hope to have this presented by Ian McEwan or Anne Tyler. Ladies and gentlemen, this was my favorite.
Book of the Year 2011: Swim Back To Me by Ann Packer. That's right, a short story collection is taking this trophy right out from underneath all the novels I read this year. Packer knows how to write about human emotions, human connections, and human tragedy. She is a gift to the literary world, and I pretty much knew from the time I read this in April that it would be my book of the year. Lo and behold, I was correct. Here is a link to where I said more about this title: http://shane-malcolm.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review-swim-back-to-me-by-ann.html.