My choice: the ten best books of 2011

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Once a year I like to go back and review the books that I’ve read, choose 10 out of that group and share my thoughts. The trick is to remember all the books that I’ve read over the course of 365 days. Fortunately, we have Goodreads and the ever-wonderful CLAMS library system that lists books borrowed (but doesn’t actually tell you if you’ve read them or used them for coasters).

The other way of compiling a list is to, well, keep one. Unfortunately, this year I have been a bad keeper of lists. Despite the usual good intention of doing so, I haven’t and I make no excuse. I also haven’t been very good about adding my reads to Goodreads either. I’ve been trying to play catch-up for the past couple of weeks, but I certainly haven’t managed to log in all of the books I read this year, to say nothing of doing those mini-reviews that those of us of the writing profession enjoy reading so much. So when I look at my “shelf,” it appears as though I read every book only recently, as if most of the year was devoid of reading.

That leaves me paddling through the old memory pool and seeing what rises to the surface.

One of the things I have done reading-wise this year is to read more than one book of an author’s oeuvre, one after the other. This is only fun when said author is so brilliant and captivating that reading selections consecutively doesn’t disappoint. We have all had the experience of loving one book by an author, and finding the second just so-so. When the magic continues, it’s like finding a new type of cheese that you can’t get enough of. But, in terms of a ten best list, does it count to include two books by a single author? If so, it looks like I did a fair amount of doubling up on authors this year.

There is a saying in the publishing industry that it takes about seven books before an author is successful. Every consecutive book is built upon the writing of the previous, by which I mean that you learn something from each writing experience and take that education with you into the next book. (I speak here only of fiction, but I don’t imagine penning biographies or how-to books is very different.) With some authors the learning curve is dramatic and reading a new work and then a previous work can be disappointing. With the very best authors, their first work is better than anyone else’s seventh book. Once in a while, a first book is where an author should have stopped.

I was very fortunate this year to have found five authors all at the top of their game. I sampled earlier works and new releases; short story collections and full-length novels. I accidentally read consecutive books in reverse order and still loved the stories and characters and enjoyed having foreknowledge of where these characters were headed in the next book, like some literary psychic. What appeals to me about these authors can be summed up easily: their use of language transcends the ordinary.

Characters, plots, and settings can only get you so far. Yes, you can have a terrific read, but a great book depends on its author’s ability to tell the story with a new voice. I don’t mean layering on the similes, which can, for me, ruin a perfectly good book when the author tries too hard to be literary, obfuscating the story with too many of them. I mean telling a story to a reader, as if making eye contact.

Here then, in no particular order, are my top five authors and top 10 books that I read in 2011 (not necessarily published in 2011).

Barbara Kingsolver: “The Bean Trees” and “Pigs in Heaven”

Jane Gardham: “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat”

Ivan Doig: “Prairie Nocturne” and “Work Song”

Sally Gunning: “The Widow’s War” and “The Rebellion of Jane Clarke”

Margaret Drabble: “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories” and “The Sea Lady”

Other books of note that I read this year are the profound “Little Bee” by Chris Cleaves and the irrepressibly delightful “True Grit” by Charles Portis.

Wishing you all a happy, book-filled 2012.