Each year, I like to share my favorite reads from the last 12 months. As I looked over the books I read in 2011, two things stood out to me: 1) much of my recent reading has been nonfiction as I research the time and place of my work-in-progress, and 2) I started quite a few books this year that I never finished. I’m not sure what that was all about, but a book really needed to grab me and not let go this year
Here are the books that rose to the top for me, in no particular order. (Disclaimer: Each year several of my closest friends publish their latest releases. Many of them should be on this list, but I don’t include them for fairly obvious reasons. How can I be truly objective about a close friend’s book? So some true favorites are missing from this list.)
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson Cannino, Ronald Cotton and Erin Torne
This book should be mandatory reading for every American. You may know the (true) story, since it received quite a bit of media coverage in recent years. In the mid-eighties, college student Jennifer Thompson was raped by a man who broke into her apartment. She identified the wrong man, Ronald Cotton, as her assailant and Ronald served eleven years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. He was finally freed by a DNA test. But the real story is the relationship between Jennifer and Ronald that developed after his release. The writing is on the simple side but the story is complex. More than a touching story of forgiveness and compassion, it’s a treatise on a broken judicial system. Personally, it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could still support the death penalty after reading this book.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Did you read and love Patchett’s Bel Canto? Well, it doesn’t matter if you loved it or not, because this book is completely different. I was engrossed and looked forward to every reading session, though I admit when I turned the last page I said out loud “Well, that was a weird book!” This is the story of a young pharmaceutical researcher who’s sent to the Amazon to track down an older researcher who has lost contact with the drug company. The young woman’s journey becomes both professional and personal and her experiences are fascinating, if ultimately hard to swallow (a pun you’ll only understand after reading the book!)
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Set in Mississippi, this is the story of Larry Ott, a man who has never quite fit into his small home town, particularly after the disappearance of a girl he took on a date as a teenager. The story opens with the disappearance of another young girl and all eyes are on Larry as the suspect. The constable investigating the case, Silas Jones, has a long and hidden history with Larry. I was gripped from start to finish by this book. I kept thinking “I wish I could write like this!” Franklin’s ability to describe people and place without clobbering the reader over the head with the description takes real skill. Although the book is touted as a mystery, the mystery itself is slight and secondary to the character studies of two men with tangled pasts.
How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal
On a slightly lighter note, I give you a book that will make you smile, cry and bake bread (yes, there are recipes!). This is the intergenerational story of Ramona Gallager, a woman struggling to keep her bakery afloat, her daughter Sophia, who learns that her husband was critically wounded in Afghanistan, and Sophia’s teenaged stepdaughter, Katie, who ends up staying with Ramona while Sophia rushes to her husband’s side. It’s a poignant story of family love and second chances.
A Stolen life by Jaycee Dugard This is definitely not the sort of book I usually pick up, but Jaycee’s true life story captured my imagination and I wanted to understand how she could have endured the things she did. This remarkable young woman was kidnaped at eleven, gave birth to the two children of her kidnaper at fourteen and eighteen, and lived hidden in a shed for eighteen years. She had opportunities to escape, but didn’t. The psychology of her existence and that of her kidnapers fascinated me, but I came away from the book touched by her strength, her love for her children, and a hope that her future is far gentler than her past.
A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
I love this book . . . but you might not. I picked it up because it takes place in rural North Carolina in the late fifties, the time and place I’m researching for my work-in-progress. I’d never read Price before and was a bit stunned when I encountered the first long paragraph and realized it was all one sentence. But it was a good sentence, and I kept on reading. I fell in love with Price’s description of the area and his colorful characters, but more than anything I was moved by how intimately he understood the heart of a young woman as she pines for her (jerk of a) boyfriend. Price absolutely understood how crazy a woman in love can be. I’m afraid I could relate all too well.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
I’ll be honest: this was one of the books I didn’t think I would finish. I tried twice and twice put it down, but friends I respected raved about it, and so I became determined to give it another chance and I’m glad I did. The story, set primarily in Ethiopia, is a coming of age tale of a young man and his twin brother, the offspring of a nun who dies while giving birth to them and a brilliant surgeon, Thomas Stone. The characters and setting are richly drawn and the relationships complex, believable and ultimately touching. Bonus: you will never again take the skill of a surgeon for granted.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
The last Stephen King novel I read was Misery. I recall sitting on the beach in Maui as Misery chopped off the legs of the novelist with her ax (Was it an ax? I’ve blocked that scene from my mind). I put the book down and swore off King for good. But the premise of 11/22/63—a man travels back in time to try to prevent the Kennedy assassination–drew me in. Who in my generation hasn’t wondered what the world would be like if that event had never taken place? I found the book a genuine page turner. To me, King is at his best when he skips the horror and goes for the gut (Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, The Stand). This was one of the most engrossing books I read this year.
The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
I read this beautiful, well-researched book for my neighborhood book club and it generated plenty of discussion. It’s the story of a little Irish girl, Lavinia, whose parents die while emigrating to America. She’s taken in by the ship captain, who deposits her with the slave family on his plantation. As she grows up, she straddles the world of her loving slave family and the wealthy white family that lives in the “big house.” Her story is gripping and my stomach was tied in knots through much of it. Grissom does a marvelous job of putting the reader into the world of both slave and slave owner. Highly recommended.
Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah
As readers of my books know, I’m a sucker for a “story within a story,” and Winter Garden offers exactly that. Two sisters, different as night and day, must find a way to come together to help their cold, distant mother after the death of their father. They finally draw her out by having her tell them a fairy tale from their childhood—a “fairy tale” that turns out to be about the mother’s growing up years in war-torn Russia. Often when I read Hannah, I feel as though I’m reading one of my own books. We seem like-minded in our approach to family stories and family love. I found Winter Garden both engrossing and moving.
So that’s my list for 2011. I’d love to hear about your favorites, too.