Now that the holiday craziness has ended, I’m finally taking a moment to remember what I read during 2011 and which books meant the most to me. I’ve picked
five six seven favorites from the past year to share. (Okay, it’s hard to limit myself to just a few!) “Past year” means that I read it in 2011, not that it necessarily was published in 2011. (I’ve got some oldies I just got around to in here as well.)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks If you haven’t read Rebecca Skloot‘s incredible 2010 book yet, go get a copy right now. No, seriously. It’s that good. It’s the true story of the life and death of an impoverished African American woman in Baltimore in the 1950s, and what happens when her family discovers that Johns Hopkins doctors have been using and distributing her cells for medical research purposes for decades. It’s a book about race in America, about bioethics, about the sociology of poverty, and about one family’s struggle to come to terms with a legacy they never chose for themselves. Oh, and it’s a fantastic read.
The Night Circus I think I’ve probably written enough here about Erin Morgenstern‘s gorgeously rendered fantasy of magicians in love. But between my love of the book and the author’s terrific talk at Politics & Prose in November, The Night Circus is most definitely on my favorites list for 2011.
Art Lover: A Biography of Peggy Guggenheim I kicked off 2011 by reading about this famed heiress, art collector, dog person, resident of Venice, and total headcase. Peggy’s extensive network of friends included artists, writers, collectors, fellow millionaires, and starving bohemians. Quite a fascinating group of people, and quite a life.
The People of the Book I’m not sure why it took me so long to start reading Geraldine Brooks, but after starting with her Pulitzer-winning March last winter, I soon moved on to The People of the Book. The novel masterfully weaves the story of a contemporary book restorer with that of the famed book she’s working on, the (real!) Sarajevo Haggadah. Brooks covers hundreds of years of the book’s imagined history, and the fates of the Muslims, Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths who encountered the beautiful book during their lives.
The City of Falling Angels I wish John Berendt would write books faster, already. This 2005 book is his latest work of narrative nonfiction, and his more well-known Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil came out all the way back in 1994. Too long to wait! Falling Angels covers the months Berendt lived in Venice, Italy, immediately following the tragic conflagration of La Fenice, the beloved Venice opera house. As in Midnight, Berendt paints a portrait of a complicated city and introduces us to many of the colorful characters who call it home.
Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t A recent Pew study found that only 66% of Christians can correctly identify Genesis as the first book in the Bible. Only half of Christians can name all four Gospels. When you look at Americans as a whole, barely more than half can identify the Koran as the Muslim holy book, and less than half know that the Dalai Lama is Buddhist. Religion professor Stephen Prothero makes a persuasive argument that not only are Americans woefully ignorant about world religions (and about their own), but that this ignorance is a dangerous form of civic illiteracy, particularly in the post-9/11 world. Lots to think about in here.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith I’ve been a big fan of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life for several years, but this was my first foray into Anne Lamott’s other work. Learning more of her history as a writer, addict, and single mom—and how she found faith after many dark years—was fascinating.
So that’s my best of 2011 round-up. An eclectic list, I supposed. Keep an eye out for my list of what books I’m most looking forward to reading in 2012!