2011: A year in review in books (part I)

For 2011—a year without school for the first time in twenty-one years—I bumped my goal back up to 52 books and 20,000 pages. I hit the first goal (57 books), but I missed my page goal by quite a bit, for the first time in years (only hit 18,932). This will probably take a series of posts, but I’ll go month by month and then finish up with a general overview of the year. So. Here we go.

January

January found me still working at the State of Michigan, though I mostly kept to myself, especially after they forgot to invite me to the Christmas party (then I got scolded for not making an appearance) and then left me out of the secret santa exchange. This is also the month that I really started reaffirming my commitment to writing. I took some time off after grad school (my advisor wasn’t wrong about there being burnout after twenty-one years of school), but the new year felt like a good time to get back into it, and so I started 100 Days of Writing—a project where I tried to write 100 out of 110 days. The month was good for writing, but even better for reading. I got through nine books.

CathedralCathedral, by Raymond Carver
Carver is hit or miss with me, but this book was mostly miss. The only story I remember from it now, a year later, is the title story, and I’d read that one before. There’s something really beautiful about this idea of these two men sitting there and drawing, but the execution falls flat for me. And now, I suppose the hate mail begins for me.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
This was a reread and, to be honest, I only waited a few hours after the ball dropped to restart it. Reading the book in a new year meant I could count it again, and even though I’d only first read it three months before, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. And just like the first time I read it, I loved it. I’ll be reading the book again this year, too, though not until right before the movie comes out in March.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
We read Aimee Bender in grad school, and I liked her but didn’t love her. I used to love quirkiness in the books I read, but as I matured as a writer, I became more and more suspicious of it. Now I have to see a real reason for it in a story, I have to feel that the story would not function without it—and Bender doesn’t always fit those requirements. But this story worked for me—or, most of it did anyway. The last quarter of the book felt flat, like it made some moves that weren’t quite the right ones. Looking back, though, I couldn’t tell you what the right moves would have been (for me), which makes me think that the problem for me actually stemmed from somewhere earlier in the book, probably with the romantic subplot.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
I can’t remember why I wanted to reread this book (I feel like something happened that made me seek this book out from one of my boxes, but I can’t remember what). The fact that this is a diary unedited by the author herself makes it hard to evaluate like I do the rest of this list, so I really don’t have much to say about it.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins
The sequel to Hunger Games, this book was also a reread, and still spectacular.

The Gremlins of Grammar, by Toni Boyle and K.D. Sullivan
I read this book at work. It was given to me by a coworker in a stack of books I could read when I ran out of things to do. So I got through this book in a relatively short time. Our tax dollars at work, huh? As far as grammar books go, this one was okay. A bit outdated, and I didn’t agree with all the information, but there was a nice section about word usage that I enjoyed.

Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson
This was the year of short story collections for me. What I liked about this collection was its darkness. I always say that it’s the writer’s job to notice and give voice to the ugly rather than to look away like so many people do, and Johnson does this exceptionally well. This wasn’t in my top three story collections of the year, but I still enjoyed it.

Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger
I first read The Time Traveler’s Wife years ago and I really enjoyed it, and so while I wasn’t super excited to read this book, I was looking forward to it. That’s sort of how I felt when I finished the  book, too: It was good, but not great. The supernatural elements worked for me, but the way the author used plot twists often had me more focused on figuring those out than enjoying the story. The ending, too, didn’t quite satisfy me.

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
Another reread, and, like the first two books in this trilogy, I loved it. The ending, which many fans found disappointing, felt even more right to me on this second read.

February

Not too much happened this month. I started writing more at work, and kept up the extra writing at home. I also played some soccer, though I think I’d been doing that for a few months at this point. I think the only other interesting thing I did this month was attend a Hard Lessons concert with Marilyn.

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff
This was the first book I went out and bought with my Christmas gift cards. The cover of this book is super eye catching, but what really drew me to the book was the idea of Cleopatra herself. I’ve never felt comfortable with the image of Cleopatra as the cruel seductress, the she-devil, who manipulated and ruined great men. This book sought to specifically refute those myths with extensive research. If I remember correctly (too lazy to go get the book from downstairs), Schiff used sources as close to Cleopatra’s time as possible, and she also explored the various biases present in the sources.

Willow Springs 67, edited by Samuel Ligon
I’m biased, obviously, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that this issue was great—it also happened to be the last issue that I had anything to do with. I really liked the Dawn Raffel shorts, as well as all three of the fiction pieces.

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld
It’s hard for me to evaluate this book accurately. This is the first book of steampunk I’ve ever read, and I didn’t know what it was when I started the book (or even that the book was steampunk). Therefore, I spent most of the book thinking that it was set in the future when, in fact, it’s set in the past. Knowing this ahead of time would have helped me understand more of the book and would have probably helped me enjoy it more. That said, I liked the female main character, and I liked the exploration of gender roles in the book.

I’d Tell You I Love You, But Then I’d Have to Kill You, by Ally Carter
This is never a book I’d have picked up by myself, but I read the blog of the agent who sold this book, and I love the blog. So, when I saw the book in the bookstore, I picked it up and gave it a try. Much to my surprise, I loved it and read it almost straight through in one sitting. It’s a boarding school book, which has been done, but what makes this book a lot of fun is where it went out of the mold: an all girls school for spies, the difficulties of living a double life, the decision between wanting to be a normal girl and an exceptional one, etc.

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
I picked this book up from my shelf after a controversy erupted online over darkness in young adult literature. This book was one of those in the line of fire, and I was so angry over people saying that young readers shouldn’t be exposed to difficult themes (such as rape, suicide, self injury, death, violence, etc.), that I picked this book up. I only meant to read a chapter or two, but I stayed up half the night to finish it.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
My dad heard about this book (on the radio, I think) and brought it home for me. Apparently Barbery has met with quite a bit of success in France (this is a book in translation), and now she’s having similar success here, if judging by the fact that the book often has the book displayed with the cover facing front. Anyway, that’s an aside. This book was fantastic. I loved the French setting, the interweaving stories of the two main characters—even the ending, which I won’t go into here, because I’m recommending that you all go out and buy this now.

March

March wasn’t much of a fun month. My sister and I watched my parents’ house while they went to Hawaii (and got hit by the tidal wave from the Japanese earthquake). Then, when they got back, we took our toy fox terrier in to get his rabies shot, and he reacted poorly to the shot and needed to be rushed to the vet after he collapsed. He spent the end of the month in this tiny little glass cage at the vets (he needed oxygen). This was also the month, right at the end, where they almost laid me off at my job but then offered me a position in another area where I would be writing for the MEAP test.

How They Were Found, by Matt Bell
Matt Bell is, to put it simply, awesome. We edited him at Willow Springs, and I read a chapbook by him last year. He was even the editor who worked with me on my first published piece of writing (a book review). None of that, however, should be seen as the reason for me raving about this story collection. From the first story (The Cartographer’s Girl) to the final (An Index of How Our Family Was Killed), these stories grab hold of you and don’t let go. And, as an added bonus for people living in Michigan, buy this book and you’ll be supporting a local author.

Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
My sister really enjoyed this series, and she’d been recommending it to me for a while. She really likes the mythology aspect of the series, and that’s always something I’ve been interested in as well. The book wasn’t great, but it was good, and original enough to keep my interest. The character of Annabeth was especially intriguing to me.

You Know When the Men Are Gone, by Siobhan Fallon
Another story collection. I kept seeing this title at the bookstore, and I’d recently seen it featured on one of my bookstore mailing lists. The idea behind the collection—the stories take place around the idea of families being split through deployment—really intrigued me. Most take place on the base itself, but the narrowness here is not repeated in the ideas explored during the stories. Each one does something new, and they all shine. This was my favorite collection of the year, and I highly recommend it.

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