top 5 books: second half of 2011

I fall for end-of-the-year lists every year. I just love them. What is it about having the events, photos, quotes, and mistakes of a whole year tidied into a list that I can’t resist?

Speaking of things I can’t resist: reading. A few days ago Brad told me, “If there were a nuclear war going on around you, you wouldn’t notice. Because you would be reading.” The truth! It hurts. Actually, it makes me laugh because it reminds me of shouting my Mom’s name while standing right next to her just to get her to look up from her book. I posted my top 5 books from the first half of the year back in May and here is the continuation:

5. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers I haven’t read a mystery since my Encyclopedia Brown days. But, gee, I missed them. I picked this book up after I finished The Kitchen Diaries (number 2 on my list) and needed something equally British to chase it. This mystery–set in Oxford, one of my favorite places on earth–was it. Someone is causing mild and general mischief at a women’s college in Oxford and the staff is up in arms (“we could lose our reputation! Or worse–our funding!”). They call in an alumna, a novel-writing amateur sleuth, to figure things out. But the real story here is all of Sayers’ commentary on women, women and education, women and motherhood, and women and romance. It was fascinating; I would even bill it “the thinking person’s mystery.” (No offense to Encyclopedia Brown.) I liked this so much I fully plan on going on a Dorothy Sayers mystery binge in January or February.

4. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder Stories that challenge the way I view the world are a favorite. In this nonfiction book, Kidder tells the story of Deo, a Burundian refugee. I can’t decide which is more mind-boggling: the horrors he survived and fled in Burundi or how he survived (and later thrived) in NYC. Two things make this book worth reading: First, Deo was essentially adopted by a couple in New York City, a couple whose only motivation was to help. If they–two people without religious tendencies–can find it in their hearts to welcome a stranger into their home, where does that leave me? It was convicting. Second, I know an embarrassingly small amount about Africa, its history, and how best to give aid. This gave me a small bit of insight into the situation, which I’m grateful for.

3. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski This is a book about dogs and dog-breeding. No, it’s a book about father-son relationships. Actually, it’s a coming-of-age story. But with a rural Wisconsin twist, which makes it almost a fantasy novel. And despite how weird all that sounds, I enjoyed every angle of this novel. Many of the sentences and descriptions were so correct–as in, I read it and knew immediately that Wroblewski had discovered exactly how to articulate a feeling, moment, or place in a way we’ve all been waiting for–that I wanted to underline as I went. While I was reading it, I didn’t want to put it down. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. When I finished it, I debated it again and again in my mind. It was just interesting, which may seem a weak way to describe a book, but I mean it in the strongest sense. Once I finished the novel, I heard it was a modern retelling of Hamlet and I thought two things: 1) Ohhhh, of course! and 2) Wait. I need to brush up on my Shakespeare, because I totally missed that.

2. The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater I think I ate this book. Not literally, of course, but with my mind. I’m not even sure how to describe it except that super-British Nigel Slater kept track of what he made and ate for a year and published it. By reading it, you will get to savor his descriptions of food and food preparation, wish you had his little kitchen garden and multitude of small farm stands in our neighborhood, crave his puddings and roasts (so British!), and imagine his kitchen as this romantic cottage-y space before Googling it and realizing it’s not at all like you imagined and wish you had never looked. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go through all that?! If you like food, you’ll like this book. If you like reading, talking, or writing about food, you’ll like this book. If you like anything remotely British no matter how ridiculous it makes you seem (ahem), you’ll like this book.

1. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis These childhood favorites get better and better each time I read them. They’re nourishing books. I read the whole series again this year, but the one that fed me most was The Horse and His Boy.

Shasta’s heart fainted at these words for he felt he had no strength left. And he writhed inside at what seemed the cruelty and unfairness of the demand. He had not yet learned that if you do one good deed your reward usually is to be set to do another and harder and better one. But all he said out loud was:

“Where is the King?”

Oh, to be like Shasta!


Honorable Mentions:

Evidence Not Seen by Darlene Deibler Rose Confession time: Missionary stories usually bore me. Ah! I wish it weren’t so! But it is. This memoir of a missionary in a Japanese POW camp during World War II, however, convicted me and gave me perspective and hope.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton I think I mainly liked this book because I know people like Lily Bart! So watching her story unfold was like a train wreck. A very compelling train wreck. I thought I loved Edith Wharton forever after reading this, but then I realized she’s a little bit of a Debbie Downer for me.

In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson True story: While stopped in traffic on I-80 somewhere in the middle of Nebraska during the last half of an 11-hour road trip in the middle of a steaming hot day in July, I started laughing so hard at this book that I cried uncontrollably. I laughed so long and with so little ability to talk (or breathe), that Brad and my siblings began scanning the backed-up cars for an ambulance. I can’t wait to read more Bill Bryson.


Worst Books I Read this Year (or: For the Love of All that is Righteous, Don’t Bother with These):

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen One word: AGiantBloatedAmoralTurkeyofaBook

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin Yeah, I know. A real shocker.

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan This wasn’t offensive, but a book whose title is my motto should be a lot less forgettable than this. And I don’t even remember reading this.

The Piano Teacher/How to be an American Housewife by Janice Y.K. Lee/Margaret Dilloway These two books share powerful mediocrity and disappointed expectations (mainly mine). Plus, I can’t remember which plot went with which book, and that’s just lame.

One Day by David Nicholls Because everyone raved about this book and said I’d love it, then I read it and thought it was sort of badly written. And then they made a movie with Anne Hathaway and I just can’t handle that.





  1. honey&salt » Archive » if you’re suffering from downton abbey withdrawal - [...] to read (oh yes I did, and it was good) and the author recommended Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.…
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