As we bid farewell to 2011, it’s time for me to look back on the things I’ve read and ask myself what exactly were my favorite books of 2011. These should be the kind of books that even months after reading them, you look back on these books fondly and would eagerly recommend them to your friends and family with little, if any hesitation. These are also the kind of books that while reading them you know, even then, there’s a good chance they’re going to end up making your best of list at the end of the year. They are that good.
Some of you might remember from reading my previous year-end lists, that my lists differ a bit from those of other bloggers and reviewers since they tend to restrict their lists to books published during that particular year. I like to read a lot of older books along with more recently published material, I think it’s only fair to consider for inclusion any outstanding books that I read over the course of the year, no matter how old they happened to be. And as I’ve said before, just because something is new doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. And just because something might be old, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad. After all, quality never goes out of style.
So, tonight I sit here with a big ‘ole glass of red wine from my favorite Oregon winery, (Abacela, if wanna know), and try to compile a list of my favorite books of 2011. Honestly, it hasn’t been easy. I read about 75 books over the course of this year and I found a significant number of them to be very good. But after a great deal of thought, deliberation and second-guessing that one might also associate with a Papal conclave or BCS selection committee, here’s my list of my favorite nonfiction books of the year. Please keep in mind that this list is arranged in no particular order of preference. And just like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier in Spinal Tap, this one goes to 11.
- Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between Arabs and Israelis, 1956-1978 by Kai Bird. I enjoyed this book so much it took me almost six months to write the review ! All because I wanted to list the many reasons why I liked it. It’s a joy to read as well as great window into the troubled region of the Middle East.
- The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. One of the few books to make this list that I didn’t have to borrow from the library because I own a copy. Incredibly researched with the perfect blend of the personal with the “big picture”.
- Travels In Siberia by Ian Frazier. Just like the massive landscape he describes, Frazier’s book sucks you into another world leaving you amazed, enveloped and entertained.
- The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement by David Brooks. While some probably thought Brooks’s use of biology, neurology and the like might have been superficial or even ham handed, I on the other hand ate it up. I loved how he wove fiction and nonfiction together to illustrate his points.
- A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran by Reza Kahlili. Yet another one of those books I knew nothing about prior to grabbing it at the library. An incredibly unbelievable but true story of an Iranian spy. Expertly edited, too. Plus, the book’s author and I traded emails after he read my review thanks to my posting on Goodreads !
- I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: Tales from a Jehovah’s Witness Upbringing by Kyria Abrahams. A blast to read. Yet another book I actually own. After reading Abrahams’s hilarious memoir of being raised Jehovah’s Witness, leaving the faith and eventually becoming a slam poet you will never again look at those Watchtower people in the same light. Guaranteed.
- Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power by Robert Kaplan. When I saw Kaplan on Book TV give a lecture at the US Naval War College promoting this book I was held spellbound. His book had same effect on me. If you have any interest in international relations please read this book.
- The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Who says science can’t be fun ? Add to the mix murder, mayhem, industrial accidents, political corruption and high level incompetence and you’ve got the makings of a great book.
- Children of Jihad: A Young American’s Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East by Jared Cohen. It’s one thing to read a well-written and overall fantastic book recounting an American’s interactions with young people from across the Middle East. It’s another thing when right after you finish it, the Arab Spring breaks out in Egypt and Tunisia. Having read Cohen’s book made me feel like I’d been to the protests in Cairo’s Tafsir Square.
- Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. Just when I thought I wouldn’t be adding any more books to this list, I happened to find a copy of Zuckoff’s book at the library right before Christmas. After finishing it this morning on the second to last day of the year there’s no way this page-turner ain’t going on this list.
- The Nine: Inside The Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. I thought The Brethren was the best book on the U.S. Supreme Court I’d read until I read Toobin’s The Nine. While Woodward and Armstrong might have covered more ground with The Brethren, Toobin is a much better writer. So in the end, he wins out.
I’m also going to include a short list of my favorite novels of the year. Since I read only a handful of fictional works over the course of the year, my list will be incredibly short.
- Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann. This novel lived up to all the hype and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I loved how McCann showed the intimate connections between all of the individual characters, each one touched in some way by Philippe Pettit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
- The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman. Although many readers probably saw this book as blasphemous, I on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed this novel. To quote one of my favorite bloggers Jo at Bibliojunkie “Whether this is read like a myth or a story, I’m afraid it is a subject that is controversial and one that people may find offensive. Whether I appreciate this book challenge me, validates my doubt or make me uncomfortable, the conclusion is: it is quite an unusual reading experience.”
Since I’m starting to fall asleep it’s time for me to wrap this up. I wish a Happy New Year to all of you. Talk to you in 2012.