Best Books of 2011

It’s that time of year! And what a great reading year it’s been.


Special Award of the Year – Willa Cather

I realised that if I didn’t single her out somehow, she would dominate the lists. Every so often you come across an author who is important to you in a way that transcends discussions of whether their books are good or not. Willa Cather was my find of the year, my jewel, my little star. I realise I didn’t even review most of the novels I’d read by her for fear of not doing them justice. But A Lost Lady, The Professor’s House and My Mortal Enemy go straight into my all-time greats.


Best New Fiction


Ali Smith – There But For The

Miles, a dinner guest, locks himself into the spare room of his host’s house and refuses to come out. The narrative shifts through the perspective of four different commentators on his life. Bold, imaginative, playful and profound.


Anne Peile – Repeat It Today With Tears

If you’d told me I’d love a novel about incest, I wouldn’t have believed you. But this gracefully written, vivid and moving narrative was a surprise hit of the year. A quick read but by no means slight.


Vanessa Gebbie – The Coward’s Tale

Dark and emotional storytelling here that traces the effects of a coal mining disaster on the generations that followed. Poetic, unique and accessible, the story works to heal the legacies of old wounds in a way that is unusual and completely unsentimental.


Michelle Latiolais – Widow

I’m not much of a one for short stories but these blew me away. Just so brilliantly written, they are sharp and entertaining and occasionally devastating. The topic of mourning is handled with elegance and dignity, and I particularly loved the way each story revolved in my imagination as I read it to release all sorts of unexpected perspectives.


Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum – Miss Hemple Chronicles

Wonderful writing in this series of interconnected stories of a young teacher making a bit of a pig’s ear of her first job but learning to love it, and her unruly disciples, regardless. Such marvellous descriptions of pupils and teachers alike and an oh-so-vivid portrait of the unpredictable yet unchanging environment of the classroom.


Best Classic Fiction


Virginia Woolf – Orlando

Virginia lets her hair down and romps through the ages with her parodic biography of Orlando, first a boy, then a woman, an adventurer and explorer, a failed poet and finally a successful lady novelist. No one does it quite like Woolf.


Graham Greene – Our Man In Havana

The ultimate spy story, as failed vacuum seller, James Wormold, agrees to a bit of espionage on his Cuban island to raise money to meet his daughter Milly’s expensive tastes. Only Wormold doesn’t know what he’s doing and simply fakes his reports. Imagine his horror, then, when his fictitious events start to come true.


Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House

Four strangers assemble in a notoriously haunted house to observe the ghostly phenomenon as part of a research project. But Hill House is used to seeing off unwelcome visitors and winds its eerie coils around the unfortunate inhabitants with fatal consequences.


Sara Paretsky – Hardball

Bit of a squeeze here, but I think I can just about claim Paretsky as a modern crime classic! Her private eye, V. I. Warshawski, may be getting older, but she’s still up for a fight as she takes on the corporate fat cats of Chicago to track down an old and ugly story of murder dating from the days of civil rights marches. Powerful stuff.


Best Non-Fiction


Stephanie Staal – Reading Women

Married and a new mother, her life failing to provide her with the satisfaction she craved, Stephanie Staal returns to college to resit her old feminist texts class. As she reads the work of pioneering women through the ages she considers the changes that have happened in her life and the ideals she had fostered for so long. I loved this – clever, enlightening and so very true.


Katie Roiphe – Uncommon Arrangements

The stories of seven unconventional marriages in the period between 1910-39, Roiphe reveals the emotional machinations of a generation who believed they could manage relationships better than their ancestors, with often alarming results. Fascinating and absorbing, the tales of Elizabeth von Armin, Vera Brittain, Vanessa Grant, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Ottoline Morrell and H.G. Wells have to be read to be believed.


Truman Capote – In Cold Blood

Grisly and unsettling, this literary experiment gets into the minds of convicted killers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock after they murdered a family in their remote farmhouse for nothing more than a few dollars. Capote nearly tipped himself over the edge writing it, and he does manage to bring the madness, resentment and irrationality of Smith and Hickock to vivid life.


Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird

If you have ever thought of doing anything creative with words, then Anne Lamott’s book is a must as she offers advice to fledgling writers from the moment of conceiving the desire to write through to the end of the publication process. So very funny, so very wise, her unique voice is a delight and her sensible words about creative motivation are grounding. Do it because you love it, she says, not because you want to get published. Absolutely.


Rosemary Dinnage – One to One

An old publication this one, and not a well-known one, but so gripping and so very intriguing. Dinnage allows 20 witnesses tell their own stories of their time in therapy. Some emerged changed and empowered, some left resentful and disillusioned and some are still there, in limbo. This gives the best portrait of psychotherapy, it’s perils and its possibilities, that I’ve ever read. But it’s also fascinating about human nature and the dreadful things our emotions do to us.


Dinah Roe – The Rossettis In Wonderland

Best straight biography of the year, this detailed portrait of the four Rossetti children – among them the famous Christina and Dante Gabriel – and their parents brings Victorian London to life, as well as the worlds of painting, poetry, literary criticism and Anglican nuns. Who could resist?


Having finished my list I note that the women vastly outnumber the men this year! Ah well. That’s just the way it turned out.


38 thoughts on “Best Books of 2011

  1. Great list and I’ve only read one…which is very good news since I trust your judgment and that leaves much for me to choose from. Believe it or not, I just discovered Willa Cather a couple of years ago! She is a jewel.

    • Bless you, Grad. It’s always such a warm, fuzzy feeling to find people whose taste is very similar! And so glad you have found Cather too – she is just soooooo good. I’ll be reading more of her in 2012, that’s for sure.

  2. I have put that Staal book on my list right away – sounds like just the thing to accompany my reading women project next year. Thank you! I’ve yet to read enough Cather, will also put her in the project next year.

    • Michelle, I would love to know what you make of the Staal. And I recently read a very intriguing article about a French writer called Christine Montalbetti. Do you know her? She sounds very unusual. Delighted that we’ll both be reading Cather next year – I’m so keen to hear what you think of her, too.

  3. Yay, Litlove, for posting this list! I can’t wait to check out some of these books. Your suggestions have not failed me so far. When I read both The Other Side of You and What I Loved, I was blown away by both books, and I am still trying to recapture some of the wonderful reading experiences I had with books. You have definitely given me amply fodder here! I guess I need to check out Willa Cather though I was not a fan of her book O Pioneers when I read it in high school. I will send you an email tomorrow to discuss things more!

    • Ali – I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you’ve enjoyed those novels – they were such wonderful experiences for me, too. Cather has several modes, and the early, pioneering novels are not my favourites, either. Do try A Lost Lady – very, very different to O Pioneers, and just amazing. But we will discuss this further, no doubt!

  4. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Cather and now since you have given her a special award, I will have to make sure she ends up in my 2012 reading plan. I really want to read The Professor’s House. I’m pretty sure many of these ended up on my TBR list but I will have to check just in case. I love all the lists this time of year, though at the same time they make me feel a bit desperate since there is no way I am ever going to be able to read all the good books everyone mentions.

    • Oh I know, dear Stefanie! I love all the lists, too, and add loads of books to my own personal tally for next year. But the great thing about books is that they don’t come with a use-by date, and I’m still reading ones I bought fifteen and twenty years ago that have waited patiently for their moment! 😉 So glad you will read The Professor’s House, though. Oh how I loved that book! Would love to know what you think of it.

  5. Definitely agree with your re: Cather. She alone justifies Virago Modern Classics’ existence.
    I see you’ve chosen a neophyte teacher novel – if you haven’t already read it, May Sarton’s The Small Room is an excellent novel. A world in which an institution comes to a juddering halt because of one plagiarist would be wonderful…

    • Oh Vole! I read The Small Room early this year and loved it, really loved it. The Shun-lien Bynum just pipped it to the post because the language she uses is so wonderful. But for the university teaching experience, the Sarton was so on the mark. So glad to know you love Cather, too. She is a goddess.

  6. I like your list for various reasons:
    – I have been following you this year so I got a lot of the books on your list already
    – I will be ble to give credit thanks to your list should I review them
    – I have a list of books to look forwad to
    – I just enjoyed reading it.
    – It has more than 10 books
    I already read one of Latiolais stories and she is soo good.
    I’m very keen on reading Cather now.

    • Caroline – I didn’t realise you had read Latiolais – she was such a revelation! I’d love to know what you think of Cather or any of the other books I mention! It’s been wonderful finding your blog this year and you’ve added masses to my own lists, a lot of contemporary European books, too, which I really appreciate. Here’s to fantastic reading years for us in 2012. 🙂

  7. Your reference to Willa Cather made me search your blog for where you wrote about her. I’m glad I did (and sorry it took me so long to read them; I’ve been a very poor blog follower this year!); they are wonderful posts. I first read Cather last year, beginning with My Antonia, followed by Death Comes to the Archbishop and O Pioneers!. I especially loved the first two. What lovely books! The third I was less enthralled with, but still it was worth reading. Then I wasn’t sure where to go after that, or whether to. I’d read that her later work was “lesser” but it seems to me that conventional wisdom must be an unfair one. I’ll have to look into the three you name above.

    The rest of your post is, alas, filled with authors I know very little about. I did, however, read Shirley Jackson for the first time this year, including The Haunting of Hill House, which I liked quite a bit. Even better, I thought, was We Have Always Lived In The Castle. Have you read that one?

    • Richard – so nice to have you visit and so glad to know that you had a good Cather experience (and don’t worry in the least about attendance – that anyone can blog with young children amazes and impresses me!). I agree with you about O Pioneers! – not such an outstanding book for me, although still a good one. Do try The Professor’s House; the structure of it is very unusual and yet it works wonderfully well. I would love to know how it strikes you.

      I have yet to read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I most definitely intend to – very good news to me that you liked it better! Jackson is another unique voice I’m keen to hear more of.

  8. I’ll definitely keep this list. Interesting to see AL’s Bird By Bird. It’s a delightful read, isn’t it? Also, I’ve signed up for a Graham Greene reading challenge for 2012, I need 3 titles, any other suggestions? Preferably those with a film adaptation so I can compare the two. Thanks for this post, I really enjoy reading it.

    • “The Quiet American” is hands down, one of the best books I have read, ever and there is a film version too. Do me a favor and make it one of the three Greene books you read!

    • Arti – I loved Bird by Bird – such a brilliant voice, and so inspiring! And yay for a Graham Greene challenge – whose blog is it? I might join in. I’m thrilled that Ruthiella suggests The Quiet American as I have a copy of that, too (and will be reading it next year for sure). The other that I’m intrigued by is Travels with my Aunt, although I’m not sure it was made into a film. I guess Brighton Rock is the other very well known one. Let me know what you choose!

      • litlove, here’s the link to the Graham Greene Challenge, actually, there are several reading challenges she’s hosting, and the blog is “Books and Movies”… you can see how excited it is for me to discover that. I’m also in the Ireland Reading Challenge on that site, and yes, I need recommendations too! (I need 4 books, which should include fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.)

        Ruthiella, So it’s The Quiet American then. I’ve seen the movie adaptation of it, which I think is very well done. Any other suggestions? What about for my Ireland Challenge, Irish writers with setting in Ireland.

      • Ooh interesting! Thank you for the link, Arti – that’s most tempting. Of Irish writers, I’d suggest Henry Green, who’s a modern classic. The contemporary novel I’ve most admired lately is Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden. If any other’s spring to mind, I’ll let you know!

        Ruthiella – how can I have forgotten The End of the Affair? Yes! Perfect suggestion!

    • Hi Arti,

      Re: Greene – I second Litlove’s choice of Our Man in Havana. I have also read The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and The End of the Affair (which was also made into a film). All are good, but if you have to pick 3, I would choose for your third choice, the End of the Affair, since it is so different from his political books.

      • Thank you litlove and Ruthiella… I’ve written down all your recommendations! If you think of any more, particularly Irish ones, do let me know. 😉

  9. I’m drooling here, they all sound so good and I haven’t read any. i have Hardball sitting on my shelf to be read, and a Willa Cather – My Antonia. Oh – I own Bird by Bird, which I love reading over and over. I’ve read Haunting of Hill House and it is one of my favourite of favourite books. What a lovely list of books you read this year! I’ve added the Rossettis in WOnderland to my wish list 🙂 You had a good reading year, didn’t you?

    • Susan, it was a vintage year, which was lovely! Do read Hardball – sometimes authors lose their touch when they get older, but not Parestky. I just loved that. Would love to know what you make of the Rossettis or Cather or any on the list. I can see why you’d read Bird by Bird multiple times – I am sure I will, too!

    • Niranjana – I am a big fan of Rosemary Dinnage. She’s like one of those ice skaters who make it look very easy, when it isn’t at all. I’d love to know what you think of her!

  10. I’m afraid that I can’t agree about the Katie Riphe book. IT’s hardly an original work as she’s copies so much of what she says from other people!

  11. Good choices. Willa Cather is one of my favourite literary discoveries. The Professor’s House is a great novel and yes, some books are beyond review, I feel that way about Austen’s novels, too.

  12. Nicola – yes, I almost put Sense and Sensibility on the list, but then I felt there were other books I wanted to promote (but I still loved it, and agree with you wholeheartedly about Austen!) I’m so glad you love Cather, too. She is really special, isn’t she?

  13. It took me about 35 seconds to buy Ms Hemple Chronicles for my Kindle and to add the book about the Rossettis to my wishlist. It will make a great companion to my Pre-Raphaelite biography reading at the moment. I have The Coward’s Tale on my TBR from the library at the moment as a result of your earlier review. I need to read some of the Willa Cather I have on my shelves too. Oh, what a wonderful list this is! Thank you for sharing.

  14. I love Willa Cather and am happy to see her there at the top of your list! I think I need to pull out something by her to read next year. I read In Cold Blood this summer (sorta kinda along with you), but I never did write about it. I have about a third of a post saved–maybe I’ll try and finish it over the break. I plan on reading Uncommon Arrangements next year–I read the intro and didn’t get a chance to read more–it does look good! And while I just returned almost all my library books this morning and vowed I would not take anymore out over the break I do think I will have to borrow Ali Smith’s. Lots of good books on your list that I want to read, too!

  15. I’ve been avoiding the “best of” lists, but I couldn’t resist yours, and I’m so glad I did. What a lovely, eclectic mix of subjects and genres.

    Interesting that you would mention Willa Cather. She has come up in my reading several times over the past week, and I’ve never read a thing of hers. I believe she and I will be getting acquainted in 2012.

  16. Lots of great books here and books I want to read, especially Ali Smith and the Shirley Jackson. And Capote. What a great year in reading! I agree that Willa Cather is really wonderful.

  17. Pingback: Preview of 2011 Booklists #1 | Semicolon

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