Monday, January 2, 2012

Best of 2011: Favorite Books

Part Two of the Best of 2011: Books

My friend Catherine invited me to her book club in June of 2010. I relished Lara’s description of her Phoenix book club that I believe is at least 10 years old now, so I jumped at the chance once we returned from Park City that fall. I love that the group introduced me to new authors and books I might never have picked up. Love that the “deadline” of our gathering helped me make my reading time a priority. Most of all though, I love the evening of great discussion and camaraderie (and sometimes wine), and the friendships that have grown beyond the scope of our Thursday gatherings.

And yet, despite all that, I read fewer books in 2011 than in recent years. Perhaps because I was reading more fiction, or more books that I hadn’t necessarily chosen myself. Only two on the lists below were book club selections: True Grit and Cutting for Stone. Well, our group read Hand Wash Cold, but I had already read and loved it by then. Getting to have a Skype chat with the author, Karen Maezen Miller, was a highlight for all of us.

Then again, there were books started then abandoned, others that that I’m still reading slowly (The Phantom Tollbooth with Sean, and  Life, Itself, a birthday gift from Angie), books I finished but will never feel I’ve finished (Turning the Mind into an Ally, the Non-Designers Design Book), dog-training books (the Monks of New Skete among others), books on death and dying (Caring for Your Parents, The Dying Time, At Home with Dying), and books read with the boys. Some favorite children’s books were The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man, The Boss Baby, The Groovy Greeks and the Rotten Romans, The Calculus Affair and all of Herge’s Tintin collection that our library contained.

Of course, none of those books were misplaced, but somehow The Day My Butt Went Psycho did not get checked-in after Aidan returned it to our library, requiring me to then make several phone calls asking them to look for The Day My Butt Went Psycho on their shelves. And, “of coursely” as Sean would say---as I find all of us now saying, they would then ask me to repeat the title, pause while they debated whether I was prank calling them, and then type it into their computer. Aidan, for the record, you owe me.

Favorite Nonfiction:

Hand Wash Cold by Karen Maezen Miller

Not just one of the best things I read this year, but one of the best things that happened to me this year. It isn't one of those "stand up and change your life or the world" reads, but more of a wake-up and see the world in front of you. And what could be more life changing than that?

“Quiet the narration in your head, even for a moment, and see for yourself that life is life, and not one minute of it is a retelling or a foretelling. Some things happen; some things don't. That's what makes it all worth seeing, no matter where it goes or how it ends. There is no spinmeister steering it all to a forgone conclusion.”

When Things Fall Apart and The Places that Scare You by Pema Chodran

"This very moment is the perfect teacher." When I most wanted to run from the present moment, I went into my parents’ guest room and read that line. So many times this year, I felt this author offer me exactly what I needed when I need it.

Blue Night by Joan Didion

So much is going on here---it is not a memoir, or a book about grief, but a meditation on loss.

About Alice by Calvin Trillin

How I loved getting to know Alice, a woman who managed to "navigate the tricky waters between living a life you could be proud of and still delighting in the many things there are to take pleasure in."

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Man, was I critical of this book while I was reading it! Rubin is a highly critical person (or so I get the impression), and that line of thinking can turn a reader just as critical. But she is also bravely honest and earnest in her exhaustive approach to living life more fully. I’ve loved talking about her Secrets of Adulthood and Splendid Truths with others who’ve read the book.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Fun read that had Nolan asking me why I was laughing out loud. He kept coming over to look at the page, imagining it must have turned into a Kid History youtube video or something. Loved her description of her laconic coworker at the Y.

The Scrapbook’s Almanac by Elizabeth Dillow

I didn't think I'd ever buy a design book again, but this one is meaty---beautifully designed (it can lay flat, a big bonus), with the kind of photos and stories that make me want to create. Planning to enjoy it again, more slowly, each month this year.

The Courage to Start by John Bingham

It lived up to its title, providing me with exactly that.

Everyday Blessings by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn

I’ve been checking this title out from our library annually since 2007 and making very little headway before returning it once again. This year, a small group of mommas met once or twice a month to discuss it, and I finally did it, I finally finished it.

I found the beginning on sovereignty and the conclusion, especially “Losing It” to be enlightening and inspiring. There were sections in which my own alarms started going off (I don’t really believe my child will be scarred from having slept alone as a toddler or from being nursed for only one year---the authors stop short of saying that, but just barely at times). Still, despite my own defensiveness, I learned a great deal and want to go back and write out quotes from the many dog-eared pages. My friend Sarah summed up the parenting philosophy of the book in one line: “I love you and I honor your journey.”

Grateful to have finished this book, grateful for the Kabat-Zinn family’s generosity in sharing their lessons and practice, and so very grateful for the community of mommas encouraging me in my own mindful practice. We plan to keep reading together---Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood, another favorite of mine, is up next.

Favorite Fiction

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
"I hope one day you see this as clearly as I did in Kerchele. The key to happiness is to own your own slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don't. If you keep saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching, you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny." 
Oh so good. I loved Ghosh the way I loved Leo in A History of Love. Marion is a messed-up narrator on some levels, and I fought hard against some of the later plot points, but no other story has stayed with me so strongly this year. I love the way he kept returning to that operating room, how he let the story of their birth dominate the first quarter of the book. Who dares demand so much of a reader these days? Definitely one to enjoy again.
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
“How small we humans are, she thought. All our scrambling around, trying to buttress ourselves against death. All our efforts to insulate ourselves against uncertainty with codes of behavior and meaningless busyness.”
“What he had kept from her, though, was what she kept from him-- the terrible weight of remorse and doubt that daily, hourly sometimes, shifted inside like a cargo.” 
An unbelievable but true story, embellished with some great writing. I might pick it for book club when my turn comes in April.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
“Happiness can be found in even the darkest of times, if only one remembers to turn on the light.” 
I find myself appreciating this one even more as we move on to other reads. I have a million and one thoughts about the series that I’ll attempt to edit down to a reasonable few some other day. I really don’t think I ever could have gotten into these if my boys hadn’t held open the door for me, so to speak. I tried, honestly, as a teacher and just couldn’t make the leap. And now I can’t wait to return.
True Grit by Charles Portis
“People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward going by the name Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band.”
The whole book is quotable. Funny and poetic. Would be a great road trip audiobook.
This was a crazy, long post. I hope 2012’s favorite books list is even longer.

Next up on Wednesday: Favorite Movies of 2011


  1. Great post, D! We had some shared loves and I can't tell you how thrilled I am that you joined a book club and are enjoying it!! It's really one of my most favorite things to do each month!

    Can't wait to see what you read this new year!

  2. Awesome list! Always looking for new reads (and good suggestions to bring to our book club).

    Will definitely check out True Grit and am reading The Paris Wife now. Link up if you're on Goodreads :)


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