The Chicken Spaghetti Gift Guide 2011
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Norman's Best Books of 2011

Once again I’ve asked my husband, Norman, to write about his best books of the year. Norman is always on the lookout for good suggestions and likes the reviews in the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, the Wall Street Journal, People, and Oprah, as well as the ones on NPR.

Take it away. It's all yours, Norm. (See also Norman's Best Books of 2009 and 2010.)

I’ve read many good books this year, so I am happy that once again Susan asked that I share some of my favorites with Chicken Spaghetti readers. My top 5 books are Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, This Beautiful Life by Helen Schulman, Long Drive Home by Will Allison, Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrère (translated from the French by Linda Coverdale), We the Animals by Justin Torres, and The Free World by David Bezmozgis. Yes, that’s 7 books but I didn’t have the heart to drop 2 of these great reads.

Rules of Civility and The Hare with Amber Eyes are favorites that I encouraged Susan to read (as in, “Have you read it yet? Have you? Have you?”), and I have given both as gifts to others. Rules of Civility, by first-time author Amor Towles, is a wonderful story of three young people in New York City circa 1938. I was so taken by the characters when not reading the book I often found myself thinking about the them. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes is a true story of family, survival, and art, and the fact that Mr. de Waal is an artist (he’s a ceramist) comes through in his vivid and detailed descriptions of palaces, furniture, and his family’s collection of netsuke (small, Japanese carvings of boxwood and ivory).

This Beautiful Life and Long Drive Home were well-told stories about how mistakes (and in the case of Long Drive Home a tragic mistake) can destroy a family. Lives Other Than My Own and We the Animals were deeply moving books, with the former containing two gracefully told stories of loss and the latter being a wild ride of a book that reminded me of the writing of Junot Diaz. David Bezmozgis’s The Free World is about the Krasnansky Family as they flee Latvia in 1978 and have to spend months in Italy before they can emigrate to their final destination. The Free World was the best of the books I read by the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” noteworthy authors, though The Tiger’s Wife (Téa Obreht) and Swamplandia! (Karen Russell) weren’t far behind. (Notice how I snuck in two more must reads!)

Though not in my Best of the Best grouping, I also would recommend the following well-written novels: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, To Be Sung Underwater by Tom McNeal, Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin (translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim), Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman, Bent Road by Lori Roy, Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, Faith by Jennifer Haigh, Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, The Submission by Amy Waldman, and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion by Ron Hansen. I also add to this grouping The Marriage Plot, but I have to admit that it took me several chapters before I fully got into the story, and the book was not nearly as captivating as Jeffrey Eugenides’s last book, Middlesex.

While novels are usually my favorite books, I was very glad to have read An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (an outstanding memoir), Just Kids by Patti Smith (one of the best stories of love, friendship, and coming of age in New York), Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (a fascinating story about the author’s parents and their multitude of challenges living in Africa), An Exclusive Love: A Memoir written by Johanna Adorján and translated from the German by Anthea Bell (the story of Adorján’s grandparents who survived the Holocaust but couldn’t bear the thought of living without one another in the final years of their lives), and The Empty Family by Cólm Toibín (a short story collection by the author of the excellent 2009 novel Brooklyn).

A few lighter reads that proved to be entertaining include An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, My New American Life by Francine Prose, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (translated from the German by Tim Mohr), and Starting from Happy by Patricia Marx. And, lastly, what would a year be without a few good mysteries, where Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson and A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny were among my favorites.

Happy reading in 2012,
Norman

Comments

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Thanks, Norman! Glad you enjoyed The Radioactive Lady.

Oh, I always love Norman's recap of the year's best. Thanks, y'all!

Hello Norman,

I totally concur with Rules of Civility--I loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot and liked it much better than Middlesex. However, the book that topped my list this year was Swamplandia. Give it a go. Sure, it's all Southern and swampy, but the writing is just fabulous.

Hope y'all had great holidays and we'd love to see you soon!

Cindy

Wow Norman, Bill and I are looking forward to reading these. Thanks. Bill wonders how fast you read??

Thanks for your comments...

Cindy, I read Swamplandia and liked it (there is a brief mention of it in the posting). Have you read "Citrus County" by John Brandon?, It is also a novel about children set in rural Florida. I thought it was very well written and just as good as Swamplandia.

Jane, I am not a fast reader, but I find myself reading throughout the day (at the gym on a stationary bike, at lunch, and in the evenings and weekends). I'm lucky to be a small book group with 3 other people who have excellent taste in books and push me to read some books that I would not ordinarily read.

Michelle, I enjoy your posts about food and thought about you and Steve when I read a book last year called The One Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard Morais. It is a really good book about a chef and his family, and it takes place in India, England, and (mostly) France. I don't always agree with Booklist, but I do agree with its description of the book as follows, "This novel, of mythic proportions yet told with truly heartfelt realism, is a stunning tribute to the devotion to family and food, in that order. Bound to please anyone who has ever been happily coaxed to eat beyond the point of fullness, overwhelmed by the magnetism of just one more bite."

Elizabeth, I first learned of your book, Revenge of the Radioactive Lady in The New Yorker, and was glad I did. I look forward to reading your next novel.

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