My Favorite Reads of 2011

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Unlike movies, I rarely read books when they’re first released, especially hardcover fiction, so my favorite reads in any given year are usually a mix of backlist and “new” trade paperbacks. I also like to mix things up throughout the year, so I rarely read as deeply in any one genre as I might like to, and my to-read pile grows ever higher as I discover new-to-me writers with deep backlists that I’ll never have enough time to fully explore.

For the second year in a row I tracked my reading on Goodreads, and challenged myself to read more than I had in 2010 (20 books), initially setting the bar at 36 books before raising it mid-year to 50. Including a mix of graphic novels, novellas and short-story collections, I beat that goal by two books as of today, and am halfway through Eduardo Galleano’s Genesis, quite a book to end the year on!

Here are my five favorites (plus one honorable mention), in order of combined awesomeness and emotional impact, in what has arguably been one of the best years of reading in a long time, not just in quantity, but quality, too:

MockingbirdMockingbird by Kathryn Erskine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most books you read and review, but some just cut too close, so you simply demand that everyone read them because a review would be too reductive.

Mockingbird is an absolutely wonderful must-read, skillfully combining Asperger’s, To Kill a Mockingbird and the ripple effects of a tragedy on a small community; it had me in full-on tears by the end.

Go read it now! I insist.

Nine LivesNine Lives by Dan Baum
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book has all the rave reviews it needs, so let me not belabor the point. Nine Lives is an important book, a necessary book, a simultaneously heart-breaking and heart-warming, frustrating and inspiring book. Read it.

Now.

I expected the Katrina section to have the most impact, but Dan Baum does an excellent job of putting it in perspective by focusing on what really makes New Orleans special: its people. By starting with Hurricane Betsy and deliberately following these nine lives over the following 30+ years, he paints an insightful mosaic with poignant vignettes that alternately left me laughing, smiling, shaking my head, and choking back tears, all before he even gets to August 2005.

When it comes to that proverbial fantasy dinner party meme, I have a new answer: Timothy Bruneau, Belinda Carr, Billy Grace, JoAnn Guidos, Ronald W. Lewis, Frank Minyard, Joyce Montana, Wilbert Rawlins Jr., and Anthony Wells.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarMatterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There it is.”

Karl Marlantes juggles a large, diverse cast of complex characters (that sadly narrows over time), while deftly exploring one of America’s darkest periods from the proverbial fog of war with as close to a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental, nuanced hand as might be expected from an actual veteran. It’s a relentlessly gut-wrenching read that absolutely broke my heart on numerous occasions.

Read it.

The Influencing MachineThe Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We get the media we deserve,” declares NPR’s Brooke Gladstone in her excellent The Influencing Machine, an insightful graphic manifesto that sits comfortably alongside Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, both of whom make cameo appearances.

Gladstone, aided by Josh Neufeld’s seamless visuals, makes a compelling case that the ills that plague media today — mass and social — are nothing new, that “we’ve been here before: the incivility, the inanities, the obsessions, the broken business models. In fact, it’s been far worse and the Republic survives.”

What follows is a broad, contextual overview of the history of media, recounted with a healthy sense of humor, and a refreshing undertone of optimism. eg: Near the end of the book, in two pages, she covers Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity, Lanier’s skepticism, Planet of the Apes and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs… and it all makes sense!

“Graphic non-fiction” is a tricky format to pull off and not to everyone’s taste, but Neufeld does a great job complementing Gladstone without letting the medium overshadow her message, and any student of media, formally or arm-chair, should read The Influencing Machine without hesitation.

Kudos to W.W. Norton for taking a chance on such an innovative book, though it’s rather disappointing that the publisher of Frank Rose’s excellent The Art of Immersion has zero online presence for it. A missed opportunity, but one that should be easily (and quickly) rectified.

This Book Is Overdue!:How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us aThis Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us a by Marilyn Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love, love, LOVE this book! Johnson’s clear-eyed look at one of our most devalued resources, the librarian, is part love letter, part wake-up call. In the digital age, libraries and librarians are more important than ever, and Overdue presents a variety of examples that not only make that case, but illustrate how, in many ways, librarians are WAY AHEAD of the digital curve.

READ THIS BOOK! NOW!

HONORABLE MENTION – SELF-PUBLISHED

Make a MoveMake a Move by Steven Gaskin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps the European definition of “slacker” is different from my American interpretation, but categorizing Make a Move as a “slacker-thriller” feels unnecessarily narrow and reductive; like referring to Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder novels as “recovering alcoholic crime fiction.”

Steven Gaskin’s debut is a deliberate, methodical thriller which owes as much to its genre ancestors as it does the character-driven wave of indie movies from the 90s, and it’s no surprise that he notes Grosse Pointe Blank as an inspiration. Much like Block does with Scudder, Gaskin pays an atypical amount of attention to developing his engaging trio of lead characters — twenty-somethings at similar crossroads in their respective lives, but far from slackers — amplifying the story’s many thrills via empathy and smart dialogue instead of simply relying on well-worn genre tropes. Mind you, the tropes are all there: the violence, the double-crossing, the mysterious past, the bomb; but they never overshadow the characters, certain key events taking place completely off-page, experienced only in reflection or via their aftershocks.

Make a Move is a smartly paced, immensely enjoyable read that defies simple categorization. While there’s plenty enough genre elements to satisfy thriller fans, I think its appeal is far broader than that and highly recommend it.

*** Later this week, I’ll post my favorite movies and games, the two media that steal the most time from reading, but until then, let me know what some of your favorite reads were this year and why.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, sometimes poet, always opinionated. Beer, bourbon, books, games, running.

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