Saturday, December 31, 2011

Books I Liked in 2011

I knew it! You were just dying to know what books I really enjoyed this past year.

My favorite piece of adult fiction that I read was City of Thieves by David Benioff. It's a story about a Jewish boy during the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, and given that they are all starving, you wouldn't think it would be funny, but it is. (Funny in the way that Catch-22 is funny--a lot of absurdity!) In high school went through a period where I read a lot of Holocaust literature, but that is not the same as World War II literature, and I really knew nothing about the Siege of Leningrad.

My favorite piece of non-fiction that I read this year--alright, to tell the truth, I'm still only half-way through it--was (is?) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Through the lens of one woman's cells, and one woman's family, we learn about: her family history, as well as ethics and racism in medical research. Maybe that doesn't sound too scintillating, but it is really engrossing.

Update 1/1/12: I forgot to put in my favorite graphic book of the year. That book would be Feynman, by Jim Otavianni (author) and Leyland Myrick (illustrator), about Nobel prize-winner (quantum physicist) Richard Feynman. And Otavianni is an Ann Arbor resident!

As for children's books:

The best children's book that I read this year--and I just read it last week--is an older book, a Newbery Award winner from 1998. The book is Karen Hesse's Out of the Dust, about the Dust Bowl. It's written in free verse, and the sparing, short lines make the book a very quick read. (It is quick, but also there are some parts that are [mentally] difficult reading.) This children's literature site suggests that you could pair Out of the Dust with reading the book (and/or watching the movie) Grapes of Wrath.

I'll also mention four other children's and/or young adult authors:

Tamora Pierce has a newer book out, Mastiff, that I enjoyed. It's part of a young adult fantasy trilogy about Beka Cooper, a policewoman (Dog) in Tortall. I have pretty much enjoyed all of Tamora Pierce's books--although I will say that my daughter found them boring. But then, she doesn't like fantasy at all.

E. Nesbit is an author I keep coming back to. This summer I listened to The Phoenix and the Carpet (well, part of it--can you tell I sometimes stop in the middle and pick up the book again later?). However, my favorite book by E. Nesbit is The Railway Children. Here is a 1964 essay by Gore Vidal about E. Nesbit, in case you are interested.

Rick Riordan is in the middle of a series about Egyptian magicians, and my son has insisted that I read this series, as well as the Percy Jackson series (about the gods on Mt. Olympus). I have to admit that I give these series kind of middling grades (they are okay, but not fabulous). My son, however, disagrees and so I am sharing this with you because you might have an elementary- or middle-school child who would like to read these as well. Looking at Rick Riordan's biography (see the link above), I was surprised (but maybe I shouldn't have been) to see that, "For fifteen years, Rick taught English and history at public and private middle schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Texas. In 2002, Saint Mary’s Hall honored him with the school’s first Master Teacher Award." He also writes adult mysteries. Maybe I should try those.

John Feinstein must be one of the most prolific writers ever. If you've heard him on NPR, you might not know that he has a very interesting mystery series that is targeted at the young-adult, sports-loving audience. He's got two teen reporters--a girl and a boy--covering big sports events like the Final Four (Last Shot) and the World Series (Change-Up), and solving mysteries along the way. Both my son and I agree the whole series is quite good.

I don't get to spend much time with illustrated story books anymore--and I miss them--which is perhaps why I have found myself thinking about these two "vintage" books recently:

Lore Segal's Tell Me A Mitzi
Brinton Turkle's Rachel and Obadiah (and others in the Obadiah series like Thy Friend Obadiah and Adventures of Obadiah)


  1. I borrowed the audio version of "Out of the Dust" when my kids were in elementary school, but decided it was way too heavy and dark for them at that time, so I stopped the tape. However, I listened to the whole thing on my own. It's not a book I will forget. Very good, very intense.

    - YpsiAnon

    p.s. No worries about my early censorship. Both kids read very deep, heavy, and dark books all the time now!

  2. That point is very well taken! I think that Out of the Dust is not a book for young kids. . . middle school and up. . . In fact when I read it I thought, the narrative voice is a kid's but it's got enough sadness to be an adult book. On the other hand, the ending is happy-ish.

  3. Thanks for the suggestions, Ruth. I just requested 3 of the books at the library. May I share some of my favorites from 2011? In non fiction, I loved Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand about a survivor of prisoner of war camps in the Pacific WWII. For a graphic book, I liked Maus by Art Spiegelman. It is an interesting story within a story about his father. Another favorite was The Good Earth, a timeless story of China by Pearl S. Buck. Maybe sharing your favorite books should be a regular part of your blog? Would love to hear others.

  4. I'd love it if people would suggest books they enjoyed this year. (And if you liked Maus, you might like the sequel. . . Maus 2. Although I preferred the original Maus, Maus 2 is the second part of the story.)

    I do occasionally write about books, but there is another blogger in town who seems to mostly write about books. In fact, the reason I know about her is that she was the very first person to comment on this blog! Julie used to write a blog called Bookworm, but now she writes On the Curve. Find it at

    Someone pointed out to me Maggie Idzikowski's blog (I hope I'm spelling her name right). She has stopped blogging but she had a lot of great book reviews there:

    And maybe there are some others too. If you know them, list them please!

    Anyway, that's a long-winded way of saying, feel free to post your favorite books of 2011 here! And I will continue to occasionally write about books. . . but it probably won't be the main event.

  5. So neither of those blogs appear to have been updated in over a year. . . sorry!

  6. Here is a link to a non-local blogger about books, who says she's "promoting the love of books by children, and the continued reading of children's books by adults!" That sounds like my kind of blog. Find her at:

  7. When I showed my son the "Out of the Dust" book he said, "What is it about?" I said it was about the Dust Bowl and he said, "Why would I want to read about that?!"

    And that reminded me that some of the Newbery Books seem more adult than youth-oriented. . .

    It also made me laugh.

  8. They seem to clasify books with child main characters as youth books. In 7th grade, my daughter was assigned Shabanu, Girl of the Wind. It is a fantastic book but I ended up reading it out loud to her as it was quite beyond her reading level (lots of foreign words/concept/names). We both enjoyed it but it made me realize that young adult books are mostly adult books. The same way with The Book Thief.