Year In Reading: 2011
Note: I originally guest-posted this on the wonderful blog thebooksnugglers.com. Read the original post here.
I’m never able to read as much as I want to read. That’s my lament, year after year. Still, even as my “to read” pile gets higher and higher, I somehow manage to read about forty to fifty books each year. And, among those books, there are always a select few that stand out. The following books are a few of my favorites of the year. If you read them, I hope you love them as much as I did.
Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady
First published in 1963 for young children (in the days before there was even a category called “young adult”), this macabre little masterpiece was happily reissued in the spring by Bloomsbury. Let’s Kill Uncle tells the story of two children who meet one summer on a remote Canadian island. Barnaby, the orphan, is there to spend time with his uncle/guardian, and Christie was sent away by her mother for the summer, presumably so she could get the child out of her hair for a few months. Barnaby and Christie are delightfully ill-behaved, always stumbling into mischief of some sort, but it’s impossible not to love them. But why won’t anyone on the island believe them when they realize that Barnaby’s creepy and wicked uncle is trying to kill him? That’s when the two children realize that they’ll just have to kill him first. Funny, dark, touching, full of local color and a vibrant cast of eccentric characters (including an escaped, aged cougar), Let’s Kill Uncle is a classic worth rediscovering.
In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
Beard’s debut novel is hilarious but also serious, and is brilliantly told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old girl growing up in Ohio in the 1970s. Not much happens here plot-wise—in many ways it’s the standard coming-of-age story, where an awkward girl suddenly discovers boys and deals with the indignities of daily life as a teenager. But Beard’s writing is so sharp, so exquisitely detailed, so witty, and so emotionally honest, that the story feels revelatory. I haven’t read many books that have taken me so deeply and convincingly inside the head of a female adolescent. Here’s just one of the narrator’s wonderfully wry observations: “I hate the phrase late bloomers. It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie women would wear under her sweaty calico dress.” Read this book and savor every sentence.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now by Ryan Van Meter
Ryan Van Mater’s collection of personal essays traces his life from boyhood to adolescence to adulthood—a life that is filtered through the lens of growing up gay. Van Meter has the special ability that all great writers have—he makes the personal feel universal. When I read these pieces—about trying on women’s clothes, about first love, about hating the outdoors—I nodded my head in recognition so many times that I almost got whiplash. The entire collection is a beauty. But it’s worth buying for the first essay alone, a gem entitled “First.” It will leave your heart aching, but in a good way.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
Already a finalist for the National Book Award this fall, don’t be surprised if Gary D. Schmidt’s novel wins the Newberry in a few weeks. It’s been almost universally acclaimed, and after reading it, I agreed with all the laudatory praise. It brims with life, and is about family, friendship, growing up, and the power of art to transform a life. If that makes it sound boring, well, trust me, it’s not. It’s actually a rip-roaring page-turner with a heart of gold.