Sunday, December 11, 2011

Read in order to Live

Top Twelve Reads of 2011

"Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live."  - — Gustave Flaubert

My list of favorite books read in 2011 includes many more than these books. But I thought I would try to limit the list to the top twelve (I could not stop at ten)  that I read last year. So here they are in no particular order:

1. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
A modern Victorian romance set in early 1950s India that provides a window into the culture and history of India at that juncture in its history through a romance about a young girl, Lata, whose mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, is searching for a "suitable boy" for her to marry.  The novel covers two years of the lives of four Indian families in an all too short 1488 pages.

2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman
This is a Proust-like meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". The book resonated in my memory long after I finished it.

3. The Double Helix by James Watson
This is a memoir of a Nobel prize-winning Scientist that reads like a cross between a personal autobiography and a detective story. Add the insights into the imagination of one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century and you have a unique book. 

4. The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
I found this novel a spellbinding bildungsroman. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells the story of young boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay, becomes a champion boxer, and learns how to compete in the world of life.

5. Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan
The stories in this collection, which share the lives of everyone from entrepreneurs to beggars, all take place in and near the Indian village of Malgudi. The heart and the soul of the village is on display and we find it is a place where most people are haunted by illiteracy and unemployment. In spite of the ubiquity of the poor,  most of the stories demonstrate humorous good-natured episodes of their lives.

6. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Doors opened and closed, sunlight and shade, yesterdays and tomorrows; these are all motifs that come to mind as I remember the beauty of Colm Toibin's poignant novel. Brooklyn is the tomorrow when the novel begins and almost becomes the yesterday that is forgotten as Toibin shares the story of Eilis Lacey in his own unsensational way. 

7. The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy's trilogy (three novels that I'm counting as one) about the west includes:  All the Pretty Horses which combines intensely lyrical prose with the laconic wit of its cowboy protagonists; its sequel, The Crossing, sent two young brothers on a quest that plunged them into the bloody maelstrom of Mexican politics; and concludes with a book that is spare and almost allegorical in its storytelling, Cities of the Plain, a book that is bleaker in the telling even as the romanticism of John Grady Cole sparks continuing interest.

8. Fatelessness by Imre Kertesz
Nominally this is a story about a young boy who is sent to the Nazi concentration camps from his home in Budapest in the last year of World War II. Narrated in the first person by young Gyorgy Koves, the novel is the story of an outsider -- one who does not belong to any group or anyone even as he is brutally incarcerated and his life is severely restricted almost to the point of death. 

9. Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
The story of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel is one of two pairs of lovers, Stephen Crane and his wife Cora and the young prostitute Elliott and his lover Theodore the Banker, who are products of Stephen Crane's literary imagination. Rereading the novel this year I found it better than I remembered.

10. Red Lights by Georges Simenon
What do you do when you are rushing toward the unknown, possibly a dangerous situation, and you are unable to stop? Georges Simenon takes us through just such an experience in this novel and it is a delightfully exciting read.  Simenon, the epitome of a European novelist, has written one of the best American existentialist novels.

11. Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a literary cornucopia. This cornucopia melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature. 

12. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
The Secret Agent is considered to be one of Conrad's finest novels. I enjoyed it in part as a novel about the city of London. Yet Conrad wrote this novel more than a century ago and the story, set in London of 1886, it is still timely given the predominance of terrorism in the news today.

I am reluctant to stop at twelve books since I enjoyed many other books during the year, including some great Science Fiction (Dune, Daemon, et. al.) and others including classics and mysteries.  But this is enough of a retrospective for one cold December day. After some wassail and caroling let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!

No comments: