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favorite books of 2011

It’s that time of year again: roundup posts. If you’ve read my book posts before (see here, here and here) you know that I read…a lot. More than you would think a mom of two small children has time for. But it’s my zen; my “me” time. My falling-asleep-with-Kindle-in-hand time.

Here they are, my favorite books that I have read last year. I’m like Oprah. But white. And I won’t give you a car. But you can borrow my minivan if you really, really need to.

Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante

A retired surgeon with severe dementia wakes to a world where her best friend is murdered; the fingers of the dead woman’s hand removed with surgical accuracy. Did she do it? She has no idea.

The Likeness by Tana French

A follow-up to the less interesting In the Woods, detective Cassie Maddox is back and arrives on the scene of another murder. The dead girl? The spitting image of Cassie herself. Going undercover as the deceased turns out to be easier than Cassie ever imagined, and she quickly gets in too deep with her new-found friends. Don’t bother with the prequel or sequel, but this book is stunning.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

Ten stories teeter the border between fantasy and reality, all of them planted in gorgeously constructed settings (gator-infested Everglades, a floating retirement home where manna rays are pets, amusement parks full of story-tall conch shells). And then there are the humans: brothers cave dive for the ghost of their sister, wolf-girls retaliate against the nuns who try to tame them, a family scrapes by wresting alligators for a few admission tickets. I think the definition of a good book is one that stays with you. Every story in St. Lucy’s has stuck with me, which makes it great.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks died of cancer, and doctors (without permission) took samples of her cells postmortem. Every other time doctors tried to grow cancer cells in a lab (in hope to experiment and, eventually, to find a cure), the cells died. Henrietta’s, on the other hand, lived. This story is of the aftermath of that ill-gotten sample; how it made companies worldwide millions and the Lacks family nil. Much is told through the author’s firsthand interviews with Henrietta’s family. Her troubled daughter Deborah sadly believes that since her mother’s cells are still alive that her mother is still out there somewhere, too.

Moloka’i by Allan Brennert

In 1891 Hawaii, a young girl is ripped from her family and sent to the desolate island of Moloka’i—to a “leper” colony. There she grows up, enduring the social stigma, pain and isolation her condition causes her and those like her. This breathtaking novel follows Rachel from birth to death, through wars, tsunamis, marriage, and the ups and downs of her disease. It’s a remarkable ride.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway was kind of a philandering jerk. And his first wife Hadley was kind of too nice and too in love to do anything about it. Even though I wanted to smack him for straying and smack her for staying, I’d still read this remarkable book again.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett has had her ups (Truth and Beauty, one of my favorite books of all time) and downs (Run). State of Wonder is a triumphantly high “up.” A pharmacologist goes searching for her missing colleague deep in the Amazon, only to run into her blunt, unapologetic mentor, tribes of cannibals, anacondas, and scientific miracles. The moment you finish the last page you’ll want to start over at the beginning.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

No, it’s not a vampire book. Mr. and Mrs. Fang have dedicated their lives to “performance art,” which usually means creating horribly awkward social situations in which their children are the stars (i.e. coercing the kids into stealing candy, getting caught, and raising a ruckus, just to “see what happens”). Needless to say, it’s not an ideal environment to grow up in, and when Buster and Annie are compelled to return home as adults, they find out that their parents have planned one final epic performance.

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson

I was so enthralled by The Family Fang that I immediately read Kevin Wilson’s collection of short stories. Much like St. Lucy’s, the stories walk the border between fantasy and reality. A man works for Worst Case Scenario Inc., a company that calculates the chances of distaster in any given situation; a family settles their late mothers’ estate by folding paper cranes and letting them fly in a room of fans (last crane to land wins the house); a young woman works in a Scrabble factory collecting Q’s. It’s not a world you’ll want to inhabit, but it’s a nice view from the outside.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

True crime books are some of my favorites, and to read the original that spawned the genre is thrilling. Capote weaves such an intricate tale that you’ll be guessing the guilt and innocence of the Clutter murderers until the last page, even if you already know the story. A classic.

Happy new year to all of you, and I wish you a 2012 full of love, laughter, great food and wonderful, wonderful books.

What have been your favorite reads this year?