top books of 2011

Thanks to an English degree followed by several years of book reviewing and editing, over the past decade I completely fell out of the habit of reading for pleasure. Hence my new year’s resolution for 2011 was to read more.

I don’t think I had ever bothered making a new year’s resolution before, but this one worked out rather well for several months, until I started reviewing again and the fun-reading immediately dried up. (Currently all books are stuck in a queue behind one that is so bad I can’t bear to finish it.) Nonetheless, I hope to redouble my efforts in 2012, so please be so kind as to recommend me some good books in the comments and I’ll add them to my reading list.

Of the books that I did read this year, the following were my favourites, and I recommend them without reservation. In no significant order:

How I Escaped My Certain Fate – Stewart Lee
It is very difficult to write well about comedy, still more so to write about your own comedy; yet Stewart Lee succeeds with ingenuity and wisdom, and without disappearing up his own arse. Alongside his dissection of his own oeuvre, he provides a potted history of alternative comedy of the past few decades, plus affectionate/bitchy comment upon various contemporary stand-ups.

Mrs P’s Journey – Sarah Hartley
It seems I enjoyed this far more than the average Amazon user! What’s not to like, haters? The first half reads like a jaunty novel, as the titular Mrs P – Phyllis Pearsall, creator of the London A-Z – is born to histrionic parents who act like dicks fairly consistently until she skips off to live under a bridge in Paris. When she grows up, she takes the unprecedented step of compiling an exhaustive street map of London, which involves her walking every single street then drawing it up by hand. Google Maps make it so easy to take cartography for granted now, but it must have been a major ball-ache in the past. I mean, ‘labour of love’.

Lint – Chris Ware
I don’t have much appetite for graphic novels/comics (choose whichever term angers you least), but I do love Chris Ware. In many other graphicnovelcomics, I find the visual aspect is only illustrating the story, so not telling me much I didn’t already learn from the words and slowing down the book to boot; whereas in books like this, the visuals ingeniously convey the story of a man’s life from conception to death. Depressing, but that goes with the territory.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes – Anita Loos
I borrowed this from my friend Will, who had read it for his book group and emerged thoroughly perplexed by it. I’m not sure what baffled him so acutely; it’s quite straightforward, although a good deal different to the film. Originally a series of magazine columns in Harper’s Bazaar in the early 1920s, it’s the diary of the gold-digging blonde Lorelei – Marilyn Monroe’s faux-naive character in the film, but rather sharper here – as she seeks a wealthy husband. One thing I learnt from this book is that although I’m generally a massive pedant, I do enjoy a Character Spelling Mistake.

Sisters by a River – Barbara Comyns
More Character Spelling Mistakes here, although not deliberate ones in this fictionalised account of the author’s childhood, in a rambling country house overrun by siblings and rambunctious parents. That’s usually a good set-up for a book, isn’t it? As it proves here, and very charmingly so. Eccentric without trying.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day – Winifred Watson
A very sweet, cheering short novel, wherein a series of mistakes propels sad middle-aged spinster Miss Pettigrew into a joyous new Roaring 30s existence. I’ve never been disappointed by any book from Persephone Books, partly because they seem to favour the early-20th century period of literature of which I am very fond, and partly because the volumes are very pretty.

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3 Comments to “top books of 2011”

  1. Bit late to the party here, but books I enjoyed in 2011 include Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, The Quiet American and Return of the Native, and I have just started and am greatly enjoying John Lanchester’s Whoops!, though I fear it may not get finished too soon.

    I am currently in the midst of an Eng lit master’s degree, after a straight four years of an Eng lit BA. I am starting to feel the death of the reading-for-fun impulse, certainly at least in term time. Bear up. You’ve only got to keep reviewing for another, oh, forty years till pension time, when you can do all the reading for fun you want.

  2. I would recommend Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It’s the story of an Australian who lives in Mumbai for ten years. Really rather good at showing you the Indian culture in all its seedy, glorious mess.

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