Tag Archives: 2011 Review

Best Books of 2011

Tea Obrecht’s novel is on the NY Times Best of 2011 list

We are nearing 2012, which means every critic worth her salt has a list of the best books of 2011. Here are some of my favorites:

Library Journal’s Best Books of 2011

The NY Times 10 Best Books of 2011

Goodreads Best Books of 2011 (this lists is readers’ choices)

Slate Magazine’s Best Books of 2011

Audible.com’s Best Audiobooks of the Year

NPR’s Lists of Critics’ Picks for Best Books of 2011


Book Review: Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

This book is quiet and powerful grouping of short stories that ends up feeling more like a novel. Each story is imbued with a bit of sorrow and includes varying viewpoints with all stories connecting through the title character, Olive Kitteridge- the story may be told through her vantage point or contain a scant mention of her name in one line of text. Author, Elizabeth Strout, has provided us with a myriad of richly nuanced characters and such a familiarity with their town that we end up feeling like we have lived our lives there too. We are presented with Olive Kitteridge, an extremely flawed woman that more often invokes feelings of dislike and perhaps, empathy, rather than stoking our feelings of pure understanding. I don’t mean this as a negative. In fact, I had a hard time putting the book down.

The stories always remind me of the song lyrics by Neko Case, “the most tender place in my heart is for strangers; I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous.” We see Olive excel at calling up kindness when the lives of strangers are at stake as in the stories, “Incoming Tide” and “Starving”, mixed in with stories showcasing her complete lack of understanding for her family at best and her brutal ungratefulness to them at worse. But, the author lets us know there is a reason for her regarding her husband’s unconditional love for her and gentleness towards everyone he meets as preposterous. The book also includes a story entitled, “A Different Road”, that chillingly summons up “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor and provides a turning point for the title character.

I encountered this well-written Pulitzer Prized Winning book, “Olive Kitteridge”, by reading it for a women’s book group in Chicago. We all agreed that Olive was a hard woman to love but that her extremely flawed existence was what provides so much interest in this tale. It was also the first book during my tenure in the group that we unanimously agreed upon enjoying.

Book Review: Up in an Old Hotel – Joseph Mitchell

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

In 1929, a 21 year-old farmer’s son from Fairmont, NC moved to New York City to try his hand at journalism. He ended up documenting the extraordinary lives of ordinary people – bartenders, street preachers, gypsies, and bums – with such honesty and interest that they seem like old friends. Mitchell may have been one of the first reporters to profile non-famous people; he certainly remains one of the best. One of the best things about his writing is the sense you get that he genuinely likes the people he interviews, and – what’s more – he just genuinely likes people. The age of the essays (ranging from the 1930s to the 1950s) provides a nice glimpse into how much times have changed, and how much human nature hasn’t. In an increasingly polarized and suspicious world, Mitchell’s enthusiasm for his fellow cranks is infectious; you may come away from this book liking your neighbors a little better, or at least better able to empathize with their quirks.

Book Review: Life and Times of an American Legend – Larry Tye

Satchel: the Life and Times of an American Legend by Larry Tye

    This recommendation comes a little late for Black History Month, but it’s just in time for baseball season. If either subject is up your alley, this book is worth reading; if you happen to be interested in both, it’s a gold mine. Author Larry Tye spent years unraveling the mystery behind the life of one of his boyhood baseball icons with great success, getting the meat of his research from
interviews with Satchel’s friends and family, fellow players and managers, and descendants thereof. Still, Satchel Paige is a man to whom mystery clings like a sweaty baseball jersey on a hot Mobile afternoon, mostly because of the lack of solid statistics and press coverage for thousands of Negro League games in the 1920’s-40’s. Thankfully, plenty of testimony survives about this truly American character.
    Born the seventh of twelve children in a Mobile ghetto, Leroy Robert Page quickly rose from his obscure beginnings to become by his mid-twenties the most popular pitcher in then-segregated black professional baseball. Those who saw him perform in his heyday say he had an unparalleled fastball, to which he soon added an arsenal of curves, slowballs and breakers, all executed with pinpoint control. Anecdotes of Paige antics are plenty, like the one about him winning accuracy contests by knocking over matchboxes placed on homeplate, or telling his entire outfield to retire to the dugout as their services wouldn’t be necessary, and proceeding to strike out the opposing side. The ultimate showman on the mound, Paige sometimes sounds like the kind of towering figure who was more tall tales than substance, and Paige himself certainly did nothing to dispel his own myths. Tye did manage to get to the bottom of the one about Satchel’s age, forever a source of sportswriter conjecture, thereby substantiating Paige’s standing record for being the oldest pitcher ever to throw in a Major League game (he was 59). But could Paige actually, as he estimated, have pitched 5,000 complete games over his career, winning 2,000? There’s no way of telling for sure, but if you ask me, that’s part of his appeal.
    One irrefutable truth about Paige is that he used his tremendous talent to build his own legend, and in so doing defied Jim Crow America to live life on his own terms. In a sport full of eccentric characters, Satchel comes close to outshining everybody as a fast-driving, barnstorming, contract-jumping, wisdom-dispensing ace who is fondly remembered by players and fans on both sides of the race barrier. A fun summer read.

Book Review: The Spellmans Strike Again – Lisa Lutz

The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz

The Spellmans Strike Again (released March 2010) is author Lisa Lutz’s fourth installment of her mystery series told from the vantage point of 32-year-old private investigator Isabel “Izzy” Spellman as she looks to take on the family’s PI business. The series has been known for its refreshingly clever, sharp witted, and fast paced storylines, not to mention its quirky cast of characters, and this book provides more of the same. And more of the same is simply fantastic when it involves the (almost) always hilarious, screenplay-esque dialogue of the Spellman family as they wield their investigative skills out in the world but mostly within their family. This edition helps to answer the questions: How did “Izzele’s” octogenarian, court ordered lawyer(1) convince his wife to move back to “San Fran”? Why have all of Izzy’s parents’ (Olivia and Albert) doorknobs gone missing? Could the ever-dashing neat freak best friend to her little sister Rae, Inspector Henry Stone, be potential ex-boyfriend #13? What piece of blackmail does Olivia possess that convinces Izzy to suffer through two mandated lawyer dates (with sound recorded proof, of course!) a month? The Spellmans Strike Again also takes on a more serious question about prisoners on death row: Were Schmidt(2) and Merriweather wrongly convicted and imprisoned?

This book is an excellent selection for fan’s of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. In a genre that has been dominated by a few key players, the author has offered up a fresh voice and provided a gateway for readers who delight in quality fiction novels with strong female characters. Beginning with her first words in The Spellman Files (being made into a movie), Ms. Lutz, offers up a lead character, who is sure to become a character you will cheer on and laugh with while simultaneously cringing at her antics (she wasn’t provided a court-ordered counselor for nothing). And I would be remiss not to mention the book’s secondary main character of Izzy’s teenage sister, Rae, who shows a keen panache for investigative work and an insatiable penchant for junk food. This has been the number one book (and series)(3) that I have been recommending to all my fellow book-lovers this year!

1 Read Curse of the Spellmans for more details on one, Morty Schilling.
2 See http://freeschmidt.com.
3 Don’t forget! Read the series in order!