The Best Books of 2011

It’s the time of year for all the “Best Books of 2011” lists.  The New York Times has one; the Washington Post has one; Amazon has dozens.  But what could be more informative than the best books of the Doherty Library staff.  So here’s our picks for the best book we’ve read this year.  Most are available at Doherty.

The best book I read this year was The New Collected Poems of George Oppen, edited by Michael Davidson. Oppen is an important but under-read 20th-century American poet (1908-1984) notable for the formal rigor of his lines, the ethical and political consistency in both his life and his work, and his sincere and humble interest in philosophy. He also has a practice of including unattributed quotations in his poems, as well as oblique references to people like Heidegger and Maritain, so the well-researched explanatory notes by Davidson are essential. I see both Oppen’s craftsmanship and his ethical commitment to clarity and truth as inspirational and exemplary in American poetry.     — Joe Goetz

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

The black and white photography on the book sleeve of odd children drew me in.  I just couldn’t resist.

Currently I am the type of reader that likes to read before I go to sleep.  I am usually asleep within 5 to 10 minutes, so I never get through a chapter in one reading.  This behavior usually leads me in the direction of getting tired of a novel quickly and not finishing it.                                                         

With this book, I continue to go back to it when I am not too exhausted and I don’t mind reading back a page or two to refresh my memory.  There seems to be enough interesting tidbits to make me keep going.

All the crazy things that goes on in the head of the lead character has either gone on in my own mind in the past or actually still goes on in my head.  This connection with the character allows me in a way to become the character.  Riggs leads the reader to remember their own youth in the sense of when and how we find out about the past lives of our parents and grandparents.  Plus, how this new found knowledge affects us, in that those adults become more like real people rather than on a pedestal and yet they are still our heroes despite their faults.

Although the grandfather’s death did not make me cry which is how I usually gauge books and movies –  my emotions should be totally drawn in — I found that the 3 generations that are affected by WWII is a theme that draws me in for the ride. Plus the mystery of what happened to the children is silently keeping me going.  With this easy to read 300page book, I still have a ways to go but I refuse to give up!     –Sylvia Coy

The three stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick.

Returning from the edge of the universe no longer quite human, Palmer Eldritch comes bearing a gift for a beleaguered, desperate world: the chance to glimpse the divine. But what price does such a gift carry? And what is Eldritch’s agenda?

Written by Philip K. Dick (arguably the most important science fiction writer of the 20th century), The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is an imaginative exploration of humankind’s attempts and failures to know the unknowable. Dick touches on a variety of concepts in this novel – consumerism, governmental control, the nature of reality – but The Three Stigmata… is ultimately concerned with questions of a theological nature, the most central being how a human being can understand God.

What I love about The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is the way it tackles deep philosophical questions while remaining a fun, gripping story. This is a very readable, mind bending book that will provide a reading experience you will not find anywhere else.     — Nick Kowalski

Green Angel and Green Witch by Alice Hoffman

The most interesting book I have read this year is actually a set of two books that are classified as Young Adult but when I read them I was transported beyond any artificial classification.The books tell a very tragic story and yet the beauty of the telling is enchanting.I pasted excerpts from the books into my journal and my 10 year old grandson read the excerpts and exclaimed, “This is poetry!”

Left on her own when her family dies in a terrible disaster when a nearby city is destroyed by a group known as the Horde, fifteen-year-old Green is haunted by loss and by the past. Struggling to survive physically and emotionally in a place where nothing seems to grow and ashes are everywhere, Green retreats into the ruined realm of her garden.

It is only through a series of mysterious encounters that Green can relearn the lessons of love and begin to heal enough to tell her story. Aided by the wisdom of four neighbors said to be witches, she sets off in an attempt to free prisoners from the Horde’s prison and to test the waters of her own strength and capacity for love. (From the publisher & Amazon)

Here are some excerpts –

I live alone in my cottage, deep in the woods. I rarely go into the village. I’m too busy working in my garden. I wear simple clothes: a green shirt, a faded skirt, green suede boots or bare feet.  I tie up my long black hair with string.  People in the village are polite. But they stare at me because of my tattoos even though I am their neighbor and they all know my name, Green, who can be depended upon. Green, who has walked through to the other side of sorrow.

*  All through winter, people came to me when they were hungry.  There is something else I ‘m known for.  Another reason to come to me.  I tell their stories.

*  One after another they sit at my kitchen table, where my mother once shelled peas, my father drank his coffee, rich with sugar and cream, where my sister painted watercolors of our family, our garden, our life. It’s here that the townspeople tell me stories of their lives.

* I began by writing on myself, ink and pins on my own skin.  I covered myself with tattoos, but when I was done, I still had more stories to tell.  I started to write on clean white pages, the last of the paper that was left.  Before long I had written down so many stories, I ran out of paper. I began to make my own. I used chopped up rags and celery stalks, boiled oak leaves, water, ground chestnut flour. When I ran out of ink, I made my own from the sap of black lilies.

*  Though I could barely see his face, I knew this boy was diamond.  I could tell who he was when I touched his arm.  When Ghost curled up at the boy’s feet, when Onion didn’t growl, when the sparrows ate crumbs from his hands, when the hawk perched on his shoulder, I knew I could let him stay.  I called him Diamond… Something inside him shone through the dark even though he kept his face hidden. .. . I could see something bright everywhere he’d walk.  It was almost like having moonlight again.

*  From the dock we can see the prison.  I am ready.  I take a stone, a feather, a rose petal, a fish hook.  I have to go alone.

I am Green, used to being alone in the garden. Green, who can make anything grow.  I hasten through the reeds and the tall grass as if I were invisible.  Just Green, nothing more.

I try to become the meadow I’m walking through.  I breathe and think like a meadow.

The horde must think I’m a weed, a vine, nothing worth paying attention to.

*How much does love weigh?  As much as a stone, a feather, a rose petal, a leaf.  It’s more than we can ever bear and less than we have the strength to carry.                                                                                                                        

*  The city is not what it once was – buildings have fallen down, parks have burned, trains still don’t run.  All the same, it’s filled with stories, far too many to count.  Too many to ever write down in a single lifetime.

*  They say our gardens are gone, but they’re wrong.  There are already roses growing outside my door.       — Pat Gerson

The best book I read in 2011 was Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy by Rumer Godden.   At the beginning the novel seems sensational rather than metaphysical even though the title refers to the fifteen decades of the Roman Catholic rosary.  And the culminating crisis in the novel is a little melodramatic but by then as a reader I didn’t care.  Five for Sorrow, Ten for Joy is such an engrossing novel that all I knew was that I couldn’t stop reading.  And I left the novel filled with a sense of peace and beauty that doesn’t usual come in a novel of prostitutes, poverty, prison, and murder.    The basic plot entails the story of a French Madame and manager of a whore house who kills her lover and goes to prison for ten years and then becomes a nun in the order of Dominicans, the Sisters of Béthanie.  The main character Elizabeth Fanshawe becomes Madame Ambard, also known by the name of La Balafrée (The Branded One), and eventually Sister Marie Lise of the Rosary.  Falling into a novel and being consumed by it is an experience that I, as an academic librarian who reads for a living, don’t often have anymore. But the worlds of the story are so beautifully created that it’s impossible not to.  Although the entire novel takes place in the years following World War II, the whore house sections feel like the 19th century French nightlife represented by the artist Toulouse-Lautrec while the convent scenes transport the reader to a mysterious medieval world, and the prison scenes could have taken place during pre-revolutionary France.  Not until the very end of the novel does it strike the reader that the story is taking place in the modern 1970’s.  This sense of timelessness and time are because Sr. Maria Lise of the Rosary gives her self up completely – and eventually to God.  God does not live within time – all time is one to Him.  Our lives, like that of Sr. Marie Lise of the Rosary, move seamlessly from joy to sorrow to joy again, and within the joy there is always sorrow and within the sorrow is joy.  — Mary Kelleher

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