My top 5 books of 2011

Last year I attempted to to read 26 books in 52 weeks, but unfortunately life got in the way and could only manage to get through 16. This year I contemplated doing the same challenge, but figured I’d just read as much as I could and not look for a goal, but I managed to read 16 again this year anyway. Oh, these are my favourite books that I’ve read this year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were published this year:

5. Between the Assassinations

Between the AssassinationsAravind Adiga’s Between the Assassinations was the second book I reviewed this year and I was really pleased with his second output.

The book features a series of ‘day in the life’ stories from people of (fictional) Kittur, India, shortly after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. With that lens it looks at many issues including: caste, sexual disease, drug problems, political corruption, the influx of villagers seeking a better life in the city, and much more.

As with many of the books that really speak to me, this one has very strong characters whose stories stick with you long after you’ve moved on from their tale.

4. Fall of Giants

Fall of GiantsIt seems like I’ve only read the biggest books by Ken Follett; first there was Pillars of the Earth, then World Without End and now Fall of Giants. Each of these were either a bit less or a bit more than 1000 pages, so they weren’t all that fun to read on public transit, but they were all very well written.

Fall of Giants is a fictional story based on history and takes place during the 13 1/2 years leading up to the First World War and it’s end. Each character introduced in the book cross paths at one point or another, whether it be an American diplomat coming to the aide of two Russian slum-raised teenagers, or Ethel the former housewife of Earl Fitzherbert of her village rising up in the political ranks and making an adversary of him in the process.

3. The Given Day

The Given DayWhen I saw The Given Day by Dennis Lehane I immediately picked it up. I’d read two of his other novels, Mysic River and Gone Baby Gone and really enjoyed his writing style. This one was a bit different though – still set in Boston the others, but this time in the 1930s.

The novel follows the two main storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer; the second follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. The two become intertwined as we see them separately take on issues of unions and race. Lehane does wonders with mingling the two lives and his writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page to take you back in time.

2. Steve Jobs: Biography

Steve Jobs I managed to get through Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson rather quickly (for my standards) and just posted my review for it a couple days ago, so have a look:

Review of the Steve Jobs biography

I was thinking it would make a great movie. Do you think any director could do it justice and live up to Jobs’s standards? There was a movie called The Pirates of Silicon Valley in 1999 and it starred Noah Wyle as Jobs. I haven’t seen it but I think this biography would make a bit more of an interesting story since so many of Jobs’s friends and enemies have spoken up about him. I also think Christian Bale would make a great Jobs.

1. The Help

The Help

The Help is set in the 1960s and looks at the issue of race relations in Jackson, Mississippi. The premise is ‘Skeeter’ a white woman is looking to the maids of the city to help her write a story from the point of view of ‘the help’. You just have to do a Google search and you’ll see it’s a book that has gotten as much flack as it has praise.

One interesting news article from September says Stockett stole her identity for the character of Aibileen. Her name is Abilene Cooper and she was the maid to Stockett’s brother for 12 years. Much of the similarities are the same, but the case was thrown out.

I feel at the very least the book is a great starting point for race discussions.

The Given Day offers a glimpse into America’s past

the given dayI’ve said it in my reviews of Boston-based movies like The Fighter or The Town, but there’s something about stories set in that city that draw me in – that’s what happened with The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.

When I saw this one the first thing that caught my eye was the time period – post-World War One America (mostly Boston). I thought I’d give it a try because I haven’t read too many books from that era and I’ve enjoyed Lehane’s writing (Mystic River is one of my favourite books).

The novel follows the two storylines. The first is that of Danny Coughlin, a Boston police officer. He’s caught in a battle to follow his father, Captain Thomas Coughlin’s wishes and rise through the ranks with his guidance and sway on the force, or be his own man and join the less popular, but more righteous fight to unionize the force (BPD strike, 1919)

The second storyline follows Luther Lawrence, an African American man who just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. After getting a chance to start a new life with his pregnant girlfriend in Tulsa, Oklahoma he gets caught up in the wrong crowd. Eventually Luther has to escape, by himself, to Boston where he finds work with the NAACP and Danny’s father, Thomas and on a mission to turn his life around.

In Danny’s story, I enjoyed the insight into how the Police operated as individual departments, and how officers were treated. In 1919, officers were expected to provide protection without question while going underpaid, living in dilapidated rooming houses and working with very little time off, among other issues. The powers that be justified it by saying they were public servants and should just accept it. It’s so astonishing to see how far as a society we’ve come. Unions now hold all the power in cases like the Police force, and the public servants are far better off than many private citizens.

Luther was a character I kept rooting for. No matter how much he wanted to succeed, some innate negative force just kept pulling him back. As soon as he thought he’d escaped his problems in Tulsa and was doing the right thing in Boston, Eddie McKenna, a dirty cop and friend of the Coughlin family decided to dig into Luther’s past. Over time, Luther became stronger, and through his relationship with Danny he developed the strength necessary to overcome – though it wasn’t by taking the high ground, necessarily.

My favourite part however, was a side story featuring baseball great, Babe Ruth. Throughout the book, we’re given a fictional glimpse into what his life may have been like during his time with the Red Sox. At the beginning, however, he comes upon Luther playing a ball game with some African American players. Ruth, along with other major leaguers having broken down in Ohio on their train ride to Boston, play a pickup game that leaves the two men with sour tastes in their mouths, and Ruth with lasting memories of Luther.

The Given Day is a lot to take in, in terms of storylines, but it’s such an appealing read. Lehane’s writing is full of imagery and the words jump off the page and take you back in time. At 733 pages, it’s a bit of a time consuming read, but I enjoyed every second of it. The Given Day gets a 4/5.

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