top 10 books of 2011

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Since July I’ve been knee deep in books. Literally. My roommates will tell you – I have books lying all around the house in varying states of disarray. If I have less than 20 books lying in piles around my room, I consider that poor form and rush to the bookstore. Wish I was kidding. “When I get a little money, I buy books. If any is left, I buy food and clothes.” – Erasmus

So because I’ve read more books in the past six months than I normally do in three years (one of many benefits to quitting the j-o-b), and because I know people like lists, I decided to make a Top 10 list that probably nobody will care about.

Here’s my Top 10 Books of 2011:

10. Anthill – E.O. Wilson

anthill cover image, e.o. wilsonGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “It was his island in a meaningless sea.”

Who would have thought ants could be so interesting? This is the story of Raff Cody, a southern boy battling the insanity of the world in all its complexity. Cody is a very rounded out protagonist: subtle but complex, passionate but not overzealous, and he fights throughout the novel to save a small tract of uninhabited land in Alabama. This protagonist had a distinct penchant for compromise. Most protagonists in our favorite stories are uncompromising men and women, and people view this as a heroic attribute. Rightly so, but sometimes it’s a man’s ability to compromise that makes him heroic, his ability to find the middle ground in a very tactful, albeit straightforward manner. Raff Cody does just that. Overall, this book was extremely well written and hosted a bevy of literary tools I can only hope to emulate in my own writing.

The climax could have used a bit of work, I thought, but who am I to criticize a Pulitzer Prize winner?

9. City of Thieves – David Benioff

city of thieves, david benioffGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “The loneliest sound in the world is other people making love.”

A recent read, what struck me about City of Thieves was not the storyline so much, nor the characters (even though Kolya is an amazingly formulated one at that!), but rather the writing style. Framing his novel in the epically destitute and dreary setting of the siege of Leningrad during World War II, David Benioff paints a visual of Russian culture not many people have seen from an American writer. And he does this with a plot that revolves around two men of completely opposite natures searching far and wide for, quite simply, a dozen eggs. Easier said than done during a siege.

It’s easy to picture what Benioff puts down in words, describing only the necessary details, not delving too deep, and allowing the reader to toy with the setting and appearance of the characters, altering them to their heart’s content without losing the soul of the story. And with one hell of a climax, plus a neat final sentence (relates directly to one line in the first chapter), this book  has a very deserving spot in this top 10 list.

8. The Orc King – R.A. Salvatore

the orc king, r.a. salvatoreGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “…if dominance is attained and then maintained through strength of arm alone, then it is no victory, and it cannot be a permanent ordering.”

The title of this novel just screams “nerd.” R.A. Salvatore is an action-based, character-driven writer I discovered right out of college. I had always noticed his novels on Borders’ shelves, but when I finally picked up the first book in the very extended linear series of Drizzt Do’Urden, I was hooked. I read his first 10 books in two months and only tore myself away because I hadn’t read anything else in that time.

The Orc King is the continuation of Salvatore’s brilliance in his uncanny ability to discuss real-world issues via a fictional world filled with fictional characters and fictional plot lines. Whether it’s our inborn fear of death, of change, of discrimination, or of being alone, Salvatore captures it relentlessly in every novel. Racism and prejudice, fomented over millenia between two races, are the dominant themes in The Orc King. The reader identifies this trend while being sucked inexorably into the fast-moving, battle-filled storyline, and I think everyone who has read this hoped the dwarven king, Bruenor Battlehammer, would be able to look past his lifelong prejudices and realize that maybe his people could live in harmony with orcs.

But did he? You’ll just have to read it . . . along with the 16 books that precede it.

7. A Game of Thrones (reread) – George R.R. Martin

a game of thrones, george r.r. martinGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “‘Remember this boy. All dwarfs may be bastards, yet not all bastards need to be dwarfs.’ And with that he turned and sauntered back into the feast, whistling a tune. When he opened the door, the light from within threw his shadow clear across the yard, and for just a moment Tyrion Lannister stood as tall as a king.”

An engaging storyline filled with lords and peasants, kings and knights, princes and whores, A Game of Thrones has reached such a success threshold in part, I think, in that it caters directly to our classical view of the Middle Ages. Chock-full of knights in shining armor, mercenaries searching for a thrill and some coin, rulers passing ridiculous edicts and hanging criminals, and classy brothels where the word AIDS doesn’t exist, this first novel in an incredible fantasy saga is the best of all five thus far published.

Complete with boundless political intrigue, dark plots and tongue-curdling betrayals, this novel represents everything a fantasy novel should be. However, I wouldn’t have minded more descriptive fight scenes. But that’s just me!

6. Tao Te Ching – Lao Tsu

tao te ching, lao tzuGenre: Religion / Spiritual / Philosophy

Favorite line: “Accept disgrace willingly; Accept misfortune as the human condition.” AND “Yield and overcome; Bend and be straight; Empty and be full; Wear out and be new; Have little and gain; Have much and be confused.”

The Tao Te Ching (pronounced more like dow day ying) is the central spiritual text upon which Taoism is based. This book, like the Christian Bible or the Muslim Qur’an, forms the basis upon which the entire belief system was founded. While many of the passages are slightly ambiguous, especially for those not familiar with eastern philosophy, the book provides an incredibly on-point doctrine in regard to how we should live our lives simply and peacefully and “become as a little child once more.” (you Christians hearing anything familiar here?) It discusses how we should avoid extremes and excesses while never becoming complacent. Minimalists will find a common resting ground in this short book, as well: “He who is attached to things will suffer much.”

I strongly – STRONGLY – recommend that everyone read this book. You don’t have to understand everything (I didn’t), but some key messages may strike home in one of the 81 short passages. And don’t say you don’t have time. You could legitimately read the Tao Te Ching in an hour.

And lastly, probably one of my favorite quotes and one from which we can all learn: “Keep your mouth shut, guard the senses, and life is ever full.” Einstein had a similar philosophy when he said: “If A equals success, then the formula is A equals X plus Y and Z, with X being work, Y play, and Z keeping your mouth shut.”

5. The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly

the book of lost things, john connollyGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: “He always touched the faucets in the bathroom and the handles of the doors a certain number of times: odd numbers were bad, but even numbers were fine, with two, four, and eight being particularly favorable, although he didn’t care for six because six was twice three and three was the second part of thirteen, and thirteen was very bad indeed.”

This was a book I distinctly remember picking up in Borders this past summer. The cover artwork grabbed me immediately and I read most of the first chapter before I realized I’d been standing in someone’s way for quite a bit of time. Effectively parodying the classical fairytale, going so far as to open the book with “Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin,” The Book of Lost Things follows the tale of a boy named David who journeys to a fantastical neverland filled with wonders and strange creatures beyond count. Throughout his adventure, he encounters things that remind us (purposefully so) of our favorite stories of old, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty and The Three Bears. Except Connolly puts a comic, and sometimes grotesque, spin on them. For example, the seven dwarves aren’t your typical hard-working, whistle-while-we-work kind of dwarves. They’re communists. And they’re hysterical. With mutterings of “rights,” “liberties,” and “the Great Struggle,” they clamor against capitalism and call one another comrade.

And it only gets better. No matter your favorite style of book, this one is masterfully written and will appeal to everyone. Then again, I thought that about Ordinary People. . .

4. The 50th Law – 50 Cent and Robert Greene

the 50th law, 50 cent and robert greeneGenre: Business / Self-Help

Favorite line: “Events in life are not negative or positive. They are completely neutral. The universe does not care about your fate; it is indifferent to the violence that may hit you or to death itself. Things merely happen to you. It is your mind that chooses to interpret them as negative or positive. And because you have layers of fear that dwell deep within you, your natural tendency is to interpret temporary obstacles in your path as something larger – setbacks or crises.”

This was the most difficult book from which to choose a favorite line. Filled with a bevy of wisdom revolving around the central concept of fearlessness, this book was a major catalyst in propelling me to quit my white-collar job and pursue my passion. Strangely enough, I discovered it on my then-boss’s bookshelf 🙂

The favorite line above essentially sums up the book for me, personally. There is no good. There is no bad. There just is what is. This philosophy teaches us to adapt, to roll with the bunches (to be cliche). We don’t say “Oh shit!” when something “bad” happens, but rather we see an opportunity, we see an obstacle that will only challenge us and make us better.

The book has ten concepts defining this central theme of fearlessness:

  1. See Things for What They Are (Intense Realism)
  2. Make Everything Your Own (Self-Reliance)
  3. Turn Shit Into Sugar (Opportunism)
  4. Keep Moving (Calculated Momentum)
  5. Know When to be Bad (Aggression)
  6. Lead From the Front (Authority)
  7. Know Your Environment from the Inside Out (Connection)
  8. Respect the Process (Mastery)
  9. Push Beyond Your Limits (Self-Belief)
  10. Confront Your Mortality (The Sublime)

The viewpoint on opportunity was a major high point here. “According to conventional wisdom, an opportunity is something that exists out there in the world; if it comes our way and we seize it, it brings us money and power . . . This concept is extremely limited in scope. It makes us dependent on outside forces.” In essence, 50 and Greene preach that we should generate our own opportunities, not wait for them to come along. Those who are familiar with the New Thought movement, and books like The Secret, will be able to relate to that concept.

While I disagree at some points with 50 Cent and Robert Greene’s philosophy (I disagree with most of the chapter on Aggression, actually), 95% of this book is pure gold. Need some motivation to make a change in your life? Read this book.

3. The Art of Racing in the Rain – Garth Stein

the art of racing in the rain, garth steinGenre: Fiction

Favorite line: The entire 54th chapter. But, to get more specific: “It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

If you don’t cry when you read this book, you don’t have a soul. This is the story of a family, discussed in continual analogies to race car driving, as seen from a dog’s perspective. Hooked yet?

It was fascinating, the things Garth Stein was able to effectively relay via a dog’s POV. The things many of us don’t even think about in our daily lives, the dog serves to enlighten us upon. Wiser than the vast majority of humans I know, Enzo puts forth the theory very early in the book that monkeys are not man’s closest relative, but rather that dogs are, and that, according to a Mongolian legend, a dog who is prepared will be reincarnated into a human. For scientific evidence to his claim, read the book.

Simultaneously humorous and heart-wrenching, tear-jerking and resigned-smile-inducing, The Art of Racing in the Rain will make you laugh and cry within seconds of each other time and again – no exaggeration. The best straight-up fiction novel I’ve read in a long time.

2. The Hero of Ages – Brandon Sanderson

the hero of ages, brandon sandersonGenre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Favorite line: “‘I ask of you your lives,’ Elend said, voice echoing, ‘and your courage. I ask of you your faith, and your honor–your strength, and your compassion. For today, I lead you to die. I will not ask you to welcome this event. I will not insult you by calling it well, or just, or even glorious. But I will say this. Each moment you fight is a gift to those in this cavern. Each second we fight is a second longer that thousands of people can draw breath. Each stroke of the sword, each monster felled, each breath earned is a victory! It is a person protected for a moment longer, a life extended, an enemy frustrated!’ There was a brief pause. ‘In the end, they will kill us,’ Elend said, voice loud, ringing in the cavern. ‘But first, they shall fear us!'”

My sincerest apologies for such a long favorite line, but I can’t help but get chills when I think of that scene. The refugees, cowering in dark caverns, awaiting an inevitable slaughter. Their benevolent ruler, giving one of the most amazing Braveheart-esque speeches in modern literature. Sigh . . . ya just can’t beat it.

Brandon Sanderson is a relatively new author to the genre of Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but I have literally no doubt that he will be known as one of the best. This book, The Hero of Ages, served as the climax to the best series of books I’ve ever read in my life. Hands down. Even if you don’t like this genre of fiction, you have to appreciate the absolute genius that is Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy.

Peppered with enough loss to make the happy ending realistic, The Hero of Ages does not fall short in the realms of suspense, plot, mystery, climax and catharsis. It follows the story of a young man and woman, the former a ruler of a nation, the latter a one-time street rat raised to prestige after she liberated that nation from a tyrannical ruler, as they do their best to solve the riddles put forth by archaic text, settle the political intrigue abound in their nation, and, of course, save the world.

1. Letters to a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke

letters to a young poet, rainer maria rilkeGenre: Non-fiction

Favorite line: “This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write?” AND “. . . that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”

I read this book in a single sitting just a few weeks ago. I’ve re-read it already. I knew a quarter of the way through that it would take first place on this “Top 10” list. No book has ever had such an immediate profound impact on me as this one. Not even #4 on this list.

Touching upon life themes in a broad range, from love to solitude, sex to irony, loss to art, Letters to a Young Poet is a compilation of 10 letters written between 1903 – 1908 by Rainer Maria Rilke to a young man entering the military, though he would rather write poetry. He starts off asking for criticism from Rilke in regard to poems he sent him. Rilke’s response in the first paragraph of the first letter is this: “I cannot go into the nature of your verses; for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings.”

The letters go on for five years, and while Franz Kappus, the young poet, still sends Rilke some poems, he seems to be more interested in simply interacting with the man than with his criticism. Rilke’s emphasis on criticism is that only you can aptly judge your own works of art, the concept itself being so personal so as that no outward eye can ever truly perceive it how you intended.

I honestly don’t know how best to paraphrase this book as I’ve done with the others. There is no plot. There is no climax. There is no suspense, no thriller, no zombies or murderers, nor damsels or fever pitches. The only way I can truly relay the message of this book to you is through the book itself. So thank you for reading my “Top 10 Books of 2011,” and I’ll leave you with the ineffable wisdom of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything. Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.”

“Do not observe yourself too much. Do not draw too hasty conclusions from what happens to you; let it simply happen to you.”

“To love is good, too: love being difficult. For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.”

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves . . .”

“It is true that many young people who love wrongly, that is, simply with abandon and unsolitarily (the average will of course always go on doing so), feel the oppressiveness of a failure and want to make the situation in which they have landed viable and fruitful in their own personal way . . .”
(next page)
“But if we nevertheless hold out and take this love upon us as burden and apprenticeship, instead of losing ourselves in all the light and frivolous play, behind which people have hidden from the most earnest earnestness of their existence–then a little progress and an alleviation will perhaps be perceptible to those who come long after us; that would be much.”

“Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully and more confidently, must surely have become fundamentally riper people, more human people, than easygoing man, who is not pulled down below the surface of life by the weight of any fruit of his body, and who, presumptuous and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves.”

“. . . that which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them.”

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2 Responses to “top 10 books of 2011”

  1. top 5 books of 2012 – first edition « livin' like a freebird Says:

    […] December I posted my first Top 10 Books list. Nearly instantaneously I received heaps of praise on my choices and my startlingly revealing […]

  2. Top 10 Books of 2012 | The Bare Sole Says:

    […] list is definitely a week or two late, but it got such good reception last year that there was no way I could avoid posting it this year. So while I may be a little bit behind and […]

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