The 11 Most Compelling Books I Read in 2011

It’s time for my 2011 list of books! If you like this list or have read books that appear on it, leave a comment, or let me know about some of the most compelling books you read that didn’t make the list.

Also shoot me an email at Liam.Carnahan@gmail.com if you like this list and want to chat. I’m always happy to hear from fellow readers.

K here we go. 

2011, huh? How ’bout it? In the midst of a 10-year anniversary of the worst American disaster in recent memory, the death of a legend (albeit sometimes questionable), insane plastic surgery stories and a tragicomic political caucus, I found some time to read some fantastic books this year. The 11 books (get it, 2011? 11 books? 11/11?) on this list represent the best of the best, and hopefully will include some you haven’t heard of.

My list from 2009 focused on the most inspiring books, and last year’s list was simply about the best. This year, I decided to go for compelling. That means some of these books grabbed me at page one and forced me to continue reading at inappropriate times and places (during sex, for example. Just kidding?) Others that weren’t so much page turners made me want to talk about them until people told me to shut up (and often even after being told to do so.)

11. Public Enemy Zero by Andrew Mayne

Public Enemy Zero, Andrew Mayne

I got a Kindle recently. I know there are haters out there, but for someone who is constantly on the go and lives out of a small bag most of the time, having all of my books on one lightweight device is essential. Sorry (not really) if you still hate Kindles, it’s a lifesaver for my lifestyle. And this book is only available as an e-book, so… skip ahead to number 10 if you want.

The main character of this book, Mitch, is a radio host recently out of a relationship and pretty much a flat-out loser. Everything changes when, on a seemingly random day, it appears that everyone, from his ex-girlfriend to truckers to babies in strollers, wants to MURDER him as soon as he gets within a few feet of him. In other words, it’s a zombie book where the zombies are only after one guy – and that guy is lovable.

My biggest complaint is that there definitely needs to be some editing on this one, since Mayne only had readers help him edit. But it’s still fantastic. Go pick it up!

10. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin

Imagine a planet named Urras, large, lush and full of natural beauty. The people who roam the planet are greedy, materialistic, incredibly intelligent and more than happy to oppress lower classes in order to benefit the wealthy. Sound familiar? Something tells me this was an allegory…

Now imagine that a small group of oppressed people from this planet rose up, and after a struggle, were “allowed” to form their own colony on the planet’s large moon, a dusty wasteland known as Annarres. Stay with me, it’s not as nerdy as it seems. Le Guin uses this premise to compare and contrast two worlds – one that is remarkably like our own, and one that is, in almost every way, a perfect anarchist society.

This book is very deep, and much of it reads like a philosophy text. I was tempted to give up a few times, but I pushed through because every time I started to set down the book, Le Guin would slap me in the face with some undeniable but previously unrecognized (by me) truth. It was worth it, hence it being on this list.

9. Seeing by Jose Saramago

Seeing, Jose Saramago

To be fair, I just finished this book last night, so I apologize if this is an emotionally charged review. This book is the sequel to a book that was on my previous list, Blindness. If you haven’t read Blindness yet, I have one question for you: What is wrong with you? That book is amazing, and go read it before you read anything else, including the rest of this post. I mean it, cause there are spoilers ahead for Blindness.

In the firs tbook, we were introduced to an unnamed city in an unnamed nation that was stricken with a plague of temporary blindness that caused everyone to lose their sight for a matter of weeks. The only person to maintain her sight was a wife of an ophthalmologist. The second book, Seeing, is similar in style, with no character names and few periods. The story picks up in the same city, four years later, but it took me a long time to figure that out. In fact, the plague of blindness and the characters in the first book are completely absent from the first half of Seeing. Instead, we are treated to an inside view of a government agency coping with a new crises – in the most recent elections, the vast majority of the population cast a blank vote. This causes all of the government officials to, for lack of a better term, FREAK THE FUCK OUT.

Of course, the relationship between the white sheets of paper cast by the voters and the milky white blindness of the first book is easy to “see,” but the poetry in Saramago’s language takes this link to a whole new level. After treating us to the horrific innards of government for half the book, we are then dragged back into the city, among the people who cast the blank votes, including the heroine of the first novel.

This book gets the award for biggest regret of 2011 – Saramago, why did you have to die before you could turn this two-book series into a trilogy??

8. Alcoholica Esoterica by Ian Lendler

Alcoholica Esoterica, Ian Lendler

The first non-fiction book on my list was given to me by my boyfriend, and I am eternally thankful. As a gin-soaked booze hound, this book has made my love of the drink more compelling and justifiable than ever. In this incredible and hilarious book, Lendler catalogs the history of every type of alcohol, as well as all of the idiosyncratic factoids that you’ve never heard of. The book starts with beer, allegedly the oldest of the boozes, and then takes us on a long romp through the rising popularity of wine. Rum, gin, spirits, cocktails, port, sherry and everything in between get their own chapter, each punctuated with quotes and a biography of famous alcoholics. From the construction of the pyramids to the lounges of Las Vegas, alcohol has been a major character, and this book shows you how. FUN.

What makes this book truly special, and sets it apart from a lot of other historical non-fictions (which can be pompous and hard to digest without a drink) is that Lendler is a true comedian. This book had me laughing out loud on the toilet more than once. Speaking of which, it’s a great bathroom read if you’re one of those poopers out there or needs a little literary boost to get things moving.

7. The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl, Paulo Bacigalupi

This book is perhaps the most “hard” science fiction work on my list (though true lovers of the genre would scoff at that classification in their nasal, nerdy voices). The entire novel takes place in a future Bangkok, well after global warming has ravaged the entire planet. The city is walled in from the tides via a complicated dyke system, and the pressure of the water coupled with the oppressive heat makes this book tense and frightening. Each chapter is told from the perspective a different, seemingly disconnected character, who of course all end up being somewhat connected by the end of the novel.

But more than anything else, what makes this story come to life is the descriptions the author gives you. It doesn’t seem like it’s set in the future, it seems like some awful place we could go visit today. I don’t know who commissioned the cover of the novel (this is one I read in paper, thank Goodness), but as you can see below the artwork is outstanding, and it matches the book very well.

A Megodont

The Wind-Up Girl in the title of this book is only one of the many compelling main characters, but she was by far my favorite. As an escaped life-like robot who had once been a proud servant and since forced into crude and sickening sexual slavery, her voice is original, depressing and the stuff of nightmares. Even if you skim some of the other chapters, it’s worth picking this book up just to read her story.

6. Last  Night at the Lobster by Steward O’Nan

Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O'Nan

Ah, now we are getting to the books that really rocked my 2011. These are the books I didn’t know I couldn’t live without.

This quick read (only 140-some pages) catalogs one night at one of the worst places in the world – a Red Lobster in Connecticut. It’s closing night, and Manny, the manager, is severely depressed that the restaurant that has been the center of his life is about to shut down for good. Not only that, but the last night at the lobster is taking place only a few days before Christmas, which would typically be a good day for business, but is marred by a massive blizzard. The book opens when Manny arrives at work alone for his last day, and follows him through his numbing, depressing but oddly beautiful routine in its death throes. The last pages see Manny drive off to a future that is uncertain, leaving behind a chapter in his life that will drill a hole in your heart.

You fall in love with Manny and the hodgepodge collection of co-workers who slip away from him slowly. The “love” story that takes place between Manny and another co-worker is also heartbreaking, and O’Nan doesn’t do anything to sugarcoat it, sticking to his hyper- realistic guns. This book is ideal for those of us who are feeling bludgeoned by the economic slump and consumerist depression that has become a main tenet of American life.

Last Night at the Lobster also gets my award for Best Title of 2011.

5. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

After reading two popular sci-fi/fantasy novels for adults and finding them less than enjoyable (here and here if you want to know) I was thrilled to find this peculiar novel about peculiar children that didn’t feel as contrived or plagiaristic.

The story of this book follows a teenage boy, Jacob, as he uncovers his late Grandfather’s past. His PopPop was a victim of World War II, and possibly suffering from dementia in old age. When Jacob was a child, grandpa would tell him wild tales of a “home for peculiar children,” who had bizarre abilities, watched over by a bird-like woman named Miss Peregrine. As a teenager, Jacob is disenchanted by his grandfather’s tales, until the old man bites the dust, and Jacob is confronted with evidence that his grandfather was telling the truth. Or is Jacob losing his mind as well? Jacob goes on an international trip with his father to find the peculiar home, and that’s when things get really crazy. I won’t say anymore, because the plot is too exciting and bizarre to be ruined by a blog post.

What was most enjoyable about this book was the pictures. Yes, pictures! In a grown up book! All of the photographs the grandfather in the tale uses to convince his grandson that the Home for Children is real are right there in the book for your viewing pleasure. And the best part is, they’re real aged photographs, and boy are the deliciously bizarre. Look:

There’s LOTS more where that came from, but again, I don’t want this list to ruin anything for potential readers. Just go and get it, even if you have a Kindle. The pictures look great on e-readers and paper, so you have no excuse.

4. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender

My sister gave me this book, along with two others on the list (numbers 5 and 10) and I’m eternally thankful. She’s a smart chick, so check out her blog here.

This is the best piece of magical realism I’ve read by an American author. The main character and heartbreaking narrator, Rose, is celebrating her 10th birthday when she bites into a piece of home-made lemon cake baked by her mother. Instead of tasting delicious lemon and chocolate, she finds that the cake tastes like sadness. As the book goes on, we learn that Rose can taste the emotions in all of the food she eats, right down to the factory workers who make processed goods. This changes her life forever, as it not only gives her the ability to read people’s emotions, but it also makes it almost impossible to enjoy food the way it is meant to be enjoyed. As the book continues, we begin to realize that Rose isn’t the only person in her family with peculiar powers, and she spends the entirety of the novel trying to make sense of her family’s secrets – both metaphysical and utterly real.

This book won’t give you answers to all of the questions, but it will give you insight into how a sad, odd family functions, and the detriments unhappy familial relationships bring about.

Aimee Bender is a genius with language and story telling, and I can’t wait to see what she cooks up next.

3. Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue

Room, Emma Donoghue

Oh God, Room. OH GOD ROOM. I still have nightmares about this book. I could say a million good things about this masterpiece, but what will probably drive most people to pick up a copy (assuming they enjoy reading macabre news stories as much as I do) is the plot.

Jack is 5-years-old and has never left Room. He was born there, and has no idea about anything, and I mean ANYTHING, on the outside world. He only knows one other person, his Ma, who has been held captive in Room by a psychotic man known as Old Nick since before Jack was born. The story is told entirely from Jack’s perspective as he struggles with growing up in captivity, and the world that waits outside the four walls that have enclosed him his entire life. The story follows the sad formulas of real-life tragedies such as the Jaycee Lee Duggard and Friztl cases. You can read the true stories of those women if you want, but I recommend picking this one up instead – though no promises that it will be any less horrific.

What most impressed me about the book was the voice Donoghue conjured up to tell the story. It’s nearly impossible to write convincingly in the voice of a child, but Donoghue pulls it off, and she deserves immense respect for doing so. It couldn’t be pleasant, as a writer, to put a child and his mother through so much torment. But the end result is a book that won’t let you put it down.

2. Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

Fledgling, Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler, you are and always will be my favorite science fiction writer. She was the author of the number one book on my first list, and I liked this one almost as much (though since the first book was a trilogy, I have to say it trumped Fledgling.)

Brace yourselves, this is a vampire book. I know, I know, you HATE Twilight and all of the negative attention it’s brought the classic vampire genre. But before you start getting your fangs in a twist, listen to me – I hate Twilight too. THIS book has nothing to do with the awful Stephanie Meyers trilogy, so moveon.org, OK?

The twist this book takes on vampires is delicious and creepy, but not nearly as terrifying.  It opens in the dark, where a small person (thing?) is waking up with complete amnesia, starving, in pain and confused. It stumbles blindly for a while, killing and eating raw meat, and generally being scary. Eventually we come to learn that this thing is a small girl with extraordinary abilities – primarily in the strength, intelligence and teeth departments. She still has no memory of who she is, but it’s quite clear from the start that she’s no human – and a little girl only in appearance.

The girl, Shori, is indeed, a vampire, but not the kind that want to kill you for your blood. When these vampires bite, they do something to their “victims” that could be seen as a form of hypnosis – or a form of love. Whatever it is, it creates an unbreakable bond between the vampires and their “symbionts,” a relationship that is unknown in the world you and I inhabit. Each vampire needs 8 or 9 simbionts to survive, and they live in bliss (or something eerily like bliss) together in isolated, nocturnal villages.

What has happened to Shori involves an unbelievable crime – and possibly a the beginning of a racially charged war between vampire families. The last 100 pages of this book are a rapid account of a major trial that left me screaming in frustration and cheering in joy, though not necessarily in that order.

This is Butler at her finest, and the vampires in this book have more clout, terror and intrigue in their creepy pinkies than the vampire-sphincter-human hybrid Edward Cullen could even dream of.

1. A Billion Wicked Thoughts Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Sai Gaddam and Ogi Ogas

Surprise! My number one pick this year is a non-fiction book. As a lover of fiction and a skeptic of non-fiction, this is a big deal for me. I usually use my leisure reading as form of escapism, and leave the non-fiction on the shelf. However, when I came across A Billion Wicked Thoughts, I was so intrigued I picked up a copy right away, and thanks to that choice, my life has changed dramatically. No exaggeration.

Raise your hand if you like sex. I hope you’re sitting there in the dark, in the light of the computer screen, alone in your underwear, raising your hand. Even if you’re not, and you don’t like sex, you should read this book. Compelling is the only word to describe what lies within, which is what makes it the top book of the year for me.

Gaddam and Ogas are two neuroscientists who had a genius idea that I hope makes them very rich. They realized that the internet is the largest untapped pool of potential sexual science study participants. With search engines receiving millions of searches every day, there is a large amount of anonymous information just sitting out there for us to dine on. And much of it is about sex.

The billion “wicked thoughts” in the book refer to a billion or so web searches recorded by the internet powers that be, then analyzed by the two authors of this book. Using this data, they expand the known world of sex into a universe of unbelievable information, and the facts, suppositions and analyses that they bring forward will make you feel like your fetish for sucking on dairy soaked stuffed teddy bears (or whatever) is perfectly normal. Eat this, Freud.

I would try to explain some of these facts, but I won’t be able to do so as eloquently and comically as the two authors did. But here are some things I picked up on:

  • Searchers for “gay content” are the second most common in terms of sex-related search engine requests, preceded only by those searching for “youth content” and followed by searches for MILFS (or searches for sexy older woman.) WOW.
  • Lots of people are turned on by adultery.
  • There’s a fetish that involves hiding in people’s closets and masturbating while they don’t know you’re there.
  • The penis may have its odd (but hot) shape because it acts like a shovel to scoop out any competing sperm that might be in a partner’s vagina. How ’bout it, evolution?
  • People are often aroused by topics that should be particularly taboo to them, personally.
  • On average, gay men have larger penises than straight guys. SUCKAHS.
  • Porn for men may have unrealistic depictions of women and female sexual behavior, but it’s no more or less unrealistic than the depictions of men in books that are often seen as porn for women:

Yes, there are entire chapters dedicated to romance novels. And gay sex. And adultery. And so much more. This book changed the way I think about sex, my own sexuality, sex with my partner, women, men, straights, gays – even vampires. Please, for the love of god, if you are a sexual creature in any way, go read this book. It should be required for anyone who plans on getting nasty.

So that’s it for 2011! I hope you enjoyed. If you want more recommendations, be sure to check out my lists for 2010 and 2009. Also, leave a comment with any recommendations you may have for me. Happy reading!

3 responses to “The 11 Most Compelling Books I Read in 2011

  1. Ok, you got me.
    I’m going to read several you listed, especially that last one. How could you not sent it to my kindle Liam?

  2. Well. My kindle wish list just grew exponentially. I was trying to make myself wait until after my candidacy exams to allow that to happen, but then you wrote this blog entry. Which one should I read first, after I finish Divergent?? Also, I’mma need you to take me in if I fail my exams because of this list!

  3. I love these lists of yours, Liam! So much great-looking stuff! I’m currently freaking out about Magic For Beginners, which I am just now reading for the first time and no, I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, but it’s blowing me away.

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