Favorite Reads of 2011

'Reading a book at the beach' photo (c) 2010, Simon Cocks - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

One of my favorite annual posts, here are my top reads from 2011. While I read about 50 books a year, only a handful are standouts. This year I may hit 70 reads!

What were your favorite reads this year?

Little Bee (2008) by Chris Cleave (F)

While I didn’t think this novel was particularly well-written, I have not been able to get it out of mind since reading it.  It addresses the harsh realities of the immigration system and globalization by putting its focus on how one young girl irrevocably changes the lives of a British couple who meet her on a Nigerian Beach.

In the Woods (2007) and The Likeness (2008) by Tana French (F)

French writes detail-rich police procedurals that focus more on the lives and minds of the investigating officers than the suspects being investigated.   I couldn’t put these novels down.

Stumbling on Happiness (2005) by Daniel Gilbert (NF)

Though this book is already nearing its 6th birthday, it’s still full of fascinating studies that explain how the brain works.  Philosophers have written volumes on man’s pursuit of happiness; Gilbert wrote one detailing how the brain tricks us into believing we are happy even if all signs point to being unhappy.   From addressing the paradox of choice to how the brain uses filler details where information is missing, Gilbert explains the science and psychology of the brain that helps you understand why people act the way they do.

Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making You Smarter (2006) by Steven Johnson (NF)

Johnson dismantles the disdain for popular entertainment from television to video games to explain how each is actually contributing to a brighter populace.  Layered stories and multi-plot television programming and films require greater sophistication in comprehension to keep up. And strategic and spacial intelligence required of gamers.  Johnson makes the case that pop culture shouldn’t be broadly dismissed as detrimental to society, when it’s challenging our brains in different ways from the past times of yesteryear.

The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness (2010) edited by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh and Jeremy Adam Smith (NF)

This book is a compilation of articles from Greater Good magazine. It covers a wide range of research on ethics, empathy, happiness, showing how proper focus and framework in communications could move us all towards a greater good.  The research covered in this book gives me more hope about humanity than I had before I started reading.

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003) by Erik Larson (NF)

Did you know that the Ferris wheel was invented in an effort to best the splendor of the Eiffel Tower?  Me neither.  And rigorous testing of the physics of hoisting all that metal and all those people in the air was not completed.   Everyone basically crossed their fingers on the maiden rotation.

Amidst the chaos of trying to create a spectacular and profitable Chicago fair, at least one man took advantage of the confusion and miscommunication to commit unspeakable crimes, killing, disfiguring and disposing of women (primarily), children and men.

Black + White (2008) by Dani Shapiro (F)

Shapiro’s novel follows the estranged daughter, Clara, of a celebrated photographer (who shot to fame with a series of sexualized photos of her then-young daughter) returning to NYC during her mother’s final weeks of life.   Clara does her best to come to terms with her mother’s self-serving actions and to understand that her mother loved her after all.

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America (2010) by Matt Taibbi (NF)

Griftopia is another book that my mind keeps drifting back to consider.  After reading Taibbi’s reporting it’s hard to not be infuriated that much of Wall Street and the mortgage industry has not been held accountable for systemic practices that enhanced financial risks and encouraged predatory lending, directed primarily at minorities, setting up a bubble bound to pop.

Disclaimer: Disclaimer: These books were not necessarily published in 2011. They do not necessarily belong on a list of best books ever, books to read before you die, or best kept secrets. It’s just a list of the books I enjoyed most in this calendar year.

Related: Favorite Reads of 2008, Favorite Reads of 2009, Favorite Reads of 2010