Looking back: The books I read in 2011

Last year at this time, I decided it would be cool to see if I could read 100 books in 2011. And indeed, it was cool: so cool, in fact, that I couldn't stop reading once I started, and I ended up plowing through 118 books in all. Here's a rather unscientific exploration of what I encountered.

I. Gender studies

I've never put much stock in the claims of male writers who say no woman can be their equal (apologies, Mr. Naipaul), but I did not explicitly set out to read more books written by women than by men. Nonetheless, that's how it shook out: of the 118 books I read, 67 were penned by women -- that's about 57%. Undoubtedly the best of those was Middlemarch, which I put off reading for far too long; I suppose Daniel Deronda and Silas Marner and Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss are destined to figure in my 2012 list. Also quite memorable were two books that I suppose can be classed in the sub-genre of "girls behaving badly": The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Alina Bronsky) features the comically awful grandmother Rosa, and Harriet the horrid is unforgettable in After Claude (Iris Owens).

II. Nostalgia

I've mentioned it on the site a few times now, but one of the most important events in my reading life this year was rediscovering Maud Hart Lovelace and the Betsy-Tacy books. I read the first four books, now available as a treasury from Harper Perennial, as well as two books following The Crowd in their high school years. I've urged thrift-store copies on friends and family members, I've somehow acquired a Betsy-Tacy tote bag, and the July 2012 Betsy-Tacy Convention in Minneapolis and Mankato, Minnesota, is starting to look mighty tempting. Although not about Lovelaceiana, I found Wendy McClure's The Wilder Life an interesting exploration of rediscovering childhood favorites; she takes on the world of Little House on the Prairie with grace and humor (and there's even a brief mention of Mankata, Maud Hart Lovelace's hometown, which has an LHOP/Laura Ingalls Wilder connection of its own). And while we're on the subject of childhood favorites, for fans of Ramona and Henry Huggins, Beverly Cleary's memoir A Girl from Yamhill was sublime.

III. Double duty

I try and vary my reading diet as much as possible, but a few authors figured more prominently in my list than did others. I read a few books by Colson Whitehead, a handful by Maureen Johnson, and two by Kevin Wilson. If you haven't read Wilson's short story collection, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, you should.

IV. Out and about

It turns out I'm one of those people who likes themed reading: a creepy tale by Patricia Highsmith on Halloween, something with a good holiday scene for Christmas. And, of course, when I travel, I try to find stories about the places I'm going. While in Paris, I read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast; on the way to Singapore, I made my way through a strange book of colonial travel, The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither (Isabella Bird); a far better read was Stella Kon's The Scholar and the Dragon, about a Chinese immigrant to Singapore in the early 20th century.

V. Ape for apes

Monkey-related similes and metaphors appeared in nearly every book I read in 2011, but only two explicitly focused on our primate friends. Benjamin Hale's The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is a story of a chimp caught between the animal and human worlds, out of place, ultimately, in both. But Brigid Brophy's Hackenfeller's Ape, a used-bookstore find, stands out here: it's about animal testing, sort of, but it's also a primate love story, and then there's a sidetrack into "top-secret government rocket research" that culminates in a scientist skinning an ape and donning its skin as he is blasted off into space. Truly, truly strange.

I could go on and on (other important categories include epics [Lonesome Dove, Middlemarch], books about books [The Professor and the Madman, Globish, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Mystery and Manners], and awesome literature in translation [Suicide, The Jokers, The Sleepwalker, The Clash of Images]). But instead, I'll turn back to my reading -- which for now is the second half of Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness and a bit more of Heidi Julavits' The Effect of Living Backward -- and we'll meet again in a year for another roundup.