by Maria Lagalante Schulz
One of the things I love doing more than anything is reading, but it wasn’t always that way. For me, it started in the 3rd grade when my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Grille, noticed that I was struggling and she decided to do something about it.
Every afternoon for months, Mrs. Grille worked with me. She started with picture books, then magazine articles, followed by biographies about John F. Kennedy and Harriet Tubman, and finally novels like Little Women. By the end of the 3rd grade, I was one of the best readers in my class.
This year, that old love for reading was reignited when some friends invited me to join their book club. Being in a room with people who have very definite opinions, don’t mind sharing them, and help me see things in a new way is truly a gift.
Since I love talking about books I’ve read, here (in no particular order) are my top 11 books from ’11:
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
This book fascinated me. Chua writes about the great lengths she was willing to go to in order to ensure that her daughters succeeded.
I can’t imagine being this iron willed over every little aspect of my children’s lives. I didn’t understand why her husband didn’t intervene early on, since he didn’t agree with her methods.
I found her lack of self-knowledge incredible. Amy Chua talks about what it was like to have parents who belittled her and demanded that she follow their rules, but she conveniently forgets that her parents also let her make some pretty huge decisions without forcing their own will upon her.
This book made me really grateful for my own mother, whose major form of interference was saying things like “do you really think that’s wise?” and letting you come up with the answer.
When the ladies in book club chose this book, I thought “Oh no! I don’t want to read this!” It’s about a leper colony in Hawaii during the early part of the 20th century.
Now since I faint while reading about people with severed limbs, uncontrolled bleeding, or suffering of any kind, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get through it. But this book is so much more than that. It’s an absolutely stunning look at people who are forced into unthinkable conditions, and who somehow rise above it all. They form communities and have hopes and dreams, just like anyone else.
You root for the characters and you feel for them when they get sick or hurt, or lose someone they love. It was really one of the most moving, beautiful books I’ve ever read.
Lie by Caroline Bock
I was a little bit afraid to read and comment on this book because it was actually written by one of the members of the book club. What if I didn’t like it? What would I say? But once I started reading, I knew I had nothing to worry about.
Lie is a gripping story about a group of teenagers from Long Island who take part in the brutal beating of an illegal immigrant. Peer pressure, young love, and disorienting grief all play a part in the decisions made by each character as they decide whether or not to maintain the lie.
Each chapter offers another point of view, so you get many different perspectives about the event and its impact on everyone involved. I read the entire book in a day. It’s a riveting look at the lies we tell to ourselves and to others. Read it!
The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman who has a bright future ahead as a writer. She’s gone to New York to work in publishing and she is heady with success. And that’s when it hits: her first encounter with a disabling depression that descends on her like a bell jar.
What struck me most was Plath’s amazing sense of humor. She could write about something as devastating as a crippling depression and still make you laugh. Her ability to describe what it was like to plunge into the world of mental illness is something I won’t soon forget.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
Imagine what it would be like to forget that you have three children, you and your sister aren’t close anymore, and you’re embroiled in a nasty divorce. This is the premise of What Alice Forgot.
I thought it was going to be a downer, but it’s not. It’s a poignant, funny story about a woman who is trying to get back in touch with the person she was before marriage, children, and life crowded out her earlier self. The characters were endearing and I couldn’t wait to turn the page to read what would happen next.
Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin
Mother Ravenel leads her school by the sheer force of her will. Mother Malloy is the new teacher brought to Mount St. Gabriel’s from Boston to teach the 9th grade girls. This group of girls drove another long time teacher to quit her job and vow never to come back.
Godwin goes back and forth between the early years of the school up to 2001, when 85 year old Mother Ravenel is writing her memoir. There is a lot of talk about the “toxic year” of 1951-52, and the girls from that 9th grade class.
The book took a long time to get to the climax, which wasn’t what I was expecting, and then it meandered along to the end. I think the writer liked her characters so much that she couldn’t let them go. That was all right though; I liked them too.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I had this book on my shelf for a few years before I finally picked it up. When I did, I wondered why I waited so long.
It’s a beautiful story of love, loss and longing. It’s set in a traveling circus and the details of that kind of life are rich and intriguing. The story opens with the hero, who is now about 90 and living in a nursing home.
I loved how it showed us that the elderly are not just fixtures without a past or a future. They are real people, with hopes, dreams, stories and opinions.
The love story at the center of it all was captivating too.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The narrator is Enzo, a lab-terrier mix who has been a faithful companion to Denny, a race-car driver with dreams of making it big. Enzo is beside Denny from bachelorhood through marriage and into parenthood. He takes it all in and helps Denny face disappointment, heartbreak and despair with hope and courage.
I didn’t want this book to end. It was funny, sweet, sad and ultimately uplifting.
A Dog’s Purpose by Bruce Cameron
Okay, this time I will say it: non-dog lovers, don’t read this book. However, if you do love dogs, cats, or any animal at all, don’t miss it.
This book was surprisingly spiritual, funny, and hard to put down. You follow one dog over the course of several lives as he searches for his true purpose. He is alternately treated well and abused by many different humans, and he has a lot of useful things to say about life, compassion, and how love never dies.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Miss Skeeter, a young white woman living in Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, wants to write something groundbreaking. With the help of Aibileen and Minny, two black maids, she is able to start collecting the stories of the black nannies, housekeepers and cooks who work in the homes of the white townspeople.
You quickly get caught up in the maids’ stories and you grow to care about every one of them. It’s touching to see how much love is shared between these women and the families they care for. You also realize how rotten people can be to one another.
I couldn’t stop reading this book, and I imagine it will probably end up on reading lists in high schools eventually (if it isn’t there already).
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent
Meet Sheila Levine. She’s a Long Island girl who has been trained since the day she was born that she isn’t anybody until she’s married. So, off she goes to New York City to find a glamorous job, the swinging singles scene, and her future husband.
But 25 pounds and scores of bad dates later, Sheila Levine realizes that she’s still nobody. She’s got a job she hates, a boyfriend that she despises and a sister who beats her to the altar. Worst of all, she’s about to turn 30! It’s then that she decides to kill herself, and she goes about her plans with hilarious results.
Even though this book was written in 1972, it’s the mother of all chick lit and is still funny today. The author was also a screenwriter on The Carol Burnett Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and The Golden Girls—so no wonder I loved it!
You know what I really love about my book club? Everybody brings something to eat! I enjoy sharing Italian pastries because it’s the only time I allow myself to have them these days.
Here’s an Italian tiramisu recipe that looks easy and delicious:
So…what books were your favorites in 2011? What would you recommend? Please leave a comment and let us all know.