This is the time of  year for lists and best ofs, so I  thought I’d weigh in with my absolute favorite books of the past year.  My top five for 2011 have not necessarily been published in 2011 but I’ve read them during the past year.   I always wonder how these compendiums are put together. My favorites are totally random, haphazard. The only criteria was good writing, an interesting story, and that I take something away from it.

It’s also not too late to pick up a copy of Standing on the Corner of Lost and Found for the reader in your family!!

I’d love to get some recommendations from you.  Send me your faves!

Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian (Scribner, 2011, 298 pages)

Written by the editor of Narrative Magazine, the prose is gorgeous, her images mesmerizing.  It’s about the strain on Lena and Charlie’s marriage.  He is a surgeon trying to revolutionize surgery through his robotics company.  She is a journalist whose life is consumed with the care of Willa, a surviving twin baby who has a very fragile hold on life, and her precocious, old soul four year-old son. Charlie’s absence exacerbates her physical and emotional exhaustion. Lena’s estranged relatives, Cal and Ivy, are wealthy.  Lena has written them off years ago but Cal could financially back Charlie’s business.  With twists and turns, Lena must come to terms with the meeting of past with present.

This is the first incredible sentence:  The modern marriage has two states, plateaus and precipice and in the winter of our recent crisis—with markets plummeting and even rich folk crying poor, with the dark reign of one tinsel president finally ending, and the promised hope of a new man about to start, yes with hope rising like a cockamamie kite and fear more common than love, Charlie Pepper forgot his wife.

How can you not want to read more?

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper Collins 2011, 353 pages)

Another home run for Ann Patchett (I loved Bell Canto as well). Set in the Amazon, it is about a derailed surgeon, come pharmacologist, Marina Singh, who works for a company supporting research in the Amazon.  Marina has serious abandonment and failure issues.  Her lover/boss sends her to Manaus, Brazil to find out how her colleague, Anders, died and find out what is happening with the research. The lead investigator, Annick Swenson, who has a history with Marina, refuses to be accountable to the company funding her.   No spoilers here.  The characters are fully rounded. The atmosphere of the story is almost as inhospitable as some of the characters—insects, snakes, poison snakes, torrential rains, and tribal customs.  It is pure transport on all levels.

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (Vintage Random House, 2009, 667 pages)

Reading this book reminds me why I love to both read and write. This novel carries the reader into a life as foreign to our own as can be, yet is familiar and relatable. Nurse/Sister Mary Joseph Praise gives birth to twins conjoined at the head. Her pregnancy is, of course, a surprise to everyone. The brilliant British surgeon who works in the hospital cannot be found to help with the delivery. Hema, a doctor at the Mission Hospital arrives in time to save the twins by severing their heads apart. But the mother dies. A new family is formed with Hema as mother and Ghosh, a physician who is desperately in love with Hema, as father.  The twins grow up in the hospital compound tucked safely into the growing love of their adoptive parents.

Marion and Shiva come of age as Ethiopia hovers on the brink of revolution. The story moves across continents from Ethiopia to New York and back again, to tell a story of clashing social mores, cultural differences, and life’s inevitable mystery, Most of all, it is the story of love and betrayal, medicine and miracles for two brothers whose fates are forever entwined.

The quote to explains the title:“ I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest.”

Russian Winter by Daphne Kolotay (Harper Collins 2010, 466 pages)

This is a story about the destructive power of secrets and jealousy, and what we sometimes do to survive.  It moves back and forth from Stalin’s Russia to modern day Boston. Nina Revskaya is the star of the Bolshoi ballet. She had the best life—fame, happy marriage to a poet, friends, star power. But no one is impervious to Stalin’s government. The repressive aggression of the regime ultimately forces her to commit an unspeakable act of betrayal.

The action is set in motion when she decides to auction off her jewels. She is an old crippled woman, homebound, and trapped in a cycle of memories. Nina has maintained her secrets at great personal cost.  They are threatened by the inquisitive auction house associate and a Russian professor who believes Nina’s jewels will help him uncover his own past. This sets in motion revelations that have consequences for all.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver ( Harper Perennial,2010,544 pages)

This is another Kingsolver saga that spins a rather incredible tale. Harrison William Shepard has split heritage. His mother is Mexican and father is American.  He is kicked out of an American military school  and goes back to Mexico. A survivor, he finds himself working for the Frida Kahlo/Diego Rivera household when Leon Trotsky is their houseguest.  After Trotsky is murdered, he flees to America where he becomes a successful writer of historical potboilers.  Kingsolver never misses an opportunity for political theater and has him investigated as a subversive. Although when recounting the story it sounds like a soap opera, it is engaging and a page-turner with a great ending. The word lacuna means gap or small cavity. It’s the perfect word for a man living between countries, between societies, and always at risk of losing what he has worked so hard to gain.

Happy Reading in 2012!

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