Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Best of 2011 (a Late Retrospective)

Part of what I've been doing for my month of July posts is looking through my drafts of posts I'd started but never finished and working to make those presentable. Imagine my surprise when I ran across my never posted "best of 2011" list--a full six and a half months after I usually post it. And I saw why I hadn't posted it: I had only written an outline. Sorry, folks. I suppose it's as timely now as it ever was...

For the past several years, I've begun the new year with a retrospective of the last one, telling you, faithful readers, what the best and worst was, at least as I saw it. However, when I think about 2011, in many ways it seems like a cultural wasteland. I keep a log of all the books I read in a given year, and it pains me to say that I cut in half the number of books read in 2011 from 2010 (though "number of books read," I'll admit, isn't an indicator of much). There are some mitigating factors here: 1) Doctor Zhivago and Crime and Punishment are both longer books, which have a tendency to slow me down. 2) The amazing number of books (at least for me) that I read in 2010 was partly a result of the book reviewing gigs I had then but have since relinquished. 2011 list isn't as interesting. And instead of trying to force a top five model as I have in the past, I'm only going to mention the things I deem worthy, rather than striving to reach an arbitrary, prescribed number. So without further ado (though not necessarily commentary), here are my picks for 2011.

Top First-Time Reads
  • True Grit by Charles Portis. After I saw the movie, I wanted to read the book. It is to the Coen brothers' credit that the reason their movie is so good is that it follows the dialogue from the book almost verbatim. The book was fantastic; my only regret is that I didn't read it before seeing the movie.
  • The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. This is a book lover's book. A joy to read, and it reminds me of why I read in the first place.
  • Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers. I experienced Dorothy Sayers for the first time this year, and I am left asking why I waited so long. This book was fantastic if a little Father Brownian (that is, I suspected the killer before I should have because of a similar formula to Chesterton's detective stories). But formula or no, the joy wasn't in discovering the killer but in following the characters.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. How did I miss out on this one as a kid? The opening is brilliant, and it doesn't necessarily travel downhill from there.
  • The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Another "this boy is the chosen one to save all mankind ever from certain doom!" YA book. But it was good. So much better than Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the series. I'm glad Abby scouted this one out and told me it was worth reading.

Top Rereads
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. As I guessed in last year's list, the disbandment of my book club has resulted in fewer rereads. This was the only one that bore mentioning. This book was even better the second time around. It's one of a few books that I wouldn't mind perpetually rereading.

Top Musical Albums
  • The Decemberists: The King Is Dead. I don't know why I assumed for so long that my friends who said I would love The Decemberists were lying, but I did. They weren't.
  • The Decemberists: The Crane Wife
  • Mumford and Sons: Sigh No More
  • MuteMath: Odd Soul [revisiting this list, I might remove this one: too much reverb]

Top Movies
  • Downton Abbey. I've written about this at length now elsewhere.
  • True Grit. This movie was robbed of its Oscars. The King's Speech was tailor made for awards. It's true that this was the more unconventional flick, but what a beautiful movie.
  • Captain America. Speaking of beautiful movies...okay, I can't continue in that vein. I like superhero movies. So what? Captain America, while not really exhibiting weaknesses, captures the imagination and makes for a ripping good yarn. I still haven't seen The Avengers, though. Babies change everything. Go figure.

Top Games
  • El Grande. What an unexpected and awesome surprise! Area control with bidding, secrecy, and sheer awesome components. This game is never dull. And it is fantastic to keep reminding players, "The king's region is taboo!"
  • Ascending Empires. A space empire game that involves flicking wooden discs around a board? Sounds gimmicky, and it is. It's also darn fun. It's hard to get too upset when you lose because you flicked your spaceship into oblivion.
  • Ra. A pure auction game with Egyptian flavor. I have played few games as tense as this one can be. We play it over lunch sometimes at work, and we get pretty into it (though we don't shout "Ra!" to call an auction like maybe we should--you know, to liven things up a bit).
  • Puerto Rico. I'd been avoiding this one for a while because the box looks boring, but my brother-in-law insisted that I play when we went to visit last fall. This game is nothing short of genius. When did farming and shipping goods become so fun?

Big Disappointments
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I know! I mentioned it again! The only reason I read this book to completion was because my friend Keith bet me I wouldn't. I won the bet, but really, who was the winner in this situation? It certainly doesn't feel like me. [I think I've repressed the reasons I didn't like this book--I have a hard time remembering much about it except for the negative impression. Sorry for those who like a more nuanced view. This is what I have to offer. :-/ ]
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I didn't hate this book, but I was disappointed. This is usually cited as the work that people remember by the D, but it was my least favorite of his books that I've read. I'm not sad I read it, but I don't think I'll reread it unless I have to.
  • The Voyage of the "Dawn Treader". The word that comes most readily to mind is "woof." If this is the C.S. Lewis estate's idea of protecting Lewis's vision, they need a new watchdog. Horrible, though not quite so horrible as Prince Caspian. There is that to be said for it.
  • The Screwtape Letters. I reread this book for work, and I'm still not too impressed with it. This ranks among my least favorite of Lewis's books, and I'm not sure I'll revisit it again.
  • Glen More. The game looked fun and had lots of things that I should like, but it felt soulless and unfun. You can read my fuller review at iSlaytheDragon if that interests you.


  1. I talked all the way through Captain America when I saw it in March. But it still claims some of the best movie memories of this year.

    Speaking of movies, I am frequently referencing Better Off Dead as of late. You'd be proud.

  2. Great lists, Jon. I'm thankful you introduced me to The Wind in the Willows through our reading group.