Yesterday, I finally made it to the end of Ulysses, James Joyce’s near-incomprehensible masterpiece, the one I’ve been trudging through since May. And with that son of a gun safely under my belt, I’m ready to take a look through  my full reading list for 2011.

First, let’s look at the best and worst of my reading year. Here’s what you should pick up on your next library visit or bookstore shopping spree:

Jessica’s Top 5:

  1. Madame Bovary, by Flaubert. This novel amazed me with its vivid, real protagonist; the timelessness of the plot; and the gorgeous writing, which is both beautiful to read and performs the fantastic feat of making every word and every scene feel necessary in a 300-page book. Madame Bovary reads like music, and is a must-read for any aspiring fiction or poetry writer.
  2. Disgrace, by Coetzee. This story of a professor who is exiled for having an affair with a student, and who struggles to understand his daughter’s choice of a dangerous life in the country, opened my eyes to the importance of having something to say when I write, instead of focusing only on the best way to say it. Coetzee’s keen attention to race, the complications that still exist between men and women, and even the relationship between humans and animals, will make you think about what it means to be human.
  3. How to Buy a Love of Reading, by Tanya Egan Gibson. This book made me laugh, cry, and yell at the characters. It also had the unexpected bonus of putting me in contact with the author (she found my blog, read the review, and wrote me an awesome thank-you. Authors are cool peeps).
  4. Poetry 180, selected by Billy Collins. One of the things I love about this man is that he shares a cause close to my heart–the desire to reconnect students with the arts. Poetry is one of those arts that unfortunately can seem less accessible and deeply enjoyable than it really is. This book is a great way to rediscover poetry if you’re new/wary, and to enjoy some fun and unexpected stuff if you’re a fan. A plus–almost all the poems are by living writers, so if you like someone in particular, you can still write them fan mail.
  5. The Anti-9-5 Guide, by Michelle Goodman. This smart, handy guide is a great resource for anyone feeling a little constricted by the 9-5 grind. What I love is that besides offering freelance and self-employment tips, Goodman also talks about negotiating flexibility within a conventional position. Some people like their office gig just fine, but want to be able to walk the kids to the bus, or are willing to work 4 10-hour days to have regular long weekends. Goodman recognizes this group as well, which is a refreshing change from the all-or-nothing attitude of some career books.
And the ones you can skip:
  1. The Kid, by Sapphire. This story of an abused child who becomes an abuser, then a dancer, then possibly a crazy person, is graphic in a way that feels less edgy and more shock for shock’s sake. Better: Read Push, Sapphire’s earlier (and much better) novel.
  2. The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferriss. I suppose I got what I should have expected–this book isn’t about engaging your passions in your job, but rather how to outsource or ignore as much as possible until work functions smoothly without you. Fine if you own a company and wish you didn’t have to be around. Less fine if you’re in a lower position where your bosses may decide that since the company works well without you, maybe you shouldn’t be on payroll. Much less fine if your goal is to cultivate work that is meaningful to you, instead of hiring a personal assistant in India to take care of your mundane tasks. Better: Read The Anti-9-5 Guide, by Michelle Goodman.
  3. Horns, by Joe Hill. Oh, Horns. You strange, sad, silly little book, with your predictable characters and last-minute plot shenanigans. Your story of a man who wakes up with devil horns and the ability to make others confess their darkest secrets didn’t stand a chance. Better: Read A Good and Happy Child, by Justin Evans, about a man who’s memories of being haunted by a demonic “friend” resurface with the birth of his son.
  4. Thinner, by Stephen King. Joe Hill’s dad makes my naughty list this year, too, with a plotline as thin as the main character (ouch, sorry, but I couldn’t resist). A man hits a Gypsy woman and gets cursed by her father to lose weight. I’ve seen you do much better, Stephen King. Better: Want scary? Read The Shining, by Stephen King. Want an anorexia tale? Read Wintergirls, by Laurie Halse Anderson.
  5. The Snow Goose, by Paul Gallico. Ugh. The frickin’ Snow Goose, people! The tale is of an ugly hunchback (whose physical abilities are not hampered AT ALL by the several deformities he has) who falls in love with the young blond thing who brings him a wounded goose and yammers at him in such thick eye dialect it’s a miracle he understood a word she said. Written in 1941, this guy won the O. Henry Prize, but was also already criticized for being overly sentimental. In this age of irony, there’s so much sentiment and schmaltz that your eyes will cake over in sugar crystals halfway through. Better: For a more modern, magical love story, try The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Or read The Snow Goose, but have Sh*t My Dad Says on hand as a chaser.

My goal was to read 52 books, although I more or less read at the same speed I would have anyway. Fortunately, my baseline is a good one, and I’m closing the year with 60. Here’s the list, starting with the first book I read this year:

  1. The Mendacity of Hope (Roger D. Hodge)
  2. Lovecraft Unbound (Ellen Datlow, ed.)
  3. Blood Roses (Francesca Lia Block)
  4. The Elephant’s Journey (Jose Saramago)
  5. Push (Sapphire)
  6. Sh*t My Dad Says
  7. Best American Short Stories 2008
  8. The House of Discarded Dreams (Ekaterina Sedia)
  9. Mudhouse Sabbath (Lauren F. Winner)
  10. The Hound of the Baskervilles (Arthur Conan Doyle)
  11. Animal’s People (Indra Sinha)
  12. More Tales of the Unexpected (Roald Dahl)
  13. Eunoia (Christian Bok)
  14. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Michael Ondaatje)
  15. The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs)
  16. Equus (Peter Shaffer)
  17. Drinking Closer to Home (Jessica Anya Blau)
  18. Eric (Terry Pratchett)
  19. Machine of Death (Ryan North, ed.)
  20. The Snow Goose (Paul Gallico)
  21. The Importance of Being Ernest (Oscar Wilde)
  22. How to Buy a Love of Reading (Tanya Egan Gibson)
  23. Fanny, Herself (Edna Ferber)
  24. Attachments (Rainbow Rowell)
  25. Poetry 180 (Billy Collins, ed.)
  26. Cheerful By Request (Edna Ferber)
  27. Horns (Joe Hill)
  28. The Help (Kathryn Stockett)
  29. Love Lyrics (James Riley)
  30. Kiss & Tell (MariNaomi)
  31. Orientation (Daniel Orozco)
  32. Knock Your Socks Off Service (Performance Review Associates)
  33. Witches Abroad (Terry Pratchett)
  34. Feet of Clay (Terry Pratchett)
  35. Games to Play After Dark (Sarah Gardner Borden)
  36. The Fiction Class (Susan Breen)
  37. A Good and Happy Child (Justin Evans)
  38. Oedipus the King (Sophocles)
  39. 20 Under 40 (Deborah Treisman, ed.)
  40. The 4-Hour Workweek (Timothy Ferriss)
  41. Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
  42. Disgrace (J.M. Coetzee)
  43. Malina (Ingeborg Bachmann)
  44. Miracles, Inc. (T.J. Forrester)
  45. The Anti-9-5 Guide (Michelle Goodman)
  46. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams (Peter Handke)
  47. Tsing (David Albahari)
  48. The Kid (Sapphire)
  49. Your Wildest Dreams (Within Reason) (Mike Sacks)
  50. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (Danzy Senna)
  51. Thinner (Stephen King)
  52. Light in August (William Faulkner)
  53. Nanny Returns (Emma McLaughlin, Nicola Kraus)
  54. The Pile of Stuff at the Bottom of the Stairs (Christina Hopkinson)
  55. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays (Zadie Smith)
  56. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)
  57. Snuff (Terry Pratchett)
  58. The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
  59. Madame Bovary’s Daughter (Linda Urbach)
  60. Ulysses (James Joyce)