Favorite books of 2011

Inspired by Danielle’s 2011 reading list, here are 10 books I’ve really enjoyed this year:

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

A heartbreakingly beautiful book about an old man and a young girl whose life stories are linked by a book called The History of Love.

I’ve read this book three times, and it always makes me cry. The characters are so wonderfully developed; the voice of the old man is captured extremely well, and I see shadows of myself in the girl (a smart, adventurous Jewish tomboy who likes wilderness survival).

This is a book about emotion: strong emotion, complex emotion, can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it emotion, too-painful-to-feel emotion. The beauty of love and the bittersweetness of loss, and regret about things that might have been. It tugs on heartstrings you didn’t know you had. A beautiful, beautiful book.

My copy also happens to be the first gift my husband ever gave me, before we were even dating. He tried to read it (in English) but didn’t make it past the first line. I hope that someday he is able to.

3 mph: The Adventures of One Woman’s Walk Around the World –  Polly Letofsky

Yes, you read that right – she WALKED around the WORLD.On her 5-year journey, she raised over a quarter-million dollars for breast cancer education and awareness. I initially thought “awareness” sounded lame, like a non-action – but what that really means is she has taught women about breast self-exams and early detection in countries where this is not common knowledge and where cultural taboos may make it difficult for women to talk about breasts or see a male doctor – and this “awareness” will save lives.

The book opens by describing how she almost got killed by a flying cow in India, and the cultural experiences and interesting people she meets along the way are golden. In my opinion, the text started dragging a bit towards the end, and I think that actually reflects some of her exhaustion from having been on the road so long, especially in Europe where she received very little support. All in all a fascinating read.

Engagement from Scratch – Danny Iny

I bought this book before realizing the author was offering it free on his website – oops – but I don’t regret it. I’ve read a lot of articles on how to grow your website or blog, but they often assume you already have a steady stream of traffic/visitors/subscribers that you want to increase.

This book, which is a collection by various authors who have built successful blogs, websites, and communities from the ground up, helps you build traffic from zero. The advice comes from different angles and some of it is even contradictory, which I like because you can try out all the strategies and find what works for you. Plus, the success stories are inspiring!

The Secret Holocaust Diaries: The Untold Story of Nonna Bannister – Carolyn Tomlin

Nonna was not Jewish, but the Holocaust nearly destroyed her. In 1950, she immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 23, married, and didn’t speak about her past for half a century.

One day, she led her husband up to the attic and revealed the diaries she had kept as a child and teenager during the Holocaust.

Born into a large, wealthy Russian family, she wrote about how one by one their freedoms were taken away and options were limited by the war until her family was decimated. The descriptions of the warm, loving, rich memories of her childhood are a stark contrast to the cruelties she witnessed and experienced.

But throughout the suffering, there are notes of hope and love, showing an incredible strength of character.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself – Harriet Ann Jacobs

This is the true story of a woman born into slavery who never accepted being a “possession” of her master. She resisted her master’s sexual advances and fought for her freedom for years – eventually gaining it after spending seven years hidden in a crawl space in her grandmother’s attic, then making a risky but successful journey to the North. (That’s perseverance!!!) Her thoughts and observations on the society of that era are amazing.

This book is free for Kindle or you can read it online here.

Letters of a Woman Homesteader – Elinore Pruitt Stewart

Letters from a courageous woman who set out to build her own household in the undeveloped West in the early 20th century. I loved three things about this book:

1) Seeing how incredibly different daily life was just 100 years ago. Elinore makes her own clothes and grows and/or hunts all her own food – and this was normal for life on the frontier.

2) How she lovingly and joyfully thinks up creative ways to bless others – from organizing a sewing party to make a ton of clothes for an orphan girl, to befriending a lonely old man far from home, to taking Christmas dinner packets to the cowboys out on the field. I’m struck by how much she did for others, with so little in terms of material possessions.

3) Her descriptions of nature – they can make you smell the pine, taste the clear mountain water, and feel the sting of the chilly winter air.

Also free for Kindle!

Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov

As a fan of classic sci-fi, I’m kind of amazed I’d never read these. I love story arcs of several hundred years, as well as intelligent and non-cheesy science fiction writing.

I found a couple of chapters in the first third of the story less than memorable – but got really hooked towards the end, which I couldn’t have guessed.

Now I need to read the last two of the series: Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth !

Things I wish I’d Known Before We Got Married – Gary Chapman

One of the better marriage-preparation books, in my opinion. Each of the 12 “things” is solidly developed and illustrated with anecdotes, and each one ends with discussion (or food for thought) questions that help you personalize the lesson and think about how it applies or plays out in your own relationship. I plan to read this again a year or so into our marriage.

The Silence of Trees – Valya Dudycz Lupescu

Unlike The Secret Holocaust Diaries, this story is a fictional account of a young Ukrainian girl’s survival of WWII. It jumps back and forth between 16-year-old Nadya and 75-year-old Nadya, and secrets are unfolded throughout the book until she finally finds the peace and happiness that have eluded her for so long. The writing isn’t nearly as poetic as The History of Love or The Secret Holocaust Diaries, but I enjoyed the way the author weaves in Ukrainian tradition, superstition, and spirituality.

In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

This book is pure gold for anyone who loves languages! If you thought Esperanto was the only invented language, think again – there have actually been hundreds.

Okrent, a linguist, delves deeply into 5 of these languages, exploring their histories and the visions of their founders, entering their communities of aficionados, and making honest attempts to learn them.

She also discusses their difficulties and the reasons why invented languages have just never seemed to catch on.

My favorite chapter was the one about how a “symbol language” – despite the intentions of its inventor – ended up helping children with mental, physiological, or communicative difficulties to express themselves.

Got any book recommendations for me in 2012?