I approached my annual list with some chagrin, as one of my many disasters of 2011 was not reading nearly as much as I would have liked. What I did read, though, was more than worthy. If you haven't read any of these, I hope you will. And here's to hoping for better things--including many more great books--in 2012.
(Note: This list is NOT limited to books published in 2011--it includes any book I read during this calendar year, regardless of the publication date.)
As so often happens, the final order was tough to determine--you could rearrange the top four any way and I probably wouldn't argue. They're all worthwhile.
9. In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson - A look at the rise of the Nazis in the early days of Hitler's rule, from the perspective of the American ambassador's family. A different take on the period.
8. Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer - The art and science of memory, as investigated by Foer during his yearlong preparation for the US Memory Competition. Can we improve our memory and should we bother? The answers may surprise you.
7. The Floor of Heaven, by Howard Blum - A ripping yarn about the scallywags, scoundrels, and seekers who battled to find gold in the Yukon. The book features a cast of charactes that seem to come straight from an early 1900s pulp cowboy novel, people whose own accounts of their adventures may or may not be quite true. And that's what makes it so fun.
6. 1861, by Adam Goodheart A lot--a LOT--has been written about the Civil War, but Goodheart manages to dig up some people and events from the first year of the conflict that are less familiar. A really fascinating read.
5. To End All Wars, by Adam Hochschild - Hochschild's focus is on the British pacifists who refused to blindly wave a flag in favor of the nation's participation in World War I. However, it's also an excellent introduction to the war itself, and great reading for anyone, dove or hawk.
4. Moby Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists, and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them, by Donovan Hohn - When Hohn hears about a shipment of toy rubber ducks that were lost at sea during a storm in the Pacific, he becomes fascinated by the image of a fleet of the familiar child's toy floating on the waves on some mysterious journey. He sets off to find out what happened to them and stumbles into a world of warring environmental activists, Chinese toy manufacturers, salty sea captains, wave experts, and ocean garbage fans. The mild-mannered Hohn has more than a few "What did I get myself into?" moments, but luckily for us, he never quits until all his questions are answered.
3. Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff - The known facts about Cleopatra seemingly add up to a few scraps of paper, but Schiff, a wizard of research and synthesis, brings the legendary queen into focus by drawing out the details of the world around her. Just brilliant and compulsively readable.
2. The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard - The brilliant Ms. Millard does it again, using her science background to make the assassination of President James Garfield come to vivid (almost too vivid) life. She also shows us what an accomplished man Garfield was in life, leaving us (or at least me) to wonder what kind of president we may have lost. His pathetic, mad assassin, James Guiteau, also is clearly drawn. It's just a wonderfully written book.
1. Contested Will, by James Shapiro - Many people have tried to prove the identity of the "real" Shakespeare, but Shapiro tackles a much more fascinating topic: why people feel a need to find a "real" Shakespeare, and how their choices for that person reflect different era. A very instructive book about how we create history and how easy it is to get it all wrong. I loved this book.