Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Books We Read 2011

I read far fewer books in 2011 than I have in quite some time. I was busy and restless. Frustrated, I started and quickly stopped a record number of titles. In the end, I did manage to finish some, and on the whole they left me quite satisfied. I fell in love with a classic that I was prepared to hate, savored yet another reprint by one of my favorite authors, finally read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Tom McCarthy, and drooled over many, many, many fantastic cookbooks. Thus, it may go without saying that the two books I’ve chosen to highlight here are among several favorites from the past year. Surprisingly, these books have central themes that were (luckily?) somewhat foreign to me: death, Jesus, two types of hospitals, and schizophrenia, respectfully. Read on to find out more.

Us, by Michael Kimball is an understated, yet incredibly intimate story of aging, illness and death. The premise is quite simple: a man awakes one morning to find his wife beside him, no longer breathing. What follows is a complex story of the grim reality of what happens when we are met with mortality—that of our loved ones and of ourselves. While, by nature, the subject matter isn’t the endorphin releasing, warm-fuzzy type that I tend to look for in places other than books, this novel is an exceptionally tender portrait of the harsh realities of human existence, and of love. This book will make you think. I might make you feel a little crazy and a little sad. But it is completely worth it.

*Us is currently on our shelves, despite what our website may say. Call to reserve a copy, or come in to see it for yourself.

One of my other favorites from this year was the NYRB reprint of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. I picked this up because the premise was just too intriguing to ignore. In the late 1950’s, three schizophrenic patients in the Michigan state hospital system shared one very distinct characteristic. They each claimed to be Jesus Christ. Social psychologist Milton Rokeach brought these patients together at the now demolished Ypsilanti State Hospital, where he performed experiments and studied the group for a number of years. Though this is nonfiction through and through, the larger than life personalities, and the pure emotive qualities of the three Christs are certainly the stuff of novelists’ dreams. From a psychological standpoint, this book provides a fascinating explanation and interpretation of the basic functions and modalities of identity and individuality. More than that, the three Christs call into question the very meaning of the term ‘mentally ill’, and the ways in which individuals, physicians, and the state view, treat, and interact with those diagnosed as such. By the end of the book, I found myself wondering exactly which players in this bizarre situation truly saw themselves as Christ; the schizophrenic patients, or the doctor who attempted to manipulate, by morally questionable means, the lives of three men deemed by the state to be clinically insane.

No comments: