It’s that time of year again, when we are inundated with countless cheesy television shows that tell us what has been the best or the worst of the last 365 days. They are all over VH1 and MTV, the channels formally known to play music videos, across the E! Entertainment Network and even talked about on formal news networks, FOX, MSNBC and CNN. They’re repetitive but more addicting to watch than the 24-hour special of “A Christmas Story.”
As the ball drops come New Year’s—and I long for a strong gulp of wine (preggo women apparently need not drink until their third trimester)—I’m succumbing to the trend and chiming in with my own list of 2011 best reads.
1. Beginning the list is “The Collectibles” by James F. Kauffman. Reviewed by encore last summer and authored by a Wilmington native, the story centers around Joe Hart, an orphan from the Adirondack mountains. Eventually, Hart leaves his unpretentious beginnings and goes on to differentiate himself, first as a Navy submarine commander, then as an unmatched successful attorney.
Then, we meet Preston Wilson, a child of privilege from New York. Preston harbors tremendous fears of financial failure for his real estate-automotive empire, and when that fear becomes a reality, he tracks down the one attorney who can save him: Joe Hart. Unenthusiastically, Hart decides to help—but only after mining a promise that Preston will fulfill an unspecified condition when called upon: Meet and earn the trust of and care for six of Hart’s friends, also known as “The Collectibles.”
A brilliant and soul-motivating tale about finding integrity in selfless love and giving, Kaufman solidified himself not only as the author of a number one read in 2011, but as a writer from whom his fans cannot wait to read more.
2. Though not published in 2011, “Water for Elephants” lands itself as number two on my list. Before considering the purchase, I beg of you to throw out any preconceived notions of Mr. Shimmers (Robert Pattinson) glistening across the silver screen at Reese Witherspoon, and instead consider the original plot of Sara Gruen’s romantic and thrilling novel.
Said by Publisher’s Weekly to be a page-turner “that hinges on the human-animal bond that propels its sequel, ‘Riding Lessons and Flying Changes,’”“Water for Elephants” focuses on Jacob Jankowski’s life within the Benzini Brothers Circus in Depression-era America. Neglecting not an ounce of detail, we follow Jacob on the circus train where he becomes ill, and fully treated and abused by the menagerie’s veterinarian. Soon, he meets and falls in love with Marlena, the Benzini Brother’s star entertainer. However, Marlena is already married to the cruel, certified paranoid schizophrenic and circus animal trainer, August.
Truly an exotic romance filled with slices of humor and bizarrely humanized characters, “Water for Elephants” develops in a way that is passionately cutting and courageous, all while steering away from being too miserable and intolerable to finish. It will find a way into one’s heart and stay there far beyond 2011 and 2012.
3. A novel my own mother (who never reads a book unless there’s an endorsement from Bill O’Reilly) was anxious and eager to grip in her hands, “The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett is pure joy—even if backed by cruel heartache, as it’s set among the onslaught of the civil rights era.
Its main character, Aibileen, is a black maid residing in Jackson, Mississippi (Stockett’s home town) in 1962, and she does more than just follow orders without a peep. Yet, she’s struggling to keep quiet as of late and keep her cynicism at bay. Her friend, Minny, is quite the opposite. She has never bit her tongue a day in her life, but keeping recent secrets about her employers are leaving Minny absolutely thunderstruck and unable to utter a single word. In the midst of it all is the white socialite, Skeeter, a recent graduate from college, whose family, like other Jacksonites, keep black housemaids to tend their house chores and raise their children.
Together, Stockett creates a risky tale of three women who give way to an excellent romp through American antiquity. As it wraps personal anecdotes around civil rights history, which defined a bygone era, it manages to embrace diversity with charm and without being too preachy.
4. In the summer of 2009, author Justin Halpern created a Twitter account to document his father’s uncensored, expletive-ridden verses of “wisdom,” also coined, “Sh*t My Dad Says.” Within a month, @shitmydadsays hardened itself as an Internet frontier phenomenon! With more than a recorded 2.5 million followers enjoying Halpern’s musings on Twitter and Facebook alone, it was no wonder a book would soon follow.
Appropriately and simply titled, “Sh*t My Dad Says” (not to be confused with the title, “Crazy Shit Charlie Sheen Says”) is comical and centered around Halpern when he was 28 years old. Readers meet Halpburn’s 73-year-old father, Sam, just after Halpburn was dumped by his longtime girlfriend. As he finds himself living at home, Halpburn details his father “like Socrates, but angrier—and with worse hair.”
“Sh*t My Dad Says” is a hysterical journey through ridiculous things Sam has spoken throughout the time spent at home. It’s now the basis of a new WarnerBros/CBS sitcom of the same title, which stars William Shatner, Nicole Sullivan, Will Sasso and Jonathan Sadowski.
5. Lastly, a book that speaks volumes without using many words at all is Jeff Sheng’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Highlighted in encore last January, as the appeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy dawned, the book delivers 20 stunningly beautiful portraits of service members with their faces hidden. It does more than represent sadness, frustration and longing; it represents one of the greatest fears and ignorances of our time.
By stating what cannot be said in words and describing that which can only be defined with photographs, Sheng did more than create the first photo book on the market that features portraits of closeted service members affected by laws that order the discharge of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-identified members of our United States military. Sheng captured an unprecedented moment in our culture and immortalized it for generations. No matter which side one stands on the controversial issue, the point remains: Sheng’s work is cathartic and will cast a lasting impression for a lifetime.