Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday's Top Five: Books of 2011

In honor of the Oscars, I've decided to do a little review of the books I read in 2011. Beginning in 2010, I started writing down on my wall calendar each time I finish reading a book. My goal was reading one book a week for the year. I only read 46 books, so I didn't quite make the goal, but I'm still pleased with the result.

In no particular order, these are my five favorite books that I read during 2011:
1. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker


This was one of the first books I read in 2011. I happened upon it while browsing at Borders one afternoon (with a 40% off coupon in my hot little hand). I picked up a paperback copy for just a few dollars, not knowing anything about it. I think this book is an important read, especially for women. The book is about relying on our intuition to help us know when to be scared: if we feel uncomfortable, there's probably a good reason for that. He also talks about how our bodies can take over when things go crazy. I definitely related to this perspective: I've only had to call 911 once in my life. I was eating breakfast with my dad at my parents' house while I was in college when he passed out. Before that had even occurred, my brain was saying to me "If something happens, you just get up, walk around the table, pick up the phone, and dial 911." Sure enough, it did, and I followed those exact steps. Thankfully, my dad's condition wasn't very serious, but I'm very glad my body took over and told me just what to do. This book was filled with stories like that and I found it fascinating.

2. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
My book club decided to read this book in the summer of 2011. I was initially a little unsure about it, but I fell in love! I often enjoy books about history, and this was no exception, even though fiction is rarely my taste. I thought the story had good twists and turns, keeping the reader engaged. For me, while I enjoyed the story, it really came together for me as a favorite when I read the author's brief essay at the end. In the essay, she describes how the different stories that are woven together as all occurring at the same time are actually a depiction of the different stages in the cycle of  relationship between domestic workers and the children they raise. I don't always enjoy fiction, but this book was truly excellent.

3. The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman

This book was a random find on a clearance shelf at Half Price Books (which is my very favorite place to shop for books). My favorite aspect of this book is that it pointed out to me the importance of the relationship between Wal-Mart and its suppliers. It had never occurred to me to think about what it might be like for a company that makes products (toothpaste, canned soup, hand towels, whatever) that are subsequently sold by Wal-Mart. It turns out, one of the reasons Wal-Mart has such an effect on our economy and our lives is because of its extraordinary purchasing power among its vendors. The author relates the anecdote about how, many years ago, people always purchased deodorant in boxes. The deodorant itself was still in the plastic tube we know today, but the tube was enclosed by a box when you brought it home from the store. Wal-Mart didn't like that - the boxes didn't really affect the consumers use and appreciation of the product, they cost money to produce and added transportation costs, as well as taking up more space on Wal-Mart's store shelves. So, Wal-Mart encouraged its vendors to ditch the boxes and now they're gone. And they're not just gone at Wal-Mart - I can't think of any place in the world where you would find deodorant sold in a box. In my mind, that's an example of Wal-Mart using its power for good and not evil. Though the author (and I) recognizes some important differences even between Wal-Mart and its next closest competitors, I thought this book was a fascinating look at how retail exists in the early 21st century.

4.  Reflections on the Revolution in Europe by Christopher Caldwell
I was actually surprised by how interesting this book was. I knew that, coming in to it, the author and I had somewhat different ideological viewpoints and I didn't know whether I would agree with his perspectives. Ultimately, I didn't. But, there was one point that was truly brought home for me when I read this book: it is different for Europeans to accept "other" people into their society than it is for us here in the U.S. Our society is, and has been for 200 years, a melting pot of lots of different immigrant and indigenous groups. That is not necessarily true of the countries that make up the European Union. "American" doesn't mean that we look alike, have the same religious views, dress the same way, learn the same things at school, observe the same customs and traditions, eat the same food, or have the same aspirations for our children. For some of the countries now struggling to understand how Muslims fit into their societies, there had long been much more uniformity in those categories. Until I read this book, it had not occurred to me just how much more of a challenge it is for those more homogeneous European countries to figure out how to proceed.

5. Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball
This book is also a favorite because it opened my mind. This book focused on the relationships between slaves and the white families they served during slavery and thereafter. Indeed, the author conducted recent interviews with people descended from slaves, masters, and both. One piece, though, that truly fascinated me was the economic ramifications of slavery, and then emancipation. As most other present-day Americans, I believe slavery is, was, and always will be, morally wrong. I am ashamed our country's laws sanctioned it at one time. However, for the people who were purchasing slaves when it was legal, I imagine that they viewed such purchases as an "investment." When the decision was made to correct the past policies, and free the slaves, the people who had purchased them simply lost out on their investment. I do not mean to suggest that the government should have done otherwise. I just had never thought before about what it would have been like to find that my investment wasn't worth what I had put into it - something that many of us are thinking about more today given the drop in housing prices and retirement savings accounts. I had always imagined that Reconstruction in the South was difficult because of actual physical destruction created by the battles that were part of the war. This, no doubt, contributed to the difficulty, but the economic forces associated with the loss of wealth created by emancipation must also have been a part of it. Given the situation facing our country today, I found this economic perspective especially relevant.

Wishing you all great reads in 2012!

No comments:

Post a Comment