What I Read in 2011

Prefatory Statement:   I’m on a quest to own all of Dick Francis’ novels on audio CD, so that’s why you will see so many of them reread this year.  I’d rather listen to Tony Britton or Simon Prebble than anyone else on earth.  I have read all these novels before, some of them at least twice before, but I’m listening as I’m painting and Dick Francis always bears listening to again.

Detail from Hazelnut Torte with Beverly of Graustark


Cleopatra, a Life by Stacy Schiff — an excellent biography, eschewing the stereotype of Cleopatra as a vamp and emphasizing her political shrewdness and determination, not to mention the ruthlessness that characterized all the Macedonian rulers of the Hellenistic Age.

Proof by Dick Francis — In our family Dick Francis novels are reread many times as tried and true entertainment

Flying Finish by Dick Francis — possibly the most exciting ending of all his books

The Beacon at Alexandria by Gillian Bradshaw — at least my fourth reread, the perfect historical novel

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — I loved this book!  I loved everything about it: it’s Britishness, it’s humor, it’s decency, it’s funniness!  Highly reommended!

The Sun’s Bride by Gillian Bradshaw — a newer (and shorter)  novel of Bradshaw’s about piracy (seagoing) and the arts in the Hellenistic world.  As usual, I was rooting for Bradshaw’s characters and enjoying historical fiction that is entirely palatable, not full of gratuitous violence or a bleak estimation of human nature.

I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson — by the author if I Don’t Know How She Does It, recently made into a movie, this one was equally good; about a girl who wins a contest to meet David Cassidy, but doesn’t find out for 24 years.  As in the first novel, the reader is privy to virtually all the character’s thoughts and feelings, and the plot sort of grows out of it.  I enjoyed it.

1434 by Gavin Menzies — how the Chinese jumpstarted the Italian Renaissance; very eye-opening and completely fascinating!

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain — biographical novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and their life among the literati in France and the Riviera; paints a very good portrait.  I completely enjoyed it.

Churchill by Paul Johnson — short biography of Winston; his 2nd WW leadership was moving and inspiring.  Winston Churchill painted when he was defeated and depressed, because “you can’t think of anything else when you’re painting.”  I agree that painting is the best remedy for despair.  You really can’t do both at the same time, unless your painting actually generates despair, which it sometimes can.

I Remember Nothing by Nora Ephron — fun, light reading

Lost in Shangri La by Mitchell Zuckoff — true life adventure story about being stranded among head-hunting aborigines in New Guinea.  Great reading!

Out of Character:  Surpising Truths about the Liar, Cheat, Sinner (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo — interesting discussion of psychological tests that demonstrate how human nature really works.  The explanation of conscience by evolution sounds fantastical to me though, and I would have preferred not to be bothered with such unconvincing discursions.

An American Heiress by Daisy Goodwin — good read; Portrait of a Lady with a happy ending; doesn’t have the literary elegance or penetration of Henry James or Edith Wharton, but it’s a quality novel.

A Brief History of Anxiety by Patricia Pearson — a very well-written personal memoir, with critical reflections on how anxiety disorders are treated in the US.   I recommend it.

Her Royal Spyness, A Royal Pain, Royal Blood,  and Naughty in Nice by Rhyss Bowen — Geneia and I enjoyed these light mysteries about a destitute, but plucky royal — 32nd from the throne — during the 1930s.

Second Wind by Dick Francis — our favorite travel author; I’ve only read this one once before, so I wasn’t able to quote it verbatim

Trial Run by Dick Francis

Conquistador by Buddy Levy — very good history of the conquest of Mexico by Hernan Cortez.  The narrator was criticized on audible.com for sounding like the Frito Bandito when speaking for Cortez, and I had to admit he did a bit.  I think he was doing “tough soldier” and that just happened to sound like “you know who,” but the narrator does an excellent job of pronouning all the Aztec names and of not losing the listener.  I highly recommend it.

Break In and Bolt by Dick Francis — among my favorites.  I love the relationship between steeplechase jockey, Kit Fielding, and Princess Cassilia, for whom he rides.

Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin — I had to read this again before I saw the movie and I enjoyed it just as much the 2nd time.  Believable characters.

The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris  by David McCullough — McCullough writes about the Americans whose lives were changed by the culture, education and freedom they found in a Paris residency over the course of the 19th Century; not necessarily the ex-pats most known and associated with Paris.  I found most moving the story of Elihu Washburn, the only diplomat  of a major country to stay in Paris through the Franco-Prussian War, the seige and the terror of the Paris Commune.  He was a brave, compassionate, and unself-sparing man who helped protect as many as he could.  I’m excited to tour his house in Galena, now that I’ve read about him and found him so inspiring.

Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer — old favorite from highschool

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearlsey — enjoyable romantic fiction about time-travel, Cornwall, the Jacobite Cause.  It reminded me very strongly of Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree.   It was fun to find out that Mary Stewart is Kearsley’s favorite author.  We are kindred spirits!

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles — extremely well-written evocation of 1930s New York.  I’m not kidding; this guy’s prose is jaw-dropping!  He’s one of those very few men who can write convincingly in the persona of a woman, like Arthur Golden in Memoirs of a Geisha.

Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella — These books are so much fun and narrators, Emily Gray and Roslyn Landor, are absolutely perfect in their two roles.

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney — not that willpower really had to be rediscovered by us nonpshychologists, but this is very interesting and useful read.  I highly recommend this!

Hannibal by Harold Lamb — very good book I read as an introduction to the 2nd Punic War