In no particular order other than how they came to mind, my 'best reads' of 2011:
Snowflower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See — A great novel about the relationship between two "sworn sisters" in mid-19th century China. You can read a previous post about the book here. Note: resist ALL temptations to see the movie with the same name. Except for the name, they have virtually nothing to do with one another. There are no words to describe how awful the movie is.
Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick– A riveting and depressing look at life inside North Korea, as told to the author by those who have escaped.
Country Driving: A Journey Through China, from Farm to Factory, by Peter Hessler — Truth be told, anything written by Peter Hessler is worth your time. In this book, he writes about China's emerging 'car culture' by telling three stories: of a drive across China following as close to the Great Wall as possible; of the changes that a road brings to the lives of villagers outside Beijing; and of the highways linking the factory towns of eastern China.
Midnight in Peking, by Paul French. Set in pre-war Peking, this is about the investigation of the brutal murder of a young British girl in 1937. It reads like a novel, but it's all true! You can read a previous post about the book here. This book is scheduled for release in the US on April 24, 2012.
God is Red: The Secret History of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, by Liao Yiwu. Author Liao, who himself is not a believer, intereviewed Christians all over China to try to understand the growth of Christianity in his homeland. The stories are amazing.
City of Tranquil Light, by Bo Caldwell. Caldwell tells the story of a young missionary couple in China in the early decades of the twentieth century in two voices: the husband's recounting of their life lookiing back, and the letters of the wife written as the events unfold. I also recommend Caldwell's book The Distant Land of My Father.
The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued his Empire, by Jack Weatherford. I was inspired to read this following my trip to Mongolia last fall. It did not disappoint. I think the title speaks for itself.
Tent Life in Siberia, by George Kennan. This is my all-time favorite travel book, about a group of entrepid adventurers who are dropped off along the frozen shores of the Kamchatka Penninsula of Russia in the mid-1800's, with instructions to find a route across Siberia for a telegraph line. They hire some local guides and dog-sledding teams, and off they go. I notice that it is currently FREE in Kindle format on Amazon. If you've got a Kindle, download it right now!