Other, more erudite, less illogically logical, and more considerate book bloggers (with the notable exception of the very erudite and extremely considerate Whispering Gums) have all long since published their lists of best or worst or most-enjoyed or very-good-but-not-necessarily-better-than-any-others or most-likely-to-be-chosen-for-[insert blogger’s name]-list or “randomly-chosen-from-the-millions-of-books-that-have-been-published-not-because-I-read-them-or-think-they-are-worth-reading-but-because-I-do-not-want-to-hurt-anyone’s-feelings-but-I-do-want-to-make-a-list” books of 2010. I, being a slave to arbitrary numbers and well-established tradition, have waited until 2010 is actually over to announce my list of 10 favorite books from 2010. Any of the favorites I list below would make a great Christmas gift for the reader in your life. You are welcome.
Despite the fact that this list represents roughly 20% of the books I read, I feel the need to point out that I read many other good books this year too. In fact, I have to say that I am doing an excellent job of choosing books for myself (and having them chosen for me). Leaving aside Tournament of Books selections (which are, as a group, a special case), there are only really two or three that I would replace with another selection if given the option and a time machine. But I did not equally enjoy all of the list-worthy books I read in 2010. Some 2010 reads were more equal than others.
My favorites from 2010:
10. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde (1891).
Yes, it did take me this long to get to Wilde’s novel. His writing is so deliciously clever that, even if you know the story, the novel tickles with thrills. Few authors are so quotable. He even provides a reason for an enjoyable read such as this:
The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
I admire this classic intensely, so I consider Wilde’s indulgence excused.
9. Great House (review coming soon) – Nicole Krauss (2010)
Nicole Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 this year. This, her third novel, is a beautiful, tangled thing…about a desk. How is a novel about a desk compelling? It is hard to explain. The desk is a metaphor, but not in a trite or obvious way. The desk is a linkage between the four story lines even more than it is a metaphor. But, again, its use as a device is not distracting or annoying. The story takes over and the desk is there, like it is for so many of the characters. The desk simply exists; it is the characters, not the story, that give it meaning.
This is the first book I have read by Nicole Krauss. I now have to go read the other two.
8. The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton (1920)
I can say that this book likely would have fallen a few spots if certain aspects of its brilliance had not been illumined by D. G. Meyers. His analysis does far more for the book than anything I can tell you. The novel is a masterwork. It deserves its reputation. While 2010 was “the year of Wharton”, 2011 will probably be another “year of Wharton”. I plan to read another.
7. The Twelve Chairs – Ilf and Petrov (1928)
This is the first of several books on my favorites list that I read because of a very specific recommendation. A good friend from Ukraine provided this title when I asked for a recommendation. It is as funny as promised and, though such a thing seems impossible, takes the reader on a joyful romp through Stalin’s Soviet Union. But it is not only funny. Its brilliance lies in the sly critique (sly enough to avoid calling the executioner’s attention to the authors) of the Soviet regime and life under it. Time ran out on 2010 before I had a chance to read the sequel, but there is a good chance you will see these authors on my 2011 list. My friend assures me The Golden Calf is even better!
Confusing? Yes. Unique? Yes. Did it take the courage-bolstering knowledge that someone else was subjecting themselves to the same disorienting experience to get me to read it? Yes.
This book is a favorite partly because it is so uniquely twisted in upon itself and partly because these stories have stuck with me, in a good way, so clearly. While I don’t pretend to have any great insight into what Auster was doing, I enjoyed the games he played in my brain.
5. Turn, Magic Wheel – Dawn Powell (1936)
I have Tony’s Book World to thank for this gem. He kindly made the introduction and Powell managed the rest. In some ways, this is like a mashup of two of my favorite novels: The Age of Innocence and Gina Berriault’s The Lights of Earth. Yeah, yeah, I only read Age about a month ago, but still. Wharton and Powell both dissect New York high society using cadavers of romance. If anything, the wit is sharper in Powell’s work and the psychology darker. For these two reasons, Powell garners a bit more affection than Wharton. Berriault’s work seems to me heavily influenced by Powell’s, because much of what I adore in Berriault can be found in Powell. Lights of Earth doesn’t make this list because it was a 2010 re-read. With fifteen-to-twenty very good books vying for the final six spots on this list, cuts had to be made.
4. The Halfway House – Guillermo Rosales (1987; tr. 2009)
Trevor over at The Mookse and The Gripes last year put this on his “Some Highlights from 2009” list. I stole from his list and I invite you to steal this exquisitely brutal little book from my list. While it is not easy to read, it is quite rewarding to read. I had not previously read any books exploring the underbelly of the south Florida “halfway house” underworld and I doubt you have either. While the subject matter can be grim and the characters unsavory, this is the kind of book that enriches one’s humanity.
3. Summertime – J.M. Coetzee (2009)
The only thing I do not like about Coetzee is that he makes me think less of almost every other author whose work I read. He made my inaugural list of favorites with Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life. Summertime is the third book in the fictionalized autobiographical series which Boyhood began.
Summertime is less sentimental, more technically daring, and equally brilliant. The book was fabulous. I am thrilled that I still have so much of his work to read. If anyone is placing bets on front-runners to make this list again, J.M. Coetzee is as close to a sure thing as there is.
2. The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter (1979)
As with at least four other books on my “favorites” list, I must thank fellow bibliophiles for giving me the final push to read this book. Specifically, I must thank the proprietors of another cookie crumbles, The Paperback Reader, and A Rat in the Book Pile for encouraging me (through enticing posts on Carter).
What I discovered is that Carter crafts scrumptious prose and tells engaging stories with subtle depth. I cannot do better than the thumbnail description by Joyce Carol Oates: “ironical, cerebral, and elegant.” There is more Carter in my future.
1. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell (2004)
When I began this book, I felt as if I was discovering literature again for the first time. I was giddy. I still am. I was drawn in by each of the five separate narratives. I loved the story-splitting and the way the splits enhanced each of the segments. Cloud Atlas was the book I had in mind when I began with Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten. If you’ve been following my blog, you know I really enjoyed reading his first three novels in the order they were published. I believe my experience reading Cloud Atlas was enhanced by having read his first two novels first. Surely something must explain why I loved it so. I know my enjoyment of the others was enhanced by reading them before this one, otherwise they may have suffered in the comparison. Cloud Atlas was, for me, the masterpiece it is reputed to be.
Finally, I have not included Night by Elie Wiesel on this list. I have reasons. For instance, Night is not a book of fiction. But this and my other rationalizations are not good reasons. My problem was that I find it hard to think of Night as a “favorite” book and impossible to rank it “under” any other book I read this year. Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust is too powerful to be either a favorite or not a favorite. It defies such categorization. I cannot more highly recommend any other book.