2010 Reading Roundup.

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!

6. The New York Trilogy (City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room (review coming soon)) – Paul Auster (1985-1986)

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.

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14 Responses to 2010 Reading Roundup.

  1. Oh, you do make me laugh Kerry (and I’m glad I’m not the only one to hold out until the year is over – it makes me feel less, shall we say, pedantic but rather illogically logical!).

    Love your list … I totally agree with you re Coetzee. I haven’t read these autobiographical books, but your description of the impact on you of his writing in general accords pretty much with mine …

    I too was intrigued by Tony’s introduction to Dawn Powell, but you went one step further and read her. You have only confirmed that she is indeed someone I should follow up. How many clicks is it to Book Depository from here? I should also, it seems, check out Rosales.

    Happy reading in 2011 … I look forward to hearing more of your reading adventures.

  2. Kerry says:

    Thanks, Whispering. Coetzee is awesome isn’t he? The only conventional novel of his I have read was Disgrace and that one instantly vaulted him into my list of elite authors.

    I do recommend trying Powell. Tony is the one to ask about where to begin, but Turn, Magic Wheel was probably the perfect introduction for me. I will be exploring more of her work. And Rosales is excellent and short, so great for blogging.

    Thanks for the well-wishes, Whispering. They are returned many-fold. Happy 2011!

  3. Colleen says:

    Re: Cloud Atlas: “I felt as if I was discovering literature again for the first time.” Yes, yes! That’s how it made me feel (twice) too!

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Colleen. It always feels fabulous when a book I love is loved similarly by others.

      And I am looking forward to your more logical end of your blogging year roundup in March!

  4. Steph says:

    I read Cloud Atlas this year as well, and while it didn’t make my best-of-list I was glad to have finally read it (I tried it a few years ago and gave up) and did enjoy it a lot. So much so that I am now eager to try Mitchell’s other works and have already acquired Ghostwritten which I’m really looking forward to.

    Also, I agree that Auster’s NY Trilogy is a mindbending piece of fiction that is challenging but really rewarding. It’s definitely one of those books that certainly seems to demand multiple readings!

    Finally: You can never go wrong with Oscar Wilde! I read Dorian Gray a long time ago but definitely need to re-read it!

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for checking in Steph. And I am reassured by the fact that my own aesthetic preferences overlap yours, which are impeccable, of course!

      Oscar Wilde is great. I think he has to be close to the top, probably the top, of the list of writers who I would want at my dinner party.

  5. Sarah says:

    Funny you should mention Christmas gifts; since I did refer to your blog with that purpose in mind. Given that you had (very logically) not posted an end of year list I made my own call, and went for the Hyland… Waiting to see how that turns out!

    Jumping on the band wagon somewhat, but I loved Cloud Atlas, too. I wonder if it could have been even better had it not been my first David Mitchell? But the question is academic: Cloud Atlas was the one I wanted to read, particularly after your glowing review.

    Wishing you many rewarding reads of 2011!

    • Kerry says:

      Sarah,

      I am happy to have provided some Christmas giving inspiration. You have helped me with gifts in the past (Angela Carter, for instance).

      Thanks for the well-wishes and back at you! I have much enjoyed your flurry of posts in your welcome return to regular blogging.

  6. Justine says:

    I have Mitchell on my ‘to read’ list and can’t wait until I can find the time to get into his work.
    I am intrigued by your recommendation of Krauss’ latest work. I read her ‘History of Love’ and was supremely disappointed – I think that the fact that she is married to Jonathan Safran Foer of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’fame led me to expect greatness.I think I might have further tarred her work by reading ‘History of Love’ in the shadow of her husband’s work (I read both Foer books consecutively) and that probably would have been enough to ruin any text! I will look out for your review of ‘History of Love’ – perhaps I need a different perspective?

    • Kerry says:

      I was blown away by Great House, but, having read nothing else (besides excerpts of that same novel), I don’t know if that is because she is great or this work and I just hit it off. I have not read anything by Jonathan Safran Foer (shame on me), so I cannot make any comparison. I will be giving History of Love a try, so I will let you know what I think of that one.

      Thanks for the comment and for lowering my expectations for the remainder of Krauss’ work. I always prefer to expect less rather than more. Too high expectations have ruined (at least temporarily) more than one novel for me. I am weird like that.

  7. On behalf of The Mount, Edith Wharton’s historic estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, I am writing to tell you that we’ve appreciated your Wharton references and recommendations. In fact, we’ve included a link to your blog and an excerpt in our own latest blog post:http://www.edithwharton.org/blog/

    Hope you and your readers have a chance sometime to visit The Mount, which is an architectural testament to the passions of Edith Wharton. In the meantime, happy new year– and happy reading!

    • Kerry says:

      Christine,

      You are too kind, I am sure. Thank you for the link and for taking the time to let me know about it.

      The estate looks absolutely beautiful. I do hope to make it out sometime.

      Happy New Year and happy reading to you too!

  8. Biblibio says:

    The Halfway House is one of those strange strange reads, but you’re right – it is certainly enriching.

    Also, this further shows that I need to finally get to Cloud Atlas, The Picture of Dorian Gray (which has been on the favorites lists of two close friends for years, and both have been trying to get me to finally read it…), and Summertime.

    Very interesting points about Night. It really is just something else.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am glad you mentioned The Halfway House as it is a very good and original book. And, of course, you will get no argument from me about the need to read anything written by Mitchell, Wilde, or Coetzee. All three authors are outstanding and the books on this list are my favorites (so far) for each.

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