2010 Reading Roundup.

January 2, 2011

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.


2009 Reading Roundup.

January 2, 2010

Early in 2009, I decided to try to catch up on a number of classics that I had missed and to re-read some novels I had really enjoyed in the past. In other words, this year was more about discovering for myself great works already well-known by most rather than uncovering little known gems. As a result, if you are looking something great and obscure, and you haven’t already followed my links as they came up, click here and browse for others’ 2009 summations (or head over to Max’s for “Six of the Best” .

If you are still here, you must be curious about my opinions with respect to well-known and highly-regarded works. My favorite ten novels (okay, one memoir and one short story with novella) from those I read in 2009 are listed below. Order matters.

10. Number9Dream – David Mitchell

“What Mitchell does extremely well is to weave together multiple genres, really, into a single coherent narrative. Eiji’s fantasies are usually action-packed sci-fi tales, his mother writes grounded, emotional letters, the short stories are fables which anthropomorphize animals, the journal is historical fiction, and the narrative reality swings from romance to gangster noir. The mastery is not simply to include bits of so many genres, but to use this distinct voices in the service of a deeper meaning. Each element pushes forward Mitchell’s exploration of meaning and individuals’ need to create narrative to explain the world.”

Having placed this highly with his second novel, you can imagine the anticipation with which I am looking forward to his masterpiece: Cloud Atlas.

9. Embers – Sandor Marai

“The main characters’ erratic knowledge is doled out masterfully, revealing a somewhat bizarre meeting of long-estranged friends. The General, a man used to wielding power, even over his friends and lovers, tells Konrad (the estranged friend):

Every exercise of power incorporates a faint, almost imperceptible, element of contempt for those over whom the power is exercised.

“While the friendship is central to the book, the themes run deeper. As does any great work, Embers speaks on multiple levels simultaneously. With considerable skill, Marai explores friendship, aging, Hungarian society, and the human condition.”

Embers is the book most likely to be unfamiliar to those of you reading this list and, thus, most qualifies as a discovered gem. In addition to my own review, this excellent (and short) blog post also extols the novel’s merits.

8. Boyhood – J.M. Coetzee

“There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.

“I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.”

7. The Stranger – Albert Camus

This was a re-read, part of my existentialists/absurdists project in 2009. I really enjoyed these books the first time around, but reading The Stranger, The Fall, and The Immoralist in quick succession was quite enjoyable. I have not read Camus’ The Plague, a huge omission, and did not re-read The Myth of Sisyphus as part of this mini-project, so I have a second stage for this year, I suppose. A re-read of The Trial could fit in as part of that project.

6. The U.S.A. Trilogy (only 1919 and The Big Money in 2009, but…) – John Dos Passos

“Few literary works manage to be as distinctively original as U.S.A.. I would suggest that this alone warrants picking up the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, and giving it a try. If you need more encouragement, you should know that it has received copious praise from authors as diversely talented as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and E.L. Doctorow, to name but a few. Further, the trilogy utilized innovative techniques, had an original structure, was ambitious in scope, and brought depth to its subject. Add that it is an entertaining read with well-written prose. What I am saying, is that U.S.A. made it into the canon for a reason.”

5. The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick

“Cynthia Ozick…[was] a new author for me. Thanks to the push of Kevin at KevinFromCanada and John Self at The Asylum, I picked up Ozick’s THE SHAWL. Consisting of a story and a novella, THE SHAWL takes on large subjects. Three characters are central to both the story and the novella: A mother, Rosa, her niece, Stella, and her daughter, Magda. The shawl of the title figures prominently in both the story and the novella.

“In the story, “The Shawl”, Rosa is in her early twenties, Stella is fourteen, and Magda is a baby. They are in a concentration camp. The story is only eight pages long, but dense with emotion….

“In the novella, “Rosa”, Rosa is an old woman living alone in Florida in a broken down “hotel” (the quotes are hers). Her social life consists primarily of writing letters to Stella (in English) and to Magda (in Polish). Her connections to the broader world are tenuous at best.”

This short story and connected novella combine as one of the most emotionally compelling books I read all year.

4. Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov (review forthcoming)

This is the master at his worst (of those I have read) and it is still one of the best novels I read in 2009. Easily.

I am looking forward to tackling several of his lesser known and read works in 2010, including Bend Sinister which I actually intended to read in 2009. I will pick up a couple more of his works as his is an oeuvre I want to complete. That is not the case with many greats, but Nabokov is a special case. I view him as a once a generation (or three) genius. He is one of the very, very few whose works have taken their place alongside Shakespeare. So few are unquestionably the best of their time, but Nabokov is one of those.

3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe

“The novel explores several themes. On one level, the novel is a close examination of one tragic hero. On another level, Okonkwo represents tribal Africa and its collision with European colonialism. The first half to two-thirds of the novel relates Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and redemption within his village of Umuofia. In the second half, modernity looms. Because Okonkwo’s personal identity is so closely linked to his status in the tribe, it is easy to interpret Okonkwo’s personal story as an allegory for the clash of cultures as it played out in Africa….

Things Fall Apart is a brilliant and accessible work.”

2. The Waves – Virginia Woolf

“Woolf writes a sentence as well as anyone and THE WAVES is full of well-crafted sentences. What you will not find is an intricate or traditional plot. The psychology of the characters takes center stage. Know that is what the book is about and you will not be disappointed. THE WAVES is not my favorite of her books. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE is more accessible and, I think, more enjoyable. THE WAVES, however, has a depth seductive.”

1. The Fall – Albert Camus

“Camus writes with an intellectual depth seldom seen. In “The Fall”, Camus examines modern man and his absurd position in the world. Camus’ examination draws on Christian allegory and themes. Obviously, the title references the biblical story of Adam and Eve and I think Clamence, if not Camus, accepts some of the underlying psychology of that story. Clamence is convinced, and does his best to convince his listener, that we are all fallen, all guilty. He achieves this through one of the most thorough psychological examinations of a character in modern literature….

“Camus won the Nobel Prize shortly after the publication of this novel. While the award technically was for another piece, this novel is his finest literary achievement.”

This was a re-read of one of my favorite books of all-time.

*****

The above order is not set in stone, but, at this moment, that is how I rate them comparatively. Of course, what I would recommend depends entirely on your preferences, so, this being a young blog, my 2009 year-end list is intended to give you an idea of my preferences. Also, if you haven’t read them, each comes with my highest recommendation.

As for books published in 2009, they are notably absent from the above list. In fact, my much more tentative full rankings contained only one of those in the top half of my 2009 reads: Love and Summer by William Trevor.

I will leave comparisons of the rest of the published-in-2009 novels for later. I am planning to post a fair amount in connection with the 2010 Tournament of Books, so I will keep whatever powder I have dry. Plus, I have plans to get to a number of additional 2009 books in the next few months.

2009 was a very enjoyable year of fiction for me. I look forward to an equally thrilling 2010. Happy New Year!