Wednesday, January 6, 2010

top books 2009

[I wrote this on December 23, 2009 but couldn't post it right away]

I eschewed a strictly top ten ranked favorite books of the year because the top tier just didn’t add up to ten for me, and while all the books in the next tier were highly deserving, I couldn’t really elevate them. So we’ll just call it a conglomeration of books!

Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (Wendy Cope)

I’ve put poetry on this list for the first time even though I think I separated it out last year with the graphic novels. This is because I read a lot of poetry this year, and a lot of outstanding poetry. I absolutely loved this collection by Wendy Cope; she’s one of my favorite poets. I love her wit, sarcasm, self-deprecation, but she never seems to stray into all-out angst, and she’s never apologetic for being what she is.

Short Trips: How the Doctor Changed My Life (ed. Simon Guerrier)

I have separated out my Doctor Who books even though I enjoyed many of them; however, this collection of short stories was so good I really thought it deserved to be on this list. These were all the first-time writers who were judged to be good enough in the contest in 2007, and I had good things to say about almost every story. Whether or not it’s fair to compare them to writers who write Who all the time, who have skill but have perhaps lost the wide-eyed spark, this collection has many talented writers and many enjoyable stories.

The Writer’s Tale (Russell T Davies and Benjamin Cook)

This doesn’t really count as a Doctor Who book as it’s more a book about writing, and one of the best on the subject I have ever read. I’ve digested many in this genre- from Strunk & White to Natalie Goldberg- and few of them are both so candid and so encouraging. Y.A.N.A is what RTD wrote in the context of “Utopia,” but that also seems to be the message to any writer who recognizes crippling self-doubt, absurd procrastination, late night bursts of creativity, and riding by the seat of your pants as part of the literary endeavour. How comforting to know it happens, too, to the greats. Also, as far as technique for screenwriting/telewriting at least, it’s extremely useful. Also very funny and so enjoyable you’re left wanting more despite its 500+ pages.

Rapture (Carol Ann Duffy)

I’m not such a wholehearted fan of Carol Ann Duffy as I have been of Wendy Cope, though I have liked several of her poems. However, this collection was elegant, self-contained, and almost every poem touching. It charted a love affair that blossomed and then faded. It’s traditionally very hard to write love poetry in all the different stages: when we haven’t got it, it’s comparatively easy; after a point when you’re at the ecstatic stage you run out of things to say. However, I thought she covered every nuance of the stages of love with remarkable empathy and feeling.

Dear Fatty (Dawn French)

I seem to have read a lot of celebrity autobiographies this year, a genre I hitherto looked at with disdain. However, I can see their appeal (especially if well-written). Dawn French’s book really made me laugh on nearly every page. As many of these books have a “gimmick,” French’s was her life divided into chapters as letters to differentpeople significant to different parts of her life. Many letters were addressed to her father, who committed suicide when she was in her teens. I loved her letters to her daughter and to her husband Lenny Henry; my heart was hugely warmed by their love story. The Fatty of the title, by the way, is Jennifer Saunders, to whom many of the letters are also addressed.

Too Many Mothers (Roberta Taylor)

This is another sort of in the same style, but quite different in content and context. Besides, Roberta Taylor wasn’t a “celebrity” to me in the sense Dawn French or John Barrowman were- I only knew her in the context of her role in a Peter Davison Big Finish play and as a character in The Bill. So I was quite unprepared for how much I enjoyed this candid and well-structured memoir. Taylor’s is, in my opinion, the best kind of “creative nonfiction” in imagining narratives for her grandmother, mother, aunts, and other family members during the first half of the twentieth century. Subtitled “an East End childhood,” the story is often dark and bleak but also funny and a portrait of a family of strong women.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)

I have observed that books my sister recommends are either total misses with me or, less often, really succeed. This is one of the latter. I’d seen Alexie deliver a talk at UNM in 2007 but had never read anything of his. This partial memoir, partial fiction was also a partial graphic memoir with delightfully forthright illustrations. Like Alexie, Junior comes from a Reservation family, was born with water on the brain which accounts for his slightly goofy appearance, and goes to school off the Rez in order to increase his chances of ever becoming someone. The book is alternatively hilarious, sobering, and (I think) accessible even to white girls like myself.

Desolation Island (Patrick O’Brian)

What can I say? I left The Mauritius Command off last year’s list because I honestly didn’t think it was among the top ten, but Desolation Island, the fifth book in the Master and Commander series, exceeds all expectations once more. How O’Brian combines great danger and intricate plot with a convincing portrait of 19th century seamanship with superbly lifelike and irresistible characters is always a joy to read. In this adventure Captain Jack Aubrey is charged with delivering convicts to Australia but the disease, natural disaster, and mutiny he encounters tests all his powers of courage and valour. Likewise, Dr. Stephen Maturin is on board and must work his dual roles as spy and physician while coping with his constant heartbreak over Diana Villiers. Unmissable.

Runners up: Anything Goes (John & Carole Barrowman) is another in the celebrity autobiography strand, but extremely funny and for the most part, remarkably well-told. Of special mention are the photographs embedded inside. I plan to read the “sequel.” The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) is probably the most mind-altering book I read this year, though since it’s seated firmly in the realm of economics and probability (like Stumbling on Happiness last year, if I recall correctly) I did glaze over some sections. It is one that probably everyone should read, though like Stumbling on Happiness anyone looking for a quick fix is likely to be disappointed, as both books tell you what you can’t predict rather than how to predict anything of significance. The Bridges of Madison County was recommended by my friend Nasim as one of the books that changed her life, and indeed while I went in expecting a great deal of soppy soap opera, the book’s brevity and simplicity matched the depth of its feeling and I admit I cried while reading it. Ways of Seeing (John Berger) was another high-brow book about art criticism that nevertheless had much of relevance to say. Living to Tell the Tale (Gabriel Garcia Márquez) was possibly the best book I’ve yet read by this talented author. Yet again it was autobiographical but with the dreamlike, circumlocutious storytelling one comes to expect from mí papito rico. Anyone expecting insights into the master’s life on par with those palpable ones from RTD in A Writer’s Tale will be disappointed, but on a more general level, much of the inspiration for Márquez’s oeuvre becomes delightfully clear. Real Swansea (Nigel Jenkins) should be required reading for anyone remotely connected with the “ugly, lovely town.”

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