Sunday, December 12, 2010

Top Books 2010

Top Books 2010

I’m jumping the gun here a bit, but there won’t be time for me to do it nearer to the end of the year. Since the only books I’m likely to finish before the end of the year are War and Peace and Eclipse, if either of them are to go on the list, they will have to wait til next year.

Like last year, I’m not ranking these—I’m just going to put them in order of when I read them. I read some quite enjoyable books this year, some in my comfort zone and some out, but really none quite leap out at me as extraordinary (though I always, always enjoy Patrick O’Brian, but that’s a foregone conclusion).

I read more than 50 books this year, which makes it seem quite good (ie I read more than one a week), but that’s deceptive, given that 19% was poetry and 22% was Doctor Who-related. The split between fiction and nonfiction was pretty even (48% fiction).

News of a Kidnapping (Gabriel Garcia Márquez)
This was the best book by Márquez that I have yet read. Totally different in style to the magic realism of his fiction—this was precise, to the point, well-structured, but full of humanity, and wholly gripping. The author’s roots are in journalism, and this is an accomplished and moving study of what happened in the early 1990s when Pablo Escobar’s terrorist faction decided to pressurize the Colombian government not to extradite to the U.S.—by kidnapping eight innocent people. I found it very hard to put down even though you know at the beginning who will live and who will die. In it, I believe, you can see the best and worst of humanity.

Not in These Shoes (Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch)
Maybe I really liked these poems because I identified with them-that was even before I got into the catering business! They deal with real life, in a distinctive voice. An experienced, cynical, yet self-deprecating approach.

Their Finest Hour and a Half (Lissa Evans)
This book was set on the Home Front of Britain during World War II, but what set it apart was its delightful tone and creative use of filmmaking techniques within a novel. It was entertaining, amusing, and full of authenticity but not in an ostentatious way, and had some quite strong characters. The three seemingly disparate parts of the plot met up briefly, as in The Night Watch (except in real time whereas that book moved backward), which was oddly and appropriately cinematic. My favorite parts were the imbedded “film” scripts and the accompanying metafictional technique.

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter)
I really surprised myself in that I loved this collection. If you want to go for all the symbolic stuff, there’s plenty to search for—but if you want to read it on a superficial level, it’s as fun as one of my favorite books of all time, Beauty by Robin McKinley. I can see this influencing McKinley, Disney, Sondheim, and on and on and on. It was a lot less erotic and explicit than I had been given to believe. It’s very in tone with Gothic horror.

The Fortune of War (Patrick O’Brian)
Well, what can I say? O’Brian did it again. Some exciting naval battles, wonderfully paced, and a real shift on focus, both character-wise and in setting. O’Brian’s handling of the War of 1812 is splendidly even-handed, and there were some great touches to the setting in and around Boston. Stephen Maturin’s adventures in espionage and affaires-de-coeur were riveting. Really love these characters and think these books are next to flawless.

Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
For awhile, this is what everyone was talking about, so I jumped on the bandwagon. It’s familiar territory-the Tudors-but it’s an enjoyable novel about the fortunes of much-maligned Thomas Cromwell. An achievement in scholarship and imagination, rich, complex, full of character and effortless historical detail, particularly successful with Mary Tudor, Mary Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Thomas More, and Henry, of course. And kudos for constructing a convincing Cromwell from a dearth of historical information.

The Pig-Faced Lady of Manchester Square (Jan Bondeson)
I’ve been reading a lot Jan Bondeson because of the research involved with my poetry collection, but there’s more than one reason I keep coming back to his output. This was a meticulously-researched read, thoughtful, sensitive, and not without a sense of humor. Bondeson seemed a little less impish than the first book of his I read, The London Monster, but then this subject is a bit more close to the heart. He clearly has a lot of compassion for the likes of Julia Pastrana, the Tocci Brothers, and Daniel Cajanus—but he also seems politely fascinated by all this business-I think I’ve found a fellow enthusiast!

The Dinosaur Hunters (Deborah Cadbury)
This is a very thorough and meticulous, but narrative-driven, story of the first discoverers and classifiers of dinosaur fossils in England in the first 40 years of the 19th century. It’s a superb history/science book focusing as much on the characters as the fossils and the theories. You could really sympathize with the humanity of Gideon Mantell and Mary Anning and could be astonished by the arrogance of Richard Owen and Thomas Huxley. I found it extremely gripping despite all of this played out more than a hundred years before I was born-my lifelong obsession with dinosaurs was subsumed (or elevated) by the part humanity played in the discovery of them.

Life and Fate (Vasily Grossman)
Epic—it certainly draws parallels as the 20th century’s War and Peace (as I’m finding out first hand!). This is a massive, well-written and unflinching account of the battle of Stalingrad-for all that, it’s surprisingly fair and balanced (which is why the KGB must have seized it immediately after it was finished!). I don’t normally like books about war-this was an uphill struggle all the way-a real downer, but certainly one of those “books you must read” for the sake of your humanity.

Runners up: The Spy (James Fenimore Cooper) is supposed to be dull as dishwater, but I found it quite exciting and very pleasant reading. Considering this was the US’ first real novel set in its own locales and highlighting the Revolutionary War, I think it should be read far more than it is. But you don’t have to read it-it’ll be on Radio 4 next year! It may now be an unpopular choice, but I was quite moved by Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama). I thought the voice and the story were uniquely his, and he’s a solid, eloquent writer-even if some of the writing is speech-like. I felt after reading it that I’d done my civic duty AND had a good read. The Devil in Amber (Mark Gatiss) was an extremely well-written piece of fluff-it’s top of the class for its genre.