2010 — KfC’s 10 best

I am quite aware that 2010 has some time to run but, like the New York Times and other publications similar to KfC :-), I am also aware that December is a time when people contemplate giving (or getting) books as Holiday presents. So, if only to put your own brain into gear, here are the 10 best books I have read in the last 12 months. If you can find an inspiration to give — or to receive — any one of them, so much the better.

I don’t have a favorite in the ten. I have listed them in the order that I read them. Click on the title for the original full review.

The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton. This was a re-read of a favorite book, so it is no surprise to see it on this list (the link will take you to a couple of other Wharton novels as well). Edith Wharton (and Henry James) are two of my favorite authors. The compelling story of Undine Spragg’s exploitation of her beauty and fortune is one of the most powerful novels ever written. If you don’t know Wharton, don’t start here (The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth are both better entry points) but for my money this is the best novel from one of the best writers ever.

The Cello Suites, by Eric Siblin. This is one of the few non-fiction books that I have reviewed, but it reads like a novel and keeps coming back to mind. Siblin splits his story into three recurring parts: Bach’s composition of the Suites, Pablo Casal’s discovery of them, and Siblin’s own search for the story. An intriguing and powerful read — and you can play the exceptional Suites in the background as you read it.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, by Maile Meloy.
I am a fan of short story collections and this is an exceptional one — and Meloy has a back catalogue that will be reviewed here in the future. She is Montana born and raised and it is the stories that are set there that are my favorites. Every story features carefully developed characters, facing interesting challenges — overall the book is an excellent example of how this genre can serve readers in a very special way.

Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger. Salinger’s death in January moved me to reread all his published works (the link will take you to reviews of all but The Catcher in the Rye) and I was not disappointed with the experience. Nine Stories, the volume that introduces us to the Glass family, was — and is — my favorite. Every story is an experience. And we are still wondering if there are manuscripts that might yet be published. If you haven’t read this collection, make time for it — truly exceptional.

Even the Dogs, by Jon McGregor. This was my first McGregor and a personal Booker Prize favorite, even if it did not make the longlist. McGregor tracks a collection of Birmingham drug addicts and down-and-outers in a humanistic (albeit dreary) story. It is a deeply touching novel, despite its sordid details, and one that keeps coming back to mind. A very powerful novel.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. In sharp contrast to McGregor, the funniest novel that I read in 2010. In some ways it is a collection of linked short stories — profiles of 11 characters who work for, or read, an English-language newspaper published in Italy. Every one of them is developed in full fashion and the result is a heart-warming collection of stories of “lost souls”, trying their best to survive. A debut novel, it offers promise of much more from the author in the future — a book not to be missed by serious readers.

Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. Another first novel and very much a personal favorite, although it did get overlooked in the Canadian awards world. Like McGregor’s book, it tells the story of down-and-outers — and in the process presents a most interesting picture of contemporary Toronto. A mix of comedy and tragedy, it has some wonderful moments about the life of the struggling in Canada’s largest city. Excellent characterization, but for me even better is the way it captures a contemporary urban enviornment.

In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut. My choice (and that of many other serious readers) from the 2010 Booker Prize shortlist, this novel consists of three linked novella-length stories about a traveller who searches for, but never quite finds, a meaningful life. Galgut is an author with a substantial reputation and this book only adds to it. Fair warning — it is a novel that wants more than one read to really appreciate it.

Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. Another debut work, this time a collection of short stories, all set in Windsor, Canada. It was the unanimous choice of this year’s Shadow Giller Jury, although the Real Jury opted for Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. MacLeod (the son of Alistair, who is one of the world’s best short-story writers) recounts seven stories with a wide variety of characters — some are better than others, but every one is exceptional. Another author to be appreciated in the present and, even more, looked forward to in the future.

The Barracks, by John McGahern. Consider this a KfC version of a lifetime achievement award (the link will take you to reviews of four of McGahern’s novels). The Irish produce a lot of great writers — some of us believe that McGahern is the best. He isn’t cheery — this study of the desolate loneliness of a police sergeant’s wife struggling to make a life is typical of his work. But amidst the sorry tale, there is an undertone of struggle and hope that adds a rare depth. I have a couple of McGahern novels to go and I can’t wait to get to them.

Whoops, we are going to have an eleventh choice. I’d made my selections before I read Philip Roth’s Nemesis and there is no way that I can leave it off the list for 2010. Roth’s book is about a polio epidemic in New Jersey in 1944 — from the opening pages it brought to life my own childhood and the fear of polio a decade or so later. The first half of the novel captures that experience, for those of you who were — or weren’t — there. The second half explores notions of personal responsibility and guilt. When Roth is on he is exceptional. This book completes his recent four-novella series and, for me, they represent an amazing achievement.

A number of “name” authors produced novels this year — Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, David Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen and Jane Urquhart to name just a few — and none of them made my personal list, as good as their books might have been. If I was to characterize the fiction world of 2010, I would say it was a year when a number of new authors produced some outstanding work and some lesser-known names moved up the list. I have to think that a changing of the guard is underway — and for those of us who love to read fiction, there is very good reason to be optimistic that very good books are going to be produced in the near future.

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37 Responses to “2010 — KfC’s 10 best”

  1. Zoe Says:

    This is a great list, even if the only one I’ve read is the Meloy and Salinger. I do love McGregor though and I’m really looking forward to reading Even the Dogs, the rest of the list provides a lot of inspiration as well. :)

  2. Sheila O'Brien Says:

    Very good post, KFC – and I think the New York times will be very flattered to be in the same company as your blog!

  3. winstonsdad Says:

    great list only read the imperfectionist which was good but not what I thought it would be ,keep meaning to pick up a meloy might on monday at library ,all the best stu

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    In a Strange Room is a phenomenal novel. One of the best I read this year too.

  5. Kerry Says:

    Great list, Kevin. Stretches my TBR, but that’s the point, right? Plus, you have sparked some gift ideas.

    As for the negatives, I have not read any of these books. I have only read Roth and Wharton out of the honored authors. I feel inadequate. I avoid Salinger just because of The Catcher in the Rye and I suppose I must like having a gaping hole in my literary knowledge…., but it is well past time I picked up McGahern.

    And whether the New York Times is flattered, they should be!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Well, I consider myself successful in at least provoking some thoughts. I certainly don’t expect anyone to agree with all my choices, but am delighted that at least a few provoke interest — and agreement from those who have read them.

  7. whisperinggums Says:

    I’m almost like Kerry in that I’ve not read much of this list – in fact, I’ve only read one, The custom of the country (but that was 10 years or so ago so won’t be in my list much as I love it). I have read a Maile Meloy short story – like you I rather like short story collections – and of course THE Salinger. I’d like to read the Rachman, Galgut and McGahern. Next year perhaps?

    I like your positive assessment of the future for fiction. I htink you’re right. I read some New Yorker new novel excerpts this year and it does look as though there are some good writers coming through.

  8. Lisa Hill Says:

    Yes, a great list, and very tempting. I’ve read two of them: Even the Dogs and The Barracks. I have The Cello Suits on my TBR already because I bought it when your review first came out, Kevin, and the Damon Galgut is already on my wishlist at the BD!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Gummy, Lisa: Sorry I have no Antipodean on the list this year — I’m looking forward to reading Lloyd Jones book when it is released here.

  10. rickp Says:

    Great list, Kevin.

    I’ve read two of your ten and both make my Top 10 List. They are In A Strange Room and Light Lifting.

    I also have two on my Top Ten that I know your very much dislike in The Finkler Question and Beatrice and Virgil. It would be boring if we always agreed. I definitely respect your choices and they almost always inspire me to read something I might not otherwise have read.

    My remaining 6 choices are largely books from previous years that I finally got to. Blind Assassin (Atwood), The Counterlife (Roth), No Great Mischief (Macleod), Invisible Man (Ellison), Runaway (Munro) and The Corrections (Franzen).

    I will continue to be a regular reader of this blog.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    rickp: I think you have more company than I regarding The Finkler Question (although some think as I do); I’m pretty sure more people share my negative opinion of Beatrice and Virgil. As you say, opinions would be boriing if we always agreed.

    I have read all 6 of your other choices and share your positive opinion of them all — and for different reasons.

    Thanks for being a regular reader and even more for regularly offering comments. They are much appreciated.

  12. rickp Says:

    On another note, my least favourite book of the year was a winner of both The Pulitzer and the National Book Award. I found A Fable by William Faulkner to be virtually unreadable. Faulkner apparently considered it to be his masterpiece.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I haven’t read The Fable — indeed, have not read an Faulkner. I’d have to say that American “classicists” (or whatever they are properly called) are probably the most glaring gap in my reading experience. I never read them as a youth and they haven’t hit my agenda yet as a retiree.

    • whisperinggums Says:

      Oh I’m so glad I’m not the only one. I’m almost too embarrassed to mention it. I have a couple here – and even started on once but the time wasn’t right (it wasn’t an aeroplane book even for me who doesn’t read “aeroplane books”!) Late retirement perhaps?

  14. anokatony Says:

    Fine list – I’ve read four on the list. The book I most want to read on the list is ‘Light Lifting’ since I loved his father’s novels.

  15. leroyhunter Says:

    Kevin: I agree with you 100% on Galgut and McGahern; Roth and Salinger are on the shelf; Rachman and Meloy are on the wishlist. Edith Wharton is a gap for me but I have House of Mirth as a planned point of departure.

    Thanks for a year of engaging and challenging reviews, much food for thought and umpteen fresh ideas for future reading. More of the same would do me fine in ’11…

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: While seven stories is hardly enough to make judgment (although his father only published two volumes of stories and one novel), Alexander for me shows all signs of at least developiing to be comparable to his father. In some ways, since I am an urban person and Light Lifting is urban, it has an even stronger impact.

    Leroy: My thanks to you for consistently interesting and challenging comments — reviews are meant as a starting point and you often take the debate to another level. I certainly continue to enjoy the experience and hope next years works out as well as this one did.

  17. Trevor Says:

    I’ve been excited to see your list, and since I’ve read six of them I’m interested to see where our lists overlap. I’m planning on posting my own “best of” list sometime next week.

    And by the way, I did pick up McGahern’s collection of short stories. I’d like to get one of his novels, but so far no bookstore has had any in stock. I’ll find a way around that soon enough.

  18. Maylin Says:

    I like a top ten list that includes some classics and a variety of genres – who says we have to always be reading the “latest” thing? The Imperfectionists is the only one that we share on our respective top 10s but I too have the Cello Suites on the TBR pile and I’ve never read any other Salinger than Catcher, so it’s good to have a suggestion of another of his books. I got into a bit of a Wharton revival a few years ago after being engrossed in Hermione Lee’s biography of her – still so much to read of hers though; I have lots of second hand Viragos of her lesser known works. Marvellous writer though.

  19. Michael Says:

    KFC,

    This may sound a little sychophantic, but I’m enjoying your reviews here. I might have tossed Jonathan Franzen, but no matter.

    I was wondering if you’re still in Ireland. I, too, am from Calgary/Victoria (and am actually a close friend of Deborah Willis) and just moved to Dublin to do a Masters in Irish Writing at Trinity. If you’re still around these parts it’d be nice to meet up and talk Canlit.

    Best,
    Michael

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Maylin: Once you get into the minor works (and I certainly have liked those that I have tried), there seems to be enough Wharton to last for a long time. I know your fondness for NYRB’s — if you haven’t read their collection of her New York stories I highly recommend it. And you can contrast it with their collection of Henry James’ New York stories — I think she understands the city better than he does.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Michael: I’m not only not still in Ireland, I’ve actually never been to Ireland, except through reading books, of course. I’m delighted to have implied that I know the country, however.

    You are not being a sychophant at all (so many thanks :-) ). Stay tuned for a week or so as my Franzen review will be going up then and your thoughts will be most welcome.

    And thanks for the providing the excuse to link to my review of Deborah Willis’ Vanishing and Other Stories, a debut collection from 2009 that I remember with great fondness.

  22. Lee Monks Says:

    Great list and I’m pleased to see Roth sneak on there, I enjoyed few books more. But then, it is Roth.

  23. kimbofo Says:

    A really interesting list, Kevin. I am particularly chuffed to see Mr McGahern on it! ;-)

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    And I suspect he may well be on it again next year, since I have a couple yet to go (and they are on hand).

  25. Jessica Says:

    The only two novels I have read on the list, The Custom of the Country and Even the dogs I absolutely loved. I will have to check the rest of your list out now.

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Jessica — I hope you find a few that interest you.

  27. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have a copy of the Roth on its way to me, courtesy of the Guardian oddly enough. It’s their review copy.

    The Imperfectionists has really stuck in my mind. It sounds great fun and seeing it here confirms that. Definitely one I plan to get.

    I’ve downloaded a sample of the Meloy onto my Kindle, so I should get to check that out fairly soon too. An interesting list Kevn, and as WhisperingGums said on mine it’s interesting to see the diversity among different people’s end of year lists.

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’m assuming the Meloy download is probably a short story — she tends to be pretty consistent so it should give you a good idea. And when you do get to The Imperfectionists, I think you will find it good entertainment.

    I agree about the diversity in year-end lists. I think it shows that while a number of bloggers may have an overlap in common interests, each one also has some personal interests (often the strongest ones) where general reading does not overlap. That is where following blogs introduces me to some wonderful new authors.

  29. Trevor Says:

    Max, if you could, let us know what Meloy you downloaded. I’m hoping it’s “Travis, B.”!

  30. Crake Says:

    Amazing list, Kevin! I’m looking forward to Nemesis and I’m glad you include it. Is it, as some critics put it, a return to form for Roth?

  31. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Crake: Thanks for the kind words. As for Roth, I think even those who like him tend to have their favorites and less favorites. For me, the four Nemeses short novels are Roth at his best — writing and imagery tightly-controlled, nothing done to excess and remarkably complete story lines. I do know others have found the four books weak — and short. So I think the question of whether they represent “a return to form” depends on what kind of form you like best in Roth. If you have read any of the other three and liked them, I think you’ll like this one. And if you found that previous experience wanting, I suspect your response will be the same here.

  32. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It’s most of Travis, B Trevor. Enough to get a flavour.

    I was slightly concerned rereading Kevin’s review to see a comparison to McEwan (I’m not a McEwan fan, particularly his relationship with plausibility, or to my mind overreliance on heavy-handed plotting). Both your reviews are so positive though, and the language so clean, I plan to get the whole thing later today.

  33. Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland Says:

    [...] Kevin From Canada, one has one of the best book blogs out there put his list together in early December.  Kevin has a fondness for short story collections and I already want to read Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy and Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. I also want to read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (Booker Short List) and The Cello Suites by Eric Siblin. [...]

  34. @KA Says:

    Just ordered ‘Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It’ & “Even the Dogs”…… Short Stories rock!!!

    may i recommend 3 collections for your future readings

    1. “Jumble Tales” by Steve Morris
    2. “I Could Ride All Day in My Cool Blue Train” by Peter Hobbs
    3. “The Loudest Sound and Nothing” by Clare Wigfall

    BTW ‘The Cello Suites’ sounds delightful… i feel i have been neglectful of adding non-fiction titles to my personal library lately so i may have to pick this up soon…

    regards

  35. KevinfromCanada Says:

    KA: Collections noted. I have too many story collections on the pile at the moment, but I’ll check these out. Thanks.

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