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.