Monday, January 03, 2011

Year-End Book Wrapup '10

The end of another year, time for another book wrapup!

I thought my tally of books would be very pitiful this year because I spent a lot of the year too nauseous to read, but I see that at 59 books, I read more than I did last year. 30 were by women, 29 were by men, a delightfully even gender split. [Edited to add: turns out I read 60 books, 31 by women, and forgot to write about one of them. Oops.]

The one sad thing is that I did not finish the Time 100 list. I read 9 books from the list, which I think means I have 24 to go. This was the reading project I really wanted to complete this year. Maybe next year! A girl can dream.

And now, the top and bottom books of the year. It's kind of fun to go through the list and see which books I've forgotten about and which have stayed with me, for better or worse. More hits than misses once again this year, I see!

Top five books of the year:

1. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
The big caveat about this book is that it takes place near Hiroshima after World War II, but focuses almost entirely on white Europeans. If you can get past that and take the novel on its own terms, in which war and disaster is merely a backdrop, it's marvelous. The language is sumptuous, and I just adored it. I'm surprised it isn't more famous. It's just so incredibly... good.

2. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
This book alternately frustrated and fascinated me, and when I was done, I felt like I had gained some sort of greater understanding of Russian literature and history and culture and human nature. I don't know if this was the most enjoyable book of the year, which is why I almost put it lower down on the list. But I found myself relating all kinds of things in my life to War and Peace for weeks after I was done with it. And now I find myself wanting to read it again, in a different translation, just for fun. Ultimately, reading all 1300 pages was worth it, and it was definitely my must-read of the year.

3. Looking for Alaska by John Green
From a Russian masterpiece to a YA novel, why not? The thing is, this is a really, really terrific YA novel. It's got humor and honesty and heart, and the characters are compelling. I neither want to oversell it or give anything away, but if you're into YA at all, you should read this.

4. Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Oh, I just loved this series of loosely autobiographical stories, one of which was the basis for Cabaret, about Berlin in the 1930s. It's a world that I loved immersing myself in. After I finished it, we watched Cabaret (of course), Chris and Don: A Love Story (a documentary about Isherwood and his longtime partner), and A Single Man (the acclaimed Colin Firth movie also based on Isherwood's writing). One of my favorite tangents of the year: the Isherwood tangent! Highly recommended.

5. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
After I read it I thought this book would surely be closer to number one, but then I taught it this year, along with my favorite book from last year, Never Let Me Go. While the Ishiguro really stood up to the test of the classroom (and my students loved it, across the board) the Bechdel worked less well, and I think it lessened my affection for it a little. I found that I didn't enjoy discussing it as much as I did Ishiguro. I almost kicked it off the list in favor of Joan Didion. That being said, I can't forget that it was this book I demanded everyone read this year, including my book club, and that I decided to teach it in the first place. So here it is at number five.

A few honorable mentions: Game Change (about the 2008 election), Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Possessed by Elif Batuman, and the runner-up for this list, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.

Bottom five books of the year:

1. The Christmas Cookie Club by Ann Pearlman
Thought this would be a fun, fluffy audiobook, but it really is embarrassingly awful. My original review covers it pretty well.

2. Baby Proof by Emily Giffen
Most of the books on this list are less empirically terrible and more irritating or disappointing in some way. But in addition to being annoying, the writing itself here (very "tell, don't show") kinda sucks. On top of that, it has a promising premise and then blows it with a stupid ending. Approaching this book as a feminist just made me angry, and it's not very good anyway, hence it "wins" the dubious honor of being number two here.

3. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Oops, I see that I never even wrote about this book or added it to my booklist! Well, I'm sorry to say that after hearing all my friends rave about Lorrie Moore and reading this novel, I ended up violently hating it. After the first, oh, I don't know, five pages, I started keeping a list of all the utterly implausible things that characters say and do in this book. Nobody in this book behaves even remotely like a real human being. So while the writing itself is good, in terms of plausibility, it's a disaster. I wouldn't have bothered to finish it if it hadn't been our book club selection. I possibly would have run it over with my car instead. It annoyed me that much. Sorry, Lorrie Moore fans.

4. The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski
I can see the value of this book as an allegory for the horrors of war. However, it sticks in my mind as basically a book about animal (and occasional young boy) torture. Just unrelentingly awful. Like The Tin Drum, it created a world that I never want to enter into again, and thinking about it even now gives me the squicks.

5. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
I think the Hunger Games series is done a disservice by this book, which has a good chunk of action happen off-screen and disappointed me on many levels (which may or may not be fair, I've heard arguments on both sides). I read the entire trilogy very quickly and once Mockingjay had a chance to sink in, I guess I decided I didn't like it so much. I think there are worse books I read this year as books (although all the weird offscreen action and strange pacing is not very good) but it was a notable disappointment for me in terms of the trilogy, so it ends up here.

Honorable mentions go to One Day, which is 3/4 of a good book, and the book that made me give up on the Beekeeper's Apprentice series, A Letter of Mary. Also, my biggest disappointment was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, which is not by any means a bad book; it's good. I just have the highest, highest standards for Mitchell, and I wanted to love and adore this book the way I love and adore everything else he's ever written, not just mildly like it.

And now, on to 2011!



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