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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My Top Reads of 2010

OK OK people! I hear you clamouring for this list, wondering where it is, why I didn't get it out yet. The abrupt re-entry on January 3rd took away my usual holiday writing time, and I read right up to midnight on the 31st of December before deciding, but here it is!

Once again, I chose only the best and then counted them (rather than filling a pre-determined number of slots) and this year I came up with 12 books. At first, it felt like kind of a light-weight reading year. Lots of young adult books, couple or three graphic novels. I guess my attention span is moving with the times. On the other hand, when I look at the titles I actually chose as the best, I see that I did not waste time with too much that was not seriously interesting to me, so that kind of balances it out.

It should be noted, again, as usual, that this list comes from what I read, not from what was published during 2010. I divided them into fiction and non-fiction and then put the books in alphabetical order by author.

Without further ado, here is the list with a reason for each choice, and absolutely no hints about content.


The Danger Box - by Blue Balliet (2010)
This is a YA (young adult) book, but smart and delightful like all Balliet's books. The premise - that any book can be a "danger box" full of ideas - reflected in a story about a controversial book in a box that is dangerous to own - is hugely poetic.

World War Z - by Max Brooks (2007)
Not quite the first zombie book I read, but I got this one at the early part of the explosion, before the category sagged under its own weight. (It's a tipping point thing.) What made this one special is that it also felt like a well-researched future history book. Cold and gripping and not played for laughs, unlike every other single zombie book I read. And I read a few. 

You or Someone Like You - by Chandler Burr (2010)
Who is this guy? How did he get out a book blurbed as "the most controversial book of 2010" or some such, without me ever hearing about it? It's about a specialized reading group, and it offers a very high-brow reading list, but organized in a "novel" way (get it?), but it is also a risk-taking polemic about the need to move beyond religious identity.

The Hunger Games trilogy - by Suzanne Collins (2008, 2009, 2010) How long has it been since you have put down a finished book in the evening thinking "Tomorrow morning I will get the sequel and start it"? Have you ever thought that? This series was unbelievably compelling, even for a reasonably seasoned reader such as myself. Can't say enough good things about it. Recommend it to everyone I discuss books with, despite it being a YA (young adult) book.

Beowulf - translated/updated by Kevin Crossley-Holland, illustrated by Charles Keeping (1987) This is maybe a bit of a cheat, but it feels right to have this on the list. I ran into this because of the beautiful illustrations, starting with the cover. It was short and sweet (so to speak), and I decided to share it with my kids, who listened to me read aloud, while they coloured and asked questions. There were wonderful bits that reflect its Old English poetic roots (like alliteration instead of rhyme) and it lead us to listen to couple of dozen lines read aloud in Old English, just for the sensation of hearing it. Then I found out that the translator and illustrator are well-known in the field, and I see why. I have been recommending this around to parents I know, too.  

Vanishing Point - by David Markson (2004)
By far the cleverest book on the list. As a writer he comes recommended by arguably the most highly qualified reader I know, and I had this on my to-read pile for a long time, without connecting it to her advice. So different I won't say anything and spoil it for you. Meanwhile the book of his the expert really recommends is Wittgenstein's Mistress, and I will try to get that going this year.

Android Karenina - by Leo Tolstoy and Ben Winters (2010) I think mash-up is an absolutely current art-form, and I love it. I have been through a couple of literary ones. This one was cool for me because the original is a novel I know well, and even more cool because the mash-up did not take it off-track, but rather emphasized a different part of the original theme.

Although now that I think about it, look how dark and grim these books are. I always say I would rather be offended (or scared or disturbed or puzzled) than bored, so that's the kind of list you get.

There is also one outsider book and author, came to me in an unusual way, and I had no expectations, which it exceeded. (That was fun to write.)
Straight Man - by Richard Russo (1997)
"This particular group of students, like so many these days, seems divided, unequally, between the vocal clueless and the quietly pensive. Somehow...[the quiet ones]...have concluded that what's most important in all educational settings is to avoid the ridicule of the less gifted." Then there's more! This is actually a book that is as funny as it is acute. All I'm saying is: worth the bother if it comes to you.

By some (interesting) categories my 74 works of fiction read in 2010 broke down this way:
4 zombies
1 vampire
1 android
1 manga
4 graphic
3 classics (if you include Agatha Christie and Android Karenina, which I do)
3 Swedish books by 2 writers
10 Canadian books by 7 writers
NB some books hit 2 or more categories

Non-Fiction: Only 5 books read this year, 4 of them are favourites! Way to choose books!

Vendetta: High Art and Low Cunning at the Birth of the Renaissance  - by Hugh Bichino (2009)  This is a quirky book about a confusing time, but highly localized to where I spend my summers in Italy. I love this one so much, I left it there, but need to buy a second copy to have here as a reference, too.

Natasha's Dance -  by Orlando Figes (2003)
Again/still. Will I always be reading this? I had it out of the library so long I decided I better buy it. There is always something going on in culture that takes me back to it, like the current Tolstoy controversy in Russia. Once I stick my nose in it, I can't get it out again.

 Man's Search for Meaning - by Victor Frankl (1949, 1956 in English)
Yes! The search for meaning is what makes a good life, not for pleasure (Freud's idea) nor power (Adler's idea). I like this Frankl guy.

Your Brain on Music - by Daniel Leviton (2006)
subtitled: The Science of a Human Obsession. Hello! Thinking about music has been taking up my some of my reading time this year and the obsession is only growing.

 The marigold wonders nervously: Should I list some also rans? No, the list would be too long, because I really enjoyed almost all the books I read this year. This is just the top of the top. Full list available if you look me up as Souci on LibraryThing, and check my tag "2010". Should I list my big disappointments? Nah! Why give them any more time and attention? Should I mention my favourite songs of the year? Favourite games? Movies? Hmmm...maybe separately.

PS Something funny - as I write this I am eating a sandwich of liverwurst and pickles, I craving and habit I picked up from the Steig Larsson books, the first of which was on my list last year, and two of which I read with great pleasure this year.