Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Top 10 Novels of 2010

Wow, have I read some amazing stuff in 2010!  As a member of one book group, a facilitator of another, and an avid reader during my spare time, I have combed through a good number of titles this year.  This list contains mostly books published in 2010 and 2009, although a few from earlier years made the cut as well.  I had the pleasure of reading The Great Gatsby for the first time this year (how I made it through college as an English major without ever having to read that, I do not know), but I decided not to consider that for this list due to its hallowed status.  Without further ado, these are the ten best novels I read this year (I have included the year of publication along with title and author) ...

 10. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (2009)

Seven years had passed since Kingsolver's last novel, Prodigal Summer.  With much anticipation, her loyal fans lined up to purchase The Lacuna, her first work to include historical characters in a fictional setting.  The lure of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was enough to attract some new fans to Kingsolver's fold as well.  Alas, the book, in spite of almost uniformly good reviews, did not seem to bowl people over in the manner of the author's previous work (to be fair, not many contemporary novels can measure up to The Poisonwood Bible).  As for me, I enjoyed The Lacuna very much.  I learned a lot about Mexican history (ancient and 20th century), as well as Fascism, Trotsky, Lenin, and the dreadful Red Scare.  The book's narrator, Harrison Shepherd, is vague and detached at times, which fact disappointed some readers.  However, I found him to be mysterious, and ultimately endearing.  I was in the minority in my book group, as this was not a favorite of my dear Book Whores.  In spite of not being Kingsolver's greatest work by any means, The Lacuna still stands miles above most contemporary fare.  The story is interesting, the portrayal of Frida Kahlo is intriguing, and the writing, as in all of Kingsolver's work, is sublime.

   9. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Oh, The Road.  The long and winding road.  Actually, McCarthy's story of post-apocalyptic desolation is not overly long, and it follows a fairly straight course.  Echoes of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale strike sharp notes of fear as you read along.  The story is simple: a man and his son make their way along a devastated road in the wake of an unspecified disaster that has basically ruined Earth and killed off most of its inhabitants.  Their brutal journey involves outlaws, sickness, cannibalism, and painful flashbacks.  McCarthy's writing throughout is spare and evocative, and the novel leaves you with a feeling of extreme unease.

  8.  Imperial Bedrooms by Brett Easton Ellis (2010)

I'm still not sure what possessed me to read this sequel to Ellis's landmark novel, Less Than Zero, which was easily the worst book The Book Whores read this year.  I did not care for Less Than Zero, its selfish characters, gratuitous scenes, and air of superiority.  Somehow, though, I was intrigued enough to want to see what happened to those vapid characters twenty years down the line.  And lo and behold, Imperial Bedrooms (named for the Costello album, natch) is a much more riveting novel than its overrated predecessor.  I think this partly stems from the mystery storyline that Ellis included, which is well-written and edged with danger.  And of course, it's fun to look for small ways in which these selfish characters have matured (not to mention the ways in which they have ruined themselves, especially Rip and his plastic surgery scourged face).  Clay remains, to me, an aloof bastard but one I would not mind having lunch with.

  7.  Little Bird Of Heaven by Joyce Carol Oates (2009)

Ah, the pleasures of having among your favorite authors a woman who releases at least one new book per year!  In many ways, this novel is typical Oates (by no means a bad thing), with several staples of her former work taking center stage: a girl's blind devotion to her flawed father; her longing for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks; and of course, sex and romantic longing being intrinsically linked to violence. There is also a murder mystery, which is handled quite well. Oates writes with the best of them (is, in fact, one of the best), so this is all delivered in a package of spectacular prose. The voices of her main characters, Krista and Aaron (each of whom are given roughly half of this sizable novel), are strong, vivid, and quite real.  Supporting characters like Lucielle Diehl, Jackie Delucca, and Zoe Kruller (whose murder makes her a central figure, in spite of her limited "air time") are also rendered memorably. The only flaw I found with the novel is its chronology. It's one thing to deviate from linear storytelling and incorporate flashbacks and flash-forwards, but the manner in which this novel jumps around borders on the ridiculous.

(note: this review was originally posted by me on Goodreads)

  6.  The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall (2010)

This one is popping up on all the "real" best-of-the-year lists, and I'm proud to include it on mine as well.  While reading this novel, I kept saying to myself, "this is why I LOVE fiction."  There's a sprawling cast of intriguing characters, which makes sense, given that the protagonist, Golden, has four wives and a seemingly endless string of children.  There are Irving-esque moments throughout (although I spot John Irving in a lot of books these days), and a modern Dickensian quality to the proceedings as well.  Golden is somewhat of a bumbling fool, but mostly good natured and likable.  Of the wives, Beverly is formidable, Rose of Sharon is mentally ill, and Nora is a barrel of laughs.  However, it's Trish who receives the bulk of "air time" and emerges as a complex, multidimensional character who adds a dose of reality to all of these quirky shenanigans.  Kudos to Udall for keeping this cast of misfits straight, for conveying their "non-traditional" lifestyle without disparaging it, and for the excellent portrayal of Rusty, the black sheep of this already outlandish family.

  5.  Strangers At The Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes (2010)

What a great new voice in contemporary fiction!  Vanderbes hit a home run with this, her second novel.  Taking place entirely on Thanksgiving Day, the novel is told from the point of view of several members of the Olson family (the chapters feature a revolving door of perspectives).  Ginny has just arrived back from India with her newly adopted daughter, and she is eager to host Thanksgiving in her brand new house.  Eleanor, the family matriarch, frets over everything, while Douglas, Ginny's affluent and immoral brother, searches for balance in his life.  Denise, Douglas's wife, is a selfish character on the surface, but emerges in some ways as the easiest member of the clan to relate to.  I do not want to say too much about this amazing novel, but know this: it's a tragedy, building to an awful denouement right from the get-go.  It's a story that weaves together seemingly every social issue of the day, from racism and feminism to big business monopolies, but with the exception of a few passages, does not come across as heavy handed.  By the time you arrive at the wallop of a finale, you'll feel like you're getting off of a roller coaster.  Along the way, enjoy Vanderbes's great prose, intermittent dashes of humor, and interesting flashbacks to Eleanor's life as a suburban stay-at-home Mom.

  4.  Possession: A Love Story by A. S. Byatt (1990)

I have wanted to read this gigantic tome for years, and finally did this year, thanks to the Book Whores.  The book, which won the prestigious Booker Prize, really is huge, and it's also multilayered, thorough, and at times, overwhelming.  Land sakes alive, do not go into this one unprepared!  Possession is one of those stories-within-a-story, but it's one that works very well.  The novel involves two academic scholars, Roland and Maude, each of whom is an expert on a 19th Century poet.  Due to a discovery Roland makes in a dusty old book, it becomes evident that "his" poet Randolph Ashe was involved with Maude's obsession, Christabel Lamotte.  And thus Byatt takes us back in time, to the mysterious, romantic, and tragic courtship of Ashe and Lamotte, while her present day characters draw ever closer as they investigate the connection from years gone by.  It's hard to say whether the present or the past segment is more riveting, because Byatt interweaves the threads so expertly.  Possession is a novel that will inspire awe, and sprinkled throughout as bonus treats are long stories and poems "written by" Ashe and Lamotte.  The whole thing races to a grand finale that takes place on a windswept, rainy night, and you're left feeling exhausted by Byatt's talent, and wondering how anyone could possibly write such an impressive novel.

  3.  The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)

My top 3 books read in 2010 (ok, maybe my top 4) are each among the best books I've read in my life.  The Secret History is a novel that made me abandon any hopes of publishing my own work, because when something has been done as good as this, why even bother?  This is a book like no other I've ever read.  It's dark, dense, thrilling, and challenging.  It takes place on a quiet college campus in New England (rumored to be Bennington), and involves five students who devote their academic career to independent studies in Classics under the tutelage of a mysterious professor named Julian.  The story features a very vivid Greek bacchanalia, lots of blood, murder, and mayhem, and raises questions about morality that it never backs down from ... in spite of not answering them definitively.  There is sex, alcohol, poetry, drugs, and intellectual sparring.  There is a detached, but oddly touching, narrator: Richard Papen.  There is an eerie set of twins, Charles and Camilla.  There is much to admire, much to puzzle over, and quite clearly, Donna Tartt is a genius.

  2.  On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)

Zadie Smith is a young, talented, dynamic writer whose debut effort White Teeth won lavish praise and many awards.  Her third novel, On Beauty, is in some ways more contained, but also more beautiful.  In essence, it's the story of a family torn apart by infidelity, but there is so much more here.  Howard and Kiki are one of the most clearly rendered couples in modern literature, and their three children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi, are equally fascinating.  There are about a dozen excellent supporting characters to enjoy as well.  I don't have much to say about this novel, possibly because you have to read it to see how much greater it is than the sum of its parts.  I will tell you that it contains some of the most sparkling, moving, and life-affirming prose I've ever read.  The story never bores you, and ultimately, you will find beauty here.

  1.  The Lake-Shore Limited by Sue Miller (2010)

Leslie, Rafe, Billie, and Sam.  These four characters will become like members of your family by the time you finish with Miller's latest entry into the world of modern fiction classics.  Yes, this is a 9-11 novel, but that's just a small part of the plot.  Miller has written the story of a playwright, Wilhelmina "Billie" Gertz, who lost her boyfriend Gus in one of the plane crashes of September 11th.  Billie's guilt over not being devastated by the death of Gus has led her to write a play called "The Lake-Shore Limited," into which she has channeled some of her own emotions and feelings.  Miller spends several pages of her novel creating the experience of the play, so we see it unfold before us.  Rafe is an actor in the play, portraying a man whose wife may or may not have died in a train crash.  His ambivalence over her fate reflects Billie's own experience with Gus's death.  Leslie is Gus's sister, and in the opening chapter of the novel, she and her husband are coming to watch the play, and planning to introduce Billie to Sam, a friend and former flame (almost) of Leslie's.  Miller divides The Lake Shore Limited into eight sections, two devoted to Leslie, two to Rafe, two to Billie, and two to Sam.  The ways in which the characters interact and come to know themselves better are a pleasure to behold.  Miller's writing is exquisite.  She pokes to the core of human emotions and writes with a natural ease.  She is underrated, in my opinion.  The scenes that detail Rafe's wife Lauren's battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease are heartwrenching.  This is a tour de force novel from one of our greatest living writers, and I'm proud to place it at Number One on my list.  The Lake-Shore Limited is my book of the year for 2010.

Welcome Aboard

I've decided to launch my own blog focusing on books.  I do blog with some regularity on Facebook, but there are too many people on my page for my liking.  I have wanted to have a more private, or centralized, blog for quite some time, and the approaching dawn of 2011 seems like a good time to get it underway.

Mostly, I will write about what I'm reading, what I've read, and what I want to read.  Book reviews, genre commentary, maybe an occasional author critique: you know, the basic stuff.  Just the ramblings of an authentic 21st century book addict.

Feel free to comment any time!