Friday, December 31, 2010

"This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I'll never tread/These are the dreams I'll dream instead"

The Song: "Why," Annie Lennox. Words & music by Annie Lennox. Track 14 of The Unplugged Collection, Volume One, 1994. (Also Track 1 of Diva, 1992, but I like this live version better.)
How/when acquired: Purchased CD, 1994.
Listen/watch here.

Annie Lennox takes herself very seriously, which is every artist's right but sometimes makes me a little impatient. Nevertheless, I forgive her everything for this song, which got me through a big chunk of the 1990s. It's a song about ending things and letting go, forgiving yourself and the person you thought you wanted.

The end of a year is a natural time to think about missed opportunities, wasted time, the choices we make that limit future choices, etc., etc. Putting together a "Best Reads of 2010" list was especially difficult. I probably did more reading for work in 2010 than in any previous year, and not all of that reading was good. Thus, when I read for pleasure, I finished only the books I really liked (with one notable exception, which I'll get to.) So this list could easily have been 20 books long, maybe even 30 books long. And I didn't read quite a few books I meant to get to, in some cases even books written by friends.

These were the best of the books I read instead, alphabetical by author. Not all of them were published this year, and most of them aren't crime novels. My list of favorite crime novels of 2010 is here.

Ten Best Books I Read or Listened to This Year

1. Paul Auster, SUNSET PARK. This book was billed as a genre novel, which I don't really understand; it is neither a mystery nor a thriller, but an exploration of the mysteries of the human heart. Miles Heller has been on the run for seven years, fleeing his guilt over a crime he was never accused of. He lands in Brooklyn, where his friend Bing has put together a household in an abandoned building. As the economic collapse of 2008 unfolds, Miles, Bing, and their housemates Alice and Ellen all find themselves living on the edge in more ways than one — as are Miles’ parents, as is everyone. This gorgeous, insightful book will stand as a snapshot of our time.

2. Suzanne Collins, THE HUNGER GAMES. Thanks to Karen Olson for recommending this book, which had been on my to-be-read stack for years. In a dystopian future, adolescent children represent their territories in a battle to the death. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life while figuring out a way to save what she loves most.

3. Paul Doiron, THE POACHER'S SON. My favorite debut of the year, a book I've recommended far and wide. Rookie Maine Game Warden Mike Bowditch knows his father is a bad man — he knows this — but goes to his defense anyway, risking his own career in the process.

4. Louise Erdrich, SHADOW TAG. A devastating portrait of the collapse of a marriage and destruction of a family, at times almost too intimate. SHADOW TAG confirmed all my deepest suspicions and fears about the dangerous idea of soul mates. I also loved her last book, THE PLAGUE OF DOVES, which I listened to at the beginning of the year.

5. Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE. Over the course of three novels, Tana French has created a completely believable fictional version of Dublin, inhabited by people I feel I know. This book is the story of veteran police detective Frank Mackey, who has spent more than 20 years believing the love of his life ran off and left him. When someone finds her suitcase in an abandoned building, he has to reconsider everything he thought he knew about Rosie, his family, and himself.

6. Robert Goolrick, A RELIABLE WIFE. I notice a theme emerging: quite a few of these books have to do with the terrible things people do to and for each other in the name of love. In turn-of-the-century Wisconsin, a young woman with a past arrives to become the mail-order bride of the town's wealthiest man, who is fleeing demons of his own. The story twists and turns, with that rarest of rarities, an ending that is both shocking and completely satisfying.

7. Jesse Kellerman, THE EXECUTOR. I've been surprised not to see this book on more "Best of" lists, because it might have been the most compelling thriller I read this year. Perpetual graduate student Joseph Geist answers an ad for a "Conversationalist," and seems to have his entire life solved for him. His patron, an elderly woman named Alma Spielmann, offers him everything he needs and wants — and sets up a situation that plunges Joseph into a nightmare he could not have imagined.

8. Mary Roach, PACKING FOR MARS. The author of STIFF and SPOOK, two earlier favorites, takes on the practical requirements of space travel, from the mechanics of every body function to the adaptations of Islam to a 90-minute space "day." A treasure box of fascinating details, random information, and the sheer joy of asking how things work.

9. Rob Sheffield, TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN. Nonfiction, but absolutely in the category of foolish things we do for love: a musical memoir of Rob Sheffield's teenage years, including every guilty pleasure and wild fantasy. Each chapter is an essay linked to an individual song, some of which were new to me. A joyful, rueful, magical book.

10. Jess Walter, THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS. It's hard to describe this book, a nearly-mystical study of the emotional effects of financial ruin, in a way that would make anyone want to read it — but I read it in almost a single sitting, and did not want to let it go. Matt left a job in journalism to start "," a website that combined investment advice with literary insights and poetry. Bad idea or not — and Matt admits it probably is — he makes the leap at precisely the wrong time, and suffers the consequences. Not light reading, but it taught me things about myself and my fellow humans, and with SUNSET PARK, will tell future generations all they need to know about this time in our history.

BONUS: The Worst Book I Read This Year

I've gotten very good at setting aside books I don't enjoy. Life's too short and my reading stack is too tall. Foolishly, however, I promised Jennifer Lechner that I would read the Twilight books as her birthday present this year. She and our friend Anna called my bluff by sending me the box set for my own birthday. It took me — no exaggeration — six weeks to finish TWILIGHT, which sapped me of all desire to read any other fiction for the duration. Finish it I did, however, and therefore my Worst Book of 2010 award goes to:

Stephenie Meyer, TWILIGHT. The book has sold millions, the movies have made billions. It doesn't matter at all what I think of TWILIGHT. In fact, my reaction to it made me seriously question everything I do as an editor, reader and publicist. Not only would I never have accepted this novel for publication, I'd probably have passed around excerpts for my friends to laugh at. I might not even have taken it on as a freelance editing project. Bella, the main character, is a sullen lump with nothing interesting about her. Why in the world would she attract anyone's attention, much less that of a 100-year-old vampire? Beyond that, though, what's romantic or attractive about her decision to form a relationship with a deadly predator that prevents her from being honest with anyone else in her life? I'm not kidding, and I'm not overstating it: the message of TWILIGHT is that true love requires secrets, isolation, and the abandonment of one's essential self (i.e., Bella's very humanity). I can't think of a more dangerous message to give a preteen girl.

Worst of all, the book is boring. God help us all.


Karen Olson said...

I will have to check out Sunset Park, and I completely agree about The Executor and Hunger Games. I'm still only on the second Tana French book and know I will move onto Faithful Place when I'm finished because I love her style and characters and storytelling. I especially agree with your comments about Twilight. Possibly one of the worst books I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

I quite agree with all that you said about Twilight. Your sister and I have had a number of conversations about it's mystifying influence on grown women. I read them because they were recommended (and loaned to me)by a good friend who knows I like fantasy fiction and vampires. However, Edward is no Barnabas Collins (we'll see how Johnny Depp portrays HIM) and Bella is not remotely interesting -- not even for high school.

I am, however, a BIG fan of The Hunger Games trilogy. I feel that the quality is maintained although the tone changes from the first book to the third (as it should). I think you'll be satisfied.