Saturday, January 01, 2011

Thoughts on 2010 reading list

114 books read in 2010. That's the lowest since 109 in 1997. The highest was 161 in 2009. Since I started keeping the list in 1996 I've read 1,772 books. I feel like a coach with 2,000 wins within his grasp.

The books aren’t all I read. There were stacks of comics, every issue of The New Yorker, the occasional newspaper, website and cereal box.

But the books are why we do this. First, the caveats. There are three. I don't do a "best of" list. I don't read enough books for that. Instead, I like to single out a few of the books that I enjoyed the most. Books that evoked a laugh or a tear. Call it my favorite reads. The list is comprised of "recent" books -- most were written in the past year. If I didn't do this, whatever book by Charles Dickens that I read in the past year would always, always, be at the top of the list.

Finally, although I observe them, I dislike the arbitrary restrictions imposed by genres -- science fiction, mystery, young adult. Such categories prevent people from exploring books I'm convinced they would enjoy. Michael Connelly is a good example. He's a hell of interesting and entertaining writer, but some of you've never picked up his books because he's a "mystery" writer. That's a mistake. The same is true for Neil Gaiman. He has a book on this list that I'm convinced will still be read decades from now.

Contemporary novels:
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson
The Hand That First Held Mine, Maggie O’Farrell
, Emma Donoghue
Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls.

The Hand That First Held Mine tops this list with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and Behind the Scenes at the Museum close behind. O'Farrell tells two parallel stories that ultimately become one. It's tender and wise and an altogether lovely book. Simonson channels Jane Austen in this delicious comedy of manner. I'm a Kate Atkinson fanboy.

I read the five books short-listed for the National Book Award and a couple of the books on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. I liked Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule, which took me into the world of a down-at-its-heels West Virginia racetrack. It almost broke the top five above. by Peter Carey was a good read. Nicole Krauss is a supremely talented writer, but she fell Parrot & Olivier in America short in the humorless Great House. As for the Booker winner, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, I did not like it at all.

Young Adult:
The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman
Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
It's A Book, Lane Smith

Gaiman's wonderful book about a baby raised by the denizens of a graveyard makes my all-time list. It's that good. It's A Book is a children's book. I had to put it somewhere. It was one of my very, very favorites reads this year.

The Reversal, Michael Connelly
The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley
Faithful Place
, Tana French
Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney
Do They Know I’m Running?
, David Corbett

I could add another 5 books here. The work of Louise Penny and Robert Crais, Robinson and Rankin, Steve Hamilton's The Lock Artist and The Moonlight Mile of Dennis Lehane, which revives the duo of Kenzie and Genaro. Connelly, French and Corbett explode the genre.

Science Fiction:
The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi is an inventive writer with two books on the list. I have a feeling there will be more in the future.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot
Lyndon B. Johnson, Charles Peters
Bob Dylan in America, Sean Wilentz
Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand
Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris

A guy at a bookstore recently grabbed up Unbroken and said, "I hope it's half as good as Seabiscuit." It is at least that. I hope you appreciate the variety here. A little science, some culture and arts, two political biographies -- one big, one brief -- and Unbroken, which is a personal history of World War II, a bit of sports bio and pure Christian inspiration.

Composed, Rosanne Cash
My Reading Life, Pat Conroy

I loved My Reading Life. Much of what Conroy writes about reading captures my feelings perfectly. I loved The List, Rosanne's album of songs her father said she needed to know. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed Composed. She's a thoughtful, intelligent woman.

Roger Maris, Baseball’s Reluctant Hero, Tom Clavin and Danny Peary
The Last Hero, A Life of Henry Aaron, Howard Bryant

Jane Leavy's biography of Mickey Mantle is not here. I just didn't like it that much. Bryant's biography of Henry Aaron is a stellar work that puts the slugger's life and career into cultural perspective. I didn't know much about Roger Maris until reading this bio by Clavin and Peary. Let me just say this: Maris was universally admired by his teammates and when he died Mantle wept.

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