Books of Note 2010

A short list of the books that made an impression this year.

First is the list of books I was truly excited about reading and was just really disappointed. They are written by some very excellent writers, but I was just not convinced they lived up to all the hype.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart :

I read an excerpt of this story in the New Yorker as part of their 20 under 40 series. I was instantly intrigued by the bumbling love story set in a sarcastic futuristic world. I’ve seen Shteyngart a couple of times and it’s obvious that the man is a clown, this shines through in his writing. The futuristic world is a tongue and cheek commentary on our obsession with technology. The main character Lenny Abramov is an awkward middle aged man trying desperately to stay current but unable to let go of his roots. He falls in love with a Korean American girl called Eunice Park, who is too young for him and who treats him like a charity case. I read the excerpt and loved the writing, it easily transported me into the mind of poor Lenny. When I got the book, I couldn’t wait to see how it all unfolded. Sadly it never took off for me. The story begins very slowly and I got halfway through it before I just gave up. It may be a testament to Shteyngart’s ability as a writer that he crafted such a hopeless failure as a protagonist. I cringed through most of what I read and felt a little skeeved out by Lenny.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen:

This was one of the most hyped books of they year. It keeps getting referred to as the next great American novel. Franzen was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the greatest living writer. This book was even picked for the Oprah book club (insert eye-roll). The New Yorker ran part of the book in one of its issues, which I read and loved, I couldn’t wait to finally get my hands on it and read it. It’s good, really good, very well written, a realistic depiction of a modern-day family. The problem for me was, it just wasn’t special. There was no surprise in this book, the characters were realistic but stiff and self-indulgent. It wasn’t even fun reading it, apart from admiring the craft of the sentences I labored through to the end of this book to be able to form my own opinion of the most talked about book of 2010. Overrated.

A Visit from the Good Square by Jennifer Egan:

As every year draws to a close there is a stream of top 10 lists, I usually zero in on the book ones. This one by Jennifer Egan has been almost universally included on those lists. Now I didn’t get to the end of this book, frankly I didn’t even get halfway through but I am perplexed by all of adulation. I agree that Egan has a keen ability to inhabit and convince you of a characters voice. This story is a collection of short stories all from different characters who are linked to one man in the music business; family members, colleagues, etc. I just couldn’t find myself caring about any of the people she was writing about. The writing just felt so distant for me. I like to feel like I’m in the characters head, that I’m on a journey of introspection.

Now for the books that I lost sleep over, wowed me, and took me by surprise.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower:

This powerful little short story debut has probably been my most talked about book this year. I went back and forth a lot on whether or not to recommend this. Not everyone likes literary fiction, or short stories. The writing is absolutely superb. I inadvertently put my life on hold for a day because I couldn’t  get enough of stuff like this:

The loveliness of the day was enough to knock you down. Swallows rioted above the calm green lid of the lake. Birch trees gleamed like filaments among the dark evergreens. No planes disturbed the sky. I felt dead to it, though I did take a kind of comfort that all of this beauty was out here, persisting like mad, whether you hearkened to it or not.

Hands down my favorite read of the year.

The Hunger Games Trilogy (Hunger Games, Catching Fire & Mockingjay):

I only read YA if it comes highly recommended. So many of it is just really bad. This rec came from a bookish kindred spirit who I can’t stop thanking for introducing me to it. It has all of the elements needed to sweep a reader away into a different world. Violence, love, characters you care about, struggling in a well crafted world. This is the type of series that will have you putting up “shhh, I’m reading” signs. I think I actually shushed one of my roommates while reading this :/

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates by Richard Yates:

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for a couple of years now. I used to consider myself the type of person that only read novels so short story collections usually went to the bottom of the reading pile. The world of short stories was opened up to me this year and so many of the writers I fell in love with mentioned their ardent admiration for Richard Yates’ short stories. I’ve been a fan of Yates for a while, The Easter Parade is one of my favorite books so I was more than happy to delve into his short story collection. Richard Yates is a treasure, his writing is heartbreakingly excellent. A little 12 page story can absolutely punish you with a vivid glimpse into a characters life. It’s not for everyone, there are few (if any) happy endings. His stories are of people trying with all their might to get by and just not being able to catch a break, of putting on a brave face, of relishing the small victories even amidst tragic defeat. Even with all its bleakness, I found a lot of hope and a lot to admire in this great collection.

The Man with the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam:

I also discovered some modern day British writers. This one was my favorite of the bunch. I read this short series out of order so if you pick it up, read Old Filth first. It’s a story about a marriage. The pacing of British literature is so different from the frenetic pace of American literature, I found this very enjoyable. It portrays the elements of growing in love with someone; the convincing of oneself, the turning a blind eye, the carefully weighed resignation but also the comfort and steadiness of it. I still haven’t read Old Filth but is definitely on the reading list for 2010.

I know I resolved to read 100 books this year, I only got to 89. So the goal rolls into 2011, and hopefully I’ll figure out a better way to keep track of what I’m reading and review anything worth mentioning in a timely manner. Happy reading in the new year.