I keep a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 13 years old. It’s a document I cherish, because it’s a great way to remember who I was at different ages, and the books I was reading then. Plus, as my memory gets worse, I can figure out whether or not I’ve read a book already. This year, I thought I’d make a list from the list, and share my favorite books of 2010. They’re in no particular order, except those published in 2010 and those published earlier that I happened to read this year.
P.S., I hope my book, All Over the Map, made your reading list this year! Thank you if it did.
Favorite pre-2010 books I read this year:
1. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman (2008)
This is a marvelous non-fiction book based on the diary of a zookeeper’s wife who helped shelter Jews who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. It’s a perfect vehicle for Ackerman, who is a naturalist, and an acute observer of animal and human nature.
2. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (2006)
A novel about contemporary Egypt. The author uses the device of different levels of an apartment building to tell stories of people from different social classes. Humane, richly descriptive, reminded me of a kind of contemporary Naguib Mahfouz.
3. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
Drunk in Mexico. Stream of consciousness. Fabulous description. Drunk again.
4. The Company She Keeps, by Mary McCarthy (1942)
First novel by Mary McCarthy, originally published as a series of short stories. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get this far in life without reading McCarthy’s thoroughly modern (and autobiographical) stories about a young woman in literary/political New York in the 1930s. “The Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt” is an amazing portrait.
5. The Desert, JMG LeClezio (1980 in French, 2009 in English)
LeClezio won the Nobel Prize in 1980, but few of his novels are available in English. This is a tale of two Algerian desert peoples, a boy many years ago, and a contemporary girl of his tribe, and their struggles to exist against the forces first of colonialism and then globalization. Lovely.
6. Death with Interruptions, Jose Saramago, 2008
It was strange to be reading Death with Interruptions just when Saramago died–made it seem like a trick, like I was in his world reading that story about his death while reading a story about his death. Another one of Saramago’s books where he takes one aspect of reality and shows how people react to it–in this case, death takes a vacation for two weeks. I loved the first half of the book, liked less the part where Death falls in love with a cellist. RIP, Saramago.
7. Home, Marilynne Robinson, 2008
My mom read this and said she felt like she was a member of the family while she was reading, which is how I felt. Robinson draws the most amazing, intimate portraits of family relations. Classic, like all her books.
8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
This book just made me happy. Ghetto nerd from the Dominican Republic seeks true love despite all.
9. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro, 2009
Alice Munro is always a joy to read, with her intimate and emotionally complex characters. Title story here is a bit of a departure for her, about Sophia Kovalevski, a talented 19th-century mathematician and novelist who struggles with the success, gender, and the politics of the age.
10. Timbuktu, Paul Auster, 2000
I don’t love all of Paul Auster’s books. Well, almost all. Including this one. It’s the tale of Mr. Bones, “a mutt of no particular worth or distinction,” and his master, Willy G. Christmas, a middle-aged schizophrenic who has been on the streets since the death of his mother four years before.
Favorite books published in 2010:
1. Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
All those people who loved The Help should run out and buy Wench. It’s more authentic, more literary, more chilling. Based on a real place, it’s about a summer resort where Southern slaveowners brought their slave “mistresses,” or “wenches,” told in the voice of one of those women.
2. Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghteling
This is a wonderful debut by a young woman who teaches high school English about the looting of art in Paris during World War II. Houghteling has an amazing grasp of history, art, and the human heart.
3. Boys and Girls Like You and Me, by Aryn Kyle
Aryn Kyle’s stories are full of a lot of troubled young women in painful situations, which is probably why I liked it. Full of humor, loneliness, longing, mean girls, bad boyfriends, worse dads. Writing occasionally has that predictable MFA style, but I’m a fan.
4. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
Mish-mash of story relating to rock and roll and aging. Unlikeable characters, but very likeable book.
5. Anthropology of an American Girl, by Hilary Thayer Hamann
This huge tome is a coming-of-age tale with a memorable character. It could’ve used some editing, but I was still sad to finish it.
6. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
I thoroughly enjoyed punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her 20s in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe. But a National Book Award? I guess I liked it better when it was sort of bad-girl to like Patti Smith, not mainstream critics’ darling.
7. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Worth all that hype.
8. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (hardcover 2009)
All of New York City pauses when a Frenchman, Philippe Petit, walks a cable between the World Trade Center towers. An intermingling of stories–a street priest, hookers, mothers mourning their sons who died in the war–told with a perfect ear and heartbreaking humanity.
9. Snake Lake, by Jeff Greenwald.
Painfully honest account of this travel writer (and, okay, my friend) as he searches for meaning to big questions in Nepal, and understanding his brother’s suicide. I wish there’d been a little more on the brother and less on Nepal, but it’s a delicate balance. Brave.
10. Private Life, by Jane Smiley
Glad to enjoy another Jane Smiley book after I HATED Ten Days in the Hills. Sweeping novel with a depressing arc. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is evoked at one point, and Margaret’s life and journey seem almost as confined. But I wondered whether she was too smart a character to live with what she lived with for so long without taking any action on her own behalf.