Top Picks of 2010

Over the last year, I read sixty-two books, and want to mention twenty-four of them here. That means more than one out of every three books I read was worth telling you about. 2010 was a good year!
Winners:
1. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Best of Roald Dahl
4. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
5. Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Honorable Mentions:
1. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
2. Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
3. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
4. Stoner by John Williams
5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
6. Spooner by Pete Dexter
7. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
8. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
10. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
11. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
12. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Worthy Contenders:
1. I am not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
3. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
5. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Why Did I Ever

I am in love with her writing, and resisted the urge to dog-ear every page. Told in the briefest of snippets, sometimes numbered (up to 536), sometimes titled (“And Another Thing”). A 40-something mother of 2 (Mev and Paulie), dealing with her relationships current and past, a “new boyfriend” named Dix, a perma-friend named Hollis, her Deaf Lady Neighbor, the perpetually lost cat, eating jars of speed and not sleeping, working on a movie script about Bigfoot with Penny and Belinda in LA, always holed up in hotel rooms avoiding work, flying back to Louisiana, driving all night to small towns across the south. Dealing with the devastating crime that happened to Paulie in NYC (let a stranger in to use his bathroom, ended up taken prisoner, hung up and raped).
Snippets from the book:
9:

I’m sitting alone in my vehicle, on the street before my place. It’s only just after dawn, yet here’s Hollis, strolling up, munching from a box of Cracker Jacks.
He stoops at my window and says to me, “uh oh, I hear Marianne Faithful.” He straightens, shakes his Cracker Jacks box empty, scrunches it, and lobs it into the side yard. The shirt Hollis is wearing has a pattern of skylarks, I believe they are, depicted on it.
He plants a hand on the car now and drums his fingers. He stoops again and says, “I’ve been reading an interesting book on John Wayne. You are what, here? Feeling neglected?”
“No,” I say, turning to look at him. “No. Nor do I feel hungry for apples, Hollis.” I say, “Those are two among the feelings I do not have.”

14:

I was spurred further to autograph and personally inscribe all my books. My handwriting in them experiences a change or two and can seem manly or decorative or as if I were rushed.
The inscription in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks reads: “Party girl. Bring back my VCR.”

All We Do Is Argue:

“I know what you’re thinking,” I say to myself.
“OK,” I say, “What?”
“It’s that thing in your hand. You’re thinking that it goes someplace.”
“Then where does it go?” I ask.
“Well, not up there…,” I say as I’m climbing the stairs.
“So important to you to be right,” I say, climbing back down.

39:

Across from us is the cashier’s counter. There, a girl in a black T-shirt stenciled with the words “Jezebel” is wagging her head at a woman in a muumuu who’s sadly, slowly, reluctantly writing a check.

304:

Now, with this couple here in the gold Ford Taurus I sense strain. Her chin’s tipped up and she’s looking to see if he’s mad and if maybe she should say something, and he’s shaking his head, no, there’s nothing wrong, although his face is a sour mask of regret.
I pray, “God, hear my plea. May I please never have anything to do with anything like that ever and never participate in that type of thing again.

308:

I’m wondering about it, and I’m in bed and preparing for sleep, telling myself it’s fine that a terrific baby stayed here before me and there is no reason to believe the stay ended in tragedy just because the baby left behind its shoe. There. On to the next thing. I’m wondering, when do you ever see the truly attractive Christian men? I want to ride to church in a black van full of French-ski-champ-looking Christans. That, to me, would be the way to go.

397:

“Something tells me I need a nap,” I say.
“That would be your brain,” says Hollis.

Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields

Somewhat lyrical exposition on the high crime/murder rate in Ciudad Juarez. I was first hipped to the situation via Bolaño’s 2666, which focused on the women slain in the city. Bowden blows that focus up, saying what about the men, because there were 1600 total murders in 2008, mostly guys. There is no single cause, not just drug cartel vs. cartel. Violence is woven into the daily fabric, and if you can exercise power by killing someone, you do. The book ends with an appendix of all killings from January through May 2008. Then the cataloguer got exhausted and quit. Kind of a meh book.

A Child’s Christmas in Wales

My uncle Don gave me this book in 1985 and I had forgotten about it until this Christmas, when it arrived in a package of Christmas gifts from my parents along with a note indicating that now that I had my own library (work in progress!), they were returning my book. Personally, I can’t think of Dylan Thomas without thinking of Homestead, a local bar which used to be named Dylan’s, with the inscription still above the bar to rage rage against the dying of the light.
I quickly read this children’s book, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and while interesting, it hasn’t been a Christmas tradition for me, so it isn’t packed with memories. Dylan essentially remembers Christmastime in Wales, full of snow and snowballs aimed at cats or fires. He walked the streets of town with a candy cigarette to toughen his image, and ends up at home after caroling outside a haunted house and hearing a voice join them. Music was a critical piece of the Christmas tradition.

The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women

My first experience with Ellroy happened to be his horn-dog memoir. I like his writing style, his search for “a fellow autodidact oblivious to trend.” To summarize, his life is profoundly shaped by the murder of his mother when he is a teenager, then quickly followed by the death of his father, and lack of real family. He then spends the rest of his life searching for THE ONE, scanning every woman’s face, fantasizing, grasping and holding and squeezing then discarding.
Overall, it’s an ok read. Nothing extraordinary.

A Novel Bookstore

Which is worse: a book that is terrible from the beginning or a book that begins strongly and finishes with a curious whimper? This was a fantastic book until the last 60 pages. A bookstore is opened in Paris that only carries “good books”, meaning that you can browse around and not take the chance of leaving with a crap book. Good literature only. The books are chosen by secret committee, and curated by Ivan “Van” Georg (perpetual bookshop worker) and Francesca Aldo-Valbelli (heiress with well connected husband). The secret committee begins to be attacked with random acts of violence. Each are warned. Diatribes are penned in literary journals bemoaning the snobbery implicit in classifying “good” vs. “not good” books.
Unfortunately, besides also lacking the requisite powerful ending, this had a few editing errors as well:
p 99 “They decided to begin with the eight whom or both liked.” (“or” is extraneous)
p 172 “Have you got ten people involved?” (should be “gotten”)
Translated by Alison Anderson from the French.