Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Favorite Fiction 2010

Taken at my sister-in-law's place in Door County a year ago.  Winter is a great time for reading, and reflecting.

As promised, here is a list of ten of my favorite fiction reads in 2010.  This year I read 80 books, far fewer than I read in 2009.  Over half were fiction, a percentage that seems to grow each year.  I blame it on the fact that the CD player in our automobile finally went home to the lord, and I couldn't listen to audio books while driving after early spring.  I did listen to a couple of cassette tapes, but there are fewer and fewer available to check out from the Hedberg Library, as they gradually purge the tape collection in favor of CDs and "play-away" technology.  It was more than that though.  We traveled lots.  I worked on art lots.  And I played Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, something that also ate into my time set aside for exercise.  

Enough excuses.  These were some titles that I found to be especially satisfying.

Annie Dunne, by Sebastian Barry
"Oh, Kelsha is a distant place, over the mountains from everywhere."  The opening line of Sebastian Barry's 2002 novel is spoken by the book's narrator, Annie Dunne.  I liked the book fine for its subtle characterizations and poetic language, but it won't be for everyone.  Fact is, not much happens, and many people will not like Annie.  In general, Annie, who is unmarried, born with a crooked back, and in her sixties, is unhappy and cantankerous, and afraid that the way of life she has known is passing away and that there is no place any more for her in her world.  She lives with her friend Sarah on a remote farm, and one summer gets to take care of her grand-niece and nephew - something that has its good and bad days.  Then it looks like Sarah might marry, and where would Annie go?  This is a quiet book, and a thoughtful one, that leads the reader to consider what is important in a person's life.

Being Dead, by Jim Crace
"For old time' sake the doctors of zoology had driven out of town that Tuesday afternoon to make a final visit to the singing salt dunes at Baritone Bay."This is a short book about the lives and deaths of Joseph and Celice, a married couple whose unsentimental lives are chronicled in prose both straightforward and poetic.  They die, they decay, and their entwined lives are considered in an unforgettable way.  Be forewarned, this is not for the squeamish reader, but the story held me.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
"It screamed downward, splitting air and sky without effort."
"It" is a bomb in Sarajevo, the setting of The Cellist of Sarajevo.  The book came highly recommended to me, and because of that, plus the fact it is a short novel, I dove into it.  It took a while for me to see how the four stories of people living in the Serbian city during its siege in the 1990s were related.  By the end, though, I saw what the very different people had in common, besides their unhappy lot of living in a city at war. The novel describes some very terrible things in a quiet and dispassionate way, but the final impression I am left with isn't how horrible people can be, but rather how fine.

Cutting For Stone, by Abraham Verghese
"After eight months spent in the obscurity of our mother's womb, my brother, Shiva, and I came into the world in the late afternoon of the twentieth of September in the year of grace 1954."Cutting for Stone came highly recommended to me by two friends whose opinions I value, and their good opinion was well justified.  I had put off reading this one because of its length, 541 pages, but I ended up savoring the story of identical twin brothers who each love the same woman, and each of whom becomes a doctor.  It's a sprawling novel that begins and ends in Ethiopia, and in the middle travels to the United States.  While I was interested in some of the historical events covered in the story and information about Ethiopian culture, the real interest for me was the story of the boys and their families.  The writing here is wonderful - flowing, observant, humane.  I was sorry to see it all end.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (re-read)
This was the first book I read in 2010, and for a while nothing lived up to it.  I didn’t write a review at the time, so my grasp of details has slipped.  But suffice it to say this is a sprawling multi-generational novel that traces the history of a family of California settlers.  Everything I read said the plot broadly follows the story of Cain and Abel, and certainly there is a great rift between the two brothers in the  story, but the novel is broader, richer than that. Steinbeck stirs together history, autobiography, legend, philosophy, and even poetry to make a book that is hard to put down (even though it weighs a ton!), and hard to forget.

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
"Those who saw him hushed."  Let the Great World Spin came highly recommended by a book friend whose taste I trust, and this one was as good as I hoped.  The novel's plot lines all come back to the day in 1974 when a French wire walker held NYC spellbound by dancing back and forth between the towers of the World Trade Center.  There are beautiful chapters about that walk, but the bulk of the novel consists of interwoven threads about New Yorkers who saw or heard about the event.  There's an Irish priest who ministers to streetwalkers, women who lost sons in the Vietnam war, a judge, and more.  Each of walks his or her own dangerous path. I was charmed by the characters and the writing, but I expect some readers will be impatient with the fragmented narrative.  Thumbs up from me.

The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters.
"I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old."  Our narrator was the son of a maid at the hall, and when he was allowed his first peek at the mansion he pinched a plaster acorn from a frieze on the wall.  Years later (in 1947) , after his parents are gone and he has become a country doctor, he once again visits the house to treat a sick maid, and we're off.  One one level the story is a Gothic romance, complete with a decaying but once fine mansion out in the countryside, dim and dusty rooms, steep staircases, locked nurseries, tales of ghosts, mysterious marks on both the house and the inhabitants, strange noises, insanity, death, and frustrated love.  As I read I kept flashing scenes from classic horror, The Turn of the Screw, Fall of the House of Usher, The Haunting of Hill House, even the creepy old house bits from Great Expectations.  But there is more, a sense of loss, sadness, a passing of a way of life that is historic rather than simply creepy.  The story begins rather slowly, but little by little I found myself turning the pages more quickly, reluctant to stop, and a little afraid to turn out the lights.

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Even though this was one of my favorite fiction reads for 2010, I neglected to review it immediately after I finished the book.  I know this novel polarized many readers - many disliked the dark tone of the thirteen inter-related stories, or thought Olive was unlikeable.  I was completely caught up in each separate story, and the way they told the story of Olive’s life, and of the lives of others in her small Maine town.  My heart went out to this woman whose life, like many people’s lives, is hard.  Her crustiness is a self-defense, and underneath it she has a good heart.  I loved the quiet writing in this book, the unflinching look at the joys and heartaches that make up our lives.

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, by Robert Lewis Taylor (re-read)
I just finished a second reading of The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, as always a little afraid that I wouldn't like it as well as I remembered.  The novel begins this way: "On the day when I first learned of my father's journey, I had come back with two companions from a satisfactory afternoon in the weeds near Kay's Bell Foundry, shooting a slingshot at the new bells, which were lying out in the year and strung up on rafters."  Jaimie narrates the story, and the journey is as much his as his father's. Soon enough the shooting that happens is with guns, not slingshots.  This rambling odyssey of a story covers a year in the life of Jaimie and his father, who leave Louisville to escape debt and find fortune in California.  The adventure of crossing the country by wagon train is filled by turns with humor and horror.  The author includes an extensive bibliography of work he used for research, including many narratives of travelers on the Oregon Trail.  I had the feeling that descriptions of privation, Indian attacks, experiences with the Mormons, all had their basis in the true experiences of pioneers.  It is an interesting book, with likable characters, filled with history, adventure, and danger.  I'm not sure I'd recommend it for young readers, not only because it runs more than 500 pages, but because of the occasional gut-wrenching violence.  Travel across the prairies, mountains and deserts of America in the 1860s was not for the faint of heart.  Still, I found myself impatient each day to return to the story, anxious to see what became of the wanderers, and whether or not they ever found home. I am happy I was able to revisit this fine novel.


1 comment:

Jan in Edmonds said...

Sherry -- Have enjoyed looking at your book reviews. Noticed you'd read a book by Sebastian Barry. Have you read his The Secret Scripture? It too is not for everyone & I personally did not love it. Our f2f group reviewed it & some thought it good. Also, we did Olive Kittridge -- and again some liked it better than others. This is a large group, though. 18 women!

Happy New Year.