Friday, December 10, 2010

Best of 2010: Reading

As promised, here are the top ten books I've read in 2010 (note: books not necessarily released in 2010)...

10. Brief Lives by Chris Price 
(Short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essays - you name it; NZ, 2006)
Brief Lives

What I said in November: "I eventually got around to buying a copy of Brief Lives this year and really, really enjoyed it. Halfway through I was certain it would rocket into my top ten books I read in 2010... It may still make it [obviously it squeezed in], but I didn’t enjoy the big biographical/literary essay at the end of the book, ‘Variable Stars’, as much as I enjoyed the chunks of alphabetically arranged sui generis joy that preceded it. Some read like prose poems, others flash fiction, others short stories. One piece (‘Notebook’) is pure ideas as one may find in a...  notebook."

9. A Model World and Other Stories by Michael Chabon
(Short stories, 1991)
A Model World: And Other Stories

What I said in August: "I tried very hard not to like [this book]. The stories were too much like SHORT STORIES. The jacket blurb trumpets how most were previously published in the New Yorker, and they are very much in that mold... By the end of the book, however, I had to concede that I could have asked nothing more. And I wasn’t even in the mood for hard enlightenment or moments of bleak grace!"

8. Room Temperature by Nicholson Baker
(Novel, 1990)
Room Temperature

What I said in February: "Nicholson Baker’s narrator... takes the minutiae of a day with his baby daughter (cable knit sweaters and nose picking) and gives a kind of life story; in turn illustrating that [with reference to genetic cloning]: “the particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation.” Room Temperature is both focused and meandering; myopic and exquisitely precise, but also profound and, at times, scatological. Every time I read one of Bakers books (this is numero tres), I leave richer and more wide-eyed."

7. The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton 
(Novel, NZ, 2008)

The Rehearsal

What I said in January: "It’s easy to envy Catton's early success before reading The Rehearsal, and hard to begrudge her afterwards... The plot tends to chase its own tail, but there is beauty in the chase: sentences that flail for the trapeze and make it, great chunks of decanted observation about high school, sex, drama and fiction..."

6. Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon
(Short stories, 2009)
Love and Obstacles

What I said in January: "A collection of short stories sharing the same narrator, a Sarajevan who spends the war in Chicago... There’s clearly some autobiography going on, but the lives of the narrator, his family and passers-through are rendered so richly, one soon leaves distinctions like fiction and autobiography behind... The collection properly takes off at story three (‘Conductor’), which happens to be the first that directly deals with “the war”, and apart from a technical (point of view) gripe in ‘Smurza’s Room’, I was rapt the rest of the way."

5. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
(Novel, audiobook, 2006)

What I said in October: "I enjoyed this book immensely. The audiobook version, which I borrowed from the Wellington City Library via its overdrive online borrowing system (a fabulous thing itself), was nominated for an Audie (the audiobook equivalent of an Oscar) in 2007, and rightly so. Arte Johnson’s turn as the ebullient narrator, Misha Vainberg, unable to return to his beloved United States, could have easily been over-egged, but Johnson eggs it perfectly (so to speak). Shteyngart’s novel is funny, generous and carefully absurd. A great reading/listening experience."

4. Gilead by Marilyn Robinson
(Novel, audiobook, 2004)

What I said in June: "Listening to Tim Jerome read Robinson's novel was a fantastic experience. The story is told in epistolary form and one of the strengths of the book is the voice of the narrator, Reverand John Ames, who is writing a long letter to his young son whom he will not see grow up... There was plenty of time to marvel at the craft and intellect of Robinson, and the voice-acting of Jerome, while still feeling pulled along by the story."

3. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann
(Short stories/novella, 2008)
Legend of a Suicide

What I said in September: "Hard to classify, but its essentially three short stories, followed by a novella in two parts, and two more short stories to close out the book. Wasn’t so taken with the final two stories, but was gripped by the rest... Vann’s back in NZ later in the year to teach a short fiction course at the IIML. Would be great if our paths crossed and we got to have a chat..."  

2. Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame 
(Novel, audiobook, NZ, 1957)
Owls Do Cry

What I said in August: Owls Do Cry had its quirks as an audiobook... being a Bolinda production means the reader, Heather Bolton, is Australian. Her accent was almost imperceptible for the most part, but sometimes when she did dialogue, especially males’, I was suddenly transported from Waimaru (or ‘WAI-ma-ROO’) to Woollongong... But the book, oh the book. What a gem."

1* Moby Dick by Herman Melville 
(Novel, 1851)

This comes in first with an asterisk since it was a re-read, which is totally cheating (not sure if it's Melville or me that cheating, though).

What I said in July: "This is one of my two favourite books I read at university (the other being The Great Gatsby). The last time I re-read Moby Dick was 2005... My big takeaway this time: I'm sure I'll return to it again within the next five years, but hopefully I don't feel the need to ravage it for material and can just enjoy the book on its own merits.


The Worm in the TequilaThis list may well look different if I were to prepare it in January. For one, I would have finished Laurence Fearnley's The Hut Builder and Patrick Evans' Gifted (both NZ novels released in 2010). I like to think at least one would edge into the top ten, in which case I'd bump Moby off and Janet could take the top spot.

But skimming through the list of books read in 2010, there are a number that could sit comfortably along side these ten. There's no poetry above, but Geoff Cochrane or Pablo Neruda could have made it only the list on sheer reading pleasure alone. Then there were the older books whose reputations preceded them and didn't disappoint, but perhaps suffered because they didn't overachieve (whatever that means): Lucky Jim, A Room with a View, Love in the Time of Cholera, perhaps even the re-released Sydney Bridge Upside Down. There were also more recent books with a rep which seemed (mostly) deserved: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.
Love in the Time of Cholera (Popular Penguins)
In all, I read and commented on this blog about: 21 novels, 14 poetry collections or anthologies, 13 short story collections or anthologies, 4 books of non-fiction. I also read some more lit-mags and books about birds and trees and such, which would bring up the non-fiction and poetry/short fiction quotient a bit. In all, the mix looks okay. Maybe still a little light on non-fiction. I may try listening to some non-fiction audiobooks next year. We'll see how that goes.

Some more stats: 3 New Zealand books made my top ten and in all I read 22 books by Kiwi authors this year across all forms. That's about 42% of all books read. Again, that seems like a good amount. Were my reading selections influenced by parochial intentions? Well, I did state back in February how I try to read at least one NZ book a month, but that only seems fair. And 2010 has been a pretty great year for NZ books (much better than 2009, if I'm honest... besides Relief I really didn't rate any fiction that came out last year, including NZ Post Book Award winner As the Earth Turns Silver... what are people seeing in that book that I don't?).

One thing I never thought about till now, either in my reading selections or compiling my reading thoughts, is the gender mix. I honestly haven't thought about it. A quick tally shows I've read 13 books by female authors, about a quarter of my reading, the proportion as short story collections holds against other forms (and I really like short story collections!). Could the percentage of female writers be higher? Yes, certainly. Should it? Probably. But I don't think I want to add a quota system into my reading choices -- books have to earn their place on my bedside table (or iPod) on their own merits.  I will say that I probably read more female authors in 2010 than any other year to date. I think it's quite common for males to prefer males writers, especially younger male readers. I remember struggling with Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte et. al. when I was at university. These days, even without re-reading these books, I have a better appreciation for them.  Perhaps it says something that 4/10 of my top ten are books by female authors? Back in 2008 only 2 were (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital). If The Hut Builder edges Moby out, it'd be a fifty/fifty gender split.

The Three Musketeers
I've said too much about gender already for what is really a non-issue.
One thing I feel more comfortable commenting on is the lack of Young Adult fiction I read this year. Lack as in complete lack, zero, zippo, nil. Unless you count Alexandre Dumas, which maybe you can. But I just don't read "YA". Never have. Harry Potter? I've seen bits of the first film. Phillip Pullman? Ditto for The Golden Compass or whatever it's called. When I was a young adult I read Douglas Coupland and later Chuck Palahniuk, authors who definitely appeal to a younger audience who don't have time for subtlety, but not YA. I know it's a big industry and I don't have any active prejudice against it (how could I form such a prejudice without reading any?), I just don't read it. But in 2011 I'll dip my toes into YA waters and see what happens. Any recommendations for what I should read first?

Finally, the award you've all been waiting for... the book I enjoyed the least in 2010. Now, this isn't necessarily the worst book (only books I finished reading can qualify), just the one that disappointed and confounded me the most. Those that have read this blog throughout the year may be able to guess this one...

Aiding and Abetting by Muriel Spark
(Novel, 2000)

What I said about it in October: "[Aiding and Abetting] is the worst novel I have ever finished. Thin, slap-dash, meandering... Its only redeeming feature is its brevity (if it were any longer I would not have retrieved it that time I threw it across the room)... The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is one of my favourite books, but I have also read and not-really-liked The Comforters, The Public Image and The Driver’s Seat. Which leaves me with a conundrum. Do I continue to pick up a Spark novel every year in the hope of getting another Brodie (I could, perhaps, be more scientific about which books of Spark’s I choose) , or do I just move on?"

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