Friday, December 31, 2010

2010, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

Calendars are arbitrary things, and the milestones they force on us occasionally get in the way of the ones we'd like to note.  This was the case with me as I prepared to sum up the year's reading.  In terms of my reading, the calendar switch finds me in the middle of too many things: for the last month I've been engaged in a reading project that will take me into the next month at least, which I'd rather not write about until its completion, and the biggest change to my reading habits in 2010 was the purchase of a Kindle, but as I've only had it for a few weeks I'd like to wait a while longer before discussing my reaction to it.  It would be a lot more convenient for me, in other words, if 2010 could keep from ending for another month.

Alas, that's not to be, so--with an apology if I seem not quite as into the whole list-making process as I've been in previous years--let's look at 2010's reading.  I read 63 books this year, a slight uptick from last year's count but a measurable improvement in quality.  My project for 2010, as I told several people in the beginning of the year, was to get un-caught up.  I'd spent sizable portions of 2008 and 2009 reading with an eye to nominate and vote in the Hugo awards, and that hunt for worthy nominees left me feeling harried and, to be honest, not too thrilled by the quality of work I encountered.  2010 was about indulging my own tastes, not necessarily within genre, and not pushing myself to meet deadlines or schedules.  Not surprisingly, that strategy has had a positive effect, and though I'm sorry to have read so little short fiction this year (the reason there hasn't been a best short stories post), on the whole I think I made good reading choices in 2010.

Before I get to the year's best books, I'd like to take a moment to praise NYRB Classics.  They've got one book on the list, and it is already widely acknowledged that their list, which brings deserving but forgotten works in a broad and eclectic range of styles and sources back into the public eye (and clad in some of the sharpest and most attractive covers in the business) is fantastic.  But in 2010 the editors' tastes and mine seem to have come into alignment, and my reading plans for 2011 feature their books quite heavily, so thanks, NYRB Classics!

Without any further ado, then, here are the best books of 2010, listed in order of their author's surname:
  • Life by Gwyneth Jones

    This book is part of the reading project I'm planning to write about next month, and I haven't even had a chance to cover it in a recent reading roundup, so my thoughts would be a little disordered even if there were not so much to talk about here.  Life is a slim volume whose setting is, at first, deceptively mundane, following the early career and personal life of a female scientist around the turn of the twenty-first century, and her dogged pursuit of a discovery in human genetics, specifically the genetics of gender, that has enormous political and social implications.  What makes this novel remarkable is how much it accomplishes in such a short page count and with such a simple, even restrained premise.  Life discusses feminism, women in the sciences and the politics of scientific research in general, gender relations in and out of sexual relationships, and the very meaning of gender, but at the same time it builds a fascinating, flawed, brilliant but frustrating character in its protagonist, Anna (and does good work with supporting characters, such as Anna's husband and her radical feminist best friend), and takes its world from a familiar recent past to an SFnal alternate present, wracked by global plagues and political upheaval even before the significance of Anna's discovery is understood.  If there's one flaw to Life it's that there may be too much in it, that any discussion of it or attempt to comprehend it will necessarily leave out vast portions of the novel out of simple necessity, but that also makes it a novel worth chewing over and coming back to.

  • The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

    Like Life, this is a novel that won me over by doing so much in such a short span of pages and in such a relatively low-key setting and premise.  The protagonist is, again, a scientist, a representative of an egalitarian, utopian society traveling back to the planet from which his ancestors emigrated in order to further his research and bring back word of his society's philosophy and accomplishments.  Le Guin builds both civilizations, and describes the events that led to their separation, and spells out their good and bad points, and lays out a blueprint for the construction of a believable--and believably flawed--socialist utopia, and weaves into all of this the coming of age of her protagonist, Shevek, and a story of political intrigue as he gets caught up in social unrest on his host planet, and is pursued for the technology his research might enable.  All of this is accomplished with such grace and with so little fuss that is seems almost impossible to credit.  The Dispossessed is a quiet, low-key novel whose characters face trials and upheavals with an equanimity that conceals powerful emotions, and Le Guin makes both those emotions and the struggle to calm them keenly felt.  No one, I'm sure, needs me to tell them that Le Guin is a magnificent writer or that The Dispossessed is a masterpiece, but here's me adding my voice to both claims nonetheless.

  • The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning (review)

    Comprised of The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, Manning's sprawling, strongly autobiographical account of a newlywed British couple's life in Romania in the early years of WWII, their flight from the Nazis to Greece and later Egypt, and their journeys in the Middle East as the course of the war turns against Germany, is far from perfect.  For one thing, it's my personal belief that it is missing its final act, which would have resolved the issues in Guy and Harriet Pringle's loving but dysfunctional marriage and seen Harriet embarking on a writing career that mirrored her alter-ego's.  And besides that, it is on occasion unfocused, and doesn't always balance its descriptions of the war and the Pringles' marital strife as well as it could.  Nevertheless, this is one of the most unusual and shocking depictions of life during wartime that I've ever read, effortlessly slicing through the images, which are by now clichés, that we've come to associate with WWII and giving us characters who cling to normalcy--to gossip, to the silly squabbles and feuds of their social set, to prejudice based on class and wealth--even as the war rages, in part because of desperation, and in part because the events unfolding around them are so great and so complicated that it is often hard to tell what the difference between war and peace, safety and danger, is.  If that were not enough, Guy and Harriet themselves are fantastically well-written characters, simultaneously ill-suited to marriage and perfectly suited to one another, and it is hard to know whether to wish for their marriage's success or failure, and the glimpse the novels, in particular The Levant Trilogy, give of the Middle East during wartime, from the perspective of its soon-to-be-former colonizers, is utterly fascinating.

  • Far North by Marcel Theroux

    I was a little underwhelmed by this year's Arthur C. Clarke shortlist, which struck me as strong but a little on the predictable side.  But if it hadn't been for the Clarke (and if a copy of the book hadn't been available during my reading week holiday) I probably never would have given Marcel Theroux's Far North a look, and I would have missed the year's finest read.  When I first heard about it I dismissed Far North as yet another novel trying to follow in The Road's footsteps--a bleak, frozen post-apocalypse (whose cause is only vaguely described) traversed by a laconic and hopeless protagonist who isn't quite ready to lie down and die.  What I discovered instead was a novel that shows The Road up in almost every respect.  Where McCarthy's novel lapsed into a fable-like style in its attempts to describe the magnitude of the catastrophe that has overwhelmed humanity, and the destruction wrought on nature and human endeavor alike, Theroux stays grounded in reality.  His descriptions of the destruction--and of its human toll, as refugees begin fleeing into previously uninhabited locales--are precise and down to earth even as they continue to conceal the exact nature of the catastrophe.  If McCarthy reconfigured the struggle to survive in straitened circumstances as one between good and evil, Theroux gives us the more thorny and heartbreaking question of how far one compromises one's ideals in order to survive.  His characters are complicit, either actively or passively, in evil, and yet most of them are sympathetic.  And if the acknowledged flaw of The Road, even by its greatest proponents, was the near absence of women from its story, Far North gives us its narrator, Makepeace, who is both tough and vulnerable, stalwart and craven, hopeful and hopeless.  Which is to say, entirely human--a woman who recognizes the dire situation she's in, but can't help but hope for better, and whose actions reflect both pragmatism and wishful thinking.  In a year that has already featured so many indelible protagonists, Makepeace stands out from the pack, and will probably continue to do so for years to come.

  • In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield (review)

    I came to In Great Waters with a lot of baggage.  On the one hand, it was a book that had received rapturous praise from many reviewers whose opinions I valued, and on the other hand, I'd been rather disappointed by Whitfield's first novel, Benighted.  It's probably all the more impressive, then, that In Great Waters managed to live up to my expectations, and live down the memory of its predecessor.  A first contact story set in the royal courts of 17th century Europe, a meditation on the meaning of human and animal nature, and a chilly and refreshingly unromantic love story, In Great Waters combines fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction and grounds them all in two prickly, defensive, quite literally cold-blooded protagonists, Henry and Anne, a human-mermaid hybrid with designs on the English throne and the princess he means to unseat.  Along the way it discusses morality, religion, and the storytelling impulse, giving us a decidedly inhuman perspective on these three quintessentially human activities and weighing their benefits and drawbacks.  This is a rich--and richly told--novel that gives no quarter to sentimentality or romanticism, and is all the better for it.
Honorable Mentions:
Another indication that 2010 was a good reading year is that I don't really have a list of worst reads.  No book I read this year infuriated me or made me feel that I had completely wasted the time and mental energy I expended reading it.  The following list, again presented by order of the author's surname, is more a list of the year's greatest disappointments.  None of these books were truly bad, but they all failed to live up to my expectations of them.
  • Breathers by S.G. Browne (review)

    The lifecycle the genre trend--be it vampires, superheroes, zombies, or whatnot--starts out with pulp, continues with mainstream penetration, segues into over-saturation, and finally ends up grasping at respectability with allegedly literary works that deconstruct, and usually render inert and pointless, the very quality that launched the trend to begin with.  2010 saw an absolute deluge of literary zombie novels, and maybe some of them were worth a look, but Browne's debut, subtitled A Zombie's Lament, was not.  Perched uncomfortably between the comedic (it opens with the zombiefied narrator debating how to cook his parents) and tragic (zombies have no civil rights and the narrator has been prevented from seeing his still-living daughter) tones, the novel doesn't know quite where to fall.  It expects us to take the narrator's pain and suffering--at the end of his life, but also at being considered inhuman by living society--seriously, but to look at the horrible things, include multiple murders, he does as a joke.  As a result--and due to Browne's at-best serviceable prose--Breathers fails to elicit either laughs or sympathy.  It's horrifying, but not, I suspect, in the way that Browne intended.

  • A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

    This book is on the list less because of its own flaws--though they are considerable--than because it forces me to reevaluate my positive reaction to Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall, and the credit I gave her in that novel for making believable human beings out of the major players in Henry VIII's succession crisis and England's subsequent break with the Catholic church.  A Place of Greater Safety, which tells the story of the French Revolution from the perspective of three of its instigators, has a similar, perhaps even tougher task--how to make sympathetic the people who, for all their good intentions, created a tyrannical state that butchered its own citizens by the tens of thousands?  It's a tall order, but the problem with A Place of Greater Safety is that Mantel doesn't really try to answer the question.  She concentrates instead on the characters' marriages and friendships, as if the problem with The Terror was that it put an end to the epic bromance between Camille Desmoulins and Maximilien Robespierre.  In light of this, it's hard not to take an even dimmer view of Mantel's choice to end Wolf Hall before the events that would tarnish its protagonist, Thomas Cromwell's, legacy.  Even with a promised sequel, dealing with Cromwell's enabling of the judicial murder of Anne Boleyn as well as other crimes, in the works, it's hard not to wonder whether a similar shift in focus to the domestic will be used to make sympathetic a person who is a lot more complicated than Mantel would have us believe.

  • The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers

    The original literary vampire romance from the pen of the author of The Anubis Gates, The Stress of Her Regard should have been everything that Breathers--not to mention the raft of My Vampires are Different novels we've been inundated with--wasn't, a fresh (for all that it is two decades old) take on a hoary trope.  And the premise, which sees the romantic poets--Byron, Keats, Shelley--pursued by vampires, who grant them creative powers at the cost of their lives, sounds like a crackerjack one.  But the whole thing is just so boring--the vampires, and the rules of how vampirism works and can be defeated, are boring, the poets are boring, the original characters are really, really boring.  The dullness of the novel would be bad enough on its own, but when one considers how promising its premise was, how easily it should have worked, it becomes downright infuriating.


Alexander said...

Very interesting thoughts. For the first time I've actually read a majority of the best books on here, and certainly concur with the high praise given to In Great Waters, Far North and especially The Dispossessed. The other two items consequently move up on my to-read list: Life was already prominently featured from other conversations and the Fortunes of War sound very interesting, if a bit daunting.
So, from your comments I take it this year's worst reads is the organizational equivalent to dishonorable mentions from previous years. I'll admit, I was somewhat looking forward to a really biting takedown of the worst in and out of genre. Still, glad that you had a more rewarding reading experience, even if it costs the blogosphere some well directed criticism. As always you demonstrate an impressive capability for very concise analysis that reaches to the heart of a given text.

Foxessa said...

Fiction has never come close to the biographies of these figures. Ever. Novelists should just stop thinking they can and get original like these authors on whose coattails they're attempting to ride.

This goes for the Brontes and all the other complex family-friendship circle writers, like Louisa M. Alcott and Emily Dickinson. So there!

Love, C.

Dan Hartland said...

Interesting picks - and where I've read what you've read, couldn't agree more.

Meanwhile, in his Diary entry in the last LRB of 2010, Alan Bennett has similar issues with Mantel's decision to render Cromwell so very likeable - and wonders, like you, how on Earth she'll manage to maintain that choice in what will be a far more difficult second volume. You'll remember I, too, had issues with Mantel's approach to the period. Nevertheless, I find myself anticipating the sequel with some enthusiasm. Huh.

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