Some things I read in 2010

I think there can be something vain, even narcissistic, in the end-of-the-year roundup posts so many people give about the “best books” they have read in the last twelve months. I realize these are generally offered as a service to readers, and taken in that spirit they do not have to be seen as self serving. But sometimes, they can unintentionally expose the reader’s paucity of reading or the narrowness of his range or the limits of his understanding.

Which is why I proceed with this post with some trepidation. I thought I might give the highlights of my own reading for the last year.

For some reason, which I don’t understand (though I blame the manifold distractions of the internet), I don’t read as much now as I did in earlier years. There was a time when I was disappointed with myself if I didn’t average at least one book a week when the year-end tally was made. (That lead to some scurrilous reading behavior: novels chosen because they were short; light, fluffy novels that could be raced through; more serious novels that were raced through when they should have been savored.)

Regardless, my reading is eclectic. I think that is a healthy sign, and in any case, I’m always trying to find new fuel for the furnace that is my mind. In the last year I’ve read a number of classics (The Shadow-Line, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Pudd’nhead Wilson, A River Runs Through It), visited with authors who never disappoint (Murdoch, Roth, Borges, Banville), and ventured into fresh territory (The Serpent and the Rainbow by Wade Davis — a nonfiction book about “actual” zombies in Haiti; Working Days — a journal of John Steinbeck’s effort to write The Grapes of Wrath; Ramblin’ Man — a biography of Woody Guthrie). And many of my reading choices in the last year were determined by the book discussion group I am in, which is something I advocate for any serious writer (all of the classics listed above plus a few others).

So what stood out? Three novels had truly left an impression on me.

Perhaps the most interesting was also the most audacious: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago, and it was well deserved. If this is the direction American fiction is going, as some suggest, then I look forward to the next half century. It’s a delicious novel if for no other reason than for its narrative voice. Here is a narrator who actually tells a tale (and half of any story is in the telling). And the tale is worth telling. Not only is it a bittersweet story of a terminal nerd, but it explores some of the consequences of American imperialism, human hopes and dreams, and the fantasy lives that often sustain hopeless folk. It’s the novel I’ve been recommending when people ask me what to read. Grab a copy, buckle up, and hang on!

The second novel that caught me by surprise this year is The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño. I realize Bolaño was all the rage in the last few years upon the posthumous publication of his epic novel 2666, but I came by him legitimately, having nurtured a love of Latin American and Spanish fiction for the last couple of decades. (Alas, I have no Spanish, so I must read translations only.) What is this novel about? You’ll have to read it yourself and let me know. It rambles. It rages. It rips through several countries and continents as the adventures of several “visceral realist” poets from Mexico City embark on a search for the founder of their style, whether she is alive or not, and then cope with the consequences of what they achieve. As soon as I finished reading this large novel, I felt compelled to read more of Bolaño’s fiction, and I did, grabbing The Skating Rink about as soon as the translation became available. I subsequently read that this is a common phenomenon among readers introduced to his work — a sort of addiction develops. I certainly intend to read more of Bolaño, and I will likely embark on his 1,000+ page 2666 once the recently discovered sixth part of it is translated and added.

The third novel that truly stood out in my reading this year is an unlikely one, a real surprise for me. It is The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton. This was one of the selections for the book discussion group I am in, and I approached it with some misgivings. It was first released in the early 1960s, and it was marketed as a woman’s novel (not that it was written by a woman but that it would appeal to women readers). It had some success but then dropped out of sight and was only kept alive through its underground cult of devotees. It was re-released last year, and I understand stores are having trouble keeping it on the shelves. I didn’t have high expectations when I began it, and while the writing within it is excellent — some of her metaphors are staggering in their perfection — I didn’t appreciate how well done it was until the last chapter delivered its punch in the stomach. Wow! Carleton was telling a much deeper, much more profound, much more complete and psychological story than I had seen as I rambled through the preceding pages. It nearly compels the reader to go back and start from the beginning again just to see all of the connections and set ups and nuanced characterizations that were being put in place from the get go. For any writer serious about craft, especially the creation of characters and relationships, this is a must-read. The Moonflower Vine is the only novel published in Carleton’s lifetime (and it has caused many to compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird), but she had completed another manuscript that was considered lost. Recently, however, the document was found, and I understand it is being shopped around with publishers. Should it ever be published, I will be one of the first to buy a copy.

Honorable mentions:

The Afterlife Diet by Daniel Pinkwater – I came to this book as “research” for my own WIP, Larger than Life. Pinkwater is best known for his children’s novels and for his often hilarious commentaries on National Public Radio, but this one is a grown-up’s novel.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – This one had been around the house for years before I picked it up. I’ve seen it described as the last of the truly Victorian novels, but don’t let that put you off it. It is a gentle, loving story with a writer at the center (natch), and if you’re looking for something to savor, this is a good choice.

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2 Comments on “Some things I read in 2010”

  1. I’ve had The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in my hands at the bookstore a couple times.

    I’ve heard nothing bad about it, and flipping through the pages, it’s always seemed like something I’d love.

    So, looks like I have no choice but to actually bring it to the counter and buy the thing next time I’m in a bookstore!

  2. paullamb Says:

    Chris, I hope you like Oscar as much as I did.

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