A confession before we get started: I didn’t track the books I read in 2010 or 2009, and I didn’t do any best-of lists for 2009, so these lists are mostly pulled from 2010 reads, but there are some books I read in 2009 sprinkled in. 2009 and 2010 were a rough couple of years on the reading-mojo, but 2011 is looking much more promising. Note that these books weren’t necessarily published in 2009/2010; they’re just books I read during those two years. Whether you’re reading on paper, enjoying a new ereader, or both (I am firmly dedicated to any and all methods that get a good book into my head), I hope 2011 is a fantastic reading year for all of us! Make sure you didn’t miss out on the following fantastic books.
Top 10 Fiction Reads of 2010
Unless by Carol Shields This may be the most important book I’ve read in years – a howling cry from a mother whose daughter chooses to live on the streets of Toronto without explanation, just a sign on her neck reading ‘goodness.’ No one seems to be listening but Reta Winters has everything in the world to say, creating an intense feeling of inner pressure throughout the entire book. A cri de coeur that women aren’t out there leading tiny, laundry-driven lives – they are holding the world together, one person at a time. Insightful, heart-breaking, well-written, powerful, not-to-be-missed – the keen anguish of a mother who thinks she’s failed – and failed to understand – is haunting. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life.
This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper I like a dark, dark comedy and this one really hit the spot. When Judd Foxman’s father dies, his only request is that his family return to their hometown and sit shiva for a week. Did I mention that his father was an atheist? And so begins the sort of torture that only family members can inflict on each other. Judd is verging on divorce, out of a job (linked to the divorce), and living in a crap-hole – and he might not even be the bitter one in the family. I laughed my way through this one, and wanted to meet all of the characters…I just didn’t want to be related to any of them. Self-pity has never been so hilarious and biting.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt This is a love/hate book, which I generally take to mean ‘the characters are unlikeable or flat-out despicable.’ So, of course I loved it – hey, I don’t have to have tea with the characters, just read about them. An elitist group of students reluctantly and slowly lets Richard into their group, revealing a shocking secret with an even more shocking tone of blasé. The group slowly starts to derail while outsider Richard tries desperately to integrate himself through any of the cracks he can reach. Pretentious literary references and insufferable snobbery aside…no, wait, that absolutely set the tone that made me love this look at young men and women who are told they’ve better than everyone without being shown how to be good people.
Room by Emma Donoghue A disturbing tale about a five-year-old named Jack and his mother. I’d rather not say much about it because it’s so much more powerful going into it blind and with no idea what will happen next. Donoghue does an amazing job capturing the thought process of a five-year-old in an unusual situation, but don’t mistake it for simplicity. Distressing and shocking but also shot through with a kid’s sense of hope. Block of a bunch of time for reading and bring tissues – this one earned it’s place on the 2010 Booker Prize shortlist.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates If you’re in love with the AMC show Mad Men, you will most likely be in love with this book, so you’re welcome – you now have something to entertain you while you wait for season five. A discontented man and his discontented wife have everything – the shining surface of the American Dream epitomized – but can’t put their fingers on what seems to be missing. The husband looks out to the world for answers – moving to France will solve all of their problems! – while the wife turns inward, growing more and more depressed because she’s not even sure what the problem is, much less what the answer might be. A sudden change may shake things up for them, or destroy everything. A great book about the fragility of dreams and longing in a society that is centred around appearances.
Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel This is one of those gems you stumble across when you’re lucky, sort of like falling in love. Lilia is a young woman who has never stayed in the same spot for long in her life, and her latest lover, Eli, can feel that his time with her might be running out. When she disappears, Eli attempts to follow her to Montreal, certain that learning her secrets has a bigger meaning for himself or their relationship. Mysterious and full of questions, this book will appeal to a lot of people in their 20s and 30s. The little things in this book will get under your skin and stay there.
The Passage by Justin Cronin This is one of the longest books I read in 2010 at 784 pages, so it bodes well that I was thrilled there will be two more to form a trilogy. When a government experiment with a virus goes awry, it becomes clear that the test subjects aren’t just getting stronger and faster, they’re turning into vampires. Read a full review of this smart and scary thriller here.
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman Irony of ironies, this ode to paper-books/love story is the first novel I read on my ereader. Two sisters take very different paths in life circa 1999, with the ambitious and ‘together’ sister setting out to rule the world with a new computer startup company, and the other drifting through school and working at a used and rare bookstore, falling for an extreme environmentalist while the bookstore owner lusts after her even as her argumentativeness drives him crazy. I didn’t know I was sentimental for life a decade ago until I read this book.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan I know these people. They don’t have the same names, or do the exact same things, but I know them, and you probably do too. With deadly precision, Egan presents a cast of characters that all revolve in some way – and in some point in time – around a rock ‘n’ roll life. Tough-but-naive girls rocking out to their friends’ bands, a washed-up music producer, a musician that life left behind, a kid damaged by seeing her father for who he really is…each chapter is a snapshot in a life, carefully and sharply preserved. Love the characters, love the framework of the story, love the variety of stories it allows (settings range from dingy rock clubs to a safari, and span around fifty years), love the entire concept. I am officially smitten with Egan.
The Southern Vampire Mystery Series by Charlaine Harris First people twisted my arm and made me watch True Blood when I was s-o-o-o not feeling the vampire thing (thanks Twilight, and then a friend persuaded me to read the books that the HBO show is based on (loosely, at times). And so I became a Sookie Stackhouse-fiend and refused to read anything but these ten books for an entire month. Sookie is a telepath who is sick of mentally hearing every passing man’s assessment of her chest, so when she discovers she can’t hear the thoughts of vampires, she is lured into a fast-paced world of the supernatural and all-too-real murders. Plenty of action, plenty of sex, and a spitfire of a heroine – you’d barely notice the vampires and other supernatural life if that wasn’t, you know, what the stories revolved around. No moping teen girls who lose their entire personalities when a good-looking vampire walks by (thanks, Twilight). Unbelievable amounts of fun. Feel free to watch the show before you start reading – the ridiculously attractive cast is great to have stuck in your head as you read. There are ten books out now (the quality does tend to get a bit erratic in the later books but is generally high), and Harris has signed on for three more – I’m certainly looking forward to them.
Top Five Non-Fiction Reads of 2010
Bonk by Mary Roach Roach approaches sex and science with the same humour and zeal she approached death and science in Stiff. Not one to be afraid of a hands-on approach (er, literally), she delves into sex researchers like Alfred Kinsey (a truly hands-on researcher – it seems nothing was off-limits or taboo for the man), explores female orgasms, looks at erectile dysfunction and possible cures, examines the role of sex toys…well, if you’ve read Bonk, that list really takes on a bunch of secondary meanings, doesn’t it? Be sure to read the footnotes, which are full of fascinating tidbits (a woman who has orgasms brushing her teeth, for example) that Roach stumbled across during her research. Even if scientists can’t find the key to great sex, you’ll be bursting with interesting dinner conversation for weeks.
The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg Have you given up on recipes, but still want to keep your cooking interesting? Look up favourite ingredients and see what other foods, spices, and herbs they pair well with. See full review here.
Oprah by Kitty Kelley Train-wreck alert! Is this biography biased? Sure, but how biased depends on how crazy you think Oprah is. Personally I think Oprah bought into her own hype years ago and lost it a little, but everyone around her is too afraid to tell her so. The woman never backed down from asking an appalling or offensive question in her entire career so it’s interesting to see the tables turned. Besides, who doesn’t want to read about a teenage Oprah prostituting herself for ‘gifts’? Don’t worry, there are no details on Oprah’s sex life (beyond addressing the persistent lesbian rumours), but it makes her smugness a tad more tolerable, doesn’t it?
Jackie, Ethel, Joan by J. Randy Taraborrelli The Kennedys! Now that I’ve started, I could probably spend the rest of my life reading about them. There are endless things that could be said about them, but Taraborrelli focuses on the relationship between the two sisters and sister-in-law, largely in the years where so much was changing for women. I read this book near my computer because every page seemed to have a nugget that I wanted to read about further – I don’t blame Taraborrelli for omitting necessary things in this 550-page tome, I blame the Kennedys for being so damn interesting that no book could contain them. I loved seeing the three very different women interact – or refuse to, until frequent family tragedy would pull them back together for support. A casual admirer could easily turn into a rabid fan after reading this book. Taraborrelli always serves up all he juicy goods while making things feel factual and straight-forward. His bios on Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly have my name all over them (loved his Elizabeth Taylor bio).
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman You’ll be wondering what’s real and what isn’t in this traveller’s tale as two young women visit China, which has just become open to tourists, in 1986. Combine strangers in a strange land with a possible mental illness and feverish dreams and you’ll be racing through the book to see what will happen next. You’ll either be itching to hop on a plane or swearing off non-tourist-y foreign travel forever after this one. Getting to explore China right as it opened to tourists may be the closest we’ll get to a ‘whole new untouched/unexplored world’ feeling in our super-connected times.