Book Recommends from 2010
Reading has always been a necessity for me. That thing I do no matter what, rain or shine, sickness and health, good times and bad. I find it to be the most constant and consistent quality of my life, and for that I am grateful. I am lucky to be surrounded by avid readers. I am a member of what is surely the single greatest book group on the planet, I have numerous friends who absorb and report on every genre and style, and am in love with a man who may possibly read more then I do! Thanks to all these factors I get to pull from a deep and varied pool when I go to pick a book.
Here are my 5 top picks of the year:
1. The Raw Shark Texts, Steven Hall
This debut novel from the British author Steven Hall was published in 2007. It is an amazing, semi-linear, story which follows the life and times of Eric, a British man in his late twenties, who is devastated by the death of his girlfriend. When the book opens Eric is adrift without memory, putting the reader and the narrator on equal footing. The story follows Eric as he attempts to unravel the mystery of his past. He soon finds himself hunted by a terrifying force, the Ludovician, a massive and unrelenting conceptual shark that feeds on ideas. This is not Eric's first run in with the Ludovician, and soon the idea of past and present, hunter and hunted, memory and perception become beautifully ensnared. This novel is astoundingly original, and expresses the ideas of grief, memory and loss in a haunting and deviously intelligent manner. I loved this book, it was moving, and had amazing truth hidden in the uninhabited empty space beneath the normally used parts of life.
2. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
This book changed my opinion (prickly and disdainful) of Virginia Woolf forever. Having read only two other works by the revered and respected English author, The Complete Shorter Fiction and A Room of One's Own, I was rather blase on Virginia. However, Mrs. Dalloway changed all that. This novel is beyond engaging, it will swallow you whole. The main narrative takes place in one twenty four hour period, with some stream of consciousness that moves the reader into the past with seamless candor. I was captivated by all of the characters, and was absolutely floored by the powerful manner in which issues of mental illness, the significance of private thoughts, sexual and economic repression, homosexuality, and loneliness were so effortlessly and honestly portrayed. It was the minutiae that lent the experiences of the characters so much power. Those tiny details moved me in that they expressed a deep understanding of the personal experience of huge and often shameful emotions and states of being. It wasn't political, it wasn't preachy, it wasn't a platform; it was beautiful. It made me feel a depth of emotion that carved a new space on the floor of my soul. A must read.
3.The Rock, Kanan Makiya
Kanan Makiya is an exiled Iraqi writer and academic. He is known (or perhaps notorious would be a better word) for three previous works of nonfiction that explore the brutality of Arab dictatorship, the psychology behind such regimes and it's effects on the people. Kanan now has British citizenship. This relentlessly researched novel is the story and history of the seventh century Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. The Rock, according to tradition, is the site on which Abraham offered up his son; where Solomon's temple was built; where Muhammad ascended to Heaven; where Jesus preached; and finally where Caliph Abd al-malik built his Dome, which stands today. I knew very nearly nothing about this structure and this holiest of sites going into the book. It is a complex, entangled and massively bloody history that is steeped in sacrifice, traditions of three major religions, and war. Though the novel is in many ways a history, it is first and foremost a novel, and an extremely well written one at that. The narrator is the son of a Yemenite Jew who has embraced Islam. As the Dome itself moves from a dream to solid life, so too does the fluidity and mutual influence of the many surrounding religions harden into pettiness, antagonism and Dogma. It was an amazing, captivating tale that gave me more information about the history of the Middle East than all my public schooling times ten. It made the continuing conflict in that region all the more heartbreaking in depth and scope.
4. Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert
Self Help books are in some respects my dirty little secret. I love them, and though I think many of the best of them are worthy to be discussed in any setting, I find that I only can share such titles with a select few in my literary circle. People just don't dig em. They roll their eyes, they bristle at the religious undertones, the smarmy overtones, and the om mani padme hum of it all. Which is why I refrained from recommending books like Women Food and God by Geneen Roth, How to be Happy all the Time by Paramhansa Yogananda, and The Mastery of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz to my book loving friends. These are great books, life changing books, but I simply don't have time for a lot of snarky backlash. And that brings me to this little gem, Stumbling on Happiness. Written by the Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, this book gets right down to brass tacks. Happiness; what is it, who has it, how do we experience it, predict it, and remember it. Basically Gilbert argues that people are terrible judges of what will make them happy, and he uses a variety of interesting experiments and large scale "surveys" to back this up. What I loved about this book was how Gilbert shows how people run loosey goosey over facts, adding and deleting at will, and then use this fabricated scenario to predict real happiness and life satisfaction in the future. I was also fascinated by the psychological immune system, which jumps into action immediately after an unpleasant or painful event and alters it in our memories. The more time that passes after the event, the further skewed our memories become of it. This book changed the way I think about happiness, it is smart and funny, and a great book to talk about with even your most bitter compadres.
5. Possession : A Romance, A. S. Byatt
This was probably my favorite read of the year. It is a rich, luxuries, mysterious, luminous tale that kind of brings you to your knees as a reader. The dual plot concerns the taboo affair between two fictional Victorian poets, cut with the running narrative of two modern academics uncovering said relationship through letters, poems, diaries, and several jaunts into the damp illusive European countryside. It is so meticulous and finely honed that it practically hums. I have found few books in my lifetime so masterfully written and completely satisfying. I envy all who have yet to read this book.
And my honorary mention goes to Independent People, by the amazing Icelandic Nobel laureate Haldor Laxness. This book was published in 1934 and tells the story of one family's struggle to survive on a sheep farm in rural Iceland! It is awesome in scope and tells the real life story of a place, time, and people largely unknown today. Sorrowful, harrowing, funny and informative, this is a great big epic story definitely worth checking out.
What a great year, filled with long days at my local library and lots of amazing conversations with my friends about reading. I am absolutely jazzed for all the books I am sure to encounter in this coming year. New short stories from my main man Stephen King, more gems from my Nobel authors project, and who knows what else! Be sure to check out my "Worst Reads of 2010", for it is in those wretched marches to "The End" that I learn the most about what it means to be a reader.
Happy reading, Folks!
- The Worst Books of 2010
It is in our darkest times, and our darkest hours that I feel we are true and possibly divine, and it is in these moments too that we learn, that an alchemy takes place and we become something better, stronger...