As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2010. If I blogged about the book then I’ve noted the date, so please check the archive for a fuller discussion of the book.
1. The Winter Vault, by Anne Michaels
19 Jul 2010
A poet with three poetry collections out, Michaels brings a deeply sensuous language with layers of thought and imagery to this story of a young married couple, Avery and Jean, who are living on a houseboat on the Nile while Avery works on a high-profile engineering project. It is 1964 and the flooding of the desert at Abu Simbel due to construction of the Aswan dam threatens the great tombs of Ramses and Nefertari, with their towering stone figures. In beautiful prose, each word carefully considered and placed, Michaels leads us backwards and forwards in time, building up resonances around what it means to flood this huge area.
2. Away, by Jane Urquhart
8 Nov 2010
An old woman now, Esther relives once more the sequence of stories that her Great-Aunt Eileen told her long ago, starting with the tale of Mary, Eileen's mother, who in 1842 stumbles upon a shipwrecked sailor on the storm-strewn beach of Rathlin, a small island off the northern coast of Ireland. Urquhart’s prose sings with poetry, not just the songs the women in this story compose and sing in their altered states, but everyday sentences imbued with a bardic lilt that makes me hold my breath and listen.
3. House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton
16 Aug 2010
The scene is New York in the 1890s. Lily Bart, one of the most intriguing characters in all of literature, lives with the aunt who took her in after her mother's death. With only a tiny income of her own, Lily is dependent on her aunt's occasional gifts and on the generosity of her friends, who invite her to house parties, concerts, and dinners. She knows she must marry money if she wants to regain her footing in the affluent world where she and her parents lived before her father's untimely death, but she has a streak of independence and the ability (or curse) to view her social world from the outside with a sardonic eye.
4. A Mercy, by Toni Morrison
8 Mar 2010
Sixteen-year-old Florens relates her story of the plantation where she is a slave. The time is the 1680s and 1690s, a period when slavery is just beginning to be enshrined in law and custom. Throughout the book, using methods both subtle and apparent, Morrison examines how slavery—how dominion over another person—affects both the owned and the owners. Orphaned, lost, given away, all of these characters struggle with their sense of abandonment as they try to become their own selves within the constraints that cage them. Reading this novel was like falling into a dream for me.
5. The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee
22 Nov 2010
Another of my favorite authors, Lee writes about silent and detached men, left isolated by their disconnection from their past. In this, his most recent and most harrowing book, Lee gives us three characters who draw us deeply into their lives, their hurts and small triumphs, their pasts.
6. The Wayfarer (Kojin), by Natsume Soseki
22 Mar 2010
Although this novel starts off with young Jiro, who is on his way to Osaka to meet a friend with whom he plans to spend a vacation climbing Mt. Koya, the story is really about Jiro’s brother Ichiro. Suffering from a kind of existential crisis, Ichiro’s marriage to Nao is in trouble. The book is infused with Soseki’s persistent theme of the anguish associated with the shift from Japan’s feudal past to a modern society. Thus, both Ichiro and Nao try to find space for their independent concerns within the restrictions of their arranged marriage and the world of Ichiro’s conservative parents. Ichiro and Nao strive to become, as we would say today, self-actualised, caught between the formalised order of the past—church, state and family—and the new individualism, rejecting prescribed solutions.
7. My Dream of You, by Nuala O'Faolain
25 Oct 2010
O'Faolain is the author of the well-regarded memoir, Are You Somebody? Her prose is gorgeous, absorbing. I can't remember when I last lost myself in a novel as I did in this one. Kathleen de Burca is a middle-aged travel writer based in London who, when not scouring the world for material for her articles, lives in a dark and dismal basement flat off Euston Road. When a sudden loss throws her world into disarray, Kathleen takes refuge in the idea of researching an old court case from the 1850s in her native Ireland, just after the worst of the Hunger, which happens to be based on a real case.
8. The Scream, by Rohinton Mistry
4 Oct 2010
McClelland & Stewart put out a special, hard-back edition of this short story by the author of Such a Long Journey, winner of the Governor General’s Award, and three other books with royalties going to World Literacy of Canada. The story is an old man’s monologue that starts with his being awakened in the night by a scream outside his window.
9. The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
1 Mar 2010
After a brief interview with his sister-in-law, the housekeeper starts a new assignment, working for a professor who has had problems retaining housekeepers in the past. When she arrives for her first day, he immediately asks her what her shoe size is. Thus begins this quirky and—reluctant as I am to use the word—charming story. This book made me think about how we create relationships, how we can bear to trust each other, and how we stubbornly continue to do so against all obstacles and in spite of all common sense.
10. World War Z—An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
18 Jan 2010
Okay, yes, zombies. But they are almost beside the point. This is an amazing book, one that sank its claws into me on the first page and didn’t let up until I finished the last. As the subtitle indicates, it is a series of interviews with veterans of the war against the zombies. Absorbing as a story, it is also a terrific example of using voice to differentiate characters.