The Books That I Read in 2010

December 30, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

This year I made a point to keep a list of all the books that I read. I’m a big reader and by that I don’t mean that I plow through 1,000 books a year. No, I’m a slow reader–a deliberate reader–but I’m always reading something, usually a novel or a memoir, and like the tortoise in “The Tortoise and the Hare,” at my slow and steady pace, I make my way through a decent number of books each year. My book total in 2010, if I include the last Harry Potter book (which I finished last January), is, appropriately enough, 10. Here are some capsule reviews of those books.

The Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling

It’s difficult to review just the last few Harry Potter books by themselves (though, my friend Celia positively hated the last book which she’ll gladly review by itself). I know many people who turn up their nose at this series feeling like “oh, I’ve seen the movies, that’s enough” or “I read the first book and it really didn’t do it for me.” Having read all seven books, now, I think these people are doing themselves a great disservice. The scope of the world Rowling creates in the Potter books is nothing short of remarkable; she populates her books with characters as vivid as the ones in Dickens and she packs the books with so much incident, you find yourself–as the cliche goes–unable to put them down. What’s really astonishing is how dark they get: there are some truly dreadful, terrifying moments in the final book, ones that left me squirming. To get that kind of a reaction from a 31 year-old from a book written for children takes talent. Rowling has plenty of it; she deserves her huge success.

I Shudder by Paul Rudnick

The Shouts & Murmurs column in The New Yorker has never been what I’d call laugh-out-loud funny. Usually it induces a smirk, a smile or a nod with one mighty exception: the work of Paul Rudnick. The author of “Jeffery” and the screenwriter of “In & Out” has a real knack for comedy; his timing is always perfect and his satire is always laser sharp. And though there’s plenty of good timing and satire in his latest book “I Shudder” (don’t miss his essay about writing the movie “Sister Act” which includes this tidbit: “Whoopi Goldberg accepted the part of Terri, although she asked to have the character’s name switched to Deloris because, I was told, she’d always wanted to play someone called Deloris”), the best parts of the book are the ones where Rudnick gets emotional. That happens the most vividly in the chapter “Life and Death and New Jersey,” a chapter that addresses the dawn of the AIDS crisis in New York (to which Rudnick played eyewitness) and the death of his father. This chapter is a master class in tonal balance, shifting from comedy to tragedy and back again. If you’re browsing through the book store and you find this book, read that one chapter standing up and you’ll inevitably be at the cash register buying it 30 minutes later.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is my favorite writer. I’ve read his books “Lolita,” “Pale Fire,” “Speak, Memory” and his “Lectures on Literature” from his time teaching at Cornell. And as a faithful Nabokovian, I took it seriously when my friend Chris, who’s also a faithful Nabokovian, told me that his favorite Nabokov book was Pnin. Add to that the fact that Zadie Smith, an author I greatly admire, dedicated a whole essay to Pnin in her latest book of essays. It saddens me, then, to inform you that despite going into this book with the best of intentions, and despite enjoying it moment to moment, it didn’t grab me in quite the same way. I acknowledge that it’s a subtle book, one that requires close reading, and that its biggest moments are also its quietest moments. (Talking to Chris about it afterwards, he rhapsodized over the scenes involving a aquamarine glass bowl that Pnin prizes. I had to pause for a moment to remember them.) This is a book, though, that demands to be read a second time and I plan to do that somewhere down the road. When I do, perhaps the book’s subtleties will open up to me and I’ll elevate it to “favorite” status. Right now it hovers around “hmmm” status.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Imagine you’re watching someone do a cool trick, like holding up a thumbtack and balancing a penny on it. You’re amused at first but where do we go from here? Then the person balances a book on the penny on the thumbtack, then adds a dumbell to the book on the penny on the thumbtack and so on until, several hours later, they’re holding an entire building on the book on the penny on the thumbtack. That’s how I felt reading Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came To The End: what started out as a neat trick (he writes the whole book in the “we” tense) builds and builds and builds to the point where the entire experience of reading it becomes profound. Aside from the technical trickey, though, this book–which takes place at a modern day advertising business–feels absolutely current. Like a version of “The Office” with real teeth. Not to be missed.

Spoon-Fed by Kim Severson
[See my review here.]

Crossing California by Adam Langer

I received this book from a friend a few years ago on my birthday. He actually gave me two books that birthday and I loved the other one so much (Dan Savage’s “The Kid”) that I decided to give this one a whirl. Crossing California is a real charmer of a book; its characters are lovable, its locations (in and around Chicago) are vividly rendered. In short, it’s a book about three families–the Rovners, the Wasserstroms & the Wills–and how they intersect at the dawn of the 1980s. It’s funny, when I first started writing about this book just now it took a while for the book to come floating back into my brain but now that I’m remembering it—the slutty musical-theater loving older sister, the tortured psychologist mother who goes to Paris–I have to say, I’m glad that I read it. It was good to spend time with those people.

Born Round by Frank Bruni
[See my review here.]

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Sometimes you put yourself into the hands of an author, unsure of where he or she is taking you, and as the pages turn, you start to doubt that they’re taking you anywhere. That happened to me this week, actually, trying to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I gave up after page 50. But in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the mystery reveals itself somewhat sooner, and though the mystery remains mysterious throughout (even after you’re done), there’s real magic in Mitchell’s tale within a tale within a tale. I don’t want to give too much away but trust me that this book is worth the journey. You will have your mind thoroughly blown.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And then, of course, there’s Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I’d say everyone and their mother is reading this book but, in Craig’s case, it’s his father and sister who are currently reading it (his mother plans to read it after.)
This is a book that starts out rather confusingly, becomes richer as it delves into the life of the book’s most compelling character (Patty Berglund) and then expands and contracts until you’re not quite sure what this whole thing is about, anyway. What it’s about, it turns out, is family, America, overpopulation, rock n’ roll, nature, birds, fame, sex and the meaning of life. I was dubious at first, curious by the middle and fully sold by the end. This is a great American novel just like you heard it was.

Spilling The Beans by Clarissa Dickson-Wright

[I reviewed this book in my year-end wrap up.]

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Hope you enjoyed reading about the books I read this year. What did you read this year? What will you read next year? After putting down “Infinite Jest,” I picked up Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” (a gift from Craig) and I’m already quite happy with my decision. Here’s to lots more reading in 2011.

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