Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010: My Reading Year in Review

I realize I’m a couple of days late getting this year’s Reading Year in Review up, but I’ve had a hard time yanking myself out of vacation mode this year. Things have been pretty quiet here over the last couple of weeks on FRR – mostly because I’d been ensconced into the joy and comfort of my family’s home on PEI, luxuriating with all manner of drinks and basically eating my face off. But I will let you know that the reading in Moncton, NB on the 27th went very well (despite me spilling about half a bottle of champagne directly onto my crotch about two hours before the event began – don’t ask) and I even sold some copies of Off Book. Overall, it was an awesome holiday.

But back to the post at hand. Two thousand and ten was a really solid reading here overall, and I had a hard time winnowing down to a top 10 list. The books I’ve chosen had some stiff competition, but there are the 10 texts that lingered with me the most over the year. I’ve once again included a list of top 5 disappointments. As always, these weren’t necessarily bad books – they just came to me with a certain level of expectation that they weren’t, for whatever reason, able to meet.

So without further ado…

Top 10 books I read this year:
  • The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen.The Case of Lena S., like all good novels, is more than just the sum of its scenes. Bergen has full command of his themes and metaphoric imagery, a virtuosic control of his vision displayed on nearly every page. The aim is to show Lena’s depression both from the inside and the outside; how the physical world can poison the emotional one; how the loss of one’s sanity and self can be drowned out in the noise of other people’s agendas.” Full review
  • Badlands, by Robert Kroetsch. “The influences are obvious – Moby Dick with a dash of Heart of Darkness and The Caine Mutiny thrown in – but this is still a quintessentially Canadian novel, preoccupied as it is with notions of history and with relics.” Full review
  • Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith. “The real strength behind Changing My Mind, beyond the unifying idea of how reexamining our opinions – either deeply cherished or mundanely peripheral – can help to change them for the better, is the sheer versatility that Smith displays in her subject matter. She is as comfortable writing a biographical sketch of Kafka and an analytical piece on Middlemarch as she is writing a feature article of Oscar Night or quick-hit movie reviews of recent Hollywood releases.” Full review
  • Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. “Demick, a journalist who spent the better part of a decade covering both Koreas for The Los Angeles Times, goes much deeper by choosing to focus on six defectors, conducting extensive interviews with them and then rendering their stories into a vivid exercise in creative nonfiction. The result is a harrowing and entirely human portrait of what it’s like to live under the most repressive regime in the world.” Full review
  • The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon.The Golden Mean is an unmitigated success and a masterpiece. Lyon deserves every plaudit she has received – including winning the Writers Trust Fiction Prize and shortlist nods from both the Giller and the GG – for this exquisitely crafted and highly readable novel.” Full review
  • The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch. “I don’t think it’s particularly important to focus on what Murdoch is clearly spoofing here – the stereotypical British novel of manners. Nor is it important to tie one’s brains into pretzels over how Murdoch takes the notion of an “unreliable narrator” and flips it on its head. The important thing here is to point out how The Black Prince so successfully makes us suspend our disbelief …” Full review
  • The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch.The Reinvention of the Human Hand is, quite simply, a powerhouse book of poetry, an astonishing feat for a poet who has not yet turned forty. The unifying vision is that of the animal in man and man in the animal. The book examines our human relationships with and interpretations of the rest of the animal world, and draws connections between our so-called rational actions and the more primordial impulses to which we are also subject.” Full review
  • Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. “What makes Simonson’s novel so great is the way it uses the small to illuminate the large. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is full of the manipulations of grown children, petty squabbles over property and possessions, obsessions about religion and dinner parties and climbing the social ladder … It is a humorous comedy of manners that owes a debt to the great British novels of the Victorian period, but it is also a novel that very much belongs to the 21st century, tackling so many of the complexities of our modern world.” Full review
  • Pandora, by Sylvia Fraser.Pandora is a rich, compelling and oddly sublime read – a sturdy, well-crafted novel that captures so many of the tortures of being a young child adrift in an adult world.” Full review
  • Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant.Come, Thou Tortoise’s great strength is not, as some readers may imply, its ‘quirkiness’ or lightheartedness … It is a profoundly serious novel dealing with the idea of complex mysteries that need solving, mysteries that are so often undone by our limited perspectives and the racket of our inner worlds. It’s also about how time runs out on all of us to figure these mysteries out before it’s too late.” Full review
Top five disappointments this year:

  • Vinyl Cafe Unplugged, by Stuart McLean. “What struck me when reading Vinyl Café Unplugged was how much of McLean’s signature charm is lost on the printed page – in some cases, quite badly.” Full Review
  • The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad. “Foad has mastered something in this collection and does it so incredibly well, but it’s still only one thing – an approach she’s skillfully cornered and then replicated across 10 stories. This gives The Night Is a Mouth a bit of a one-trick-pony sort of feel.” Full review
  • Crash, by J.G. Ballard. “The problem is that Ballard spends so much time assembling his thematic structure that he doesn’t concern himself too much with characterization. The character Ballard, as well as Vaughan and the women they fuck, move through the novel with only the most crudely primitive motivation. After the umpteenth description of semen spurting across the dashboard, of someone settling “her vulva over his penis” in the backseat of a Ford, I began to ask myself – What exactly is at stake in this story?Full review
  • The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush. “I think what Bush has on her hands here is not a novel at all but two separate short stories – one about a woman worried about an immigrant she helped sneak into Canada illegally, and one about a woman who had two guys fight a duel over her – and then a whole lot of padding. That padding includes incessantly purple ruminations on the nature of war as well as some pretty yawn-worthy descriptions of the geography of Toronto. This is a novel that just quite isn’t one.” Full review
  • Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. “I think there is a brilliant novel locked somewhere inside Freedom, and it’s too bad that Franzen hadn’t worked harder to liberate (excuse the pun) it from the masses and masses of what ultimately feels like extraneous pages. The gold rings of this book would have shone that much more brightly had he wiped away a lot of the crap that surrounds them.” Full review
  • Bonus disappointment: (reread for the Retro Reading Challenge) Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. “I don’t regret rereading this novel; it did suit the purposes of The Challenge, and it certainly took a lot less time than rereading Stephen King’s It would have. But I can safely say that I’ve outgrown Tom Robbins. I’m happy to leave him to all the horny undergraduates who haven’t yet discovered Kurt Vonnegut, A Confederacy of Dunces, Evelyn Waugh, or any number of other authors or novels that are truly comic.” Full review
Here’s a comprehensive list of what I read this year:

65. December 27. You Know Who You Are, by Ian Williams. 80 pps.

64. December 25. The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, by John Le Carre. 240 pps.

63. December 20. Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. 303 pps.

62. December 13. Come, Thou Tortoise, by Jessica Grant. 412 pps.

61. December 4. Pope and Her Lady, by Leon Rooke. 98 pps.

60. December 2. Winterkill, by Catherine Graham. 62 pps.

59. December 1. Combat Camera, by A.J. Somerset. 255 pps.

58. November 25. This Cake is for the Party, by Sarah Selecky. 229 pps.

57. November 20. Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. 219 pps.

56. November 16. Reticent Bodies, by Moez Surani. 96 pps.

55. November 15. Clockfire, by Jonathan Ball. 103 pps.

54. November 14. Moody Food, by Ray Robertson. 393 pps.

53. November 6. Sandra Beck, by John Lavery. 261 pps.

52. November 1. Forde Abroad, by John Metcalf. 65 pps.

51. October 31. So I am Glad, by A.L. Kennedy. 282 pps.

50. October 26. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson. 447 pps

49. October 16. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill. 256 pps.

48. October 9, Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. 562 pps.

47. September 24. Burning House, by Richard Lemm. 123 pps.

46. September 22. Baldur's Song, by David Arnason. 236 pps.

45. September 17. A Splinter in the Heart, by Al Purdy. 259 pps.

44. September 10. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, by Muriel Spark. 143 pps.

43. September 7. The Pianoplayers, by Anthony Burgess. 208 pps.

42. September 1. Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner. 184 pps.

41. August 29. Pandora, by Sylvia Fraser. 255 pps.

40. August 23. Back Off Assassin! New and Selected Poems, by Jim Smith. 147 pps.

39. August 20. The Sea, by John Banville. 264 pps.

38. August 14. How to Get There from Here, by Michelle Berry. 149 pps.

37. August 10. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. 552 pps.

36. July 31. The Year One, by David Helwig. 184 pps.

35. July 26. The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman. 272 pps.

34. July 21. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. 358 pps.

33. July 10. Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era, edited by Allan Briesmaster and Steven Michael Berzensky. 256 pps.

32. July 6. The Grammar of Distance, by Ian Burgham. 101 pps.

31. July 4. The Reinvention of the Human Hand, by Paul Vermeersch. 78 pps.

30. July 1. My Animal Life, by Maggie Gee. 232 pps.

29. June 23. The Rules of Engagement, by Catherine Bush. 300 pps.

28. June 18. The Architects Are Here, by Michael Winter. 372 pps.

27. June 11. A Kiss is Still a Kiss, by Barry Callaghan. 370 pps.

26. June 5. The Black Prince, by Iris Murdoch. 416 pps.

25. May 26. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. 625 pps.

24. May 8. (Reread) Century, by Ray Smith. 160 pps.

23. May 3. (Reread) Lord Nelson Tavern, by Ray Smith. 160 pps.

22. April 29. (Reread) Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada, by Ray Smith. 187 pps.

21. April 25. Crash, by J.G. Ballard. 192 pps.

20. April 23. Rob Roy, by Sir Walter Scott. 382 pps.

19. April 13. The Golden Mean, by Annabel Lyon. 284 pps.

18. April 6. Saturday, by Ian McEwan. 281 pps.

17. March 30. Pain-Proof Men, by John Wall Barger. 88 pps.

16. March 28. The Hidden People of North Korea: Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom, by Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh. 299 pps.

15. March 21. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. 314 pps.

14. March 14. (reread for the Retro Reading Challenge) Still Life with Woodpecker, by Tom Robbins. 277 pps.

13. March 8. Everyday Drinking, the Distilled Kingsley Amis. Introduction by Christopher Hitchens. 302 pps.

12. March 2. Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith. 306 pps.

11. February 23. The Night Is a Mouth, by Lisa Foad. 144 pps.

10. February 20. The Waves, by Virginia Woolf. 337 pps.

9. February 13. A Ruckus of Awkward Stacking, by matt robinson. 104 pps.

8. February 12. Badlands, by Robert Kroetsch. 270 pps.

7. February 6. Nothing Like the Sun, by Anthony Burgess. 235 pps.

6. January 31. Bang Crunch, by Neil Smith. 244 pps.

5. January 26. A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, by Edna O'Brien. 159 pps.

4. January 22. The Case of Lena S., by David Bergen. 286 pps.

3. January 15. Misshapenness, by J.J. Steinfeld. 121 pps.

2. January 12. Vinyl Cafe Unplugged, by Stuart McLean. 280 pps.

1. January 7. The Birth House, by Ami McKay. 387 pps.

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