A final book list will close the 2010 year of Brick. After years of not starting then false starts, I resolved last January to keep a list of books on the home computer. It’s a vanity project — well, both the list and Brick are — but it’s been instructive: What do I like to read? The evidence is a bit different than what I’d guess. Included are audio books and books I did not finish.
After the survey of the last two months, I’ll give my favorites of the year. I have no trophies to send the winning authors, which works out as I don’t have their addresses.
Our Tragic Universe, by Scarlett Thomas. A novel spotted in one of The New Yorker’s mini-reviews. I gave up on this in October, then checked it out this month. Its value comes from characters discussing literary versus genre fiction. I regret finishing it for its faux postmodern ending, a fade-out like a pop song. I’ve railed against wimpy protagonists, often the product of uncertain (read wimpy) authors. Here’s a wimpy woman instead of wimpy guy. The novel finds a place to end, and sits down.
Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry, Book on CD. This novel, I learned later, got mediocre reviews. I disagree. Here is a confident storyteller, leading us deftly through his Texas town and many of his familiar Last Picture Show characters grown old. Duane Moore, the protagonist, I suppose is a wimp, because he has no purpose, no goal. But because his author does, all is forgiven. Will Duane come out of his funk? McMurtry’s surety, with gentle humor, prevents any complaints. I loved this book.
On Whitman, by C.K. Williams, a little book that just might clue me in on what the big deal is about Walt. I ended up not finishing it. I guess it’s hard to stomach literary criticism, even when clearly written and concise.
V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Graphic novel. Protesters, rallying for the release of WikiLeaks Julian Assange, wore stylized masks of British antihero Guy Fawkes that came from this book. Read four chapters, but blurry ink on cheap paper (comic book stock, frankly) made it impossible. Maybe I’ll rent the movie.
Memento Mori, by Murial Spark. Maud Newton recommended this as the best of Dame Spark. I just renewed it and will finish and discuss it in the New Year.
Nemesis, by Philip Roth. Book on CD. Like Roth’s 2004 The Plot Against America, a historical novel that hints at 21st century issues. It’s about polio sweeping the country during the summer of 1944. Roth, like McMurtry, is such a practised storyteller you just follow along. The young phys ed teacher Bucky Cantor is another directionless protagonist, and while Roth led me to feel sympathy for his tragedy, the author also kept me at a distance. The Plot Against America is such a fine novel it should be required for high school students.
My favorite books of 2010
No. 1. Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, by Lewis Hyde. The anarchistic, socialistic side of America’s Founding Fathers and their generation of scientists and philosophers. Commerce then and now is not always about money. I probably should own all of Hyde’s books.
2. 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a novel. A richly textured story of academia, full of faculty politics, lust, love and Jewish theology.
3. Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who … trilogy. Maybe they’re political thrillers, or murder mysteries. More than that, they’re newspaper books. Even if Mikael is a magazine reporter and Lisbeth a computer-assisted researcher. I learned about human nature, too.
4. Food Rules by Michael Pollan. Fulfills the journalism professor’s goal — summarize, in just over a hundred pages bound in a small paperback, his years on the topic. You might not need any other diet or nutrition book.
5. Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinmeier. A “rules” book for new businesses, daring to be sassy and antagonistic. I’m not a businessman, but I learned useful lessons.
Tied for 6th. Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda. Autobiographies always have been baloney, fact-based endeavors, deliberatively deceptive or just through human frailty. And, The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook, edited by Daniel Alarcon. Dozens of writers speak frankly. Everybody does everything. It all works.
7. Manhood for Amateurs, by Michael Chabon, essays. It’s likely that any year that Chabon publishes, he’ll be on my annual best list.
8. Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry. Book on CD. A leisurely novel that doesn’t stop moving forward. I cared about the characters, who made me laugh, too.
9. A Dog’s Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron. A warm short novel that is more sophisticated that it first appears.
10. The Ghost by Robert Harris, on which the movie The Ghostwriter is based. Book on CD. Gripping, witty, straight from the headlines political thriller.
Arts & Letters Daily
As a postscript, I’d like to note the death of Denis Dutton, an American professor who taught in New Zealand. His aggregator website Arts & Letters Daily has been a refreshing spot to spend an hour or two a couple of times a week. I discovered it about seven years ago. The variety of intelligent essays and reporting was astounding. The website is to continue. It may not have his playful intellectual zeal, but let’s hope it’s close.