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Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Year(s) in Review: A Decade of Favorite Reads

The year-end wrap-ups you start seeing everywhere in December are being joined by recaps of the decade this time around. There's probably no reason one can't take time to look back over the last 10 years every year, but when you're talking about the block of years running from '0 to '9 (or '1 to '0, depending on how you prefer to count), that usually means "THE decade." Hence, as we reach December of 2009, the reminiscences are reaching back beyond the last twelve months, so I decided to give some consideration to my favorite books of the last ten years (meaning books I've read during that time period - some were published earlier).

I wanted to call this listing "10 Books I've Loved in the Last 10 Years," but as you might imagine, that was an impossible cut for me to make. However, I did choose to cut books I've read and reviewed this year, since I'll revisit those soon in my 2009 "Books of the Year" post.

Speaking of those "Books of the Year," I thought I'd start off with a return to the ones I picked in 2007 and 2008 to see how they've held up in my estimation. I'll be quoting from my original posts, with new comments below.

2007:
Book of the Year, nonfiction: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Great writing, a great story, and so many things that struck chords with me - I'm not going to forget this book for a long time, and I'm not going to give away my copy, either.
I've discovered that this one tends to be a love/hate book, but I still love it - don't hate me! This does rank with my Books of the Decade, and I'm planning to read Gilbert's upcoming follow-up.
Book of the Year, fiction: Lost and Found, by Carolyn Parkhurst. This was the somewhat strange, yet gratifying, experience of liking a book just as much as - maybe even more than - I'd expected to. I knew that I'd get into the premise of following the participants of an Amazing Race-type reality show through the last rounds of their competition, but Parkhurst did a great job defining her characters as well as in telling their story, and I loved the behind-the-scenes production details.
I really did enjoy this novel, and it's stuck with me quite a bit, but if I'm going to be tough and strict here, it doesn't quite rank as one of my top reads of the last ten years.

2008:The Year Of Fog by Michelle Richmond
Book of the Year, Fiction: The Year of Fog, by Michelle Richmond. (Coupled with her second novel, No One You Know, Richmond (was) also my "Must-read Author Discovery" of the year.) The Year of Fog somehow manages to be suspenseful and reflective at the same time. In the midst of the story of the search for a missing child, Michelle Richmond weaves case histories on the subject of memory and considerations of how the past shapes who we are.
This one makes the cut - actually, both of Richmond's novels are among the best I've read in the last ten years. I'm anxiously awaiting her next book!
Book of the Year, Non-fiction: But Enough About Me: How a Small-Town Girl Went From Shag Carpet to the Red Carpet, by Jancee Dunn. There are some books that make you feel like you're just hanging out with the writer - laughing, sharing stories, spending an enjoyable afternoon. For me, this was one of those books. Jancee Dunn (class of '84) has spent quite a few of those afternoons herself, but they were with people like Dolly Parton, Madonna, and Christina Aguilera.
The book itself doesn't make the list for the decade, but its author does. I tremendously enjoy reading Jancee Dunn, and have just added her latest memoir to TBR Purgatory.*

The remainder of my Books of the Decade list comes from books I read during the pre-blogging years. Part of what makes them remarkable is that I remember them well without having reviews to refer back to; in addition, they're all books I would read again. Please note that they're listed in no particular order - and only ten items are listed, but since a few are series, the numbers are clearly fudged.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J. K. RowlingThe Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling:

I came in a little late, and in part because I was just curious, but after the first two books I was hooked, and by the third I truly loved these books. I'm sure many people will count these among their own "books of the decade" - a genuine publishing phenomenon, but also a modern classic, and loved by readers of all ages. (I keep trying to reconcile my affection for HP with my ambivalence about reading kid/YA lit in general - I haven't come up with an answer yet.) Because of the way Rowling successfully captured the conflicted essence of a 15-year-old boy, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is my favorite of favorites, and one of my rare 5-star reads.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides: Unexpectedly funny and touching, as well as beautifully written, I honestly didn't expect to love this book as much as I did.

Seabiscuit: An American Legend - Laura Hillenbrand: I never went through that pre-teen horse-loving phase so many girls do, and I'm not big on sports, so why would a book about horse-racing have any appeal? I've always been glad I ignored those roadblocks and read this. The story of this unlikely champion and the people who worked with him was utterly compelling (and much better than the movie).
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay - Michael Chabon: He's been my writer crush for 20 years, and I was thrilled to see him win the Pulitzer Prize for his third novel. While some elements of the novel worked better for me than others, the characters are well-drawn, and the comic-book stuff was surprisingly interesting. But the bottom line is that it's written by Michael Chabon, and that's ultimately enough for me.

Niagara Falls All Over Again - Elizabeth McCracken: This story of the ups-and-downs of a vaudeville team as they transition through the various new entertainment media of the 20th century - radio to movies to television - was fascinating and moving. I need to read more of McCracken's writing.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher MooreLamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal - Christopher Moore: This was the first book I ever loaned to my husband, during the first couple of months we were dating. I thought he had the right mindset to appreciate it; I ended up giving Tall Paul a new favorite author. I was already hooked by then, though. At his best, Moore's more than just funny - he actually has a point - and I would say he's at his best here.

The His Dark Materials trilogy - Philip Pullman: I didn't expect to like these, to be honest, and it took me some time to get into The Golden Compass. However, I was immediately drawn into the second book, The Subtle Knife, and had to stick around for the end. I discussed the books a couple of years ago, in a post regarding a "boycott" of the movie version of The Golden Compass, driven by the fact that its creator is an avowed atheist:
I read the His Dark Materials trilogy a few years ago. I'm not sure what slots it as "children's literature," honestly, other than the fact that its central characters are young preteens and teens. I thought it was philosophically complex, highly developed, and very well-written - which is not to say that those can't be attributes of children's literature at all, just that these books feel more "adult" to me...The overall themes of the books struck me as more anti-theology than anti-God - and perhaps I'm not really disturbed by them since I'm not a churchgoer these days. I have issues of my own with institutional religion, and consider expressions of faith - or lack of same - to be personal. I don't subscribe to the idea that "non-Christian" equals "anti-God," or that there's only one "right" way. I do feel that your beliefs and actions should be consistent with each other, and that regardless of where you think you'll end up after you die, how you live on this earth matters. While it's clear that Pullman's atheism informs his story, I didn't get a sense that he had an agenda - but if he actually did state in an interview that "(his) books are about killing God," and didn't mean it metaphorically, I may not have read closely enough.
The Sparrow/Children of God - Mary Doria Russell (published 1997/1999, read in 2005): If I had a TBRR (to be re-read) list, these two novels would be right near the top of it. Their blend of religious/philosophical themes with fantasy/science fiction elements isn't entirely new (see the preceding item), but Russell does something special with it, crafting a compelling, emotionally resonant narrative. I haven't come across enough people who have read these - but among those who have, I haven't found anyone who wasn't wowed by them.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx - Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: Narrative nonfiction at its best. LeBlanc spent the better part of ten years following her four central "characters" - drug dealer Boy George, his protege Cesar, Cesar's sister Jessica, and Cesar's girlfriend Coco - out of their teens and into poverty, crime, prison, and single parenthood. Their stories were riveting, moving, and made me far more appreciative of my own advantages in life.

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader - Anne Fadiman: I BookCrossed my copy of this terrific book of essays about reading years ago, out of a wish to share the joy with other readers. I really need to replace it one of these days.

*Speaking of the infamous TBR Purgatory...just for fun, I thought I'd list a half-dozen books that have lived there unread for most of the decade. Don't ask me to explain why I haven't gotten around to reading any of them yet, but if you have an opinion about which one I should rescue first, speak up! I think every one of these moved from Memphis with me, and that happened seven and a half years ago...

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood

The Orchid Thief - Susan Orlean

Naked - David Sedaris

Dakota: A Spiritual Geography - Kathleen Norris

The Corrections - Jonathan Franzen

When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro

I know this was a long post, but it did cover a decade's worth of material - thanks for sticking around for the whole thing! Are you considering a reading retrospective of the decade yourself? What books have really affected you over the last ten years?

15 comments:

  1. We have a few favorites in common (though I'm on the "hate" end of the Eat, Pray, Love debate), but I really came over here to say YES YES YES to The Sparrow and its place on the TBRR list. I loved it and have re-read it 3 times and find something new with each re-reading. And I agree---not enough people seem to have read it!

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  2. You’ve got some GREAT books on this list! I’m also a huge fan of Mary Doria Russell’s scifi – you’re right, not enough people have read those books.

    As for your TBR list, I’m pushing for ALIAS GRACE. I read it myself this past year and really liked it. It isn’t an “easy” read, and requires you to really pay attention, but it is worth the effort in my opinion.

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  3. Rebecca - I think part of why EPL appealed to me is that I would have liked a "divorce recovery tour" like Gilbert's myself :-). But I definitely understand how it comes across as ridiculously self-indulgent.

    I assume you've read Children of God in addition to The Sparrow? I read them one behind the other and tend to think of them as a unit, although I do like the first one just a BIT more.

    Heather J - My experience with Atwood is that she's rarely easy to read, but nearly always worth it...and I think I could count Alias Grace toward the Women Unbound challenge, too :-). Thanks for the vote!

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  4. I've not read many of these. Harry Potter, of course...yes on the Atwood but the others...nope! I need to get crackin'!

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  5. I love this idea, Florinda. I wish I could remember exactly what I read before I began keeping my journal though. I think that would be the only thing that keeps me from making a list like this. Maybe if I am still blogging in another few years, I can do a decade post.

    You've listed quite a few great books here, one I've read and the others I want to read.

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  6. oh - I am sad to say that I have only started keeping good records of my reading adventures since I started my blog a year ago. Perhaps I can do a decade review post in 2019 :)

    I just obtained Ex Libris from my local library and have enjoyed the three essays I have read so far. I plan to thoroughly savor this book over Christmas break.

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  7. Ti - Harry Potter is an experience I'm glad to have shared with a LOT of people.

    Wendy (Literary Feline) - When I first set up on LibraryThing a couple of years ago, I included all the books from my BookCrossing shelf (started in 2002). I'm sure I don't have everything I read listed, but between those two sources, I've probably got most of the memorable stuff :-). LT was hugely useful with this, because up until I started blogging, I really didn't keep records of my reading at all. The blog helps me remember details, but LT is a great filing system :-).

    Molly - As I just said in reply to Wendy's comment, I was the same way (but I've been blogging longer than you have :-D).

    I really do need to replace Ex Libris - it was a keeper, so I should have kept it!

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  8. I have a writer crush on Michael Chabon, too!

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  9. I love that you have Random Family on your list. What an amazing book!

    - Christy

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  10. There are 10 books on your list that I've either read and loved or want to read really badly. So, it's a good list for me too!

    I loved Random Family, and Kavalier and Clay. Naked is a good Sedaris book. I love Anne Fadiman, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials are some of my favorite series of all time... I can't remember what else I was going to say :)

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  11. Lisa - I totally understand why; it's hard for me to understand NOT having a writer crush on him!

    Christy - It really is. I couldn't put it down, and it's a book that I wish got more attention than it does.

    And...nice to meet you :-).

    Kim - I remember your review of Random Family not too long ago; I was glad to find someone else who was impressed by it. It's nice to know we have so many favorites in common!

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  12. The Sparrow and Lamb are two of my all-time favorites.

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  13. Stacybuckeye - I'd have to say the same :-).

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  14. What a great idea. Seabiscuit has been on my TBR list for a couple years; based on your recommendation I'm moving it up. Also, I thought Alias Grace was just okay. Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin was my favorite read of the year.

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  15. Savvy Working Gal - I don't think you'll regret reading Seabiscuit sooner rather than later :-).

    I read The Blind Assassin a few years ago; didn't love it, but I'm usually glad to have read anything Atwood.

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