Books and Reading and Commuting in 2010


Last October, when I moved back to New York, I looked forward to doing lots of reading on my morning and evening commute to and from work.

In less than 15 months — mid-October through this past December — I’ve read 54 books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s approximately 4 books per month (or 1-a-week). Not that I’m counting, but 2010 was the first year I’d actually kept a list.

Because I love talking about and sharing the names of books I’ve enjoyed with like-minded readers, I’ve taken the liberty of  listing my favorites of 2010.

Honorable mentions are also included, as are would-have-been-favorites, if not for their disappointing endings. There were also some real clunkers. But, I’ve left the clunkers off the list. I don’t have the heart to pan a novel outright, because I’m more than aware of the blood, sweat and tears that are part of the novel-writing process.

Anyway, here are my lists.

My Favorite Books of 2010 — in no particular order of importance or release date — (these are books I continue to think about long after I’ve finished them; books that changed my way of thinking on some level; books that are deftly written).

1) Must You Go? My Life With Harold Pinter (Antonia Fraser) – Diary entries, excerpted from Fraser’s own, beginning the moment these two eloquent writers first meet, at a party. Fraser, about to leave, walks over to Pinter, who is seated. He looks up at her and says: “Must you go?” A true love story and literary delight.

2) Brooklyn (Colm Toibin) – A pithy story, heartfelt, poignant, surprising, with such beautifully drawn characters. A twist of fate, misreading of intentions, wrong assumptions, alter the lives of the characters forever.

3)  Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout) – A series of stories linked by the formidable character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired school teacher. Warmly crafted, elegantly written, with an ending so perfectly rendered, you’ll rejoice.

4)  The First Family – The Birth of the American Mafia (Mike Dash) – A fascinating, obsessive factual account of the beginnings of the Mafia in this country, grandfathered by a fiercely murderous individual nicknamed “The Clutch Hand.”

5) Mattahorn – (Karl Marlantes) – A tour de force fictionalized account of Marlantes’ harrowing tour of Vietnam as a Marine. Unputdownable.

6)  Bright-Sided – How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Underminded America (Barbara Ehrenreich) – A breath of fresh air. Smart, trenchant and honest exploration of America’s penchant for denial.

7) Into the Wild (John Krakauer) – A fantastic book, which I’ve just gotten around to reading. Maybe you’ve seen the film adaptation. As good as that was, read the book.

8) Parallel Play: Growing Up With Undiagnosed Asperger’s (Tim Page) – A funny, astonishing, emotionally educational and heartbreaking account of living with this Asperger’s, by a brilliant writer and music critic.

9) The Sea (John Banville) – Lovely prose, witty, atmospheric, it’s a book I didn’t want to end. Highly recommended.

10) Tree of Life (Hugh Nisseson) – Haunting, unique, unlike any other book I’ve read before. I will never view Johnny Appleseed in the same way again. Nisseson is an amazing writer.

11) Just Kids (Patti Smith) – Very entertaining, great writing.  A loving, revealing chronicle of her relationship with Mapplethorpe, full of juicy tidbits, characters and anecdotes of the time period.

12) Suite Française (Iréne Némirovsky) – Set in Paris during the Nazi occupation — a novel that resurfaced years after the author’s death at the hands of the occupiers. Enough said. Don’t miss it.

13) The Night Stalker (Philip Carlo) – A masterpiece of the genre of true crime (my guilty pleasure reading).

14) Abide With Me (Elizabeth Strout) – Stunning in its irreverence, emotional depth and spare writing. An eccentric minister and his young, motherless daughter endure the small-mindedness of a small town, with grace and strength of character. A spiritual triumph.

15) Morphus Eugenia (A.S. Byatt) – a.k.a. “Angels and Insects.” Nothing short of fantastic. The “underside of the tapestry,” to quote Joan Didion.

16)  Stitches (David Small) – A graphic memoir focusing on a horrific truth withheld from Small in his childhood. Starkly rendered illustrations. Beautifully done.

17)  Fierce Attachments (Vivan Gornick) – Exemplary memoir. Superbly written.

Honorable Mention (more than worthy reads):

1) This Is Where I Leave You (Jonathan Tropper) – Very funny – Tropper has a great sense of humor – it’s his heartfelt account of the confusion, sorrow and attempts to move on after a breakup of his marriage.

2) The Privileges (Jonathan Dee) – Witty, erudite, sharply written – I admired the writing, but disliked all the characters, which made it difficult, in the end, to like the book.

3) Sag Harbor (Colson Whitehead) – A coming of age novel about what it was like to spend your summers growing up as a young black man in one of the black communities of Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the 1980s. Add a star if you’ve lived in or are familiar with the area.

4) The Signal (Ron Carlson) – Haunting, in the way only Ron Carlson can be haunting. Suspenseful story of a once-happy marriage, now over, and the erstwhile couple’s final, annual, camping trip in a forest teeming with danger.

5) Invisible (Paul Auster) – A story within a story, what you’d expect from an Auster novel, this time venturing into deeper psychological territory than some of his others, centering around an incestuous relationship — and, then again, maybe not.  Not my favorite Auster novel, but, I’m a longtime fan of his writing.

6) The Possessed (Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them) (Elif Bauman) – Liked it, especially when she mentioned Russian authors I’d actually read. Not as enjoyable when she wrote about those I hadn’t. Bauman’s mind is perceptively keen and she’s so damn smart — I just loved what she had to say about writers’ groups and workshops.

7) Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia (Chris Stewart) – An armchair traveler’s delight, written by the former drummer of “Genesis” and talented sheep-shearer, who leaves England and buys a broken down farm in Anadalucia, where he and his wife put down roots and befriend one of the colorful locals.

8) Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Wells Tower) – Read this collection, so you won’t miss his unforgettable story, “The Leopard,” which, when it first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, just thrilled me. It’s that good. I’d read the story twice at the time, back to back, and was delighted to encounter it again in this collection. All the stories are well worth your time.

9) Bitter Harvest (Ann Rule) – An insane, brilliant physician in Kansas slowly poisons her husband. One of Rule’s better true crime thrillers.

10) Lay of the Land (R. Ford) – I began this book shortly after it was released. Got about 2/3 of the way through. Put it aside. Picked it up a few years later, in 2010, and finished it. The fact that I had been stalled, well, I supposed the story had slowed down a bit. But — I did remember everything I had read up to that point, when I picked it up again, so that says a lot. I’m a fan of Ford’s writing, and have a soft spot for his novels (not to mention that I’d met him at a reading and he’d signed this very book, so I was obliged to finish it). I’ve read the first two novels in this trilogy, “The Sportswriter” and “Independence Day,” and also his short story collection, “A Multitude of Sins” – which I loved. This last novel is not his best, perhaps, but I feel as if I have come to know Frank Bascombe intimately (the main character that appears in all three novels). And, in the end, I was satisfied to have finished it.

11) Backing into Forward (Jules Feiffer) – For years, I was a fan of Feiffer’s cartoon strip in The Village Voice, which led me to this memoir. It’s one of the few books I actually “purchased” in 2010 – some of his strips (which I actually remembered – this was a plus, too) are reprinted in the book.

12) Lost and Found (Essays about N.Y.) (Various) – Just plain enjoyable. Add some stars if you live in N.Y.

13) Diary of a Mad Housewife (Sue Kaufman) – A reread of an old favorite. Still enjoyable, but a bit dated, this time around. By the way, the novel was made into a very entertaining movie, starring Richard Benjamin, Carrie Snodgrass and a very young and handsome Frank Langella (playing the part of one of the most cold-hearted, miserable, nasty, egotistical writers you’d ever want to meet, let alone sleep with). Still waiting for it to come out on DVD…

14) Dear Husband (Joyce Carol Oates) – A collection of stories. I loved “Death by Fitness Center,”  which made me laugh out loud. Most of the collection is on the grim side, which I don’t mind, such as her fictionalized story about Andrea Yates, the born-again mother who had a psychotic break and killed her kids. I’ve always admired Oates’ writing and compassion for abused women and how she keeps them in the collective consciousness by writing about them.

Good books with disappointing endings:

The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery) – At the end, the main characters weepy breakdown in a restaurant, of all places, seemed totally out of character. Kind of ruined the book for me.

– This Book Could Save Your Life (A.M. Homes) – Very enjoyable, until it’s Hollywood ending.

– The Three Weissmanns (Cathleen Shine) – Compulsively readable and funny, but the ending was a letdown, too Hallmark. I felt cheated.

Should have taken a pass:

Nothing Was the Same (Key Redfield Jamison) –  Jamison’s memoir, The Unquiet Mind, about her bipolar disorder, was piercing, powerful and poetic, and infinitely better.

– The Hilleker Curse (James Ellroy) – Yes, we know that Ellroy is a flamboyant egomaniac and self-promoter. In keeping with that reputation, he shares the details of his romantic conquests and so-called relationships in a decidedly unromantic, rather emotionless way. Frankly, he comes across as an idiot in his behavior, but without a fulcrum of irony or humor. Why would these women choose to live with him, I continually asked myself as I read? Worst of all, he blames his bad behavior and relationship failures on the “Hilleker Curse” (i.e., his lifelong hangup on his mother and her shocking murder). So why did I BUY this book? Because Ellroy’s “My Dark History,” a memoir of his mother’s murder, is a masterpiece.

Sh*t My Dad Says (Justin Halpern) – A subtitle to this book might be: Sh*t His Son Writes. Sorry, I had to include this clunker – it’s on the N.Y.T. bestseller list (!)  Come on, America.

Last, but not least: Some Good Books About the Craft of Writing:

– Writing About Your Life (William Zinsser) – A memoir-writing classic.

– Don’t Quit Your Day Job (edited by Sonny Brewer) – A terrific collection of essays by Southern writers.

– My Reading Life (Pat Conroy) – I’ve never read any of Conroy’s novels (have opened one or two in a bookstore and flipped through them). I did enjoy this memoir, however, and read it obsessively on my commute. The opening chapter dedicated to mother is really beautiful. My eyes teared up twice on the F train.

The Art and Craft of Fiction (Victoria Mixon) – I recently ordered this book from Mixon’s website (she’s an editor) and have just begun reading. Not at all like the usual how-to writing books that are on the market. It’s so much more than that. Chocked with vital, well thought out suggestions, specifics you won’t find elsewhere. You can read excerpts and buy the book on her site Highly recommended.

As always, your comments and book suggestions are most welcome. Happy Reading…

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One Response to “Books and Reading and Commuting in 2010”

  1. Sarah Says:

    This is awesome — I will definitely check some of these out (and miss reading so many books on the subway)! Sarah

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