Top ten fiction books I read this year

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These are the top ten works of fiction I read in 2010. Note that these are just books I read this year, and not books that came out this year or even recently. It’s hard to judge what’s best with fiction, but I went for a combination of enjoyability and books that lingered…the ones you’re still thinking about for days and weeks afterward.

Garden Spells, Sara Addison Allen. I picked this up used in my beautiful local bookstore in picturesque Madison, Indiana, Village Lights. My husband thought the writing was clunky, but I thought for what it is, which is a rather light and fluffy, feel good story about women and gardening, it works just perfectly. Think School of Essential Ingredients, only I felt this was better. I’m partial to a good story about sisters and family, and a little magic never hurts.

The Golden Compass, Phillip Pullman. Several years ago I found myself watching the film version of this on the couch with my stepdaughter and thinking, “Wow, this really doesn’t make any sense.” Which is true of the film if you have not read the books, and at that point I had not. One of my book groups picked this book and we had a rather heated discussion about exactly what Pullman is up to in these books. One sign of a good story in general is that I found myself hankering for someone to talk to about these books.

Sacred Games, Vikram Chandra. I was looking to combine two things I love–mysteries and Indian novels. My search led me to Chandra’s walloping 928 page “novel.” Really? Can you call something that long a novel? I’ve heard tell that Indian fiction all derives from the Mahabharata, and so it is by nature long, long, long. I like to think that when your history is as ancient as India’s is, it takes a long time to tell the story. This is more crime novel than mystery, but I loved the glossary! Thank you, Vikram Chandra. And like almost all very long Indian novels, I find the length means that you come to live in the world of the novel….a short novel is like a trip to the grocery store. And Indian novel is like spending several months in a foreign country. I like that and quite enjoyed this book.

Gap Creek: The Story of a Marriage, Robert Morgan. This was also a Village Lights pick up. Did I mention that I love that store and everyone should come visit? Yes, this was an Oprah book, but I do not fear to tread where Oprah has. Oprah has much wisdom. Since I have been in a serious relationship myself, I fiend for other stories about what it’s like on the inside. Yes, I want to hear the story of people’s marriages. Why don’t we talk more about this, sing more about this, make more movies about this? I was sure this was written by a woman because it’s first person from the wife’s perspective. Obviously, Morgan does an amazing job with her voice. I love the subtle way in which her character reveals itself. As he describes in his afterword, this character is not a literate woman. She’s not particularly comfortable with words, so how do you make her own description of her life evocative? He does it beautifully.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I stumbled on this book in the public library in the mystery section, and was so pleased with my discovery. It’s very much more a novel than a mystery, well-written, humorous, and the kind of mystery that leaves you with questions that are interesting, but not in the frustrating, “the author just didn’t piece this together well enough” way. It’s told from the first person perspective of a teen-age girl whose father is a roaming academic, and so it’s peppered with many amusing literary, historical, and scientific references. A really fun and interesting read. More people should know about this book and this author.

Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman. This was a very short book and a very easy read that still manages to provide quite a bit of food for thought. The descriptions of all the weird worlds are, obviously, weird, but interesting when you think about whether they could be seen as descriptions of our own world. Metaphorically, do we live stuck in the past? Or in an eternal present? It’s like a collection of interesting thought puzzles or even koans trying to think about what living in each of these worlds would actually be like.

Tropic of Night, Michael Gruber. So, this book makes me wonder why some books are the ones everyone is talking about and on the bestseller list, and why some aren’t. How did this fall through the cracks? Maybe because it’s a mystery? Maybe it was a book everyone was talking about and I just missed it? I don’t know, but this book was interesting on a whole lot of levels. You’ve got your weird anthropology, santeria and sorcery, things going on with race and gender, and it’s a mystery. The core idea is that sorcery and magic among hunter/gatherer societies is just a different kind of technology which we “civilized” peoples don’t quite understand. What a cool idea! Definitely worth a read.

Far North, Marcel Theroux and The Road, Cormac McCarthy. I enjoyed both of these, and they fall into a period of reading a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction that included The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. These novels are both great in their starkness and beauty, but a little part of me thinks, come on. Would it really be that grim after the world ends? Why is there an inevitable descent into brutality and chaos? We think of the middle ages as “dark,” but that really just meant that things became local rather than empire-ish. Is that so bad? If things became more local? If it happens all at once, sure, things could go badly. But I dispute the notion that the loss of technology would make us brutes. In fact, hunter/gatherers are pretty peaceful, happy, cooperative people.

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. This is a book everyone was talking about, or at least in my little corner of the world. I loved the way these stories fit together and didn’t quite fit together. Olive felt like my mother, grandmother, and many other women I’ve known, including, sometimes, me. I think she’s a beautiful character and this book, along with a discussion in book group, made me really think about why people are the way they are. One of my friends in book group kept saying, “Why doesn’t Olive just change?” And isn’t that the question? How many people do we know who are miserable, and often fairly unpleasant in their misery, and yet they do not change. Why? Ah, if we only knew. I also have a standing debate, to be rekindled when my second book group discusses this book, about whether or not Olive is abusive to her son, in the sense of physical abuse. I didn’t see that, but will be reading it again soon.

Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver. I read this again just recently and still liked it just as much as the first time. This book inspired me to embark on my sabbatical project, which will be collecting oral histories of farmers. I love the way Kingsolver conveys community through the voices of people who you come to realize are connected to each other. I love the stuff about coyotes and the elm trees. Does she preach at you some (which many people seem to say about Kinsolver’s books)? Probably, but I don’t call it preaching when it’s things I generally agree with.

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Comments

  1. Nice list of fiction. Most of 'em I haven't read but a couple of them are on my radar, like the Special Topics book.

    As for Kingsolver, I think for the most part that her fiction is less preachy than her non-fiction. She lets her politics serve her story rather than the other way around. Not a big fan of her essays 'cause even when I agree with her, she comes across as heavy-handed.

  2. I read STICP shortly after it came out and it was one of my favorite novels of whatever-year-that-was. There was this part toward the end that I thought was an odd loss of form–like she went back to her freshman creative writing journal for material or something–or else it might have an even higher place in my personal pantheon.

  3. Emily, I gave Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to my Dad and he thought preachy, and my book group thought Prodigal Summer was kind of preachy. But, yes, her fiction is less so. I can see in Prodigal Summer where she seemed to be gearing up to write Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I also have Lacuna sitting on my shelf, but haven't dived in yet.

    Jeremy, thanks for the comment. I read it earlier in the year, so I don't remember noticing that specific bit, though I vaguely remember places where the quality of writing dropped off some.

  4. Love this post Robyn 🙂 Have read a couple of books from ur list including Vikram Chandra of course, but am constantly lookin for people's choice of top 10 novels and suchlike so that i can add more books to my wish list 🙂 i love a good mystery and am totally intrigued by Special Topics… hv to get hold of it now! and hey, thanks for ur comment on my blog! keep dropping by…

  5. Swati, glad you found some things that might be interesting. I love reading Indian literature, so if there's anything you'd recommend, I'd love to hear it. I really liked Sacred Games. I added your blog to my reader, so I will be stopping by again!

  6. From some reason I couldn't get through Olive Kitteridge, however it is a nice list you have.

    Here is my list, in case you'd like to take a look.

    http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1127

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