Best Vineyard reads of 2010

Seems to me that Island writers had a good literary year. I enjoyed reading their books more than usual in 2010, and 
I made a list of my favorites.

The purpose of book reviews has changed a bit in the last decade as the book publishing business has changed. Publishers publish fewer books and they don’t promote them as zealously as they used to, unless the author is a proven earner. The fact is that more books are published by unknown imprints, author partnerships, with printers, and by the authors themselves than are published by traditional publishers who are busily shrinking their title list. Makes you respect what Jan Pogue is doing at Vineyard Stories even more.

We still are charged with separating literary wheat from chaff but we are also charged more these days with finding good reads that are below the promotional radar. Reviewing books written by Islanders is a great job because there is no dearth of authors here, famous and unknown.

I learned several years ago that reviewing books can be a tricky business here. I penned a less than glowing book report and the embers of author resentment still glow. My approach now is to remember my grandfather’s advice: “If you can’t say something good, say nothing at all.”

The fact is that we support the artistic community here and we ought to. We also have more creative souls per square mile than most places. So I avoid reviewing books written by authors whose creative urges, in my opinion, might have been better spent in another artistic form,

I know that makes me a weenie but it also means that, taste aside, I’m only referencing work that meets basic literary standards and that I enjoyed reading. Books I kept on my bookshelf.

I didn’t know any of the authors, still don’t know most of them. I am not promoting my friends. The list does not include books reviewed by others that I wish I had reviewed, such as John Hough’s “Seen The Glory,” nor books by the Fairsteins and Pattersons who’ve long since made their writing bones. You know what you’re getting from them.

This also serves as a holiday shout-out for pleasant surprises written by Island authors. Thank you. Here are my favorites and the reasons I liked them.

“One Good Dog” (fiction) by Susan Wilson Redemption stories are big and dog stories are bigger right now. Ms. Wilson left her writing comfort zone and delivered on both counts. We don’t really know how dogs think, but Ms. Wilson makes us believe we do.

“A Kingdom of Madness” (fiction) by Linda Levy

Talk about leaving your comfort zone. Humor has long been Ms. Levy’s writing métier. This story ain’t funny. It’s a taut, chilling, very believable tale of a fall from grace that threatens to literally destroy a family in a progression that thankfully most of us haven’t experienced, but we can all see it from where we are. See full review in Calendar, page 4.

“Making Haste From Babylon” (non-fiction) by Nicholas Bunker

This is a fresh, new treatment of the settling of America, written from a European perspective. “Babylon” is scholarly, dry at times, but a fascinating account of who the Pilgrims really were, what European social forces formed them, and what happened after they got here. Lots of myth-busting and new information.

“The Irresistible Henry House” (fiction) by Lisa Grunwald

Ms. Grunwald discovered this story on her way to researching something else. Turns out that American women’s colleges literally raised orphans on campus as part of Home Ec curricula. Her fictional account of the life of one hothouse baby encompasses the child-rearing practices — from Spock to spare-the-rod — of the first half of the 20th century.

“Book of Duck Cookery” (non-fiction) by Rebecca Randall Gilbert

Ms. Gilbert, of Native Earth Teaching Farm, has written a biography of timeless up-Island culture and mores, cleverly disguised as a cookbook. Delightful. You can enjoy this if you don’t enjoy cooking or even like ducks.

“Cooler Heads” (fiction) by William Harlan Richter

A zany caper about Island life in winter when we’re off the zany chart, Mr. Richter skewers the stuffed shirts, depicts the blue-collars, and renders the rest of the cast of Island zanies in a funny and recognizable way.

Please feel welcome to pillory or comment at mvtimes.com.

Jack Shea, of Oak Bluffs, is a regular contributor to The Times.