The Last Word : Top 10 of 2009
What if you wanted to make a top 10 list of something and there weren't 10 of that particular item that qualified? Does that speak to personal fussiness, or a dearth of qualifiers? Or, is it the result of a year of making poor selections?
I sat down this week to write my annual top 10 books of 2009. I realize that I still have a couple of weeks (and several books waiting) to decide on what books make this highly subjective list, but who cares about a top 10 of 2009 once the year turns.
I went back to look at my library reading list, handily provided by CLAMS and the Oak Bluffs Library website, and as I scrolled down the list, I was shocked at how many of my choices this year just didn't cut it. And the ones that I liked the best lack a certain, well, gravitas. I spent my book budget choosing tin instead of gold. It wasn't because I was lazy, not wanting to exert myself by choosing important books; it's more that reading is comfort in an overly committed lifestyle so I kept going to the fun stuff, always telling myself that next time I'd choose the "good book."
Long ago my late cousin Meredith, upon her retirement from the Providence school system, declared that she had discovered mysteries, and became a passionate consumer of any and all of the genre. She made no excuse, no apology. She liked mysteries and she didn't care who the author was or whether it was well written. I actually think that she liked applying her razor-sharp intellect in solving the mystery before the last chapter. She'd been trained by third graders. On the other hand, she'd spent a lifetime reading professional development books, literature, and the esoteric. In retirement, she chose what was fun.
It doesn't surprise me, however, that the books that were recommended to me often turn out to be the best of the list. A good recommendation is a treat, sort of like an insider's tip, but legal. As long as the recommender is someone who shares my essential taste in reading, and someone whose reading taste I admire/share, I usually seek out the book. I'm a member of the GoodReads social network, and I am absolutely pestered by a person named Adna, who sends her recommendations twice or three times a week. Into my email inbox pops "Updates from Adna!" I've gotten to the point that I just delete the message. Her taste runs the gauntlet from sci-fi to self-help; Neil Gaiman to Stephen King to Shel Silverstein, Ayn Rand (yes, Ayn Rand) and Czechoslovakian writers in the original. I picture Adna as a mid-19th century invalid with an account at Amazon. This woman, if she is indeed reading all of these books, has absolutely nothing else to do. I admire her and wonder if I should get her to do this list.
It comes back to the question of what makes a book a "good book." In my wholly subjective viewpoint, it's a book that I can't wait to get back to reading. It's the one for which I happily forgo reading the Sunday Times. Clever writing is good, but richly drawn characters are better. It's a little trite to say I want to like the characters, so I won't. What I want is to remember the characters. I don't want to see through the plot to the conclusion, I want to be drawn through it, to ponder outcomes, to think about the story, and anticipate a satisfactory conclusion without cheap surprises. Most of all, I want to enjoy a writer's deftness with language. I don't mean a sentence should be 100 words long, or that every sentence be horizontal poetry, but every four or five paragraphs, maybe even once a chapter, a sentence should sing out with grace and wit.
So, back to the list. In no particular order these are the 10 books I enjoyed most in 2009 and why.
"Seen the Glory: A Novel of Gettysburg," by John Hough - riveting attention to detail; beautifully drawn characters. A well-researched, non-exploitive view of historical Martha's Vineyard and the role three Island citizens played in the great American conflict of the Civil War.
"The Art of Racing in the Rain," by Garth Stein - pitch perfect authorial voice.
"Deaf Sentence," by David Lodge - Not much out there about middle aged men; this one is vintage Lodge, erudite, funny and poignant.
"The 19th Wife," by David Ebershoff - unusual subject matter, learned something new.
"The English Major," by Jim Harrison - who couldn't love a book with a title like that, but it is the character and the scenery that kept me going.
"Philosophy Made Simple," by Robert Hellenga - a great main character in Rudy Harrington.
"Shakespeare's Wife," by Germaine Greer - My annual visit to the world of non-fiction; Greer never disappoints.
"Promise of Happiness," by Justin Cartwright - exceedingly well written, lovely language, a rare British writer who uses the U.S. as a setting.
"Mennonite in a Little Black Dress," by Rhoda Janzen - the author of this memoir is a grammarian, and hilarious, which I'm guessing is a rare combination for a Mennonite.
"Velva Jean Learns to Drive," by Jennifer Niven - If any one of these books deserves to be my top pick, it's this one. Extraordinary plot, compelling characters, masterful language, distinctive voice, and beautiful setting.
Now, it's your turn. In the online comments section of this article give me what you would list as your top pick for 2009. I'll take it as a suggestion and we'll see if it makes 2010's list.
Wishing everyone peace, love, and good reading in 2010.