Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Stephanie's Top Ten of 2010

"Once, in my father's bookshop, I heard a regular customer say that few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later--no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn or forget--we will return."

I'll be honest here--I did not even really think about the end of 2010 until maybe yesterday when I started writing this post (yes, I handwrite the posts almost to their completion and then type them. Weird.). But in thinking about it, I am pretty astonished at what a sweet year I've had. I mean, not everything has been great (I mean, this was the year of Snowmaggedon and an awful LIS class I took in the Spring and a friend moving away), but let's be serious for a second--how can you call a year where I saw Wicked three (count 'em!) THREE times, went to two wonderful weddings (and was in one of them), saw Mary Poppins, sort of figured out what I want to do with my life (sort of), saw Kelli O'Hara in concert, helped my best friend pick out her wedding dress, spent every Friday (and yes, I mean pretty much EVERY FRIDAY) over the summer at Jazz in the Garden with some of my favorite people, got to cross of 6 books from my "To Read Before I Die" list, got a paper I wrote published on the Smithsonian Libraries Blog and read 73 BOOKS anything less than pretty damn good?

And on that note, I get to the purpose of this post--the real reason this blog was even thought to be a good idea in the first place (although obviously it is not what I envisioned since I haven't posted in a sickeningly long time). The List. My Top Ten List of 2010. Yes, folks. You've waited with bated breath long enough to be so enlightened, and here it is. I think that in last year's post on my Top Ten of 2009, I pretty much gave you the low-down on why I love reading, lists, and everything about the combination of the two, so I'll spare you that this year and just say this: When I went over my 2010 list after everything was said and done, I tallied up 73 books (don't be too impressed, since I re-read all 13 Series of Unfortunate Events books this summer when I needed something lighter and easier and all 7 Harry Potter books over the winter when I was just craving them). 73 is a lot of books, I'll admit, but the coolest thing was that in going over the list, I found that almost every book on the list was one that taught me something, led me to something new, or otherwise brought out some kind of flame in me (with a select few being duds, but you'll have that when you join a book club, I suppose). But really--almost every book I read this year had some lingering significance to me an doften helped make the year flow with a certain energy. 2010 was a year in which I felt myself kind of gathering forces for 2011--a year that will inevitably bring a lot of drastic changes, challenges, and (hopefully) accomplishments--and I think that with books like these in my arsenal, I'll always have something to hearken back to when things get messy (which, they inevitably will, let's get serious).

So, to get on to the list, I'll remind you of my criteria for creating the list and get on with it, I promise. I have choisen what I consider to be the 10 best books that I began and completed between January 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010. These books were not necessarily published in 2010 (although this year, two were). Also, I reread some things this year (including last years #1 The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), but you will not find these on the list no matter how much I love them (obviously, I would not have reread them if they weren't awesome to begin with). I will list all the books I read in 2010 at the end of the Top Ten list so you can see what the Top Ten had to compete with. So, here goes:

Stephanie's Top Ten of 2010
1) Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann--In actuality, I read this twice this year. I loved it so much the first time that I recommended it to my book club and reread it for the meeting. Let the Great World Spin won the National Book Award in 2009. Written as a kind of series of interconnecting vignettes, McCann creates vivid characters whose stories all revolve around one central event--Philippe Petit's 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in New York City. The event is real, though the characters (except for Petit) aren't, and McCann's beautiful prose brings to light the realities of life, death, and the fact that somehow, we are all connected. Let the Great World Spin is stunning for its story and prose, and has a severe and evolving impact on a post 9/11 world. For a better description of this book, see my post here from April.
2) Little Bee by Chris Cleave--I wrote a whole blog post about this amazing book back in April, so I won't go into too much detail, but Cleave had me hooked at the beginning and in tears at the end and I couldn't sleep the night after I finished it. The plot focuses on a British woman who took a vacation to Nigeria and a Nigerian girl who witnesses terrible things happening in her country. The two women cross paths and life is changed for both of them forever. The women both narrate the story in alternating chapters, creating a story that is heartbreaking, hopeful, and exquisite.
3) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot--I had been trying to read this book for months before I finally got around to it. And am I ever glad I did. This is a work of non-fiction and honestly has to be one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read. Henrietta Lacks was a black woman living in Baltimore in the 1940s who died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins in 1951, leaving behind a husband and five young children. At this point in medical history, scientists were unsuccessfully attempting to grow cells in order to be able to test vaccines and treatments on them, thus perfecting these treatments and vaccines. They were unsuccessful until a sample was take from Lacks' cervix, unbeknownst to her or her family, and they grew like wildfire. The cells that reproduced from the sample have since been into outer space and have helped scientists develop treatments for cancer and the polio vaccine among other treatments. The "donor" of the cells (called HeLa) were kept anonymous until an article in the 1970s revealed the woman whose cells they were, and Skloot does investigative work into the history behind HeLa's development s well as contacting and garnering relationships with the Lacks family (who, coincidentally cannot afford health care). I am not what you might call a "science" person, and I was afraid this would be over my head, but Skloot's excellent writing, explanations, and storytelling make the story and science clear and interesting. She frames the story in the light of the family and their current-day situation, making it something relatable. This book brings up a lot of issues about race, medical research, and health care and is worth the read.
4) People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks--If you are a librarian or love libraries and books as objects, please do yourself a favor and read this book. I read Brooks' March first (also excellent), but loved this one more. The plot follows the Sarajavo Haggadah (which Wikipedia explains is: "a Jewish religious text that sets out the order of the Passover Seder"--thanks Wikipedia!) from its creation (which turns out to be an unusual one for this type of document). The Haggadah is found by a museum curator and a conservator with an expertise in Jewish texts is called in to examine it. The stories of the hands that the Haggadah passes throw is told so well and so captivatingly that I seriously could not wait to find out what happened next. The timeline of the Haggadah's history is told in reverse order, making for a fun, more involved read.
5) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen--If there was one book you have heard about this year, it was probably this one. In case you've been living under some kind of rock this year, Oprah chose it for her "last" book club, raising the hooplah about the 10 year old Franzen/Oprah debacle over her choise of his The Corrections (which, of course, was the main part of his appearance on her show. They talked about the book for maybe 2 minutes. Disappointment). And yes, there has been a lot of hype, but I really liked the book. Franzen's language and storytelling are captivating and as he tells the story of Patty and Walter Berglund, you just kind of get swept up in the whole thing. This is a very post-9/11 smack in the face story rife with family issues, politics, the environment, and America. You either love or hate Patty (I, frankly, loved hating her) and her manic-depressive "autobiography" and I just couldn't put it down.
6) The Girls From Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow--I wrote about this in another post, but let me reiterate its greatness--it's beyond great. I have been telling every woman I know to read it, and if you're a man, I think you should still read it (I'd love to hear what you thought!). This one is non-fiction and revolves around a group of girlfriends from Ames, Iowa who have been friends since grade school and to this day (they are now in their fifties, I believe) they get together at least once a year. Zaslow writes of their ups, downs, deaths, joys, tragedies, and all in the light of the beauty and uniqueness of female friendship. Truly wonderful.
7) The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion--I'll be honest with this one and say that I have been hesitant to recommend this book to just anyone. It is one of the more graceful and lovely things I've read, but it is terribly sad and had a really big impact on me. Didion has written many things, both fiction and nonfiction, and this was is a memoir that details the year of her life in which her husband died unexpectedly, and not long afterwards her only child got deathly ill (and to top it all off, she had just gotten married). The whole process of Didion's grief, healing, and process was really inspiring, but still terribly sad, mainly because it was so real. It's very short and pretty easy to read, but did make me tear up while reading it in the airport, so beware. It's so worth it though.
8) The House That George Built by Wilfrid Sheed--I wrote a whole post about this one because I loved it so much. It's not a secret that I should have probably been born so that I grew up in the 20's, and so it should be no surprise how much I love this book. Sheed writes about Gershwin, Porter, and Berlin among many others and details the "Golden Age" of music and the American Songbook. Read the post I wrote on it if you need more convincing.
9) The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon--I had to read this for book club and was pretty skeptical since I'm not one for the typical "mystery" genre, but I fell into this book and didn't want to get out. It's reminiscent of a kind of Romanticism storytelling, which I also don't typically love, so it's strange, I suppose that I loved it as much as I did. The story is about a boy who finds a book by a virtually unknown author and a mystery arises out of his possession of the book. It kept me on my toes and I think the fact that it is a translation really added a cool dimension. I wrote about it briefly a few months ago, so go here for a better description.
10) The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows--I love love love epistolaries, and it's hard to come across one these days, so when I saw that this book was written completely in letters, I picked it up and devoured it. It's a very easy, light story about the British involvement in the World War II, a female author living in London who wants to write something more substantial and be something more substantial, and a book club in Guernsey who is formed in secret under the nose of the German occupation. It's really fun and I think the authors do a great job of telling the story through letters, which I can imagine is hard to do.
So there you have it, friends. My Top Ten of 2010. It was hard this year, I'll tell you that much. If you don't believe me, just take a look at all the things I read this year (in order)--I've starred ones that get an honorable mention, although most of these are pretty awesome!:
The Girls of Room 28 by Hannelore Brenner
*The Road to Woodstock by Michael Lang
House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
The Secrets of a Fire King by Kim Edwards
*Yours Ever by Thomas Mallon
Dear John by Nicholas Sparks
Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Alice Have I Been by Melanie Benjamin
*The Swan Theives by Elizabeth Kostova
*The Last Station by Jay Parini
*The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
*The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha (go to his blog... I look at it every morning before work.. it starts the day off right!)
Dancing for Degas by Kathryn Wagner
Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
Let the Great World Spin (2) by Colum McCann
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis (evidence of the quickly abandoned and failed attempt to read books about presidents...)
*I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (because what kind of year is it without a Faulkner?!)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows
*The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Girls From Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson (read in preparation for her appearance at the National Book Festival, but was disappointed in her speech)
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski (read after seeing Hamlet on stage.. the similarities are awesome)
Push by Sapphire
The Possibility of Everything by Hope Edelman
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
The Reptile Room by Lemony Snicket
Three Junes by Julia Glass
One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus
The Wide Window by Lemony Snicket
The Miserable Mill by Lemony Snicket
The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket
The Ersatz Elevator by Lemony Snicket
The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket
The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket
*This Book is Overdue! by Marilyn Johnson
*The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket
The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket
The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket
The End by Lemony Snicket
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The House that George Built by Wilfrid Steed
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
*A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
*One Day by David Nicholls
Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks (worst Nicholas Sparks book.. ever. And that's saying something)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Hadden
*March by Geraldine Brooks
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
*Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The Light in the Piazza and Other Italian Stories by Elizabeth Spencer
*Everything is Going to Be Great by Rachel Shukert
Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland by Gerald Clarke
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris (huge disappointment.. sorry David.)
**Ape House by Sara Gruen (this should be in the Top Ten, but I'm too lazy to take out Guernsey and replace it with this. Read this though! So good!)
36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
(Also, for books that I've written posts about in the past, I've linked the titles so you can go back and look at the posts if you're so inclined!)
I'd love to hear what you think of the list, what your own personal Top Ten of 2010 is, and if this was helpful at all! As always, if you're looking for some recommendations, drop me a line and I am always more than happy to help!
I hope that your 2011 has started off well with friends, family, and good books.
As always,
Keep Reading,