Saturday, January 1, 2011
As a follow-up to my roster of favorite Harvard, MIT and Yale titles of 2010, herewith my round-up of personal favorites among the other books I read last year.
Book of the year, hands down: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art & Loss, Edmund de Waal’s inventive, charming, endlessly surprising true chronicle of, well, an awful lot. A descendant of a formerly rich and powerful European banking family, de Waal has ended up in possession of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese porcelain figurines. In tracing the circuitous path this collection took to reach him over the course of 300 years, he excavates his family, its incredible possessions, the loss of them, and the shifting meanings.
There are so many entry portals to this improbable story it’s a little hard to know where to start. A better meditation on collecting and letting go has never been written, as far as I know. And I’ve never read a more horrific and concise description of evil than the twenty pages on the entry of the Nazis into Vienna in 1938. It’s a chilling reminder of how recently those events took place, and how quickly they unfolded.
De Waal is a ceramicist and this is his first book. He writes like a dream:
“How objects are handed down is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy.”
This stunningly accomplished piece of writing will change forever the way you think about your life and the objects you fill it with.
David Mitchell’s justly praised The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was my favorite novel of the year. It’s everything you want in a book when you want to lose yourself: unfamiliar landscapes and personalities rendered intimately knowable, an authentic story rooted in real history, and beautiful sentences on every page. It was one of the first books I read in 2010 and spoke in surprising ways to the de Waal book, which was the last.
Also strongly resonating with de Waal was the latest translation from the Hans Fallada oeuvre, Wolf Among Wolves. Melville House has been dribbling these out, and this wasn’t as compelling as Every Man Dies Alone. But Fallada is an early twentieth century writer well worth reading, with, I hope, more translations to come.
On a completely different note, I was blown away (like half the world) by Patti Smith’s excellent memoir Just Kids. She’s as much a literary stylist as a musical one.
My favorite quirky “find” of the season was a book that was hand sold to me by Jennifer White, the proprietress of the eccentric and improbably located Paper Moon in Macgregor, Iowa. Her inventory is a slightly mad selection of a little bit of everything (as long as it’s unique and unlikely to be found within 500 miles). One focus of her smart book selection features under-appreciated British women novelists, and Jen’s passion last winter was a once popular mid-century find: Tortoise & the Hare (another hare! Everything comes back to deWaal) by Elizabeth Jenkins. My friend Daniel at Boswell Books in Milwaukee picked up the baton on this one and I hope to see the Jenkins wave continue to swell across North America in 2011.
Another addictive diversion this year: the whole publication program of the consistently excellent Persephone Books from London, also devoted to resurrecting British women writers. (There was no new Anita Brookner this year, alas.) Among the half dozen Persephone titles I managed to procure (not all available here), my favorite was Good Evening Mrs. Craven, a collection of wartime short stories by Molly Panter-Downes. Incredibly vivid, smartly written, I don’t know why she’s not more widely known and read these days. That needs to change.
My friend and colleague Adena Siegel gave me a copy of Robert Walser’s Microscripts this year. Boy does she know me, I loved it. Short, obsessive missives scrawled in pencil on scraps of paper from a sanitorium, they are a little crazy. But in the end much more than just a curiosity for confirmed fans only. The New Directions physical book is among the most beautiful published this year.
Role Models by John Waters made me laugh harder than anything I’ve read in a long time.
Christopher Isherwood’s The Sixties, the diary segment released this year, was a bit of a slog in places but fascinating. If the film version of his novel A Single Man whet your appetite for mid-century gay life in Los Angeles, there's more than enough here to sate it.
And a book I really loved this year that a lot of the contemporary novel reading world also enjoyed (no, not Freedom. I’m a dissenter on that): Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. If you fret on a daily basis like I do about the demise of the newspaper business, Rachman’s fictional celebration thereof will make you hopeful.
Is it just me or was it a ho-hum film year? I used to catch way more art house flicks in Chicago, Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, and other on the road venues. But I seem to have gone off movies, or they’ve gone off me. My Netflix selections tend to sit around for a month or more before I get around to watching them, and then they tend to be shruggable. So my top ten list of the year is a little soft, and none of the movies was remotely as compelling as any of my ten favorite books.
1. A Prophet
2. Inside Job
3. The Last Train Home
5. Ghost Writer
6. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
8. An Education
9. No One Knows About Persian Cats
The ten tunes in most frequent personal rotation in 2010.
1. Missed the Train/Factor feat. Gregory Pepper
2. Kazimierz/Nigel Kennedy & the Kroke Band (thanks Natalie)
4. Soldier of Love/Sade
5. Turn me Away (Get MuNNY)/Erykah Badu
6. Better Things/Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
7. Lorca & the Orange Tree/Mummers (thanks Gerry)
8. Back it up/Caro Emerald
9. What did he say/Nite Jewel
10. Say la la/Keegan DeWitt