fictionista. [books, the many lists of 2010.]

I’ve always wanted to read 50 books in a year. I made the commitment that 2011 will be that year. In 2010, I read 37.

Mostly, I read fiction and literature. I try to keep reading fiction steadily throughout the year. Stories help keep me alive.

Here are the ten works of fiction I loved most last year. They aren’t books that actually came out last year, I am pretty sure I only read a single book that actually came out in 2010 (Mockingjay). These are just my favorite books that I read for the first time in 2010.


1. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

As I’ve written before, “It’s hard to know how to describe this book, so instead I’ll allow look to words from the story’s final page; ‘The Book Thief’ is, “so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories are damning and brilliant.”

I wept through a good number of the final 30 pages.

Everyone should read this book.”

Narrated by Death, the story takes place in Nazi Germany. Death becomes intrigued by a little girl who keeps turning up as Death busily moves about in wartorn Germany; a little girl who steals a book the first time Death sees her. Death begins keeping tabs on the girl, and then recounts her story to us.

Zusak tells a story that is so achingly tragic, and yet filled with geniune goodness.

I believe that stories and books can save the world. I also believe that very many stories are true, and a few of them actually happened. This is one of those stories that didn’t actually happen, but is so very, very true.


2. Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve already written about this one, so I’ll just link to that.

The book was on nearly every “Best of the Decade” list I’ve come across, and I can see why.

Since I’ve already said quite a bit about the book, I’ll look to some other reviewers to offer corroborative testimony.

The Guardian called the book “extraordinary,” as well as, “frighteningly clever.”

Yet, the Telegraph had the money quote that most closely mirrored my sentiments: “In its evocation of a pervasive menace and despair almost but not quite lost in translation – made up of the shadows of things not said, glimpsed out of the corner of one’s eye – the novel is masterly.”



3. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A great portion of the time, I feel like I must be absolutely insane. If I let myself go, I would probably revert to a state of constantly looking around at everyone else with a look of perpetual incredulity, pointing at the crazy shit that happens in this world, asking, “Am I the only one seeing this?”

All the baffling, batshit crazy, demonstrably false things people get away with saying will quite literally never cease to flabbergast me. People do and say so much that is not only false, but is quite easy to prove as false, and yet the cries of ‘bullshit’ are written off as liberal media bias, or homosexual agenda, or un-American, or elitist. Folks who tell the truth are written off as religious quacks or godless heretics.

We are all so carefully practiced at believing the particular bullshit that suits us, so we have to turn a blind eye to the bullshit that suits someone else.

Thankfully, God gave the world Joseph Heller, who reminded me that in a context that is fucking insane, it’s only the crazy people who are sane.

Reason doesn’t get much help these days, the world is mostly run by bureaucrats and fundamentalists, and whenever you think you’ve got them beat, you learn there’s a catch.

This book was delightfully reminiscent of a great conversation with friends over good wine or coffee, cathartically ranting about how crazy things really are. However, Heller takes that conversation and ups the clever quotient by around a billion.


4. The Hunger Games Trilogy – Suzanne Collins

The films are on their way. Thus, shortly most everyone will probably be familiar with the story of Katniss Everdeen of District 12.

These books, set in post-apocalypse North America, are remarkably engaging and Collins’ depiction of the effects of violence on the young is unflinching.

There were moments the books could have gone one of two ways: the choice was to either be undemanding and cloying, or honest. Collins always chose to be honest to the narrative, even when the reader was hoping otherwise.

Some might feel that’s unsatisfying, I felt quite the opposite.


5. Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

It’s pretty much impossible for me to describe this book at all. It’s not because I’ll give something away, it’s just that Miéville’s story, set in a fantasy world centered in the city of New Crobuzon, is so unique and involved that it would take far too long to give even a general outline.

Miéville’s world of Bas-Lag is a dark, gritty, steampunk world populated by a myriad of humanoid creatures that have to be read to be believed.

This guy is really smart, and by no means would you call this “easy reading.” Fun, yes. Easy, no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you’ll need a degree in literature to enjoy the book, it’s just the sort of book that has to be engaged fully. This isn’t the sort of novel to be flipped through half-attentively, or else you’ll have no idea what the hell is going on.

Yet, it’s most certainly rewarding, enough so to make it more than worth your time. After 20 pages or so Miéville’s voice becomes more familiar and the harder part of the reading is actually putting the book down once in a while. This was one of those delightful times when I realized during my reading of the book that I’d be sure to read everything the author has ever written, and in this case, whatever he continues to write.


6. The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

By chance, a toddler escapes his home as a knife in the dark claims the rest of his family. Wandering into the local graveyard, the boy is taken in by the resident ghosts, protected from the danger that still looms without, and granted Freedom of the Graveyard, offering special privileges and powers which can only be bestowed by the residents of a graveyard.

Nobody, as the boy comes to be called, is cared for by the mysterious Silas, the only other resident of the graveyard who is not dead (although, he isn’t exactly alive either).

This is a really great story, at times made up of many smaller stories. Filled with Gaiman’s trademark style, the story is darkly magical and fantastic. Any chance I get to spend in Gaiman’s imagination is well worth the price of admission, and this book was no different.

The Graveyard Book is full of humor, sadness, beauty and above all, wonder. It’s Gaiman at the top of his game.

This book made me wish I myself had grown up in a graveyard, with all the quirky, idiosyncratic personalities from across the various ages of history.


7. Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders – Neil Gaiman

Mr. Gaiman made it on the list twice, the only author to do so this year.

I’ve already written about this book at length, so I’ll just direct those interested to that.


8. The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde

I assume that while there may be folks, like me, who never got around to reading this one in their youth, everyone at least knows the general story of a silly young man who makes a flippant wish, only to see the terrible consequences of what happens when that wish comes true.

Wilde was such a sagacious satirist of his culture. His genius leaps off the page from each sentence.

The thing that particularly impressed me was Wilde’s ability to put brilliant arguments and rationalizations in the mouths of his characters, so that one can’t help be see the grains of truth as well as the  lies the characters used to prop up their own morally ambiguous (and at times detestable) decisions and behavior. The dialogue lies like truth. Like in life, it was often hard to know where the truth ended and the lie began.

You can certainly sense the reality that Wilde was a playwright above all, but I do wish he had left the world a few more novels to cherish.


9. The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

I loved this book. This tale of a whiskey priest, on the run in a past-time Mexico where Catholicism is illegal, who continues to convince himself that his human weakness and frailty prohibit him from having anything to offer the people of Mexico. He almost never seems to notice that it is his human weakness and frailty that is his greatest offering. It is when he is “holy” and pious that he does the most harm, and when he is being honest and authentic that he transforms the lives around him with truth and beauty, seemingly blind to the profound impact he was having on those around him.

I must confess, before reading this book for a class, Graham Greene wasn’t on my radar at all. Well, he’s now taken up permanent residence right in the middle of my radar. He wrote with the simple, sparse power of Hemingway. The story and characters were so tragic and ordinary, and yet also full of life-changing power.

This book wasn’t just enjoyable, it quite literally changed the way I look at myself as a human being.


10. The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The story of a father and a son attempting to make their way to the south after the apocalypse. Marked, as the world around them is, by profound violence and tragedy, the two attempt to carry hope in the midst of seemingly utter hopelessness.

As always, McCarthy’s writing is so sparse it doesn’t even include quotation marks. It works perfectly here, in this tense world in which the violence of a cannibalistic humanity is always waiting around the corner. At times, I was practically holding my breath while reading, because the prose was so quiet, I didn’t want to disturb the unfolding story. Or, perhaps I was so engaged in the narrative that I didn’t want to alert the story’s various villains to the location of the hiding father and son by breathing too loudly.

To be so relentlessly true to his vision of such a violent world, and yet still leave the reader with hope is quite the feat. McCarthy pulls it off beautifully.