Best of the Bookshelf 2010

In case you’ve just joined us: I like to read books.  Lots of books. Mostly fiction, some non-fiction.  At year’s end I go back through my notes and call out the titles that really got my blood up.  Most of these were checked out from the local library or passed to me by friends (shout-outs to the Contra Costa Main Branch and the Legendary Obliterati).  Anyway, maybe there’s something in here you might enjoy. Keep turning those pages!

FICTION

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

You can argue that Mitchell’s reach exceeds his grasp, and that he tries a little too hard to lace these disparate stories together, but who cares when a book is this well-written?  The construction may be a trifle odd but the parts are all spectacular, and the whole is definitely worth more than their sum. From the South Seas of the 1850s to 20th century Europe to a post-apocalyptic future Hawaii, each tale has its own distinctive language and voice. Brilliant writing.

Preternatural (barely-not-magical) realism abounds in this entertaining novel from Peru’s best-known novelist. Alternating chapters weave two threads: an against-the-odds love story and a series of increasingly deranged radio serials. The setting, 1950s Lima, is richly drawn, and the English translation by Helen Lane is faultless. An eccentric, big-hearted love story that’s  really hard not to like.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

B-list screenwriter turns novelist and delivers a surprise hit. Based on stories told to him by his grandparents, both veterans of WW2, Benioff crafts a darkly comic classic. Two hapless youths are freed from jail and sent on an impossible mission: to find a dozen fresh eggs for a colonel’s daughter’s wedding. This in a city under siege by the Nazis, where food is so scarce that people are thrilled to eat library paste if they can buy it. Authentically Russian-flavored, full of black humor and vodka-breath pathos. Unforgettable.

The Death Ship by B. Traven

From the shadowy author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, this is a sea story like no other. A sailor without papers hires onto a series of increasingly awful tramp steamers until he hits bottom – literally – as the coal monkey on a ship whose masters plan to scuttle her for the insurance. Part Conrad, part Kafka, alternately knee-slap funny and jaw-drop scary. Sure, it’s also a communist polemic, but it’s brilliantly written and always entertaining.

Shantaram by Gregory Roberts

This is such a ripping yarn that I have to forgive Roberts for his occasionally purple prose and overly earnest spirituality. When he’s not writing about sex or inner transformation, he tells a staggeringly vivid and original tale of life in the Bombay underground. Supposedly based on his true experiences as an Aussie felon who broke out of prison and fled to India, it features a rich and colorful cast of criminal lowlifes, dirt-poor shanty dwellers, lepers, and expats.  I’m not quite ready to shelve it in non-fiction, but it’s a fine read.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

In the much anticipated sequel (prequel? coequal?) to Oryx and Crake, Atwood revisits her chillingly believable dystopia of genetic engineering run amok. This one very cleverly skirts around the edges of Oryx, using different characters to retell many of the same tragic events in a way that both adds depth to the first novel and stands on its own as a great sci-fi story. Atwood rocks.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

The only collection of short stories to make my short list, this is an excellent debut from a talented newcomer. Tower can be fairly compared to George Saunders, writing wry stories that don’t necessarily go anywhere but leave a deep emotional impact. Everything here is top-notch, but the title story, about a reluctant Viking leaving his farm to sail off on one last raid,  is 5-star awesome.

A Partisan’s Daughter by Louis deBernieres

Fans of the author’s more sprawling works like Birds Without Wings may be disappointed by this strange little love story, but I was charmed. Set in bleak 70’s Britain, it’s about a sad-sack salesman in a loveless marriage who goes out looking for a prostitute, and finds the title character instead, a mysterious younger woman from Yugoslavia who gets him tangled up in a web of her stories, some obviously false, others possibly true. Along with a satisfying (albeit sad) human story, it offers an intriguing take on the fabrication of identity and the seductive powers of storytelling.

Burmese Days by George Orwell

2010 was the year that I discovered George Orwell. Or more precisely, that he wrote more than two books in his life.  This wonderful novel, informed by his experiences as a colonial  policeman in the dying days of the Raj, is a bracing antidote to all that blustery jewel-in-the-crown balderdash. Each and every character, colonized or colonial, is portrayed as either a fool or a monster or both. No one is spared from Orwell’s monsoon-like deluge of bitter satire.

You Can’t Win by Jack Black

Another so-called memoir that seems better shelved in fiction, You Can’t Win is a true American classic.  Black rode the rails as a hobo, worked every con he could find, became a skilled yegg, served prison time, and eventually dissolved into a puddle of booze and opium, only to emerge, Phoenix-like, as the quiet librarian putting pen to paper to write down his life story. It’s an extraordinarily tall tale, mythic in proportion, and extremely difficult to put down. No wonder it was the favorite book of William S. Burroughs.

NONFICTION

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

Reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, this is another case of an American journalist diving headlong into a violent subculture and getting more than he bargained for. Buford starts out with zero knowledge of English football and its fans, and winds up on awkwardly intimate terms with the hooligans, more than half-seduced by the ecstasy of mob violence. This is literary non-fiction of the best kind, where the story arc of the journalist/protagonist is just as compelling as the story he’s exploring; but unlike HST, he never lets his own saga overshadow the Main Event.

Dali and I: The Surreal Story by Stan Lauryssens

The savage tale of Dali’s spectacular global art-scam, as told by a Belgian dealer who made a fortune – and then went to prison – selling Dali artwork to rich idiots as an investment. The scope of the fraud is staggering, and goes far beyond those infamous warehouses stacked to the ceilings with signed, blank print paper. I went into this book a Dali fan, and despite some of the seriously shocking dirt that it contains, came out the other side even more of a Dali fan.  His manipulation of the art market itself , a kind of meta-art, was his true legacy, a masterpiece that makes Warhol seem like a rube.   My favorite story among many: how George Harrison of the Beatles paid $5,000 for a single hair from Dali’s mustache, which was in fact not Dali’s hair at all but part of a mustache weave. Dali’s stylist, of course, got nothing, and moreover had to foot his own travel expenses.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

Though Diamond is better known for his blockbuster hits Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse, I think this earlier work may be his best. Examining the human animal from a zoological point of view, it digs deep into many of our most treasured quirks as a species, systematically smashing the “we are different from other animals” myth.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

An epic memoir, right up there with Ben Franklin’s. Like Franklin, Feynman was a titan of science but also a man of wide-ranging and insatiable curiosity about the world at large. His sense of humor is the engine that keeps these essays going from start to finish, playing down his accomplishments (i.e., the Nobel Prize) and playing up his curious obsessions, oddball charm, and lust for life.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

A highly readable and compelling survey of recent archaeological work in the Americas. In the best everything-you-know-is-wrong tradition, Mann trashes just about every myth you learned in school concerning pre-Columbian times, painting a picture of a world that was more populous, more technically advanced, and more culturally sophisticated than any of the “victors’ histories” would lead us to believe.

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