The 2010 Reading List

So it’s not…loaded stadiums or ballparks. And we’re not… kids on swingsets on the blacktop. Don’t know why I recall that lyric from the Red House Painters, but it catches the mood of this fifth installment of the FSOwalla reading list. Symbology seemed to work last time, so in that same recession spirit I mark literary quality, even if no one has any money.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann $$$$ Ahhh, the Irish do have a way with words. It’s occasionally worth being fearful of National Book Award Winners, but not this time. Much is driven by death (and tidy upliftments) but frequent, moving moments ring true.

A Place Within – Rediscovering India by M.G. Vassanji $$$ Part-history, part-travelogue, and full of half-finished ruminations, Vassanji’s compendium of his visits to India focuses primarily on Gujarat and an extended stay in Simla. Well written, but oddly unsure in many places for a writer of his ability, India’s complexity seems to overwhelm him and prevents easy answers.

84, Charing Cross Rd. by Helene Hanff $$1/2 Not a novel but a portrait of a tiny, intimate, and lovely moment that lasted 20 years. An era gone by, and it still feels that reading is something Great Britain did best.

The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee $$$ If it feels like you’ve heard this story before you’re right. But war is powerful and basic, just like love. And it’s the love stories (and the need for redemption) that wind through Lee’s long work that fill you with sadness and hurt and honesty.

American Rust by Philipp Meyer $$$1/2 A novel situated close to my home-town, and full of characters (maybe too many). The book shines best when the actors ruminate on the larger world around them, and SW Pennsylvania hasn’t spoken so loudly in a long time. Though starting strong, protagonist Isaac wanders off into slight unbelievability, and the ending feels strange and untrue, as if if Meyer chose resolution over uncertainty.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu $$$ First novels sometimes suffer from seeming to be too personal. They also reward for exactly that reason. Mengestu’s work has moments of overall unoriginality and too many storylines, but there’s a real sense of the immigrant/exile’s turmoil that demonstrates a writer who has grown up closely watching and thinking about the people (his family) around him.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen $$$ A master craftsmen and some stunning descriptive passages drawn from historical sources. Undone for me by the sheer weight of the subject matter and what seemed to me to be too much importance given to the lives of these two men. There is something more honorable (?) in the spirit of folk who lived in post-Civil War America, but it gets subsumed in the legend of an outlaw who was, at the end of the day, cold-hearted and cruel in a rough, rough country.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower $$$1/2 I loved these short stories, and I don’t know exactly why. They were funny and bitter and authentic, and Tower’s anger bubbles through in each one at some point. But how do you write endings to these stories with that kind of motivation? — Sometimes it seems like Tower doesn’t know the answer himself.

The Tiger by John Vaillant $$1/2 Fascinating account of a hidden/forgotten part of Russia that starts off well, then drags along from the middle where it turns from a gripping tale into a wildlife preservation argument. Vaillant makes some attempts at novelistic prose that turn out badly (an odd reference to a lover’s nipple when talking about the sensitivity of a tiger’s teeth made me shudder). The Tiger Summit is happening in this Year of the Tiger in St. Petersburg. Maybe Secretary Clinton will show, who knows?

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu  $$$$ Mengestu’s second novel is full of stories covering up worlds of trauma. Described by some as an immigrant story, it’s actually a poignant tale of strangers disguised as family, occasionally wandering the earth together, but always apart and alone.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje $$$$$ This year’s only re-read and one of the few books of which I purchased a hardcover First Edition. It describes my reaction to it itself: “…he would read it and then press his hand upon it as if to touch its possible deeper meanings, to become as intimate as he could with the words.” Don’t just watch the movie; the story of the young Sikh Kip is largely left out in the film, and the novel’s ending is far more beautiful.

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky $$$$ Not a novel, but full of such unique and interesting ruminations about places on the edge of our existence (that she’s never been to) that you feel, as Anthony Doerr described it, as if you’ve peeked at the notebook of that quiet girl in the back of your high-school class and realize oh my god, she’s a genius.

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