Sunday, November 28, 2010

Books of 2010

The New York Times has published online its annual list of the 100 Notable Books of 2010, with the print version coming out next Sunday. I find this to be one of the more interesting “best of” lists each year, although like in past years I never seem to have read any of the books on the list. I rarely read new books right away though, and I’ve determined I prefer it this way because it allows for me to better assess a book beyond the hoopla of its initial release and to see how it stands over time. There have been exceptions of course, like when I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows the weekend it was released. The NYT list has been divided into fiction/poetry and non-fiction. Their criteria for selection is always interesting. This year they deny it’s done arithmetically, but instead have relied on “judgment, instinct and feel. The final result, for all its variety, implies a kind of logic, if not in our method, then in ‘the culture.’” I have no idea what that means, but at least they’re willing to be castigated for their choices, and people are already leaving comments of distress because they left out their top book. I was surprised to discover that only the 3rd book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy ever made it onto the NYT past lists. Having read his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Girl Who Played with Fire this past year (both of which are good, but deal with some intense psychological misogyny and are graphically violent), I know I will be reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. From their list, I’ve now added a few novels to my Amazon Wish List, such as the art historical mystery Angelology by Danielle Trussoni and The Long Song by Andrea Levy about the end of slavery in Jamaica in the 1830s. I thought it would be interesting to crosscheck this list with Amazon’s Top 10 Books or 2010: Literature & Fiction. Their Editors’ Picks section has 6 titles also on the NYT list, but only 5 books from their Customers Favorites list made it onto the NYT list. It makes you wonder who becomes the true arbiter of literary taste: the reviewer, the distributor, or the buyer?

Last year at this time I was reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, which wasn’t nearly as good as Pride and Prejudice. Including that title, I’ve read 44 books, making 2010 a surprisingly literate year. A number of those books were part of the intensive studying I was doing for my Oral Exams this past spring though. One of the best art historical texts I read was Emulation: David, Drouais, and Girodet in the Art of Revolutionary France (rev. ed. 2006) by Thomas Crow, a book I tell people is a page-turner you’re hard-pressed to put down. Although not officially published yet, Carolyn Conroy’s well-researched and fascinating doctoral dissertation “He Hath Mingled with the Ungodly”: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, with a Survey of the Extant Works (2010) made for fantastic reading. Other noteworthy art history reads this year included T.J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers (1984), Elizabeth Prettejohn’s Beauty and Art (2005), and Judy Sund’s Van Gogh (2002).

Ever a lover of a good novel though, I read 18 works of fiction this year. bklynbiblio readers will recall my review of The Children’s Book (2009) by A. S. Byatt, and my in medias res discussion of the magnificent The Way We Live Now (1875) by Anthony Trollope. Two other notable novels I read this year were the gay-themed obsessive love story Call Me by Your Name (2007) by AndrĂ© Aciman (which I so wanted to hate for personal reasons, but have to admit was superb), and The Alchemist (1988) by Paulo Coelho (a lovely allegory that inspired people before the millennium, but now post-9/11 is perhaps a little less inspiring, although I do want to read more of his work). At present though I’m currently devouring Howards End (1910) by E. M. Forster, one of my favorite novelists. Forster knew how to use fiction to draw attention to the divides in social class, race, and gender/sexual relations during a post-Victorian age when Britain’s imperialism and power was on the decline. He probably would be a forgotten writer today if it weren’t for the brilliant Merchant-Ivory films adapted from his novels. I’m not sure yet what books will come afterwards, but all recommendations are welcome!

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