Another year where my reading has been done in the shadow of one big book. Last year it took me a long time to shake off my extreme dislike of Swamplandia! This year I got bogged down in Wolf Hall's pronoun swamp. That the book is brilliant is undeniable--and the reason I didn't quit--but I really would like to have a little chat with the Hilary Mantel. (Since she rarely referred to her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, as anything but "he," I got my own back by calling him Cornball in my head, which, admittedly, made it difficult for me to talk about the book after a glass or two of wine without sounding like an idiot.)
Anyway, WH doesn't make my list of favorite books this year (all chosen because I would happily read them again)--these do:
1. The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham -- My favorite short story collection of the year. Every variation on love is also connected by a deeper acknowledgment that you can never quite tell, or remember, or understand a real love story--in other words, they are all "News from Spain."
2. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paulo Giordano -- Oh my, how I loved this almost-love story about two fundamenally damaged people. If books could be images, this one would be an ice castle: chilly, beautiful, crystal-blue.
3. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt -- It's too bad the Coen brothers have already made a western, because this book was tailor-made for them.
4. The World Below by Sue Miller -- Subtle and smart. I generally dislike intergenerational stories, but Sue Miller knows from women.
5. The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson -- This book, which follows an Iowa family over three generations, seems to invite comparisons. One reviewer said it is cast in the mold of Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge--now that's some bold talk. Another reviewer said it rivals (and I'd say it surpasses) Richard Russo's work for dark humor. However you look at it, this is a fine, fine, fine example of literary fiction.
6. Arcadia by Lauren Groff -- Beautiful writing, warm-hearted characters; this is a book almost anyone could love.
7. Townie by Andre Dubus III -- My favorite memoir of the year. Which surprised me, because I'm such a fan of Andre Dubus, the author's father, and this book pretty much defrocks him. Still, it feels fair and generous. And insightful, especially about how troubled children need something to focus on--in AD3's case it was boxing--to stay afloat in the world.
8. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin -- So much is familiar here: the shopgirl story, the Irish immigrant story, but it is so convincingly told, and with the laser preciseness of a short story, that I was completely and absolutely won over.
9. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh -- Armchair travel of the best kind. I love to get lost in this author's fictions.
10. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain -- an oldie but flawed goodie. It shifts, without warning and not at all seamlessly, from Depression-era social realism to Shakespearian-level tragedy, but it is a book that made me think.