With the end of the year approaching, best of lists are all the rage. I was lucky to be included in an CBC Information Morning book panel this week: looking at fiction picks from 2010. Sharing the panel was Michael Hamm from local independent book store Bookmark. Mike and I arrived at the taping to discover we’d brought a few of the same books to talk about! Here’s a list of what was discussed, and a few that time constraints didn’t allow to make the air.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: It seems like this book probably doesn’t need much more publicity, but it’s hard not to mention it as a book from this year worth reading. I’m one of those folks who is sometimes put off by hype, but hype aside, this was the best of the 2010 fiction titles I’ve read (and this was one of the titles both Mike and I wanted to discuss). Franzen has an uncanny ability to depict modern society: in particular middle class American life—its comforts, and its follies. Freedom largely concerns the crumbling relationship between the members of Berglund family. There is much going on in this story, yet ultimately the title tells us what the story is about—the concept of freedom: how we are free yet trapped by the very things this freedom affords us, and how one person’s freedom often comes at another’s expense.
Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: the other title that both Mike and I were compelled to mention. Much has been made of the fact that this debut collection from a small press 1/was shortlisted for a Giller Prize and 2/is from the son of award winning writer Alistair MacLeod. The title story contains the line “it’s the light lifting that does the real damage”—referring in that instance to the physical lifting of small loads, but broadly saying that it’s the repeated small pains that add up to injure you. That metaphor seems to carry across the stories, with MacLeod using singular activities or events—laying brick, running races, a lice infestation in a family with several small children— to draw out stories that depict larger truths. The stories explore human nature without being what I would call character driven, yet the author’s eye for detail and descriptive abilities lend them an intensity that is gripping.
My other pick was this year’s edition of The Best American Short Stories edited by Richard Russo. I’ve become more and more drawn to short stories of late and pleasantly surprised with the depth of character and story that can be packed into a well crafted short story. This year’s Best American Short Stories abounds with these, including Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (the title story of a collection she released last year) and The Netherlands Lives with Water by Jim Shepard (which will also appear in his forthcoming collection You Think That’s Bad).
Mike’s other picks were this year’s Giller winner The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud: copies of which are now becoming available in both libraries and bookstores, and books by Newfoundland authors Michael and Kathleen Winter (who also happen to be brother and sister): The Death of Donna Whalen and Annabel respectively.
There were a couple of others I had in reserve that I didn’t get to mention. Great reading nonetheless, so I’ll mention them here.
The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi – The death of a young woman on an isolated Greek island is deemed suicide by the local police chief but a mysterious investigator arriving from Athens thinks otherwise. This is a mystery for people who like atmospheric stories examining human nature rather than for those looking for page turning thrills. It’s rich in detail of the culture and landscape of the island. A leisurely read that would be good over the holidays. The first in a series. This title was originally published in the UK in 2007 but now has a North American publisher. There are already 4 in the series and one would expect the whole series will make its way to our shores soon.
Black Alley by Mauricio Segura and I am a Japanese Writer by Dany Laferrière – two books set in Montreal and translated from French, which address issues of identity and race but in extremely different ways. I am a Japanese Writer is a post-modern tale that explores concepts of nationality and the craft of writing. Black Alley could be called an urban, multicultural version of The Outsiders. That oversimplified version doesn’t quite do it justice, so you might want to read this full post on Black Alley from few months back if your interest is piqued.