2010–A Year in Books

It’s not easy picking just a few books to mention at the end of the year. I have a list of all those read (107) and with any luck, I’ll get another couple finished before the end of the year. On the down side, I meant to read more crime fiction but was Shanghaied. On the positive side, I finished reading Zola’s 20-volume Rougon-Macquart series this year. I started back in 2007 and took it slowly reading a novel every couple of months.

Looking back over all the 2010 titles read, I can see that I’ve re-read quite a few old favourites including:

A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov –one of my favourite novels.

The Black Sheep by Balzac. A reminder, once again of exactly how nasty, cruel and petty people can be. This is one of my all-time favourite Balzac novels, and this year I was driven back to it.

The Merry-Go-Round by Maugham. One of my favourite Maugham novels.

Anyway, here are the new-to-me-favourite-2010 books :

Three Crimes by Simenon. Ok so I’m crazy about Simenon. Before reading this book, ask yourself this question: How many people do you know who are murderers? I’m hoping that you say NONE. Simenon knew two. Three Crimes is not selected for this year’s list due to its artistry (it’s certainly not the best thing ever written by Simenon), but for its insight into the author’s experiences, his psychological make-up and his fascination with crime. It’s autobiographical but doesn’t read that way, and I still argue that the THREE crimes includes the mysterious death of Simenon’s acquaintance (and not the four murders committed by the two murderers Simenon knew). If you want to understand Simenon and his work, this book is a must. It’ll blow you out of your socks.

 Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter. This is the post WWII tale of the hard-luck Jack Levitt, an unwanted teenager who grifts his way through life until he ends up, inevitably, in a reform school. Powerless, friendless and mired in relentless poverty, this is just the beginning of Jack’s slide downwards through the ‘justice system’.  Yet in spite of all the bad things that happen to Jack, this hard-boiled novel somehow escapes the throes of depression and maintains a hint of optimism. A stunning book.

Money by Zola. I had to include at least one Zola for the year. I chewed over the question of whether or not Debacle is the superior novel, and came to the conclusion that I have no idea. I preferred the character-driven Money, however, of the two, and that explains my selection. Money is the eighteenth novel in the Rougon-Macquart series, and it’s the story of how Aristide Saccard sets out to swindle the country. Great stuff here–Saccard’s insanely obsessive drive to control the financial markets of Paris, and the greed of the herd willing to follow Saccard over the precipice into catastrophe.

Alien Hearts by Maupassant. Maupassant takes his cynical view of relationships to another level in Alien Hearts. This psychologically complex story explores the relationship between a man and a woman as they pass through all the stages of love–or at least the sort of love that they are capable of. 

A Funny Old Year by Alan Brownjohn. This British novel is the story of a retired professor who has had a long-standing affair with the wife of a colleague. The colleague dies, and then the professor is in the embarrassing position of having to marry his mistress. Sensing his reluctance, she sets up a pact. They will live separately for a year and see whether or not they can do without each other or whether they want to commit to marriage. Not a lot happens here, but it’s an excellent tale.

The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore. The Doctor’s Wife is the story of a woman who ends up going on what is ostensibly her second honeymoon without her husband. This triggers a chain of events and brings on some long-overdue analysis of a stifling marriage. I’m still pondering why this book is so powerful. Moore is highly recommended by John Self at Asylum. I meant to read another Moore novel in 2010 and didn’t. I’ll have to correct that in 2011.

Becoming Strangers by Louise Dean. Another novel by Dean was reviewed and recommended by Tom at A Common Reader. Becoming Strangers is the story of man who’s dying of cancer and his appallingly selfish wife who are given tickets for a Caribbean holiday. Funny, poignant, bittersweet,and all too human. 

Post Office by Charles Bukowski. Do you ever have fantasies of saying exactly what you think at work? If so, then Post Office is for you. Bring your work frustrations but leave your tired old PC notions behind when you pick up Bukowski’s book and read about Henry Chinaski and his ‘shackjob.’ Hilarious. Thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal for this one. Sometimes you just need a laugh.

Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. A hilariously funny ramble by a nutcase. Yes, it’s that “dialectic of isolated consciousness” again. It’s pathetic, sad, nasty and mean.

On another note: I’m a contributor for Mostly Fiction where I review new books (or reprints) that are provided by publishers for review. Here’s a mention of a few wonderful titles I read for Mostly Fiction:

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth. A great first novel about a nutcase who moves into the neighbourhood.

The Alternative Hero by Tim Thornton–a first novel about a man who tracks down the reclusive rock star he worshipped in his misspent youth. Lots of 80s nostalgia.

Evening’s Empire by Bill Flanagan–a novel that spans about 40 years in the life of a rock star manager. Loads of nostalgia for rock fans and those with a weakness for books about the music biz.

In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut–A hard one to classify, but Kevin loved it too. This is a three-part novella which tells the story of three journeys. I’ve yet to review this one, but it’s really incredible in its seemingly simple take on travel, relationships, avoidance and commitments.

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard–reminded me a great deal of Dostoevsky’s rambling narrator in Notes from Underground.

Anyway, a lot of good books and it wasn’t easy to narrow it down to a handful. New York Review Classics appeared on my list twice, so I’ll be scrutinizing their titles in 2011 (and buying the Manchette).

On a final note, one of the best things about blogging is exchanging ideas with like-minded readers who can nudge me towards books I may not have discovered on my own, so thanks to all the readers & commentors for the past year. And Book Around the Corner, I have Novel with Cocaine right here in front of me….


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33 responses to “2010–A Year in Books

  1. This is a great list. It is great for me because it reminds me of some books I have and wanted to read for a long time, it is also great because it does describe very well why you liked a book. And it is a nice mix of classics and new books. I got the Simenon thanks to you already. (I am not one of those who can say “no”, I know or knew two murderers… )
    I read about A Kind of Intimacy on A Work In Progress’ blog and it does sound very intriguing. This year I planned to read more Zola and Balzac and also Maugham was on the list. I have a few others of Brian Moore too. This is an inspiring list all in all. I thought I knew every Balzac there is but can’t come up with the French title for the one you metion. My favourite one is Les illusions perdues (just reviewed by A Common Reader). I was going to start In a Strange Room a week ago… It sure sounds interesting.
    The Bukowski sounds great too. Unfortunately I mostly say exactly what I think at work which tends to get me in a lot of trouble. Curious to see how open he is and the reactions…

    • Thanks Caroline: This morning, I thought I should have added Maupassant’s Butterball and D’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques. I find myself thinking about one of the stories in Les Diaboliques in particular.

      I read some negative criticism about the ending of A Kind of Intimacy (I don’t agree). I loved the book, and when I love a book I tend to be really generous. It probably helps that I know someone who’s a lot like the novel’s protagonist. If you like A Kind of Intimacy, I also recommend Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar. It’s also reviewed here and made my best-of-2009 list.

      Black Sheep: La Rabouilleuse.

      For you, I’d also recommend the Simenon bio by Patrick Marnham.

      • Ah, La Rabouilleuse… My father urged me to buy it and I did. He likes it more than any other one. He is more into Zola normally. I haven’t read it. Something to look forward to. I liked D’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques. Boule de Suif (Butter Ball) is wonderful too. I was wondering if you knew Alphonse Daudet’s Sapho. He did remind me of Maupassant. It is not very well know and I don’t know if it has the same title in English.
        I will look at the Bentar review later. Thanks for the recommendations.

    • The Black Sheep/La Rabouilleuse has also been translated as The Two Brothers and A Bachelor’s Establishment.

      It’s also one of my favorite Balzac books. Of course Balzac is my favorite author.

  2. The relationships all seem so real. Or perhaps I just know the wrong people.

  3. I’ll keep your list for ideas, it must have been difficult to choose among 107 books.
    I hope you’ll like Novel with Cocaine.
    Here are the books I would haved picked for you as a Christmas gift:
    Novel : Thérèse Desqueyroux by François Mauriac
    Crime fiction : Debout les morts by Fred Vargas
    Memoirs of St Simon

    I’ll be following your literary adventures in 2011.

  4. Great list, but I haven’t read one of them but do remember some of your reviews. This end of year listing is a challenge isn’t it … but a useful one too I think because it helps us get our thoughts in order. Mine is on its way in the next couple of days.

  5. Colonel Chabert makes my top film list: a superb adaptation. Just rewatched it the other day….

  6. Book Around the Corner: I looked up Vargas since your last comment, and the books sound interesting. The one you mentioned is translated as The Three Evangelists. I prefer the French title.

  7. Yes, you’re right and probably even more in America.

    I have reviewed another Vargas : Morituri te salutant. You would like the femme fatale in this one, but I think it hasn’t been translated yet. I like her style and her stories.

  8. Mauriac: these are the titles I have Viper’s Nest, Woman of the Pharisees, Desert of Love and the Frontenac Mystery.

    • I read Viper’s Nest a long time ago, I remember it was good. I think you may like it. I haven’t read the other ones. I chose Thérèse Desqueyroux because it’s the story — and the inner mind — of a woman who tried to kill her husband. I seemed the kind of book you’d be interested in.
      Mauriac is not a writer really optimistic on human nature. He also has a precise and dry style that — I imagine — would suit you.

  9. I find Mauriac utterly depressing, very good but really depressing. Vargas is incredibly good, have to concur with Bookaroundthecorner.

  10. I got Post Office today. I’d love to say what I want at work. And Bukowski loves Fante, which is a good recommendation. Plus you and Max agree to say it’s good.
    That’s more than enough to make me want to read it.

  11. Fascinating list Guy. Good to see Hard Rain Falling on there, the only book I’ve bought by accident (while working out how my Kindle worked). I must actually read it now.

    Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes recently reminded me how much I love Moore by reminding me that Moore wrote a novel I was hugely impressed by (I’d misattributed it). A tremendous writer and not as well regarded as he should be – but then we can say that of so many I suspect.

    Some of these I’ll be printing off and rereading over the next few days. There’s a couple there that don’t ring bells for me (the two rock star ones), perhaps I missed them before. It’s a list will need some pondering.

    Good luck with the Bukowski Bookaround!

    • The rock star ones are at http://www.bookreview.mostlyfiction.com. I have a weakness for books about the music biz, and these two novels, both excellent were quite different. Evening’s Empire is the tale of the trials and tribulations of a manager who works with a very famous band–well they become famous, and he deals with the drugs, the egos, the contracts, the ex-wives and the groupies. A plot driven-novel, and I loved every page. The author, Bill Flanagan is the director of MTV networks.

      The other one, An Alternate Hero is really quite funny. The narrator is the hapless man who never really got over the highpoint of his life (which was his late teens). His big rock idol went berserk at a rock concert he attended and since then, the narrator has stagnated in a series of menial jobs. Then he sees his idol and begins stalking him. The author, Tim Thornton has another one out, and I’ll get to it soon. It’s a very good-natured, good-humoured tale with tons of references to the music of the time.

      We who are about to rock, salute you!

      On another note, I think you will really enjoy In A Strange Room. A truly great novel.

      Anyway, read the reviews (links in the post) and you’ll get a sense of whether or not you’d like them.

  12. leroyhunter

    I meant to comment before the holidays Guy but didn’t get the chance, so just wanted to add to the praise for your list. Thanks to your reviews I got to Lermontov, Maupassant and Carpenter who’d all probably make my own “best of”….I also picked up the Dostoyevsky, the first Rougon-Maquart and some Simenon so I’m grateful for those as well (by chance I bought Dirty Snow today – I see you’re reading it now). Great stuff.

    • Leroy: I’ve read a number of Simenon and Dirty Snow is bleak, bleak beyond anything else I’ve encountered by him (that means I love it). BTW, my current gravatar is from an old copy of Dirty Snow called The Snow is Black.

      Don’t expect much on the first Rougon-Macquart (although many people RAVE about it); it’s the scene setter more than anything else.

      Yeah, Willeford is something, isn’t he?

      • leroyhunter

        Actually now I think it was The Kill I got – I took your advice about The Fortune of the Rougons and might go back to it if gripped by completist fever.

  13. leroyhunter

    PS – thanks also for the pointer to Charles Willeford – possibly my oddest read of 2010. I rewatched Miami Blues last week, must look up the book…

  14. Leroy: The Kill is one of the Zolas I will reread. I still need to write an overview post on the series which I should get to when I’ve got my backlog under control.

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