Monday, December 20, 2010

Best Books of 2010

This past week, I was told by a clerk in a chain bookstore that the printed word was dead. He was raving about the ease with which he had downloaded the latest Stephen King novel. "I decided that I wanted to read it and then - Poof!- 2 minutes later, I was!" Fascinating, I thought to myself. And do you read in the bathtub, I wonder? And what about the beach? Will you bring it there? Oh, and what about your job? Do you enjoy recommending books to real live humans? I'll stick with the printed word, I thought, as I lined up with the other dinosaurs to pay, my soon-to-be dead artifacts in tow. It took me twenty minutes to get to a clerk. If this be the state of the printed word then death be most kind.

With that in mind, I have compiled my list of the best of the year. Culled from the list you see to the left, it is short but they are the few, the proud and the strongest of the bunch and they kept me captivated, inspired and feeling nothing but love for the printed word. Dead, though, it may be......


Some books you pick up and just know, from the first page, are going to change your world. This is one of those. For 5 year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he lives with his mother - Ma-, where he was born, where he grew up, where he sleeps and where he plays. Room is home to Jack but, to Ma it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. At once frightening, enlightening and tender, Room is a celebration of resilience and a testament to the limitless bond between mother and child. It takes us to places that we don't think we want to go but once we get there, don't want to leave. After reading this book, you will never look at a rolled up piece of carpet in the same way again, nor a wardrobe or a beam of sunlight peaking through a skylight. A masterpiece.

Who would have thought that a non-fiction account of the tracking of "immortal human cells" ould be so damn gripping? Rebecca Skloot (who also wins "Best Author Handle of 2010") hits the road in a beat up car to take us on an incredible journey from the "coloured" wards of Johns Hopkins Hospital to present-day East Baltimore. Her subject's name is Henrietta Lacks but we know her as "HeLa". She was a poor Southern sharecropper but her cells- taken without her knowledge- have come to be used in almost every vital bio-medical advancement of the past half-century. Cancer research could not have ben advanced without them, the polio vaccine not developed without them, in-vitro fertilization useless without them. And yet she remains virtually unknown, her remains buried in an unmarked grave and her family destitute. Until now. It might easily be stocked in the mystery section. An unbelievably readable page-turner.

A year without a new Philip Roth novel is like a year without fresh air. This newest takes us into familiar Roth-ian territory, Newark 1944. It is the summer and a polio epidemic has invaded this close-knit, family-oriented community and its children to dizzying, devastating effects. Roth leads us, like no one else can, through every inch of emotion that such a pestilence can breed, capturing the fear, panic, anger and bewilderment that accompanies the unknown. I almost wish that it had been published last year at the height of the H1N1 epidemic when it could have been distributed as a salvo to otherwise sane and clear-thinking citizens who were crowding the drugstore lines looking for hand-sanitizers that they had come to believe would deliver them from certain ruin. How does an individual withstand the onslaught of circumstances, is the question that this book asks? Surely, cooler heads must prevail, seems to be the answer.

Labour Day

Henry has been waiting all summer for something to happen, anything to deliver him from the boredom and torpor that have enveloped he and his depressed mother, Adele, into a life of routine and dull circumstance. That is until Labour Day weekend, when he and Adele step into a "Pricemart" to buy trousers and find their wider world shaken up by a chance encounter with a bleeding man who approaches them and asks for their help. Author Joyce Maynard weaves a beautiful, poignant tale (which she wrote in 6 weeks!) of love, sex and adolescence as seen through the eyes of a 13 year-old teenaged boy and the man he later becomes. It is a touching, lovely, fever dream that left me praying for it to never end. I picked it up in the middle of January and read it in a fortnight, only to discover, by chance a week later, that it had been optioned for a movie by Jason Reitman. I can't wait to see what he does with it.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
I started this book in July and didn't finish it until last weekend. Not because it was a brick (which, by the way, it is), but because I kept putting it down to contemplate what I was reading. Some books need to be savored, and this epic story of one of the great untold stories of American history is worthy of a slow read. Chronicling the decades-long migration of black American citizens who fled the South for the North and West, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Isabel Wilkerson has written the definitive account of how their journey unfolded, how it changed cities, countries and the people within them. And how she does it is remarkable. Whittling down more than a thousand interviews compiled over 8 years, she chose to focus the history through the lens of three unique individuals: Ida Mae Gladney, a sharecropper who escapes prejudice (and certain lynching) in Mississippi and acheives blue-collar success in Chicago; sharp and quick-tempered George Starling who flees the Florida orange groves for Harlem; and Robert Foster, who leaves Louisiana in 1953 to pursue a medical career. It is a bold, remarkable work that is so beautifully written that it will leave you pining for the people between the pages to never leave your house. Destined to be a classic.

What were your favorites this year?

Monday, December 13, 2010

I Wish I Was......

For most, Christmas is a glorious time of year filled with festive cheer, present purchasing and wine-infused family get-togethers. I don't despise the holidays but it is a very busy time. Between the parties and the cards and Nutcracker-ing, it leaves me wishing that I were settling down for a long winter's nap. Oh, and by the way, when did December happen, anyway? It makes me want to play a round of my favorite aspirational game, "I Wish I Was...."

Here is what I came up with in just 2o minutes of play.

I wish I was.....

  • swimming in a warm body of water
  • smelling a newborn baby's head
  • having a nap
  • playing Scrabble
  • hiking on the AT
  • listening to a Nick Drake album
  • having a cafe allongee in a cafe in Paris
  • reading the new David Foster Wallace novel
  • playing footsie with my husband at a work-related function
  • singing in the car with my kids
  • laughing on a street corner with Cheryl and Jen until I wet my pants
  • waking up from a nap and then having another

So? Your turn.