ABC’s Favorite Books of the Year, Part the Blogmistresses

Here you are, another part of the ABC Staff’s Favorite Reads of the past year.  We hope you enjoy reading about what we enjoyed reading the past 12 months, and hopefully we’ll give you some ideas to boot!

It’s time for the very last list of this year:  that of your blogmistresses Hayley and Sophie – and also a very last-minute list from Renate.  I think I can say that I speak for Hayley as well when I say thank you all for reading our posts, and for sending in your articles and top 5s and comments, and everything else.  It’s always a real pleasure working on this blog, and we hope that we can keep going for quite a while yet!

Happy holidays!

This year we would again love to hear from you what your favorite reads were.  Please send us your top 5 (they don’t have to be books published in 2010, just read in 2010).  You can mail them to blog@abc.nl, and be sure to include your mailing address so we can send you an ABC gift voucher as a thank you.  We’ll publish your lists at the beginning of 2011 so you have all month to mail them in.  Thanks to those of you who have already sent in lists!


Renate

1. Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Absolutely and entirely. This book is simply about everything in life. Family, relationships, the years we’ve lived in, in doubt, uncertainty, happiness and unhappiness. There are numerous scenes from this novel that still stick in my mind like I saw it happening yesterday. This novel is broad in scope, funny at exactly the right moments, and slowly, eventually oh so moving.

2. The Collected Stories – Lydia Davis

This year all stories by Lydia Davis were collected in one volume. And they’re absolutely amazing. I haven’t finished reading all of them yet, but I know these stories will keep me warm and comfortable during the cold winter months. These stories are often remarkably short, but they will surprise you and hit you in the face. So so beautiful.

3. No One Belongs Here More Than You – Miranda July

Another short story collection. Miranda July’s stories are sharp, very very funny, emotionally and sexually frank and surprisingly original. Though published in 2008 I only read them this summer while vacationing in a very hot Berlin.

4. The Discomfort Zone – Jonathan Franzen

These are personal essays and stories by the man who wrote The Corrections and his latest, Freedom. Though they are not fictional, they are written with the same analytical, satirical and honest intention that governs most of his novels. Insightful, funny and sometimes surprisingly recognizable.

5. Human Chain – Seamus Heaney

Let the Irish write poetry. Heaney is, as always, on top of the poetry game. Though, I must admit, sometimes I have a little trouble with finding some of the poems’ exact meanings, I comfort myself that I don’t really need to understand them. Because they are full of extraordinary, sometimes even ordinary, images that are just beautiful to your ear (and yes, read them out loud!).

Hayley

1. Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer

Opposite the Notre Dame in Paris is a ramshackle hodgepodge book store, stuffed to the rafters with new books, old books, and a few down-on-their-luck authors. They get free bed and board as long as they don’t mind sleeping and eating in between the bookcases and helping to run the shop. Jaded crime reporter Jeremy Mercer ran away from his life in Canada and ended up at Shakespeare and Co., befriending the shop’s bohemian owner George, and eventually helping to change the fate of the store and ensure its future.  Mercer perfectly captures the soul of Shakespeare and Co. and its owner, and writes entertainingly about the motley crew of other authors who bedded down among the books. This was a magical book. I read it in Paris, with a trip to the famous store just as I was half-way through, which made it even more magical and memorable.  My favorite book of the year.

2. Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

I did a little dance when I saw this at Shakespeare & Co; my copy has the famous S & Co stamp in the front, which gives me a book-geek thrill every time I see it, and I’m sure I’ll be seeing it again since this is a book I know I’ll be reading more than once. I’m fascinated to the point of obsession by North Korea and the lack of real information about the lives of ordinary people there makes it even more intriguing. This book is as close as you’ll get to learning about life in the rogue state without actually living there. The stories in it were told to the author by defectors now living in South Korea. To westerners, they are are surreal and hard to believe: the matter-of-fact accounts of food padded out with grass and bark during the famine, the complete darkness caused by fuel shortages (that hides illicit courtships), the strange and colorful beauty of a cheap plastic hairclip, too ostentatious and contraband to wear. And of course the constant fear of the being caught doing something forbidden in a state even more totalitarian than anything Orwell could dream up. It won this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize. (The shortlist for this prize is always excellent by the way, worth checking out if you’re looking for accessible non-fiction.)

3. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok

Kimberly and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to New York, penniless and unable to speak English. Home is a derelict apartment in a tenement, work is in a filthy sweatshop, where Kimberly helps her mother after school. Life is hard, but Kim is smart and determined to lift her small family out of poverty. She gains a scholarship to a private school, and finds that with opportunity come difficult choices. Kwok based this story on her own experiences – she lives in Holland now, by the way – and there is understated authenticity on every page, particularly in the subtle way in which Kwok describes Chinese culture and language. I can’t recommend this book enough.

4. Zeitoun by David Eggers

I hereby take back every word I may have uttered in the early noughties about Eggers being a cocky little upstart. He is a cocky little upstart, albeit a supremely talented one. But now ten years later, with the astonishing tale of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, he has redeemed himself and I understand why he’s such a literary darling. In the hands of Eggers, this true story reads like the best sort of fiction, a weighty tale told in light language.

Zeitoun was a popular figure in New Orleans. A building contractor, with a thriving business and a happy family. When Katrina advanced, his wife and children fled to Arizona, and he stayed behind, as he had done many times before, to guard his and his customers’ properties.  After the storm, when the rescue services were absent or indifferent, he used a salvaged canoe to pick up his neighbors and bring them to safety, and distribute supplies to those left behind. Until, that is, he was arrested by soldiers, accused of being a member of Al Qaeda. He was taken to one of the now infamous makeshift prisons that sprang up after the storm and from which escape and release were seemingly equally impossible.

The image of Zeitoun canoeing through the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina stayed with me for months afterwards, as did the sense of outrage that such a decent person could be treated so appallingly. Not cocky or upstart at all – Eggers is a sensitive and talented author and this is an unforgettable story.

5. Escape by Carolyn Jessop

This was a tough call. I nearly had I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed by Kyria Abrams at number five, because I so enjoyed reliving my Jehovah’s Witness childhood (Demonic Smurfs! Possessed yard sale junk!)  through the pages such a gleefully apostate memoir. But instead, since Kyria’s book has gone out of print already, I’m going with another story, from another Christian sect. This time there was nothing to laugh about. You can tell from the British cover that Escape will appeal to readers who liked David Pelzer’s A Child Called It, and it’s every bit as shocking and compelling. The author was married at 18 to Merril Jessop, a 55 year-old man who would later go on to lead the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (after its prophet Warren Jeffs was jailed on charges including being an accomplice to rape.) Carolyn details her incredibly difficult life as sister-wife number four in a dysfunctional, violent family, inside the FLDS cult at a time of intense and disturbing change that eventually lead to the CPS removing hundreds of children from the FLDS compound. Carolyn escaped with her eight children before the raids were carried out. If you ever wondered why the CPS saw fit to remove so many children from their families, this bizarre and moving memoir will answer your questions and leave you raw and angry.

Sophie

1. The Hand That First Held Mine –  Maggie O’Farrell

One day, when Maggie O’Farrell wins the Man Booker, I will smugly say to everyone that comes rushing in to buy the book (and all her other titles) that I always knew she was this good and this deserving.  For no one (that I’ve read, at least) has the same beautiful poetic command of language that grafts an image into your head with a just a few words.  I only know of Cormac McCarthy who has the same kind of sparse style, but Maggie’s is softer yet impacts no less.

This latest book of hers deals with motherhood and memory.  Two storylines interweave and melt, one set in 1950’s Soho London and one in London now.  Her insights on being a mother those first few weeks after your firstborn has arrived are spot on, and as usual I was left breathless and in tears in several parts of the story.  Ms. O’Farrell always leaves enough room for the reader to fill in details, and always leaves the story at a good end, but with a lot still left unsaid.  Such is life, though, isn’t it.

The only problem with a Maggie O’Farrell book is that, once you finish it, you have to wait so patiently for a new one to be written.  No pressure, Ms. O’Farrell, or anything; I just wish I could read books this beautiful all the time.

2.  The Black Dagger Brotherhood series (starts with Dark Lover) – J. R. Ward

And now, as Monty Python says, for something completely different.  While I was waiting impatiently for The Hand That First Held Mine, I picked up Dark Lover, what with it being an ABC Evergreen.  I figured I should listen to my customers and give it a try, even though it’s all about über-hardcore alpha male vampires and the beautiful long-legged women they melt for (not generally my cup of tea, although I love my Romance books, I really do) – but nine days and eight books later I came back to earth.

Hubba-hubba!  Wow.  WOW.

Now, before you go out and try this series, be warned:  the men in these books have the silliest names ever.  I kid you not:  Wrath, Rhage, Phury, Vicious, Zsadist, I could go on.  Each has their own story told in a book, so after a while you actually get used to it, but it took me a bit of eye-rolling to get through it.  Still, it’s not just their personal stories that are fun (oh, by the way, these books are, as the Romantic Times will tell you, in the HOT category), but the whole world J. R. Ward creates is tough, dark, testosterone-filled, and hardcore.  It’s this world, with its sweet-smelling villains and its very extensive backstories and the even more extensive character arcs of all the Brothers that return in every book (and not nominally, either), that I had an absolute blast reading about.  And those six-packs?  Well, twist my arm a little harder, and I might be able to get used to those as well.  ^^  I can’t wait for Lover Unleashed!

3.  The Inspector Gamache series (starts with Still Life) – Louise Penny

One of the good things about being a blogmistress is that, when I find the time, I get to write Bookbits, about booknews.  And every so often you read a little blurb about a book that won one of those mystifying Daggers that seem to be handed out every other week in several categories that catches your eye and makes you pick it up, as was the case with this series.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a man I wish I could know in real life.  He’s a francophone Canadian who ends up trying to solve crimes in the picturesque village of Three Pines (in most books), somewhere between Montreal and the US border.  He discovers a ragtag group of people inhabiting the village, and ends up befriending most of them.  He’s a divisive figure in the Surété (the Quebec police force, if you will) because of the mysterious Arnot case (a storyline that continues throughout the books), and he’s the kind of man that sees something in people others have given up on, and gives them a second chance.  Rather than rush out there with guns blazing, he sits on the deck with a cup of coffee and talks to people, or else merely watches them.  Marvellous, calmly ambling stuff, dotted with poetry and quiet observations throughout.

I have read four of the six books out there at the moment, and I’ve really enjoyed them all.  These books make you think about life, the universe, and everything.  They make you look at yourself as you face the killer’s dilemma, and wonder if you would act any differently.  I hope so, but I also sincerely hope I never need to find out.

4.  The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

This is a very dark, fearful story, told in 5 different voices. Set in 1321, at a time of great natural upheaval (droughts, floods, storms, etc.)(sound familiar?), in a rural English village still struggling to combine Christianity with old Pagan beliefs. A group of Beguines has set up camp next to them, trying to branch out into England. I always thought Beguines were nuns, but I was quite wrong! They were instead communities of women – what a fabulous thing to discover! How come I never learned this in school? Why don’t they teach this along with the various kings of England, the great plague, and the build-up to WWII? I guess you’re never too old to learn.

If you’re a horror fan you’ll not be fazed by this book, but I found it really, really suspenseful and scary.  The legend of the Owlman I find quite terrifying, and his minions the Owl Masters equally so, and the way she writes it leaves you halfway between total belief in this supernatural power (after all, almost all of us are still afraid in the dark, especially in the dark in the woods, right?) and that voice of reason in your head saying that there must be a trick to it all.  Add to this storyline the attempts of the Marthas of the Beguinage as they try to set up their collective, and all the fear and distrust and reluctant pleas for help they face through it all, and you have a gorgeous book to get totally lost in, and then be totally relieved that the end has come, because more suspense would have done you in.

5.  The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This was a bookclub book (as was The Owl Killers, actually), and one I tried to read a few years ago, but put aside then since I wasn’t in the mood for a World War II book. I’m glad I had to try again, because it is fantastic.

The narrator of the book is Death, who follows Liesel, a girl who steals a book from a grave digger when her brother dies on the train trip south to their new foster home. It’s the first book she steals, but not the last, and they all play an important part in her growing up. It’s a WWII story set in Germany, for a change. My grandfather, who lived through that horrible time, always told my mother that the war would have been a lot worse if there hadn’t been so many good Germans, and I’m glad there’s a story now that echoes that conviction. I, for one, have never thought about the war being just as hard and full of deprivations for the ordinary folks in Germany. I knew it, on some level, but I’d never learned or read about it.

A quiet book, very powerful, which also plays around a bit with form and style.  If you find a copy somewhere, buy or borrow it if you can.  It’s the kind of story that will stay with you for days, weeks, years after you read it.


Image of book stack: Wonderlane