Friday, December 31, 2010

The Best Things I Read in 2010

I'm not a very responsible reader. This must be understood before we go any further.

If I've been asked to review something, or a friend urgently entreats me to flip open some volume that has just rocked their world, I will do my best to do so. Other than that, I rarely make efforts to keep up with the next big thing, or the last big thing, or even the one before that. Therefore, this will not be a list of books published in 2010 that I read and enjoyed. It will be a list of books published a year ago, or two, or 200, that I happened to pick up between January and December of this year and, it turns out, rather enjoyed.

This is a disorganized, rambling, quite eclectic collection assembled from the 150 or so books my Goodreads list assures me I completed this year (And believe me, that number is probably a bit low, as I'm terrible at keeping up with that as well.). They range from children's books to comics to award-winning novels to collections of short stories, but the thing they have in common is that they were all very difficult for me to put down. I'm a reader with a short attention span, and as such I keep a stack of at least 8-10 texts going at one time, sometimes putting certain selections down for months until the mood strikes me again. These are the books that managed to break that behavior.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

This Pulitzer-winning novel chronicles the lives of two cousins, both young Jewish boys (one an immigrant fleeing war-torn Europe), as they create a comic book legend in wartime New York City. It sounds simple, but nothing is ever simple with Chabon. Kavalier and Clay is a book of great depth, exploring not only the creative drive of its titular heroes, but also the bitterness, hate and even terror that creeps into their work as their culture is assaulted by the times in which they live. Chabon's fluid, often breathtaking writing style and genre-bending prowess made this one of the best novels I've read in a while.

Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

Grant Morrison, one of the most iconic writers of modern comics, wrote this masterpiece during the boom of dark comics of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's a simple dual tale of the founding of Gotham City's notorious mental hospital and how, on one horrid night, Batman must journey alone through its corridors to tame the villains that roam there. Each and every major Batman villain gets a re-imagining with a pronounced psychological bent, and the surreal, jagged artwork of the great Dave McKean completes the picture. Truly a stirring demonstration of the power of graphic storytelling.

Stories edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

This expansive collection of tales -some scary, some funny, some simply unsettling- assembled by one of the hottest writers working today (Gaiman) and one of the best anthology assemblers (Sarrantonio) is further proof that the short story (the real one, not the slice of life epiphany one that's been so en vogue for so long) is not dead. Contributors to this treasure chest of imagination include legends like Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, Diana Wynne Jones and Michael Moorcock, relative newcomers like Joe Hill and Roddy Doyle, and bestselling novelists like Jodi Picoult and Jeffery Deaver, along with additions from the editors themselves.

Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

Three people with amazing abilities traveling around finding huge, sci-fi themed secrets form the basis for this all-too-short series by the great Warren Ellis. Eleven years in the making, Planetary centers around Elijah Snow (a seemingly ageless man who can freeze anything), Jakita Wagner (super speed and strength) and The Drummer (he can talk to machines and literally see and hear information). They travel the world as archeologists of a kind, seeking to discover the planet's secret history and unravel the conspiratorial elements that seek to stop humanity from reaching it's full potential. It's grand, epic and thrilling, but it's also very funny and wonderfully rich with characterization.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This Printz Award-winning novel chronicles the harsh life of a young girl trapped in the hate-filled borders of wartime Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Feeling saved by fictional worlds, she takes to stealing books, making up stories of her own, and bonding with a Jewish hideaway in her home. It's a heart-wrenching but achingly beautiful tale, narrated by Death (which sounds hokey but trust me, it works), and was one of the pleasant surprises of this year.

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Few historians can entertain me so well as David Starkey (if you're not into reading, check out his BBC series Monarchy), and this entry into his canon was no exception. Each wife, even those with the briefest, dullest tenures (Anne of Cleves) is given the full treatment of historical exploration. Starkey makes each of them a fully-formed human, each with her own ambitions, desires and faults. No longer are these queens seen as mere victims of a power-maddened king. One of the best historical works I've read in ages.

Fables by Bill Willingham and (mostly) Mark Buckingham

If you're a comics reader, and you haven't read this series yet, something is wrong. If you're not a comics reader, and you haven't read this series because you don't read comics, you're missing one of the best stories of the last 20 years (seriously). Willingham's story follows a virtual army of fairy tale and fable characters from throughout the history of human imagination. After losing their homelands to an (at first) unnamed adversary, they take refuge in a massive apartment building in New York City (except the talking animals, who go to a farm upstate) and plot their counterattack. With the exception of a few issues, this is all simply spectacular. Willingham's tale is endlessly inventive, massively entertaining and just plain fun to read. Volume 14 was released earlier this year, and I'm already grinding for the 15th to hit bookstores in the spring.

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

I gave this book the full review treatment on this blog just a few short weeks ago, so I don't feel I should rehash all of that for you. Suffice it to say it's yet another wonderful addition to what is truly one of the finest bodies of work we have in American fiction.

The Invisibles by Grant Morrison and Various Artists

Decades from now, if we nerds all gather and take a vote on what the magnum opus of Grant Morrison's canon was, it's a safe bet we'll be able to settle on this series without much deliberation. The Invisibles is a sprawling, convoluted, psychedelic assault on the senses, a chronicle of the adventures of a group of magicians, freaks and warriors as they try to defeat a great conspiracy that's controlling all of humanity (This was before The Matrix, by the way.). It's one of the most ambitious works ever undertaken by a comics writer, and I proclaim it here and now to be required reading for anyone serious about the medium.

Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Another Pulitzer-winner and the basis for Ed Harris' fantastic film Pollock, this thorough, ambitious biography probes into the life of one of the most enigmatic and debated artists of the 20th Century. The mountain of facts crammed into its 800 or so pages are all the more palatable thanks to some wonderful writing.

Shit My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

If you've been watching the dreadful CBS series, switch if off immediately and pick up this book instead. Halpern, a journalist for outlets like Maxim, began writing stuff his Dad says down and posting it on Twitter, and the grains of surly wisdom quickly spread like wildfire. The result is a memoir that's equal parts funny, smart and deeply touching.

The Sandman: The Kindly Ones by Neil Gaiman and Various Artists

2010 was the year I finally got around to finishing The Sandman, Neil Gaiman's epic comic sage of Morpheus, King of Dreams, and of the volumes I read this year (4), this was by far my favorite. The Kindly Ones chronicles the beginning of the end for the series, as Morpheus faces off against the Furies of Greek Mythology, with world-shaking consequences.

Tinsel: A Search for America's Christmas Present by Hank Stuever

I discovered Stuever at the Paramount Theatre in Austin during the 2010 Texas Book Festival. He read an excerpt from this book, and I decided I wanted the rest of the story. Stuever, a Washington Post journalist, spent several years researching and writing this book, focusing much of his field work on the modern boom town of Frisco, TX. In an effort to seek out the meaning of the modern Christmas, he follows a professional decorator, a Christmas light maniac, a single mom and several other real characters throughout their holiday seasons. He might not ever find an answer, but the exploration is an extraordinary ride.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

2010 was also my year for discovering the wonderful and diverse work of journalist Bill Bryson. I'm in the midst of my third Bryson book right now (Notes From a Small Island), but of the two I read in 2010 (the other being the also wonderful Shakespeare: The World as Stage), this was my favorite. Bryson journeys through time and space with this work, providing an insightful, often hilarious, overview of physics, metaphysics, geology, geography, mathematics and more. If you take nothing else away from this book, you will at the very least gain some staggering facts to share with people at parties. Oh, and if you can find the audio version, I highly recommend it. The text is fun enough, but to hear Bryson read his own work aloud is a joy indeed.

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