Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Decade of Books: 10 Series, 40 Titles

Just as surely as the first week of January brings new diet books, the last week of December brings Top 10 or Top 100 lists. See, for example, Wine Spectator's "Top 100 Wines," or Michiko Kakutani's "Top 10 Books of 2009" in the New York Times, or--let's make this easy--Time magazine's "Top 10 Everything" list, which is almost a parody of the genre. These lists are way too late to inspire holiday shopping, so they must serve another function. Perhaps they are a quick way to come up with copy when magazine editors would rather be partying. Perhaps these editors know that, at the end of a year or a decade or, not so long ago, a millennium, a lot of us feel the need to examine, sort, take stock, evaluate.

Since 1997, when I made a long commute bearable by reading, I've been keeping a list of every book I read. Before then, when people asked me if I'd read any good books lately, I could assure them that I had--but I had no idea what they were. Now I can prime myself before attending social functions where that question might come up. I decided it would be fun to look at my lists for this decade and choose a favorite novel and nonfiction book for each year.

I quickly realized I could not limit myself to two excellent books a year, so I decided to allow two in each category. The criteria: I had to remember what they were about (not so easy: I was amazed at how many titles I did not remember at all). They had to be interesting--no moral uplift or literary elegance unless I truly liked the books. And they had to stand alone: I did not include books that are part of series. That seriously narrowed the field, because I cheerfully read almost everything some authors write. So before listing my highly idiosyncratic Top 40 of the last decade, I'll list the series authors that give a more accurate picture of my reading habits. This list is arranged alphabetically. I have no idea what my order of preference would be.

10 Series Authors I Can't Resist
  • BarbaraNeely. Blanche White, a cleaning lady from Roxbury, is a gutsy original. And yes, that's how the author writes her name. 
  • Connelly, Michael. Reporter Jack McEvoy, FBI agent Rachel Walling, attorney Mickey Haller, and policeman Harry Bosch keep getting themselves almost killed.  
  • Frazer, Margaret. 15th-century nun Dame Frevisse fights original sin (my Books and Culture review is here).  
  • Grafton, Sue. California investigator Kinsey Milhone gets tough.  
  • James, P.D. Poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh, with DI Kate Miskin, fights mayhem in Britain.  
  • King, Laurie R. In one series, policewoman Kate Martinelli keeps Northern California safe; in another, Mary Russell assists the aging Sherlock Holmes. King has also written several stand-alone books.  
  • Langton, Jane. Homer and Mary Kelly solve crimes in New England, Venice, or wherever they happen to be.  
  • McCall Smith, Alexander. Many series and several stand-alones: Begin with The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency and keep reading. This year's La's Orchestra Saves the World, a World War II story, is a switch. (My review is here.)  
  • Rowling, J.K. Seven Harry Potter books in print and on CD, six movies so far--and since I have to read/hear/see all of them multiple times, Ms. Rowling has kept me busy for an entire decade.  
  • Sansom, C.J. Hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake fights evil in Tudor England--which keeps him busy for four books covering only six years. Since plenty of evil remained after 1543, we can hope more books are coming.

40 Fine Books
The subheads refer to the year of reading, not the year of publication. Most books were published a year or two before I read them--I waited for the library to acquire them, or for the paperback edition to come out. Some books were published whole generations before I discovered them. For each year, the first two books are novels; the second two are nonfiction. My mother made me read one nonfiction book for every novel I read, and I haven't entirely lost the habit.

  • Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections. Sprawling family saga; good read even if Oprah liked it.
  • Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow. Jesuits in space.
  • Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon. It's about depression, but it isn't depressing. Especially the part about the chicken.
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale. Reconstruction of New England life 1785-1812, based on an actual diary.
  • Zadie Smith, White Teeth. London immigrants and natives crazily intersect. How could such a young author know so many people so well?
  • Ann Patchett, Bel Canto. Bumbling terrorists hold a houseful of party guests captive.
  • Caroline Knapp, Pack of Two. Memoir: the bond between dogs and humans.
  • Lauren Winner, Girl Meets God. Memoir: growing up as a Jewish-Christian bookworm.
  • Dave Eggers, What Is the What. Fictionalized account of Sudanese refugees in the U.S.
  • Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Even better than Kite Runner; this one is about Afghan women.
  • Judith Jones, The Tenth Muse. Memoir: the editor who discovered Julia Child and many other major chefs/food writers.
  • Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma. Fast food, commercial organic food, local food, and food you find and shoot. Pollan is such a good writer that you don't have to have prior interest in his topic to enjoy his books.
  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun. A novel based on the Biafran war in the late 60s.
  • Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger. Lower-caste life in India, chillingly humorous. I liked this better than the movie Slum Dog Millionaire.
  • Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, Love by the Glass. Memoir by the married couple who write the Wall Street Journal's wine column.
  • Peter Brown, The Body and Society. How Christians from the first through fifth centuries viewed sex. (Thank God for Jewish rabbis, and for common people who didn't write books but kept on loving one another. See my review here.)
I've enjoyed looking at other people's lists, like the New York Times's "100 Notable Books of 2009." I've read only two of this year's notables: When Everything Changed (see above) and Losing Mum and Pup (funny memoir). Thinking maybe my score was low because some of the books haven't made it to the library yet, I checked the 2008 list. Alas, I had read only one: Home (fine novel, I reviewed it here). 2007, maybe? Hey, I read six of the novels, though none of the nonfiction (perhaps I should try How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read).

But that's missing the point, isn't it. We read what we enjoy. We share lists because some of our friends enjoy similar books. I hope you'll tell me about books and authors you especially like. 2010 should be a good year for reading.


  1. I enjoy many of the series you enjoy. You might try the Inspector Ian Rutledge series by a mother and son writing team who go by the pen name, Charles Todd. Post World War 1 setting in England - very good. There are already eleven books in the series so many are in paperback and most would be in the library.

  2. What a pleasant surprise to find your blog, and specifically your list of recommended books and authors. I am pleased to see enough familiar authors on your list, to want to pursue some of the (to me) unfamiliar ones.
    Have you read Susan Howatch? Her Starbridge series is riveting and satisfying both as literature and Christian philosophy.

  3. Thanks, DConn, I'll look for Charles Todd. And yes, poetreehugger, I loved the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch.

    Today at the library I discovered a new Laurie R. King, "The Language of Bees." More Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes!