Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


10 Top Books of 2010

In case you feel the need to slap me, I have already submitted the novel revisions to my agent. Despite having a houseful of guests this weekend and childrens’ social calendars to massage, I was a good little writer. And there is a secret to my success: you know how all the famous artistes of history had wives who did all the actual bloody work, while the fellas scratched their bums, sucked their quills and tried to find words that rhymed with orange? Well folks, I have a husband and a damn useful one at that. I have to admit that there was a certain amount of bliss, sitting in my office, hearing the noises of my family and our friends above me, smelling the scent of food being cooked by someone else, knowing that all was well in the world and my only responsibility was to put words in a row.

One of my blog readers recently bemoaned the fact that I no longer keep a list of the books I’ve read during the year and that she and her Swaziland book club would like some top tips. So this post is dedicated to M (how are you, honey?) and the ladies in Piggs’ Peak, Swaziland, who are in need of hot book recommendations.

Without further ado, here are my Top Ten Books of 2010:

The How We Miss You, Stieg Larsson Crime Fiction Award goes to Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman. This is a biting, edgy crime thriller set in a wintery Oslo with jaded cops, evil murderers, lots of corpses, inappropriate sex and heavy drinking. A great read and a page-turner that would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who loved the Millenium Trilogy.

The Laughing All the Way to the Bank Award for Literary Fiction goes to Emma Donaghue whose novel Room did not win the 2010 Man Booker Prize but which consistently out-sold the other five short-listers. Room, reviewed here, is a brilliant exercise in first-person narration and a stunning depiction of incarceration from the perspective of a five-year-old child. It’s moving, surprisingly funny and very beautiful.

The Maybe I Won’t Emigrate to Australia After All  Award for Difficult Fiction goes to Christos Tsiolkas for The Slap. At a suburban barbeque, someone slaps another person’s child, and the novel tells how family ties and friendships dissolve and unravel as a result. Tsiolkas, dare I say it, does not pull his punches and Aussie society is revealed, warts, prejudices, misogyny, racism and all.

The Beautiful Book in Translation Award goes to Julia Franck for The Blind Side of the Heart. This is World War II written from the German perspective and it is tragic, heart-wrenching and exquisitely written. Read it if you dare.

The I Laughed, I Cried Animal Lovers’ Memoir of the Year Award goes to John Grogan’s Marley and Me. I read this against the background of my family’s debate about whether to get a dog or not. Marley, being a good-natured oaf given to idiotic pratfalls, did not press his species’ case successfully, but it is a delightful book.

The Damn, I Wish I Was this Clever Award goes to Margaret Atwood for The Year of the Flood, part two in her dystopian trilogy. I’m not usually a huge fan of science fiction, but I’m loving this series, and Atwood is of course brilliant, incisive and sharp.

The Put Your Feet Up And Dive In Big Fat Page-Turner Award goes to Stephen King for Under the Dome, reviewed here. The reviewer says he ‘constructs a world so compelling  that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.’

The Makes You Hungry Without Wrecking Your Confidence in the Kitchen Cookbook of the Year Award goes Bill Granger for his fabulous Holiday, a feast of fresh flavours, novel ingredients and charming pictures of the lovely and boyish Bill.

The Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Jane Smiley whose thirteenth novel, the beautiful Private Life was published this year. The tagline reads ‘Marriage can sometimes be the loneliest place’ and in this book she traces the relationship  between two people who really shouldn’t be together, but who survive a lifetime of marriage against society’s expectations of them.

The Wolf Hall Book of the Year Award goes to Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, reviewed here. This is an ambitious book and I was nervous of reading it, because I don’t much like George Bush and I didn’t want to feel sympathetic to him in any way. However, it is brilliantly done and of course is not really about George or Laura Bush, but about Alice and Charlie Blackwell. It is an audacious attempt to fictionalise the lives of people who are still living, and while my mind swung from the fictitious characters to the real ones and back again, in the end I gave in to the sweep of Sittenfeld’s story. She deserves prizes and paeans for a big, bold novel and quite frankly it is she, not Jonathan Franzen, who the USA should be lauding as the leader of their modern literary canon.

And in case anyone wishes to send me books or give me gifts, here is my remaining wish list for 2010:

Anything by Margie Orford

Tom Vowler’s The Method and Other Stories

Polly Samson’s Perfect Lives

A Million  Miles from Normal by Paige Nick

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes


Big American Books

I’ve just read two chunksters by two American master storytellers. In the one corner, weighing in 562 pages is Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and lolling in the other is Stephen King’s Under the Dome, which comes in at a massive 880 pages. Freedom is a literary darling, feted by The Guardian as ‘the novel of the century’, by the NY Times as a ‘masterly portrait of a nuclear family in turmoil’ and by The Economist as having ‘the sweep of a modern Paradise Lost’. Under the Dome has also received glowing reviews. The Sunday Times says it is ‘a remarkable achievement’; crime novelist Lee Child says ‘Seven words; the best yet from the best ever. America’s greatest living novelist delivers his masterpiece’ while the Irish Times says it is ‘utterly compelling’.

While I think attempts to define people as ‘the greatest living novelists’ or novels as ‘the novel of the century’ are sophistic, it was an interesting experience reading the two back-to-back. Franzen’s book is intimate, focusing on a love triangle that breaks a family apart. It is nuanced, thoughtful and mines deep into the workings of its three main characters. You can open any page and find a quotable paragraph that reveals Franzen’s mind analytically at work. Here is a random example:

Katz’s susceptibility to women over thirty-five was a source of some embarrassment. It felt sad and little sick in the way it seemed to reference his own lunatic and absent mother, but there was no altering the basic wiring of his brain. The kiddies were perennially enticing and perennially unsatisfying in much the same way that coke was unsatisfying: whenever he was off it, he remembered it as fantastic and unbeatable and craved it, but as soon as he was on it again he remembered that it wasn’t fantastic at all, it was sterile and empty; neuro-mechanistic, death-flavored.

Paragraphs like these are archetypal Franzen; with long and winding sentences using multiple clauses, the fascinating mix of everyday language (‘coke’, ‘kiddies’) and academic (‘neuro-mechanistic’, ‘reference’) and the self-torture as each character flays him or herself for our reading pleasure.

The novel starts and ends with neighbours; people on the outside looking in and judging his protagonists as they muddle along in their twenty-year relationship, getting things right and getting things spectacularly wrong. He invites the reader to judge them too and it is tempting: Katz, of the above paragraph, is an aging rocker, juvenile in his predilections; his friend Walter is a goody-two-shoes who gets his comeuppance by being too innocent and trusting, and his wife Patty is emotionally scattered and needy, loving Walter, lusting Katz and playing out all these emotions dangerously in her relationship with her son Joey.

Here are two neighbours contemplating the Berglands in the early pages of the novel:

Merrie Paulsen wasn’t entertained by Patty’s storytelling. Late in the evening, loading the dinner-party dishes into the dishwasher, she remarked to Seth that it was hardly surprising that Joey should be confused about the distinction between children and adults – his own mother seemed to suffer from the same confusion about which of the two she was. Had Seth noticed how, in Patty’s stories, the discipline always came from Walter, as if Patty were just some feckless bystander whose job it was to be cute?

“I wonder if she’s actually in love with Walter, or not,” Seth mused optimistically, uncorking a final bottle. “Physically, I mean.”

“The subtext is always ‘My son is extraordinary,'” Merrie said. “She’s always complaining about the length of his attention span.”

This neighbourly bitching frames the question the novel seeks to answer: is Patty in love with Walter physically? It also points to Franzen’s great theme of sub-text; how people say one thing, mean another and do something entirely different. He is fascinated by what drives people to make their choices and we watch in agony under his microscope as Patty, Walter and Katz do just that.

King’s Under the Dome also puts people under the microscope, but in his case it is a whole town. One autumn morning, the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill is cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible force field. Food, water and electricity run short and the rules on which a quiet, decent town is built begin to shift and mutate. The Times appropriately said it is ‘something of an American Lord of the Flies’ and the reader senses that overpowering creepy logic that things are going to go horribly and violently wrong.

Under the Dome is a page-turner of the finest order and it gallops along at a breathless pace. But King is not called a master storyteller for nothing; while chasing his plot he also builds an array of characters whom the reader either loves and roots for or loathes and hopes for their comeuppance. He constructs a world so compelling  that you are obliged to keep reading, pressing the accelerator against your more civilised instincts, because you just know the end is going to be ghastly and grim.

Novice writers need to study King’s dialogue. He could write an entire book just of dialogue, just so taut and snappy it is. Here’s a brief scene:

‘Cool, Mrs McClatchey,’ Benny said. He raised one hand. ‘Give me five, mother of my soul brother.’

Smiling wanly, still holding the picture of her husband, Claire McClatchey slapped Benny five. Then she said, ‘At least the town common’s a safe place.’ She paused to consider that, frowning slightly. ‘I hope so, anyway, but who really knows.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Norrie said. ‘I’ll watch out for them.’

‘Just promise me that if you do find something, you’ll let the experts handle things,’ Claire said.

Mom, Joe thought, I think maybe we’re the experts. But he didn’t say it. He knew it would bum her out even more.

‘Word up,’ Benny said, and held his hand up again. ‘Five more, o mother of my -‘

This time she kept both hands on the picture. ‘I love you, Benny, but sometimes you tire me out.’

He smiled sadly. ‘My mom says the exact same thing.’

Stephen King is more than a master craftsman; he is a world-builder. Chester Mills and its inhabitants take up residence in the reader’s mind, showing us how humankind responds when things fall apart. King takes a grand theme and miniaturises it for his readers. Franzen miniaturises his even further, down to a world of three.

As a reader and a writer, I’m fascinated by both exceptional genre fiction like King’s and by literary fiction like Franzen’s. I know there are many readers out there who would choose one over the other, calling genre fiction prescriptive and literary fiction pretentious and that is their prerogative. I don’t see it as a literary versus genre debate. There is no duking it out. The reading world is big enough for all kinds of writing and I’m never happier than when I’m observing sheer writing talent in action.