2010–What books are we looking foward to reading?
Sometimes it’s hard, in early January, to look ahead to the books of the New Year because I’m still clinging to those I didn’t quite get to read in the old one. Before I mention a few titles I hope to take up this month, and possibly review, I want to briefly discuss at least one superior novel published in 2009 that I read over the holidays.
And I want you to tell me what books, fiction or nonfiction, you plan to read in the first part of 2010.
I picked up Wolf Hall, last year’s Man Booker Prize winner by veteran novelist Hilary Mantel, with considerable skepticism. “Prizes are merely badges of mediocrity,” declared the American composer Charles Ives after receiving the 1947 Pulitzer, and I’ve found that maxim often to be true.
But not always. From the opening lines of Wolf Hall, in which a teenage Thomas Cromwell is being beaten senseless by his drunken brute of a father, Mantel thrusts us into 15th century England with a visual and tactile immediacy that is both stunning and apparently effortless (an illusion: Mantel spent five years on this novel).
Her choice of Cromwell as hero is a stroke of genius. A blacksmith’s son who rose to become Henry VIII’s most versatile and effective administrator, he is an appealing character for his intelligence, energy, love of family– and even his ruthlessness. He also serves as a lens through which we can see afresh the overly familiar stories of such historical figures as Henry, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More (here convincingly cast as a villain, not the principled hero of A Man for All Seasons). Wolf Hall shows the historical novel can still be a venue for serious literature — without sacrificing entertainment.
Now to look at some titles you might consider for the New Year. In yesterday’s New York Times, Motoko Rich discusses five she identifies as the “hottest” books for January:
Committed, by Elizabeth Gilbert, the follow-up memoir to the mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. This time, Gilbert takes on the pleasures and trials of marriage with the man she found in the previous book. I dunno, maybe. With a million-copy first printing, Viking is betting big on this one.
Noah’s Compass, by Anne Tyler. Scads of readers greet any new novel by Tyler with whoops and cheers, but — with apologies to my friends and relations in Baltimore — I cannot share their enthusiasm. A gifted storyteller, certainly, Tyler is too twee for my taste–sentimental, affected, self-congratulatory in her accounts of working- and middle-class life. Maybe someone will read this one and write to tell me how wrong I am.
The Power of Many: Values for Success in Business and Life, by Meg Whitman. A former chief executive of ebay, with designs on becoming the next governor of California, shares her personal and business wisdom. Ha-ha-ha-ha-HA! Not in a million years.
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America, by Peter Biskind. I enjoy a good biography as much as anyone, and Biskind has the record (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film) to suggest this may be a good one. But today’s news that Biskind calculates–using “simple arithmetic” — that Beatty’s slept with 12,775 women, “give or take,” kinda creeps me out. That’s more Rainman than Romeo.
The Swan Theives, by Elizabeth Kostova. This is the first book on Rich’s list that’s also on mine. I missed Kostova’s The Historian (2005), a retelling of the Dracula story that was a bestseller and divided critics and readers alike (loved it! hated it!). Maybe I’ll give this one a try.
The January novel I’m most excited about, however, is Maryse Conde’s Victoire: My Mother’s Garden. A French-language Guadaloupean novelist , Conde seems to me one of the most underrated writers working today. I’ve only read the last two of her 13 novels — Who Slashed Celanire’s Throat (2004) and The Story of the Cannibal Woman (2007), but I loved them both. She marries modernist technique to historical fiction in a way that I find moving and magical. Can’t wait.
Also on my provisional list, which could change as new titles come out: Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, by Harriet Reisen; and The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution That Will Begin the World Again, by Robert W. McChesney and John NIchols. Although, the subtitle of the journalism book seems to overpromise, doesn’t it?
In any case, please share what books you’re looking forward to reading in the next month or two.