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2010–What books are we looking foward to reading?

January 4, 2010

Elizabeth Kostova

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.

Elizabeth Gilbert

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.

Maryse Conde

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.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    January 4, 2010 3:34 pm

    Unfortunately, all the books that I have on my To Read list (and there are MANY) are still from last year….or even previous years. Maybe I’ll catch up one day.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 4, 2010 3:39 pm

    It’s a new day, a new year, a new decade. Don’t neglect some new books, too, to go with the old. And remember, you’re not getting any younger yourself.

  3. rachel permalink
    January 4, 2010 4:35 pm

    Yes, I agree so many books that are on my list and in my piles are from previous years or centuries. However, I will trust my guider to guide my reading of contemporary work. Thank you in advance Chauncey Mabe.

    I’ve never read Maryse Conde, but she sounds great, I want to read some of her work. But see even with that I want to read the ones you said you have read and loved, rather than a new book which you expect to be good but don’t know for sure. When it comes to reading I’ll gladly admit: I’m a follower.

    Currently I’m reading Mary Karr’s “Lit” which came out in November. I know that was now last year, but it seems pretty darn current to me.

  4. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 4, 2010 5:13 pm

    How are you liking the Mary Karr? It got great reviews, and she was excellent at the Miami Book Fair.

  5. DeeBishoff permalink
    January 4, 2010 7:49 pm

    Perhaps I will read Anne Tyler’s new book. I think the last book I read by her was “The Clock Winder”. I had forgotten about her as a writer and that a lot of her books are set in Baltimore. I may also read “Wolf Hall”. I went through a period many years ago of reading many historical novels about Henry VIII.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 4, 2010 10:35 pm

      Dee, I think you’ll love Wolf Hall. It’s much better than I expected. As for Anne Tyler, I liked Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant well enough. The Accidental Tourist was too cute, but still tolerable. After Breathing Lessons and Saint Maybe, though, I gave up on her. If you read the new one, please let me know what you think.

  6. Tommy permalink
    January 4, 2010 8:49 pm

    Eagerly anticipating “Ape House” from Sara Gruen. I am unsure if it will be as entertaining as “Water for Elephants”, which charmed me.

    Also, “This Book Is Overdue” by Marilyn Johnson has piqued my curiosity despite or maybe because of terms like Information Scientist and Cybrarians.

    Today I finally got my hot little hands on a copy of Kennedy’s “True Compass” so I have my rudder in the water. 2010 here I come, thanks for the continued help navigating, Chauncey.

    Remember, Lispector, Thursday, Please.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 4, 2010 10:37 pm

      Lipsector who?

      Ape House is a great title, I hope the book lives up to it. The others you mention all sound promising, too. Report back in due time, please.

  7. January 4, 2010 10:03 pm

    I’m reading a powerful work right now. Haven’t finished it yet but it has got me by the throat and I would highly recommend it to any lovers of literature. It’s by Christian Jungersen. The title is EXCEPTION. It’s a study about the nature of evil. Jungerson builds his novel thematically around Hannah Arendt’s remark about the Nazis and their “banality of evil.” A page turner most definitely.

    Let me also recommend 3 books that I’ve recently reviewed: John Mood’s A NEW READING OF RILKE (Mellen 2009). For Rilke lovers this is a must book. Mood’s first study of Rilke written back in the 70’s is still in print and is the 2d best-selling book on the poet who told us: “You must change your life.” Mood’s new study is engaging, funny, irreverent and enlightening.

    Next on my list is Walter Cummins’ THE END OF THE CIRCLE (Egress January 10, 2010). CIRCLE is Cummins’ 4th collection and he’s as wise, insightful and entertaining about human nature as ever. I love his style. Wish I could write like that: Hemmingway/ Carver with a Cummins’ twist.

    Finally, let me recommend the forthcoming IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS by Thomas E. Kennedy, a story of torture under Pinochet and how one man is able to survive that torture and recover his life by moving to the Torture Study Center in Denmark and battle back from what should have ruined him totally. ANGELS pulls no punches. It is one of the richest, most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. I called it a “masterpiece” in my review. I’ve never used the word for any of the dozens of reviews I’ve written. You are going to hear about this book, my friends. It comes out from Bloomsbury in April 2010.

    Hey, I like these lists. Let’s do this some more, Chauncey.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    January 5, 2010 12:20 am

    Those are all intriguing recommendations, Duff, thanks for them. I’ll be looking for these titles in my media mail. I wish I could read them all right now.

  9. Connie permalink
    January 8, 2010 1:52 pm

    What, you’re not stoked for Ian McEwan’s “Solar” in March?

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