Top 5 Reads 2010 {The 45 Book Challenge Recap}

Somewhere in my blogging I have miscalculated my reading of 2010. After recapping the blog numbers + my goodreads (both of which are scattered) it looks like the final stats are as follows:

Books: 37
Approximate Pages: 10,838

Originally I set the parameter that books over 400 pages could technically count as 2 "reads" but I only managed 6 books over that limit bringing the final count to 43. So work with me on this one, if the Executioner's Song was 1056 pages does it count as four? I've already counted two of those, so add two more...
= 45 on the money!!!

Okay, so I didn't actually ready 45 books, per se, but I read a lot. I don't think ten thousand eight hundred thirty eight pages is something to scoff at. I'm proud of myself for sticking with this goal as well as I have. I've read some seriously incredible work this year. It has changed my perceptions and thought processes. It has absolutely enriched my thinking and experiences in 2010. And, more than anything, it has really opened my eyes to see how much there is still to be devoured. Delicious words. The more I read the more I realize how much is lost on people. The world starts to make these amazing connections, references (in all facets) become full circle and create these unique pairings and juxtapositions where all this great meaning and friction and thought is sparked, created, illuminated, realized.

It's very hard (very hard) to narrow down a top 5 this year. (You can see my top 5's from 2008 and 2009). Here they are, 2010, in chronological order:

The Diversity of Life - E.O. Wilson

A breathtaking read. Comprehensively rich and detailed in its examination of ecosystems from microscopic to epic proportions. Wilson weaves the overarching thesis ("I will give evidence that humanity has initiated the sixth great extinction spasm, rushing to eternity a large fraction of our fellow species in a single generation. And finally I will argue that every scrap of biological diversity is priceless, to be learned and cherished, and never to be surrendered without a struggle" (32)) into a captivating series of vignettes--through geological history, evolutionary processes, trends and methods, and snapshots that, however comprehensive and detailed, only begin to skim the surface of the complexity of an ecosystem on any scale.

The reading itself is intense, the information pours thick from the pages, but Wilson's terrific writing style allows the story to unfold (wide-eyed, wonderful, awesome) rather than listing pages and pages of data as would be found in a textbook (the amount of info may actually rival some).

It's thick enough I question how many people would actually read it in its entirety upon my suggestion, but I feel as though I couldn't recommend it highly enough. In combination with the contemporary trend of food industry literature (including Kingsolver, Pollan, Schlosser, etc.) that I have also been reading, the context Diversity of Life has added to my own background knowledge further intrigues, enriches my personal thoughts and beliefs. (Review from February 2010)

The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer
At 1072 pages, The Executioner's Song is the longest novel I've ever read. It took me all of 12 days to take it down, which, if you were to ask me, I would say is respectable. Much like Capote's In Cold Blood, The Executioner's Song is a work of creative non-fiction and an account of a small town murder and the legal processes leading to the execution of the killer. Mailer tackles the execution of Gary Gilmore in the state of Utah.

It's account happens to take place in and around my hometown, a place with very little (if any other) literary (or otherwise) reference and/or exploration. Imagine my surprise to see this rich story weaving intricately (remember it's 1072 pages, room for a lot of detail) in and around an area I am so profoundly familiar with. I don't know how to explain it; what a trippy feeling, what an amazing connection to a book that I have never been able to make before. Reading the dialect, geography, culture, ideology of my hometown bottled up in these pages so eloquently (Pulitzer 1980) was hypnotizing. Even crazier still was reading it after leaving Utah where I have spent most of my life. The distancing element + the accuracy to which Mailer recounts the geography and culture of the story = for me, a once in a lifetime feeling.

Throughout Book 1 of The Executioner's Song, I was absolutely captivated by the narrative of Gary, Nicole, and the story of their relationship.

Book 2 delves more heavily into the legal proceedings of the case, the sentencing, and mayhem that followed--at times Book 2 felt a bit exhaustive. Interestingly, however, Book 2's exhaustive detailing is giving the reader exclusive insight to how the book has come to be, self-consiously. All of the aspects: transcribing, the handling of letters and information, the selling of letters and information, media outlets and publicity, story rights, etc., all of it manifests itself -- and you hold it's pages in your hands. By reading the book you complete the unspoken third leg of the story and bring profound relevance to hundreds and hundreds of pages. Neat. (Review from May 2010) 

Angle of Repose - Wallace Stegner
Stegner is a big name at my alma mater (University of Utah. Darling was a part of the 08-09 Wallace Stegner Think Tank, writing a legislative proposal to redraw the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park). When brought up in discussion, I always think of Wallace Stegner, the environmentalist.  That is just my experience. I spoke with my mother about this and she agrees that those who know him as a novelist are surprised by his environmental activism (although place - as a convention - really starts with him and his work) and vice versa. Although I know many titles of his work, this was my first indulgence in it. Any expectation I had for a Stegner novel was turned on its head. I loved it. Really loved it. (I suppose I really shouldn't be as surprised as I am, it did win the Pulitzer.) I delighted in the character development, the beautiful language, the landscape. I relished its high-literary style and lyricism, its poignant observations, and sympathetic and respectful tone. I found myself returning to chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words-- over and over again. I made plans to reread (the book as a whole, but also just the section itself) almost as quickly as I could digest the present paragraph. Susan Burling Ward is my favorite fictional heroine I have met in a long time, I would say certainly this year. A strong woman, a lady, an artist and writer--the unexpected life she finds herself living in the crude, undeveloped American West. She's simultaneously lovely, tragic, intelligent, traditional, and human. Most of all human. She is not without flaw, but, like everyone else you encounter and connect with you love her for it. (Review from October 2010)

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen

Darling and I both wondered if Franzen's work was as good as his reputation. I've yet to read The Corrections but Freedom, we both agree, is an outstanding work of contemporary fiction.  Freedom is bold in its contemporary depictions of family life and relationships. Franzen (in his writing) is an expert psychologist, his insight into the way people perceive themselves, their lives, their actions, and the way others view them never feels short of spot on. Even the portrayals of the female psyche are arresting in their authenticity. The story is not one of extreme circumstance but rather an all to familiar tale of a family in the 21st century. To recommend a book that encompasses "today" or "what life was like while I was in college" (much of it takes place between 2004-2007) I might point any inquisitor in Franzen's direction. The cultural references, the relevant issues (the war, the environmental movement), it's all there but never feels forced. Instead, it enriches the story and gives a larger context to more fully understand the characters and the circumstances they find themselves in. I would also like to note that after finishing the novel I think the title is perfect. I wasn't keen on "Freedom" originally (as a first impression) but I think, in the end, he got it right. It broke my heart, in the good ways that literature does. It may seem like a large undertaking at 560 some odd pages but I read it in all of 5 days. (Review from November 2010)

Duino Elegies - Rainer Maria Rilke

The Duino Elegies are a trip to read if you're not prepared. According to an arbitrary goal set last January, I've been pushing myself during the last month to try and get in as many good books as possible. The Duino Elegies happened to be in the small stack Darling had set aside for me. So I turned on the side table lamp, picked up the next book from my pile, and curled up in a fat, afghan blanket in the corner of the couch. I opened to the correct pages and was struck, almost instantantly, (as if by lifted hand across the face) by the first stance of The First Elegy:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me
suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, 
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.

Admittedly, I don't know if you can be prepared to read it the first time--I mean, that's one hell of an entrance and Rilke makes no apology. I currently find myself in a space in my life where I am trying, hard, to evaluate and reevaluate what I'm doing, what I'm working toward. Where am I going, how can I succeed, what do I want the point to be? . . . In many ways I suppose it could be defined as my first existential crisis (of sorts). I'm beginning to feel the weight of the responsibility I have to myself to structure my life as I want it be, micro to macro. What does that include, and what does that leave out? To read Rilke is to shatter the world around you and allow yourself to transcend the mythology of daily human experience. Rilke acts at once as "artist, philosopher, psychologist, spiritualist," he holds up the mirror (as all good poets do) and exposes Us to ourselves. 

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward. 
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down.
We arrange it, then break down ourselves. 
 Who has twisted us around like this, so that 
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole valley
one last time, he turns, stops, lingers--, 
so we live here, forever taking leave.

It's beautiful, melancholic, overwhelming and intrusive. As soon as I finished I had this desire to commit the elegies to memory and read them in German. After sifting through some reviews I see that my initial reaction to the text is not an uncommon one.  I'm still processing, chewing. I'm moving forward with my reading this month but I will be visiting and revisiting Rilke. Much like religious or spiritual texts, I found with it a connection that I believe can provide some good and fruitful reflection. 
Books. Words. It's amazing stuff, friends. It makes me feel like there's not enough time to take in all that is good and profound and fulfilling and enriching. Read, read with a ferocious appetite because there is so much to fill up on. (Review from December 2010)

5 Additional reads from 2010:
The Human Stain - Phillip Roth
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
The Merchant of Venice - William Shakespeare
Animals Make Us Human - Temple Grandin

5 To-Reads for 2011:
Just Kids - Patti Smith
Angels in America - Tony Kushner
Rabbit Run - John Updike
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali - Sri S. Satchidananda
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge - E.O. Wilson


Okay Kids, it looks like that's going to wrap it up for 2010. Sheesh, what a year! I feel as though I've lived all these lives, how exhausting and exhilarating it has been. What say you? Anyone interested in seeing a 45 challenge for 2011? Anyone interested in joining in? What have you been reading this year? 

Let's share, or, keep sharing-- it brings so much happiness into my little world. I love you, I love you--Happy New Year Friends! Please be safe. We'll do it again oh so soon!



Ann-Michelle said...

EO Wilson was on Diane Rehm talking about Ants. ANTS! It was beautiful and moving (he made ants beautiful and moving), and I just wanted to curl up in his study and listen.

Emily said...

ha right? He's crazy smart. He's like the leading entomologist in the world and wrote the Ant "bible." He also founded a few schools of study... insane. I want to read everything he's ever written.

Rachel Swan said...

I heard the Ant interview too! It was so interesting and passionate and funny - I think it has endeared him to me forever.

I read Crossing To Safety over the break + loved it so much I checked out Angle of Repose yesterday. Angle of Repose has me all teary eyed + with a big ol' fire in my belly and I'm only on page 88. Do you ever feel that way? Maybe that's an awkward description, but everything he writes feels so human and gentle and true.

I'm excited to hear what you read this year!