My favorite books: 2010

I keep a list of all the books I’ve read since I was 13 years old. It’s a document I cherish, because it’s a great way to remember who I was at different ages, and the books I was reading then. Plus, as my memory gets worse, I can figure out whether or not I’ve read a book already. This year, I thought I’d make a list from the list, and share my favorite books of 2010. They’re in no particular order, except those published in 2010 and those published earlier that I happened to read this year.

P.S., I hope my book, All Over the Map, made your reading list this year! Thank you if it did.

Favorite pre-2010 books I read this year:

1. The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman (2008)

This is a marvelous non-fiction book based on the diary of a zookeeper’s wife who helped shelter Jews who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. It’s a perfect vehicle for Ackerman, who is a naturalist, and an acute observer of animal and human nature.

2. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany (2006)

A novel about contemporary Egypt. The author uses the device of different levels of an apartment building to tell stories of people from different social classes. Humane, richly descriptive, reminded me of a kind of contemporary Naguib Mahfouz.

3. Under the Volcano, by
Malcolm Lowry (1947)

Drunk in Mexico. Stream of consciousness. Fabulous description. Drunk again.

4. The Company She Keeps, by 
Mary McCarthy (1942)

First novel by Mary McCarthy, originally published as a series of short stories. I’m not sure how I’ve managed to get this far in life without reading McCarthy’s thoroughly modern (and autobiographical) stories about a young woman in literary/political New York in the 1930s. “The Man in the Brooks Brother Shirt” is an amazing portrait.

5. The Desert,
JMG LeClezio (1980 in French, 2009 in English)

LeClezio won the Nobel Prize in 1980, but few of his novels are available in English. This is a tale of two Algerian desert peoples, a boy many years ago, and a contemporary girl of his tribe, and their struggles to exist against the forces first of colonialism and then globalization. Lovely.

6. Death with Interruptions, Jose Saramago, 2008

It was strange to be reading Death with Interruptions just when Saramago died–made it seem like a trick, like I was in his world reading that story about his death while reading a story about his death. Another one of Saramago’s books where he takes one aspect of reality and shows how people react to it–in this case, death takes a vacation for two weeks. I loved the first half of the book, liked less the part where Death falls in love with a cellist. RIP, Saramago.

7. Home,
Marilynne Robinson, 2008

My mom read this and said she felt like she was a member of the family while she was reading, which is how I felt. Robinson draws the most amazing, intimate portraits of family relations. Classic, like all her books.

8. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,
Junot Diaz, 2007

This book just made me happy. Ghetto nerd from the Dominican Republic seeks true love despite all.

9. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro, 2009

Alice Munro is always a joy to read, with her intimate and emotionally complex characters. Title story here is a bit of a departure for her, about  Sophia Kovalevski, a talented 19th-century mathematician and novelist who struggles with the success, gender, and the politics of the age.

10. Timbuktu, Paul Auster, 2000

I don’t love all of Paul Auster’s books. Well, almost all. Including this one. It’s the tale of Mr. Bones, “a mutt of no particular worth or distinction,” and his master, Willy G. Christmas, a middle-aged schizophrenic who has been on the streets since the death of his mother four years before.

Favorite books published in 2010:

1. Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

All those people who loved The Help should run out and buy Wench. It’s more authentic, more literary, more chilling. Based on a real place, it’s about a summer resort where Southern slaveowners brought their slave “mistresses,” or “wenches,” told in the voice of one of those women.

2. Pictures at an Exhibition, by
Sara Houghteling

This is a wonderful debut by a young woman who teaches high school English about the looting of art in Paris during World War II. Houghteling has an amazing grasp of history, art, and the human heart.

3. Boys and Girls Like You and Me, by
Aryn Kyle

Aryn Kyle’s stories are full of a lot of troubled young women in painful situations, which is probably why I liked it. Full of humor, loneliness, longing, mean girls, bad boyfriends, worse dads. Writing occasionally has that predictable MFA style, but I’m a fan.

4. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by
Jennifer Egan

Mish-mash of  story relating to rock and roll and aging. Unlikeable characters, but very likeable book.

5. Anthropology of an American Girl, by
Hilary Thayer Hamann

This huge tome is a coming-of-age tale with a memorable character. It could’ve used some editing, but I was still sad to finish it.

6. Just Kids, by
Patti Smith

I thoroughly enjoyed punk godmother Patti Smith’s memoir of her 20s in New York City with Robert Mapplethorpe. But a National Book Award? I guess I liked it better when it was sort of bad-girl to like Patti Smith, not mainstream critics’ darling.

7. Freedom, by 
Jonathan Franzen

Worth all that hype.

8. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (hardcover 2009)

All of New York City pauses when a Frenchman, Philippe Petit, walks a cable between the World Trade Center towers. An intermingling of stories–a street priest, hookers, mothers mourning their sons who died in the war–told with a perfect ear and heartbreaking humanity.

9. Snake Lake, by Jeff Greenwald.

Painfully honest account of this travel writer (and, okay, my friend) as he searches for meaning to big questions in Nepal, and understanding his brother’s suicide. I wish there’d been a little more on the brother and less on Nepal, but it’s a delicate balance. Brave.

10. Private Life, by
Jane Smiley

Glad to enjoy another Jane Smiley book after I HATED Ten Days in the Hills. Sweeping novel with a depressing arc. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening is evoked at one point, and Margaret’s life and journey seem almost as confined. But I wondered whether she was too smart a character to live with what she lived with for so long without taking any action on her own behalf.

The wisdom of not reading your reviews

I somehow have very bad luck with New York Times reviews. Most authors would say that it is very good luck to have your book reviewed in the Times at all, not to mention that any publicity is good publicity. They would also say that it isn’t wise to complain about such a powerful institution.

I have huge respect for the Times. I’m addicted to the paper, and feel proud every time I write for it. It’s simply the best paper in the country. My experiences writing for the paper have shown me that they are very, very careful professionals, and respectful of their writers.

So when a review appears from a writer who is snide and disdaining, particularly, it seems, of women, it’s hard not to feel like you’ve been kicked in the stomach. Worse to think that almost every person you know will read the review and feel–I don’t know, pity?

When my first book, Losing It: America’s Obsession with Weight and the Industry that Feeds on It, came out, Gina Kolata gave it a very bitchy review, randomly plucking lines that seemed foolish out of context. A few months later she made extensive use of the book in a piece on the history of dieting, without credit. A few more years later she wrote a book on a similar topic. But first, she did what she could to bury mine. The Washington Post gave Losing It a great review, and its topic was featured on the cover of Newsweek. It made a contribution to the discussion about weight in the United States.

An Italian Affair was ignored. All Over the Map was included as part of a travel roundup, reviewed by Joshua Hammer, a Newsweek bureau chief and war correspondent. It might have been nice if the reviewer had been a woman, or at least someone who was capable of reading a book about a woman’s internal as well as geographical journey and not call it “embarrassing.” I was not embarrassed, and I think it says a lot that he was. My book was one of seven reviewed; five were by men, and the last two listed were by women–and one of those women, Rosita Forbes, has been dead for decades. I guess they needed a live woman in the mix.

I realize Hammer had to read a lot of books and digest a lot of material for his reviews. That could account for his weary tone; he had a lot of pages to plow through.

Writers are sensitive, so you can read the review yourself:

I was  annoyed, of course, that the reviewer described parts of my book as “Eat, Pray, Love Lite.” I’m not sure what it is about going to Rwanda to look at reconciliation projects after a genocide, or interviewing sex-trafficked women in Italy, that counts as “lite.” And no slam to Elizabeth Gilbert, who seems like a lovely person, but I wrote An Italian Affair about six years before she packed her suitcase, and I’m tired both of the comparisons to her book and the notion that my book was inspired by hers. It was not. Isn’t there room for more than one book about a woman uses travel as a means to find herself?

Does one complain about a review? Ordinarily, you’re supposed to roll with the punches, and hope that discerning readers like the book better. In this case, I could have shrugged off the digs I just mentioned and been happy that even a mixed review was better than none.

My friend Tim Redmond, Executive Editor of the Bay Guardian, and a friend whose judgment I respect hugely, told me, “It was bad, but not that bad. It’ll still sell books. It mostly seemed as if the reviewer totally didn’t get the book at all; I think even to categorize it as a “travel book” is wrong. But it’s okay; I don’t think it will dissuade people from buying it.”

I think he’s right. Many of my other friends said I was over-reacting and that the review was positive. My agent, editor, and publicist were not happy with the review, but suggested I let it go. I would have, but for one line in the review.

There was one wild inaccuracy in the review, and it had to do with a scene I described where I was drinking with some Samoan fa’afafine, males who act in the roles of women, and then took a walk on  the beach, where I was sexually assaulted. I included this scene because one of the themes of the book is the price that women pay for independence and freedom, all over the world. It was not an easy scene to write. In fact, I had written an entire novel about the incident, which I threw away, leaving only that one scene.

Hammer described this scene as a “drunken flirtation” that ended in rape. But nowhere in the text was there any indication that I was flirting with the Samoan surfer. In fact, I disliked him from the moment he sat down, when he asked me to help read a letter in English from a poor girl who’d fallen for him, and his attitude toward her was completely derisive, crumpling up the paper and throwing it in the sand. Plus, he was about as smart as a refrigerator. I couldn’t very well tell him not to walk on the beach near me because it was his beach; I was a visitor in the country. I was just getting air. I made my disinterest in him clear in the book. Anyway, it’s a memoir. I know what happened. I’m the expert here.

I decided I had to write a letter to the Times. Here’s what I wrote:

To the Editor:

Joshua Hammer’s review of my book, All Over the Map, contained a grave inaccuracy. He described a scene in my book where “an alcohol-fueled flirtation with a surfer on a beach ends in rape.” Nowhere in the text is there an indication that I flirted with the man who raped me; that is an assumption, and a wildly inaccurate one. One of the themes of my book is about how, worldwide, women who either desire to be independent or who are compelled to strike out on their own are punished by members of their cultures who are still vastly ambivalent about changing women’s roles. Sadly, Hammer’s review proves that point by insinuating that because I was out drinking with some Samoan drag queens, I must have been flirting with the rapist who joined us, and therefore to blame for the ensuing rape. Aren’t we past the notion that “she had it coming to her”?

The editors have acknowledged the letter, but haven’t told me anything else so far. I don’t want to make a stink; I’d just like to raise a little consciousness. That part of my book was subtle, and I deliberately did not want to make a big deal out of the incident, which I don’t want to do in print in the Times. I just wish someone would apologize. That Samoan surfer did, the next day. It didn’t make the bad incident go away, but it helped me realize that he was human, too.

Update: The Times has agreed to run my letter about the review. I appreciate their professionalism and consideration.