Monthly Archives: December 2010

My Top Ten of 2010 (a quiz, with prizes!)

Making up this year’s list of my Top Ten favourite books was hard.  I read 88 books this year — 52 fiction, 36 nonfiction. Some other stats that might or might not interest you: 54 were by women authors, 34 by men. 70 were e-books, while 18 were traditional paper books. Among that long list were a lot of really, really great books. I had a very hard time whittling it down to a top 10 — there were a few at the top of the list that were obvious had-to-be-there books, but once I got down to the bottom five, there were many, many contenders.

I finally narrowed it down to 10 books … but I’m not going to tell you what they are.  Well, I sort of am. But I’m not. I’m going to give you clues, and you can search around on this site (or anywhere else) to see if you can figure out what the Top Ten books are. The first five people who email me a correct list of all 10 books before 11:59 p.m., NST, on January6, get to pick any book from the top ten list, and I’ll send it to them. I’ve closed comments for this post so no-one can accidentally post their list in the comments: all answers have to be emailed to trudyj65@hotmail.com. Include your mailing address and tell me which book you would like to receive, so that if you’re a winner, I can send you your prize! When the contest closes I’ll post the correct Top 10 list here. For now, here’s the quiz:

10. This is the memoir of a woman who walks into a church, takes communion, and finds her life transformed.

9. This major Canadian prize-winner sweeps us away to nineteenth-century Egypt.

8. A haunting portrait of slavery through the eyes of a young African woman kidnapped and sold far from home.

7. Simply the best memoir about parenting I’ve ever read, and also one of the funniest.

6. A novel about a woman who sets out to kill her husband before he kills her, this is the newest release from one of my favourite American writers.

5. This fantasy author is so gifted, she can even make me care about dragons! First in a series.

4. “Quirky” is the obvious word to describe this highly-acclaimed and unforgettable book by a Newfoundland writer.

3. A sweeping epic by my favourite fantasy writer, set in a world very much like 8th-century China.

2. It’s only eleven feet by eleven feet, but a young woman creates a vivid and beautiful world there — as does the author of this Booker-nominated novel.

1. My very favourite book of the year was a historical prizewinner that made me watch The Tudors with new eyes, making me care passionately about a historical character I’d never thought much about before.

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Annabel, by Kathleen Winter

The last book I finished in 2010 is also, by far, the biggest hit to come out of the Newfoundland writing scene this year (Winter, though now living in Montreal, spent many years living and writing in this province). Annabel achieved the enviable feat of being nominated for Canada’s three biggest fiction prizes this year — the Giller, the Governor General’s, and the Rogers Writers Trust awards. While it didn’t win any of them, being nominated for all three is a trifecta most writers would be thrilled to have on their resume.

As I’ve explained before, I sometimes have a little resistance to picking up any novel that’s been designated as “THE” novel of the year and hyped with critical acclaim and awards, lest I find that it’s all style, no substance. The subject matter of this one also gave me pause. Just as some people have been reluctant to read Emma Donoghue’s fabulous novel Room because they don’t think they can bear a novel about victims of abuse and abduction, I was a little squeamish about  hermaphroditism — the subject of this novel. I found the medical aspects hard to read, but the human drama — the story of a child born in Labrador in 1968 with both male and female genetalia — is riveting, and I’m so glad I finally did read this novel.

The child is named Wayne and raised as a boy with the help of surgery,  hormones, and a father who is determined not to see the feminine side of his son. Wayne’s mother Jacinta and their family friend Thomasina see the unacknowledged girl within Wayne, but his father Treadway wants his son to be a real Labrador man. That brief summary, however, oversimplifies the characters and relationships far too much. Treadway is a beautifully developed character, an intelligent, thoughtful, passionately loyal man who has huge difficulty accepting a child who is both male and female. His character, and the relationship between Wayne and Treadway, is really the focal point of the book, although there are many intriguing, well-drawn characters and many layers to this coming-of-age story.

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Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld

This is another book I picked up simply because of one of my kids was reading it — Emma, in this case. It’s set in a dystopian future, and while the premise sounded very interesting, I had some concerns about how it would be developed, so I decided to read along with her so I could discuss it.  We both found it interesting and there was lots to discuss, and there was nothing I found objectionable or offensive.

Uglies is set in a world that at first seems utopian rather than dystopian — our society has collapsed, but a new one has arisen built upon “sustainable energy, renewable resources, and a  controlled population.” But it turns out that a controlled population means not just control in numbers, but control at many levels — the most obvious and bizarre being that when everyone reaches their sixteenth birthday, they receive drastic plastic surgery to make them conform to an ideal image of beauty. Children under sixteen (who are called “littlies” till they are 12, then “uglies” for their early teen years) are taught that making everyone “pretty” eliminates the differences and prejudices that made societies of the past so unstable. If everyone is pretty, no-one is ugly.

Tally is about to turn 16 and can’t wait to become pretty, but her new friend Shay has some different ideas: Shay wants to run away and join a group of rebels who refuse the pretty surgery and live on the outskirts of society.  Once Shay defies the social order, Tally begins to discover the ugly secrets underneath their smoothly-functioning society; it turns out it takes more than just plastic surgery to keep an entire population docile and controlled.

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Juliet, by Anne Fortier

Juliet  has a really fascinating concept. A modern young woman, Julie Jacobs, discovers that she is really Giulietta Tolomei, descendant of a 14th century Siennese woman of the same name who was the original model for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The book alternates between modern-day Julie’s journey from the U.S. to Italy where she uncovers not just her roots, but some very dangerous present-day enemies, and the historical story of two star-crossed Siennese (not Veronese) lovers who might be the real Romeo and Giulietta.

Can I tell you one of my darkest secrets? After teaching Romeo and Juliet for years, seeing countless stage productions and both major movie versions numerous times, and even being an extra in a summer Shakespeare production … I really hate this play. I mean, I love Shakespeare’s language, but it’s just such a stupid, stupid plot. I think in an ideal reading or production of the play, you should find yourself hoping that somehow the ending will change and the lovers survive this time. But at this point in my R&J experience, every time I have to sit through it, I just find myself thinking, “Die already!! How long does this have to take???”

Anne Fortier actually manages to create a historical Romeo and Juliet who are far more interesting than Shakespeare’s characters, whose actions have more believable motivations, and whose fate is genuinely tragic rather than just stupid. She made me care so much about the characters that I actually did hope against hope that they’d make it and this version would have a happy ending.

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The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker

What an interesting book! I found this on a friend’s recommendation, having heard nothing about it before. It’s a novel about a woman afflicted with a hormonal disorder that makes her keep growing — the specific name of her medical condition is never given, and in fact some of the medical details are a bit sketchy, as parts of the novel have almost a magic-realism feel to them. The focus is very much on people and relationships — this is a character-driven novel with some beautiful writing.

The main character is Truly, whose unattractive hugeness is always contrasted with her beautiful, delicate sister Serena Jane. But being big and ugly isn’t Truly’s only problem — her mother dies, her father drinks and then dies, and when the girls are orphaned, Serena Jane is adopted by a devoted family while Truly is dumped on the farm of the poorest people in town. Still, she manages to make two lifelong friends and carve out a life for herself — and when, as an adult, Serena Jane disappears, Truly finds herself immersed in a bizarre love-hate relationship with her sister’s ex-husband. All the characters are unique, individual, and intriguing.

The most unusual feature of this novel (to me, even moreso than having a “giant” as the main character) was the narration, which was both first-person and omniscient — Truly tells the story, but she also jumps into the heads of other characters and relates scenes and conversations she could not have known about. I’ve never seen an author attempt this before, and it’s  a great example of how you a good writer can break all the rules and do things that shouldn’t work,  yet somehow pull it off. I found this novel fascinating and engaging throughout, and highly recommend it.

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Miriam’s Kitchen, by Elizabeth Ehrlich

Miriam’s Kitchen is a lovely memoir — and also a bit of a cookbook — about a Jewish woman from a very secular, not particularly observant Jewish family, who begins to explore her relationship to Jewish traditions around food.  Ultimately, Ehrlich pursues the experiment of keeping a kosher kitchen, which leads not just to a lifestyle change for her family but to changes in the way she thinks about being Jewish.  A journey that begins with learning recipes from her mother-in-law, Miriam, leads Ehrlich back through her childhood memories and her family’s history, and forward to the point where she finds herself immersing in a traditional mikveh for ritual purification after her period.

The point of Miriam’s Kitchen is, I think, to explore how practice can inform faith. We Christians tedn to think of shaping our behavior around our beliefs — i.e., we believe Jesus was the Son of God, and so we do this and that and the other religious practice. It’s a common generalization to say that Judaism is more concerned with right practice than right belief, and like many generalizations that misses a lot of nuances, but Miriam’s Kitchen shows how practice can be the starting point at least for one woman. By the end of the book, belief in God is still kind of an open question for Ehrlich, but her connection to her Jewish religion and heritage has been deepened on many levels, starting with the simple act of learning her mother-in-law’s recipes.

Miriam’s Kitchen is beautifully written and a joy to read. I highly recommend it.

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Rilla of Ingleside, by L.M. Montgomery

This is another classic I reread while drafting my current novel. It’s famous not only for being the last in the series of books that began with Anne of Green Gables, it’s also famous for being one of Canada’s best-known World War One novels. I’ve seen it described as the only novel about WWI from the perspective of a Canadian woman, and while I don’t know if that’s strictly true, it certainly deserves attention for illuminating that aspect of our experience from a contemporary perspective.

A contemporary perspective is always different from the perspective of a historical novelist. No matter how much I researched the home front during the first world war, I would never be able to capture that experience in the same way as L.M. Montgomery, who lived through it.  But there’s also a kind of uncritical sentimentality in her attitude to the war — partly because she was so close to those events, and partly, I guess, because of who she was and the type of book she was writing — that a modern novelist probably couldn’t get away with. I read and loved this book as a teenager, and have reread it many times, but not for several years. It was strange to return to it now, after many years of teaching my history students about World War One as one of the most misguided and wasteful military escapades in recent history, to immerse myself again in the world of this book where that war is portrayed as painful and devastating, but absolutely necessary and worthy of the sacrifices made. Rilla Blythe and her family suffer terribly as a result of the war, but not once do they question whether it’s worthwhile or whether their boys have gone off to fight for a good cause. In this, I think Montgomery is writing accurately about the war as most Canadians probably saw it at the time — the questions a modern novelist might bring to it are the ones that we impose later, with the benefit of hindsight.

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