I love to read, but last year was just too crazy to do much of it. Consequently I only read 13 books last year, so this year I recommitted myself to reading and nearly doubled that. It's hard though with all the distractions of life (this blog being a primary one). Here's my list of the top 10 fiction I read this year released within the last two years:
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - JK Rowling. JK Rowling penned the perfect wrap-up to her monolithically popular series. With such weighty expectations, it would have been understandable if this fell short--even a little bit--but she met the challenge head on, pushing the story past its boarding school trappings into the larger, broader (and scarier) world beyond the Hogwarts school, as Harry, Hermione and Ron cross the threshold into adulthood. It's naturally the darkest book yet, with a body count and battle scenes to rival any action film. It revisits locales and characters from throughout the series, tying up loose ends here and there. And just as Order of the Phoenix burst Harry's romantic vision of his father by showing how even James Potter was once an arrogant teen too, here too-perfect Dumbledore is also revealed as having some skeletons in his closet (and no, I'm not referring to the post-publication revelation from Rowling that he's gay). That good guys turn out to be flawed and bad guys turn out to be penitent (sometimes) shows the extent to which this series isn't a simplistic morality tale, but a rich modern take on humanity.
2. The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid. A Princeton-educated Pakistani, living the American Dream as a successful New York businessman, confronts his place in the world following the changes in the U.S. and his home country after 9/11. The short, simple prose of this moving novel betrays its rich thought-provoking nature. It's not what I expected, and that I expected something different reveals on a personal level the now deeply rooted prejudices harbored by post-9/11 Americans.
3. The Abstinence Teacher - Tom Perrotta. Perrotta takes a defining issue of the so-called culture war and uses it to pit two opposing "warriors" against each other, who ultimately come to understand (and maybe love) each other. It's also laugh-out-loud funny, especially the chapter where a group of teachers attend a punitive weekend session for straying from their abstinence-only curriculum.
4. Finn - Jon Clinch. The trend of building a novel around the embellished story of a classic novel's minor character (Geraldine Brooks' March won the Pulitzer last year for doing so with a Little Women) continues with Finn, the dark tale of the origin and fate of Huckleberry Finn's father. Using modern language Clinch has effectively woven his own brutal story around the 19th Century Twain classic.
5. The Echo Maker - Richard Powers. At times humorous and gut-wrenching, this is the story of an urban woman who returns to her small town roots to care for her brother who, following a traumatic accident, suffers a brain damage condition where he can remember but not recognize those he loves.
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns - Khaled Hosseini. The follow-up to The Kite Runner manages to delve deeper into Afghan society, this time focusing on the evolving place of women in the country before, during and after the grip of the Taliban. It's predictable, but the emotions are genuine, and the story is satisfying.
7. The Road - Cormac McCarthy. Not recommended for the clinically depressed; McCarthy's bleak novel follows a father and his young son on a post-apocalyptic journey across the charred Earth to find the remnants of humanity--if they still exist.
8. The Emporer's Children - Claire Messud. Pampered twentysomethings manage to waste their lives striving to define themselves against the expectations built their whole lives that they are meant to be something more than anyone else. A good novel for anyone who wonders how the Manhattan set live.
9. The Ruins - Scott Smith. What starts off run-of-the-mill (two young couples take a boozy vacation in Mexico) quickly turns dark and terrifying as an afternoon expedition in the jungle turns into nightmarish science fiction, crossing the breaking points of human endurance, compassion, and suffering.
10. On Chesil Beach - Ian McEwan. Ian McEwan continues to prove that he's one of the most important working novelists with this compact yet dense story of the breakdown of two newlyweds' relationship at the start of their honeymoon. I read this contemporary novel about a traditional 1950s British couple right before reading Revolutionary Road, a 1950s novel about a non-traditional American couple. Nice contrast.
Other books I read and loved. Nonfiction: Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (a nugget-filled history of the English language), Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl (the engrossing memoir of the now Gourmet editor's stint as the New York Times food critic), Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (examination of the growth, evolution and breadth of Mormon religion). Classic Fiction: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Disappointments: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon (noirish crime fiction, was fine until the disappointing conclusion), Consolation by Michael Redhill (cool premise weaving a modern story and a historical one both set in Toronto, but I never believed in the characters).