Georgia Straight writers choose 15 outstanding books of 2010
As ever, assembling a list like this one means leaving out a slew of excellent titles—especially in a good year for books, as 2010 was. Still, we can say plainly that the following 15 items did the most to capture our imagination and get us talking. So let’s not play at some impossible science by calling them the best. Let’s say instead that they’ve stuck with us the closest, and loom largest in our memory. Here they are, in no particular order.
The Death of Donna Whalen (By Michael Winter. Hamish Hamilton)
It’s labelled a novel on its cover, but this unsettling work is no ordinary piece of fiction. St. John’s–based author Michael Winter creates a narrative collage out of court testimony, police statements, wiretap transcripts, and interviews, all related to a 1993 murder that shook his hometown. Winter has changed the names of those involved and often converted the first-person into the third to streamline the account, but otherwise he’s left the voices unaltered, with all of their strange tics, slang, nuances, and reversals. Given no dates or leading descriptions, readers have to map out the events for themselves—often a difficult job in the verbal crosscurrents. Strangely, though, the effort required makes the tragedy all the more haunting. An expert blend of innovation and empathy.
Cleopatra: A Life (By Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown and Company)
Part-time Edmonton resident Stacy Schiff creates a hypnotic vision of the legendary Egyptian queen from the few brilliant threads of fact that have survived. That Schiff does so without resorting to flights of fancy—relying instead on vivid, historically grounded descriptions of life in ancient Alexandria and Rome wherever the biographical record is blank—is among the major achievements of this elegant book. Another is what she does with the countless fantasies that male writers have dreamed up over the centuries to fill the silence.
Ilustrado (By Miguel Syjuco. Hamish Hamilton)
Built from fictional excerpts of blog postings, biographies, novels, and essays, Ilustrado is one of those rare literary debuts that doesn’t let its technical ambition get in the way of saying something memorable and poignant through story and character. Montreal’s Miguel Syjuco mines his own childhood in the Philippines to produce a skillfully layered tale about a young writer whose obsession with his dead mentor drives him to confront the privileges of his social class, the nature of his tangled identity, and the costs of artistic failure.
Life (By Keith Richards. Little, Brown and Company)
Sure, there’s something faintly unfair about praising Keith Richards for a book when he’s already so famous for other things. And yes, Life is around a hundred pages too long, as proven by the details about house pets in the closing stages. But much to the credit of coauthor James Fox, this raspy-voiced autobiography transcends the whole as-told-to genre. What could have been an extended barroom-bullshit session full of junkie slapstick turns out to be a magnetic portrait that is self-deprecating, funny, and worldly-wise, revealing the inner workings of one of the best musicians and songwriters on the planet.
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (By Hampton Sides. Doubleday)
It sometimes leans heavily on long-established research, and does little to answer pressing questions from conspiracy theorists about whether James Earl Ray acted alone in killing the great civil-rights leader. But this day-by-day—and at times minute-by-minute—account of the King assassination and the massive investigation that followed amounts to an utterly gripping depiction of America in the late ’60s, in all its political heroism and stark violence. At the centre stands the jittery figure of Ray, both bland and deeply menacing.