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1/30 Day Book Meme: Best Books Last Year

I stumbled upon the 30 Day Book Meme at Fat Books, Thin Women and really enjoyed reading the answer. It’s a month-long campaign with daily prompts on books and related topic. With ongoing book reviews, thoughts on The Divine Comedy, and the commitment to Musing Mondays and Booking Through Thursday, it’s not feasible to post consecutively for a month. Instead I’ll post whenever it’s possible to maintain one blog post per day.

Day 1: The Best Book You Read Last Year

This is the most difficult question to answer, and it gave me pause about participating the campaign. I have to select one or two books from The Twelve Books of 2010. It’s truly a tough call to nail a year’s worth of readings down to a few books. The word “best” is purely subjective, ambiguous and conditional. In order to be “the best,” a book must demonstrate lucidity in story-telling, contribute to either enhancement or appreciation of humanity, assert unique literary style, and last but not the least, entertain the readers. It is very difficult to compare books from different genres because they don’t embody all the elements. What makes a mystery is the story and not the language art. hat separates literary fiction is the multiple voices and subtexts that aren’t meant to be straight at the first reading. The answer to this ambivalence, at least to me, hinges on posterity. Think of the best as being classic. On top of the knack for telling an entertaining story with which readers resonate, the talent in achieving beautiful literary forms, and the sheer luck of earning fame and popularity, these classic authors have endured over time. The widely-accepted notion that a book has to achieve a level of critical and popular success that endures for many years can be a tricky standard to be rigid about. The length of time it takes for a book to achieve a classics status can also be disputable. The question, therefore becomes: what book that I read in 2010 will continue to be read 50 years later?

Works of literature that delve in the large and unpredictable forces in life would more likely to achieve the classics status. Despite the enormous changes in society throughout history, the subject matter of human experience that writers explore in their work is often very similar. Evil, guilt, materialism, love, self-fulfillment, and violence are all perennial themes that writers over time and geographical barrier have cultivated in their writings. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) is already a classic when I read it for the first time last year. It is a story about love and how one perceives love. Through a family romance, with betrayal and denial, Steinbeck explores how humans can spend a lifetime trying to decipher their expressions of love. But whether one is really loved sometimes cannot be known. The only love one feels is the love one feels for someone else. To me the most monstrous action to be remembered about East of Eden is not Cathy’s vice but Adam’s withdrawal, which has profound impact on the course of his sons’ lives.

Fifty years after East of Eden came Fingersmith (2002) by Sarah Waters. Set in Victorian England, 1862 to be exact, Fingersmith captures the teeming life that thrives underneath the various repressions of that era. In this book, the approach to the truth is so convoluted that appearances in one case have pointed one way while the truth lay all the while unsuspected in another direction. On top of the entangled fate of the two orphaned women, Waters surrounds their lives with characters who are unforgettable—neither wholly good nor evil. Waters’ prose is lyrical, but it’s what the plot that kept me up all night, with all the twists and turns concerning the identities of two girls whose fate completely changed because of a secret.

17 Responses

  1. For me it is a tie for best books read last year, and it doesn’t matter that one of them was a re-read. They are Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Honorable mention goes to Ted Hughe’s poetry ‘Tales from Ovid”.

    • My favorite Eco is The Name of the Rose. I was a bit confused over Focault’s Pendulum although it’s a great read. Little Dorrit I haven’t read, but is on my list.

  2. I had a hard time with this question too – I couldn’t help taking into account things that shouldn’t have impacted my decision, like whether I’d devoted a post (or posts) to a book, whether it was a reread, etc.

    I read Fingersmith years ago and enjoyed it, but never thought too much about it. I think I gave it away, actually. I’ve seen so many positive mentions of the book on blogs that I’m thinking it’s worth a reread, or maybe checking out something else by Waters. Have you read anything else by her?

    • This is the hardest question for me. I can never nail it down to a few books because it’s unfair to the efforts the authors put in writing the books. Also it’s equally impractical to compare books in different genres. Fingersmith definitely warrants a re-read just for the thrill of it.

  3. I love this line: “Works of literature that delve in the large and unpredictable forces in life would more likely to achieve the classics status.” Very true. I adore East of Eden. I can’t think of a specific book that stands out in my mind from 2010 but I’ll have to go back and look.

  4. I should read East of Eden – I have only seen the movie and that always makes me feel too lazy to read the book! I loved Fingersmith so much. And I am so grateful to bloggers, because I never would have known about it, or even about Sarah Waters, otherwise!

    • I read The Grapes of Wrath right after I put down East of Eden and I felt let down. East of Eden got the elements that appeal to me: family, lust, love, and redemption. I thoroughly enjoy the story and Steinbeck’s social critique asides. I want to re-read. 🙂

  5. Ooh, now you have me wanting to read Fingersmith even more than I did before I read your post. I loved The Little Stranger which I read last autumn, and I loved East of Eden when I read it years and years ago. For some reason, I thought of The Crimson Feather and The White when you were writing of Fingersmith; have you ever read that monster of a book? I loved it!

    • I also enjoyed The Little Stranger, which is completely different style! It’s as creepy as Fingersmith is cliff-hanging. I should check out The Crimson Feather and The White now that its reminiscent of Fingersmith. 🙂

  6. I would put East of Eden in my top ten books of all time. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I loved Fingersmith also and would put it in my top ten of 2010.

    • I inserted so many post-its in my copy of East of Eden that I need to go buy a second copy to re-read. I want to support the indie anyway. 🙂

  7. I had both of these books in my hands yesterday at a used section in a bookstore…now I wished I would’ve bought both of them!!!!

    • I feel like that too. I prefer brand new copies of great books. My copy of Fingersmith is actually used, but it’s wrapped in library plastic as if it’s never been read. East of Eden is a brand new copy.

  8. Interesting post. I have at least one of Sarah Waters’ books in my mountain of books to read, and your recommendation just might bring them closer to being read. Books I have read in the past year that stand out in my mind are Blindness, and The Shadow of the Wind.

    By the way, I’ve added you to my blogroll. Not sure what the etiquette is around these types of things, but I hope you don’t mind.

    • You remind me that I haven’t updated my blogroll for ages!

      If you enjoyed Saramago’s Blindness, I highly recommend “Death Without Interruptions” which blew my mind. It’s very creative.

  9. […] 1: best book you read last year (2010) East of Eden b John […]

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