I watched Regis and Kelly this morning to find "gifts for him." Some of the suggestions, like The Black & Decker Electromate® 400 AC/DC Portable Power Station/Jump-Starter /Compressor, were not quite what I was looking for. Then I found the gift he would have loved. The Custom Republic Bicycle ($399)--a fixie to ride around town! But I only had a small amount of money left to spend, for something like a book.
Then I spent three hours perusing Best Books of the Year lists. I couldn't really find the European literature in translation he always mysteriously knows about. And none of the titles at the Dalkey Archive Press or Three Percent meant anything to me.
Finally, in a review of Lydia Davis's Madame Bovary at The Spectator, Philip Hensher made a useful suggestion. Why doesn't someone publish a new translation of Balzac's Louis Lambert, a novella Flaubert loved, instead of a 20th translation of Madame Bovary? Well, there aren't any new translations, but I bought an OLD translation of the book.
Anyway, I'm going to give you my Best Contemporary Books of the Year list now, because you might need something desperately, or simply enjoy lists. Most of these are new or recent and all are in print.
Best Contemporary Books of 2010 (in no particular order)
1. A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. One of the most enjoyable novels I read this year, now available in paperback. Set the week before Christmas 2007, this excellent pop literary page-turner delineates several lonely characters who are revealed mainly through their work: Jenni, an underground tube driver who plays internet video games at night; Gabriel, a depressive lawyer; Trantor, a book reviewer who loves to eviscerate talented novelists; and Veals, a dishonest trader.
2. The Infinities by John Banville. Hermes is the omniscient narrator of Booker Prize winner Banville's new novel, a comedy set in an alternative universe. Hermes and other Greek gods attend a family gathered around the bed of a dying mathematician.
3. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich. This exquisite novel is a collection of beautifully written stories that fan out in the most satisfying way and fit together as a novel. Erdrich relates how several generations of a group of American Indians in North Dakota are affected by racist accusations that they murdered a white family.
4. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. A beautifully written fantasy novel. Shen Tai, the hero, has spent two years of his life burying the dead in Kuala Nor, a battle site haunted by hundreds of thousands of ghosts. His father, a general, fought in this blood bath between Kitai and the Tagur 20 years ago, and told his sons and daughter stories about the courage of both sides. After his father’s death, during the official 2-year mourning period for the general, Shen Tai takes care of the dead...His life changes when a princess, a daughter of the emperor, who was married off after the battle to a foreign king to seal the peace, honors him with a gift of 250 Sardian horses because he has been burying soldiers from both sides (and she represents both countries).
5. I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth by Brenda Peterson. This beautifully written memoir is a mixture of autobiography, musings on Christian fundamentalism, and stunning sketches of her work as an environmentalist. Peterson, a novelist and non-fiction writer who has founded a Seal Watch group in Washington, was raised by Christian fundamentalists. She fascinatingly compares similarities between belief systems of conservative Christians and radical environmentalists when it comes to blame-finding. Her relationship with her warm family is loving despite her rejection of their beliefs.
6. The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. This lovely novel has a strong environmental slant. Set in Niagara Falls, Ontario, from 1915-1923, it tells the story of Bess Heath, a young woman whose life changes when her father loses his job as director of the Niagara Power Company. Her relationship with Tom, a fisherman who protests the power company's promotion of electricity, becomes the center of her life. She relates how the power companies started to leech water from the falls in the early 20th century and how it has affected the falls.
7. The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. Gardam's witty, stunning novel is a sequel to her much-praised novel, Old Filth, but can be read as a stand-alone. It tells the story of Betty, an English woman born in Hong Kong, who marries Filth for the experience, not for love. Gardam has won the Whitbread Prize twice and is worth reading.
8. Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey. One of the best novels of the year, nominated for the Booker Prize and the National Book Award, it is based loosely on the life of Alexis de Toqueville.
9. Solar by Ian McEwan. A very, very funny satire. An aging, fat, sociopathic Nobel winner who doesn't believe in global warming exploits a graduate student's research on alternative energy. Didn't get nominated for the Booker Prize, but I liked it anyway.
10. The Seven Sisters by Margaret Drabble. A stunning short novel about a thoughtful, repressed middle-aged woman who moves to London after a divorce and "finds herserlf" through an adult ed Virgil class and an inheritance.