2010: Year in Review

Another year draws to a close. I had planned to write about how 2010 sucked. But then the more I thought about, the more I realized that this wasn’t entirely true. Sure, 2010—like every year, surely—had its sucky moments (which I won’t go into). But overall, a lot of great things happened this year: the paperback of my novel was published, I appeared in OUT Magazine, and I won the Alabama Author Award. But the biggest thing I accomplished was turning in the draft of my second novel. It was also a year of some good reads, a few good movies, and a decent bit of good TV. Before we head into 2011, a few reflections on some of the highlights of the 2010.

Many of the books I read are for work or else for my YA book club. Thus, I don’t usually have much time to devote to the hot new reads of 2010, like Freedom by Jonathan Franzen or any of the other much-hyped books of the year (with one exception, as I’ll discuss below). Still, I have read, so far, just over fifty books this year. To avoid any professional awkwardness, I won’t single out any books I worked on this year as part of my day job, though there were plenty that constitute highlights. Moving on with that caveat…

Hands down, my two favorites novels of the year were A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. These books blew me away. I’m lucky to read one such book a year. So I’m quite happy that encountered two such staggering achievements in one year. I wrote about Goon Squad earlier this year. Still, even when I talk about it or read stray passages in reviews, I’m reminded of its emotional hold over me. In its finest moments, it’s downright miraculous. It’s a book that I will reread each year for many years to come. I’m still haunted by Sasha, Rob, Rhea, Jocelyn, Rolf, and many of the other characters.

Wolf Hall was published in 2009, so it was a book everyone raved about last year. I finally got around to it this year. I discovered Mantel a few years ago and loved the two books I read: a dark and humorous pair of novels, Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possessions. Her style is hard to describe—odd, flinty, darkly humorous, peppered with startling but lovely descriptions—but on the basis of those two novels alone, Mantel had already joined the shortlist of writers whose entire bodies of work I will hunt down and consume (Egan, of course, is also on this list). But Wolf HallWolf Hall! What a novel! The novels tells the story of the turmoil surrounding Henry VIII when he wanted to dump his first wife to marry Anne Boleyn, told from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, who became one of his most trusted and powerful advisers to the king. It’s a familiar historical story, but Mantel, as one reviewer wrote, manages to invest the story with thrilling amount of suspense. Most historians have viewed Cromwell in a negative light, while casting Sir Thomas More as the sympathetic martyr. Mantel reverses this viewpoint, brilliantly. By the end, I had grown to love Cromwell, whereas More came across as a bitter, snide, pompous, bigoted religious hardliner. Mantel made history come alive more than any writer I can remember. I am dying for the promised sequel, which will follow Cromwell to his death. The sequel can’t come soon enough. Meanwhile, Mantel’s backlist awaits, including another historical novel, this one about the French Revolution. Forget Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (sorry, Oprah)—I’m going to read Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety.

The year brought other reading delights, of course. On the YA front, I loved Franciso X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, Adam Rapp’s Punkzilla, and my dear friend Helen Ellis’s The Turning: What Curiosity Kills. I was thrilled to finally read two classics that truly deserve that lofty designation: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Judy Blume’s Forever. I was also thrilled to be asked to read and give a blurb for a YA novel that won’t appear until 2011: I Am J by Cris Beam. It’s a tough, gritty, sad, and lovely story about a young man who just happened to be born in the body of a female. It’s a powerful tale about a character not often represented in literature: a female-to-male transgender teenager. It’s an important book that will make a real difference to young people, and I expect it to get a lot of rave reviews next year.

I also fell in love with the poetry of Kay Ryan. Indeed, thanks to Ryan, I got over my long-held resistance to poetry and have started reading collections on a regular basis. I finally read—and loved—William Golding’s dark masterpiece, The Lord of the Flies. I finally finished The Stories of John Cheever, which I’d started last year. It’s a fat tome filled with plenty of the best short stories ever written. I was also blown away by Daniel Woodrell’s haunting novel of the Ozarks, Winter’s Bone (I also enjoyed the movie version, but it still pales next to the book). I also loved The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s borne aloft by its boisterous storytelling and language, a true contribution to our national literature. I also read plenty of Alice Munro, who still may be my favorite writer of all time. I never tire of reading her brilliant short stories. And just a few days ago, I finished a beautifully quirky novel called Sisters by a River by a little-known British writer, Barbara Comyns. It’s out of print, as are most of her novels, but I had read and loved an earlier one, The Vet’s Daughter, a few years ago, when it was reissued by the awesome New York Review of Books Classics, and so I tracked down much of her backlist online, ordering used copies from various outlets. The good news is that another small publisher, called Dorothy, has just republished another Comyns novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Here’s hoping a Comyns renaissance is in the offing!

I must mention two short stories I read this year, both by Irish writers—and both of which appeared in The New Yorker. Say what you will about the uneven quality of the fiction in The New Yorker—sometimes they publish pieces that are truly spectacular. Claire Keegan’s story “Foster” broke my heart. Beautifully written, it packs an emotional punch that is rare in short fiction—in any fiction, really. If you only read one short story this year, read this one. It’s a beauty. Kevin Barry is another great discovery. His story, “Fjord of Killary,” was a delight. I had been aware of Keegan’s fine work, but Barry is one to look out for.

Sadly, I didn’t see too many movies this year. Right about now, there are about ten movies I want to see—including The Social Network, Black Swan, Blue Valentine, The King’s Speech—and haven’t made time for yet. Hopefully I can take those in over the next few weeks. So my “best of” list would be highly inadequate. (Did I even see ten movies in a theater this year?) But two standouts were The Kids Are All Right and Let Me In. Annette Benning, who plays one half of a couple of lesbian mothers in the hilarious but very moving The Kids Are All Right, was just amazing in a role that could have easily been unsympathetic. She’s the higher strung half of the couple, a wine-swilling doctor, fierce, driven, and protective mother who fights hard to keep her family together. She’s not always pleasant, but she’s a heartbreakingly real person.

Let Me In was an American remake of the Swedish movie Let the Right One In. I saw the original and found it creepy and haunting. I didn’t expect an American remake to be any good, but I have to say that I liked Let Me In even more than the Swedish original (blasphemy? Whatever, film snobs). It’s still creepy and haunting, but also emotionally stunning, graced by two sensitive, lovely performances by Chloë Grace Moretz as a vampire trapped in the body of a young girl, and Kodi Smith-McPhee as the lonely and bullied boy who befriends her. At times it was a bit too violent, a bit too gory, but overall it was a thrilling story that also packed an emotional wallop. And it’s gorgeously shot.

I suppose I didn’t see a ton of movies in the theater because mainly I watched movies on DVD at home. The whole experience of going to the movies can be a blast, but more often than not it’s all about dodging big crowds and big lines. And with big crowds, you get annoying and chatty and distracting people in the theaters, and sometimes lousy seats. Plus, in New York at least, movies are expensive. So why not just stay home? That said, I do love sitting in a dark theater (with overpriced but delicious popcorn!), watching a film, getting lost and transfixed in a cinematic world. I suppose I just get lazy and don’t want to deal with the hassle. I need to get over that in the next few weeks so I can go see the above-mentioned movies. I did just watch Toy Story 3 on DVD, and yep, everyone’s right—it’s wonderful. And it made this “grown man” cry.

Most of the buzz and excitement centers, nowadays, on TV, far more so than movies. Or at least it does in the circles I run in! One of my favorites TV shows, Lost, ended its run this year. If the final season and the finale itself were somewhat of a letdown, Lost will still go down as one of the best shows to ever air on television. It was one of those rare shows that I had to watch the same night it aired. I anticipated each episode much more than I’ve anticipated any movie opening. Mad Men is also one of the top-notch shows, and maybe the best one that I watched all year. The episode with Peggy and Don—in which Peggy’s engagement crumbles and Don’s long-time friend in California dies—was an edge-of-your-seat emotional rollercoaster. The series is a fascinating glimpse at our recent past; I can’t wait to see where it goes next. Though it’s not a perfect show, I loved every minute of The Walking Dead. It’s a brilliant concept—zombie movie expanded into a full-length series—that just might bet better and better. It sure is unlike anything else on TV—like a mini horror movie each week, but with a little more emotional heft.

So there it all is, the cultural highlights of 2010. I could go on and discuss what music I listened to, but my taste is terribly unhip. I made a few discoveries, but mainly I like the usual crap that everyone likes. So here’s to 2010, a not-bad year. And here’s to 2011, which will hopefully be even better! Happy holidays, and see you next year!

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