Posted by: roamingolivia | December 26, 2010

My Best-of lists for 2010: overview and books

This is pretty unofficial, but I like to sum up my year so might as well do it here. I’ll start today with a general overview and books. I’m happy to have recomendations for categories. I’m going to go with food, countries and lessons.


Basic events:

I welcomed the new year in Seville, Spain, and then came back to work, not sure whether I was going to be spending most of 2010 in Milan, Italy. It turned out I was going to be, as I got final confirmation a couple weeks before I moved in mid-February. I celebrated my birthday in March with a couple new friends, eating at a mozerella bar and watching football. Italian customs took my birthday gift for about a month, but I ended up getting my family’s presents. I had really bad allergies all spring, and ate delicious Italian food and visited London for ethnic cuisine and read a lot and slept a lot. I had an amazing visit in Greece, had lots of visitors, went to lots of places in Italy (Rome, Venice, Verona, Cinque Terre, Liguria, the lakes, Torino, etc.), and had a generally good summer.

As most people do, I left Italy for August, spending a couple weeks working in London and two weeks on a trip to India. At first, the holiday was hilarious because we were supposed to go to Kashmir and there were riots and flooding, but then we went to Delhi and Shimla or Simla (where a monkey ate my notebook) and then to Rajasthan (Jodhpur and Jaislamer).

September and October passed quickly, with wrapping up in Milan and moving back to London, and then when I got back, I settled back into my London routine, moved into a cute flat my flatmate found while I was still in Milan (she did a great job). I had a housewarming, and everything got really busy, and a lot of the rest of the year was a bit of a blur of moving and holidays (Thanksgiving for 30-something people was a big highlight for me). And then it was December, and I’ve been off since the middle of that month, visiting family and catching up and playing with my dog and enjoying the snow and seeing my grandmother. It’s been great.

There are still six days left in the year, but I feel like that’s a safe summary. Although there were ups and downs, I don’t have anything like the “good riddance” feeling I had at the end of 2009, and 2010 went a lot more smoothly with a lot less stress than last year. I would be lying if I said I hope that 2011 will be a bit tamer, but I’d also be lying if I said I was sure I wouldn’t be disappointed if it was tamer. Who knows.



Favorite books:

I read 29 books this year (it seems like it should be more? I guess I blame the New Yorker). (Note to self: I want to read more next year.)

Hands down, the book I think about as my favorite and best book of the year was Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, translated by Robert Chandler. That book is great, and everyone should read it. Ditto on To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee,  and really for similar reasons – because they are well written and tell important lessons about how live as a decent human in a difficult time. Unfortunately, neither of these was published in the 2010, but I guess that shouldn’t matter. I’d still like to read more new books next year, though.

A close second is Death and the Penguin by Andrei Kurkov (one of my most favorite writers, for kind of light literary fiction), or the book of poems by Lucie Brock-Broido, Trouble of Mind, which is seriously amazing (I thank a friend for that recommendation).

Other books I liked were The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk (mostly because I fell in love with him when he gave a talk), and I guess Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann.

The weirdest book I read was Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim, hands down. He apparently went crazy after writing it, although judging from the book it happened a bit before he finished it. It is still good, though.

And the best new book (published in 2010) I read was Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart, which is actually quite flawed as a novel (if you don’t already love Shteyngart, don’t start here – go to Absurdistan), but I love him so I think it is good that he has put out this imaginative look at the future. The other choice for this new-book category is All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang. I have 70 pages left in a 1030-page book called The Instructions by Adam Levin, which could fall into this category as well. It is really interesting, but tough going (it’s 1000 pages about high school and the intersection of religion and violence, so it’s probably a bit too long).

I hated The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, and it won the Booker Prize, which makes me angry.

Oh, and I read Ulysses.



  1. Yup, I saw you’d done books already and hadn’t commented as I felt rather shamed by my poor reading record in the second half of the year.

    It’s funny you read Kurkov this year too. I took a chance on it as it was a staff pick in Foyle’s and obviously liked it, as I then read the Angel of Death and Penguin Lost. As much as I liked the Penguin books, the Angel of Death was my favourite. There’s this juvenile joke throughout about him smelling of cinnamon and caviar, which reminded me of the on-running joke in Absurdistan ‘my mother will be your mother, my wife your sister, and you will always find water in my well to drink.’

    Which gets me to Absurdistan, which is the first book i’ve read in ages that cracked me up (last was maybe Money?). Great characters (like Kurkov), and some of the mindsets are pretty believable. I started reading Russian Debutante’s, but it seemed like a less well formed and paced version of Absurdistan. I’ve got Super Sad True Love story fro Christmas so may read it this week.

    This was the year I made a step back in to the world of fiction, so hedged my bets with classics I needed to read. I need my bookshelf to remind me but here’s a couple, and I think i’m repeating myself here.

    Catch-22…began it thinking it was overrated, but by the end wanted to re-read it and pay more attention to the characters, because it’s only by the end you care about them. I can see why it’s considered a classic. Slaughterhouse Five…again, I think you liked this. The whole outerspace stuff just irritated me, but there’s some pretty well observed if harrowing stuff in there. Lord of the Flies…well meh.

    I think Kerouac could pass as fiction. Enjoyed On the Road and Big Sur (remember finishing that in a park in the sun in Almaty), but he was a pretty detestable self absorbed individual with an even worse judgement in friends (ouch). I think it’d be wrong to underestimate his later influence though, given how restrictive and conservative – if hypocritical – the times were.

    Mockingbird is indeed a great book. You know Harper Lee was a good friend of Capote’s? The imagery in the book is great and I have little idea if it’s representative of the South then, but it feels like it conveys the whole atmosphere. I should re-read. I remember butter and biscuits tasting of cotton…

    We’ve been through Pamuk….I will finish Istanbul and then symbolically bury it.

    Confederacy of Dunces. I really loved this and may buy it to read again. Was reading it on a train when I got your text saying there was some kind of revolution going down…

    Ali & Nino by Korban Said. I thought this might be a bit sappy but it is a pretty beautiful story and I’d recommend it to most people.

    The Outsider by Albert Camus…bleak and ‘deep’ but nice and short at least.

    Graham Greene – The Quiet American. An unsentimental insight into the politics and turbulence of Vietnam during the fifties (I should be a blurbist). I love Our Man in Havana but this was obviously a different tone. Which reminds me I’ve got Hell in a Very Small Place, which I’m guessing your dad has read?

    I’ll buy Life and Fate this week.

  2. I’m so excited that book lists are back, thanks Olivia! I haven’t read any of the ones on yours but after hearing you rave about Life and Fate, I think it’ll be on my to-read list for this year.

    Having lost track of all the books I read this year (and not having access to my books at my parents’), I’m compiling the following from memory:

    – favourite book(s) so far: Sti skia tis petaloudas (In the Butterfly’s Shadow) and I aidonopita (Nightingale Pie) by Isidoros Zourgos. Discovered this summer thanks to an ancient librarian on the island of Syros whose bookstore I visit every summer because she’s in her eighties, indescribably elegant and gentle and always has the best suggestions. Zourgos, who sadly has yet to be translated into English I believe, has a unique lyrical voice. His novels take place at crucial junctures in the history of the Balkans (Greek war of independence, Balkan wars of the beginning of the 19th century, fall of the Ottoman empire) and deftly weave history and fiction to fascinating effect. A must for anyone interested in the contemporary history of the region.

    – favourite non-fiction read (although reads like a novel): The Orientalist by Tom Reiss, about the life and times of Lev Nussimbaum, a.k.a. Kurban Said (viz Ben’s comment above). I stumbled upon it by chance, just as I stumbled by chance on his best known novel “Ali and Nino” at an airport in the US (Chicago O’Hare I think). Aside from the fact that “Ali and Nino” is a cult read in Azerbaijan, Kurban Said’s life is worthy of a novel. The son of a Baku oil baron, Said/Nussimbaum fled the city following the Russian revolution, and lived as in exile mostly in Vienna before becoming the toast and then the nemesis of the Nazi establishment, only to die a lonely and painful death in Italy in his thirties. A captivating portrayal of a unique character and of life in the Caucasus and Central Europe between the two world wars.

    – favourite discovery: Tchingiz Aitmatov, Uzbek author best known in the West for his novel Jamilia, first translated into French by French poet Louis Aragon. I’ve been devouring eveything I can find by him since also stumbling upon him (figuratively) by chance even though his books are really hard to come by other than in Russian (which sadly I can’t read). Just finished To Kill or not to Kill on the dilemma of a young soldier going to war – also highly recommended.

    – to read before the year is over (i.e. in the next four days – ambitious and probably unrealistic as I’m too busy going from one dinner to the next): Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie, sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories (which I also have to read as Luka is Haroun’s younger brother). Really excited about this as about all of Rushdie’s books, plus the cover of the edition I picked up is truly beautiful 🙂

    – favourite “lighter” read (whatever “lighter” means, I guess not as “serious” as all the others but nonetheless fantastic): The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon, or a fictionalized (of course!) account of what might have happened had Jews lost the 1948 war and, instead of being given a piece of Palestine, were given a piece of … Alaska. Bleak and hilarious at the same time, thanks in large part to a heavy dose of sarcastic Jewish humour.

    – best of the rest: Albert Khan’s Archives of the Planet by David Okuefuna. Or the world’s first colour photographs, taken by the world’s best first photographers sent around the planet by French banker Albert Khan at the beginning of the last century, to document the world so that the peoples of the world would learn about each other and therefore not wage war on each other. Khan’s utopian project was, ironically, shattered by the second world war but the pictures are breathtaking in their depiction of lost worlds, conflict and simply people’s daily lives.

    – least favourite book so far (granted, with four days to go this year): The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud. This year’s winner of the Giller Prize – honestly I’m not sure why. The writing is dry and affected. I’m halfway through and have given up hoping for the best.

    Happy reading!

  3. Oh and P.S.: I did read Museum of Innocence and ended up liking it but only after laboriously plowing through the first half trying not to think that the main character is a deranged loser who kind of reminds me of someone I know…BTW, given the subject of the book and your fascination with house museums, have a look at this blog by journalist Nahla Ayed on the CBC website:

    And To Kill a Mockingbird – read it in high school and just remember crying a lot…which means it must have been really very good (in my book!).

  4. I’m glad it’s not only me that apparently needs their own blog 🙂

    The Orientalist sounds right up my street. I’d read a bit on wikipedia about Nussimbaum.

    Keeping it regional and non-fiction, I also read Paradise Lost: Smyrna by Giles Milton. A revealing but grim account of the city in the run up and fallout of WWI. Not many people come out looking good in this…really good but maybe too much focus on the European Levantines. I loved his previous books Nethaniel’s Nutmeg and White Gold – he manages to find the stories that give a narrative to the historical accounts….or something.

    I will read Jamilia when I get back, sorry Anna…but I did read tales from the campfire 🙂

    I’ll also get the Yiddish Policeman’s union cos I’m off to the bookshop now….

  5. Predictably Waterstone’s didn’t have a single one. Praise Amazon Prime:

    1 “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”
    Michael Chabon; Paperback;

    Sold by: Amazon EU S.a.r.L.
    1 “A Matter Of Death And Life”
    Andrey Kurkov; Paperback;

    Sold by: Amazon EU S.a.r.L.
    1 “Life And Fate”
    Vasily Grossman; Paperback;

    Sold by: Amazon EU S.a.r.L.
    1 “Post Office”
    Charles Bukowski; Paperback;

  6. Glad you enjoyed Life and Fate. I found it to be wonderful. This year I followed it with the new translation of Grossman’s Everything Flows and a collection of his other prose entitled The Road, also a new translation.

    I’ll second the praise for The Orientalist. It’s fascinating for those familiar with Ali and Nino.

    Just finished In Praise of Doubt and am enjoying the delightful confection that is Luka and the Fire of Life, Rushdie’s sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Much fun.

  7. […] 14. Henry Mancini – The Pink Panther Theme Song (song) – ditto on Breakfast at Tiffany’s theme and Peter Gunn, which was what made me listen to it anyway (it’s mentioned repeatedly in Your Face Tomorrow) […]

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