I am unable to resist best book lists of almost any form so I’ve been keeping an eye on the usual end of the year productions. I’m not as into it as some others, like the blogger Largehearted Boy, who amasses a giant list of best lists, or the librarian/bloggers at the Williamsburg Public Library, who take all those lists and turn them into one mega-list (though that list is broken into different categories, mostly for fiction).
Mostly, I keep an eye out for the lists compiled by the sources I rely on most for book reviews — The New York Times and Salon (which has separate lists for fiction and nonfiction). But I have to admit this year my favorite list came from Lev Grossman at Time magazine (which also had separate fiction and nonfiction lists). Perhaps it’s Grossman’s unapologetic appreciation of genre fiction — which was an awful lot of my fiction reading this year. Or, in a related angle, it’s his noticing books that are not the usual suspects — two graphic novels (The Death-Ray and Hark! A Vagrant!) became Christmas gifts in my house this year after I saw them on the list.
My best list consists of books I read this year, whenever they were published — though a large number were indeed new this year (one of the many benefits of working at a library is access to advanced review copies and awareness of newly published works). I chose my favorites with flat-out enjoyment as my only criterion, realizing that many factors go into that.
Fiction: A Song of Ice & Fire, books 1-3, George R.R. Martin (That’s A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords)
Nonfiction: Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean.
Biographies of the Founding Fathers have been all the rage for well over a decade — and I don’t think I’ve read one of them. Neither of McCullough’s big hits, John Adams or 1776. Not Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. Not the works of Joseph Ellis or the many others too numerous to mention. Not for of lack of interest but … I guess lack of enough interest. I plan to give Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer-winning Washington biography a read, if only because Titan, Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. I’ve owned his Alexander Hamilton book in hardcover since it was published for the same reason (even if I still haven’t read it). But I recently realized that I have been reading quite a bit about the Revolutionary era — all of it in fiction.
Which makes sense since, for the last couple years, my reading has veered heavily fictional — especially historical fiction (blame that on the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar). And if you asked me what period I mostly read in, historical fiction-wise, I would have said Tudor or maybe medieval England. But looking back, and recently, it seems an awful lot of the better stuff has been set in Massachusetts, just prior to the Revolution.
Maybe I am drawn to these books because I was born and brought up in Massachusetts. Although the first of these books I read, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, is set in New York and the Pennsylvania frontier. But since then it’s been all Bay State and it’s focused largely on women: Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, set in Boston, and Sally Gunning‘s excellent trilogy (so far; I’m hoping there will be more): The Widow’s War, Bound and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke. The first two of Gunning’s books are set on Cape Cod but the third takes place in Boston, mostly, and includes a firsthand view of the event we know as the Boston Massacre as well as a couple cameos from our future second President, John Adams.
I recommend any and all of these as fine works of historical fiction that should both entertain you and give you an idea of what living in those times was actually like. They are not history tracts; The Whiskey Rebels is set after the Revolution and the first two of Gunning’s books touch only glancingly on the tensions between England and the Colonies. But they all meet what, to me, is the primary test of historical fiction set in times about which we know a lot — they make you forget the known outcome of events and experience the tension and uncertainty of the people who were living through them.