When asked to put together a list of top 10 books from my year of reading a book a day, I balked. Ten? Just 10? Out of 365 books?
I began my list by scribbling out a list of great books from my year and came up with over 90. I marked off those books which have (deservedly) received much attention already, books like The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, Spooner by Pete Dexter and By Chance by Martin Corrick. My list was now down to 80 or so books.
I then marked off those books that are classics that everyone has heard of—I don’t know how I made it to my 47th year without having read these great books! These included titles such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling and The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder. I now had close to 70 books remaining on my list of great books.
Of those 70 or so, I began to circle certain titles, using just two criteria—surprise and enchantment. Surprise happens when I pick up a book by chance, by an author I have never heard of or with a title that intrigues me, and enchantment is what happens when I start reading that book and find that I cannot put it down again. Enchantment is when I want everyone I know to read the book and I buy extra copies to give to friends and family. The two criteria, enchantment and surprise, are basic components of a truly great read, elevating a good book into the realm of magic.
And so down the list I went, circling slowly but surely. I halved my list to just over 30.
With a big breath, I took another pencil and another stab at my remaining list, trying to select across categories of fiction and nonfiction, short stories and long histories. And here you have it. Ten great books from my year of reading one book a day.1. Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
Berry’s prose is like his poetry—lyrical, peaceful, elegiac to farm and country, and spiritually radiant. In this lovely but at times searing novel set in Port William, Ky. (one of eight set in this imagined locale), Berry explores the impact of major events of the 20th century on the quietly brave and fiercely resilient Hannah Coulter.
2. Ruins by Achy Obejas
Ruins tells the story of Usnavy, a Cuban man born before Castro’s revolution and named for the U.S. Navy ships his mother can see from her hut close to Guantanamo (a U.S. base already there since 1898). Caught between the opposing ambitions of the two nations, Usnavy believes in the decency of mankind and struggles to keep his faith afloat during decades of increasing hardships and deprivations, and despite the disillusionment of so many of his compatriots and family.
3. A Terrible Splendor: Three Extraordinary Men, a World Poised for War, and the Greatest Tennis Match Ever Played by Marshall Jon Fisher
I was on the edge of my seat throughout this marvelous book, a gripping history structured around the 1937 Davis Cup finals, interspersing the five sets of the match with the momentous political and social events being played out in the world at the time. The match was between the American rising star Don Budge, playing for fame and adoration in the U.S., and the German player Gottfried Von Cramm, a gay aristocrat playing for his life under the Nazi regime. Cramm was coached for the match by the American Bill Tilden, a genius tennis player on the outs with the United States Tennis Association, and the third “extraordinary” man of the subtitle.
4. The Forged Coupon by Leo Tolstoy
This novel is Tolstoy’s last, and a relatively unknown gem that demonstrates his virtuosity in creating very genuine characters from every walk of life, and infusing them, both in personality and in action, as examples of universal goodness and evil. A young man is refused a loan by his father, setting off a series of actions that demonstrate how within each person there is capacity for good and evil, and that the choice to be one or the other is one we all must make, determined not by destiny but determinative of our fate.
5. The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
A collection of essays from this renowned Polish journalist covers the 40 years he spent in Africa as a Polish journalist, from the late 1950s through the late 1990s. Kapuscinski makes clear in his forward that there are a thousand Africas, and that there can never be one story or one explanation to cover such a huge and varied continent. His accounts are rich with details of the physical landscape, vivid with his portrayals of the people he meets, and disarmingly personal in his affection and empathy for the many Africas he uncovers.
6. Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill
“Passage” is the key word in this amazing memoir by the charming and smart Athill. Telling stories from her nine-plus decades of living, Athill demonstrates that life is about change and motion and the best we can do is to move along with it, keeping our expectations and our arms open to new experiences.
7. The Curriculum Vitae of Aurora Ortiz by Almudena Solana
This slender novel offers an unforgettable heroine, a woman with a great capacity for living but who chooses to do it quietly and on her own terms. "Living" is not defined in big splashy terms and "living fully" has nothing to do with excess of any kind; instead it is found in the company of books and kindred souls, and in moments of beauty and of connection.
8. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire
This is fictionalized account of the life of Constance Fenimore Woolson (grandniece of James Fenimore Cooper) who was a writer and a great friend of Henry James. In telling the story of one woman, Maguire explores through beautiful and moving writing the difficulty of all women to find the space and time to discover and capture their true place in life, and the importance of trying.
9. The Laws of Evening by Mary Yukari Waters
The short stories in this collection are simply stunning, ranging in setting from the days before World War II through the difficult years of the war and after, and coming up to the present time of modern Japan. Waters' characters have faced crises but the stories don't deal with the crises—they deal with the aftermath, the survival, the facing of mortality not with fear but instead with gratitude or regret or simple acceptance.
10. How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
Hall writes about four very different and yet connected lives, each one unique, believable and compelling. All four of the characters have suffered a defining loss; all four cope in different ways and against different currents of misunderstanding, loathing, fear and wavering self-examination. An electric current of life runs throughout this wonderful novel, an exploration of why we humans go on living, even when living can cause so much pain and worry and sorrow.
Nina Sankovitch is the author of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, out now from HarperCollins books.