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Bewildering array: Year’s best book lists start to arrive.

December 7, 2010

Michiko Kakutani

The Top Ten lists for 2010 are just approaching full flower. As usual, I see nothing like critical consensus in the books world, even though some few lucky titles appear on more than one reviewer’s list, including some I’ve actually reviewed myself! Let’s take a peek.

I’m delighted to find my two favorite novels of the year on the list compiled by Michiko Kakutani, who by virtue of being The New York Times‘ lead literary critic is the most important book reviewer in the world.

Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart, is a slow starter, but once the narrative engages fully (for me this happened about page 60), it becomes a hilarious, terrifying sci-fi/literary mash-up of a future ruled by Facebook. Kakutani says the book “manages to mash up an apocalyptic satire with a tragic romance and make the whole thing wondrously work.”

Shteyngart also produced the best “book trailer” of the year, which you can find at Huffington Post. This little video has absolutely nothing to do with his novel, but it proves he has no personal vanity whatsoever and high-powered friends (Edmund White, James Franco, Mary Gaitskill) willing to poke malicious fun at him.

(Other book trailers worth watching: Amy Wilson‘s tone perfect pitch for her book, When Did I Get Like This, about how she became a young frazzled Mom, despite high-minded intentions. Also: A fan video enacting a scene from The Hunger Games. I’ll be surprised if the Hollywood film is half this gritty and authentic).

Kakutani includes my other favorite novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, which she calls “a suspenseful and meticulously observed story of forbidden love” in Japan, circa 1800.

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom also makes Kakutani’s list, and it will be on my list, too, if I compile one, although I like it a lot less than she does. She cites the author’s ability to “throw open a big, Updikean window on American middle-class life.” But the best sentence in this book lacks the precision and polish of the worst sentence Updike wrote in his entire career.

Kakutani mingles fiction and nonfiction together willy-nilly, something I don’t approve of (“Dogs and cats! Living together!”), which means she lists books like Keith Richard’s Life, Saul Bellow’s Letters, and Stacy Schiff’s much-praised Cleopatra: A Life alongside the novels.

Janet Maslin, the Times‘ second-string critic, gives us an entirely different list of 10 best books — no irony or surprise. She’s merely assigned a different set of titles than Kakutani or the other Times critic, Dwight Garner. Her list includes, among others, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, a first novel by Helen Simonson; The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman’s comedy set in an Italian English-language newspaper; and three mystery/thrillers:  Faithful Place, by Tania French; The Savages, by Don Winslow; and 61 Hours, by Lee Child.

I’ve read none of those books, but I can tell you the two thrillers that would make my list are Laura Lippman’s I’d Know You Anywhere and Dave Zeltserman’s The Caretaker of Lorne Field. But more about that later. Maybe.

Finally, Dwight Garner offers another 10 best list with no overlap, partly because they’re all nonfiction or poetry, including The Best of It: New and Selected Poems, by Kay Ryan; Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot; and Simon Wiesenthal: The Life and Legends, by Tom Segev.

Of those, I’ve only read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — a worthwhile book to be sure, but overlong and with too much of the white author’s life intruding into what is a story of African-American suffering and exploitation at the hands of the scientific and medical establishment.

Many, many, many more Top 10 lists are sure to arrive in the coming weeks. My own contribution will have to wait until the last minute, as I still haven’t read three promising novels: Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick; The Widower’s Tale, by Julia Glass; and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

In the meantime, please tell me what books you liked best this year. Any genre, any category.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. Dee permalink
    December 7, 2010 12:47 pm

    I loved David Zeltserman’s ” Caretaker of Lorne Field” and Laura Lippman’s “I’d Know you Anywhere”. I have loved all of Laura’s stand alone novels but the Tess Monaghan novels, not as much, read them mostly just because they are set in my hometown, Baltimore. Am currently reading Patricia Cornwall’s “Port Mortuary” and just finished” Christmas Mourning” by Margaret Maron. I know, I know, what you think of authors like them who crank out the books, but I become really attached to the characters and can’t wait for the next books.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2010 1:35 pm

      No one has the right to look down another reader’s preferences or reasons for reading. We all have guilty pleasures — yes, it’s true! Even moi! So no need to apologize for your taste. Obviously, you know good writing from bad, if you like Laura Lipman.

  2. Tommy Smart permalink
    December 7, 2010 2:35 pm

    Full Dark, No Stars. Stephen King.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 7, 2010 7:15 pm

      Really? I like King quite a bit, and I know he’s capable of writing as well as anyone, and I know he has a facility for short stories. But I’ve not heard the rave for this one that his past forays into short fiction have received. I trust your judgment, though, Tommy.

  3. December 7, 2010 10:11 pm

    Probably very few have heard of my 3 fiction picks: A COMING OF ANGELS by Thomas E. Kennedy; SLOTH by Mark Goldblatt; THE CONSEQUENCE OF SKATING by Steven Gillis. I also nominate HOW TO LIVE: A LIFE OF MANTAIGNE; ADAM SMITH by Nicholas Phillipson. I’m glad that you’ll be listing your picks, Chauncey.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2010 12:48 am

      Thanks for those recommendations, Duff. I know that good books are published every year that are woefully under promoted, and undercovered.

  4. December 7, 2010 10:24 pm

    Whoops! It’s got to be a Freudian slip, the lingering impression of Kennedy’s story that made me say A COMING OF ANGELS. Kennedy’s title is IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS. Call me a pervert.

    Actually, I do like A COMING OF ANGELS better.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2010 12:47 am

      Holy cow, me too.

  5. December 8, 2010 10:49 am

    This year has been mostly genre reads for me (part of the business, I guess), and my favorites are Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith (very violent South Africa Cape Town thriller, without the usual cartoonish elements of a lot of violent thrillers–this book reminds me what I like most about Elmore Leonard), No Sleep Till Wonderland by Paul Tremblay (a narcoleptic PI could be cutesy and annoying in most hand, but Paul plays it straight and with this wonderful voice–this and The Little Sleep are the Boston PI books people should be reading and talking about!), Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (a wonderfully dark noir debut), and Florida Gothic Stories by Vicki Hendricks (a very fun & perverse collection of noir/horror stories).

    Chauncey, thanks for getting my name right this time!!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 8, 2010 11:05 am

      I beg your pardon? What are you implying, Mr. Seltzer– er Zeltserman?

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