By popular demand: My favorite books of 2010
December is the season when Best Book lists litter the earth like leaves in autumn, each and every one a sham and a fraud, a mixture of good intentions and raging ego.
Thus we are presented with year-end lists which have little in common, with the possible exception of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom and Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, each of which benefited from mighty publicity campaigns. As they are at least pretty good, and written by already famous people, they are guaranteed spots on most Best Book compilations, except the ones priding themselves on their contrarianism.
Publisher’s Weekly’s list features Scott Spencer’s literary thriller Man in the Woods, which is nowhere to be found on Anis Shivani’s Huffington Post list, which features Orhan Pamuk’s The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, which is nowhere on the Guardian‘s excessively creative list (many famous culture types are polled), which features (courtesy Nick Hornby) Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, which is nowhere on Maureen Corrigan’s NPR list, which feaures Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That, which is nowhere on The New York Times list, which features Emma Donoghue’s Room….
You get the idea. Each critic, however erudite and well-meaning, is hoping we don’t notice the obvious fact he or she could only have read, at most, a couple hundred books each and are therefore hopelessly unqualified to select the best anything. Special mention must be made of the ever-hip Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, who eats his cake and has it, too, in his video, making clever fun of the deluge of books and still mentioning a few he really liked.
As for me, I could easier compile a list of Important Books I Did Not Read. Such a round-up includes Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad; Justin Cronin’s The Passage; Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists; Barry Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist; Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life; Zachary Mason’s The Lost Book of the Odyssey; Tana French’s Faithful Place; Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
Now my ego is as monstrous and malformed as that of any critic you can name, but in the interests of modesty (which, unlike humility, can be faked) and the establishment of my moral superiority and general virtue, what follows does not pretend to be a list of the Best Books of the year.
Consider it instead a round-up of the Most Interesting Books I Personally Read in 2010.
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart. Projecting current trends into a very near-future sci-fi dystopia where everyone’s most personal data is routinely broadcast on the Internet, Shtenygart produced a novel that his hilarious, inventive and horrifying.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. To create historical fiction of a high order, Mitchell uses his mastery of post-modern storytelling sophistication to tell an old-fashioned story of love, intrigue and betrayal in the Far East.
I’d Know You Anywhere, by Laura Lippman. The suspense of Lippman’s story about a girl kidnapped by a serial rapist comes not from action or even plot, but from the gradual unpacking of the complex psychology of criminal, victims, and bystanders. One of the year’s best in any category.
Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, by Maryse Conde. Disguised as a memoir, Conde’s novel tells the story of a Caribbean mulatto, an outcast among her own people who is taken in by a wealthy white family. A lesser (but still excellent) work by a writer I think deserves the Nobel Prize.
The Caretaker of Lorne Field, by Dave Zeltserman. If H.P. Lovecraft collaborated with Jim Thompson, the result would be something like this foray into horror from a writer best known for noir crime fiction. Dread, suspicion, paranoia and a completely new variety of monster combine in a highly original effort.
Sunset Park, by Paul Auster. Marred only by a rushed and unconvincing ending, this story of a wounded young man and his friends, squatting in an abandoned apartment, is otherwise one of Auster’s clearest and most moving novels.
By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham. Some critics complained this novel lacks the scope of Cunningham’s masterpieces, The Hours or Specimen Days. But I like a precisely observed miniature, and the author’s attempt to explore heterosexual homoeroticism is bold and persuasive.
For the Win, by Cory Doctorow. The Neal Stephenson of Young Adult fiction, Doctorow is both unbelievably smart and adroit at explaining esoteric detail (in this case about video games, video game culture and the history and future of labor organizing) without slowing down the story.
The History of White People, by Nell Irvin Painter. A historian at Princeton, Painter traces how the fiction of race (and racial superiority) arose from surprising origins — and what a recent development it is. Provocative, informative, this is the best nonfiction I read this year.
What are your favorite books of the year?