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By popular demand: My favorite books of 2010

December 28, 2010

Laura Lippman

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 Guardians 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?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 28, 2010 2:29 pm

    “59 in Eighty Four ” by Ed Achorn. One of the best baseball books ever written. What makes it so special it then blends in with one of the best books written about a time in place in this country. Written about the 1884 area. Just an outstanding book. I have also seen at least 15 reviews from some of the best authors and review people in the business. A great read.

    The book is about Hoss Radbourn and his life and amazing season when he won 59 games. A hall of fame player whose records have never been touched.

    If you think you do not like base ball books this one will change your mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 29, 2010 12:28 pm

      I’ll keep this in mind. Love a good baseball book.

  2. December 28, 2010 3:52 pm

    Can I just link to your column for my obligatory list? I haven’t read many of others’ critics choices, except Tana French’s Faithful Place, which Would be near top of mine, and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was charming but not that noteworthy, IMHO. I’ve started the Rushdie, and I really did like Room and the new John le Carre, which made it some lists. But of your list, I’ve only read the excellent Lippman and A SuperSad True Love Story. So now my TBR list will be longer. I remember you recommended China Mieville last year, for which I am most grateful.
    Happy new books! Nancy

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 29, 2010 12:29 pm

      Thanks, Nancy. There were many books I’d hoped to read last year, but alas, too little time.

  3. Connie permalink
    December 28, 2010 5:05 pm

    Our best books list inevitably says something like, “the best reviewed books by Herald reviewers.” Or something like that. Every other year or so I write “we can’t possibly read/review everything.” I refuse to write it every year, because it sort of goes without saying, don’t you think?

    And I say this not because of an advertising blitz: The best book I read all year was Freedom. I will not apologize for that! A Visit from the Goon Squad was a close second, with Room right behind it. Haven’t read the Shteyngart yet (someday I will learn to spell that man’s name) but our reviewer raved, so it made the cut.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 29, 2010 12:32 pm

      You would think the impossibility of reading even the top 1 percent of books would be self-evident. And yet each year brings lists from major reviewers that brazenly pretend to identify the year’s best books. So I’m a harper on this issue. Sue me.

      I liked Freedom, too, but it was nowhere near the Most Interesting book of my reading year.

  4. Lee permalink
    December 28, 2010 10:01 pm

    My favorite ‘boos’ of the year – Broken Open and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. They’re also my favorite ‘books’ of the year!

    • Bobbi permalink
      December 28, 2010 10:05 pm

      I’m so glad someone else caught that. 🙂

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 29, 2010 12:33 pm

      First thing I’m going to do when I figure out how to turn a profit by writing a blog is hire a copy editor.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        December 29, 2010 12:38 pm

        But I am grateful to everyone who read far enough to catch the “boo.”

  5. Bobbi permalink
    December 28, 2010 10:03 pm

    “What are your favorite boos of the year?” The sounds that ghosties made on Halloween, of course. 😉

    I’m a huge Laura Lippman fan, so I should be saying that my favorite booK of the year was I’d Know You Anywhere. Unfortunately, it was released only a few weeks after I was raped, so I haven’t read it. I did buy it, though. It’s sitting patiently on my bookshelf, reminding me that eventually I will be well enough emotionally to read it.

    If I read any really good books in the first half of the year, I don’t remember. Since then, I’ve stuck to reading “safe” non-fiction, like interior design, and re-reading familiar novels. Margaret Coel’s Wind River Reservation mysteries. Harry Potter.

    Sorry if my response was “TMI”. But your question got me thinking about how much what happened to me has affected my favorite pastime.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 29, 2010 12:38 pm

      Alas, you will want to stay away from I’d Know You Anywhere for a while longer.

  6. December 29, 2010 6:22 pm

    Finally, an honest man! Way to out the self-anointed curators of literary quality! So many of those best book lists are little more than ongoing promotions of the celebrated writers a few editors and critics have chosen to anoint — and promote — during the year. You’ve clearly spoken here of books you actually read and sincerely enjoyed. Bravo.

    E-readers and social networking are radically redefining the book business. As a writer, I celebrate this!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 5, 2011 10:28 am

      Thanks, but in all modesty (which is to say: none) I’ve been taking this approach to my best-books-of-the-year column since way before I was ejected from the old-media universe in 2009. And I’m not the only one, though it is rarer than it should be.

      • January 5, 2011 5:42 pm

        Chauncey, bravo on that approach, and congratulations on your ejection from the old-media universe. From a pasture of hapless sheep, you’ve jumped the fence into some true leadership — and the actual future. Cheers to you!

  7. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 31, 2010 4:53 pm

    So many books, so little time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      January 5, 2011 10:28 am

      So get busy!

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