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2010: The Year's Best Books

The holiday season is in full swing, as evidenced by such familiar signs as relentless mediated appeals to base consumer urges, assorted gatherings of people who may or may not be happy to be in each others’ presence, candles, gifts and, in the online world, listicles.

You’re likely to find these year-end rundowns popping up around the Internet on blogs and magazines, but even the more staid sorts of publications, such as the Times Literary Supplement from the very proper United Kingdom, have been known to succumb to the highbrow version of the best-of list (in fact, we’ve mined the TLS for all it’s worth). While this Web-enabled phenomenon can at times strike readers as tedious, if not utterly useless — has the world really been waiting for yet another lineup of the year’s potential Oscar picks? — there are some sources that are worth considering when it comes to cultural curation.

In that spirit, we’ve consulted a smattering of sources to find out what literary enthusiasts of various stripes, from authors to critics to the odd online editor, chose as 2010’s best books and we offer links and highlights in one handy … meta-listicle.

Patti Smith’s memoir and ode to the late Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids,” figures into the rarefied group, as does Stieg Larsson’s ubiquitous Millennium Trilogy (the one with the titles about girls involved in various dangerous and foolhardy activities such as kicking hornet’s nests and what have you). Also included is “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen’s highly celebrated follow-up to his highly celebrated, Oprah-defying novel, “The Corrections.” The Daily Beast’s literary task force gave Emma Donoghue’s “Room” the top slot in its set of fiction picks, and at least a couple of British writers — A.S. Byatt and Margaret Drabble — were quite taken with Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”

Enjoy the fruits of our bibliophilic labors below, or if you really have a lot of time on your hands, Largehearted Boy has compiled the list de resistance here. –KA

First, a preview of the Beast’s best:

The Daily Beast:

2.
“Freedom”
By Jonathan Franzen
No surprise here: Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped, debated, and discussed great American novel [that] captures the zeitgeist of our decade while also delivering a gripping and moving family drama couldn’t—shouldn’t—be absent from any list of the best fiction this year.

3.
“A Visit From the Goon Squad”
By Jennifer Egan
A virtuosic novel, or collection of interlocking stories, that follows several characters in the music business as they’re beat up by time, “the goon.” An elegantly, twisting novel perfect for those more contemplative end-of-year moments.

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Here we have some very sophisticated picks from the Brits:

Times Literary Supplement:

A.S. BYATT

I very much enjoyed and admired Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto), gripping and surprising. I also very much enjoyed Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction (Continuum), both because he is an excellent literary critic, and because understanding Dostoevsky’s Christianity is essential to understanding the form of the novels. My choices in fiction are Neel Mukherjee’s sharp, disturbing and precisely written novel, A Life Apart (Constable and Robinson), about a twentieth-century Indian in England and a nineteenth-century Englishwoman in India, and Yiyun Li’s new stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate). And I am reading and rereading Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain (Faber), in which every word is at once a surprise and exactly the right word.

[…] ELAINE SHOWALTER

The novels that most impressed me this year were both brilliant re-imaginings of classic texts. Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend (Chatto) is an updating of Othello, set in contemporary England, and told from the viewpoint of Iago, renamed Ian Goade. Ian’s long rivalry with his more successful friend Olly comes to a terrifying crisis on a country-house weekend. Philip Roth’s Nemesis (Cape) is an account of a polio epidemic in Newark in the summer of 1944, and a profound dialogue with Camus’s The Plague, which makes a cholera epidemic in Oran in the early 1940s an existential fable about the struggle for meaning in an absurd universe. A few reviewers picked up on the Othello parallels, but virtually all ignored Roth’s debt to Camus. It must be frustrating to pay literary homage to a great work when nobody notices you have done it.

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And now, these words about words from Truthdig’s home city of Los Angeles:

Los Angeles Magazine:

“Just Kids”
by Patti Smith

Fascinating. I’d like to Google every person she mentions in this beautiful memoir that teaches us that love stories come in all shapes and sizes.

–Julia St. Pierre, production director

“The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”
by Michael Lewis

Whenever I pick up a Michael Lewis book, I like to wear my comfy slippers and jammies, set a pile of oversize pillows on the floor to lie on, and cozy up next to a fireplace with a raging blaze as I learn of one Wall Street shenanigan after another. My blood boiled one hot summer night as I read The Big Short, a narrative of America’s near financial meltdown. The fireplace felt like Dante’s Inferno. I fantasized about frontier justice involving a rope and pitchforks, then realized that this brown-skinned boy would likely have been on the receiving end and moved on to watching the Real Housewives of Atlanta.

–Eric Mercado, research editor

“Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes”
by Stephen Sondheim

One does not rush through this amazing collection of Sondheim lyrics. Rather, I found it best to read about a show, listen to the CD, and then move on through his career. It is like having a master class with the master himself.

–Macho Show Queen, contributor

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Now we swap coasts to see what The New York Times found worthy in the way of art books:

The New York Times:

But for sheer joy of reading, reach for MICHELANGELO: A LIFE ON PAPER, by Leonard Barkan ($49.50). The writer is a professor of comparative literature at Princeton, and his view of the artist usually regarded as superhuman, a Sistine-style colossus, is through the intimate, sometimes all-too-human medium of his words — private letters, poems, notes to self — as well as drawings. Personable in tone, astute in observation, Mr. Barkan’s book is that rare thing, a historical study as absorbing as a novel.

Art history in the making is the subject of LEAVING ART: WRITINGS ON PERFORMANCE, POLITICS, AND PUBLICS, 1974-2007 by the American contemporary artist Suzanne Lacy, from Duke University Press, $27.95). For nearly 40 years Ms. Lacy’s collaborative, community-based art projects, some involving hundreds of people, have been grappling with matters of race, class and possible social change with a hands-on audacity that few artists can match. This book, with a persuasive introduction by the artist-historian Moira Roth, at last puts Ms. Lacy’s own fluent accounts of her life and work between covers. The result is a moving and feisty document of a committed life, one that students of the art of our time will be grateful for in the years ahead.

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Speaking of New York, here’s what one of The New Yorker’s erudite editors thought of the poetry of 2010 (this list goes to 11!):

The New Yorker:

2. C. D. Wright, “One with Others.” A moving elegy for Wright’s mentor, whom she calls V, a white woman who joined an all-black march through the Arkansas delta in the sixties. A brilliant experiment in mixing documentary fact—interview transcripts, newspaper items—with the ancient lyric conventions of elegy. These are ways of knowing the world usually kept far, far apart, but here they reinforce each other.
3. Don Paterson, “Rain.” The Scottish poet writes rhyming poems in regular forms, siphoning from Robert Frost an extreme nihilism that cancels almost any imaginable positive or affirmative claim. The skepticism is undermined by the gorgeousness of the forms; the forms are often there to show what heartbreakingly small difference beauty can make in the world. This is fascinating work, a poet having a brutal argument with his art in his art.

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NPR, that favorite of the GOP, got all mysterious on us here:

NPR:

Nazis also infest the world of The Sleepwalkers. Talk about a “world gone wrong.” Weimar Germany, which is where Paul Grossman’s inventive debut novel is set, makes Raymond Chandler’s L.A. of a slightly later period look like a kiddie petting zoo. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe only had to fend off femme fatales and trigger happy tough guys. Willi Kraus, the Berlin police detective who stars in The Sleepwalkers, has to outwit Hitler and his minions — a job made all the more dicey by the fact that Willi is Jewish. …

Drawing on historical accounts of the period, The Sleepwalkers summons up what must have been the surreal quality of everyday life during the last days of the Weimar Republic. Willi is a decorated “Inspektor-Detektiv” in the police force; a middle-aged widower with two young sons. Everything is settled, even a bit boring, in Willi’s world, as long as he can shut out the shouts of the Brown Shirts gathering on the city streets; the sudden eruptions of anti-Semitism at his sons’ school. Willi comes to realize that it’s only a matter of days before his police badge will be as effective as a library card in fending off the thugs coming to power that fateful autumn in Germany. Before he finds himself turned into the pursued, rather than the pursuer, Willi is determined to solve a bizarre crime spree bedeviling Berlin: a number of people have simply vanished, apparently walking away from their lives under hypnotic suggestion. The corpse of one of the disappeared, a young woman, turns up in the River Spree. As a horrified Willi observes, her legs beneath the knee have been mutilated — amputated and reattached backwards — “as if someone had taken giant pliers and turned the fibula around.”

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And to wrap up our rundown, we present industry standard Publishers Weekly’s favorite fiction:

Publisher’s Weekly:

“The Pregnant Widow”
Martin Amis (Knopf)
Amis propels a very Martin Amis-like Keith Nearing through a summer of poolside torment-sexual, psychological, literary-in 1968 Italy. This dark drawing-room comedy is a showcase of Amis’s ability to make the English language bend to his whims.

“Parrot & Olivier in America”
Peter Carey (Knopf)
Olivier, a fictionalized and absolutely obnoxious riff on Alexis de Tocqueville, contends with Parrot, a cunning servant dispatched to spy on Olivier by Olivier’s mother, as the two journey across early 19th-century America. In this vast picaresque, Carey finds, via a snobbish Frenchman and an earthy Brit, a truly American story.

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