Best of 2010
Dave Eggers, Wes Moore, Tao Lin and 15 others make their picks for the year -- and none of them is "Freedom"
When I first heard about “The Passage,” Justin Cronin’s literary-smart-guy-turned-vampire-apocalypse-trilogist epic novel, I confess I wanted to smack myself with a hammer. Not because I thought, as some did, that the project was fated to be bad in this twilit “Twilight era” — no, I felt an exquisite envy. Cronin gets to destroy the world. With vampires. Say that to yourself, and if you feel the same prickly excitement I did, then this book might be for you. An early flashback from the book haunts me: in Philadelphia, in the snow, just before the city — and all of society — falls to the invading hordes of what Cronin memorably calls “virals,” parents load children on to trains bound for Ark-like sanctuary in California, knowing that they’ll never be reunited. Not in this world, anyway. And, really, that’s not even what the book is about. “The Passage” is elegant, huge, messy, intimate, wise and terrifying. I loved it.
For me the choice is almost too easy. Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” was both the most entertaining nonfiction book I read this year, and the clearest, most incisive, most outrage-generating account of the origins of the world financial crisis from which we are still struggling to recover. Before reading this book, you could have heard a term like “credit-default swap” — or “collateralized debt obligation” or even the broader “subprime meltdown” — a thousand times without really, vividly grasping what it meant and why the arrangements often amounted to legalized theft. Lewis makes it all embarrassingly clear — embarrassing to the perpetrators — via one of his typically absorbing narratives. In my fantasy world, all members of the American electorate would have to read this book before voting or giving opinions on future economic policies. Its runaway commercial success is a rare encouraging sign about public taste. Anyone who hasn’t read it yet should remedy that situation.
Of course, the truly most entertaining nonfiction book of 2010 was “Dreaming in Chinese,” a charming and edgy account of what learning the Chinese language teaches you about China. I should probably mention at this point that the author, Deborah Fallows, is my wife.
James Fallows is an author, national correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, and a recipient of the National Book Award. His most recent book is “Postcards From Tomorrow Square: Reports From China”
I don’t know whether or not it’s the best book of the year, but one book I wanted to mention is “Beirut39: New Writing From the Arab World.” This collection was a really necessary undertaking, and Samuel Shimon did a great job of sourcing and curating these poems, stories and excerpts from novels. There’s a kind of renaissance taking place, it seems, among young Arab writers from the Middle East, North Africa the U.S. and Europe. It comes at a good time, too. We need their voices more than ever before.
“Reporting at Wit’s End,” a collection of stories by St. Clair McKelway, was my favorite book in 2010, since it provided me with one of the great thrills of reading: the discovery of an extraordinary writer. Except in this case, the author of these beguiling true stories — about counterfeiters and fire-bug catchers and inside dopesters and con men and embezzlers — is not a new writer at all but someone who has simply been eclipsed by history, which only added to my delight in discovering him, as if I were being let in on a great secret. The eighteen stories in this collection, which were first published in the New Yorker, and span from the 1930s to the 1960s, are all pieces that transcend time. And, if there is any justice, their republication should earn McKelway, at long last, a place alongside Joseph Mitchell, Gay Talese, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe as one of the masters of literary nonfiction.
David Grann is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of the No. 1 New York Times bestselling book “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.” His most recent book is “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession.”
My favorite book of 2010 is “Proofiness,” by Charles Seife. It’s a short, incisive, nonfiction book that shows how numbers are used to fib, twist facts, drum up propaganda and blitz us with misinformation in the press, politics and advertising. It will leave you outraged, but it’s also quite humorous. It’s perfect for numbers klutzes like me. It’s very well written. It barrels right out the gate with a burst of wonderful writing and just keeps on going.
James McBride is an author, journalist and musician. “Song Yet Sung” is his most recent novel.
I found the young-in-New York essays in “And the Heart Says Whatever,” by Gawker alum Emily Gould, to be compulsively readable, vivid and honest. I also loved the honesty and humor in Meghan Daum’s paean to real estate obsession, “Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.” I am Daum’s biggest fan, and I eat up every word she writes. The first novel “If You Follow Me,” by Malena Watrous, about a young woman teaching English in Japan, is wonderful and brooding and hilarious and perfect. And another first novel, “Stiltsville,” by Susanna Daniel, about a marriage over several decades in Miami, is just beautifully crafted. I’ve given it to several people who’ve said it’s the best book they’ve read in forever; when they say this, I respond demurely, as if I’m the one who wrote it but am too modest to take credit for its excellence.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of three novels. Her writing can be found on her website.
Sad but true: In 2010, I began taking photographs of a beautiful little robot I own, a folk art piece made from salvaged parts, reading whatever book I had just read and enjoyed. Sad but true but also handy, as I have a poor memory and otherwise would have forgotten the best books I read this year. They were “True Confections,” by Katharine Weber, which shows just how serious a comic novel can be; “So Much for That,” by Lionel Shriver, which proves that serious literary novelists have not abandoned social issues; and, finally, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” by William Powers, which changed my life — two words: “Internet Sabbath” — and when was the last time you said that about a book? (A book, not a device or an e-reader. An actual book!)
Laura Lippman is the author of 15 novels, the most recent “I’d Know You Anywhere.” Her new novella, “The Girl in the Green Raincoat,” is forthcoming in January.
Alfredo Batista, a citizen of the borough of Queens, is in love with Isabel, who is carrying his child. Like most low-level drug dealers, he is also perpetually broke, so he and a fellow knucklehead unwisely jack up the brother of a local Russian mobster. To make matters worse, Alfredo’s own brother Tariq is coming out of prison and looking to get back up with his former girlfriend, Isabel. Hoping to make amends to Tariq, and to earn some scratch, Alfredo steals a pit bull with the idea of staging a cut-rate dogfight. Needless to say, the ensuing event does not go as planned.
Matt Burgess’ “Dogfight, A Love Story” was my most memorable read of 2010. As the title implies, the novel mixes everyday urban conflict with slice-of-life tenderness and momentary grace. Burgess captures the bass-heavy symphony of the neighborhood and gets the voices just right. Mixing the comedic and dramatic is a tricky thing to pull off, but the author does so with astonishing success. Most surprisingly, this is his literary debut. I can hardly wait to see what he comes up with next.
George Pelecanos is an author, film and television producer, and television writer. “The Way Home” is his most recent novel.
Someone might take a step back some day and marvel at how much has been written about Islam, America and the Arab world, the destiny of the Middle East and so on, with so little consequence and insight. The remarkable exception is Ussama Makdisi’s “Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations, 1820-2001.” With stunning breadth, Makdisi begins with those earliest Protestant missionaries to the Middle East and ends with the wreckage that America’s entanglement with Israel and Arab despots has strewn across the region. Makdisi doesn’t say it bluntly, but it runs as an undercurrent in the book: The absolutism that dominates America’s seeming conflict with Islam is, in part, a repercussion of American success in destroying a secular nationalism that spoke a language much more familiar to the West. It is a sad tale, and Makdisi writes it with verve and elegance. It is hard not to become a little sad when you read of the sense of benevolence Arabs once held out for an America known to the world through Wilsonian idealism. Here was an appeal from a group of Arab nationalists in July 1919, seeking help from “President Wilson and the liberal American nation, who are known for their sincere and generous sympathy with the aspirations of weak nations, for help in the fulfillment of our hopes.”
Anthony Shadid is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. He is the author of “Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War”
Mark Twain has a permanent place on my bedside table; I read his essays whenever my own writing stalls. Those surprising, perfect verbs, those unexpected but accurate nouns, that distinctive sense of the absurd and limitless ability to evoke it … I’m familiar with most of his autobiography already, but I’ve enjoyed immersing myself in the rearranged, slightly-more-complete edition issued by the University of California Press this month, which includes Twain’s own detailed, ever-changing plans for publication of his life story. In these pages, he is sharp, shrewd and hilarious, by turns cantankerous and charming, furious and resigned. The book has its flaws: The structure, if you can call it that, is loose; occasionally he rambles; and the plantation nostalgia, however tempered by experience, will be difficult to stomach — especially if your own family, like mine, held slaves and bequeathed them, with horses and land, in wills. But I’ve laughed and argued and agreed with Twain in my head for so many years that reading his work feels strangely intimate now, like returning to old letters from a spectacularly brilliant and difficult ex-boyfriend you’ve somehow managed to remain friends with. No writer, living or dead, is as important to me.
Maud Newton is a writer, blogger and book reviewer. Her writing can be found here.
This has been a great year for books. While there have been many that have forced me to think, prompted me to laugh, and inspired me to action, there is one in particular that stands out: Nelson Mandela’s “Conversation With Myself.” First, any book or anecdote by or about Nelson Mandela moves me because his life, faith and leadership truly elevate my belief in the human spirit. But this collection of personal and private notes, journal entries, and streams of thought is special because it shows the evolution of the man — a man who by his own admission is no saint or savior, but someone whose decades of imprisonment and inhuman courage forged a leadership that saved a nation from civil war, and shaped the destiny of a generation of South Africans. His letters and personal insights shed a real light on not just the conditions he endured and the barbarity of apartheid, but on the joy of reconciliation.
Wes Moore is the bestselling author of “The Other Wes Moore”.
I loved Scott Spencer’s “Man in the Woods.” Here is a fast-moving novel to read for its intelligent plotting, wisdom about relationships, attention to the canine perspective, and wondrous use of metaphor (such as this description of a necklace clasp: “The circle she is trying to get the hook through is tiny, the size of an air bubble exhaled by a goldfish”). Together they propel the work beyond any label like “mystery” or “thriller.”
Ted Conover is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent book is “The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today.” His writing can be found here.
A friend told me she read the first line of Gail Caldwell’s extraordinary memoir “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” and immediately started crying and had to put it down. “It’s an old, old story,” writes Caldwell. “I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and so we shared that, too.” It is indeed a gut punch of an opener. And yet something about this exquisitely told story — even that first line that is really more about union than loss — struck me as so hopeful and so full of life. Caldwell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a solitary woman married to words and routine, fell deeply in friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp over long, meandering, story-filled walks with their loyal dogs. At just 42, Knapp died suddenly of lung cancer. It’s cruel and unfair to so suddenly lose your favorite person in the world. And it’s wrong that we don’t get to keep our beloved dogs forever. But Caldwell, writing with similar restraint and grace as Joan Didion did in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” doesn’t wring her story for tears. She is funny and wistful and tough and self-aware. I never met Caroline Knapp, but after this fine book, I find myself missing her terribly. She was lucky to have a friend like Caldwell, who continues to love her well.
Karen Valby is a senior writer for Entertainment Weekly. Her first book, “Welcome to Utopia: Notes From a Small Town,” was published this year.
Moving books about bugs don’t show up often enough. When they do, one has to be grateful. Hugh Raffles’ illustrated “Insectopedia” owes more to W.G. Sebald than Entomology Today. It’s a gutsy and surprising work.
Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Her book “Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change” examines the causes and effects of climate change.
My favorite book I read in 2010 that was published in 2010 is maybe “The Insurgent,” by Noah Cicero. When the book arrived in the mail (I had already read it two to four times in earlier drafts), I read it on the subway and on the sidewalk walking toward the library then sat in Washington Square Park and read the rest of it sitting in sunlight. I felt unique, strong, sustained feelings of calmness upon completion. It is about two severely depressed/alienated friends who find 80 oxies in a bathroom and sell them and use the money to go on a road trip to visit people they know from the Internet. It ends with one of the characters sitting in nature. I feel emotional thinking about it right now. Another of my favorite books of 2010 was “Person,” by Sam Pink.
Tao Lin is the author of “Shoplifting From American Apparel,” and his latest novel, “Richard Yates,” was published this year.
My pick is “The Unnamed,” by Joshua Ferris. A successful, happily married lawyer gets sick. He’s compelled to walk and can’t stop. Armies of doctors can’t figure out what’s wrong and can’t help him. In lesser hands it would have been a comedy, but it’s a beautiful, crushing, incredible book. Excited to read whatever he does next.
James Frey’s most recent book is “Bright Shiny Morning.”
I spent so much of 2010 catching up on all the books I missed when I was holed up writing through 2009 that I fear so many of the books I assume might become favorites from this year are piled by my bed still waiting to be read. But of those books I did manage to get to so far this year, I particularly enjoyed Elif Batuman’s “The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.”
Honestly, by the time my father gave me a copy of “The Possessed” this spring, I’d already read a bunch of rave reviews (including Laura Miller’s), noticed that this quirky, eggheaded paperback with a cover drawn by Roz Chast had become the world’s most improbable bestseller, yet was still not convinced that a person like me who knows nothing about Russian literature could possibly get into it. Unsurprisingly, everyone else was right and I was wrong. It’s absolutely true that “The Possessed” is as fresh and funny and wise and awesome as everyone says, whether or not you can tell Tolstoy from Dostoevski. Batuman is sophisticated, smart and savagely funny, but a breeze to read. The book is far less about the intricacies of Russian lit than it is a meditation on the seductive and hilarious incomprehensibility of both Russian and academic cultures, and it will engage anyone who’s ever been mystified by the bizarre, extreme and ridiculous behaviors of those around them.
Rebecca Traister is a senior writer at Salon. Her first book, “Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women,” was published this year.
In my literary roaming through the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic is one subject I have always overlooked. But this year, when I downloaded the audiobook of Richard F. Snow’s marvelous “A Measureless Peril: America in the Fight for the Atlantic, the Longest Battle of World War II,” I learned what I’d been missing. In this exhaustively researched and gracefully written book, Snow vividly re-creates the epic showdown between German submarines, sent to hunt merchant ships in the Atlantic, and the vessels sent to thwart them, one of which bore Snow’s father. This is a hell of a story, at turns rousing, terrifying, fascinating, surprisingly funny and deeply moving, and the postscript, telling of the peacetime fate of Snow’s father, brought me to tears. I can’t wait to listen to it again.
Laura Hillenbrand’s most recent book, “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” was published this year.
Hans Keilson’s “Comedy in a Minor Key,” first published in 1947 in the Netherlands but translated into English this past year, is about the Holocaust. There’s no getting around that, it just is. I know what you’re thinking: Don’t ruin the ending for me, I’ve got a beach holiday coming up. But this is not your average Holocaust novel, and trust me, I’ve read them all. At gunpoint. This is a very, very, very dark comedy about an ordinary Dutch couple during World War II who decide, somewhat ambivalently, to hide a Jew in their attic. It seems like the right thing to do, and hey, fuck the Nazis anyway. Then, in short order, the Jew drops dead of entirely natural causes. This is a problem. They can’t bury him. They can’t leave him there. And the whole experience raises the question of the notion and nature of heroism. Great stuff, and to hell with the beach. It’s sandy.
Shalom Auslander is an author and essayist. His most recent book is “Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir.”