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Best Books 2010

It’s the time of year when people start publishing their best of lists, so I thought it might be fun to kick off a bit of discussion here about what people have (and haven’t!) liked in 2010. Because I review so much this is usually a pretty easy process for me, but in many ways the last twelve months have been a bit of disaster for me reading-wise: as well as all the chaos of a new baby I’ve been trying to get an anthology tied down and finish a novel, both of which have stopped me reading quite as much as I normally would.

It’s also been a bit of an odd year book-wise. If 2009 was dominated by huge, unclassifiable books like 2666 (here, here and here)and The Kindly Ones, and unconventional and brilliant historical works such as The Children’s Book and Wolf Hall, 2010 has been marked by a series of interesting crossover titles like Justin Cronin’s The Passage.

It is however one of those years where I have no trouble picking a favourite, a privilege which goes to Lorrie Moore’s wonderful A Gate at the Stairs, a book which seems to me to cover much of the same territory as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom but with considerably more elegance, wit and brevity (interestingly it’s also playing with some of the same tropes of the nineteenth century social novel Franzen deploys, and perhaps not coincidentally these moments are also the weakest in the book (except for the wonderful final line)). If you haven’t read it all I can say is do, immediately: it’s one of those rare books that left such an impression I found it difficult to read anyting else for weeks afterwards.

Besides A Gate at the Stairs, I loved Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete, a book of deceptive simplicity and considerable emotional impact and Sam Lipsyte’s gloriously scabrous The Ask. I also enjoyed Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (though I do wonder whether it’s as strong as a collection as Runaway), and was very impressed by Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter, Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam epic, Matterhorn, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Graham Robb’s wonderfully chatty and intimate Parisians.

There’s also the elephant in the room of Freedom. I’ve wanted to write something for a while about the slightly hysterical desire to anoint Franzen some sort of literary demigod, a desire which seems to me misplaced: he’s a very good novelist but he’s no better than a number of others (Lorrie Moore, for instance, or Hilary Mantel). I now suspect that piece probably won’t get written, but I also think it’s difficult to talk about the novel without coming up against the sense this desire sets up an implicit demand one’s responses to the novel be strongly positive or strongly negative.

Mine are actually neither. I think parts of it are very good: unlike many people I particularly liked the excerpts from Patty’s memoir, and thought the sequence relating her parents’ response to her rape was a thing of genius: horrible and funny and appalling all at once. But I also felt the novel lost energy badly in the second half, a loss of energy that was reflected in an increasing slackness in the writing.

Part of the problem is that the sort of large social novel Franzen wants to write is very difficult to pull off these days without a pretty high degree of contrivance. But I was also struck by the fact that in many ways the bits of Freedom that don’t work are largely those where Franzen steps away from the sort of domestic comedy he excels at (interestingly I would have said almost the same thing about The Corrections).

Of course none of this is to say I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t think it was good: I did. It’s just that I don’t think it’s the work of luminous genius many others do (if you’d like to see what seems to me to be a very fair take on it I’d point you to Ron Charles’ hilarious video review for The Washington Post).

Closer to home my reading was distinguished more by what I didn’t read than what I did, but I was hugely impressed by both Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight and Delia Falconer’s Sydney (just for the record Delia and Brenda are both friends, but I’d be praising the books whether that were the case or not) and I thought Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game was an impressive debut by a very interesting and highly engaged writer.

I also read a lot of SF, not all of which was new, out of which the real standouts were Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun, his strangely beautiful hymn to the worlds orbiting Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, a pair of books suffused by a sense of the inhuman immensity and hostility of space, and Margo Lanagan’s shimmeringly subversive fairy tale, Tender Morsels. On the graphic novel and comic front I finally got around to reading Warren Ellis’ entirely brilliant Planetary, a series that manages to reimagine the superhero comic from the ground up in much the way Watchmen did two and a half decades ago (though which, interestingly, is still rooted in the comics of yesteryear, suggesting the enervation Moore was responding to in Watchmen is no less real today.

There were also, of course, a number of books I violently didn’t like, or thought were wildly overrated, but rather than carp, I thought I’d throw it over to all of you and ask what your picks were, and why.

34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Moore, Vlautin and Lipsyte’s offerings I concur were all marvellous, and will bless you always for recommending the Vlautin. What a story.
    I also enjoyed Maile Meloy’s story collection, Both Ways Is The Way I Want It, and was led to her second novel, The Family Daughter, as a result. It is superb. There is a line in it I will always cherish,
    “All this talk of what other people want” (says a counsellor), “I don’t like it. People become greedy if you give them what they want.” HEH.
    This year is also the year I was most fortunate to finally read both of Anne Michael’s beautiful works of fiction, as well as Shirley Jackson’s inimitable We Have Always Lived In The Castle.
    Actually I am bloody happy with both the lists I made this year, even if I put the Meloy stories on both of them by mistake (whoops.) It’s been a foine year, apart from Andrew O’Hagan’s Be Near Me, which I found quite abhorrent for several reasons.

    November 26, 2010
    • that should of course be Anne Michaels’. My badness.

      November 28, 2010
  2. STM #

    I’m right there with you on three picks – Lorrie Moore, Brenda Walker, and Delia Falconer. I’d throw Anna Krien’s masterful Into The Woods in there and for the first time in my life I’ve properly moved away from the big name white male American writers, which I feel great about and not in a “I’ve been taking my vitamins!” sort of way, although it probably comes off that way. It’s also the reason why I haven’t gone anywhere near Freedom.

    I loved David Shield’s Reality Hunger at the start of the year. I didn’t agree with everything Shields wrote – I hated that it was subtitled a manifesto – but I think it lead me to enjoying the Walker and Falconer more, as novelists who moved so swimmingly into non-fiction, with more lyrical and descriptive powers than those without backgrounds in fiction. By the end of the week, I think Saul Bellow’s just published Letters, will be up there in my mind with his novels and up there with my books of the year.

    November 26, 2010
  3. And as I have previously mentioned, I did enjoy The Resurrectionist (which I shamefully had not read earlier – however I did enjoy reading Wrack several years ago.)

    November 26, 2010
  4. Still reading Brenda’s book painfully slowly because I’m trying to savour it. Same goes for Franzen’s, although for different reasons.

    I enjoyed Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall even if feel the ending was a little swift (or pat? Still deciding..)

    My trouble with these lists is that I get stuck in a panic thinking, “Did that come out this year, or in 2009?!” (A quick Google search would help, I daresay)

    November 26, 2010
  5. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Franzen as we speak. In the great tradition of white American male writers, his picture (as I’ve said on Facebook, but hey, why not repeat myself, since you’ve invited discussion!) of the American male’s attitude to women and sex is making me wish I were illiterate so I didn’t have to see this stuff. Came very close to hurling it aside with great force as per Dorothy Parker on encountering the adjective ‘milfy’. I’m yet to nut out what I think Franzen’s own position is on all this, though I do like the characterisation of Patty very much and the nutso friend Eliza is also very good, as is the Saffy-esque Jessica. Lalitha, on the other hand …

    I gather there’s a poo dinosaur of sorts somewhere in the pages I have not yet read. Can’t wait for that one.

    November 26, 2010
    • I’m interested by your response to the gender stuff in the Franzen, which I was less bothered by: my sense was Franzen’s intentions are good (he’s no Norman Mailer) but there’s something slightly weird about the imbalance between his interest in the men and the women (despite Patty).

      The language thing is interesting though. I’ve never been particularly convinced by the conventional wisdom about the beauty of Franzen’s sentences, but what makes the writing in Freedom interesting is less the knottiness of it, but the way it’s trying to come to grips with the language of the contemporary world and incorporate it into the novel. There’s a good piece by James Wood somewhere (How Fiction Works?) discussing this problem in the context of Foster Wallace, and the manner in which his prose enacts the awfulness of contemporary language as a way of giving shape to the contemporary world’s larger banality and awfulness. Part of the problem for Franzen is the same as the problem Wood identifies in Foster Wallace, namely that incorporating the banality of contemporary language reduces the power of the writing more generally (there’s a wonderful moment near the end of Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story (which is about exactly this question) about this,in which the male protagonist is reminded of the power of language to represent the world). But in Franzen’s case it’s made worse by the way the MILFing pulls against the more literary aspirations of the rest of the writing, meaning Franzen ends up sounding like the School Chaplain trying to talk street to the kids.

      November 26, 2010
      • I should have made it clearer (re ‘milfy’ and all that that entails, as it were) that that is very much Joey’s word, not Franzen’s, and that the only thing I’m blaming Franzen for is telling me things about men that I don’t want to hear but fear may be true. Sophie C has left a comment on my Facebook page saying she likes the warts-and-all honesty of all the characters, and I think that’s a good argument, but it doesn’t cancel out the horror of hearing the bad news, and I’m trying not to shoot the messenger here. I’m not even saying that Franzen shouldn’t be telling us this news. Only that it makes me sick.

        On the other hand, if what I can’t stop thinking of as the poo dinosaur scene is meant to be Joey’s just reward for his attitude and behaviour then at least that is some consolation, albeit of a bleak Swiftean kind.

        In the matter of making distinctions between the author’s language and his characters’ language, I think — although I too like the parts ostensibly told by Patty very much, and agree with you about the brilliance of the parents/rape scenes — that in those sections he’s given himself a massive technical problem with the three-way clash between (among?) characterisation, narrative voice and realist mode. If she’s as knowledgeable, articulate and insightful as her ‘autobiography’ makes her sound, why isn’t she a horn-rims-wearing, best-selling, Oprah-eschewing novelist?

        November 26, 2010
      • You’re right, of course, and to the extent the language in question is Joey’s I entirely agree. But I do think the tensions in the language are interesting, and I’m even more interested by the endless praising of Franzen’s perfect prose: part of what’s always made him interesting to me is the fact that the language is often quite lumpy, and explicitly embodies the tensions and ambivalences he’s interested in, and is for that reason precisely not beautiful (or lapidary, as the NYT would have it).

        November 26, 2010
  6. Your list gives me some things to try.

    I would second ‘Reality Hunger’ as a significant book. It’s equal parts fascinating, inspiring and exasperating. But it’s very hard to ignore.

    I enjoyed Scarlett Thomas’ ‘Our Tragic Universe’ – even though it’s a messy, meandering inelegant book. But I found it addictively interesting, in part because of the way it’s kind of an “anti-novel.”

    For graphic novels, the latest Acme Novelty Library (by Chris Ware) was just released and it’s actually a good standalone story (and a beautiful hardcover volume). For me, that’s probably the comic of the year. But then, Ware is always hard to beat. Also well worth a look: Jim Woodring’s ‘Weathercraft’, Charles Burns’ ‘X’ed Out’, Lynda Barry’s ‘Picture This’, Dan Clowes’ ‘Wilson’ – there are others, but that’s off the top of my head.

    November 26, 2010
    • I’m interested you liked the Thomas – I saw it on Jeff Vandermeer’s list at Amazon and was tempted by it. And I really appreciate the graphic novel recommendations, esp the Burns, since I’m reading the last one at the moment and liking it.

      November 26, 2010
  7. Jo #

    You have some great taste here, James … I loved the Lorrie Moore too and though I also thoroughly enjoyed the Franzen, I think you’re right that Moore’s was the better crafted novel. I don’t think of Franzen as a perfect prose writer (though I do think of Moore as exactly that) – I think of him as a terrific writer of the social novel, who masterfully transcends the divide between ‘literary’ and ‘popular’ writing (and readerships). I hugely enjoyed and admired Freedom, but am a bit bewildered by the idea that it represents some elevated pinnacle of achievement as a piece of writing.

    And agree with Genevieve on the Maile Meloy, probably my favourite book of 2010 (the Moore was last year’s fave for me). Genevieve, have you read Liars and Saints, her first novel? It’s much better than A Family Daughter I thought; I think you’d love it.

    My close runner-up as favourite was Sherman Alexie’s War Dances (loved your review in SMH of this, James). And really loved Andrew Porter’s Theory of Light and Matter, too. Also Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink, which was kind of Franzen-esque in form, I thought. (Not suggesting it’s at all an imitation, but also a great character-based contemporary social novel.)

    Other best books I read this year were old ones I read for first time – Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days and Dark Palace. So wonderful and absorbing. Am looking forward to the third instalment next year.

    November 26, 2010
  8. Brendan #

    On the subject of Warren Ellis, have you seen his current collaborative work with Paul Duffield? It is called FreakAngels and is at vol 4 of published works so far, but you can read the whole lot online. They release 6 pages a week every Friday. (www.freakangels.com)

    I will be checking out some of your recommendations. Especially the SF, you haven’t been wrong so far.

    November 26, 2010
  9. Given the big plugs from Jo and Genevieve I’ll definitely check out Maile Meloy. And I’ve been meaning to read the McGregor but haven’t quite got to it. Interesting (but not surprising) so many people loved the Moore (and yes, I know I’m cheating a bit since it was actually published last year).

    November 26, 2010
  10. Tim #

    I too seem to have had an off year when it comes to reading, and I have only read a handful of books published in 2010. Of these I most enjoyed: Dan Rhodes’ gothic, dark and charming Little Hands Clapping; Tony O’Neill’s ott drugged-out crime novel Sick City; Vlautin’s Lean On Pete; Grace Krilanovich’s extraordinary (and extraordinarily odd) The Orange Eats Creeps; Marcy Dermansky’s Highsmith-esque Bad Marie; and most recently, Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is The Bomb, which I’m not sure really hangs together all that well, but which I very much enjoyed.

    November 26, 2010
  11. I’ve been a millimetre away from buying Oriange Eats Creeps for a while. It’s good is it? And I liked Rhodes first one (Timoleon Vieta) but haven’t read Little Hands Clapping – will check it out. And just read the reviews on Amazon for the Flynn which sounds amazing.

    November 26, 2010
  12. I must say that Alastair Reynolds was the find of the year for me. I tend to love authors rather than individual books, if you know what I mean, and it is always wonderful to find someone so interesting to add to the roster.

    November 26, 2010
  13. Kylie #

    3 books stood out for me this year, Freedom of course because it’s such a lovely domestic drama and I love a character driven novel and I think all the characters were written so well. I preferred this in fact to the Corrections were the characters were less interesting to me – reminiscent of Roth and Mendelsohn the Americans write so well in this genre. I enjoyed Atwood’s The Year of the Flood once I got through the first 100 pages. I was also interested in Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That…at the time I was annoyed by the slow start, unlikeable characters and the ending yet it has stayed with me and some of the characters and scenarios a reminiscent of The Corrections. What to ask for for Christmas to kick off 2011 reading?

    November 27, 2010
  14. Claire Thomas #

    Another agreeable post here, James…Amid my own new baby chaos, Lorrie Morrie and Willy V. were both standouts. I also enjoyed Siri Hustvedt’s meandering meditation on the brain/mind, The Shaking Woman. She’s always just so interesting.

    November 27, 2010
  15. it is thoroughly remiss of me also not to mention that I had the great good fortune to encounter Amanda Lohrey’s incredible novella, Vertigo, this year. And I reread Colm Toibin’s The Master, which is even better second time around.
    Riches…

    November 27, 2010
  16. Genevieve, seconded both of those. I think The Master is just breathtaking, and I don’t usually like those ‘fiction about real people/events’ novels.

    November 27, 2010
    • The Master is just gobsmackingly good. The scene with the manservant in his room in Ireland, and the sense of the play of unspoken possibility is a moment of genius.

      November 28, 2010
      • This time round I also enjoyed Bro James et famille visiting at the end, and the slovenly servants’ decline at Lamb House. That is a hoot. Not to mention sister Alice’s life, so sharply observed. It is such a fine book.

        November 28, 2010
  17. I’m curious – what age were you when you started reading a good majority of the notable books that come out every year? I’m 22 and so far I’ve read 40 books this year, but only two of those (The Passage and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet) came out in 2010. There’s just so, so many acclaimed books from the past hundred years or so. I can’t imagine how long it would take to get to the point where you can read a good chunk of new books every year AND speak authoritively on so many important authors.

    November 27, 2010
    • I have an unfair advantage because I review, which means that even if I’m not reviewing something I’m sort of obliged to keep on top of what’s coming out. But it’s also a function of getting older: if you keep reading 40 books a year then by the time you’re my age you’ll have read 800-900 more than you have now, which is a lot.

      If it makes you feel any better though, you never stop up feeling like there are gaping holes in your reading, or things you should like you don’t: I certainly always feel like my tastes are both conservative and mainstream, and feel guilty every time I’m reminded how weak I am on European modernism ( for instance).

      November 27, 2010
    • Mitch, if I can address the ‘authoritatively’ part — that’s where having racked up a number of years comes in really handy, because of those 8-900 extra books (and in my case, if you do the years-multiplied-by-books arithmetic then it’s significantly more than that again) — because what that gives you is some context. You end up with a sense of what came out when, why there was a buzz about it at the time, and whether it was a nine-day wonder, and you also end up with a sense of a longer view, of what the fiction classics of the 19th century (at least) are or were, and of what traditions the new books are fitting into.

      I can’t read Franzen, for example, without locating what he’s doing within the traditions of literary realism that were being established by Tolstoy and George Eliot, who in their turn were working with, and departing from, earlier models and ideas.

      Someone like James who likes the 20th century American male writers a lot more than I do and therefore knows a lot more about them is probably more likely to know how Franzen fits into that tradition. But either way it’s basically a matter of patient glacial accretion. This is one of the disadvantages of the anti-canonical feeling in literature courses in universities over the last few decades — 30 years ago it was the case that if you majored in English lit (i.e. lit in English) you were guaranteed to come out at the end with at least some sort of sense of the history of Eng lit and its various genres and traditions, but those days are long gone.

      November 28, 2010
  18. Susan Lever #

    Thanks for the list, James. I’ll get onto the Lorrie Moore–I was given her Birds of America stories last year and loved it. The Corrections was enough Franzen for me..the reviews are a clear enough indication. I’ve been reading heaps, but not much new. Just put down Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (good enough) for Toibin’s The Heather Blazing, long recommended and a good novel but not as amazing as The Master. I’m on the last two Roth books, completing my task of reading them all–and I have to tell people that Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece. Portnoy is merely a sketch for it. I also reread Little Dorrit and found it wonderful.

    November 28, 2010
  19. Bronwyn #

    My favorites for this year were Wolf Hall, Brooklyn, The Lonely Polygamist and We Have Always Lived In the Castle and ‘The Lottery’ by Shirley Jackson. I loved her disturbing tales. I feel ambivalent towards Freedom. I don’t think any book is served by the type of hype it got. I’m with Kerryn on the depiction of women in the book uurrggh. I read City and the City. While I was intrigued by the idea of the crosshatched city. I found I did not give a fig for the characters so it failed for me as a crime novel. I really did not care ‘who done it’ in the end. Which leaves me with the Children’s Book… This is one book that left me wishing I had an iPad. I spent most of my time with the laptop open googling the art. The rest of my time thinking if Byatt says ‘Arts and Craft movement’ one more time I will garotte myself. Also it took a terrible toll on my wrists and I received several injuries falling asleep with it in bed.

    November 29, 2010
  20. I’ve got The Lonely Polygamist by my bed, and am looking forward to it. And I have to confess I’ve not read Shirley Jackson, but read a long piece about her somewhere (in the LRB?) earlier this year that made me want to. Which one should I begin with?

    November 30, 2010
    • ‘The Lottery’ is one of the great short stories of the 20th century, but it’s the only Shirley Jackson I’ve read, so I’m not sure whether you should start with it or work up to it.

      November 30, 2010
      • And I’ve only read We Have Always Lived In The Castle, and can thoroughly recommend it as any kind of beginning. It was enthralling, in a contemporary gothic, toxic kind of way.

        November 30, 2010
    • Bronwyn Nolan #

      I would read The Lottery first it really is one of those short stories that sticks with you a long time. I read it without knowing anything about it. I was stunned. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a really wicked tale and the Haunting of Hill House is good too. I believe there is 1999 really bad movie remake of it though. Shirley Jackson received an American literary accolade this year but I can’t remember who from.

      December 1, 2010

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