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.