The best (and worst) of 2010
It was a fine year for drama, disillusionment and disorientation.
Fri Dec 17 2010
Just Kids by Patti Smith
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
Acme Novelty Library, Vol. 20 by Chris Ware
Room by Emma Donoghue
Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman
Citrus County by John Brandon
Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Just Kids by Patti Smith
1 Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco)
What begins as a naive love story of misfits in the city becomes the creation myth of Smith and her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe; along the way, it's also an ecstatic portrait of '70s New York, a witness to a unique, symbiotic relationship between artists, and ultimately, a moving elegy.
2 The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (FSG)
Lipsyte brought the pitch-black satire roaring back to life with this story about soliciting donations for a "mediocre university." Adrift in a sea of his own incompetence, Lipsyte's middle-aged, balding antihero stares directly into the void of fatherhood and failure, and dives right in. The book's crackling and bile-flecked dialogue was the year's most inventive and hilarious.
3 A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf)
This daring novel about music, love and family is restless, leaping into the skins of a dozen narrators, while dashing back and forth along its timeline and even, on one occasion, communicating via PowerPoint charts. Beneath the myriad, whirling visions, Egan's gentle yet insistent hand urges readers along—much like the titular goon squad, which represents the march of time—toward an inexorable conclusion.
4 The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (Reagan Arthur Books)
In this tale of a man with an inexplicable compulsion to walk endlessly, Ferris's jaunty, linear prose directs action in a drama as effectively as it did in his comedy Then We Came to the End. Beyond the extreme premise, what's on display here is the dissolution of a marriage; as the narrator's body and his partnership crumble, Ferris's writing grows elegantly sad.
5 Acme Novelty Library, Vol. 20 by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)
The latest chapter of Ware's slowly unfurling, epic visual poem is the story of Jordan Lint, from his first moment of consciousness to his last. As Lint's life unspools from bullying child to selfish adult, Ware's visual grammar keeps pace, and graphic motifs emerge. But as unsavory as the protagonist's actions may be, Ware handles him with care, refusing to let the reader abandon him.
Best reason to stop googling for five minutes and get immersed in information: The Encyclopedia of New York City, Second Edition by Kenneth T. Jackson (Yale University Press)
Worst example of how hype, chatter and outsize expectation ruined a perfectly good book: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (FSG)
1 Room by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown)
A boy has lived his entire life within the confines of four walls; he doesn't see anything wrong with this, as it's the only world he knows. It's probably akin to the nightmares of a ten-year-old Paul Auster, but Donoghue's claustrophobic, powerful novel defies easy comparison. Book of the year, whatever Time has to say about Franzen and the way we live now.
2 Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman (Graywolf)
Chapman's strange, compelling drama begins when a woman shows up at a hospital in Finland one day, seemingly against her will. She is haughty and standoffish, but obviously has deep physical and psychic scars, wounds that set the tone for the rest of the novel. Anyone know how to say kick-ass read in Finnish?
3 Citrus County by John Brandon (McSweeney's)
Citrus County is a funny, brutal novel set in the part of Florida nobody cares about. Brandon's characters—like his plotlines—are authentically weird, but never succumb to wackiness. Though centered on an act of horrendous violence, Citrus County achieves a devastating grace, and there is nothing else quite like it.
4 Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell (Pantheon)
Bissell's memoir of a life in video games should resonate with anyone who has ever spent more than a few hours exploring a brutish, pixelated world full of zombies, invading aliens or postapocalyptic detritus. In hilarious detail, Bissell makes the case for this chronically scoffed-at art form, and relates surprisingly earnest anecdotes about his time in video-game land.
5 The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Random House)
Mitchell plays it straight with this historical novel set in turn-of-the-18th-century Japan. Jacob de Zoet, a upright representative of the wildly corrupt Dutch East India Company, finds himself in hot water over a Japanese girl and his dangerous Western ideas. That Mitchell is willing to stray from his successful past formula speaks well of him, and the book again proves he's among the more imaginative and versatile writers out there.
Best translated book that remains as tough to decipher in English as it is in its original language: Aliss at the Fire by Jon Fosse (Dalkey Archive Press)
Worst book by an author on this year's New York Times Best of 2010 books list: Walks with Men by Ann Beattie (Scribner)
As book sales fell again, continued anxiety about the industry's future kept it not exactly paralyzed but definitely expectant. Maybe the revolution will never come, but as of December, the next wave of change was on its way: the struggling Borders was considering buying the struggling Barnes & Noble as Google announced its devicehopping e-book platform, which gives brick-and-mortar bookshops the option to sell through their websites. Though there were no astounding new works or glimpses of new movements this year, there were plenty of good reads out there, regardless of whether they were consumed page-by-page or onscreen.