The Best Fiction of 2010

End of year lists are fluid; the best book you read in January may not make a list made in December, even if it is, in many ways, a better book than one you read in November. Stellar prose, tight plotting, even memorable characters are not enough to keep a book in mind for three months, let alone 12. This may seem harsh, but for a book to truly belong on a Best Of list, it has to meet one extra, often forgotten criterion: it must be engaging. “Best books” must capture the reader on not just an intellectual level, but on an emotional one, too.

If booklists have their own particular trend–and I think they do–this list presents an interesting, even surprising, take on 2010. Five of the 30+ titles present here are comics collections; many are dark and twisty, full of horrors that are sometimes a little too close to home (Super Sad True Love Story). More are “retro” or “vintage”, written in, or inspired by the ’40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Yet most unexpected is the number of crossover titles on the list–not just two young adult novels (The Thief, For the Win), but adult novels with teenage protagonists, like Jean Kwok’s Girl in Translation, Jayne Ann Philips’ Lark & Termite, and Emma Donoghue’s Room, narrated by five-year-old Jack.

While these reflections on the past–and somewhat dreary prophecies of the future–may seem depressing, they’re not all as pathos-inducing as the reissue of Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Tucked into this list are several small glimmers of something sweeter, something to temper the Literary Drearies we all love and appreciate. And that’s just the way it should be.

Peta Jinnath Andersen

 

Book: Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980

Author: Dan Nadel

Publisher: Abrams ComicArts

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Display Width: 200Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980
Dan Nadel

These are adventure stories spanning the years 1940 to 1980, a time which saw the initial rise of the comic book, Senate investigations into their effect on young readers, Marvel’s ascendance as a publishing powerhouse and the beginnings of the cross promotional blitz of the Hollywood blockbuster. In academia and popular history alike there are ideological battles over bias and intellectual canon, and comics are no different. Nadel writes he deliberately avoided greats like Will Eisner and Jack Kirby because their work is already widely anthologized. The artists in this collection who are widely known, like Harry Lucey, are not represented by their best-known material, but rather by the departures from the norm caused by creative and financial impulses. Nadel writes that the history of comics is “really the story of the slow march toward a more open and inclusive understanding of what makes a compelling comic”. On every page of this book we see that idea in action, and it’s exciting to know there are more examples out there waiting to be discovered. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: Batwoman: Elegy

Authors: Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III

Publisher: DC Comics

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Display Width: 200Batwoman: Elegy
Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III

Not many superheroes get headlines in the mainstream press like “The red-headed lesbian is unleashed at last” or “Holy Lipstick Lesbian!” DC comics’ new incarnation of Batwoman has garnered both praise as a compelling character and wholly predictable criticism from homophobic culture warriors. Batwoman:Elegy finds this creative team working at the height of their powers. What doesn’t always work is the use of magical and supernatural themes. In Elegy, Batwoman struggles with her previous nemesis “The Religion of Crime”. These covens dedicated to an ancient religion of chaos bring a whole boatload of hocus-pocus into the story. This sometimes has a jarring effect given that the world of the Batwoman feels like it should be all about gritty-street level crime. Nevermind though. Rucka and Williams know what they are doing. They skillfully make use of the magical elements of the story to reconstruct Kate Kane’s inner worlds and prepare us for the big reveal at the end. We see the dénouement coming for quite a few pages but it still surprises with its power. What could have been Lifetime movie of the week melodrama in the hands of some becomes almost Homeric here. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

Author: Lydia Davis

Publisher: Picador

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Display Width: 200The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
Lydia Davis

It might be tempting to call the short story writer Lydia Davis a minimalist as her stories, in length, are about as short as you will see. But her style is not minimalist; it is diverse and always shifting, sometimes favoring short and simple sentences, sometimes unfurling into long intricately structured thoughts. In their breadth her stories are really maximalist, taking in a wide variety of subject matter and writing styles to best articulate a narrative. Her basic storytelling approaches vary widely in range; she uses many storytelling voices from first to third person, formal and informal, limited and omniscient narrator and; she uses rhythm and repetition within her stories to replicate the cadence of songwriting. The sequencing of the collections feels track listed; the stories breathe and flow into each other, inhaling and contracting and there is a thrilling sense of play that is both loose and precise. Indeed, this book is a master class in the endless vitality of the core tools used by writers. Michael Buening

 

Book: The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard

Author: J. G. Ballard

Publisher: W.W. Norton

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Display Width: 200The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard
J. G. Ballard

In 1943, the British author James Graham Ballard, then a boy of 12, was detained and imprisoned within a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai. Ballard’s experiences in the camp, where he remained for almost two years, became the basis for his celebrated 1984 novel Empire of the Sun. While the novel is autobiographical and realist, there is present in it many of the same characteristics that marked Ballard’s remarkable science fiction, much of which is collected here. It is surrealism — a reaction to mechanized carnage — from which Ballard draws most. One finds in his work the desolate plazas of De Chirico, the blasphemy of Dali, and the sharp-focus absurdity of Magritte. Although frequently lumped in with the “serious” science fiction produced by Orwell and Huxley, Ballard’s criticisms were seldom overtly political. Ballardian Man is already adept enough at repressing himself without the aid of totalitarian government. Even stories with putatively political subjects — “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennegy Considered As A Downhill Motorrace” and “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” — were satires of media and celebrity, not politics. Ballard once stated that he wrote not of the future, but of “the visionary present”. His work is unique among science fiction, and among 20th century literature. M.M. Wolfe

 

Book: A Conspiracy of Kings

Author: Megan Whalen Turner

Publisher: Greenwillow

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Display Width: 200A Conspiracy of Kings
Megan Whalen Turner

The fourth (though stand-alone) installment in Megan Whalen Turner’s award-winning Queen’s Thief series, A Conspiracy of Kings is everything a political novel should be: intricate, deftly plotted, and full of intrigue. When Sophos, a king’s son more interested in poetry than war-making, is captured during an invasion, and later sold into slavery, he knows he should act — his father is dead and the kingdom, Sounis, is on the brink of collapse. Yet Sophos is also at the edge of a collapse: torn between his duty and the simpler, kinder life he wishes for himself. Much like Tolkien and Le Guin, Turner’s fantasy world is rendered in exquisite detail, as is Sophos’ inner life. Fans of the series will appreciate meeting familiar characters once more, but the story’s true strength lies in Whalen Turner’s exploration of what it is to be at odds with one’s self. Peta Jinnath Andersen

 

For the Win and more…

Book: For the Win

Author: Cory Doctorow

Publisher: TOR

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Display Width: 200For the Win
Cory Doctorow

Ever at the cutting edge, Cory Doctorow’s latest novel takes on technology, indentured servitude, union politics, and the oft-overdone gamer girl shtick. Set in the “near future”, For the Win is about teenagers exploited as virtual gold farmers, drudges who earn virtual goods in popular Massively Multiplayer Online role-playing games for their bosses. Led by the mysterious Big Sister Nor, the virtual sweatshop workers form a union and set about toppling the corrupt gaming elite. Filled with rich imagery and authentic voice, Doctorow’s narrative does occasionally take on a soapbox tone, but the lectures are infrequent, and strangely appropriate given the unionizing tone of the novel. For the Win aptly takes on social stereotypes, casting gamers as more than “geeks” and shredding the gamer girl stereotype so often bandied about gaming circles. All social justice and politics aside, though, For the Win is a compelling story not just full of complex issues, but a surprising amount of heart. Peta Jinnath Andersen

 

Book: Four Color Fear

Author: Greg Sadowski, ed.

Publisher: Fantagraphics

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Display Width: 200Four Color Fear
Greg Sadowski, ed.

Clocking in at over 300 10 1/2″ x 7 1/2″ pages, Four Color Fear is a lovingly accumulated and organized collection of 40 (40!) 5-to-11-page stories starring ghosts, ghouls, zombies, demons, and monsters of all stripes. None of this would pass for literature, nor does it want to: the point was to hook the kids and keep ‘em hooked long enough to reach the end of the story — then hook ‘em again. Some of the writers and artists are well known names from the era, many of whom worked for EC themselves — Wallace Wood, Joe Kubert, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Bob Powell. Others are not as famous, but overall, the consistency of art and story is impressive. Four Color Fear offers some nice bonus features too, which elevate it from being a simple compilation of reprinted stories. A 32-page glossy section features an array of comics covers from the era (I’m assuming they are the covers of the books from which the stories are taken, but don’t quote me on that). These are beautiful reproductions, and their inclusion in the volume is an unexpected delight. David Maine

 

Book: Full Dark, No Stars

Author: Stephen King

Publisher: Scribner

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Display Width: 200Full Dark, No Stars
Stephen King

Stephen King wasn’t screwing around when he named his most recent novella collection Full Dark, No Stars. These four tales of revenge rank as some of the most deeply disturbing in his entire canon, which is no small feat. In fact, the stories are so pitch black that, at points, they become a very tough read (something King even notes in his afterword), going so far as to, in one story, paint one of the most vivid and disgusting scenes of rape ever committed to the printed page. The seemingly lightest tale in the bunch, “Fair Extension”, might be somewhat humorous, but it’s humor based on schadenfreude. Reading this book will, no doubt, leave even the most battle-scarred reader feeling dirty, which makes this work all the more unsettling and vital to read. With this and 2009’s Under the Dome, King has pulled off some of his best writing since his ’80s heyday. Which is all the more reason why you should read this book: to watch an old master find a newfound well of poisoned inspiration that readers will need to take a very long and hot shower to shake off. Zachary Houle

 

Book: Girl in Translation

Author: Jean Kwok

Publisher: Riverhead Books

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Display Width: 200Girl in Translation
Jean Kwok

Kimberly, who is quickly morphing into the more Americanized Kim, is determined to provide a better life not only for herself but also for her mother. Jean Kwok fills Kim’s journey with both highs and lows, and at many times, Kim’s journey becomes all of our journeys. While Kim’s experience as an immigrant may be quite foreign to some, her schoolmates provide universality to the text. The quintessential popular kids, whose hair always seems to fall perfectly, whose faces never seem to break out, and whose lives seem simply impossibly perfect, tease Kim unmercifully at first. However, in a scene that almost rates a fist pump, Kim plants a quick kiss on the lead bully and firmly puts him in his place. He never bothers her again. Girl in Translation is a moving story filled with lively and believable characters. It is an extremely well told story with wonderful syntax, vivid descriptions, and subtlety placed humor. It’s a story with important themes concerning family, determination, and sacrifice. Still, the best part of the novel is the fact that it made me cheer (occasionally out loud) for Kimberly Chang. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Handling the Undead

Author: John Ajvide Lindqvist

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

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Display Width: 200Handling the Undead
John Ajvide Lindqvist

What if the dead came back? This has been the guiding conceit of stories of ghosts and revenants for millennia. Indeed, its an idea that has guided more than a few religious narratives, opening for us as it does the perennial questions about the loss of those we love and the loss of our selves. John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Handling the Undead examines this question while also becoming a reflection on the precarious nature of humanity in our postmodern context. Consider what might have happened in The Monkeys Paw if there had not been any wishes left. Now consider what happened if not one rotting loved one returned, but thousands of them. Lindqvist has created a parable in which the undead mirror our existence in relation to others, the way in which we move through the world sometimes as placeholders and sometimes as essential lifelines for the people in our lives. His zombies are us in their tendency to become symbols for other people, embodying in ghastly ways how much we can love another, how much we fear one another and how desperately we need one another. W. Scott Poole

 

The Infinities and more…

Book: Hicksville

Author: Dylan Horrocks

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly

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Display Width: 200Hicksville
Dylan Horrocks

In 1998, comic artist Dylan Horrocks drew the definitive account of where comics had been and where it had gone. The new edition of Hicksville, complete with a newly drawn introduction, continues to be an angry little beauty of a book that takes the comics industry to task for its tendency toward simplistic tales, its corporate sensibilities masked as hipster entrepreneurism, and its almost unerring ability to damage the artists who contribute the most to its evolving form. Horrock’s accomplishes all this by telling the story of a fictitious comics historian named Leonard Batts who makes a trek to a small rural town in New Zealand known as Hicksville. This is the hometown of “Dick Burger”, the perfectly named comic book creator who has transformed his company into a billion-dollar multi-media enterprise. Each section of Hicksville opens with a quote from a major comics artist. Section one opens with a quote from Jack Kirby: “Comics will break your heart.” The new edition of Hicksville makes me hope that Horrocks will let comics keep breaking his heart for a long time to come. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read

Author: Jim Trombetta

Publisher: Abrams Comic Arts

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Display Width: 200The Horror! The Horror! Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read
Jim Trombetta

This is filled with grisly nightmares from a time that many Americans peculiarly view as innocent and preferable to the present, but if the stories and art in this collection are any indication, there were plenty of scary things lurking within the collective unconscious of those who lived during the ’50s, many of which found their way into comic books. Editor Jim Trombetta, a Shakespeare scholar and television writer, selected the work in this volume to reflect the spirit of the subtitle: “Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read!” These works date from the pre-Comics Code era in which violence, gore and sexually suggestive material, in the government’s eyes, contributed to the creation of legions of disruptive, belligerent and potentially Communist juvenile delinquents. There are dozens of covers included in this volume, a drop in the bucket compared to the number of comics that were produced in the years leading up to the Code. Some of these covers are complete stories themselves, and Trombetta “reads” them both literally and metaphorically, detailing the images, their symbols and their implications. Flipping through the pages, gazing at the amazing covers, recreates what it must have felt like clutching a dime, riding a bike to the drugstore or newsstand and seeing the stacks of comics, then going home to read them. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: The Infinities

Author: John Banville

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday

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Display Width: 200The Infinities
John Banville

Hermes. Jupiter. A night of passion and a dying mathematician. These are the building blocks of John Banville’s The Infinities, a comedic novel loosely based on the story of Amphytrion, the stepfather (read: Zeus’ cuckold) of Hercules. Set in a large and (unsurprisingly) melancholy house in Ireland, Banville chronicles the adventures — and adventures they are — of the Godley family. Despite taking place over the course of a single day, Banville’s 15th novel is intricately woven, picking up from where Heinrich von Kleist left off. Although at times the prose is a little dense, and arguably overwritten, the conceit of Hermes as narrator holds up remarkably well; the imperfections of both gods and men make the characters, in all their confused and dysfunctional glory, appealing. Peta Jinnath Andersen

 

Book: Lark and Termite

Author: Jayne Anne Phillips

Publisher: Knopf Soubleday

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Display Width: 200Lark and Termite
Jayne Anne Phillips

Nominated for a National Book Award, Lark and Termite pays homage to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, with its lyrical prose and haunting, vivid details. Set half the time in ’50s West Virginia (the other half in South Korea), Phillips’ novel tells the story of teenage Lark and her younger invalid brother, Termite. Their Aunt Nonie, a tough, righteous woman whom Phillips depicts as unrelentingly as she does generously, cares for the two. Termite’s father, Corporeal Robert Leavitt, trapped in a tunnel during the Korean War, ties these worlds together with his unforgettable struggle and journey. Phillips’ has said the idea for the novel came to her some 30 years ago. Thankfully, the idea lingered and now we have a remarkable story about love and family and the lengths humans will go to survive. Lark and Termite has that unique ability to linger in the way the very best books should. It’s cut like a diamond, as Alice Munro says. It’s a gem, a gift from one of the best writers of our time. Jaime Karnes

 

Book: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne

Author: Brian Moore

Publisher: The New York Review of Books

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Display Width: 200The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
Brian Moore

Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, recently reissued by the New York Times Review of Books, was first published in 1955. It remains shockingly contemporary. Moore’s work is reminiscent of Barbara Pym’s, only where Pym enjoyed mocking her amusingly foolish characters, Moore’s Judith is frighteningly pathetic. This being Ireland in the ‘50s, the Church holds tremendous power. Judith, fallen to the lowest depths, lacking a helping hand, repeatedly goes to church seeking some sort of help, be it human or divine. She waits for a sign. When none appears, she begins doubting the faith that heretofore defined her life. Appeals to Father Quigley are useless. Left to her own devices, Judith finally shatters, and is neatly disposed of, a shell of what might be. This is one of the saddest books I’ve read in 2010, a book that should send you calling that maiden aunt of yours or perhaps AA. Don’t forget to take a good, long look at the novel’s cover, a masterpiece of terrifying, exquisite design. Look closely, lest you miss the woman blending, literally, into the wallpaper. She merits your attention. Diane Leach

 

Nemesis and more…

Book: The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff

Author: Joseph Epstein

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Display Width: 200The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff
Joseph Epstein

Joseph Epstein, one of the most admired essayists in American literature, turns his focus to storytelling, here. In these 14 stories, Epstein moves away from the expansive topics of his essays, and presents small-scale vignettes, most of them focusing on post-WWII Jewish life in Chicago. In story after story in this collection, he presents vivid characters, well-paced narratives, perky dialogue and solid plots. Epstein’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the constraints he imposes on himself in these stories. Many of his characters are in their 70s or 80s. They have often spent their lives in ho-hum pursuits — selling auto parts or plumbing fixtures — and now have few ambitions or unfulfilled dreams, if they ever did. But they do have regrets, memories and lingering relationships, and these present their own elements of drama and crisis. At an age when most pressing matters should be resolved, his characters still have the capacity to surprise themselves and others. Perhaps the same is true of Epstein, the longstanding master of the essay, who shows here his remarkable talent for fiction. Ted Gioia

 

Book: The Magicians

Author: Lev Grossman

Publisher: Plume / Penguin

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Display Width: 200The Magicians
Lev Grossman

Other classics writers fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling have yanked this rabbit out of the hat, but Lev Grossman succeeds in creating a fully realized 21st century America and a new kind of portal into a dark and forbidding world of adventure. No train rides to Hogwarts or clothing storage opening out into Narnia here. Grossman pulls his protagonist into a much more forbidding place, a world of magic that is also a world of adolescent illusions, the rocky shoals of modern sexual relationships, and the frightening possibilities of vast power in the hands of the morally immature. Grossman has succeeded in doing for the world of Narnia and Hogwarts what Stephen Donaldson did with Middle Earth. The Magicians exposes the secret poisons of those too-beloved narratives, the dangers of being haunted by dreams of fantastic worlds. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

Author: Karl Marlantes

Publisher: Grove / Atlantic

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Display Width: 200Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
Karl Marlantes

Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes started writing his grungy epic Matterhorn back in 1975, when the scars of his service as a Marine, not to mention the home-front stigma it engendered, were probably not quite healed. That raw, nerve-shredded intensity stutters all through this overwhelming novel, where violence and fear pulse like blood and tiny flickers of humanity flare all the brighter. Marlantes’ hero, a lowly second lieutenant named Mellas, shows up on a muddy, cruddy firebase near the DMZ hoping to win some honor and find out what he’s made of. From the minute his boots squelch into the mud, Mellas’s ideals and goals are knocked down one after the other. Mellas’s parsing the difficulties of inter-squad politics, racial enmity, paralyzing uncertainty, the eternal stupidity and venality of commanding officers, and the rushing bloody terror of close quarters combat is rendered by Marlantes with the poetic passion of fine literature and the exactitude of the greatest war reportage. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Nemesis

Author: Philip Roth

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Display Width: 200Nemesis
Philip Roth

You can hear the echoes of Roth’s lengthier masterpieces here, particularly The Plot Against America, which shares the same setting — Newark, New Jersey during World War II — and sense of perpetual fear caused by lurking, unseen antagonists. While that 2004 novel dwelt on anti-Semitism and its effects on a family in a history drastically different from our own, Nemesis details an epidemic and nationwide panic closer to the history we know. In 1944, thousands died of polio in states like New York, North Carolina and Kentucky; Newark was not necessarily ground zero for the disease but, in the vein of the novel’s terrified awareness of chance, it easily could have been. Like the fictional Roth family in The Plot Against America,Nemesis’ Bucky Cantor (a name that alludes to the costumed sidekick of Captain America who appeared in the super-patriot’s 1941 debut as a teenage boy wonder fighting Nazis) sees danger at every turn of the corner in his once-safe neighborhood. The systems of belief in Nemesis, as in so many of Roth’s works, are very much like the surfaces upon which we gaze: the asphalt of a playground, a lake under moonlight, its diving board, the porch of a house earned by the goodness of a future father-in-law, the cold tile of a hospital floor. How can we be surprised when these turn out to be mirrors, when our case against God swells into the case against ourselves? Robert Loss

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Book: The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick

Author: Elizabeth Hardwick

Publisher: New York Review of Books

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Display Width: 200The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick
Elizabeth Hardwick

To review Elizabeth Hardwick transcends the presumptuous: you may as well announce your critical opinion of Shakespeare. This comparison may seem grandiose. In defense I offer Hardwick’s writing. Hardwick’s skill lays a strong foundation for the book’s theme: New York stories, dated from the ‘40s through the ‘90s. While times may have changed, Hardwick’s work remains surprisingly fresh. The people of her New York may have worn hats and gloves, and somehow survived sans texting or twittering, yet theirs are the same desires and shallow gestures found in today’s endless stream of New York novels. Selfish, self-serving, cheap, foolish, forever on the prowl for undeserved success—these are Hardwick’s New Yorkers. She spares them nothing, and in so doing, crafts a timeless collection of work. Shove your vampire books and summer beach romances aside and open these pages for a bracing dose of the real thing. Diane Leach

 

Our Tragic Universe and more…

Book: Nox

Author: Anne Carson

Publisher: New Directions

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Display Width: 200Nox
Anne Carson

The first thing you notice is the design. Anne Carson’s idiosyncratic, genre-breaking elegy for her brother, Nox arrives in a paperback-sized heavy cardboard box intended to resemble a cover. What lies inside is not a book in the paginated sense; rather, it is an accordion of unpaginated paper, the left side containing a Latin word and Carson’s definition, incantatory, dreamlike, lovely sentences reflecting both the word and her brother’s relationship to that word. The right side varies: there are scraps of photographs, letters, torn bits of newsprint, scrawled postcards, notes. The volume is a facsimile of the actual assemblage Carson created when she learned her brother died. Michael lived in Copenhagen and had run away from the family decades ago. In this age of e-readers, Nooks, and Kindles, you should own this book for the opportunity to possess a tactile object intended to be handled by reading. What you read here will leave you breathless. Diane Leach

 

Book: Our Tragic Universe

Author: Scarlett Thomas

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Display Width: 200Our Tragic Universe
Scarlett Thomas

It seems that ours is the age of personal myths. Perhaps people have always been interested in the narratives of other exceptional people, but of late it seems that anyone, exceptional or not, receives a book deal to “tell their own story”. Scarlett Thomas’ Our Tragic Universe is an underrated book sadly missing from most of 2010’s year-end lists. At the heart of the main character’s meanderings and subsequent adventures with people on the periphery of “proper” society, is a concern that besieges every individual consciousness at some point or another: What is my story, do I have one, and why and how should I tell it? Thomas is a smart, engaging writer interested in a wide variety of ideas, with the knack for creating idiosyncratic, compelling female protagonists. Amidst the proliferation of aggrandizing and bloated personal narratives that make up the bulk of modern autobiographies, we find individuals hell-bent on claiming monopoly on an entire culture or nation’s narrative. Our Tragic Universe invites us to ponder the implications of the “story-less” story via its own story-less story. In its very freedom from structure and authority, story-less stories prompt us to build and rebuild multiple narratives over and over again, narratives that make room for more than one, insular worldview — or the one, lone individual. Genius, beauty, and truth, much like societies, cultures, countries, Thomas seems to say, have relied on people finding their own stories without privileging one’s own story over the other’s. Subashini Navaratnam

 

Book: The Poacher’s Son

Author: Paul Doiron

Publisher: Minotaur

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Display Width: 200The Poacher’s Son
Paul Doiron

Somewhat quirky characters seem to be one of Paul Doiron’s specialties. Another of Doiron’s strengths: setting the scene. His rich descriptions of the Maine wilderness, colored with little social commentaries, will most likely resonate with all readers. The setting and the characters both contribute to the greatest strength of this novel: the psychological tension and realism. It’s the psychological aspects that make the book suspenseful, not the violence or the murders. Doiron’s debut novel, is pure, unadulterated literary suspense. Beautifully crafted and perfectly paced, it makes you tuck your feet up under you while reading, and occasionally look nervously over your shoulder, just to make certain no one is there. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: Room

Author: Emma Donoghue

Publisher: Little, Brown

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Display Width: 200Room
Emma Donoghue

On his fifth birthday, Jack does what any other little person might do. He wakes up in his room, eats some birthday cake, has a party, and opens a present his mother made for him. Jack is a bright young boy who possesses a knack for language and a playful attitude, your quintessential kindergarten-aged child — with one extremely unsettling exception. He has lived all five years of his life in a single 11×11-foot room, accompanied only by his mother and, occasionally, a creepy male visitor named Old Nick. Room, the masterful seventh novel by Irish-born author Emma Donoghue, is soaked through with the same spidery claustrophobia of films like Seven and Cube, and calls to mind the recent cases of Josef Fritzl and Jaycee Dugard so effectively that it doesn’t feel fictional. The relationship between Jack and his mother in a circumscribed dungeon turns Room into a kind of collapsed wilderness thriller, where human bonds are the only protection against the devil lurking just out of sight. But while Old Nick may cast a particularly awful shadow, the most complex and terrifying character is the room itself. It is the vehicle by which the novel proposes the most formidable questions about home, motherhood, and child development as it lurches toward a conclusion both triumphant and troubling. Mike Newmark

 

Book: The Singer’s Gun

Author: Emily St. John Mandel

Publisher: Unbridled

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Display Width: 200The Singer’s Gun
Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel has created a novel that is partly suspense, partly a love story, with a good bit of political thinking in the mix. A Canadian native living in Brooklyn, Mandel writes with the perspective only a non-American can possess of both New York City, which she clearly loves, and the tremendous efforts people will exert to get there. She is a terrific writer, that rare real thing, mixing an acute eye with humor and pathos. The Singer’s Gun is a tremendous leap forward, a happy indicator that Mandel’s talent is a deep one. Diane Leach

 

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary and more…

Book: Skippy Dies

Author: Paul Murray

Publisher: Faber & Faber

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Display Width: 200Skippy Dies
Paul Murray

A novel that first wallops you across the face before settling in your mind like an unshakable dream, Skippy Dies takes an astringently comic take on the sadness of youth and the disappointment of adulthood while not forgetting that there is something of the magical in the universe, even when seen at its most cold and atheistic. It has some other things to say as well, about the meretricious nature of the modern age and the comic possibilities that occur when white Irish teenagers become infatuated with hip-hop, not to mention the powerplays that unfold in the tightly-scrutinized universe of a school. To say what the novel is about is somewhat limiting, though. Murray’s writing is such that it can’t quite be bounded by description, it must simply be read. Chris Barsanti

 

Book: So Much for That

Author: Lionel Shriver

Publisher: Harper Collins

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Display Width: 200So Much for That
Lionel Shriver

In my 11 April 2010 review of Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, I gave the book a “7” rating. In PopMatters parlance, “7” is damned good, “8” excellent. Since that reading, the book has resonated with me, and grown in stature. The book is exceptional, easily one of 2010’s best. Shriver is one of our finest writers, a woman whose trenchant voice improves with each novel. Shep Knacker and Jackson Burdina are trapped in terrible jobs but desperately need health insurance. Shep’s wife, Glynis, has cancer, while Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, has the rare Familial Dysautonomia. Both diseases are terminal. Shriver writes devastatingly about watching loved ones sicken and die while the medical/insurance complex, with its co-pays, off-formulary drugs, and out-of-pocket costs make getting even basic care nightmarishly difficult. Her characters are amazing inventions; Flicka is a smart, sassy, gleefully macabre teenager. Why bother with algebra homework when death is imminent? Glynis is a sharp, nasty presence whose illness is an excuse to behave abominably while Shep amiably runs himself into the ground. Anybody caring for an ailing loved one or suffering chronic illness will nod grimly at Shriver’s outraged novel, wishing So Much For That were truly only fiction. Diane Leach

 

Book: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary

Author: David Sedaris

Publisher: Little, Brown & Company

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Display Width: 200Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary
David Sedaris

David Sedaris isn’t exactly a cruel writer, but there’s something particularly evil-minded about his latest collection of short pieces in which bad things happen to good animals. Envisioned as a kind of comedic bestiary, this short, wince-inducing volume contains a number of stories well-known to the This American Life crowd — though it has to be said, that seeing him read them live is a different experience entirely (those familiar with the shudderingly horrific piece about the too-trusting lamb know what we mean). Interspersed with sharp but fanciful illustrations by Olivia creator Ian Falconer, the stories are mostly satiric sketches of foolhardy humans cast into animal form, living in a natural world with particularly anti-Disney red-in-tooth-and-claw tendencies. The title story in particular, where a naïve chipmunk falls for a mysterious, jazz-loving squirrel, much to the consternation of her family, is as funny and truthful as Sedaris’s autobiographical tales, but dashed with a more sour, knowing sadness.

Chris Barsanti

 

Book: Stuck Rubber Baby

Author: Howard Cruse

Publisher: Vertigo/DC Comics

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Display Width: 200Stuck Rubber Baby
Howard Cruse

This is the story of Toland Polk, a young man growing up during “Kennedytime” (that happy precipice upon which the US teetered between the end of the ‘50s and the whirlwind of assassinations and demonstrations of the ‘60s) in the American south, and his struggle coming to terms with his homosexuality. Toland is not the stock character of a bigot who sees the light, but neither is he an outspoken activist. His parents raised him to never call an African American “nigger”, but his father believes it’s been proven that “the negro brain” is inferior to a white man’s. These contradictions define much of Toland’s early childhood, including his relationship with the son of his family’s black handyman who Toland is allowed to play with but can’t bring into the house. These stories are told in one panel but they leap off the page in such a way that they feel like each fill their own book. The stories feel so real they seem to originate in the reader’s brain rather than the author’s imagination. Jeremy Estes

 

Book: Super Sad True Love Story

Author: Gary Shteyngart

Publisher: Random House

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Display Width: 200Super Sad True Love Story
Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart’s third novel is a dense and thick read, making it seem much longer than the 331 pages it takes to unspool. That’s actually meant in a good way, as there’s much to admire about this near-futuristic update of Romeo and Juliet. Shteyngart paints a somewhat bleak portrait of, and yet conversely hilarious take on, where society is heading, a world where the US is seemingly embroiled in endless conflicts with developing world countries such as Venezuela, where the National Guard is camped out on every major street corner, where immortality can be obtained if you have the money for it and everyone is plugged into social networks via a portable handheld device that ranks one on a Hotness index. The true joy, however, is watching the mismatched two lovebirds navigate through this seemingly dystopian landscape, a world where true human emotion and love seems tenuous and halting at best. Super Sad True Love Story is, indeed, just that: a heartwrenching and heartbreaking look of two lives trying to connect across a generational and technological gap. It’s ambitious to mix pathos with humour, but Shteyngart deftly succeeds in creating a novel that you have to put down every 20 or 30 pages so your head doesn’t start to hurt through all of the important implications he’s making, or by the need to stifle a seemingly inappropriate chuckle. Zachary Houle

 

The Surrendered and more…

Book: The Surrendered

Author: Chang-rae Lee

Publisher: Penguin

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Display Width: 200The Surrendered
Chang-rae Lee

This is a haunting, somber, yet sometimes beautiful book, and it’s not always easy to read. The acts of violence are plentiful and realistic. Yet this is what a story about war should do. All too often, in both film and literature, war is somehow glamorized or turned into entertainment. Or perhaps even worse, the violence and brutality is forgotten because of a flashy victory scene or because the characters manage to survive and thrive in their postwar worlds, easily putting the past behind them. This book does none of these things, and it doesn’t soften at the end, as so many works tend to do. The despair is unrelenting from page one until the book closes. Catherine Ramsdell

 

Book: The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama

Author: Nicole Hollander

Publisher: The New Press

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Display Width: 200The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama
Nicole Hollander

Arranged by presidential administration, The Sylvia Chronicles is a portal in time to some of the most controversial and the most absurd moments in American political and social history. Remember when John Ashcroft had coverings placed on the semi-nude statues in the Justice Department? How about when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling on wives to “graciously submit to their husbands?” Part of what gives these short strips their real heft is the unvarnished moral fervor that explode out of the humor. The jokes come sharply barbed, and Hollander has poison under her tongue when she skewers the powerful. She takes a few cheap, but legitimate, shots at Reagan and Bush the second’s intelligence. She also comes loaded for bear when she goes after morally corrupt frauds like former Bush Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Her humor sometimes feels like the Hebrew prophets reincarnated as borsht belt comedians, embittered comedy made transcendent by a thirst for social justice. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Author: David Mitchell

Publisher: Random House

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Display Width: 200The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

This is an astonishing work by an extraordinarily accomplished writer. Don’t be intimidated by the apparently arcane subject matter — the Dutch East India Company’s attempt, circa 1799, to engage in trade with a xenophobic and cloistered Japan. The novel is a triumphant example of the storyteller’s ability to create an accessible world and put the reader squarely in the middle of it. Much of this world consists of the Dutch-built Dejima, an artificial island a hundred yards long in which sailors and company representatives are housed. It’s as much a prison as a warehouse, and staffed with a variety of characters whom the reader gets to know as the story progresses, among them the titular de Zoet. Having given de Zoet and the others the depressingly believable worldview of 18th century Dutch imperialists, the author then settles them into the world of Dejima, which is in turn subsumed by the equally foreign and inscrutable world of a Japanese monastary, which is again only one aspect of the larger society. All these layers are reflected through the consciousness of men and women both Dutch and Japanese. The book is a constantly shifting virtuoso act of fully realized points of view. Besides all that, it’s got plot to spare. David Maine

 

Book: A Visit from the Goon Squad

Author: Jennifer Egan

Publisher: Knopf

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Display Width: 200A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad might now be somewhat infamous for having a chapter narrated by a young character in the not-too-distant future through a PowerPoint deck. That’s just but one of many examples of the narrative loopy-ness to be found in this novel. Basically, each chapter is told from the point-of-view of a different character, and at a different point in time ranging from the early ’70s to the 2020s, hopping from the San Francisco punk scene to the office of a New York music executive to a safari trip to Africa and all points in between. What you get, thus, is a series of interlocking short stories that transcend time and space, making this book something of a complex puzzle, and a richly deserving read. Egan seemingly ties everything together in a dazzling display of penmanship, and the best advice I could give readers is to approach this book cold, with as little advance notice about it as possible, and just surrender to the undertow of Egan’s powerful, savvy writing style. A Visit From the Goon Squad is a rare pleasure: a novel that has touches of the familiar, but also constantly startles and surprises as you go along. Zachary Houle

 

Book: Wednesday’s Comics

Author: Various Artists

Publisher: DC Comics

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Display Width: 200Wednesday’s Comics
Various Artists

The nature of the American comic strip changed radically over the last 50 years. At mid-century, kids waited with bated breath for the daily comic page so they could read their favorite strips. Rather than the comic animals and domestic comedies of today’s Sunday funnies, they thrilled to the ongoing adventures of Superman or Terry and the Pirates. Today, only Dick Tracy has survived the transformation of sequential art in American newspapers. DC fully captured the spirit of mid-century strips in their 2009 Wednesday Comics series, now published in beautiful oversized format. If you missed the weekly iterations of this series, this new collection will introduce you to some of the best comic art done in the last year. W. Scott Poole

 

Book: What He’s Poised to Do

Author: Ben Greenman

Publisher: Harper Perennial

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Display Width: 200What He’s Poised to Do
Ben Greenman

New Yorker editor Ben Greenman had a bit of a stellar year by unleashing not one but two short story collections on the world in 2010: this book and a mash-up of the works of Russian writer Anton Chekov with the lives of present-day celebrities inserted into them naturally called Celebrity Chekov. However, What He’s Poised to Do was the more satisfying of the duo, mostly because it didn’t seem as gimmicky, though Greenman definitely had a card or two up his sleeve here. The conceit is that each of these 14 stories usually come in the form of a letter, and detail the looming chasm of relationships between men and women. While with any short story collection there are bound to be a couple of misfires, overall, What He’s Poised to Do is a smart, funny and perceptive look at human relations over a series of different time periods and even space itself — as one of the stories is set on the Moon. Coming across as a less weird and less bitter Jonathan Lethem, Greenman establishes himself here as an important new voice in American letters, and leaves one hoping that he’s poised to write if not more short stories, then a novel as his next feat. Zachary Houle

 
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