The Best Things We Read in 2010
While most of our lives are devoted to the watching and hearing of things, occasionally, yes, we do read a thing or two. Here are our choices for our favorite reads of the year, books or otherwise.
Though he had success dealing with mythology, narrative, and other highbrow themes in My Faith in Frankie and Crossing Midnight, writer Mike Carey finally hit the jackpot with this ongoing comic book series. It's basically about a man who was the model for an immensely popular Harry Potter-esque novel series and how he's dealing with his legacy after his father dies. As he goes on the run from a shadowy agency, Tommy Taylor has to figure out if he's a real person or just a fictional construct. As the lines between fact and fiction are blurred and then crossed, Carey employs a number of captivating narrative strategies (a Choose-Your-Own Adventure issue!) to tell a great story about the telling of stories. This is a must read for any Harry Potter fan who considers himself at least vaguely literary.
Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale
Naturally parallels will be drawn between Belle Yang's graphic novel account of her family's history in China and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, since both are told by the American daughters of Chinese families. However, Yang focuses as much on the internal struggles and power dynamics of the traditional Chinese family as she does the turbulent period when Mao and the communists took over the country. Her drawing style is spare in a way that is reminiscent of Chinese art, though sometimes a little too bare bones. Told with joy and humor during even the most difficult circumstances, what might seem like a simple retread becomes a thing that is rousing on its own.
Rarely does a book, even one I'd consider a favorite, stick with me for weeks or even months after I've finished it. But Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes, did. The author served as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, and Matterhorn is an extraordinary novel based on his experiences there. Marlantes graduated from Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before leaving to fight in an unpopular war. He returned home and started writing the book in 1975, and, after decades of rewrites, edits and rejections, a 1,700-page manuscript became the 600-page work that Matterhorn is today. The book follows a platoon of Marines through the jungles of Vietnam led by a bright and, at first, naive, junior officer named Mellas, and the firefights are described just as vividly as the ill-placed leeches and man-eating tigers that he and his troops must deal with on a near daily basis. A novel of the Vietnam War today seems almost destined to fail, but Marlantes really pulls it off with Matterhorn. Powell's has a good interview with the author here.
We are now two to three years from The Greatest Financial Racket Crisis/Collapse Ever, and there's still no popular understanding about why it happened. That's because it's impossible for the lay person to understand, unless you put in thousands of hours of work reading about strange investment vehicles! (And sadness.) But it's doable, which is why I appreciated the accounts of these three books: John Lanchester's I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, Keith Gessen's Diary of a Very Bad Year: Confessions of an Anonymous Hedge Fund Manager and Matt Taibbi's Griftopia
Each author admits that he knew little-to-nothing about the financial services sector before it collapsed and destroyed Earth forever, but each willed himself to figure it out. Lanchester is a British author who was researching for a novel but got so involved that he just wrote a straightforward non-fiction account of what happened instead. Our old pal Keith Gessen's book is just a long series of interviews with a top hedge fund manager. The very controversial Matt Taibbi gives a crisp summary of the mortgage bubble, from the loan sharks at the bottom to policymakers at the top, all working short-terms survivalist scams, and all merely following their incentives in an obnoxiously low interest rate environment.
Michael Lewis' The Big Short is usually the most recommended account for the unwashed masses, probably because he's an official Wall Street Expert (for some reason.) But the flaw with his book, unlike the three amateurs' books, is that it tries to find "heroes" where there are none. So read the others instead. Or don't read any! They're very sad.
Tom Bissell on cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV
Journalist and novelist Tom Bissell's surprisingly tender recollection of his three-year addiction to cocaine and Grand Theft Auto IV in the London Observer was so good it made me start playing video games again after a six-year hiatus. (Still have yet to pick up the coke thing, though.) The piece elegantly conveys the boundless mania of Bissell's intertwined obsessions while outlining a theory of gaming as a new kind of pleasure. But more than anything else, it made me realize that very good video game criticism is awesome.
"The Blast Shack"
Man, a lot of words were written about Wikileaks this year. The meticulous New Yorker profile of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange did a good job of making him seem as boring as a womanizing, white-haired nomadic hacker formerly known as "Mendax" could possibly be. Cyberpunk icon Bruce Sterling's essay "The
Blast Shack" does the opposite, hurtling breathlessly through the world of cryptographic genius "cypherpunks," NSA spooks and 1980s technorevolutionary movements. His thesis, that Assange is and will forever be defined by this shadowy milieu and his hacking past is almost too literary to be useful, but it's by far the most fun piece of writing to come out of the Wikileaks saga.
The Devil and Sherlock Holmes
It's sort of weird that my favorite book of 2010 is a collection of journalism, since I am usually a fiction-loving weenie type, but at the same time it's kind of appropriate. A sense of the complicated interplay between truth and fiction runs through all of David Grann's The Devil and Sherlock Holmes' stories—the French con man continually trying to reinvent himself as a high school student (for no monetary gain), or the Polish detective who gathers evidence for a murder by reading the suspect's novel. Not that you need to be thinking about truth and reality—there are some awesome stories about prison gangs and bank robbers in here, too.
"The Rules of the Game: A Fuller Thought on J. Hopper and Vampire Weekend" by Nitsuh Abebe
Anyone who fancies herself a cultural critic (even an amateur one who likes to snipe on Twitter) should take a few minutes and read Nitsuh Abebe's post about what he calls "the Game"—the weird posturing that critics (internet critics in particular) tend to engage in when encountering issues of race or class or gender or sexuality or ability or [fill in the blank]—and how it can damage our ability to do our jobs as critics. Abebe is writing here about Vampire Weekend, but you don't have to like the band for the essay to be worthwhile—in fact, it might be better if you don't.
And because I can't leave well enough alone—the single best thing I read this year might have been Anne Carson's riff on the famous "Ode to Man" from Sophocles' Antigone, published in The New Yorker. Carson's rendering is a good reminder of how terrifyingly relevant the ode is, without sacrificing any of the original's stately power—it's intense and bone-chilling and has stayed with me since I read it in August.
Keith Richards' memoir Life has garnered its share of plaudits, and it's earned them: It's beautifully written (credit for which, we imagine, goes to Richards' co-writer James Fox), and has all sorts of cool stuff like the secret 5-string open G tuning that lets you play most Rolling Stones songs with astonishing ease. But the reason it's our favorite is the sheer breathtaking magnitude of Richards' self-delusion. He imagines himself as the rogue and scamp he's always fashioned himself to be, but a solid dude at heart. Life on the road is complicated, but it was all for a good cause—rock'n'roll—right? But the tale he tells is that of a fucking monster. He left his two-month-old son in the care of his insane junkie girlfriend, and when the infant turned up dead in his crib, kept on touring with the Stones without so much as a funeral. "What happened? I know very little about the circumstances.... Never knew the son of a bitch, or barely." He explains the unconventional upbringing he offered to Marlon, one of his surviving children, which included weeks spent trapped on the second level of their Long Island mansion when the elevator failed, thusly: "It was very difficult to be one of the Rolling Stones and take care of your kids at the same time." You don't say?
I still contend that this imagined response from Mick Jagger, penned by writer (and not Rolling Stones bass player) Bill Wyman, is real, simply because it really seems like it ought to be real (and either way it's one of the best things written last year:) "It is said of me that I act above the rest of the band and prefer the company of society swells. Would you rather have had a conversation with Warren Beatty, Andy Warhol, and Ahmet Ertegun … or Keith, his drug mule Tony, and the other surly nonverbal members of his merry junkie entourage? Keith actually seems not to understand why I would want my dressing room as far away as possible from that of someone who travels with a loaded gun."
The best things I read on the internet this year are Glenn Greenwald's media criticism (not always completely fair, but always biting, in its own thesaurusrifically strident way), and Edith Zimmerman's "Letters to the Editors of Women's Magazines." A great book I read is The Bullet Meant For Me, Jan Reid's memoir of boxing, Texas, and getting shot while visiting Mexico. I'm also enjoying From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time, by Sean Carroll. I made it through about a hundred pages this year, so I should have it finished in six or seven more years. Dense, but interesting. Did I read any books that were actually released this year? I don't know, everyone should send me some though.
A Visit from the Goon Squad
While Jonathan Franzen's Freedom seemed to get the bulk of the praise for being America's most dizzily wondrous novel of the year (and it was quite a novel), Jennifer Egan's Goon Squad was, for me, the greater fiction achievement of 2010. Existing somewhere between a novel and a series of linked short stories, Goon Squad tells a tale of punk music, drugs, migration, and nothing bigger than time itself with thrillingly varied writing styles and tropes. One section set in Naples, Italy has perhaps the most transcendently lovely ending I've read in years, a fairly simple scene that Egan manages to fill with blares of magic light.
I know, I know. It's YA hokum that isn't terribly artfully written. But, Suzanne Collins's final installment in her dystopian Hunger Games trilogy (about a future North American society that sends children and teens to compete in gladiatorial combat of a sort) deserves respect not just for being shockingly brutal (which it is), but for pulling the rug out from under us with a final few chapters that transform the novel from a wildly entertaining sci-fi yarn into a stark, impassioned, and startlingly unsettling polemic against what she sees as a repulsive apathy towards our governments' sending of young people off to die for some faraway sense of gain. It's not the most subtle or original argument, but that Collins so forcefully makes it in what is, again, a book for young adults, is bold from a publishing standpoint and, I hope, galvanizing for younger readers who have known nine or so years of Middle Eastern conflict and have begun to think of it as just a normal and unavoidable part of life. It's neither, Collins says. Which is an essential truth worth repeating.