Books we liked in 2010
Jonathan Franzen, shown during a Nov. 19 interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," leads many critics 2010 best lists with his novel, "Freedom." Ms. Winfrey picked it as her 64th book club selection.
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The "best books of the year" lists were getting too predictable this year -- all "Freedom," all the time -- so I'm trying something different to sum up 2010 in books.
I've polled a cross section of the reading public, a selection of Post-Gazette book reviewers as well as dedicated readers, seeking their favorite books of the year.
Of course, "Freedom" was on several lists, but that's understandable. It's on mine as well.
The question was simple: What did you enjoy reading this year? That's it and here are the responses:
Jay Dantry, retired owner of Jay's Bookstall in Oakland:
"Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir" by Christopher Buckley. The only child of William F. and Pat Buckley Jr. wrote a remembrance of his unusual parents after their deaths.
"Talk Show" by Dick Cavett. Host of the best TV talk show on American airwaves collects his commentary from the New York Times website.
"Grant Wood: A Life" by R. Tripp Evans. Painter of "American Gothic" had his own gothic life.
"Finishing the Hat" by Stephen Sondheim. Broadway's major composer-lyricist shows how he did it.
"I Remember Nothing" by Nora Ephron. Humorist faces old age.
Leonard Barcousky, Post-Gazette staff writer and book reviewer:
Novelist Alan Furst tells mostly unhappy stories about Eastern and Central Europe just before and during World War II. The innocent and not-so-innocent usually find themselves trapped between Nazis and Communists, often with tragic results. That makes his "Spies of the Balkans" unusual in that his major characters on the side of the angels survive. It is my favorite thriller of 2010.
My favorite nonfiction book is "FDR's Funeral Train" by first-time author Robert Klara. It is a day-by-day account of critical events and personal crises between Franklin Roosevelt's death from a stroke April 12, 1945, and his funeral three days later.
While "Washington: A Life" is the size of a doorstop, the biography by Ron Chernow is an easy read. I loved the details about Washington's early life and his relations with his domineering mother.
In "Travels in Siberia," Ian Frazier writes a cranky love letter to an isolated, gigantic landmass made up of equal parts of ice, mosquitoes, trash and unlikely but true stories.
German detective Bernie Gunther, a cousin to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, returns in Philip Kerr's "If the Dead Rise Not," a complicated mystery set in Berlin in 1934 and Havana in 1954. As usual, Bernie has to compromise with the devil to stay alive and achieve some small measure of good.
Carl Hiaasen's "Star Island," a satirical look at celebrity obsession, starts strong but trails off. I found it lacks a grand confrontation to resolve the byzantine plot.
Elmore Leonard's "Djibouti," a novel about a documentary filmmaker, appears to have been conceived as a movie and it unrolls like one. It's full of flashbacks and fast cuts from scene to scene. But as always, the conflicts between Mr. Leonard's plucky heroes and terrifying villains keep readers turning its pages.
Tracy Brigden is in her 10th season as City Theatre's artistic director:
"Last Night at Twisted River" by John Irving.
I have always been a BIG Irving fan and although this book is not my all-time favorite of his novels, it was a juicy and satisfying read. It is classic Irving.
The Stieg Larsson Trilogy. I picked up the first of the trio, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," ended up getting hooked and gobbled up all three books in a month or so. Lisbeth Salander is a fresh and fantastic female character, and the first book in particular is clever and surprising.
"Medium Raw" by Anthony Bourdain. Being a cook and a foodie, I love reading about the food industry and Mr. Bourdain always offers a no-holds-barred account. In this latest, he praises, shreds and exposes his colleagues but bares his own foibles with just as much candor.
"The Brother/Sister Plays" by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Spoken of as the heir apparent to August Wilson, Mr. McCraney is a strikingly original voice whose stories are both poetic and enthralling.
Sharon Dilworth is author of the novel "Year of the Gingko," professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and a PG reviewer:
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. I never thought those hela cells from high school biology were anything more than cell markers, but Ms. Skloot gives a name and a face and history to these cells -- Henrietta Lacks, whose personal story is one worth knowing.
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen. The hype is fun but ultimately distracts from what is really a great read. Whether Franzen deserves all the media attention can be left to the literary cognoscenti; the rest of us can just enjoy his fiction.
"A Week at the Airport" by Alain de Botton. Mr. De Botton was my secret find a few years ago when I was in Europe, only to discover that everyone loves him. All his books are worth checking out. He observes and analyzes every detail of a place most of us pass through worrying only about delays.
"Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson. This whimsical and original novel was a welcome change from my nights watching "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." It's charming and ambitious in its scope, and complex in the way it works with problems of lonely people who aren't often given a full portrayal in contemporary fiction.
"Frozen Sun" by Stan Jones. Ever since Ian Rankin put John Rebus to bed, I've been trying to find a new detective series. This one, set in the 49th state, is atmospherically strong. Unlike Sarah Palin's Alaska, the state described here is devoid of the cliches we are usually given about the tundra. Here detectives move about in bush planes and capture criminals who are committing crimes that are tied to their histories and to their sense of betrayal.
"Travels in Siberia" by Ian Frazier. I'm not sure I'd recommend this book for winter but Mr. Frazier's exploration of this part of the world is so engrossing you may forget that it's cold there, too. The details of this drastic landscape are memorable but it's also Mr. Frazier's prose style that grabs you into this far often overlooked world.
"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton. This one I would recommend for a winter's night -- literary mystery with quite a few gothic elements -- women living alone in century-old castles, unrequited love, letters sent but never received, a war that moves close to home and a narrator trying to discover what happened so many years ago. This was a book I hated to finish.
"What Is Left the Daughter" by Howard Norman. Mr. Norman is a powerful storyteller with a wistful, whimsical, even magical manner of presenting his imaginary worlds. The places he presents, as well as the situations and characters are quirky, but they are so artfully defined and unique, it's like being told a story in a brand new way.
Roger Miller, reviewer and retired book editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
I read fewer new books than I used to, and within those less fiction, so it is easier this year than in the past to single out single favorite works of nonfiction and fiction.
In the former it is "Colonel Roosevelt," the concluding volume in Edmund Morris' three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. It captures its subject's endearing, larger-than-life personality magnificently while thoroughly explaining his extraordinary accomplishments.
In the latter it is "Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories," the Library of America collection of Jackson fiction that includes the novels "The Haunting of Hill House" and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle." Those are "old" novels, of course -- and shamefully popular ones, to boot -- which should give you some idea of my opinion of the etiolated nature of the new fiction I came across.
Carlo Wolff, freelance book reviewer based in Cleveland:
"The Tiger" by John Vaillant. A fabulous inquiry into the rapidly disappearing Siberian tiger and the men who attempt to preserve it. The book is also a thrilling look at revenge.
"Snakewoman of Little Egypt" by Robert Hellenga. Mr. Hellenga reminds me of Mark Twain in his affection for old, weird Americana and his bemused attitude. Rarely is depth such wry fun.
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen. Mr. Franzen's structure was a bit cumbersome, but his social observations more than made up for it. Probably the most ambitious novel of the year. I couldn't put it down.
"Life" by Keith Richards with James Fox. Funny, acid and insightful, the Richards autobiography exceeded my expectations, providing fresh insights into familiar ground.
"Secret Historian" by Justin Spring. This biography of tattoo artist/homosexual pioneer/academic Samuel Steward illuminates early 20th-century American history by unearthing the story of a man who was simultaneously ahead of his time and victimized by it.
"The Lonely Polygamist" by Brady Udall. His novel explores territory similar to that of the HBO series "Big Love," rendering a polygamous Mormon family in bright, affectionate colors.
"The Same River Twice" by Ted Mooney. Paris stars in this moody thriller about the interface between politics and the art world. Mr. Mooney's a sharp art critic deft at characterization. This is modern noir at its best.
"Bodyworld" by Dash Shaw. From its laminated cover to its watery, palimpsest imagery, "Bodyworld" is a knockout of a graphic novel. The Boney Borough Mr. Shaw invents is a world you won't want to leave no matter how creepy. A visual and philosophical delight.
"Collusion" by Stuart Neville. This sequel to "The Ghosts of Belfast," also starring conflicted hitman Gerry Fegan, is a dramatic thriller about the aftermath of political compromise in Ireland.
"A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan. Ms. Egan's decidedly non-linear narrative about aging rocker Bennie Salazar and his paramour Sasha scrambles time and viewpoint to intoxicating effect. This novel is the literary equivalent of trompe l'oeil painting; Ms. Egan's finest trick is to craft characters as engaging as her technique is dazzling.
Sherrie Flick, author of the novel "Reconsidering Happiness," also reviews books from her South Side Slopes home:
"Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart. Set in the near future, Mr. Shteyngart's novel walks us through an uber-contemporary lost love that is fresh, new fictional terrain for the same old fates of the human heart.
"The Wilding" by Benjamin Percy. Mr. Percy, known for his deep growling voice and manly characters, focuses here on a fathers-and-sons hunting trip into Echo Canyon, a soon-to-be-developed piece of the West. With a riveting plot filled with devastatingly flawed characters, this crazily engaging debut novel is a great pick for all those fiction-loving Western Pennsylvanian hunters in your life.
"The Physics of Imaginary Objects" by Tina May Hall. A wonderful collection of flash fiction and winner of the prestigious Drue Heinz Prize. Ms. Hall's language is precise and magical. Her small worlds unveil large ideas. Worth reading twice.
"Exley" by Brock Clarke. In a review of Exley for the Post-Gazette earlier this year, I said:
"The novel unfolds like a murder mystery without a real murder, just realizations of who is alive and who is dead and why. It explores memory, pain, loss, love and longing with a fresh, lively structure and with a cast of characters both painfully charming and exquisitely flawed."
"Just Kids" by Patti Smith. This National Book Award winning memoir of Ms. Smith's early New York City years with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is an amazingly honest reflection on love, art, faith, and survival.
"Explanations" by Andrew Borgstrom. This wonderful quarterly selection of tiny books from Cupboard is available through subscription only. Cupboard has outdone itself with Volume 8, Borgstrom's "Explanations," a series of 100-word stories that serve to explain what their titles imply: "A Grill Cook Explains Fast Food" and "An Etymologist Explains Baby Names at the Park," for instance. Fantastic.
"Where the Dog Star Never Glows" by Tara Masih. Out with the burgeoning Press 53, Ms. Masih's collection of stories explores sadness and fate through a wide range of characters.
"Wouldn't You Like To Know" by Pamela Painter. This collection of flash fiction from Carnegie Mellon University Press features the work of master short short story writer Pamela Painter. Beautifully crafted, flash fiction doesn't get any better than this.
Barbara K. Mistick, president and director, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh:
"Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" by Chip and Dan Heath. Based on Barry Schwartz's work in the "Paradox of Choice," "Switch" has tapped into the overloaded nature of work today. "Switch" suggests that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that feel honest to you, whether your interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.
"The 2020 Workplace: How Innovative Companies Attract, Develop, and Keep Tomorrow's Employees Today" by Jeanne C. Meister and Karie Willverd. A must-read for any manager working with Millennials. The 2020 workplace advocates a transparent and honest approach for those who have never texted, posted to Facebook or Tweeted.
"The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain. If you love Paris or Hemingway, you'll enjoy this novel that captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley.
"The Lady Matadors' Hotel" by Cristina Garcia. An enchanting novel drawing vivid tales of the guests of a hotel, an ex-guerrilla, a Korean manufacturer and lawyer, in an unnamed Latin American country in the midst of political turmoil. Pure fun.
Karen Sandstrom, former Cleveland Plain Dealer book editor and reviewer:
"The Good Psychologist" by Noam Shpancer. Psychologist and first-time novelist Shpancer spins a quietly intriguing tale about a mid-career shrink whose counseling sessions with a stripper and night work teaching young college students underscore what he has and what he's lost in his personal life. It's a smart read for those who like to think about thinking.
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen. The author of "The Corrections" writes silken sentences that lure the reader into the lives of a sad yet familiar version of the modern American family. I can't decide whether this is a Big Book or just a really smartly written soap opera. In the end, it doesn't matter.
"Backing Into Forward: A Memoir" by Jules Feiffer. He's scratchy and difficult, subversive and funny. Artist, cartoonist and writer Jules Feiffer, one of the great mid 20th-century talents, gives us an entertaining and insightful look at the world he critiqued and at his own psyche.
"And the Pursuit of Happiness" by Maira Kalman. The journalist and illustrator brings her winsome style and personality to the year 2009, as she traveled America exploring the wonders of the republic. Handwritten text, bright gouache paintings and photographs make nearly every page delightful.
"Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie -- A Tale of Love and Fallout" by Lauren Redniss. Proof that "new media" doesn't have to mean just the Internet, artist and biographer Redniss uses a kaleidoscope of colors and artistic styles to tell the story of the love and scientific work of Marie and Pierre Curie.
Glenn C. Altschuler, Cornell University history professor and reviewer:
"Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen, "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham, "Washington" by Ron Chernow, "The Emperor of All Maladies" by Siddhartha Mukherjee, "The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America" by Geoffrey O'Brien and "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" by Diane Ravitch.
Kathleen George, whose latest Pittsburgh crime novel is "The Odds":
"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" by Stieg Larsson. With Mr. Larsson, it's not just the magic of that main character (though Lisbeth Salander is fantastic), but I believe he catches us up in a commitment to the coffee and bread and walking down the street stuff between the violent scenes.
"Innocent" by Scott Turow. Mr. Turow pulled off a very engaging sequel to "Presumed Innocent" with this new one.
"Room" by Emma Donoghue. I was riveted by Ms. Donoghue's novel. Some see it as a story of abuse. I see it as a story of reverence for and love of life.
"Spooner" by Pete Dexter. This novel was patient and lovely with slow and resonant truth.
Hilary Masters, novelist, essayist and memoirist who teaches at Carnegie Mellon:
"The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea" by Philip Hoare. A wonderful survey of this huge creature we share some space with -- and they are still mostly good-natured.
"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. A remarkable science account remarkably related.
"Year of the Ginkgo" by Sharon Dilworth. The novel's an observant and witty report on middle-age malaise -- a worthy successor to her wonderful "Women Drinking Benedictine."
Frank Wilson, retired book editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Books, Inc. blogger:
"Spartacus Road" by Peter Stothard, "Rivers Last Longer" by Richard Burgin, "Russian Winter" by Daphne Kalotay, "Seeded Light" (poetry) by Edward Byrne, "What Alice Knew" by Paula Marantz Cohen and "Looking for the King" by David Downing.
First Published December 22, 2010 12:00 am