BY SEAN CLARK
[Follow this series here. We’re also compiling all our best books in one easy-to-browse page; find it by clicking the stamp, at left or anywhere else you see it on the site. That page will get updated as each new post comes out.]
These best of the year posts are always a bit tricky for me. I read via a pile strategy–that is I buy books faster than even I can read them, which results in multiple stacks of books, then when I finish one I grab the next and shelve the one I read–so much of what I read has usually been sitting for about a year before I get around to reading it. Therefore, I’m left to select books from a fairly shallow pool of 2010 pubs.
Nonetheless, I read a number of very good books this year. In fact, I had a pretty tough time picking which one was tops. After a lentghy deliberation, here’s my pick for Best Book of 2010:
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Yeah, I know, everyone is picking this book. I actually really wanted to give #1 to Amelia Gray’s excellent collection of stories, but I just can’t. Freedom is a great book, and it will stick in my head for a long time to come. Franzen’s novel is about a fairly typical American family, but it also manages to be an astute look at America itself. This isn’t the Great American Novel that you might think it would be, judging by hype it got. But it is a Great Read that’s accessible, thought-provoking, and at times quite tender. Freedom simply deserves to be called the best book of 2010.
Museum of the Weird, by Amelia Gray
You’ve probably never heard of her, but in this debut collection Amelia Gray has revealed herself to be a very good writer. This collection of weird and well crafted stories is full of talking animals, cannibals, a woman who births a baby a day, and enough grotesque nods to Kafka to make any book geek happy. I almost gave her the top spot. But this book, much as I enjoyed it, just won’t have the same staying power as Freedom. Museum of the Weird is definitely worth the read (especially the penguin story), and Gray’s got real chops as a writer, so I expect we’ll see more of her soon.
Solar, by Ian McEwan
This is a book about a fat, old, wasteful, lecherous man, who happens to be a climatologist and has designed a means of renewable energy that could revolutionize the world. He’s at once the savior of society, and its very worst product.
In a lot of ways Solar is very typical McEwan. He writes in his identifiable style: slow and calculating and precise, teetering on the edge of plausibility. But with Solar, McEwan also decided to shake things up a bit. The novel is very funny. It ranges from witty to slapstick–in one scene, a man whose zipper freezes in Antarctica confuses Chapstick that has fallen down his pant leg for his penis freezing off. Here, McEwan pulls off humor as capably as he’s pulled off fear, indecision, melancholy, and regret in the past.
This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, by Steve Almond
This is a small, self-published book, split in two: half stories, half essays. The fiction is well-written flash, and the essays are entertaining and wise. Almond (an excellent writer–read his story “Men Alone” in The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology, which probably should be nominated for best book itself) has put together, in 40 or so pages, one of the best collections of advice for writers, specifically young writers, that I’ve ever read.
For anyone interested, the book is worth it for the essays alone. Plus you can support self-publishing and a local bookstore by ordering a copy from the Harvard Bookstore’s print-on-demand machine.
A few great books from 2009 that I want to mention:
I didn’t get to these books until 2010, but I liked them both very much. I’ve added them to our listing of Best Books of 2009, which you can see here.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
This book turns Harry Potter on its head. It begins with gifted teens sent away to magic college. But when they graduate, rather than fall into a quest that requires them to save the world, they find themselves bored, powerful, and flirting with hedonism. As they search to find meaning for their lives, things might turned out more destructive than beneficial for humanity.
Wetlands, by Charlotte Roche
This book contains one of the hardest-to-stomach scenes written since A.M. Homes’s The End of Alice. It’s also an incredibly astute book, and an excellent example of strong narration. If you have a weak stomach or don’t want graphically sexual content in your reading, stay away. Otherwise read this book right now.