As we say each December, trying to keep up with every book released in a year is like trying to drink from a firehose, especially since books tend to be far more niche-y and audience-specific than films, and require a greater time commitment than music. We never get to as many books as we’d like, and we all have pretty idiosyncratic tastes. So take this list not necessarily as the most notable or even the straight-up best books of the year, but just as our individual favorites, the ones we’d most like to recommend to a larger audience.
Nine Lives: In Search Of The Sacred In Modern India, William Dalrymple
In his persuasive, moving travelogue, William Dalrymple visits the nooks and crannies of Indian and Pakistani religion to find menial laborers who are worshiped as gods during festivals, saints who live in cemeteries and decorate their houses with bones, idol-makers carrying on generations of tradition, sacred prostitutes, nuns looking forward to release from their bodies, and Sufi devotees who incur the wrath of local puritans by welcoming women. The emerging sense of threat makes this book a compelling experience: On the one hand, these pockets of tradition are threatened by modern Western ways that marginalize events like multi-night storytelling sessions centered on a complex sacred picture. On the other, violence, intimidation, and official repression are all possibilities where Islamic fundamentalists hold sway. Dalrymple’s portrait of the joy of these lives, painted in compassionate, humanistic tones, reveals them as a refuge for people and ideas that would otherwise be outcast. If they disappear, he implies, India—and the world—will be poorer and less welcoming.
Runner-up: Oath Of Fealty by Elizabeth Moon
Elizabeth Moon’s latest was overshadowed in some quarters by a convention kerfuffle—the organizers of feminist science-fiction gathering Wiscon withdrew her guest-of-honor status after she wrote intemperately about Muslims on her blog. Regardless, the long-awaited new entry in Moon’s masterful Paksenarrion series is all killer, no filler. More about the problems of governance, succession, and community dynamics than about swords and sorcery, Oath Of Fealty allows secondary characters from the original series to become complex three-dimensional characters. Moon’s strength has always been steering imperfect, uncertain leaders through the challenges of organizational psychology and institution-building, and reveling in the human-scale triumphs when they emerge as heroes—not for being great intrinsically, but for doing great things. It’s heroic fantasy on a fascinatingly quotidian, human scale.
The Habitation Of The Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente
Tucked between her 2009 triumph Palimpsest—a kaleidoscopic fantasy about a sexually transmitted city—and her upcoming Stalinist folktale Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente quietly released a radically ambitious novel: The Habitation Of The Blessed, the first installment of a trilogy dubbed A Dirge For Prester John. As advertised, Habitation exhumes the medieval legend of Prester John, the apocryphal shepherd of a lost Christian tribe in the Orient. But as with Valente’s previous myth-spinning, she dissolves and reassembles the legend, drenching it in rich, shimmering prose and scholarly fantasy. Echoing between the 12th and 18th centuries, the tale exalts and humanizes John while casting him and his haunted quest for the divine against an epic backdrop of spirituality, historiography, monsters, magic, and Valente’s singularly blistering imagism. And things are just getting started.
Runner-up: Kraken by China Miéville
China Miéville has written everything from the involved, intellectual steampunk yarn The Scar to the mind-boggling, symbolic police procedural The City & The City. He set the vast powers of his imagination loose on Kraken, a gleeful clusterfuck of geek tropes, pop-culture riffs, and neo-Lovecraftian apocalypse. When a giant squid is stolen from London’s Natural History Museum, the theft creates a whirlpool that sucks in doomsday cults, paranormal investigators, and some of Miéville’s most bloodcurdling beasties and villains—all caught up in a mad tangle of metaphysics that winds up flipping London inside out to display its pseudo-mythical clockwork. And with a healthy helping of puns and tragicomic hijinks, the spirit of Douglas Adams even gets invoked, albeit filtered through Miéville’s hyper-literate, sample-happy vocabulary and flair for creeping resonance.
Life by Keith Richards
Mea culpa! I hedged big-time when I awarded Life a B+ in my original A.V. Club review, but by now, I have no hesitation: Keith Richard’s memoir surpasses even the fondest hopes longtime Rolling Stones fans might have had for a tell-all by rock’s most notorious figure. It’s lucid, completely candid, surprisingly tender, and fall-down funny, and Richards stints on nothing. Ghostwriter James Fox has massaged Richards’ fabulously rambling tales into a book worth tearing through, with a lot to stop and savor, from cooking tips (“My Recipe For Bangers and Mash: 1. First off, find a butcher who makes his sausages fresh”) to guitar advice a non-player can learn something from. Needless to say, drugs are everywhere—only Keith Richards could boast that he finally stopped doing cocaine at age 63 (after the infamous incident in 2006 when he fell out of a tree) and come across as somehow normal. Sex, violence, and music are similarly ubiquitous in the book; the latter is still Richards’ favorite subject. His other favorite topic is his feud with Mick Jagger, whose first solo album, She’s The Boss, inspires the book’s—and the year’s—meanest comparison: “It’s like Mein Kampf. Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it.”
Runner-up: The Big Payback: The History Of The Business Of Hip-Hop by Dan Charnas
Even more so than Fortune’s Fool, Fred Goodman’s superb Edgar Bronfman biography, The Big Payback is a record-biz portrait that jumps off the page. Charnas portrays everyone from Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin to Jay-Z and 50 Cent with humor, deep insight, and a clean line that keeps the action moving even when things get complicated. It helps that he’s deadpan funny, too, from “Hustler magazine dubbed Ice-T ‘Pussy of the Year’ for removing ‘Cop Killer’ from his album” to referring to the C. DeLores Tucker-led congressional hearings on gangsta rap as “Dionne Warwick and her sidekick friends network.” There has never been a better book about hip-hop.
The Many Deaths Of The Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen
The Last Town On Earth, Thomas Mullen’s 2007 debut novel set during the 1918 influenza pandemic, was excellent, but it’s so sad that it’s hard to look back on it fondly. While The Many Deaths Of The Firefly Brothers can’t be called a happy story, it gets momentum from its characters’ larger-than-life qualities. When the Great Depression brought crushing despair throughout America, armed robbers became folk heroes and the tales told about them gave them life far beyond their early violent deaths. Mullen takes that phenomenon a step further. His title characters actually are immortal, shot down over and over again only to rise up, traumatized but alive. In spite of the fantastical premise, Firefly Brothers is a human drama, focusing on how three brothers react to the American Dream crashing down around them. As the gangsters try to puzzle out what their resurrection means, they’re forced to confront the hard circumstances that turned them to crime in the first place. While the public might see them as beacons of hope, they can never really live up to their own legend.
Runner-up: Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English by Natasha Solomons
Yes, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English is yet another story about the post-World War II Jewish experience. But it would be a mistake to dismiss Solomons’ debut novel based on its well-worn subject matter. A cross between Don Quixote and Field Of Dreams, this book about a Jew trying to become a proper British gentleman largely follows Jack Rosenblum’s absurd attempt to build his own golf course in the English countryside. While the Rosenblums never felt the true horror of the Holocaust, they deal with the weight of the event in profoundly different ways. Sadie Rosenblum desperately tries to preserve her culture and the memories of her lost home and family, while Jack’s persistently cheerful nature hides a secret fear that if he cannot fully assimilate, he will be forever vulnerable to future persecution. By the end of this beautiful fairy tale, an entire town and a golf legend are swept up in Jack’s dream. The story about reconciling with the past and finding acceptance is sweet without being sappy, a genuinely heart-warming read.
The Nobodies Album, Carolyn Parkhurst
Carolyn Parkhurst’s previous books, The Dogs Of Babel and Lost And Found, each seized on a strong hook (the former about a man trying to teach a dog to talk so she can bear witness about her owner’s death; the latter about life inside an Amazing Race-like game show), and her third novel, The Nobodies Album had a notable gimmick as well: Popular novelist Octavia Frost decides to release a book of rewrites, changing the endings of all her books. But Parkhurst’s novels never stop at clever ideas: They’re also emotionally deep and painful, and more complicated than they initially look. Album also acts as a mystery, when Octavia’s son Milo is charged with murdering his girlfriend. Typically for Parkhurst, who is maturing into a Margaret Atwood-like weaver of connected plot layers and time-shifting, Octavia’s decision to change her books’ endings comments on her past, as she wishes she’d done things differently with Milo, and on the future, as she makes impotent attempts to give his real-life story a happy ending. The results are intricate and tragic, but The Nobodies Album is also a compelling, quick read.
Feed, Mira Grant
The first in a proposed trilogy, Mira Grant’s Feed could have been just another zombie novel in a year overstuffed with zombie novels, except that Grant goes well beyond the genre’s usual run-and-gun survival tale: In Feed, the zombie apocalypse is just the setting, not the story. The real plot involves what happens to American society, politics, and especially journalism in a five-minutes-from-now future where all the above were shifting even before a mutated pathogen started turning victims into mindless monsters. Feed resembles a Cory Doctorow novel in its intelligent speculation about how technology will reshape familiar aspects of the world, but it’s more like The West Wing in its close observation of a presidential campaign from the inside, as seen through the eyes of a handful of bloggers invited along on the campaign trail. It’s a breathless, exciting pulp novel with one of 2010’s most surprising endings, but it’s also a smart futuristic extrapolation about what the future may look like thanks to the Internet and new modes of communication, zombies or no.
Father Of The Rain by Lily King
While Father Of The Rain received largely kind reviews, it was mostly ignored in year-end acclaim, passed over for better-selling books by bigger names. That’s too bad. No book I read in 2010 engaged me as thoroughly as King’s under-appreciated latest, a small, personal story that somehow attains an epic sweep. Stretching across several decades, King’s story traces the intersections between the lives of an alcoholic, slowly crumbling father and the self-possessed, deeply intelligent daughter whose weak spot turns out to be trying to save him. I’ve had more trouble getting people interested in this novel than just about any other terrific book I’ve read in the last few years, largely because that description sounds almost exactly like the plot summary of dozens of other novels, but King’s talent for choosing just the right slice-of-life details and for having her characters make awful, awful scream-at-the-page choices (which are nonetheless completely believable) makes the book far more engrossing than its simple summary suggests. This was a good year for American fiction, but when I think back on the sequences and scenes I remember most, I keep coming back to this book and its perfectly realized sense of just how much we destroy ourselves for family members who couldn’t care less.
Runner-up: The Passage by Justin Cronin
Technically, I read many books that were better than The Passage this year, but they didn’t hang with me as much as Justin Cronin’s weird hybrid of literary fiction and post-apocalyptic vampire tale. Cronin’s book has gotten guff in some corners for being derivative of other works, and while there’s nothing in it that hasn’t been done before, this particular blend of influences, as much Alice Munro as Stephen King, hasn’t been done this well in a long time. Cronin can write crackerjack action sequences, as he proves several times throughout the book, but he’s far less interested in the epic quest at the novel’s center and far more interested in complicated character dynamics, portrayals of communities on the edge, and notions of how we build myths on the fly. There’s no wildly original plotting here, but I’ll take Cronin’s blend of the literary and the pulse-pounding over most other self-consciously “inventive” genre tales any day.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Reject the hype at your peril: Franzen’s follow-up to The Corrections, nine years in the writing, towered over other fall releases this year, but its unkind portrait of the dissolution of a Minnesota family—a generation past The Corrections’ Lamberts, and no wiser—justified the stir over its publication, and the undeniably valid concerns raised by its backlash. The creeping dissatisfaction at the heart of Walter and Patty Berglund’s seemingly perfect union, exposed by the rebellion of their teenage son Joey, spreads to everyone around them like a virus, opening a window into the cycle of self-deception and justification to which fictional characters have been falling prey since the novel was invented. Strip away the clever contemporary nods if necessary—from Patty’s memoir, titled Mistakes Were Made, to Joey’s ill-understood speculating adventure in conjunction with the Iraq War—and what remains are fully formed people furiously clawing at their own bindings for a chance, however falsely, to live according to their authentic selves. With an unflinching guide like Franzen, the Berglunds’ story is a drama, not a melodrama; it’s deeply sad and sometimes cold, but not a tragedy.
Runner-up: The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink
What happens when a terrorist grows old and has to confront his own radical acts? The political identity of Jorg, the German prisoner whose release occasions the gathering in the country chronicled in The Weekend, is never revealed, but watching his former co-conspirators try not to kick the bomb under the tea table, it hardly matters. Uneasy to be confronted with such a concrete marker of their past, Jorg’s family and friends—his worry-shredded sister and an earnest devotee from the new political vanguard among them—barely make it through dinner before the recriminations start. The concealed anger and defiance in their words, coupled with the attendance upon their old pal for a pronouncement on the history of their all-but-abandoned struggle, makes every glance and gesture significant. Schlink’s strokes are neat and devastating, thwarting his characters’ naïve hopes that their past can be easily laid to rest.