Best Books of 2010

The Bureau Staff has book recommendations for your Christmas list.

Best Books of 2010

Daniel D’Addario

Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett

The swift-moving Union Atlantic features a cast of characters straight from a Bronte novel — the rakish, secretive gentleman; the ingénue with a lot to learn; the spooky old lady. And yet it’s also perfectly modern, a document of the varieties of greed and desire that brought about the financial crisis of the 2000s. One character turns a regional bank into a global financial-services corporation; others fall victim, in all the familiar ways, to economics micro- and macro-.

Their reactions to economic crisis are what set Union Atlantic apart. The novel, by short-story writer Adam Haslett, is as tightly constructed as any short — each character’s actions affect other characters, which is far less Babel than it sounds. Too, the gay affairs and communing with ghosts and financial gamesmanship are all significantly less lurid than they might be in less steady hands. Union Atlantic got a lot of praise for dissecting the 2000s, but what makes that summation of a decade work is not the talking points — as it sometimes seemed in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom — but the subtler sense that everything had become connected, financially and emotionally. It is all very tenuous, but that it works at all is remarkable.

Elliot Allagash by Simon Rich

Elliot Allagash bears no similarity to any high school narrative I’ve ever even heard of, which is precisely its charm. The novel combines the vicarious enjoyment of rich-kid narratives like Gossip Girl or the society pages with old-school James Bond villainy. The titular Elliot is a schoolboy, rich beyond imagining, who takes on a classmate as a Svengali project.

Simon Rich clearly knows the New York prep-school scene whereof he writes — while the twists and turns of the narrative break free of the homecoming/prom rut, the actions of his characters always feel right. Elliot, in particular, is a deliriously funny and yet always believable comic creation — it takes quite a bit of work to make a high-schooler who drinks expensive liquor and plots for social domination into a flesh-and-blood being, but through a few well-chosen moments, Rich makes him human. Seymour, the protagonist, is largely reactive, but that feels real too — when you’re in the room with someone as convincing, in all senses of the word, as Elliot, you follow him as far as he’ll take you.

The Publisher by Alan Brinkley

This superlative biography of Henry Luce reveals the sort of mind one must have to create a magazine that defines the zeitgeist. Brinkley was a master of the high-concept: Time, Fortune, Life – these are not niche publications. Nor were they ever: as conceived, Time digested the news for millions of Americans and set the tone of discussion with its lofty, often quirky manner of circumlocution. At one point, Luce, an elitist, striving Yale alumnus raised in China, moved Time Inc. to Cleveland to save money, but its place at the geographic center of American life seems fitting.

That Luce’s publications are now more niche than they ever were is left unremarked-upon, which is fitting. Luce was a master of his moment whose moment passed more quickly than might have been suspected. Perhaps he knew that before anyone else: as The Publisher nears its conclusion, the always-isolated Luce grows increasingly more private, a Charles Foster Kane without the excess. It must be lonely, contacting everyone in America each week.

Kevin Nguyen

Dear Burglar,

I’d like to thank you for two things. First, for forcing me to learn how to spell burglar. I’ve been spelling it burgular, maybe because I usually mispronounce the word as berg-AH-ler. But more importantly, thank you for climbing through the window of my apartment and stealing the Kindle sitting on my desk. Now that you’ve taken my primary reading device, I don’t have to think about books anymore. God, reading was such a nuisance; you probably agree. It takes so long and wastes so much time — time that could be spent messing with other people’s stuff.

But if you succumb to the literary temptations of my Kindle, here are a few book suggestions:

Room by Emma Donoghue

A mother and her son are trapped in a room, and have been for the past five years. Why are they there? Will they ever get out? The hook is a bit like Old Boy, but with a less fucked up ending. (You haven’t seen Old Boy? Don’t worry, I own it. Feel free to break in and steal that whenever you please.)

Most impressive is Donoghue’s ability to write from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, portrayed with an endearing naiveté that makes him sympathetic but never frustrating. He knows nothing outside of the bedroom’s four walls. For Jack, the room is home; for his mother, it’s a prison. Room is a powerful story about the parent-child bond wrapped in the pages of the most engaging novel I’ve read in years — I finished all 336 pages of this book in less than a day. Room will, somewhat fittingly, keep you trapped in your own bedroom.

Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor

Unlike Tao Lin, Justin Taylor is able to write about disaffected youth without making them appear anemic. Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever is a near-perfect collection of short stories about ambiguous relationships and the frustration of shapeless, aimless lives.

Taylor gets chuckles from small ironies (one story features a protagonist who plays Tetris until the world ends), but the stories’ darker themes are revealed with understatement. The book’s best, “Tennessee” (which you can read at Harper Perennial’s Fifty-Two Stories), ends with a girl asking the narrator to sleep with her before she leaves for Israel. “I don’t want to die a virgin,” she says. Theodore Wheeler, writing for The Millions, puts it best:

Unlike their grandparents, this generation of Jews isn’t afraid of dying in the Holocaust or a Pogrom — they fear car bombs and terrorist attacks. By the end, the plot anxieties of “Tennessee” aren’t really resolved, but the philosophical points are at least connected by the impending sexual act, exemplifying how the fear of apocalypse is passed on.

This generation may be different, but the fears are the same.

Wilson by Daniel Clowes

OK, you can’t actually read this on the Kindle because it’s a comic book. (My girlfriend bought it for me, and since you’ve taken everything I owned of monetary value, please take the things I own that have burdened me with sentimental value.)

Wilson is an exercise in restraint: each page, drawn in a different style, is a self-contained six- or seven-panel strip that ends with a punch line, mimicking the setup of serialized newspaper “funnies.” Yet Clowes isn’t criticizing the format of Garfield and Doonesbury, but taking those constraints and stringing them into a cohesive, surprisingly affecting narrative about a self-destructive, bitter grouch.

You might recognize Clowes’s name from his other highly praised comics Ghost World or Daniel Boring, but Wilson might be his best yet.

Darryl Campbell

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Think of space travel like an alcohol: a lot of things go in, the impurities get filtered out, and what comes out is highly potent and (hopefully) transcendent in some way. What we usually hear about is the end result. Mary Roach, however, is interested in the dregs, all of the unglamorous stuff that makes the Right Stuff possible. From interviewing the participants of NASA psychological studies to finding out what goes into the creation of space food, Roach has a gift for making everything from aerodynamics to internal medicine perfectly understandable. The only thing I had trouble following was a poop joke that went slightly off the rails. This is a compliment.

By the end of the book, it becomes clear that Packing for Mars is not simply a NASA version of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. Instead, in just over three hundred pages, she’s catalogued much of the human experience, from pigheaded stubbornness to unexpected ingenuity, but most of all, “the backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying ‘I bet we can do this.’ ” If that’s what it means to put people in space, then I’m all for it.

The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt

What does the philosopher Rainier Maria Rilke have to do with trains? What does George Bush have in common with Lewis Carroll’s version of Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland? And how does being a short-order cook encourage the life of the mind?

These questions are not obvious ones. But they are the kind of questions raised by someone who spent his life sorting through the history of modern Europe — both personally and professionally. Tony Judt was a historian who wrote first about French intellectuals (Sartre, Camus) and then about the history of Europe as a whole; his Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006.

After Judt was paralyzed from the neck down due to ALS (better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), he opted not to do the easy thing — which in his words would be “to lie down with a whiskey and watch old movies” — but to write. Thus The Memory Chalet.

The essays within are wide-ranging: some discuss contemporary debates in education and politics, others are personal reflections about the sexual revolution and Judt’s youthful flirtations with Marxism and Zionism. But there’s more to each of them than simple navel-gazing: not surprising, since Judt made a living out of putting together the fragments of history into coherent pictures. And so when he talks about his failing command over his own vocal organs, he also has as much to say about how political correctness has led to a kind of political insecurity and the rise of the talking head, for instance.

Like the best literature, Judt’s memoir encourages its readers to do something that they’re not accustomed to, which in this case is to rediscover “not just the means by which we live together but part of what living together means.”

Nick Martens

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

I’m one of those obsessive spoiler-phobes everyone hates. I don’t like to know anything about a story before I start reading it. But for this book, I discovered something even better than going in spoiler-free: being completely misled. From a chat between me and Kevin earlier this year:

Nick: Have you heard anything about Joshua Ferris’s new book? Considering making that my next read.
Kevin: I hear it’s funny.
Nick: Good enough for me.

This book isn’t funny at all. In Ferris’s stellar first effort, Then We Came to the End, he uses structural pyrotechnics – a first-person plural narrator (“we”) – and a vibrant tonal palliate – from humor to mania to listlessness to melancholy – as he creates his comic critique of modern office life. His follow-up, The Unnamed is far more restrained, both technically and emotionally. It’s about a man with an unknown, unusual disease, and it follows him and his family as they struggle with it over his lifetime. It’s a sad book that pretty much only gets sadder and sadder until its very last line.

I don’t want to say too much about the premise, and not just because I don’t like spoilers. The book is called The Unnamed after all, and the hook of the early chapters is learning what exactly the main character’s condition entails. And when you do learn what it is, and as you realize how devastating something so simple could be, you’ll see why Ferris reeled in the literary acrobatics this time around. Because he contains all his creative energy in the central conceit, the characters feel more grounded and real, and the narrative flows naturally and believably. It’s amazing how much Ferris’s style mellowed after only one book, and at this rate his next one will be downright comatose, but The Unnamed hits quite a sweet spot.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

I tried to follow along as all the money in the world went away. I tried so hard to figure out what the fuck was happening and how exactly it was possible. But no matter how many Paul Krugman columns I read or This American Life specials I listened to, I could never put the whole puzzle together.

The problem was that all my sources were mainstream writers, and they knew they had to make the obscure economic mechanisms at the core of the collapse accessible to their readers. And though they made an effort, they inevitably resorted to summary or metaphor when describing Credit Default Swaps or Mortgage-backed Securities or whatever weird acronym was just slightly too complex for the average NPR listener.

But Lewis doesn’t back away. Even if he has to explain the wiring of some of these monetary time bombs several times over, he makes a point to hammer the details into his readers’ heads. Because even though the story eventually became much larger, the real lesson of the collapse can only be learned through understanding the arrogance and recklessness of the financial industry.

Sending that message is Lewis’s only goal in The Big Short, and he is uniquely qualified to accomplish it. His Liar’s Poker shows his aptitude for revealing Wall Street’s dark side, while the The Blind Side demonstrates that he can pull America’s heartstrings. And so Lewis turns the story of hopelessly convoluted asset trading into a narrative of gamblers and underdogs. Then he somehow does it without sacrificing too much technical nuance. The result is a book that finally explained the collapse to me in a way that made sense. As I was reading The Big Short, by myself in my studio apartment, several times I literally shouted “oh shit!” out loud as another piece of the puzzle, something I knew mattered but didn’t quite know why, snapped into place. It may seem odd to derive pleasure from understanding these terrible things that broke the world, but this was a tremendously satisfying read.

Photo by Andross