(For all the essays in this four-part "Year In Books 2010" series, please click here.)
Of the 152 books I reviewed in 2010, exactly ten of them received a score here of 9.4 or higher; they may not necessarily be the absolute best books of the year in terms of sheer quality, but are for sure the ones I most recommend to a general audience, no matter what your individual tastes. In alphabetical order, they are...
36 Arguments for the Existence of God, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
It's rare that I'm truly delighted by a novel designed specifically for academic intellectuals, so I always like to make a big deal when it happens; and Goldstein's witty human-interest tale is the latest to do so, a smartly funny grown-up "philosophy novel" that teaches professor-style what all the latest arguments are among the so-called "New Atheists," even while delving into the complicated family and romantic history of one such thinker, who has recently become an accidental bestselling "Daily Show" rockstar from a published treatise on this very subject. Just the ticket for those who demand their literature to be erudite, yet just as entertaining as any airport thriller.
600 Hours of Edward, by Craig Lancaster
A concrete example of why I put so much of a priority on self-published and basement-press books, this little novel about the ups and downs of Aspberger's Syndrome came out of left field to become one of my favorite novels of the year. And that's because this charming dramedy is sentimental without being sappy, not a pukingly sweet Sean Penn piece of Oscarbait but rather a bracingly honest look at mental disability, highlighting not only the plucky highs that occur in an event-filled month of our titular hero's life, but the embarrassingly trainwrecky lows too, delivering the refreshing message by the end that the developmentally disabled are in fact much like the rest of us, sometimes delightful and sometimes a real headache. A good gift choice for all those moms who complain about the dirty comic books you're always reading.
The Ayotollah Begs to Differ, by Hooman Majd
Like any critic, my best-of lists are going to at least partly reflect my own particular specific interests in any given year; and like many Americans, I find myself with a strong fascination for the Middle East these days, and especially the intriguing enigma known as the Islamic Republic of Iran, a supposed democracy where citizens can freely do drugs and be openly seditious, yet where the government is effectively ruled by a "Supreme Court" of religious experts whose judgments cannot by law be questioned. And as far as introductions to this complicated culture go, they don't come much better than this, written a member of a once-powerful Iranian family who for decades has been an American arts journalist, using his local privilege to get inside places that other reporters may not be able to. Start here if you know nothing about Persia or its people, and want an overview of its current situation minus all the Tea Party alarmism.
Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey
Like the best biographies, this first-ever barn-burner look at author John Cheever has placed this Postmodernist pioneer in a whole new light, making the public sort of rediscover this brilliant but demon-plagued recorder of the human condition all over again, after first forgetting and then rediscovering him in the 1970s as well, near the end of his life. Of course, it helps that the current hit TV show Mad Men might as well be called an unauthorized Cheever anthology series; because this has turned out to be his lasting legacy, deeply devastating looks at the hypocrisies inherent in Cold War "nuclear family" America that are looking more and more prescient with every passing year. Bailey does a great job here examining all the real darkness that Cheever was going through in his life that allowed him to write these autobiographical stories, required reading for those interested in examining the ways that the US fell apart and then put itself back together again in the countercultural era of the 1960s.
The City and the City, by China Mieville
Due to the way I calibrate the scoring system here, it's hard for a genre novel like science-fiction to rate in the 9s, so it's always important to pay attention when one does; take this latest by "New Weird" veteran China Mieville, for example, co-winner of this year's Hugo Award but ironically perhaps the most mainstream-accessible title now of his entire career. And that's because the speculative part of this speculative tale is kept to a minimum, albeit an important minimum that flavors just about everything else found in this story; namely, that in the Middle East exists two historical cities that are magically situated in the same exact physical space, and with a thousand years of tradition making it an unpardonable crime to acknowledge either one while standing in the other. The rest of this inventive book, then, is in actuality a sly metaphorical look at global politics, and the merging of East and West that's looking more and more likely to define the entire 21st century, told through the filter of a noirish murder mystery and the cross-universe detectives who explore both cities to find the killer.
The Dervish House, by Ian McDonald
And then this is the other sci-fi novel to make this year's "best of the best" list, which as regular readers remember coincided with a big long interview I did with the author that eventually got mentioned at Boing Boing; and once again, the reason it scored so high is because of the speculative elements being light, essentially a look at the complex city of Istanbul set just twenty years from now. And yes, like Mieville's book, this is mostly McDonald's way of examining the coming cultural mesh between Eastern and Western civilization, entirely appropriate when looking at this Muslim powerhouse that for a thousand years previous had been the second most important city in all of Christiandom (back when it was known as Constantinople), a maddeningly complicated mecca that still exhibits traits of both these cultures, even as it tries to form a new 21st-century identity of sophistication and high-tech globalism. A great primer on Turkish culture for clueless Americans like me who need one.
History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer
The one and only book to score a perfect 10 here at CCLaP this year, there's actually not much to say about it -- it's simply an excellent guide to the first half of what we Westerners call the "Middle Ages," showing in a truly global way how humanity went during 500 to 1000 AD from a collection of mostly nomadic warrior tribes (at the end of the Roman Empire) to the relatively stable nation-states that make up today's Europe and Asia. Also featuring what little information we know about the pre-literate societies of America at the time, and looking at this era not in the "fall into darkness" mindset of the Enlightenment but rather as a period of settlement and shifting continental alliances, this is a truly worldwide look at worldwide affairs, a worthy complement to the times of global shrinking we currently live in.
How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely
The only out-and-out comedy to make this year's "best of the best" list, this mostly scored so high because it's such a pitch-perfect satire of the very literary industry that we heavy readers love to hate; that is, not just a parody of such easy targets as Danielle Steele and Dan Brown, but an endlessly bitter screed by an Emmy-winning former Letterman writer that makes vicious fun of everyone from Jessa Crispin to the Christian churches that manipulate the bestseller lists, and saving special invective for intolerable little douchebag litbloggers like myself. A metafictional story for those who usually hate metafiction, those who have ever taken the time to debate a book review at Amazon or Goodreads will be sure to love this angry yet ultimately loving ode to the business of books.
The Possessed, by Elif Batuman
A late entry to this "best of the best" list (I only read it a few weeks ago), this is a perfect example of what I often refer to as a "NPR-worthy" nonfiction title, combining the scholarly research and high-minded writing of academia with the fascinating premise and personal anecdotes of a beach read, in this case using the author's nerdy love of Russian literature as a jumping-off point for a series of gonzo journalistic adventures, from an academic conference at Tolstoy's estate to a night in a life-sized St. Petersburg ice castle, examining along the way both the lives and works of the famous and infamous Russian writers of the 19th (Tsarist) and 20th (Soviet) centuries. A great pick for the unapologetically bookish, and proof that not all entertaining bestsellers have to be about sexy vampires.
Righting the Mother Tongue, by David Wolman
And speaking of addictive NPR-worthy books, armchair lexicographers will want to make sure not to miss this one either; written by one of those fun modern academes who practices what he preaches, it's a look at the chaotic history of "standard English," with the author traveling the globe to check out the various places and artifacts that have had such a heavy influence on the subject, examining systematically everything from Chaucer to Webster to modern spelling-bee protesters, the subject so fascinating to begin with because of English having no official "governing board" in charge of language rules, unlike such countries as France and Spain. A lively and informative title just begging for one of those inventive PBS specials you're always catching on Sunday afternoons, this is a great little read that can be entirely devoured in a single day or two.
And that's it for today's list; but make sure to stop by tomorrow for part two, another ten books that may not have scored as high, but are certainly still worth a second look.