Borne back ceaselessly into the past (or, What I Read: 2010)

Year-end best-of lists are always confined to that year, but that’s not how most of us read. If you’re like me (read: poor), you won’t catch up with 2010 until it’s in paperback—and there are so many other books to catch up on, besides. So my year-end lists are never about the year that’s ending; they’re mostly about me. Isn’t that always the way?

Here are 20 great books I read this year.

All Art Is Propaganda: Critical Essays by George Orwell (2008)
I’ll quote myself: “Orwell is so damn smart that reading him makes me feel smarter, and everything he writes about—dirty postcards, Tolstoy’s hatred of Shakespeare, the disappointment of T.S. Eliot’s later work, and of course, socialism—is made fascinating and important.”

The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 1952 by Charles M. Schulz (2004)
Before Snoopy (or even Linus) could talk, before the characters were shilling for Hallmark and MetLife, long before the introduction of the life-sucking Peppermint Patty, Peanuts was maybe at its funniest: a frequently absurd examination of the adult neuroses of four- and five-year-olds.

Good ol' Charlie Brown

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (2008)
What amazes me most about Millhauser’s stories is that he’s usually working the same handful of tricks over and over again—the impossible technologies, the philosophical towns, the late-19th century fake histories, the plural 1st-person, the stuffy academic voice—and he never wears them out. (See especially: “The Other Town” & “The Wizard of West Orange”)

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School by Neil Postman (1995)
Postman, too, makes me feel smarter by virtue of his own intelligence, and this is his brilliant examination of an education system that exists almost exclusively for pre-job training, the creation of American consumers, and protecting children from thinking about things that make them uncomfortable.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (2009)
Tower’s stories are messy and open-ended without feeling aimless, and frequently downbeat without being depressing. His dialogue is pitch-perfect, and he unerringly finds the funny in things that aren’t. Plus, he makes a story about Vikings work. (See: “Executors of Important Energies” & “On the Show”)

Foreign Parts by Janice Galloway (1994)
The blurb says “A road movie for feminists,” which makes this book sound awful, when in fact it’s a caustic and funny novel about friendship, loneliness, and the boredom of travel. Tell your friends about Janice Galloway, like I’m telling you.

I Love You, I Hate You, I’m Hungry by Bruce Eric Kaplan (2010) / Theories of Everything by Roz Chast (2006)
And I thought Peanuts was neurotic. Two collections of  New Yorker cartoons—in Chast’s case, a massive career retrospective—replete with the kind of excessive worry and self-analysis that some of us recognize all too well.

Indignation by Philip Roth (2008)
Every reaction I’ve heard to this book has been lukewarm, but I think it stands with Roth’s best novels. Funny and angry—and, yes, indignant—with a POV that shouldn’t work but does, and a “twist” that really shouldn’t work, but does.

Jab by Mark Halliday (2002)
This collection of poems would make the list just for “The Fedge” and “Divorced Fathers and Pizza Crusts,” but there’s so much more besides.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard (2007)
Sample protagonists: An engineer at Chernobyl. The executioner of Marie Antoinette. A female Cosmonaut. Aeschylus. What makes Shepard’s stories so good is that although he’s clearly done tons of research, it never gets in the way. Just amazing. (See: “The Zero Meter Diving Team” & “Eros 7”)

The Medium Is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore (1967)
A strange multimedia presentation of a book, before “multimedia” was a thing, predicting more or less exactly what it would mean. How many graphic design experiments are still relevant over 40 years later?

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (1988)
A novel with an unknowable sociopath at its center, and a townful of characters who think, incorrectly, that they can somehow figure him out. For a while we think we can, too, but Dexter never gives us the satisfaction of explaining Paris away—and that’s even better.

Picture by Lillian Ross (1952)
An eyewitness account of how John Huston fought with MGM to make The Red Badge of Courage his way, then flew to Africa and left them to chop the film into incomprehension. A fascinating and maddening look at studio machinations, and a well-drawn portrait of the larger-than-life Huston himself.

Reeling: Film Writings 1972-1975 by Pauline Kael (1976)
Pauline Kael is that rare critic whose pieces are well worth reading even when I couldn’t disagree with her more. And when I think she’s spot-on, even better, as in her love of Altman’s Nashville, her hatred of The Exorcist, and the scathing explanation of studio mentality (just what Lillian Ross saw, 20 years earlier) in her essay “On the Future of Movies.”

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Never before have I torn through something this bleak this fast.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (1998)
About 400 pages in, I realized that although I was captivated by the book, I still didn’t know what the story was. I’m not sure I know now. It’s hard to get away with something that sprawls this much, but every page is mesmerizing.

Seasons by Blexbolex (2009)
A 180-page picture book (for children? maybe?) depicting all manner of time passage, from a deadly tornado to flowers budding to the accidental summer sunburn. Really beautiful.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (1968)
Late ’60s Southern California, in all its sun-baked madness. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to experience Joan Didion’s perception. The title piece alone is worth the price of admission.

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro (1974)
If you’ve ever read Alice Munro, you don’t need me to tell you how good she is. If you haven’t, you should get on that. (See: “How I Met My Husband” & “Tell Me Yes or No”)

***

Worst book I read this year:
This is completely gratuitous, and I don’t care. The praise heaped on Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists baffles me more than I can explain. The characters are flat, awful stereotypes; the dialogue alternates between clumsy exposition and sub-sitcom banter; it’s too directionless to be a novel, but the individual pieces are too empty to be stories. It makes me angry that this is the only work of fiction I’ve read that was published in 2010. Next year I’ll have to catch up with something better.

What’s the best thing you read in 2010?

5 Comments

  • Sam Ligon says:

    I love Slouching Toward Bethlehem, too. I don’t know if this is the best book I read this year, but my favorite read was Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews. I also loved his memoir, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.

  • Sara says:

    Best book is a toss-up between Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of Poets and Tessa Hadley’s Everything Will Be All Right.

    Although, I just finished Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin, and that’s in the running for #3.

  • Laura says:

    Best fiction I read this year: Twin Study by Stacey Richter
    Best nonfiction I read this year: The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

  • Pete Sheehy says:

    I tore through The Road as well, and while it was enjoyable, it’s nowhere near as good as Blood Meridian or anything in the Border trilogy.
    The best book I read this year was William Styron’s “The Confession of Nat Turner.” Charles Johnson’s “Middle Passage” was a close second, but suffered an ending as disappointing as Huck Finn’s. I also loved Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto.”
    Hands down the worst book I read all year was “Knockemstiff.”
    Dan, thanks for pointing me toward two books that have been smoldering on my shelf, “Indignation,” and “Paris Trout.” I’ll definitely get to them in 2011.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    i like the way you described the Savage Detectives. Me, too, on that.

    Best book I read — not counting one which doesn’t need any more coronation, Freedom, which was great — was The Book of Evidence by John Banville. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.

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