The Best Books of 2010

Here are our favorite books published in 2010 (the ones that we read–we can’t read every book, you know).

Sandokan — Nanni Balestrini

A dark, elliptical treatise on the mundane and inescapable violence wrought by the Camorra crime syndicate in southern Italy.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned — Wells Tower (trade paperback)

Tower’s world is a neatly drawn parallel reality populated by down-on-their-luck protagonists who we always root for, despite our better judgment, even as they inadvertently destroy whatever vestiges of grace are bestowed upon them.

The Union Jack — Imre Kertész

Kertész’s slim novella explores a storyteller’s inability to accurately and properly communicate spirit and truth against the backdrop of an oppressive Stalinist regime.

BodyWorld — Dash Shaw

Shaw’s graphic novel is sardonically humorous in its psychoanalytic/post-apocalyptic visions. It’s a sweet and sour subversion of 1950’s comics and contemporary conformist groupthink politics. Witty and poignant, it advances its medium.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — David Mitchell

An unexpected historical romance from postmodern poster boy David Mitchell. Thousand Autumns is a big fat riff on storytelling and history and adventure–but mostly, Mitchell’s Shogunate-era Japan is a place worth getting lost in.

C — Tom McCarthy

“I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature,” McCarthy said in an interview this year. “For me, that’s what literature’s always done.” C, our favorite novel of 2010, seems plugged into the past and the present, pointing to the future.

Wolf Hall — Hilary Mantel (trade paperback)

Who knew that we needed to hear the Tudor saga again? Who knew that Thomas Cromwell could be a good guy?

The Ask — Sam Lipsyte

A mean, sad, hilarious novel that simultaneously eulogizes, valorizes, and mocks the American Dream.

X’ed Out — Charles Burns

Charles Burns does Tintin in William Burroughs’s Interzone. ‘Nuff said.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis — Lydia Davis

An epic compendium of, jeez, I don’t know, how do you define or explain what Davis does? Inspection, perception, mood, observation. Tales, fables, riffs, annotations, skits, jokes, japes, anecdotes, journals, thought experiments, epigrams, half-poems, and would-be aphorisms. Great stuff.

4 thoughts on “The Best Books of 2010”

  1. (I preface my proceeding statements with a very sincere appreciation for your blogging project which has exposed me to a variety of literature I may never have encountered otherwise.)

    So are there any other authors besides the white Americans dominating your list producing quality fiction currently? Or do you find the other Americans literary projects not worthy of your critical gaze?



    1. LCS–

      You write–
      “So are there any other authors besides the white Americans dominating your list producing quality fiction currently?”

      First, your premise that the list is dominated by Americans is incorrect. Half of the writers on the list are not from America, and two of those writers do not write in English (The Union Jack and Sandokan are translations).

      Second, your question seems rhetorical; that is, I don’t think you are actually asking me to answer that question, you are simply using it to demand that I list writers of color who may or may not be from America. This rhetorical question leads to your next question, which also seems rhetorical — ” Or do you find the other Americans literary projects not worthy of your critical gaze?”
      This is really confusing–what are the “other Americans [sic] literary projects” — there’s no specific referent here. Also, I thought your complaint was that I had too many Americans. Or is it that there are too many white folks on the list? You also forgot to mention that there are only two writers who are women on the list, which I suppose also violates some sort of cultural-political-social tenet.

      I think that the critical body of this blog answers for itself. I’m not going to take the time to analyze my reviews section, because I’m pretty sure it will skew to white male Americans (I am a white, male, American, by the way); however, you will find plenty of reviews of works by people of color, women, as well as lots of works that have been translated into English.

      My reviews reflect my aesthetic tastes; they are not tailored toward any particular school of thought, ideology, or “big idea.” I read books that interest me and I write about how they affect me.

      Finally–and this is *not* a rhetorical question–how many non-white, non-American writers would satisfy you? Or, better yet, what specific books that happen to be written by non-white, non-American writers should be on this list? If they merit critical attention–that is to say, if they are great books–and I’ve missed them, I’d like to read them.


  2. Hello bibliokelpt,

    I am glad you have chosen to honestly engage with me. Forgive my lack of clarity, by “other Americans’ literary projects” I refer to Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, Black Americans, etc. Yes, I understand that your list was populated with non-Americans — Gomorrah was a fantastic flick, and I hope to read the source material soon — but my complaint was lodged strictly against the fact that the Americans on your list are all white. Again, my usage of “other Americans” should be quite clear now, I mean those non-white Americans producing fiction.

    And you are right! The questions in my original post were rhetorical, and now, reflecting on why I composed the questions in the manner I did, I realize I was being a liberal indignant ass-hole. Sigh (Seriously. smh. I am trying real hard to obliterate that reflex)

    Interestingly, the bit about your “reviews reflecting your aesthetic taste” forces me to ask a question. How have you come to construct your aesthetic taste? Me (I am black, male, American), I’ve been disciplined since elementary school in the development of my aesthetic taste…I find I have to force myself to find literature outside of sphere I am commonly acquainted with. Do you understand what I am trying to articulate?

    I raised a complaint because I would like to encounter here more….ah, I see I have resorted to a “demand” for more “writers of color” which is plainly ridiculous. But I am an absurd being, so here goes nothing. How many? What a question. One is a modest but honest effort, yes?



    1. LCS,

      I understand what you are saying when you say that you have to force yourself to find literature outside of the dominant idioms/forces that produce culture. Although I consider my own aesthetic tastes to result from social/cultural/historical construction, I also believe that I have agency (as a reader, as a human) to condition and expand these constructions. To put it another way: Although I did not construct my aesthetic conditioning, I am able to feed it various foods. However–

      When I read Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a few years ago, I didn’t read it to read “a book by an Indian.” I did it because I heard that it was good. Neither did I read Diaz’s Oscar Wao because its author is Hispanic. Similarly, I didn’t put Toni Morrison’s A Mercy at the top of my 2008 “Best Books” list because she is black (or a woman) — I put the book there because I felt that it belonged there.

      As far as this year’s list–

      I never once thought: I need to put a woman on here; I need to put a black author on here; I need to put someone on here who isn’t white.
      Similarly, I never thought: I need to get some works in translation on here, I need to include a few Brits on here.
      I simply reviewed my reviews for the year, and pulled out my favorite new books.
      It’s worth noting that I did not know the color of Dash Shaw’s skin until your challenge. I literally had to go find a picture of him (via Wikipedia).

      As far as your last question, I think that my efforts can only be honest if they are guided by the kind of aesthetic integrity that I hope for this blog to maintain. So, to be concrete about the matter, two examples: A book that I would like to read (and which the publisher did not send to me after a request, which is always a way for a new book by any author to get put on the back burner around here) was Perceval Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. Everett is black, but that is not what motivates me to read the book. I’m simply interested in his novel, which sounds fascinating and was very well received among critics and readers.

      A second example: I am currently re-reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that I was required to read in high school (one of the ongoing aims of this site is to force me to reread canonical works I read when much younger). In high school, I was required to understand this novel solely in terms of race, which I now perceive to be a dramatic misreading: re-reading, I see that the book is wholly about individuality and identity against the radical backdrop of a society where every single nuance of race matters. While it’s indisputable that Ellison’s novel is an argument for Civil Rights, it is an utterly human and individual argument — that is, the narrator’s quest is to be free not just of the social constructions thrust on him by dominant white hegemony, but also the idea that he must represent “blackness” in a certain way. But, I’ve digressed from what this all was meant to exemplify — I didn’t read Invisible Man because of Ellison’s race, I picked it up again because I’m trying to rework my way through late modernists.

      None of this is meant as a claim that “I don’t see race” or that “race doesn’t matter.” That’s clearly bullshit. And if you scour this blog, you’ll find strong arguments for revising the canon. You’ll find strong arguments for reading neglected writers like James Weldon Johnson and Lydia Cabrera (a white Hispanic retooling African folktales). What you won’t find is quotas; you won’t find a discussion, let alone a mention of an author’s race or cultural background unless it directly and explicitly informs the critique of the narrative under review (e.g. Why, in my review of Tao Lin’s newest book Richard Yates would I feel the need to remark on his Asian heritage?).

      This is all away of saying that, yes, most of the authors reviewed on this site are white (they are also mostly American or British, mostly male, and probably mostly heterosexual), and yes, it’s not something I really try to think about either way. And although I have deconstructionist sympathies, I’m a career academic who’s become ultimately weary about the ongoing obsessions in English departments with cultural studies, which I believe come at the cost of an actual, thorough reading of classical literature/philosophy, as well as standard canonical works. The canon is expansive and has plenty of room for neglected or “othered” or (insert literary buzzword here) texts; but this doesn’t mean that English departments should abandon aesthetic criticism.


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