In 2010, the arrival of the iPad, the ensuing e-reader/e-book price wars and the late-breaking launch of Google Editions stirred the publishing industry into ever higher levels of panic. Could the written word survive?
If the best books published this year are any indication, the answer is yes. The delivery method may change, but writing is as vital as ever, and readers still get excited over books. Kids and adults alike flocked to Mockingjay, the third novel in Suzanne Collins’ popular “Hunger Games” series. Readers paid over-the-top prices for European versions of the final book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest, too eager to wait for its U.S. debut in May. Even President George W. Bush, who left office with somewhat deflated popularity numbers, scored big with his memoir Decision Points, which has sold 2 million copies.
Here are the books Herald reviewers deemed the best of 2010.
• Freedom, Jonathan Franzen: Believe the hype. Ignore the naysayers. Franzen’s followup to his National Book Award winner The Corrections is the best novel of 2010. Examining the lives of a fractured Minnesota family, Franzen shows us precisely how we live now, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
• A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan: Each chapter of Egan’s stylistically fearless novel could stand alone as a story but flows easily into the next to create an engaging whole. She uses a postmodern sensibility, the ever-changing music industry and sharply original characters to deconstruct our pop-culture-and-PR-addled society.
• Room, Emma Donaghue: Urgent, sly, funny terrifying – and sometimes all of those things at once – Donaghue’s mesmerizing testament to simple human heroism is narrated by a 5-year-old boy who has grown up imprisoned in an 11-by-11 foot shed with his abducted mother. Despite her story’s dark nature, Donaghue gracefully navigates Jack’s life and his escape into the real world with compassion and humor.
• The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall: This big tragicomic novel follows several members of a sprawling polygamist family: its unsettled patriarch (he’s contemplating cheating on his four spouses with an outsider), the youngest and most discontented sister wife (she can’t get along with the other women) and troublemaker Rusty, one of the 28 kids (he quite frankly would like to be an only child, all things considered).
• Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey: A novel “as big and bold as the country itself,” according to Herald reviewer Ellen Kanner, Carey’s novel earned him a third Man Booker Prize nomination (he lost out this year to Howard Jacobson and The Finkler Question). The story follows a Frenchman ala de Toqueville and his English servant on their adventure in the New World.
• Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart: The dystopian future envisioned by Shteyngart ( The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, Absurdistan) discomfits us because it seems so possible: a debt-ridden authoritarian government, a fed-up China, electronic poles that register one’s credit for all to see, a postliterate culture. Against this blackly comic backdrop Shteyngart provides us with love story unlike any other.
• How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu: The Ethiopian-born Mengestu deftly continued his eloquent examination of immigrant families and how the past informs the present in his gorgeously written second novel. He was chosen as one of The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” writers for good reason.
• Just Kids, Patti Smith: The National Book Award winner chronicles her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, from their days as youthful artists hanging around Andy Warhol’s Factory to Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. The memoir is full of striking, funny and heartbreaking tidbits, a compelling tribute to the power of love and friendship.
• Create Dangerously, Edwidge Danticat: In this poignant collection of essays, Miami’s Edwidge Danticat paints stark and enduring portraits of the people of Haiti. She writes compassionately but never sentimentally, understanding that the tragedy is most powerful without embellishment.
• Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent: In this well-documented and anecdote-rich history, Okrent reminds us of the perils of allowing zealots to monkey with the Constitution. But he goes a step further, too, by analyzing Prohibition’s effects on language, literature and the media.
• Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens: The always-fascinating professional provocateur, who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, brings his formidable wit and intelligence to this memoir, which probably should bear the subtitle “The Making of An Outrage Artist,” according to Herald reviewer Ariel Gonzalez.
• War, Sebastian Junger: Journalist Junger ( The Perfect Storm) spent the better part of two years with a battalion in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley and delivers a harrowing account of life, death and the adrenaline-fueled horrors of war.
• Colonel Roosevelt, Edmund Morris: The final installment in Morris’ trilogy on the intriguing, energetic Teddy Roosevelt is – not surprisingly, considering its author’s history – an astute character study of a popular president, marked by pointed observations and contextual breadth.