Presenting the ten best books of 2010 that I’ve read:
The Big Short (Michael Lewis) This book was essential to my understanding of the financial meltdown. Michael Lewis approaches the topic of the housing crisis and short-selling with an insider’s grasp of financial products and derivatives and an outsider’s sense of the absurdity of Wall Street. What results is a very clear explanation of what drove the economy’s collapse, peppered with colorful anecdotes. While I was reading this, I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone I knew. I would loan it to you but I’ve given away both copies I had.
The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø) I violently hated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But this is Scandinavian crime fiction worth reading.
Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy (edited by Cathy Porter) Sofia was her husband’s secretary, proofreader, editor, housekeeper, agent, and nurse – the person who darned Leo’s socks as well as the person who proofread the first draft of War and Peace. Spanning 57 years, these diaries chronicle the mundane (“Lev Nikolaevich [Leo] is better today; he has moved his bowels and is no longer in pain, and my soul is relieved of a terrible anxiety”) but also bear witness to her struggles. Sofia yearns for the pleasure of her own creative pursuits, often questions her fate, and sometimes contemplates suicide — but (luckily, for generations of Tolstoy’s readers) she never doubts her husband’s genius or wavers in her commitment to his legacy. By the end of the book, Sofia’s frayed nerves and endless crying scenes had nearly worn me out, but for most of it, I was entirely captivated by her world. Her life raises difficult questions about feminism, marriage, and the price of greatness in the arts.
Dolly City (Orly Castel-Bloom) In the early pages of this book, I was really put off by Dolly’s perversity. But as the plot kicked in, the book began to follow its own internal logic and I was completely gripped. For a taste of Castel-Bloom’s brilliance, check out “My Fallow Years,” a short piece published online by Words Without Borders.
Fordlandia (Greg Grandin) Henry Ford was an odd guy. The story of Fordlandia, his never profitable but truly colossal rubber-growing outpost in the Brazilian Amazon typifies his oddness, as well as his supreme self-confidence and stubbornness. This book is a portrait of a spectacular (and forgotten) failure brimming with historical trivia.
How Does it Feel To Be A Problem? (Moustafa Bayoumi) The last time a TSA agent asked to search my suitcase, he was confronted with the following: 50 packets of Quaker instant oatmeal (embedded in a weekends’ worth of outfits), 2 ceramic soup bowls, 2 grapefruit spoons, 1 ZipLock packet of fresh Pongal rice, 1 set of stinky gym clothes, 1 pair of heels, 1 bag of toiletries … and a hardback copy of How Does it Feel to Be a Problem? with big bright red Arabic letters on the cover. Rather appropriately, reading this book on an airplane and on the subway cars turned into a bit of an exercise in seeing how it feels to be an object of misplaced, inchoate suspicion — I always have a bag full of strange items when I return from a weekend in Poquoson, but never before has there been anything that might peg me as Muslim or Arab-American. Though this book was published 2008, I’m including it on this list because it didn’t become topic of national debate until this fall.
I Curse the River of Time (Per Petterson) I’m starting to notice that this list is heavy on less-than-sunny material, but so be it. This brooding book sees protagonist Arvid Jansen through the midst of a mid-life crisis (“There was a fissure in my life, a void, and that void only beer could fill”). He’s unpleasant company, but his self-loathing has the virtue of a searing clarity.
Negative Space (Robert Steiner) This book traces, in elegant, obsessive detail, the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage of 20 years over the course of one evening. As they sit on their French terrace overlooking a 300-year-old olive grove, drinking wine and smoking, the narrator’s wife begins to explain to him that she has been unfaithful. The narrator feels flattened: “… I became the husband in a novelette devoid of martyrs or fevered Russians. No booming voices, no Bach, nothing of an epic scale — instead small, brutish, unsympathetic.” Infidelity is an old theme, but the single-mindedness of the protagonist’s introspection is what makes this book fascinating — and what elevates the crude betrayal, jealousy and loss at the center of the story into something far more rarefied.
Tail of the Blue Bird (Nii Ayikwei Parkes) A lovely detective story set in rural Ghana, Tail of the Blue Bird draws heavily from folklore and — though it follows a number of modern whodunit conventions — isn’t afraid to leave some things shrouded in mystery. The book ends up being a gentle critique of story-telling in all its forms. As a tribal hunter tells the forensic pathologist, “On this earth, we have to choose the story we tell, because it affects us – it affects how we live.”
The Tiger (John Vaillant) I’m reading this now. The book follows the trail of destruction left by one man-eating Siberian tiger in the farthest reaches of eastern Russia. My favorite line so far: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator.”
To be fair, more than half of these were assigned to me (what can I say? I’m lucky to have editors who have good taste). To round out the list, here are 5 more books/editions released this year which I’d like to read, but have not yet: Freedom (Jonathan Franzen), The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson), Prejudices (H. L. Mencken), The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot), Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann).