Let me get this out of the way: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s Great American Novel, defeated me. These cold winter months may have me crawling back to the dysfunctional family Franzen so deftly created, but for now, it was not a contender for my best of 2010 list. However, I did make it through quite a few books this year, and a small portion of them stayed with me as the seasons changed and the days grew shorter. Some of these books have been woefully unnoticed (my No. 2 in particular); my hope is that you’ll take some time to go to the library, or use some of those holiday gift cards, to check out one (or more) of them.
10. The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald—It’s an inspired idea: Start with an orphan boy raised by a house of practice mothers at a women’s college and follow him as he grows up into the ultimate ladies’ man. Grunwald whips up a beautifully written, fast-moving tale that manages to be satisfyingly long yet seems far too short.
9. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman—A sweet, full novel that starts with two very different sisters and branches out from there. Goodman has created a hearty, old-fashioned book, reminiscent of Austen or Dickens in its quirky characters and maze of intertwining lives.
8. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins—There might be a handful of people trapped in caves who don’t know about Suzanne Collins’ breakout Hunger Games series, but hopefully they’ll get copies when they’re rescued, because these are some damn good books. Technically classified as Young Adult novels, Collins has mastered that tricky crossover: marketing to youngsters, but writing well enough that people of all ages will want to read them. The series has the perfect blend of heroism, adventure, otherworldliness and fashion, all culminating to a nail-biting finale in Mockingjay.
7. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl by Yiyun Li—A delicate and spare short story collection that unveils a contemporary China that’s often held fast by tradition. Li’s elegant prose and gentle examination of her birth country reminded me a lot of Jhumpa Lahiri, who is definitely an author you’d want to be compared to.
6. The Tower, the Tortoise and the Zoo by Julia Stuart—The premise seems dark-hearted: tale of a couple growing apart from each other after their only child’s tragic death. But Stuart throws in just the right amount of British small-town wackiness to create one of the most charming and madcap novels I’ve ever read.
5. The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Grann—Grann is my favorite living non-fiction writer (sorry, Malcolm Gladwell) and this collection of his essays from the New Yorker captures exactly why. In “On the Trail of the Giant Squid,” Grann looks into the world of—yes, that’s right: Giant Squid. And you know what? They’re absolutely fascinating. The same can be said for every topic Grann tackles, from Sherlock Holmes to an author blamed for a crime he wrote about in a novel—each story in this collection is one worth reading.
4. The Passage by Justin Cronin—Cronin’s first book in a series of three deserved all the hype it received. A fresh take on the vampire genre, where the creatures are more zombie than the traditional blood-sucking, seductive pastiche of Twilight and True Blood, this was the finest horror story I’ve read in years. Cronin creates an entirely new world from the ashes of one that looked a lot like ours, and, in the process, also writes one of the best fiction novels of the year.
3. The New Yorker Magazine—I hope it’s not a cheat to put a magazine on a books best-of list, but let me present my case: this is the first full year that I’ve received the New Yorker—see, I’d always thought of it as pretentious and dense, but man, was I wrong. All the books on this list lingered long after I’d read them, but that’s only a handful out of a whole year. This magazine consistently provides the best fiction and non-fiction of the year: Joyce Carol Oates’ recent essay on the death of her husband, and experiencing widowhood, moved me to tears on a downtown local; the article a couple of issues back about the problems that the jumping (up to 10 feet!) Asian Carp are causing in the Midwest ecosystem was eye-opening, and the selection of short stories from the best 20 under 40 has introduced me to some great writers. A lot of people don’t have time for books anymore, which is more depressing than I can think about right now, but I’d recommend the New Yorker to those with little time who still want to be challenged and amazed every week by something they’ve read.
2. Boys and Girls like You and Me by Aryn Kyle—The title is cribbed from a classic Judy Garland song, yet the stories are anything but the sugar and sunshine Ms. Garland touted. Writer Aryn Kyle’s second book (and her first short story collection), was way too unrecognized this year. Her characters seek out heartbreak and knock disillusionment on its feet; most of her stories feature girls that might not have heard the word “feminist” but accidentally end up defining it.
1. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman—They say the newspaper business is dying, and Rachman’s interconnected stories about the fate of one broadsheet in particular does nothing to dissuade that notion. However, his compulsively readable tales about the people who are the paper—writers, readers, and owners alike—reminds you that there’s real blood and sweat behind all that ink.
By Jenn Kane