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The Best Books of 2010, Part 3

[Follow this series here. We’re also compiling all our best books in one easy-to-browse page; find it by clicking the stamp, at left or anywhere else you see it on the site. That page will get updated as each new post comes out.]

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These best of the year posts are always a bit tricky for me. I read via a pile strategy–that is I buy books faster than even I can read them, which results in multiple stacks of books, then when I finish one I grab the next and shelve the one I read–so much of what I read has usually been sitting for about a year before I get around to reading it. Therefore, I’m left to select books from a fairly shallow pool of 2010 pubs.

Nonetheless, I read a number of very good books this year. In fact, I had a pretty tough time picking which one was tops. After a lentghy deliberation, here’s my pick for Best Book of 2010:

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Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

Yeah, I know, everyone is picking this book. I actually really wanted to give #1 to Amelia Gray’s excellent collection of stories, but I just can’t. Freedom is a great book, and it will stick in my head for a long time to come. Franzen’s novel is about a fairly typical American family, but it also manages to be an astute look at America itself. This isn’t the Great American Novel that you might think it would be, judging by hype it got. But it is a Great Read that’s accessible, thought-provoking, and at times quite tender. Freedom simply deserves to be called the best book of 2010.
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Anthology Paperback Giveaway, And The Winner Is…

To celebrate our Best Books of 2010 series, which continues Monday, we’re giving away a free paperback copy of The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Everyone who commented on Chamber Four this week, replied or retweet us on Twitter, or commented or like any of our Facebook posts was entered into the drawing. You can read all the story descriptions we posted through this link.

For the drawing itself, we used the tried and true method of writing names and handles on scraps of paper, and mixing them up in a hat. The winner is commenter Gaby, who took the time to comment on Sara Lehoullier’s I Loved This Book When entry on The Sun Also Rises.

For those of you who aren’t Gaby, you can buy a paperback copy of the anthology at the Harvard Book Store, and you can always download the ebook for free. We’ll probably do similar giveaways again real soon, in the meantime, check out our Best Books of 2010 series for suggestions of what to read next.

Armchair Detective #4: Dramatic Irony

[This is the fourth installment of Armchair Detective, a C4 column about reading mysteries. Read past episodes here, or browse all our ongoing features from the Features category.]

A mystery writer using dramatic irony to create suspense is a bit like an exterminator using napalm because somebody saw a cockroach: it works, but it’s far from the best tool for the job. Dramatic irony is especially detrimental to mystery novels, but I hate it in almost all types of fiction.

I don’t even like Jeffrey Eugenides, a talented literary author, because he’s the modern king of dramatic irony. He’s so eager to give away the plots of his novels—and the fates of his characters—that sometimes he does it in his titles, like The Virgin Suicides. I hate knowing more than the characters do about their future because it robs their decisions of risk and it makes them feel doomed, trudging unknowingly through the actions that will eventually make, say, the virgins kill themselves.

In mysteries, dramatic irony is often executed in more gimmicky, less careful ways. In a movie, it might be a panning shot that reveals, unbeknownst to the hero, an ominous goon watching him. In a book, it might be a chapter-closing zinger like, “Little did he know, he would never see his wife alive again.”

For one thing, this is a cheap way to ratchet up the suspense. More importantly, dramatic irony warps the reading experience: it tips the balance of knowledge, and creates an emotional gulf between the hero and the reader. In a mystery, that is something I never want. I want to experience everything as the character does, and that includes epiphanies, solutions to cases, and all the suspense along the way.
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Anthology Paperback Giveaway, Day 5: “Seven Little Stories About Sex”

[Every day this week, we’re posting a quick description of a story from The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Comment on this post—or any other post before midnight tonight (11/19/10)—for a chance to win a paperback copy of the anthology. More details here. Follow the whole series here.]


Seven Little Stories About Sex, by Eric Freeze

Presented in seven short vignettes, this story perfectly captures one man’s life through his sexual maturity. It begins with a young boy’s curious first kiss on his blue-furred teddy bear, and works all the way up to a wife’s pregnancy several decades later. “Seven Little Stories” does an excellent job of capturing a large scope with a small lens; plus it’s moving, a bit sad, and as well-written as anything in the entire Chamber Four Fiction Anthology.


Read “Seven Little Stories About Sex” in its original environment at Boston Review. Download the entire Chamber Four Fiction Anthology for free here.

REVIEW: Museum of the Weird

[This collection of bizarre stories is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Amelia Gray

2010, FC2

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 6

This is one of the best short story collections I’ve read in a while. Gray writes exactly the kind of story I like: sometimes non sequitur, often grotesque, always flirting with the surreal. There’s a talking armadillo, a woman who has babies everyday for a week, hipster cannibals, a plague of vultures, a man wedded to a bag of frozen tilapia. But despite the bizarreness, they all take place in what is recognizably our world.

The weirdness is the books draw, but strange story topics is not enough to sustain a book. Luckily, Amelia Gray turns out to be pretty damn good with words. Occasionally she turnes a great phrase or two, like this part I marked in “Thoughts While Strolling”:

The sun is trying in vain to peep between the heavy clouds.

One understands the feeling, thinking back with some shame to a dress heavy like soaking wet lead, like a velvet bag full of bullets. Everything you touch turns to fire.

The most notable aspect about her writing isn’t pretty sentences though. Her syntax and word choice is very precise and controlled. This book doesn’t have stray words. The stories are all short (the longest is about 18 pages with lots of line breaks, most run 3-5 pages) and, like the sentences they are built of, succinct and focused. The shortness of the stories keep the individual curiosities of each story from overstaying their welcome, and the reader’s attention is constantly being pulled in a new direction.
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REVIEW: The Reversal

Author: Michael Connelly

2010, Little, Brown and Company

Filed under: Mystery, Thrillers

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 2
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 1

They say that great novels teach you how to read them. Evidently, so do terribly written bestsellers. I labored through the first 50 pages of The Reversal, bogged down by Connelly’s atrocious, middle-school-level writing; but by halfway through I’d learned his stumbling rhythm, and I cruised through the last 200 pages in a day.

This book is exactly what literary snobs mean when they deride “plot-driven” novels. Connelly’s a pretty good plotter, and he’s simply horrible at everything else. But if you’re trapped on a plane and you desperately need to kill a few hours, this book will keep the pages turning. You’ll forget it soon after and it will never create a lasting impression, but for the brief time you’re reading it, it’s probably better than staring at the back of a seat.
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Anthology Paperback Giveaway, Day 4: “The Next Thing on Benefit”

[Every day this week, we’re posting a quick description of a story from The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Comment on this post—or any other post before Friday (11/19/10) at midnight—for a chance to win a paperback copy of the anthology. More details here. Follow the whole series here.]


The Next Thing on Benefit, by Castle Freeman, Jr.

Sharon isn’t in the habit of running away to tropical islands with strange, wealthy men, but when she wanders into the seemingly charmed life of Duncan Munro, it seems like a good time to try something new. Her last real lover is only a memory, and Duncan isn’t like any other man she’s ever known. He’s honest about keeping secrets. He says nothing about his business or his family life. He tells her that there are things he isn’t telling her. Going with Duncan may not be the best idea Sharon’s ever had, but it’s the one she has now. Joining Duncan and his British valet, Patrick, she takes off on the first private jet ride of her life to find out what can happen when you go to a private island in the Caribbean with a man you hardly know.


Read “The Next Thing on Benefit” in its original environment at the New England Review. Download the entire Chamber Four Fiction Anthology for free here.

Anthology Paperback Giveaway, Day 3: “Dragon”

[Every day this week, we’re posting a quick description of a story from The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Comment on this post—or any other post before Friday (11/19/10) at midnight—for a chance to win a paperback copy of the anthology. More details here. Follow the whole series here.]


Dragon, by Steve Frederick

One morning, after drinking some bourbon and vodka, Wyatt decides to use a can of gas and some matches to rid his fence line of tumbleweeds. After setting his yard on fire and deeply upsetting his wife, Wyatt hops in his truck and starts driving, perhaps looking for his lost youth.  What Wyatt finds in the next 24 hours—his long-time friend, Simms, a woman whose entire backside is tattooed with a colorful dragon, the old caretaker of a cemetery and an abandoned church—will change everything about the way Wyatt views his life. But it all may happen too late to matter.


Read “Dragon” in its original environment at Night Train. Download the entire Chamber Four Fiction Anthology for free here.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews 11/16/10

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

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Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern, and Emails from an A**hole: Real People Being Stupid, by John Lindsay. Reviewed by Courtney Crowder (Chicago Tribune).

I love the opener to this review: “They may both be Web site-to-print books, but only one of them is funny.” The former is the funny one, just so you know. CBS made a TV show of it staring William Shatner (my inner grammar geek thinks they should have retitled it “Shat, my dad, says…”). The original Twitter feed was pretty funny, so I can’t see why it would be any less funny compiled in a book. In fact, judging from this review, it’s better for it. The review is short, but Crowder does a good job of parsing the good and the bad in these two titles.

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Sunset Park, by Paul Auster. Reviewed by Mark Athitakis (Barnes & Noble Review).

B&N’s web mag is quickly becoming one of my favorite spots to go for book recommendations and reviews. (Also, there’s a pretty good review up now about Elvis Costello’s new album.) I’ve never been much of an Auster guy–I got sick of The New York Trilogy about halfway through. That said, I’ve been meaning to give him another shot for a while now, and Athitakis’s well-written review makes me think that maybe I should start with the author’s newest work before revisiting the old.

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The Interrogative Mood, by Padgett Powell. Reviewed by Steven Poole (Guardian).

We did a JABBIC of this book, which is written entire in questions. Frankly, that sounds like a dumb idea and I’d be pretty shocked if this book didn’t suck. At the very least it has to get grating after 5 pages. Poole’s review rightly lampoons the dumb conceit of this book. It’s fun to read the review, though I think it’s the last thing written all in questions that I’ll read hopefully forever. What do you think? Does it sound annoying? How many questions can I tack on to the end of this paragraph before you just skip to the next? Four?

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Life, by Keith Richards. Reviewed by Liz Phair (New York Times).

I’m not really one for biographies, but you know this Rolling Stone with the resilience of a cockroach–the emperor/exemplar of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”–has got to be full of juicy stories, and at least some of which have to be incredible. The book’s been getting a lot of press, and been lauded more than once as actually pretty good. Not sure what Liz Phair is doing writing book reviews, but the musician does it competently, and I enjoyed her perspective. This is a long review, but worth the read.

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Bonus Book Trailer: Somewhere out there, there’s a vault with a box full of potent Viagra within! Riveting!

Anthology Paperback Giveaway, Day 2: “How to Assemble a Portal to Another World”

[Every day this week, we’re posting a quick description of a story from The Chamber Four Fiction Anthology. Comment on this post—or any other post before Friday (11/19/10) at midnight—for a chance to win a paperback copy of the anthology. More details here. Follow the whole series here.]


How to Assemble a Portal to Another World, by Alanna Peterson

This quick, surreal story alternates between a scientific voice describing the specifics of assembling a portal to another world, and the seemingly more ordinary story of a girl who meets a guy.

In less than a thousand words, these two narratives knot around each other and create a mesmerizing meditation on sanity and bravery, loneliness and the possibilities of escape. It’s a intricate, sharply written story that you’ll have to read more than once.


Read “How to Assemble a Portal to Another World” in its original environment at failbetter.com. Download the entire Chamber Four Fiction Anthology for free here.