The Best Books of 2010, Part 1

[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.]

Our yearly list of best books works a little differently than most. We don’t assemble every book we read this year into one massive, ranked list. We’re not trying to include every book out there, and we’re not driven to sell you sell you anything (which is the only reason I can think of that Faithful Place came in ahead of Freedom on Amazon’s top 10 list).

In our Best Books feature, each of our contributors simply picks their favorite books of the year, and tells you why they loved them. Great books with no filler. Let’s get started.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

The Imperfectionists isn’t a novel, as its cover claims. It’s a collection of short stories, loosely linked, and centered around the employees of an English-language international newspaper based in Rome. And it’s quite simply the best short story collection I’ve read in years. Rachman’s characters are complex but still light, layered but unmuddied. Rachman excels at chronicling the interior lives and private problems of each of his varied characters, and it’s that variety and interiority (along with, of course, excellent writing) that makes this collection so strong. See my full review for an example of Rachman’s whorling, perfectly balanced character work. And read the book, for sure.
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The Book Was Better: The Walking Dead

[This is a new column in which we compare books with their A/V counterparts. Most of the time, but not always, the book is better than the movie or show. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be discussed. Follow this column here, and check out the rest of our ongoing features here.]

I’ve never really been into comics. Every so often I’ll read and enjoy a graphic novel, but that’s about it. The one exception is The Walking Dead, written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Charlie Adlard. Until Aaron’s first column a week ago, I had no idea what a “pull list” was and I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been in a comic shop. But I’ve long been fascinated with zombies. I’ve seen more zombie flicks than anyone I know. Some say they’re played out; I’m not sick of them yet, though. There’s still room for some interesting stuff to be created. The Walking Dead is a great example of this, and I buy the collected volumes they put out every few months. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I learned AMC was adapting it for television. But I had my doubts too.

Gore and campiness, the long-time staples of zombie movies, are fun enough, but the greatness of zombie plots lies in the universal pathos and the unique mythos that each develops. Unlike other monster stories and themes, the zombies aren’t the center of the show. They are a dark, looming presence, a threat that wrings the humanity and inhumanity out of the characters, a catalyst for dire, desperate action. These stories thrive in the murky grey areas of morality. Because of this, in a good zombie drama the zombie plague is the setting, not the conflict.
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REVIEW: The Ranger’s Apprentice, The Ruins of Gorlan

Author: John Flanagan

2005, Puffin Books

Filed Under: Young Adult, Fantasy

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

Read this book. If you are an active reader of fantasy, someone who has a former appreciation for the genre, or an adult interested in passing on a your passion to a young reader, you will definitely be rewarded by reading this initial installment in the widely popular series by John Flanagan.

Frankly, I balked at the prospect of reading the New York Times Bestselling Ranger’s Apprentice series. First of all, it’s genre fiction on the New York Times Bestseller List, too often a haven for popular but rather uninspired writing. And “Ranger’s Apprentice”? Does that not smack too much of Tolkien’s king hero: a kind of young Aragorn type of book? Does this series represent yet another writer’s and publisher’s attempt to cash in on the popularity of the movies by Peter Jackson? Or, is this the series that a big name publisher is putting its weight behind to make sure that the momentum of the Harry Potter phenomenon does not dissipate?

The series kept cropping up in conversations with friends and colleagues; their comments were overwhelmingly positive. Jumping to a slew of wild conclusions based simply on a cursory reaction to a book’s title certainly didn’t seem too fair, or open-minded a treatment of a book. Young adult, and 249 pages, I wouldn’t lose much time by reading it, so I gave it a shot.
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Author: Sebastian Junger

2010, Twelve

Filed under: Literary, Nonfiction

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 6
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

In War, Sebastian Junger attempts to chronicle the emotional experience of battle and the mental toll combat takes on soldiers. To do so, Junger embedded himself with a platoon of American soldiers during their tour of Afghanistan’s front line. Thankfully, Junger doesn’t pretend to be an objective journalist reporting impartially. Instead, he uses his embedded experience to deliver a first-person portrayal of the psychological turmoil of war.

In 2007 and 2008, Junger made several prolonged visits with “Battle Company” in and around the Korengal Forward Operating Base in Eastern Afghanistan. Charged with holding the Korengal Valley from the insurgents, Battle Company constantly found themselves under enemy fire. Because a reporter on the front line and a soldier on the front line are the same to the enemy, Junger also found himself looking for cover after hearing the crack of passing bullets. And in Junger’s reaction to the threat of enemy fire, we get our first insight into a soldier’s mentality.
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Green Books Campaign: Jorgy, The Life of Native Alaskan Bush Pilot and Airline Captain Holger “Jorgy” Jorgensen

[This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco- friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on "green" books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.]

Author: Holger Jorgensen and Jean Lester

2008, Ester Republic Press

Filed Under: Nonfiction, Biography, Short-Run

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 5
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 6

Holger Jorgensen is apparently a known name in Alaska. He is half-white, half-Native (Eskimo), and over his career accumulated–by his own estimate–about 35,000 hours in a variety of planes. Which is a lot. Alaska as Jorgy describes it was a bit of a frontier, with long stretches of tundra and wilderness connecting villages and small mines. This book is full of anecdotes told by the venerable pilot, and they combine to create an interesting depiction of Alaska’s development during the 20th century.

Jorgy’s tales are interesting, especially if you’re into planes. I’m not really, but I found a lot to like, especially when he details the difference between different plane models, and how he handled them differently in the cockpit.  Some of the stories touch on historical and cultural relevance. I found the stories of his boyhood as a half-native living with a native mother to be some of the best parts in the book. Well, except for this story about a flight full of reindeer, which is the craziest thing I’ve read in a while (the quote’s a bit long, but trust me, it’s worth it):
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Green Books Campaign: Innocent Until Interrogated: The True Story of the Buddhist Temple Massacre and the Tucson Four

[This review is part of the Green Books campaign.Today 200 bloggers take a stand to support books printed in an eco-friendly manner by simultaneously publishing reviews of 200 books printed on recycled or FSC-certified paper. By turning a spotlight on books printed using eco-friendly paper, we hope to raise the awareness of book buyers and encourage everyone to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books.

The campaign is organized for the second time by Eco-Libris, a green company working to make reading more sustainable. We invite you to join the discussion on "green" books and support books printed in an eco-friendly manner! A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on Eco-Libris website.]

Author: Gary L. Stuart

2010, The University of Arizona Press

Filed under: Nonfiction

C4 Ratings.....out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 4

On August 10, 1991, two members of Wat Promkunaram, a Thai Buddhist temple in west Phoenix, arrived there to find six monks and three civilians executed. The case grabbed headlines because of the innocent victims and the brutality of the murders (each person was shot several times in the back of the head, and it appeared that the killers had shot several in the face with birdshot in order to force them to open their safe). Local law enforcement organized a massive task force, which for a month came up with nothing.

Then, based on a tip from a delusional, possibly schizophrenic man, detectives from the local Sheriff’s Office arrested four young men from Tucson—more than a hundred miles southeast of Phoenix. “The Tucson Four” all had solid alibis, police even found video of one of them working at a dog track in Tucson at the time of the murders. Still, they interrogated the innocent men until all (except one) cracked, and confessed to murders they didn’t commit.

Stuart’s book focuses on those interrogations more than the murders itself. While it’s solidly written, it’s not quite curious enough to entirely satisfy.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 10-09-10

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

What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly, reviewed by Jerry A. Coyne (New York Times)

Kevin Kelly is a former editor of Wired and a “tech-watcher”; his latest book argues that “technology is like a living organism, animated by the same evolutionary forces that shaped the human brain.” It’s a pretty interesting idea, and the Times‘s choice of reviewer is interesting, too. Coyne, a professor of evolution, takes Kelly’s argument very literally and rips it apart, calling it “an airtight theory of such mind-blowing generality that it can’t be disproved.” The extent to which Kelly meant his argument literally is not clear (technology is not, after all, literally an organism), but the review still makes for an entertaining read.

Hail, Hail, Euphoria: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made, by Roy Blount Jr., reviewed by Larry Miller (Wall Street Journal)

This review came out a few weeks ago, but I just can’t pass it over. I’m a big fan of the Marx Brothers (they were, by the way, much better than the Three Stooges), I love Duck Soup, their masterpiece, and Roy Blount Jr. is my favorite panelist on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” I even like Larry Miller, one of those “Oh, he’s that guy”-type character actors. Miller says, “Here’s something … that’s not so easy to do: Write about [The Marx Brothers'] comedy in a way that’s fresh and funny and important on its own. Well, that’s what Roy Blount Jr. has done with his new book.” Sold.

The Masque of Africa, by V.S. Naipaul, reviewed by Eliza Griswold (New York Times)

I find Naipaul a fascinating character in the world of literature, but I’ve never actually read him. Some combination of his standing as a revered Nobel winner and his standing as a notorious asshole, perhaps. In this book, a travelogue of sorts, Naipaul “proves willing to turn his brutally accurate lens back on himself.” So, I might well start here.

Full Dark, No Stars, by Stephen King, reviewed by Neil Gaiman (Guardian)

Gaiman provides a thumbnail sketch of King’s career, and then discusses each of the four novellas in Full Dark, No Stars. He’s very enthusiastic, as writers reviewing writers usually are, but despite his adoration, I’m not entirely convinced. For instance, one story is a deal-with-the-devil, but “there is no twist ending, no clever way out. It becomes an act of extended sadism in which the reader is initially complicit and then increasingly horrified.” Hmm. Not so sure about the book, but this high-level conversation between genre writers is quite interesting.

Harmony, by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles), Tony Juniper, and Ian Skelly , reviewed by Terry Eagleton (Guardian)

There’s something funny on a base level about a monarch, in 2010, writing a book about change. I’m guessing Prince Charles (excuse me, His Royal Highness) needed one of his co-authors just to navigate that opening logical fallacy. The other one presumably transcribed Trivial Pursuit cards at random: Eagleton says, “The book ranges from the mating habits of the albatross to the Sufi brotherhood, from carpet-weaving in Afghanistan to the mysterious five-pointed star you get when you superimpose the Earth’s orbit on Mercury’s.” Safe to say there’s little of value in the book itself, but the review is hilarious and not to be missed. Eagleton also says, “one of the volume’s most alluring aspects is its smell.” So it’s got that going for it. Which is nice.

Non sequitur: Here’s an infographic about the return of the McRib, which is inexplicably in the Wall Street Journal’s new books section. Guess they haven’t ironed out all the kinks yet.

A Clockwork Orange: The Last Chapter, the Last Word

I’m a habitual rereader. I love revisiting favorite sentences and scenes, and I love rediscovering moments in a story I’d forgotten. So it was a special surprise when rereading A Clockwork Orange last week to find a final chapter I didn’t remember at all. How had I missed this?

Anthony Burgess explains in his introduction to this 1986 addition:

My New York publisher believed that my twenty-first chapter was a sellout. It was veddy veddy British, don’t you know. It was bland and it showed a Pelagian unwillingness to accept that a human being could be a model of unregenerable evil.

The first time I read A Clockwork Orange in high school, I must have borrowed an older American edition from my local library. Kubrick’s screen adaptation sticks so closely to the American version that it never occurred to me that anything might be missing from either the novel or the film.

But there is something missing. The American version ends with Alex’s deconditioning. The British version and this new(er) American edition reveals what happens after Alex regains his capacity for evil: in Burgess’s words, “my young thuggish protagonist grows up.” He decides to give up his violent ways to look for a wife.

It’s a bizarre turn, and it’s the ending Burgess intended, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he gets the last word.
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Judge a Book By Its Cover: Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold

[JABBIC is now on a monthly schedule. Look for the next one in December. Find previous installments here. And you can suggest covers we should use, or volunteer to write a blurb, by emailing us here.]

JABBIC is kind of like Balderdash with book covers. Based only on the cover at right, four of our contributors made up a one-paragraph premise for this week’s contestant, Cryoburn, by Lois McMaster Bujold. Can you reverse-engineer their fabrications and pick out the book’s real plot? (The answer will be posted in the comments later today.)


1. Conservative satire at its best: Cryoburn is Animal Farm meets Futurama, yet this plot feels fresh! Barack Obama’s youngest daughter, Sasha, is mistakenly frozen by a cryogenics processer and nothing can be done to thaw her! After a century of bureaucratic mislabeling, Sasha wakes to a world of flying, zero-emissions cars powered by solarscrapers. Unfortunately, not all is well in this world without oil. A dictator terrorizes Libmerica and young Sasha is the only thinker among drones. After a few foibles, the girl confronts the chilling dictator who has destroyed our nation: her unaged father! Now Sasha must decide between family and freedom.

2. In discovering a flaw in their proprietary biomed systems, Ignatius Zorn almost took down Technikinetic, the largest corporation within the Confederated Nations. Before he could blow the whistle, he was found out, beaten, and for some reason tossed into a cryochamber. 500 years later, Ingatius awakens to find Earth vastly changed, and Technikinetic ruling with an iron fist. The secret frozen with him for half a millennium might be the key to saving humanity. But Technikinetic knows he’s awake, and they’re not happy about it…

3. New Rome, 2562: a smog cloud covers the earth and every natural resource has been exhausted. There’s only one fuel source left, a mysterious toxic goo called Cryoburn. A single drop can power an aerocar for 75 years. Jimmy Raynes is a nobody in New Rome, a hack driver with an estranged wife and three kids who hate him. But when he gets a fateful fare, and overhears how Cryoburn is made, he realizes he has to do whatever he can to stop it. Cryoburn is a riveting sci-fi thriller about sacrifice and courage.

4. Only five days after arriving on Kibou-daini for a cryonics conference, interplanetary diplomat Miles Vorkosigan narrowly escapes kidnapping. Drugged, dazed, and alone, he is taken in by Jin Sato, whose mother was the leader of a cryonics reform movement until being declared mentally ill and involuntarily frozen. Now Jin lives in a building full of squatters running an illegal cryonics clinic. Under imperial orders to investigate the shady dealings of the cryo cartels, Miles connects the far-flung pieces and exposes a sneaky plot.

5. Who governs the government? Anyone who suggests even the possibility of a shadow government, or some other cabal’s undue influence on our lives is marginalized, dismissed as a conspiracy nut. But what if they’re right? In Cryoburn, Lois McMaster Bujold ponders a society ruled by an elite group of future humans who use telepathy and near-mystical technology to control events in their past, hoping to avert the disaster that has doomed their ‘present’. But how does their attempt at salvation affect those living in the now? Bujold follows the stories of six different people as they gradually uncover the truth of what’s happening to them, and their world.

What is the true premise of "Cryoburn"?

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REVIEW: The Thousand

Author: Kevin Guilfoile

2010, Knopf

Filed Under: Thriller, Mystery, Sci-Fi

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

Part of me wants to discuss how much I enjoyed this book, and part of me wants to focus on how it bites off more than it can chew. As I wrote in a Read This, Not That entry last week, The Thousand is quite entertaining and does a few things right, but there’s also a solid chunk of the book that would have been better left out.

Basially, this book centers around 4 connected murders. As the book opens, superstar classical composer Solomon Gold allegedly kills a woman during a tryst. Solomon himself is murdered soon after. We’re told right away his lawyer did it, but he’s not even on the investigators’ radar. The case goes cold. Gold had completed a famously unfinished Mozart requiem–one that supposedly could unlock the secrets to the universe, because it doubled as the mathematic equation for perfection. The manuscript is never recovered (the murderous lawyer, Reggie Vallentine, has it but can’t decifer it) and falls into a sort of legend.
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