Cabe’s Best Books of 2010

Because I just posted a list of all the books on my Kindle, so you now know what you might be able to borrow from me (using the Kindle’s new lending feature), I thought it might make sense to add some recommendations.  As such, my favorite books of 2010 are below.  On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve also listed a couple books I read this year but would not recommend, which I mention in hopes of keeping you from making the same mistake.

Note these are my favorites of the books I discovered in 2010; a few of them may have been published in 2009 or a bit earlier, but all are recent.  They are in reverse order of expectations exceeded, running from “I thought this was going to be good, and it was” to “I can’t believe I picked this up but it was amazing.”

10. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen.  I have very little to add to what you have already heard about it.  I thought it was more engaging than the Corrections for having a wider scope (more detail on more characters doing different kinds of things) and there was one moment right near the end that really threw me for a loop (had to take some time alone to sit and process) which never happened with the Corrections.

9. Too Big to Fail, by Andrew Ross Sorkin.  Deserves its good press; written engagingly and clearly the product of extensive reportage.  Sorkin has a literaryeye for detail (selective and telling rather than trying to give us every single detail he came across) and gives us snippets of setting, dialogue and thought which flesh out Geithner, Bernanke, Dimon, Fuld and the other players as rich characters.  Much better than most novels I read this year – the fact that it was based on a true story and probably a useful thing to read was the icing on the cake, but not the core reason for reading and enjoying it.

8. Googled: The End of the World As We Know It, by Ken Auletta.  I hadn’t thought I would enjoy reading a book about Google since I already know a fair bit about the company, and you get another article every day in the news talking about their dominance etc etc.  But I gave it a shot because a) I was looking at jobs there and someone there recommended it and I wanted to seem responsive and b) I like Ken Auletta’s writing in the New Yorker, and paradoxically went into it with high expectations from that perspective.  Auletta got great access to the founders and the VCs so the historical record is more detailed and accurate than I’ve seen elsewhere – the founders seem to have decided they would cooperate with a book project just this once so they’d never have to do it again.  The second half of the book looks more broadly at how Google affects the rest of the media landscape and in that sense is about much more than Google – it’s about if and how the media as we know it today will continue to exist.  Worth reading for anyone deeply interested in that.

7. Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by Mark Halperin.  Like Too Big to Fail, a great piece of reporting, covering a swath of time and a story arc, with several rich characters, that’s more engaging than most novels.  It may be the case that you have to like politics (and possibly Obama) to like this, but I did and do, so I enjoyed it.

6. Room, by Emma Donaghue.  This one came out late in the year and was well-reviewed – then, unlike The Privileges (mentioned below), it seemed to keep gathering steam, and I was surprised to see it on so many end-of-year Best Of lists.  I had decided it wasn’t for me (plot/setup seemed too gimmicky) but gave it a shot based on its Best Of status.  So I had low expectations but it did very much exceed them and I’m glad I read it.   Donaghue is very convincing writing from a five-year-old’s mindset, and after the novel broadens out to include other characters you get a sense of her range, even just in the dialogue those characters speak and in what the five-year-old narrator notices (even if he doesn’t always understand).   Bonus points for being a quick read and never having a moment of dragging.

5. Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture,by Taylor Clark.  Like the Google book, I was skeptical about this one – I’d read Howard Schultz’s biography (Pour Your Heart Into It) and didn’t think there was much new to know about Starbucks that I wouldn’t’ve already picked up in the occasional Fortune article.  The joy here is a bit in watching the author’s attitude change as he goes- I think he was a writer for an alt-weekly in Portland who expected to write a flaming expose of Starbucks as a capitalist evil.  He does a decent job on well-trodden ground of “how Starbucks came into being” in the first half of the book.  In the second half he looks at the impact Starbucks has on the world, and gets pulled into deep reporting to see if he can really prove his case.  He’s clear and transparent about his ingoing assumptions/bias (most writers don’t even recognise these in themselves, much less tell their readers about them) and then insightful about what he sees and honest about where he discovers he was wrong.  I’m making this sound like more of a first-person narrative than it’s meant to – it is a well-crafted and incisive bit of long-form reporting – but the writer admitting that he has a perspective, and that he was forced in some places to change it – make it even a bit more than that.

4. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee.  Well-reviewed novel that made a splash in June or so but then seemed to fall off the radar.  It’s set in NY and one of the main characters works in private equity, so it got stuck (for me at least) in the mental category of “books about the financial crisis” and I wasn’t interested.  I picked it up in December and was glad I did.  It has way more in common withFreedom than it does with Too Big To Fail.  Like Franzen, Jonathan Dee wraps up sometime-cutting insight in slightly luminous and/or gauzy prose as he follows a family through several years of happenings.  However, Dee writes about a well-off family in New York without judging them or setting them up as philistines or buffoons so the reader can feel smug about not being like them.  You rarely see a writer being so forgiving of a banker, and I was surprised how thought-provoking this was for a very contemporary novel.

3. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.  This was highish on the expectations list because it won the Booker, but I tend not to get into historical novels.  I picked it up because it was recommended to me by someone who’s rarely wrong, and it delivered.   Also as above, the characters and story are laid out with an eye for the literary/ telling detail, rather than the historical/ exhaustive approach taken by most historical novels I’ve disliked.  Cromwell is a great character; the Don Draper or maybe the Lyndon Johnson of Henry VIII’s court.  The books succeeds because his observations about the characters and politics playing out before him are keen, pithy and often funny.

2. Open, by Andre Agassi.  I’ve never had a book exceed my expectations like this one did, and I’ve never recommended a book to people and gotten “you can’t be serious” so much as a response.  (I don’t think they were all making a McEnroe reference.)  I’m not a huge tennis or even sports fan, but I am a sucker for a good autobiography.  I remember the great reviews when this came out, maybe a year or two ago, but what I remembered was just that he was more honest and less self-aggrandizing than most athletes.  At the time that wasn’t enough to get me interested, but at some point I picked up a copy and read a few pages, and was hooked.  It’s got truly wonderful writing, a few great characters, a fantastic story arc, and yes some small observations of what Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors are really like.  The core of the book is that you recognise early on that Andre was always a bit sad and lonely, even as he was wearing the mohawk and winning Wimbledon, and you just keep reading because you want him to be OK.   Spend a few minutes reading a few pages next time you’re in a bookstore or on Amazon – if you like that snippet you’ll like the whole thing.  Easily wins the Most Exceeded Expectations Award for 2010 and goes on my all time list in that category.

1. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shtengyart.  This was surprisingly powerful; its plausibility depressed me for days.  I am slightly inclined to recommend it with the type of caveat I might have expected to apply to To Big To Fail, which is to say: I didn’t always enjoy reading it, but it’s an important book, and people should read it.  In short, the novel is set in the near future and things are not going very well in America – not because of any extreme climate event or alien invasion, just because of a pretty reasonable extrapolation of current trends (consumerism, oversharing, the national debt).   You could call it science fiction but it’s not really that implausible.   And the whole thing has a wit and slight wistfulness to it that makes clear Shtengyart isn’t making fun or kicking us while we’re down; his point of view seems to be that of an immigrant who thought we were better than this and hates to see what we’re doing to ourselves. I liked his previous two books, thought they were well-observed and well-executed, but I did not have him down as this kind of bigger picture thinker.  So, a big surprise. and that surprise combined with its impact on me gets it the #1 spot.

And four (or six depending on how you’re counting) things to avoid:

The Steig Larsson books.  I read all three so you don’t have to.  No idea why they are so popular.  No character development, no compelling use of language, no plot twists you couldn’t see coming a mile away; all this and too long to boot.  Dislike.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu.  Marked as a NYT Notable Book of the year for doing a terrible job with the same conceit which Jasper Fforde nailed in The Eyre Affair.  (Character from real world interacts with characters who behave according to literary rules.)  I lost patience with Yu because I got the impression he had decided to write an 80,000 word book and if he didn’t have the ideas to get there he’d just have characters think or say the same thing three different ways to get there.  (“I couldn’t find my father.  He was gone.  Nowhere to be seen.  Simply vanished, into thin air.”)  Once you lose trust a writer’s going to use your time well, it’s over.

The English, by Jeremy Paxman.  This preceded Kate Fox’s “Watching the English” and I thought it might be a seminal work.  Now I know that its badness is why Fox felt free to write her wittier, warmer, cleverer, all-around better version. Paxo writes about the English as somehow separate from him, and he takes a slightly condescending tone and applies that to an exhaustive historical approach that doesn’t spend much energy at all on telling you how the English act today and why that might be the case.

Solar, by Ian McEwan.  Big expectations Fail here, after Saturday and On Chesil Beach.  After fifty pages I didn’t care about any of the characters and hadn’t laughed out loud once (this one was supposed to be a comic novel) so that was that.

That’s all from me – what did you like in 2010?  What should I be reading now?  Pls comment below or drop me a line.


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