With about a month left in the year, I’ve read 73 books in 2010, and my goal before the end of December is 80. This year has been fiction-heavy — almost 60 percent of the books I’ve read so far have been novels — and a lot of them have been incredible.
The fact that I’m ready to put out a list of my favorites with four weeks left in the year is pretty solid indication that my list isn’t comprehensive.
But these are my favorites, and I have a hard time seeing them get overtaken.
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman: A clever set of interlocking story about a group of journalists working for an English-language newspaper in Italy. Each chapter takes the perspective of a different staffer. Some of them are funny; others are almost heart-breaking. This is the kind of book that rewards lingering over passages, flipping back to reread earlier sections, and laughing about how well everything fits together.
Savages by Don Winslow: Winslow’s thriller about a pair of drug dealers who come under pressure to sell their business to a Mexican cartel is the kind of book you read too quickly, then spend days thinking about. The story doesn’t begin, unfold, or end the way you expect. And the writing is better than good, it’s stylish — because it takes risks and pulls them off.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenyngart: This is a fantastic novel. It’s funny and depressing — and in some ways, even haunting. It takes place a few decades in the future, in an America on the brink of economic and political collapse. Shtenyngart’s best gift as a writer is the set of voices he creates for his characters, and this book particularly showcases that talent to particularly hilarious effect.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: It seems silly to add more praise to this book, except for the fact that Freedom is the best novel that Franzen has written. While the themes and ambitions are as big as ever, the characters are drawn with more sympathy and life — from start to finish. People will be reading this book for years to discuss what it means to have lived through the start of the 21st Century.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosely: Mosley’s new book is hard to classify. It’s not a crime novel like those that made him famous — not exactly. It’s not science fiction or fantasy, though there are elements of each. The only real way to describe Ptolemy Grey accurately is to say that it’s a work of honest-to-God literature and then smile at the story Mosely has written.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: When doctors were able to harvest cells from Henrietta Lacks and replicate them in a laboratory, she changed the course of human history. That one discovery led to a staggering range of medical breakthroughs. But Lacks died after her cells were harvested, and her family still struggles to deal with the ramifications of her contributions to science. Skloot’s book isn’t just fascinating, it’s important to read.
War by Sebastian Junger: This is the best account of combat in Afghanistan I’ve read. Junger doesn’t write a wide-view portrait of the war. This is a close examination of one group of soldiers in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley. Junger lives with these guys, goes on patrol with them, comes under fire with them, and I don’t know if his writing has ever been better.
Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann: Dohrmann — the last sports writer to win a Pulitzer — follows a group of amateur basketball players through middle school and high school and writes a story that reads like a goddamn Greek tragedy. He has a lot to say about the state of AAU basketball, what it does to kids, what it asks of parents, what it means to be a successful coach in the system. He writes about the recruiting services, the scouts, and basketball fans. None of it is inspiring, but all of it is interesting.
The Tiger by John Vaillant: In 1997, an Amur tiger starts hunting poachers in the back country of Siberia. That becomes the lens through which Valliant explores post-Communist Russia, the nature of environmental conservation, and the relationship between mankind and the predators who occasionally prey upon us. The narrative that Valliant has written about the tiger and the men called in to deal with the threat is a heart-pounding adventure story, but there are economic, societal, and political implications at every turn.
Unbroken by Lauran Hillenbrand: Before the end of World War II, Louis Zamperini had competed for Olympic medals, spent nearly a month adrift at sea when his bomber came down in the Pacific Ocean, and suffered as a prisoner of war at the hands of the Japanese. Any one of these episodes would make for a compelling story — all three narratives, at the hands of Hillenbrand, make for something closer to unforgettable.