What a nice relief that after the onus placed on critics, last year, to come up with a "best of the decade," this year we can stick to 2010.
I don't have a lot to say about the books published in 2010 because, well, I didn't read very many of them. I read a whole lot of books published in the 1930s, and about the 1930s, but 2010 didn't get much play. So for what it's worth, I thought I'd do a list of the best of what I did read this year that I think might be of interest.
Alix Roubaud, Alix's Journal (Dalkey Archive).
I reviewed this for The Quarterly Conversation and was totally blown away. Am now working up a project on early journals and self-portrait photography, looking at Roubaud, Claude Cahun, and a few others.
J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg).
People will tell you it's basically just a collection of essays in loose novel form. And that's exactly what it is. But it's brilliant nonetheless, in its insightful investigation of topics from vegetarianism to African literature, and in its portrait of the woman at its center.
Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist (Simon & Schuster).
The first book I read in 2010 and I've already gifted it three times and recommended it countless others. If you like poetry, or if you like to procrastinate, or both, this bud's for you.
Anne Marsella, The Baby of Belleville (Portobello).
This smart Belleville caper is populated by French aristocrats, a pregnant nun, Muslims Without Borders, ku-fu fighters, and a send-up of Julia Kristeva, brought together by a wise-cracking American expatriate in Paris, whose infant son is the baby of the title. The author is a good friend of mine and I have to say that in the name of disclosure, but she's a great writer and I'd hawk her book even if I didn't know her. Most novels of expatriate life in Paris are pretty thin gruel. Anne's novels, and I don't think she'll mind me saying so, are ratatouille.*
Lydia Davis, The Collected Stories (FSG).
Enough has been said about Davis's work (most elegantly by Dan Chiasson in the NYRB) that I don't feel I can add anything productive or interesting. I don't have a "take" yet. All I can say is read it for yourself. Then let me know what your take is so I can pretend it's mine.**
Elif Batuman, The Possessed (FSG).
A collection of essays about being a graduate student in Russian literature, Batuman makes me wish I'd had the idea to take notes at all the adorably absurd conferences I've been to and put them together into a collection of wacky tales from the groves of academe. Except I guess we have fewer eccentrics in English lit. And we don't have to learn Uzbek. And yet somehow Batuman makes her particular subject universally interesting, which I am just not capable of doing, or you'd see a lot more academic anecdotes on this blog. So Batuman gets special mention in the category of "I wish I could do that."
Books I feel more mixed about
David Shields, Reality Hunger (FSG).
Shields doesn't really say anything new, or anything coherent, but through expert justaposition and occasional rants he raises some interesting issues not about plagiarism (which is what the uninteresting controversy surrounding this book was about) but about collage as technique and novelistic form. Overall, I am grateful to him for putting together a list of aphorisms which will serve extremely well as classroom prompts and article epigraphs.
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (FSG).
I got about 150 pages in before I had to put it down to turn to more pressing work. I was mildly interested in the characters. Nowhere near as invested as I was told I was going to be, which seems to be the thing people love about this book– Patty and Walter really get under your skin, they say. But is character enough to make a novel great? Not really. I didn't get all the fuss about The Corrections and I still don't get it with Freedom. But I guess I can't say that for sure until I finish it.
Most disappointing book of 2010
The only one that stands out is Martin Amis's The Pregnant Widow (Jonathan Cape), which I only got halfway through. I don't have time to finish books that seem to exist solely so the author can write about nipples. I do realize of course that maybe is the draw for one sector of Amis's audience, but my interest waned.
Biggest book-related disappointment of 2010 (concerning a book I did not read)
Michel Houllebecq getting the Goncourt for La Carte et la Territoire. I suppose they felt they had to give it to him and the other contenders weren't strong enough to knock him out of the running. There's been a big PR push with the publication of this book to rehabilitate Houellebecq's image (led in the Anglophone world by the Paris Review, who seem to labor under the delusion that it gives them Gallic credibility to believe anything Les Inrocks says)– I just can't believe people have fallen for it. Once a racist misogynist, always a racist misogynist. That's what I always say.***
*Sorry but I am experiencing worse jetlag than usual, having spent Tuesday night in the terminal at JFK. Consequently, my metaphors are suffering.
***especially when I'm too busy/jet-lagged to actually read the latest book by the racist misogynist in question.