Best and Worst Reads of 2010

As the year comes to a close, here’s a list of my favorites and least-loveds.

FAVORITE BOOKS

  • Ovid’s Metamorphoses. How can a long poem about Roman gods, written around the time of the New Testament, be interesting today? Because the language bowls you over time after time. Each myth is small enough to enjoy in a single sitting, but rich enough to bring you back again. For those conditioned to believe old is boring, pick up Metamorphoses. It balances style, imagination, and drama  as well as anything I’ve ever read.
  • C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. Two devils debate how to destroy a human soul. Worth picking up for the idea alone. Worth finishing for the way Lewis works over how to destroy the spirit, reveling in all the ways it resists being broken.
  • Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. An intimidating doorstop if I ever saw one, this book matches War and Peace for its balancing act of soap opera, philosophical tract, and morality play. So engrossing that by the end you’ll want to go out and buy the action figures of your favorite characters.
  • Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Sure, it is an unapologetic argument for a very strong, ever-vigilant military that has perhaps some fascist leanings. Sure, its female characters are… what female characters? A lot of ivory tower types cringe at the thought of liking a book like this. Well, Troopers is impressive because it does two things very well: First, it shows the universal struggles of a soldier, regardless of the enemy or century. The training scenes in this book will give you a revived appreciation for what armed service members have to go through. Second, it is as complete a work of futuristic imagination as you will find. Avatar can step aside. Like it or not, this is a fully-realized world. What else can you ask for from a work of fiction other than that it is true to itself?
  • Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. Too long by far – even Follett himself concedes that he made it long for no other reason than that he felt it should be long – Pillars was the other “big book” I read in 2010 after Les Miserables. They share the same qualities of great pacing and fully-realized characters. Though Pillars is a bit too much drama-for-the-sake-of-drama, it is still as good a beach read as you’ll find.
  • Philip Roth’s The Counterlife. The most frustrating book I read this year. Roth’s career-long obsession with his identity as 1) a writer, 2) a Jew, and 3) a horndog explodes in this book. The book can’t stop babbling about all three for four hundred pages. What saves it is that Roth lampoons his own semitic persecution complex, his sex obsession, and even his habit for living through his writing by having his own characters draw attention to it. Now if he would only stop having characters tell his alter ego, Zuckerman, how very smart they find him. Its flaws aside, it is another excellent work of fiction by a great writer.

WORST BOOKS

  • Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Author’s sex and mystery-solving wish-fulfillment bookended with a terribly boring sub-plot about Swedish industrial scams. Add to that a heavy sampling of Dan Brown-esque technoblabber and a sick fixation on the abuse of women.  My question is why do so many women I know like this book?
  • Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Like its setting in Sitka, Alaska, this book is cold and dreary. Well written? Sure. Well researched? Yes. But if it has a soul, that soul is moribund and gray. I read Chandler’s The Big Sleep this year and this noir novel, by comparison, is bloated, blind, and blundering. It was disappointing to see the follow up to Kavalier and Clay feel so lifeless.
  • Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I really enjoyed Moby-Dick, so why is it on the “worst” list? Because this novel is its own worst enemy. I can appreciate a book that unapologetically delves into subject matter, characters, themes, or places that most readers will find unappetizing. But here the book simply stops for chapters at a time so Melville can give semi-accurate sketches about the whaling trade. If this were The Voyage of the Mimi, a PBS educational series where the story is merely a foil for teaching students about oceanography, I would understand. But it isn’t. This is a novel where the whaling chapters should enhance the story-telling. They don’t. A full third of the novel is only there because it is there. Chapters about whaling diets, anatomy, etc. add absolutely no value to the novel as a work of fiction or art. Pacing is lost, the drama of Ahab’s quest, or the other sailor’s personalities, all lost. This book is worth reading, but do yourself a favor and skip any chapter with a hint of whaling exposition. The novel is more successful without them.
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Comments
5 Responses to “Best and Worst Reads of 2010”
  1. Meghan says:

    I think only you, Kevin, could contextualize one of your worst of the year picks with a reference to “Voyage of the Mimi.” You must have one silly target audience. Also, how does Philip Roth’s book compare with his other works? Perhaps even those published within the past two years?

    • Yo, Meghan, sorry for the slow reply. Roth’s The Counterlife is definitely not a book I would recommend if you’ve never read anything else by him. It is too “I’m making fun of what I usually do.” However, if you know Roth’s shtick it is brilliant, particularly in the way it breaks down impressions. Everyone’s view is wrong.

      As for his recent stuff, the most contemporary I’ve read is Exit Ghost, which came out a few years ago. That was one of the first books in what I understand is his current phase where he publishes a short book every year. Exit Ghost was small beer – and I’ve heard the same thing about most of the recent novellas. The last full-sized novel he wrote was 2004’s The Plot Against America, which was justifiably lauded; probably his most creative book since Operation Shylock.

      If you’re taking recommendations, I would read Counterlife next to American Pastoral. AP is the first of his Zuckerman books that tells the story of someone else. Both fixate endlessly on a single event (respectively, colon cancer and a terrorist bombing) but they’re very different. Pastoral is the superior read, but you really only appreciate that in comparison to something like Counterlife.

  2. nadnerb says:

    I’m reading Starship Troopers based on this post. Hope it’s as good as the 97 movie!

    I’ve been looking for some things to read and wondering if you could recommend based on this criteria: I want renowned novels (classics) but also page turners. Looking for more of a distraction than a mental workout. Any ideas?

  3. Bren, I think there are some awesome, brilliant books out there posing, like Starship Troopers, as genre fiction but are really just great literature that, gasp, tell a bona fide story. Some Agatha Christie mysteries, for example. She wrote, I think, 70 or more books, but Death on the Nile, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Then There Were None are universally deemed the classics. (Murder on the Orient Express is only famous for the solution. It’s actually quite dull to read). Nile is considered her best written book, Ackroyd is, in the mystery world, the Bible of gotchas, and Then There Were None is the world’s most famous “closed-room” mysteries.

    Noir fiction is another place to go: LA Confidential or the Black Dahlia by Ellroy (both will make you want to take a long shower) or The Big Sleep by Chandler.

    There’s Gothic lit: Rebecca by du Maurier is great.

    Graphic novels: Either From Hell or (I bought this for Court’s sister) City of Glass by Paul Auster. Both will blow your mind.

    And a few non-genre page turners with lots of guts to them: The Handmaid’s Tale, Rabbit, Run, No Country for Old Men, Sophie’s Choice, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tropic of Cancer,

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