books

2010: The Year In Books

We’re praying this will not be Sam in three years.

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Contrary to what this youngster thinks, books for Christmas strikes us as a great Christmas. But the kinds of books still being given as Christmas gifts are less and less of the traditional, hardbound, Gutenberg-influenced sort — the kinds of books we ourselves prefer — and more and more of the futuristic, binding-less, electronic sort, the type you can download in about 60 seconds and then read on a computer screen. As someone still hanging on in the book biz, Ben fielded a sizable amount of requests this holiday season for Kindles and Nooks and e-readers of all sorts. Independent booksellers don’t currently have a dog in this fight. That may change in the coming year, thanks in part to a collaboration with Google Books that allows indies to sell electronic books via their web sites. (See NPR’s story on this here.)

There’s a lot of animosity in the independent bookselling community toward e-readers of any sort. Us indie types are strongly opinionated book people. (“Book snobs” is the less attractive moniker.) Add to this the fact that e-readers threaten our livelihood and it’s easy enough to muster outrage and condemnation. I, for one, will always prefer the artifact over the virtual. Speaking for my livelihood, though, the only way independents will survive is if we embrace the fact that regardless of the format people read in, we still want to be the place they come for recommendations, conversations and customer service that can’t be replicated online.

Enough shop talk.

Here are our favorites from 2010. (Previously, 2009 and 2008.) Fiction nearly made a clean sweep this year, if not for

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GET ME OUT, Randi Hutter Epstein.  Erin was peeved that Ben devoted more time to “Lost” posts than finishing this book, a smart, witty history of childbirth which Erin tore through in three days. So Ben combined a “Lost” post and book review in one, noting that 1) Sayid will always be a killer, and 2) the childbirth procedure known as “Twilight sleep” (Dammerschlaf) was a really, really bad idea. This is a good book for couples who are pregnant to read together. It will make you eternally grateful to be giving birth in the 21st century.

Now, on to the fiction (which, for the first time in three years, features no short story collections):

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CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER, Tom Franklin. Franklin captures something visceral and haunting about the South (crooked letter, crooked letter is “how southern children are taught to spell Mississippi”) in this tale of two estranged high school friends, Larry Ott and Silas “32” Jones, who are reunited by a girl’s mysterious disappearance. Back in high school, Larry’s date for a drive-in movie went missing. Although he is never arrested, Larry emerges from the incident marked by suspicion, cursed to live the rest of his days as a loner. Twenty years on, when Larry is once again the prime suspect in a missing girl case, Silas is back on the scene — as the town constable. As the two reenter each other’s lives, secrets of their past come out, and both men must reconcile things long left buried between them. What Franklin achieves in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is more than an accomplished literary thriller. It is a book about the mysteries of the human condition, and its questions linger beyond its pages.

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THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET, David Mitchell.  This would have been the most challenging read of the year if not for David Grossman (see below), but David Mitchell is the kind of author who rewards diligence. An intricately detailed historical romance set on a Japanese island outpost named Dejima at the turn of the 19th century, Thousand Autumns is the story of Jacob de Zoet, a pious bookkeeper for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. Jacob arrives on Dejima with the charge to clean up the company’s books; soon he is blindsided by unscrupulous colleagues and his affection for a mysterious midwife named Orito Aibagawa. Their love story is only one of numerous story lines at play here: there is also a sinister mountain shrine, the scene of unspeakable horrors and a rousing Samurai assault, as well as a high seas stand-off between the British and Japanese, with de Zoet staring down cannon fire as he recites the Psalms beneath his breath. If you tackle this book, you must be prepared to get past the first nine pages, which detail a dreadful medical procedure that seems like a test of the reader’s fortitude. Pass that test, and ample rewards await you.

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WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON, John Green and David Levithan. Our YA pick of the year, owing to the fact we were mightily disappointed with Mockingjay (though we sure had fun selling it) and The Brixton Brothers #2: The Ghostwriter Secret. There are two Will Graysons in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (hence the title), and Green and Levithan tell their respective stories in alternating chapters. Naturally, the Wills meet — at a Chicago porn shop called Frenchy’s — and the narrative acrobatics multiply as we begin to see situations and relationships unfold from multiple angles. Among other things, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is an honest exploration of the challenges of being a gay teenager, and in its own way is a kindred spirit to the It Gets Better project. Though we ourselves are not avid watchers of this particular TV show, we mean it as a compliment when we say that the book’s climax reads like the culmination of a “Glee” episode.

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TO THE END OF THE LAND, David Grossman. To The End Of The Land is undoubtedly a masterpiece, the kind of book that will still be read and talked about many years down the road. The book itself and the story behind it are both heartbreaking. George Packer’s profile of Grossman detailed how he lost his own son while writing this book, the story of a woman named Ora who walks across Israeli with a childhood friend and former lover named Avram. As they walk Ora tells Avram of her son Ofer, currently enrolled in the Israeli army. Her storytelling is meant to keep Ofer alive, both figuratively (in Ora’s own thoughts) and literally (by speaking his name into the same world which might kill him). Grossman’s book is so dense with feeling that it demands to be ready slowly and patiently; single pages open up into breathtaking vistas of emotion, ranging from heart-rending sadness to ineffable beauty. Our only grudging criticism is that this is an easier book to admire than enjoy. (In that sense, it is very much what most people consider a “classic.”) “I like to do things that frighten me,” Grossman told Packer in the New Yorker profile. “When I’m afraid, I understand more things.” Reading To The End Of The Land may bring fear and trembling, but it also yields hard-won understanding.

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And finally, our book of the year:

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Whoops! We mean, And finally, our book of the year: 

MATTERHORN, Karl Marlantes. Like Mitchell in Thousand Autumns, Marlantes begins Matterhorn with a sort of test for the reader. Not thirteen pages in and Marlantes introduces you to Fisher, a Marine who has had an unpleasant encounter with a leech. How unpleasant? Let’s just say he hasn’t peed in a while. Let your imagination go from there.

Matterhorn is not for the squeamish, but it is not needlessly graphic either. Thirty years in the making, Matterhorn is one of the finest novels to come out of the Vietnam war. A decorated Vietnam Marine himself, Marlantes writes at the ground level: we are right alongside the men in Bravo as they abandon Matterhorn (a mountain just south of the DMZ), then are commanded to retake it. That’s the story right there: men go down a mountain, then come back up. Along the way they encounter trench foot, cerebral malaria, tigers, incompetent commanders, racial tension within the ranks, and the mundane but lethal realities of combat. Each soldier must figure out how to reconcile honor with the senselessness of war. In Matterhorn, Marlantes has given us an indelible reminder that war is hell. As Sebastian Junger put it, “[Matterhorn is] not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.”

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Bow to the horse! Bow to the cow! Twirl with the pig if you know how.

[cue fiddle music]

7 thoughts on “2010: The Year In Books

  1. Matt — We think you’ll be quite pleased when all is said and done.

    We’re also still waiting for that book report on “Decision Points.”

    Mark — Had not heard of “Anatheism,” but that does sound intriguing. How is “Ill Fares The Land” coming?

    1. Completed “Decision Points” this weekend. Will go ahead and put together a book report (probably tomorrow while bored at work) for your review and grade.

    2. “Ill Fares The Land” was very stimulating, I would recommend it. I did not know this as I was reading it, but he apparently dictated the entire book to his assistant while he was paralyzed, towards the end of his life. It ranges over a broad swath of big political, economic and philosophic issues in a very short book, and some of them seem to get short-shrift, but now that I know how it was composed, I feed bad making that criticism? Definitely thought-provoking about our current economic situation and the State’s role.

  2. Nice call on Matterhorn. On the same theme…Sebastian Junger’s “War” (audio book for me) was very, very good. I also really enjoyed Play Their Hearts Out. I’m not sure if any of your picks, other than Matterhorn, are for me, but I’m going to try Crooked Letter.

  3. ..I have been a fan of Tom Franklins work since Poachers both the work of short fiction and the collection of short fiction that takes its title. He goes out of his way to avoid Larry who has spent the last 20 years running an auto repair shop that sees only the rare customer.

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