January 23, 2011

The Book Club: Selected Works of 2010

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Adam Lerner comments on some of 2010′s best books.

Last year saw the release of a variety of noteworthy literary works from seasoned veterans and rising phenoms alike. Now admittedly, between Cornell academics and the occasional night’s sleep, I was unable to read every worthwhile book of 2010 — I apologize in advance for the inevitable absence of several notable works. I do feel, however, that, in combination, my reading list, my extensive foray into the blogosphere and the literary insight of friends and family members allows me to make the bold gesture of compiling a list of personal recommendations. Please note the obvious and unavoidable bias towards English-language (especially American) writers and try to enjoy my suggestions as much as your personal political-correctness will allow.

Room Emma Donoghue

Room, a novel from Irish-born writer and literary historian Emma Donoghue, tells the tale of five-year old Jack, locked in his room throughout his childhood by his mother. The story is inspired by the Fritzl case in which an Austrian woman was kept locked in a room for 24 years by her father, bearing him seven children in the process. The novel stays in the voice of Jack throughout and is narrated elegantly despite the obvious limitations of the character. After receiving outstanding reviews, this book was featured on many top ten lists and the shortlists for various awards including the Man Booker. It is an absolute must for fans of bizarre psychological fiction and literary buffs alike.

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan Egan’s most recent novel marks a peak for her personally and stands as the to-date best example of why her writing is so irresistible. Goon Squad tells the story of a variety of different loosely connected characters involved in the music industry over a forty-year period. The narrative switches protagonists frequently and even features a chapter exclusively in Powerpoint format. While in theory this sounds like a recipe for nausea, the book has been deemed not only her personal finest, but undoubtedly one of the year’s best as well. Egan’s satire is rich and her humor is well developed, a critical mirror pointed at an industry filled with impulse and recklessness.  Super Sad True Love StoryGary Shteyngart

Shteyngart’s well-liked third novel hasn’t received the type of acclaim that his past works have, but it has developed a following if only for its uniquely modern and dystopic humor. Set in a near future in which the U.S. has fallen to the vices of credit, excess and social networking sites, Lenny Abramov meets and falls for the much younger Eunice Park. Their unlikely romance is tested by the nature of the twenty-first century relationship and the constant communication it requires. Oh, there is also the constant threat of the U.S.’ inevitable fall. Shteyngart’s wit and hyperbolic satire can’t help but speak to today’s college student and this novel is a must for anyone who grew up in the Facebook age.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet David Mitchell

Mitchell has abandoned the post-modern to focus in on Japan during the Edo period, around the turn of the 19th century. The novel tells the story of Jacob de Zoet, a young Dutchman that comes to Japan hoping to make a fortune, but finds himself caught up in a very peculiar love triangle. The novel takes the form of a triptych and has been praised as a refinement of Mitchell’s style.

MatterhornKarl Marlantes

Marlantes takes on a subject close to home for him as an ex-lieutenant in the Marines during the Vietnam War. The novel follows a company of arines that struggle to control a remote outpost in Vietnam. Narrated from the point of view of Second Lieutenant Mellas, Marlantes makes no attempts to hide the grittiest and most gruesome aspects of the war. Plagued by death and hunger, the soldiers are forced to deal with the grim realities of guerilla warfare. Not only is the book a fantastic story, but it also marks the end of a now thirty-year long quest that Marlantes has undertaken to share his traumatic experiences.

FreedomJonathan Franzen

It has been nine years since The Corrections hit shelves and planted Jonathan Franzen in the literary spotlight.  Franzen’s knack for eerily summing up the American experience, while fully developing his nuanced and likeable Midwestern characters has impressed literary critics and casual readers alike. Freedom, like his earlier work, focuses in on another American family, the Berglunds, and follows them as they relocate throughout the U.S., leaving behind the Midwest for good. The various characters go their separate ways, showing once again the dispersion of the classic American family unit.Although Freedom has received a variety of reviews that label it everything from a complete piece of garbage to one of the year’s finest works, it ultimately deserves attention because the novel features Franzen doing what he does best— his literary meat and potatoes of dissecting the American dream.

The ImperfectionistsTom Rachman

Rachman has finally made the transition from worldly journalist to critically acclaimed novelist in the form of his debut, The Imperfectionists. The novel follows the lives of an eclectic mix of characters, related to one another through affairs, friendships, and, of course, a failing unnamed newspaper that employs them all. The novel takes the form of a series of almost anecdotal tales of each of the characters with interspersed exposition on the history of the paper.Despite the uncertainty as to whether or not the work is actually a novel, it is quite an enjoyable page-turner. Rachman’s graceful humor and wit show a lot of promise and the book warrants a read through if only to become acquainted with this talented young writer.

Original Author: Adam Lerner