Monday, November 29, 2010

Liz's Ten Best of the Year (and so much better than Gianna's....)

Okay, to know me is to know how competitive I am, and it matters to me that almost 100 people clicked on Gianna’s Top 10 list. I know that people like Gianna…it’s just that I’m counting on you all to like me more. Don’t let me down, Liz Fans.

Here they are, my favorite books of the year from the side of the company I sell. Certainly there are books on Gianna’s side that I loved (Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for example), but she stuck to her side, I’ll stick to mine. If we were on The Brady Bunch, we’d stick a stripe of masking tape down the middle of our bedroom. Without further ado:

1. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My favorite book of 2010 happened to be a book I read almost a full year ago, yet it still lingers in my mind and few stories have measured up to this epic. The novel tells the story of a family of Hungarian brothers during the 30’s and 40’s; it’s a love story, a war story, a Holocaust story, a family saga, a thriller, and a page turner. If there’s any justice at all in the world, this is the book that every book club in the country will be reading when the paperback releases in January. In 1937, Andras Levi travels to Paris to study architecture, where he meets and eventually falls in love with a Hungarian expatriate dancer. As World War II approaches, though, the couple must return to Hungary to renew their visas, a process complicated by the Nazi invasion of their country. Jews trapped in a Nazi-occupied country, Andras is reunited with his older brother, a medical student studying in Italy, and his younger brother, an actor who had opted to remain in Budapest, is shipped out to the Russian front. The story becomes one of survival and the strength of family as they fight to stay together. There are a ton of World War II books out there, but this one stands apart. The writing is impeccable and at so many points in her sweeping story Orringer could have taken a misstep, but the novel stays on track at every turn. If you like architecture, European history, love stories, adventure tales, family dramas, it’s all here. I simply love this book.

2. To the End of the Land by David Grossman. This pilgrimage story of three friends struggling to deal with the horrors of war should appear on every best of the year list. Grossman’s haunting novel chronicles the history of Israel and the personal costs of the continuing conflicts in that young nation through the intimate and immediate story of Ora, a mother panicked that her younger son will die at his military checkpoint, and the trip she takes walking across the country with an old family friend traumatized by the war in 1967. The novel is made all the more incredible because David Grossman’s own son died in the Israeli army as Grossman was finishing a draft of this book.

This cat is not a tiger.
3. The Tiger by John Vaillant. Two topics about which I’m obsessed—cats and Russia. How could I not love a book that involves both? This masterful account of an actual man-eating tiger hunting down villagers in the outer reaches of the already remote Siberia, and how the largest land predators struggle for survival in the face of increasing threats is a must read. Vaillant skillfully describes the conditions that surrounded this one incident of big cat/human relations (nothing like envisioning the remains of your hunting buddy fitting into a duffle bag) as well as the greater tribulations involved in surviving in Russia, both humans and tigers.

Jennifer Egan signs books
 at Texas Book Festival.
4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. I’ve already written on this little blog of ours that I believe that this book at least should have been nominated for the National Book Award, and the more that I think about it, the more it strikes me as truly brilliant. Linked stories loosely centering on a record executive, what distinguishes Goon Squad is the quality of Egan’s prose and her truly inventive experimentation with form without resorting to clever trickery or losing emotional resonance. There’s an argument to be made that Jennifer Egan is one of the ten best American writers working right now.

5. The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr. Fans of Erik Larsson and Devil in the White City take note—Douglas Starr’s newest book is every bit as good. Around the same time that H. Holmes was terrorizing the Chicago Fair, a serial killing vagrant named Joseph Vacher was wandering across France and leaving a trail of blood behind. A forensics expert named Alexandre Lacassagne worked diligently to link together the series of far-ranging murders (this in the days when police departments in neighboring towns, let alone across 1,000 miles of territory, didn’t share information) and in the process revolutionized the science of police detection. The Killer of Little Shepherds is a blend of history, true crime, and CSI thriller, and a terrific page turner. As an aside, an Italian rival of Lacassagne promoted the practice of phrenology (skull-measuring) as a means of determining criminal predilection, and based on my not-so-extensive knowledge of the practice I’m going to covertly measure Gianna’s head at our office holiday party; that woman is hiding something sinister.

6. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. The quirkiest novel I read this year is also one of the best. An adult fairy tale of sorts, this coming of age novel pushes the boundaries for family dysfunction and the angst and turmoil associated with being different. On her birthday, nine year-old Rose Edelstein discovers that she can taste the emotions of the people who prepare the food she eats, from her mother’s sadness to her outcast brother’s rage. Her brother, too, develops his own special gift. The empathy of children and the isolation of adolescence have never been told quite like this magical, haunting story.

7. How to Live by Sarah Bakewell. Already named to several best lists in Bakewell’s native United Kingdom, this philosophical meandering into the life and works of Montaigne takes a novel and accessible approach to the man who invented the concept of the essay. By asking the simple question “How to live?” and then answering it in a variety of ways pulling from Montaigne’s life and writing, Bakewell portrays a human, personable, flawed, funny, honest man who was at peace with the contradictions in his life. Four hundred years after he lived, Montaigne is made fresh, vibrant, and relevant to modern life in this enlightening book.

8. The Wave by Susan Casey. Waves are arguably the most destructive force on the planet, swallowing huge tanker ships and washing over oil rigs when the monsters really get to rolling. Half of Susan Casey’s book is a scientific exploration of the destructive power of monster waves, and the other half is a love letter to the thrilling world of big wave surfing and the (crazy?) surfers attempting to cruise upon the tops of 100 foot water walls. The Wave is fine adventure writing.

Anne Hathaway
and Jim Sturgess
9. One Day by David Nicholls. Rarely do I find myself so caught up in a story that centers around, well, love. Oh, and I dislike books that have gimmicky hooks in their storytelling because the gimmick often replaces the character development or emotional impact of a work. I really probably should have hated One Day. It’s a novel about Dexter and Emma, who go on one date in college, become friends, fall in love with others, and then fall in love with each other. It’s a novel with a gimmick—each chapter tells the couple’s story on one day, July 15th, over 20 years. It works, though. It’s not silly or forced, and the characters are compelling. I was rooting for them even as they made mistakes, and the whole time I was reading One Day, I kept thinking, “they have to make a movie out of this book.” Well, they are, and it’s starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess (he's dreamy).

10. Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides. I already knew the outcome, I already knew many of the details of the plot, so I was shocked at how suspenseful this history of the Muther Luther King Jr. assassination turned out to be. James Earl Ray, King’s killer, is a fascinating, horrifying figure, and the details of his crime and flight from the FBI read like the best thrillers. Oh, and there were a lot of things I DIDN’T already know. Did you know that James Earl Ray was an escaped convict at the time of the assassination? Or that he tried to break into the pornographic film business in Mexico and LA? This is riveting reading of great historical significance as well as a high action true crime story of the first order. Good stuff.


  1. Egan would be #1 for me. I can't understand how it wasn't nominated for the NBA. Maybe if it said 'novel' on the cover she would have won. I love her (don't tell my wife).

  2. Brian, I told your wife. I can't really fault you for your Egan love though.