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Books I Liked in 2010 (Part 1: Non-2010 Books)

Posted by Tobias Carroll

Reading is a solitary activity. That’s part of the appeal: the isolation, the willingness to be overtaken with plot or characters or information, to allow something else to be evoked and to give it the time to grow, to expand, for another space to surround and immerse us.

And yet. Sometimes, communities can be the best ways to find work that a reader will end up loving. What follows are thoughts on books that impressed me in 2010 but were not originally released this year. I was directed to many of them through social means — some via book groups (I’m presently in three), others via staff recommendations at a quality bookstore. (Credit where credit is due: Brooklyn’s WORD, Manhattan’s McNally Jackson, and Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company.)

Reading may be solitary, but the ways in which it can touch on the communal can’t be underestimated.

Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear
Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Dance and Dream
Javier Marías, Your Face Tomorrow: Poison, Shadow, and Farewell
The single most impressive work I read this year was Javier Marías’s novel in three parts. In many ways, this was a year in which Marías’s work dominated my reading; besides the 1,200 pages of Your Face Tomorrow, I also devoured the collection While the Women are Sleeping; the novella Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico; the novel A Heart so White; and the “anti-novel” Dark Back of Time. Your Face Tomorrow feels like the pinnacle of certain elements of his style: the almost musical summoning of certain themes and images; the horrific momentum that builds and builds over the course of the novel’s plot; the exploration of translation, hyper-awareness, and voyeurism. And the plot here, which explores the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and delves into the invasiveness of our current geopolitical condition, feels brutally, ecstatically relevant.

Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World
How intensely readable is Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World? En route home after a wedding in DUMBO in early October, I opted to take the subway over a cab so that I could spend more time with it. It’s the kind of novel for which you put aside many a practical consideration — there’s a terrific rush of ideas, abundant action, and a nicely intricate plot. What makes The Gone-Away World more than simply a fine adventure novel, though, is its thematic handling of friendship and identity. At the heart of things, beneath the post-apocalyptic landscape and Gong Fu and conspiratorial intrigue is a very real inquiry into the lines that blur in certain friendships — of what can occur when your own identity is deeply tied to someone close to you. Without this at its center, The Gone-Away World would still be a terrific read; the fact that it’s there, however, makes this a winner on all fronts: its thrills are numerous and genuine, but its emotional heft is what resonates in your soul long after it’s been read.

John D’Agata, Halls of Fame
John D’Agata’s essay collection Halls of Fame is a structurally bold and emotionally resonant work. D’Agata here has the ability to be innovative in his construction of pieces — sometimes exploring the unfamiliar, sometimes making the familiar foreign — without losing the emotionally resonant heart at their center. Also recommended is About a Mountain, in which D’Agata dissects Las Vegas, exploring topics such as the city’s urgent modernity and the impossibility of envisioning certain quantities of time. D’Agata’s essays help us to recognize the impossible and the plausible.

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels
Jessica Mitford’s memoir of growing up between two world wars is at once a portrait of an unconventional family, the charting of the development of a political consciousness, and a love story that overwhelms. It’s charming, disarmingly funny in places, and incredibly moving in others.

Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling
I don’t entirely know how best to introduce this book. It might be enough to say that the effect of reading it was not unlike a steady series of punches to the gut, or that it touches on issues of race and class without feeling like a novel self-consciously wrestling with Weighty Themes. It’s a haunting, haunted novel, and the way in which it zig-zags across years, its characters’ fortunes waxing and waning unexpectedly, feels terrifyingly true-to-life.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle
I’ve been an admirer of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work for The Atlantic since he started writing for them a few years ago. He’s a fine reporter and a comprehensive essayist, and the blog that he maintains for them covers everything from little-covered areas of the Civil War to late-80s hip-hop to online role-playing games. The Beautiful Struggle is his memoir of coming of age in Baltimore; it’s smart, funny, politically resonant, and boasts an abundance of left-field nerd-friendly references.

Patricia Highsmith, The Tremor of Forgery
The Tremor of Forgery is an elusive novel. Its premise — a writer isolates himself in Tunisia in order to work on a screenplay even as a series of unexplained and upsetting dispatches arrive from back home — suggest tides of violence waiting for a trigger. And while there is one act of violence here, its end result and consequences are left hauntingly ambiguous. In fact, most of the novel forms a sort of case study of ambiguity, in myriad forms — geographic, sexual, and political.

2010 was also the year that I first encountered the work of Flann O’Brien and Muriel Spark. I suspect that, a year from now, their names will feature prominently on my “favorite non-2011 reads of 2011″ list. In the case of Ms. Spark, I would also highly recommend Maud Newton’s take on her Memento Mori over at The Millions’ essential A Year in Reading.

I also read Ulysses for the first time. To say that I was left reeling would be an understatement. That said, listing it here feels a bit odd — something akin to talking about this great band you just heard, capable of writing simple, immediately-catchy pop songs and more ambitious work. “Great! What’s their name?” you might ask. “The Beatles!” would be the enthusiastic answer, and the obvious would be stated. But, yes: it’s almost unsettling to read a book whose influence courses through so much of the literature that’s followed it. Yet it’s singular enough that reading it never ceased to be exciting; it never felt like a historical exercise; instead, it was thoroughly, unpredictably, thrillingly alive.

(Note: The Beautiful Struggle is not pictured above because, well, my copy is currently being lent out.)

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