Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Best Books of 2010

Curtains, 2010.  You weren't too bad, all considered.  Though you were following 2009, so the bar was set pretty low.

On the plus side: Aung San Suu Kyi was released; Tendulkar reached 50 centuries in tests; and Wikileaks redefined the word 'classified'.

On the down side:  An empty chair received the Nobel Peace Prize; the Tea Party kicked Obama's backside;  Pakistan got flooded;  and people followed Julian Assange everywhere - and not for the reason he might have hoped for.

On the downright crazy side:  The world was actually surprised when Greece's economy proved to be a basket case; the Burj Khalifa was opened in Dubai; and Zulkarnain Haider did ... what exactly?

So as I was saying, not a year that will be placed in history books next to 1776, 1917 or 1947, but what the hell.  It wasn't 2008 or 2009, and that is an attractive enough quality.

The world of books was somewhat similar.  There were some notable events, to be sure.  At least a couple of books came out that created quite a splash.

Readers of Brick and Rope might remember that I usually look at three 'best books' lists at the end of each year to get ideas or what to read the next year.  The New York Times Notable Books list, the Washington Post best books list and The Economist best books list are my favorite sources.  This year, I added two more sources - Michiko Kakutani (who is one of my favorite book critics) came out with his own Top 10 list which I scoured, and I also looked at the Time best books of 2010 list.  Here then are the books I found on multiple of these sources - If you are looking for books from 2010 to buy or read, you can't go wrong picking one up from this list.


1.  Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
2.  To the End of the World, by David Grossman
3.  Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
4.  A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
5.  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
6.  The Impressionists, by Tom Rachman
7.  Room, by Emma Donoghue
8.  Faithful Place, by Tana French
9.  Selected Stories, by William Trevor
10. The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris

The non-fiction world is so vast that every year there is very little consensus across publications on the 'best' non-fiction books.  It tends to depend mostly on the areas of interest of individual reviewers.  This year was no different.  There were indeed three books (the first three on the list below) that were fairly universal in their appeal.  The rest of the list is largely biased by my own areas of interest.  Here goes then:

1.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; by Rebecca Skloot
2.  The Big Short:  Inside the doomsday machine; by Michael Lewis
3.  The Emperor of all Maladies:  A biography of cancer; by Siddhartha Mukherjee
4.  Crisis Economics:  A crash course in the future of finance; by Nouriel Roubini and Stephen Mehm
5.  Game Change:  Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the race of a lifetime; by John Heilemann
6.  Medium Rare:  A bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook; by Anthony Bourdain
7.  Honor Code:  How moral revolutions happen; by Kwame Anthony Appiah
8.  The Mind's Eye; by Oliver Sacks
9.  At Home:  A short history of private life; by Bill Bryson
10. The Grand Design; by Stephen Hawking

To these lists, let me also add a couple of honorable mentions from my own bias.  Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Steig Larsson were other great books published this year.

My own reading this year, as in the past, has been focused on books published in prior years.  So my favorite reads from 2010 are mostly made up of older books.  Anyway, here are the ten books I most enjoyed reading in 2010.


1.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; by Geoff Dwyer
Lyrically good writing, with some of the most witty and astute observations of Venice and Varanasi that you are going to find anywhere.  Geoff Dwyer is magical!

2.  Too Much Happiness; by Alice Munro
One of the books from last year's critics' choice.  I haven't read such a stunning collection of short stories in a long time.  Alice Munro is a Canadian author I had not read before, but that is going to be fixed pretty soon!

3.  Let the Great World Spin; by Colum McCann
Another selection from last year's critics' choice.  Set against the backdrop of New York in the seventies, McCann conjures up some amazingly diverse voices of strangers whose lives are all touched by witnessing an act of phenomenal physical prowess.

4.  Diary of a Bad Year; by J.M. Coetzee
Coetzee is a perennial favorite, and his latest book cannot easily be classified as fiction or non-fiction.  Phenomenal performance by a master.

5.  The Yiddish Policeman's Union; by Michael Chabon
Whodunnit meets alternate history, noir fiction meets meditations on chess, poetry meets prose.  No one does it quite like Chabon.

6.  Netherland; by Joseph O'Neill
The 'it' book from 2008, which made all 'best of' lists that year, and I finally got around to reading earlier this year.  The second great New York book on this list.  With some cricket thrown in for good measure.

7.  The Big Short; by Michael Lewis
Without doubt the best of the very many books on the great recession I read over the last two years.  Insightful, focused on one specific aspect, witty, and just very, very, good.  After some misses in a row, Michael Lewis is back!

8.  Imagining India; by Nandan Nilekani
In the year that I returned to India, Nandan Nilekani's book was mind-opening.  Optimistic without being jingoistic, deeply thought and written with the voice of someone who has had the inside view of many of the changes talked about in the book, Imagining India is a book that is a manifesto for Indian governments present and future.  Nandan for PM!

9.  This Time is Different; by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff
Financial market data from the last eight hundred years (!).  Some remarkable charts showing trends of past financial cycles and mass hysteria.  No one has done more to collect such intractable data than Reinhart and Rogoff.  Fascinating!

10. Six Degrees: The science of a connected age; by Duncan Watts
Network Theory is as engrossing a field of study as any you are likely to come across.  With applicability across completely unrelated spheres of life, this is the theoretical backbone behind The Tipping Point.

There we are then.  Another rather satisfying year in reading.  More fiction oriented than 2009, so I couldn't quite keep to my attempt to alternate between fiction and non-fiction.  Maybe 2011 will be the other way around - though if I look at the critics' choice list for the best books of 2010, I rather doubt it.

Happy new year, everyone!  Wish you some great books in the months to come.


  1. I feel like I am 2 years behind the curve when it comes to reading books- you wait till the end of the year and get the "best" books from various lists, I wait for that year to end to get my "best" books from your list :). Not complaining though- the double filtering leads to some awesome reading material.

  2. Hy S&M!! Great to see you back! What are you reading now? Hope you have a wonderful year in reading (and otherwise!)

  3. Just finished reading "Sh*t my dad says". Yesterday I ordered 3 books on Amazon from your lists- Sophie's World, Imagining India and Six Degrees. The libraries in Atlanta suck. So I am buying books and bookshelves!