Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Top Five Novels of 2010

By this, I mean the top five novels I read in 2010; only one of them was actually published during the year. Fiction became an important refuge for me from the freaky new adult world after my sort-of graduation from college last May, and while I don't believe I made any particularly bad book choices, some novels made more lasting impressions than others. Seeing as good fiction has the power to help us to see and understand ourselves and our humanity better, it is for your edification, and for the sake of holding on tightly to the imago Dei, that I present to you my top-five of twenty-ten list, with an honorable-mention addendum at the endum.


1. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan 

This book blew me away. Remarkably, Egan manages to craft a deeply felt story out of unpretentious prose that nonetheless sparkles with intelligence. The structure is subtly profound, the characters are sympathetic, endearing, and relatable almost without exception, and the eschewing of temporal linearity (which could have torpedoed the whole story) in the end only serves to deepen our emotional bond to the various inhabitants of Egan's complex world, by bringing the scattered roots of their personalities to light in such a way as to make even their most selfish actions intelligible to us as the actions of deeply flawed, deeply human people. I read it in the two days after Christmas, picking it back up at every opportunity like an addict. "Time is a goon, isn't that the saying?" Even if the delivery elicits continuous laughter, the content is serious; my experience with A Visit From the Goon Squad was emotionally rich and multifaceted. Few books are able to get at the mystery of time's erosive passage like this one does. 

2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

I read Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on the recommendation of my friend and roommate Dan during the middle of the summer. It's a post-9/11 love song to New York, but set in the seventies, in the days and weeks surrounding the audacious spectacle of a french funambulist who danced across a line stretched between the towers of the world trade center. Like Egan's book, it's a tightly wound, character driven story that stretches and grows like ivy vines around the central edifice of the high-wire act. The primary theme is connection; all twelve characters, with disparate but totally convincing voices, are given space for their stories to unfold, and it becomes clear with each addition to the swelling ensemble that every character's life touches the life of every other character, even if only in some fleeting or glancing way. McCann is a talented stylist to boot; portions of the book drove me to tears with their urgent and desperate lifting up of love and the possibility of love in a cold, unfeeling, and violent world. 

3. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Certain of my friends, whose opinions I esteem, don't like this book. I don't care. Simply put, Gilead is beautiful and profound. Written as the "endless letter" of elderly congregationalist minister John Ames to his seven year old son, whose adolescence and adulthood he will never see as a result of his old age and declining health, this book quietly takes on depth and weight as our narrator directs a steady procession through a century of struggle and defiant hope in a remote Iowa town. I had to read sections out loud to myself to better appreciate Robinson's florid diction. Out of necessity, several times - looking out over a lake in northern Wisconsin just before the setting of the sun - I had to put the book down, take in the view, and try, unsuccessfully, to articulate the powerful new feelings it had evoked in me. Gilead will not leave a sensitive and open reader unchanged.

4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

After familiarizing myself with Walker Percy's nonfiction, particularly his thorny and befuddling anti-self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, I picked up The Moviegoer to see if he had anything important to say through fiction. I was not disappointed. Percy's real strength in my eyes is his psychological acuity; he just understands why people do the things they do, and he uses this special prescience to great effect in telling the story of a cool, classy, and privileged son of New Orleans who is on "the search." Percy leaves a residue of his insightfulness on Binx, his protagonist, whose struggle for meaning reflects, somewhat deliberately, the presence of several of Percy's intellectual and literary forebears, among them Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard. While it's undeniably heavy most of the way through, The Moviegoer is also steeped in hope and a special kind of humor; I laughed out loud through three pages dedicated to a carefully implemented program of flirtation just because it was so experientially accurate. 

5. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm a sucker for whimsy, off-kilter humor, and verbal dexterity. Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel Everything is Illuminated does magnificent work in each of these categories. Told in alternating narrative halves dedicated to, on one side, a Jewish writer (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) on a search in the Ukraine for information about the woman who may have saved his grandfather from the Nazis, and on the other side, his grandfather's shtetl community through centuries of its wacky communal life, Everything is Illuminated is the kind of book that can kill you with laughter just before reducing you to abject grief over the fact of human wickedness and brutality. Foer adroitly uses whimsy and irony to create opportunities for his characters to obliquely and unexpectedly hit his readers right in the heart, and they do it again and again. By the way, have I made it sufficiently clear that this book is hilarious?

Honorable Mentions (not ordered):

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin
Toibin's straightforward and unadorned prose tells the story of Eilis, a young Irish woman who immigrates during the 1950's to New York City primarily because she has no reason not to when given the opportunity. Her life is hard, but she grows up, learns how to make choices for herself, and gradually takes her place in the world. Through her, Toibin speaks clearly, directly, and reassuringly to those who find themselves similarly caught in a murky transition into adulthood. 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
The second book of Chabon's for me after The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay presents the exciting, expansive, and quirky journey of two misfit Jewish kids to the heights of the 1940's comic book industry and back. The writing is lush, the characters are unique, and the momentum of the completed story left me feeling as though I was still rolling along with Kavalier and Clay after I'd closed the back cover for the last time, like a kid in bed at night who feels like he's still on a trampoline. 

Home by Marilynne Robinson
A slower moving book than Gilead, Home is also less ornate and self-conscious; fortunately, in many ways, it is just as rich. Written as a kinda-sorta sequel, Home is primarily concerned with Jack Boughton,  John Ames's perceived young antagonist. Jack is one of my very favorite characters in literature for, among numerous traits with which he is skillfully endowed, his wry perspective, his enigmatic comportment, his unmediated love for the few good things in his life, and his lifelong acquaintance with shame. He, his father, his sister, and their attempts at living together in a spiritual dusk compose the central cord of strands woven through the book. Their story ends up being a small, but meticulously definite, good thing. 

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
This is one of those big important books. Franzen is a talented writer; he can be psychologically insightful like Walker Percy, but generally operates on a bigger scale, enmeshing a dysfunctional midwestern family in contrasting layers of familiar familial hurt and pettiness, bizarre international intrigue, and constant anxiety and insistently spiritual questioning. It ends on a redemptive note that justifies most, if not all, of what precedes it. Franzen's characters are some of the most substantial and well-defined of any that reside between the covers of books on this list.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy
It's as brutal and dark as everyone told me it would be; it's also so compelling that I had to stay up all night to finish it in one drawn-out, frightened reading. A father's love for his son and will for him to live is made manifest in the starkest of circumstances so as to set it in high relief; the relationship between them is Platonically simple and pure as a result. McCarthy is kind enough to allow the macabre beckoning of despair to abate once in a while, and these little gifts of momentary well-being to his characters are made all the more meaningful and significant by the otherwise unrelenting grind of their plight. 

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Murakami's most well-known novel is charming and immersive. Kafka, the Japanese teenage protagonist, is a precocious runaway whose flight to an old, mysterious library involves him in an unfolding chain of events destined to produce enormous cosmic and metaphysical consequences. It is by turns sensual, dramatic, thoughtful, exciting, funny, and horrifying; it ends in esoteric mythological obscurity, but the collective journey of its various characters makes the weird ride worth it. This book may bend your mind and even your heart around like telekinetically animated spoons. I mean that in a good way.


Ah, I love me some books. I hope you treat yourself to one or two of them, and that they bless you abundantly for it. 


  1. I'm certainly down with Gilead (and Home, but I appreciated The Moviegoer much less which, admittedly, may have something to do with the context I read it in. I still feel sick when I think about The Road which is just about all I can say about it.

    As for the others, I'm glad to have something recommended that isn't scifi or nonfiction. thanks for the list.

  2. to manny books spoyle the broth!

  3. Really, Goon Squad's number one? That makes me want to read it even more. I knew you liked it but compared to the way you talked about Gilead, Great World, Everything is Illuminated and The Corrections I had thought it was more of an honorable mention.

    So, uh, imma borrow it kthx

  4. This makes me want to take them all up to HRC and sit by the lake reading all summer. I know my time will be filled with wonderful things, but hopefully I'll be able to read a few. Thanks for the engaging reviews and recommendations.

    (also, Marty, you realize we all know now know where you really found all your research for phenomenology of flirtation! :) uhoh!)

  5. I picked up the Goon one from your shelf earlier today and read the first chapter. I didn't take it out of the apartment because I wanted to ask you first if I could borrow it, and then, if you said yes, I would then need to wrestle Steve.