The best books of the year that we never saw coming.
There’s always a sense of inevitability with end-of-the-year lists. LeBron James is going to polish another MVP trophy, Eminem will force the Grammys to create new categories so he can receive 355 nominations, and Jonathan Franzen or whomever the middle-aged critics of America fall in autumnal love with will be deemed “notable.”
This business is about 95 percent anticipation: looking ahead to what’s coming out in the next few months and sussing out what might be of most interest. But as any reader knows, sometimes the books we enjoy most and remember best are the ones we happen across: A friend recommends it and the title sticks in our brains, we see someone reading it on the El, or it stands out from the crowd on the bookstore display table. So here are the books that came out of nowhere for me in 2010, and will stick with me well beyond.
A Very Bad Wizard, by Tamler Sommers
This book came out in December 2009, but hey, it’s my list. Subtitled “Morality Behind the Curtain,” the book features nine conversations between Sommers and philosophers, exploring a number of big questions in just about the most engaging manner you could imagine. Considering how rapidly the national conversation has eroded in the last couple of years, this book feels more like an antidote than ever. Twelve months later and I still dip into it now and again, just to enjoy the comfort of cool rationality.
The Professor, by Terry Castle
Everyone has these authors in their life. You discover one of her books, fall in love with it, and suddenly realize everyone has been reading her for years. Everyone has those, right? I was immediately charmed by Castle’s book—a collection of personal essays, the title one concerning an affair with her teacher—and started telling co-workers how much I loved it, only to be met with, “Oh yeah. Terry Castle. She’s great.” Behind the curve or not, this was probably my favorite book of the year (tied with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell, but I was waiting for that one).
A Common Pornography, by Kevin Sampsell
Truth be told, Kevin is an acquaintance. In fact, if you’re at all involved in independent publishing it’s difficult not to become Portland native Sampsell’s acquaintance, the guy’s been at it for so long and with such passion. Regardless, his memoir, which collages together various memories of growing up in rural Oregon, and catalogs his obsessions, was the most refreshing take on the form this year.
Ten Walks/Two Talks, by Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch
If you were to ask me what my ideal book would be, I would not respond: “It’d have to feature a guy writing about walking around New York City, and then that guy sitting down in a Whole Foods to talk with a buddy.” And yet, this collaboration by poets Cotner and Fitch was probably the most mesmerizing book I read this year.
A Life on Paper, by Georges-Olivier Châteaureynaud
I received this book from French writer Châteaureynaud, with word that he’d been billed as “the French Vonnegut,” and I couldn’t get over how much he looked like Vonnegut on the cover. The simple and strange stories inside were definitely of a piece with the greatest American writer of the 20th century (I will hear no objections).
Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry, by Christine Sneed
It’s easy to get beaten down by this job: Read a series of mediocre books and you begin to feel like you’ve lost that loving feeling. The best part of the gig is that a book always comes around to smack you out of your daze. Sneed’s debut story collection was this year’s wake-up call. Simply beautifully written stories.
SPRAWL, by Danielle Dutton
I didn’t quite know what to make of this book at first, another novel about the barren life of the suburbs’ inner life. But Dutton writes the way we wish all writers would: With an unshowy intelligence and a keen sense of humor that had us laughing out loud on the train.