Best of Fiction 2010 - Book Profiles


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2010 Best Books: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

In perhaps the biggest, out-of-the-blue publishing phenomenon since Harry Potter, the best of the Girl novels brings the posthumous publication of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy to a close. With published rumors continuing to persist concerning a fourth or even a fifth volume, the forthcoming American movies of the series (following the well-received Swedish ones) should introduce an even broader audience to the intrepid, techno-savvy, cutting-edge Lisbeth Salander and crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, her one true friend and occasional lover. In the mean time, the three novels have been republished in a deluxe slip-case edition, along with On Stieg Larsson ...

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2010 Best Books: Fun with Problems, by Robert Stone

by Andrea Hoag on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Though he won the National Book Award for his 1974 classic, Dog Soldiers, Robert Stone has hardly rested on past accomplishments. His latest standout is a collection of stories peopled with bleak but fascinating characters. Creating Michelangelo Antonioni-like human wastelands are a Stone hallmark, a cinematic comparison the author would scarcely shrink from. “To tell you the truth, I think some of these stories might be effective films if done a certain way,” he says. Whether his players pine for lost love or grow introspective examining the unexpected nastiness of great success, Stone's writing marries longing and frustration better ...

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2010 Best Books: Point Omega, by Don DeLillo

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Spare, elegant and provocative, the latest from Don DeLillo is as timely as secret military strategies and as timeless as time itself. Scholar Richard Elster has been recruited by the military’s “strategic assessment team that did not exist in any set of official records” to “freshen the dialogue, broaden the viewpoint” as justification for war. In the aftermath of his involvement, Elster retreats to the desert, where a filmmaker hopes to persuade him to participate in a documentary. The arrival of Elster’s daughter complicates the emotional involvement. Book-ending this plot is a pair of “Anonymity” vignettes, detailing a ...

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2010 Best Books: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

by Anna Weinberg on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Author and editor David Ebershoff’s first reaction on reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the stunning novel from two-time Man Booker prize nominee David Mitchell (Black Swan Green, 2006, etc.), was “exhilarated exhaustion because I had read it through the night. My second reaction was—there’s no one like David Mitchell.” In lyrical prose and stunning detail, the novel tells the tale of the eponymous, earnest young Dutchman contracted to 18th-century Japan by the Dutch East India Company and his chance encounter with an extraordinary but disfigured Japanese woman. The rich details and epic scope of ...

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2010 Best Books: The Ask, Sam Lipsypte

by Clayton Moore on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Life is a pitch, a negotiation, a persuasion and a losing game in The Ask, the latest social satire from the masterful Sam Lipsyte (Home Land, 2004, etc). The book focuses on the worries of Milo Burke, a development officer at a mediocre university in New York City. Having come within a hair’s length of losing his job and his marriage, Milo leaps at the chance to reel in a mysterious donor whose contribution is dependent on Milo’s obedience. But what’s it really all about? “It’s about a guy in serious trouble,” says Lipsyte. “It’s ...

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2010 Best Books: The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

The author of four previous novels, Jonathan Dee raised both his critical and popular profile with this family saga of lives that seem a little too perfect on the surface, yet continue to surprise and engage reader empathy as the novel unfolds, subverting conventional values, morals and the sense of karmic justice in the process. The opening wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey achieves such set-piece perfection that the reader can only assume that they are heading for a spectacular fall, particularly as they achieve far greater wealth through questionable means. Yet Dee never settles for a conventional morality play ...

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2010 Best Books: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

As the title suggests, the third and darkest novel by Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan, 2006, etc.) skirts the distinction between comedy and tragedy, and between reality and invention. Yet this visionary satire of a collapsing America in a “post-literate age” also collapses the gap between the present and the near future, as a Russian immigrant and his much younger Korean girlfriend settle for an American dream that promises immortality yet settles for technological interconnection (all the better to keep tabs on you) and knee-jerk consumerism. “It could be next Tuesday, it could be five years from now,” says Shteyngart. “Have you ...

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2010 Best Books: The Lonely Polygamist, by Brady Udall

by Jamie Engle on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

What draws an author to spend a decade working on a fiction novel about a polygamist? It’s actually pretty simple for Brady Udall. “Without polygamy, I wouldn’t exist,” says the author. His great-great grandfather was a polygamist, and his great-great grandmother was his second wife. In 1998, long before the HBO series Big Love or TLC’s reality show Sister Wives, Udall wrote an article on contemporary polygamy for Esquire. What he found while researching the piece surprised and fascinated him, leading him to write The Lonely Polygamist. At the center of the story is Golden, who, at ...

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2010 Best Books: Exley, by Brock Clarke

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

An engagingly precocious and delusional 9-year-old narrator who channels his father’s obsession with Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes distinguishes a novel that the starred Kirkus review called a “literary high-wire performance” and “a seriously playful novel about the interweave of literature and life.” It is also about the essence of storytelling—about the stories through which we interpret our lives and give them meaning, even when those stories may not be verifiably true. “The word ‘fan’ doesn't do it justice,” says Brock Clarke of his admiration for the novel that inspired this one. “A ‘believer’ might ...

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2010 Best Books: A Thousand Peaceful Cities, by Jerzy Pilch

by Anna Weinberg on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

“The books we tend to publish, and the ones I like personally, seem to confront what I think is a universal question: How do you engage with a world that you can’t change?” says Edward Van Lanen, the editor of Open Book’s translation of the acclaimed Polish author Jerzy Pilch’s 1997 classic, A Thousand Peaceful Cities, a somehow-rollicking tale of conspiracy and assassination attempts set in post-Stalinist Communist Poland in the late 1960s. The novel revolves around the amorous and apolitical teenager Jerzyk, who is unwittingly drawn into a plot—concocted by his father and his father ...

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2010 Best Books: Sunset Park, by Paul Auster

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Though Paul Auster’s metafictional narratives have often veered toward the sort of literary gamesmanship that owes little to the conventions of realism, this is a very different novel for him, rooted in the realities of contemporary America—most specifically an ongoing war in Iraq and an economic recession that threatens employment in general and the publishing business in particular. The son of an independent publisher, 28-year-old Miles Heller abandoned his studies and fled from New York to Florida, cutting all ties with his family, following his complicity in the death of his stepbrother. Chance (always a pivotal force in ...

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2010 Best Books: Beautiful Maria of My Soul, by Oscar Hijuelos

by Faye Grearson on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

In a book that captures the exuberance, sensuality and ever-present music and dance of Cuba, Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, 1989, etc.) returns to tell “the true story of…the lady behind a famous song.” When the Castillo brothers came to New York City to seek fame and fortune, beautiful, inaccessible Maria haunted the lives of Nestor and his brother and inspired the writing—and endless rewriting—of the song dedicated to her memory. But Maria’s significance goes far beyond her brief affair with Nestor—she represents Cuba itself, the “incredibly seductive and desirable past ...

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2010 Best Books: Bound, by Antonya Nelson

by Andrea Hoag on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

In her triumphant return to long fiction, Antonya Nelson’s embattled characters traverse the landscape of Wichita, Kansas, in the aftermath of the infamous BTK murders, a time the author has firsthand experience with. “His [Dennis Rader’s] first victims lived across from my elementary school, just three doors down from a friend,” says Nelson. “And the children who survived, who were not home when BTK killed their mother, father, little brother and little sister, attended the junior high where I was enrolled. I remember watching the news that night in January, at age 13, seeing the house and the ...

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2010 Best Books: Salvation City, by Sigrid Nunez

by Devon Glenn on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

In Salvation City, Sigrid Nunez (The Last of Her Kind, 2005, etc.) explores with emotional precision what would happen if Americans faced a worse pandemic than the Great Flu of 1918. The author sets the story in the near future, when the elbow bump has replaced the handshake, and bodies are piling up in the streets faster than coroners can wheel them away. Cole Vining, a budding young artist, is still reeling from the loss of his liberal, atheist parents when a preacher and his wife take him home to the rural sanctuary they call Salvation City. “We live in ...

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2010 Best Books: Snakewoman of Little Egypt, by Robert Hellenga

by Faye Grearson on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

“If a writer gets the language right, the reader will do the rest,” says Robert Hellenga. He need not worry. In Snakewoman of Little Egypt, Hellenga nails the speak, capturing emotions, language and experiences, ranging from Africa to a women’s prison to a snake-handling church—with a Midwestern university layover. For his research, the author delved into oral histories, library and Web resources, YouTube videos of radio-transmitter implants in snakes, NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion and The Convict Cookbook. “My strategy,” he says, “is to get the facts straight and then go for the telling detail that will ...

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2010 Best Books: What is Left the Daughter, by Howard Norman

by Don McLeese on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Since his popular breakthrough with The Bird Artist (1994), Howard Norman has continued to craft fiction set in remote Canada, where landscape shapes character, with a droll, bittersweet humor that illuminates the human condition. His latest novel earned the author some of the best reviews of his career, with its epistolary narrative of a father explaining himself to the daughter he hasn’t seen in almost two decades, sharing his experiences of the war years that shaped his destiny before she was born. Amid the darkness of the material, the novelist retains his warmth. “I hope that the comic parts ...

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2010 Best Books: The Blindness of the Heart, by Julia Franck

by Jessie Grearson on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

Set in 1945 war-torn Germany, this novel opens with Helene abandoning her 7-year-old son Peter at a railway station. To produce this international bestseller, Julia Franck spent a year reading literature written in central Europe between 1900 and 1935. Not just “Kafka or Krauss, but Musil, Walser, Schüler and Kalecko,” says Franck. “Reading them helped me understand what a writer thought about at this time.” But Franck’s family history also informs the novel—having listened to her grandmother’s memories all her life, she knew “just how it was to live in the ’20s.” The author’s interest ...

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2010 Best Books: Take One Candle, Light a Room, by Susan Straight

by Devon Glenn on December 13, 2010 | Question and Answer

“Rivers are completely indifferent,” says Susan Straight (A Million Nightingales, 2006, etc.). She was thinking of her own home in Riverside, Calif., when she created the fictitious city of Rio Seco, which translates to “dry river” in Spanish. In the book, travel writer Fantine returns to Rio Seco where, five years earlier, her childhood friend Glorette had been found strangled to death in a shopping cart. It’s an event based on a real-life tragedy Straight found in her local newspaper. “[In the article, the girl’s] mother said, ‘She was a black teenager. No one’s going to care ...

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Susan Straight, Take One Candle, Light a Room

See the Kirkus Reviews interview with Susan Straight here.


2010 Best Books: Fame, by Daniel Kehlmann

by Rebecca Cramer on December 11, 2010 | Question and Answer

Usually a book inspires a movie, but for German author Daniel Kehlmann, it was the other way around. “I love films that do not have one main character,” says Kehlmann, who was intrigued by how the separate narratives in both Magnolia (1999) and Babel (2006) intertwined. “I thought, ‘I want to do this in a novel.’ So the structure was first, all the themes and topics came afterward.” Throughout Fame, which is billed as “a novel in nine episodes,” the characters affect each other in big—and often unexpected—ways. In one story, a computer technician finds a more exciting ...

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