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The Year in Books

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In years past we’ve polled City Paper’s book reviewers for their 10 favorite books of the year and threaded a list together from their input. Like, oh, everywhere, our budget for freelance book reviews—or freelance anything—has been drastically reduced, and of the few people asked to submit lists, most could only come up with one, two, or three favorites period. I don’t want to believe the sky is falling, and I hope this fact is due more to working arts journalists having very little time to read things they’re not getting paid to write about, and not that we’re, well, not reading. For one, that’s just depressing—reading is to writing as drinking water is to living. Two, the wealth of exceptional books coming out, from mainstream publishers and especially independents, remains of an exceptionally high caliber. It often feels like more contemporary and older foreign authors are being translated into English, that more lesser known masters are being reissued in lovely editions, and more writers, perhaps emboldened by the realization that nobody’s gonna publish their novel because it’s not filled with big pretty pictures or started out as a snarky blog, are just saying fuck it: I’m gonna write what I want and steal a page from indie music and DIY publish. E-publishing is becoming a viable alternative, and while all of this may make it a little more difficult to find an audience and separate wheat from chaff, that the quality of writing in this digital age remains so high keeps us wordsmiths optimistic that one day, when somebody figures out how to make publishing profitable again, we can once again return to the relative calm of a 60-hour writing work week. (Bret McCabe)


1 Michael W. Hudson, The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America—And Spawned a Global Crisis (Henry Holt and Co./Times Books)

As round two of the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program gets underway, the Euro implodes, and corporate profits return without jobs, one book explains better than any other how and why the American middle class is screwed: The Monster. The book itself reads much better because, along with subprime godfather Roland Arnall (Ameriquest; others) and serial scammers such as Russ and Becky Jedinak (Quality Mortgage), it brings us into the lives of people like Travis Paules, a conscience-free daily drug user who ran Ameriquest’s operations in Pennsylvania and Maryland, firing 10 of the 12 salesmen in the Catonsville office before flying to ski resorts to snort cocaine with strippers. Fraud is not just a discrete act, or even a pattern of acts. It is a culture, and it permeates the mortgage banking business from top to bottom. Read it yourself, then give it to your brother-in-law who thinks Barney Frank is to blame for this mess. (Edward Ericson Jr.)

2 Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel is a classic quest story. But the setting is unusual, and Mohamed’s painterly style brings it vividly to life. Jama is an 11-year-old Somali boy who, in 1935, leaves the rough streets of Yemen to find his long-lost father. (Mohamed based the story loosely on that of her own father.) Colonization in wartime is the backdrop for his journey, and some scenes are unsparingly brutal. But as Jama travels—through Eritrea, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, Somalia—he is a dreamy, perceptive tour guide. Black Mamba Boy is a moving story and a colorful introduction to a world that has rarely been written about from the perspective of the colonized, let alone a child. (Andrea Appleton)

3 Dave Tompkins, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks (Stop Smiling Books)

Subverting the now passed vogue for single-subject histories, music writer Dave Tompkins dives into the two distinct lives of the voice-altering technology that would come to be marketed as the Vocoder—as both a top-secret cryptography tool used by the likes of Churchill and Kennedy and a funky vocal effect beloved of musical Afrofuturists such as the Jonzun Crew and Afrika Bambaataa—and finds (or sometimes creates) connections running through the cultural subcutaneous. Extensively researched, lavishly illustrated, and deeply personal, it feels like a book no one else could write but that someone had to. (Lee Gardner)

4 Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood (Ivan R. Dee)

Antero Pietila’s sweeping and detailed portrait of Baltimore’s 20th-century blockbusters is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how and why the city came to look the way it does today. Morris Goldseker, the mighty Jack Pollack, “Little Willie” Adams, James Rouse, Joseph Meyerhoff, and even civil rights legends such as Juanita Mitchell all played their part—and profited from—Baltimore’s racially rigged housing business. Clearly written, fast-paced, and filled with telling anecdotes, Not in My Neighborhood brings these players to vivid life, even if it merely nods to some of the larger, more impersonal forces that gave them their opportunities. (EE)

5 Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedroom (Knopf)

The sixth novel and fifth book overall from erstwhile Brat Pack-er Bret Easton Ellis is, like life itself, brutish and short. In less than 200 breezy and blustery pages, Less Than Zero anti-hero Clay is resurrected as a callous, narcissistic screenwriter who can go peccadillo-for-peccadillo with old comrades-in-arms Julian (pimp), Trent (agent), Blair (desperate housewife), and Rip (cutthroat underworld wraith). They’re older, but no wiser. Alternately benign and nightmarish—sometimes the contrast between extremes can jolt—Bedrooms boils down to a three-way tug of war and a denouement that resembles the beginning of one character’s season in hell. Worse: This cruel, nasty piece of work insists that readers dismiss Zero as total subjective fiction. (Raymond Cummings)

6 David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House)

David Mitchell’s novel of Western traders scrambling for purchase in cloistered 18th-century Japan is too thoughtful and wrongfoots too many standard plot expectations to pass as a rollicking historical novel, despite its page-turner ending. That said, the matter-of-fact adventures of the titular bookkeeper and various other Dutch and Japanese characters remain beguilingly elusive as fodder for a literary term paper. Perhaps, like the historical Dutch trading enclave of Dejima, where it’s set, the novel is best regarded as a narrow portal where the two worlds meet and mix, with ultimate success. (LG)

7 China Miéville, Kraken (Del Ray)

Sure, the plot is a little out-there and not altogether logical. And sure, Miéville’s dense prose can be annoying, as if he enjoys obfuscating. But it’s a brilliant mess of a book. Reading Kraken is sort of like visiting the Mütter Museum on hallucinogens (not that we’ve done that): an evil talking tattoo, a giant god squid that engenders a cult, a pair of villains that can fold their victims like origami, a glass jar that rolls around and kills people. It’s the kind of enthralling that compels you to stay up late reading until the heavy tome falls on your face. And then you dream. (AA)

8 Anton Zeilinger, Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Living physics legend Richard Feynman once famously said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is a liar. But anyone with half a wit who cares what the universe actually is owes it to themselves to give it a shot. There are few able and reliable guides to it out there, having less to do with understanding the freakishness of quantum mechanics than having the creativity to explain it. Feynman’s QED, which reduced the linear algebra and imaginary values of quantum electrodynamic’s grueling math to simple addition of arrows, was a near-perfect guidepost. Dance of the Photons is another, attacking the phenomenon of quantum entanglement—a sort of instantaneous communication that defies Einstein’s theories—not from the perspective of a teacher but from that of a student presented with just evidence, left to figure out the concept for himself. Brilliant. (Michael Byrne)

9 Gary Indiana, Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World (Basic Books)

It’s easy to take the idea of distorting, quadrupling, and assigning eye-grabbing colors to celebrity portraits for granted—in 2010 it’s just one more facet of the catch-all multimedia whirlwind we all live in and click through. But Andy Warhol invented, or legitimized, the concept, as well as the idea of line drawings of commonplace objects as overpriced high-art objects and assembly-line generated paintings and silkscreens blessed by the artist’s pen. In Can That Sold the World, Gary Indiana offers a guided tour of Warhol’s neurotic youth, conventional advertising career, homoerotic early art career, wildly feted run as a pop art master, plateau into route repetition, and ultimate decline. It’s a work as unsentimental and fastidious as its subject, and all the better for it. (RC)

10 Gilbert Hernandez, High Soft Lisp (Fantagraphics)

With Love and Rockets, the three Hernandez brothers didn’t just help fuel the 1980s underground comics explosion, they became the Guy de Maupassants of late 20th-century and early 21st-century Mexican-American life—especially the lives of women. And in High Soft Lisp, Gilbert Hernandez takes the shorter stories of one of his L&R peripheral characters, Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez—the half-sister to his bombshell heroine Luba—and expands her tale into the sort of high melodrama and sweeping adventure that Douglas Sirk might’ve cooked up if he ever set his sights on an alterna-Latina punkette who grows up to be a fearlessly intelligent, sexually uninhibited B-movie actress, serial monogamist, and psychiatrist. Heartbreaking and human. (BM) ?

  • The Year In News It was the year of the “enthusiasm gap,” and not just as applied to the long-over honeymoon between President Obama and all but his most ardent admirers. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Film Though only one cracked into City Paper’s Top 10 list, 2010’s cinematic cup runneth over with top-notch documentaries—and not just the Michael Moore, Errol Morris, An Inconvenient Truth sort of zeitgeist-baiting nonfiction. Instead, smaller, more intima | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in DVDs Max Ophuls’ 1955 Lola Montes endured many of the same heartbreaks and indignities as its title character: misunderstood, manipulated, abused, and abandoned. | 12/14/2010
  • The Year in Television I watch the Hawaii Five-O remake on CBS. There, I said it. Now, don’t get me wrong—it’s awful. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Music In years past, City Paper has looked to its freelance contributors to vote in its annual Top 10 records poll. This year, we looked to Baltimore instead. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Local Music The record label Thrill Jockey is not based in Baltimore. Nor is City Paper on the Thrill Jockey payroll. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Books In years past we’ve polled City Paper’s book reviewers for their 10 favorite books of the year and threaded a list together from their input. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Art Unlike last year’s Laure Drogoul: Follies, Predicaments and Other Conundrums at the Maryland Institute College of Art or 2008’s Franz West, To Build a House You Start With the Roof: Work 1972-2008 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, there wasn’t one exhibitio | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Stage The year in local stage is bookended by a pair of DIY transitions. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year in Food When we try to count our blessings in precarious years, we invariably include good health in our shortened list. | 12/8/2010
  • The Year In... City Paper's writers go beyond the categories and pick even more top tens | 12/8/2010
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