Yeah, I know it’s late February already, but I’ve been behind, ya know?
Best Fiction (tie)
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron, 1979
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen, 2010
These two books have the common thread of being stories of middle class America at some level, but also saying something more fundamental about love and human nature. Both are frank, and end without being wrapped up in nice little packages. The similarities are many, and it says a lot about my tastes that they are numbers 1 and 1a on my list of best of the year.
Styron’s novel is one that focuses on mid-twentieth century New York, seen through the semi-autobiographical lens of a Southerner writing 30 years later. And, of course, there’s the Holocaust, and symbols of guilt and redemption, as well as desire for physical love, and emotional catharsis. This book is extremely dense, and has rivulets of different themes everywhere.
Franzen makes his second straight appearance on my best of year lists, as The Corrections made it last year. Freedom has similar denseness of theme to Sophie’s Choice, though the themes here focus a bit more on social structure and environment. This book really is fantastic, and at this point I have to cop to being a Franzen fanboy.
Best Nonfiction, Best Graphic Novel
Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, 2006
I suppose choosing this as my nonfiction book of the year makes me one of “those comic book people,” but this was a pretty easy pick. This book amazingly emotionally resonant, which is even more amazing because it is written by a southern-born white lesbian, a demographic with which I share little.
This is the best comic I’ve read since I discovered Maus 10+ years ago. It’s an amazingly vivid autobiographical work, letting the reader relate to the everyday life of a child in the 70s. The story and topics are told through the lens of the adult Bechdel, but the innocence is captured as if told by a child.
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, 1999 - Stephenson manages another hit. Not quite as good as The Baroque Cycle, but Stephenson is still the best of neo-cyberpunk.
Waiting for Snow in Havana by Carlos Eire, 2003 - A charming memoir of growing up in pre-revolution Cuba, told by a refugee of the Miami airlifts.
Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, 1996 - Not quite as good as the first two in the Mars trilogy, but still a fascinating social examination through science fiction.
Dong Xoai: Vietnam 1965 by Joe Kubert - We have plenty of glorification of how awesome America is through the dominant storytelling of World War II. Bringing it to the Vietnam war is insensitive denial of reality.
Luba: A Love and Rockets Book by Gilbert Hernandez, 2009 - I love comics. I love sex. This comic book has lots of sex. It still fails.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, 1973 - Postmodern emperor has no clothes. You say classic, I say bullshit.
Just in case you want it, here’s the full list of books I read this year, along with links to their reviews.