Best books 2010

by Henry Farrell on December 13, 2010

Below the fold, a short list of the books I really liked in 2010. Readers are invited to submit their own favorites in comments.

(1) Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. (Amazon, Powells)

Really, _really_ good, in ways that are hard to convey in a review. An extraordinary combination of intellectual history and novel, using a series of vignettes to show how the USSR’s leaders sought to respond to the consumer utopia of the West, and how this affected the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens. A deeply humanistic book, which takes economic theory seriously in ways that few humanists do, treating it not only as a way of thinking about the world, but as a tangle of hopes and aspirations. Only available as an import in the US at the moment, so expensive but not outrageously so ($28, or $29 if you would like to show (as you should) your solidarity with the unionized workers at Still, this book badly needs a US edition.

(2) The Half-Made World, by Felix Gilman. (Amazon, Powells)

A book which has received quite a lot of attention here at Crooked Timber. This is the novel where Gilman really hits his stride. I can’t say it better than Cosma Shalizi did, so I’m going to steal his description.

bq. Gilman takes great themes of what one might call the Matter of America — the encroachment of regimented industrial civilization, the hard-eye anarchic men (and women) of violence, the dream of not just starting the world afresh but of offering the last best hope of earth — and transforms the first two into warring rival pantheons of demons, the third into a noble lost cause. (I think Gilman knows _exactly_ how explosive the last theme is, which is why he manages to handle it without setting it off.) Beneath and behind it all lies the continuing presence of the dispossessed original inhabitants of the continent. A story of great excitement and moment unfolds in this very convincing world, tying together an appealing, if believably flawed, heroine and two finely-rendered anti-heroes, told in prose that is vivid and hypnotic by turns. … _The Half-Made World_ is the finest rendition I’ve ever seen of one of our core national myths; go read it.

(3) The Best of Gene Wolfe, by Gene Wolfe (Amazon, Powells)

The book says that it is the definitive collection of his shorter work, and it is. Wisely, it nearly entirely confines itself to his work between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, when he was at the peak of his powers, and the later stories included (“The Tree is my Hat”) are very good. There are a couple of stories that are unnecessary, but only one that is outright bad (“Hour of Trust”), and while I would quibble with a couple of exclusions, all the major work is there. On form, he is one of the finest writers in the English language, and stories like “The Toy Theater,” “Forlesen,” “The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories,” “The Death of Doctor Island,” “The Eyeflash Miracles” (which I had not read in twenty years, and is a wonderful reimagining of the Wizard of Oz), and, especially, “The Fifth Head of Cerberus,” prove it.

(4) The Shieling, by David Constantine (Amazon, Powells)

A little like M. John Harrison, a little like Robert Aickman, but with much less of the uncanny than either. I did not like all the stories in this collection, but those I liked, I liked enormously. The characters in these stories have all lost something. None of them know exactly what it is.

(5) The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the Way We Live, by Daniel Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford. (Amazon, Powells)

A collection of cartograms, which algorithmically skew the size of different countries so as to capture e.g. levels of secondary education, sex balances and other forms of data (my favorite was deaths from volcanoes). The hardback edition came out in 2008 – the paperback, which came out some weeks ago is revised and extended. A lovely way to think about the world. The majority of the cartograms are “available online”: (you can print them out as PDFs – they would make great posters).

(6) The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman. (Amazon, Powells)

The parts of this book that are serious are very, very good. If you have not read Isaac Babel, you will want to after having read this. The parts that are not serious are very funny. Sometimes, Batuman overdoes the faux-naif a little, and her stories are surely exaggerated – but it works very well indeed as an academic comedy told _pince-sans-rire._

(7) The Art of Not Being Governed, by James Scott (Amazon,Powells)

See “here”: for my further thoughts. I am obviously not qualified to write about South-East Asia, but as a sociologically inclined historian, Scott is probably unparallelled. His writing is beautiful and extraordinarily intellectually fruitful; he tosses entire research-agendas off as asides and by-the-ways.

(8) Winner-Take-All Politics, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson (Amazon, Powells).

Again, a book I have written about already “at considerable length”: Entirely apart from its content, it is remarkable for the facility with which it takes complex data and subtle causal arguments, and makes them intelligible and relevant to current politics, without dumbing them down. A book that really deserves a large readership.



engels 12.13.10 at 5:35 pm

WikiLeaks row: why Amazon’s desertion has ominous implications for democracy

Amazon’s decision to abandon WikiLeaks sends out a clear message: you can publish what you like – as long as it meets with the government’s approval


Trevor 12.13.10 at 5:54 pm

yes, I am critical of boycotts but people should stay away from amazon– abebooks and bookdepository are two good competitors who don’t aid mandarins’ stifling of dissent.


The Modesto Kid 12.13.10 at 5:55 pm

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad is just fantastic. And Hernán Rivera Letelier’s The Art of Resurrection, which is however not yet available in translation. Also Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story was a lot of fun.


Steve LaBonne 12.13.10 at 6:01 pm

Another vote for Super Sad True Love Story.


roac 12.13.10 at 6:07 pm

If the intent is to restrict this to books published in 2010, then I hereby subvert it by interpreting “new as “new to me.” The best book I read this year was The Black Sea by Neal Ascherson, which is (1) beautifully written, (2) full of fascinating information about people and peoples I knew little or nothing about, and (3) intensely illuminating about the artificiality and aberrational nature of the nation-state. (In which respect it is evidently congruent with the Scott book, which I will be seeking out thanks to Henry’s recommendation.)


Robert 12.13.10 at 6:11 pm

Think of it not as a boycott, but as a choice. Choose someone other than Amazon.


Chris Bertram 12.13.10 at 6:11 pm

Juliet Schor, _Plenitude_ … interesting eco-economics book.

Doug Saunders, _Arrival City_ great study of cities and migration.

MOMA’s _Henri-Cartier Bresson, The Modern Century_ is amazing.

I’ve started Franzen’s _Freedom_ and I’m quite enjoying it so far.

_The Art of Not Being Governed_ is sitting on my shelf and I’m looking forward to it.


Henry 12.13.10 at 7:24 pm

Subvert away – I think that the Scott book was actually published in 2009 anyway. And yes, _Black Sea_ is wonderful – Ascherson’s best book.


Francis Spufford 12.13.10 at 8:09 pm

Henry, thank you. Vainly pleased author, here, de-lurking for just long enough to say that there *is* going to be an American edition of Red Plenty, published by Graywolf, though it won’t be coming out till spring 2012, on present plans. And there’s also, for that matter, a Kindle edition, available *right now*, at the trifling cost of all your principles, and possibly your immortal soul. I think I’m going to read the Gilman as soon as I’ve finished The Windup Girl.


MPAVictoria 12.13.10 at 8:14 pm

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is one of the best books I have come across in years. Check out the commentary about it at boingboing.


gmoke 12.13.10 at 8:19 pm

Reading What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly now and finding it a very cogent survey of how we deal with technology in our lives. Lots of thought provocation here.


Anderson 12.13.10 at 8:22 pm

Reprinted in 2010, Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found It, which I’d not so much as heard of before, and which I found beautiful *and* a page-turner. I won’t think of Wittgenstein, Russell, or Moore again without thinking of how they’re depicted in Duffy’s novel.


Tim Worstall 12.13.10 at 8:26 pm

Well, I supppose I can’t complain….JQ has the CT review copy of my book……..


Henry 12.13.10 at 8:36 pm

I enjoyed _Bitter Seeds_ quite a bit too – but thought that it was slightly unsure of what it was supposed to be. It seemed to have had its beginnings as a ‘superheroes in WWII’ romp, and then changed into something much closer in tone to Charlie Stross’s excellent “A Colder War”: Without doing spoilers, there is a kind of imbalance in the book that sets up a really hard problem for the author – one of the characters makes the story a little pointless. Unless (we discover in the sequel), the character’s motivations are not quite as straightforward as they seem (out-and-out sociopath? or person willing to do whatever is necessary for survival?) or else it turns out that the underlying game is one in which there is a scoreless draw. Regardless, I’ll definitely be picking up whatever I see by Tregillis in the future.


MPAVictoria 12.13.10 at 9:10 pm

I agree with your assessment that the book was a little bit unsure of what it wanted to be though in my view that actually became a feature and not a bug. The book remained refreshingly surprising and difficult to predict throughout. I will also be picking up anything I see by Tregillis in the future.


Henry 12.13.10 at 9:23 pm

Francis – as far as I can see, the Kindle edition is only accessible to UK-based readers. I know that this kind of thing is out of the control of mere authors. I do want to stress again what a wonderful book this is – not only unique, but uniquely geared to the sensibilities of the average CT blogger and reader – if ever there were a book written to push all of our buttons, this is it.


Nick 12.13.10 at 10:17 pm

Just wanted to say that I read The Half-Made World on the back of a review read here. It was possibly the best book I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some good ones, including The City and the City which I highly recommend). So thank you.


LFC 12.13.10 at 10:17 pm

Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the UN (2009); for more see here.

Not long ago I bought Brent Steele’s Defacing Power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics (2010). Appears to be a wild ride: buckle your seat belts. And oh yes, be prepared to part with a not insignificant amount of cash.


Francis Spufford 12.13.10 at 10:43 pm

Henry – possibly because after five or six years of reading CT on the quiet, as a sort of miniature newspaper uncannily devoted to stuff I’m interested in, button migration has occurred, and your buttons have become my buttons. Kindle: gah! The only other possibility that strikes me (and it’s still the evil empire of Bezos) is that has it for C$18.18, and presumably will ship it southwards?


Anderson 12.13.10 at 11:23 pm

Mark Mazower wrote a book and I completely missed it?

Damn. (And thanks for the tip.)


djw 12.13.10 at 11:24 pm

but as a sociologically inclined historian, Scott is probably unparallelled.

Here I thought I was reading the work of an anthropologically inclined political scientist…


Dan Cole 12.13.10 at 11:58 pm

In fiction, I thought David Grossman’s To the End of the Land was the most beautiful book of this year (and many other years).

In non-fiction, I found Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice to be, perhaps, the most important work of political theory since Rawls.


tatere 12.14.10 at 1:14 am

I’ve seen Red Plenty in a couple of bookstores around here in SF – fans among the buyers too, apparently. Shopping trip ahead.

As to alternatives to the A-word – they bought abebooks last year (? or earlier). I use Kobo for ebooks, I don’t know their evil rating but they’re comparatively open about software. Half-Made World and Gears of the City are both waiting patiently on my hard drive.


LFC 12.14.10 at 1:18 am

@anderson–you’re welcome


tomslee 12.14.10 at 1:52 am

I enjoyed Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman for the way it mixed academic content with lively, outspoken writing. Also Akerlof and Kranton’s Identity Economics although it didn’t quite live up to their papers. And The Passion of Michel Foucault was a great read (I didn’t the first thing about Foucault). But my best media consumption moments of 2010 were watching Kick Ass.


christian_h 12.14.10 at 3:52 am

The enigma of capital by David Harvey.


tomslee 12.14.10 at 4:13 am

On the “where to buy?” question. For Canadians, TPM Bookmanager is an online shopping service for many independent bookstores and I’ve had good experience with it. The list of stores is here.


sg 12.14.10 at 4:39 am

The Japanese role-playing game Make You Kingdom. It’s hilarious and brilliant. And hours of fun long after you’ve stopped reading the book.


RPM 12.14.10 at 5:50 am is often cheaper (esp. for used books) than Amazon, but it doesn’t spend any money on SEO so you won’t find it in your Google searches.


Ray 12.14.10 at 9:59 am

(not publishe in 2010, but) The Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. I can’t think of a summary that would do it justice, the voice is so distinctive.


Torquil MacNeil 12.14.10 at 10:02 am

Red Plenty is brilliant and surprising and very touching. The dramatisation of how central planning ends up delivering the worst outcome for everyone despite excellent intentions , hard work and intellectual brilliance, is superb. I keep urging it on everyone. And if you are still here Francis, I loved the Child That Books Built too. Your discussion of the libertarian agenda behind the Little House stories is very CT-ish. But more than that, it made me want to go back to (or go to for the first time) all the books you talk about.


Martin Wisse 12.14.10 at 10:08 am

In the “new to me” category:

All you Need is Kill — Hiroshi Sakurazaka: Independence Day meets Groundhog Day and much better than that sounds

Hitler’s Empire — Mark Mazower: a detailed look at the economics of Nazi Germany and Europe.

Fields of Conflict — Douglas Scott, Lawrence Babits and Charles Haecker: a collection of essays on battlefield archaeology, based on papers presented at a conference of the same title as the book, held in 2004.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms/The Broken Kingdoms — N. K. Jemisin: awfully good fantasy

Actually new:

Surface Detail — Iain M. Banks: a new Culture novel. ‘Nuff said.

Not new but good to have read nonetheless: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan/Barrayar saga


Steve Williams 12.14.10 at 2:25 pm

From last year, but I read it this year and it was my favourite book of the year:

Anna Minton: ‘Ground Control: Fear & Happiness in the 21st-Century City’

Great look at development policy in Britain.


someguy 12.14.10 at 6:20 pm

Red Plenty sounds good but my immortal soul seems a bit steep. The 13.22 from UK Kindle seems like a good deal but I need some assurances that my soul will NOT be part of the deal.


ejh 12.15.10 at 8:38 am

If you’ve got one of those things, your immortal soul’s already been bargained away, I’m afraid.

Talking of catastrophic deals, I’ve been enjoying John Lanchester’s Whoops!, which helps explain the financial crisis to people like me who don’t understand the financial arrangements that caused it. (I understand that Matt Taibbi’s Griftopia, which I shall be reading next, does something similar.) One question though – when, on page 25, Lanchester writes

“…the liabilities match the assets plus the equities”

shouldn’t that be

“…the assets match the liabilities plus the equities”?

He seems to have already said so earlier (p.21 an following).


Alison P 12.15.10 at 9:25 am

I have recently read Dark Matter by Michelle Paver and I would recommend it as the best new ghost story I have read for many years. Surface Detail – yes, an excellent SF story which also kicks some religious and political asses which need a good kick in my opinion.

I also recommend New Model Army by Adam Roberts, about a distributed army of wiki-mercenaries that takes on the establishment. I think he gets a lot wrong, about the way such things unfold, but the way he gets it wrong has given me a great deal of food for thought over the past six months, and at an accelerating pace recently.


Tim Worstall 12.15.10 at 1:56 pm

““…the liabilities match the assets plus the equities”

shouldn’t that be

“…the assets match the liabilities plus the equities”?”

Assuming we’re talking about a bank here: liabilities are what they owe to other people, their borrowings. Equities are (I assume) the equity, the capital of the bank. Assets are the loans they have made, the stocks/bonds they have bought.

So the first way around is correct. The assets of the bank will equal the capital of the bank plus the money they’ve borrowed to buy the assets.

Well, before they go bust that is.


ejh 12.15.10 at 5:29 pm

Ta. It’s confusing though, because as I say, he’s put it the other way around just a couple of pages before.


Warren Terra 12.15.10 at 9:41 pm

Echoing Tatere here: I adore abebooks, and have for many years, but they were purchased by Amazon. I haven’t noticed any differences since the takeover, but it did happen.

RPM, is owned by ebay (you just can’t escape the corporate behemoths, it seems), and I’ve never been very impressed with them. And at least the Amazon-owned abebooks is a mechanism for local used bookstores to make a buck; my understanding is that sells its own stock, so you’re basically just sending your money to whoever replaced Meg Whitman.

If you are looking for a managably sized corporate entity rather than patronizing a behemoth or paying Amazon to act as a middleman as you deal with a small used bookstore, you might try Half Price Books. I’ve always enjoyed their brick-and-mortar stores (they have a few dozen in a dozen or so states). I know they have an internet arm, but I don’t think I’ve used it.

Still, all that’s about the best way to buy used books – and I think there’s also a question of whether to buy used books. I buy nearly all my books used or remaindered, because I’m cheap and because it can be fun to browse a good used bookstore (the two points are related; I’m likely too cheap to buy much that I find while browsing new books). But when I buy a used book, while I am helping somewhat to support a book-loving culture by giving money to the proprietors of the bookstore, I’m giving no money to the author or publisher of the book; maybe a pittance when I buy a remaindered book. I’ve been wondering lately if that means buying a used book written by a living author is really fair to them.


Ed 12.15.10 at 11:01 pm

#37 You have spoonerised it, surely. As you say, the assets will equal the capital plus the money the bank has borrowed.

Which is the second way around, in ejh’s post.

Or have I missed something?


roy belmont 12.15.10 at 11:04 pm

Screw chronography:
Pilgrimage Dorothy M. Richardson
To The North Elizabeth Bowen
Collected Poetry William Butler Yeats
Inherent Vice Thomas Pynchon
Prince Michael Eb
Collected Poetry Robinson Jeffers
Diversity of Life E.O.Wilson
Frost Thomas Bernhard
The Silent Woman Susan Dodd
Dalva Jim Harrison
The Mays of Ventadorn W.S.Merwin


JanieM 12.16.10 at 12:02 am

Another vote for The Last Samurai. I just reread it after a gap of a few years and was about to turn right around and rereread it when I had to go traveling and got sidetracked by something else.

Also Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann.

And The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I had been with Black Swan Green, but I heard him read from it in Cambridge last summer and the memory of that event added an extra dimension of delight to the reading.


sg 12.16.10 at 12:41 am

I also read The Eyre Affair this year, by Jasper Fforde. Lots of fun.


Emma_in_Sydney 12.16.10 at 12:56 am

And if you are still here Francis, I loved the Child That Books Built too.

So did I! It gave me that weird feeling that someone had described something I had felt without ever knowing me. And have now ordered Red Plenty, thanks to the glowing reviews here and everywhere else in the universe.


Stark 12.16.10 at 1:51 am

I don’t often find entire history of science books palatable, so “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee was quite the treat. I would highly recommend it.

I’m only halfway through “Surface Matter” but it’s tough to beat Iain M. Banks, as somebody already mentioned.


Stark 12.16.10 at 1:53 am

Sorry, that’s “Surface Detail” by Banks… Not sure where “Matter” came from.


Warren Terra 12.16.10 at 2:17 am

Stark, if you’re interested in books about the history of science, you can’t go wrong with Judson’s seminal Eighth Day Of Creation. Sturtevant’s History Of Genetics is also a classic.

I also remember greatly enjoying Rhodes’s Dark Sun, about the hydrogen bomb, though a few years earlier I was bored by his book about the making of the atomic bomb.


tomslee 12.16.10 at 2:32 am

How could I forget? “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a fine read.


MattF 12.16.10 at 4:10 am

Finished “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” by Charles Yu a few days ago, and I’m still thinking about it. Possibly science fiction, smart, funny, rather self-referential, in a good-and-complicated way . Liked it a lot, I think.


Stark 12.16.10 at 4:38 am

Thank you Warren, a friend also recommended “The Eighth Day of Creation” to me after Judson appeared in that Bob Dylan movie “Don’t Look Back” and I asked who he was. I will certainly keep it in mind.

I’m no expert on scholarship in that field, but if you’re interested at all, “Harvey and the Oxford Physiologists” was a title I read over the summer and it absolutely blew me away.


jakeb 12.16.10 at 6:21 am

as regards Miles Vorkosigan, I think you’re ok, inasmuch as Cryoburn just came out last month.
I’m halfway through both The Algrebraist and Against a Dark Background so heaven only knows when I’ll get to Surface Detail.
Given that I’m most focussed on reading Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy right now, I’m not sure I could even pick the right century.
But I will say, while following my theme of chronological ineptitude, that I’m tremendously enjoying Daniel Mendelsohn’s collection How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken, although most of the essays are in part reviews published over the last 15 years.
In particular, his reviews of the Greek-myth-turned-cheesy-blockbuster-films of the last few years are very entertaining but keep reminding me that we still have things we can learn from the ancient Greeks (even if we keep having to learn them over and over again).


Dave Maier 12.16.10 at 5:48 pm

re: Surface Detail: do you have to read the Culture books in order? I’ve only read Consider Phlebas, which I thought was only okay.


Nabakov 12.17.10 at 12:58 am

I second others praise of the Boy That Books Built. Backroom Boys is another great Spufford book. If yer still lurking Francis, I recommended it to someone who used to work at Woomera when it launched rockets and he said it was spot on and a fine read.

“do you have to read the Culture books in order?”

Not necessarily but would add to the enjoyment.

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