David Ulin’s favorite books of 2010

Los Angeles Times Book Critic


Here, in alphabetical order by title, are the 10 books that, over the last 12 months, most moved, inspired or beguiled me: my favorite books of 2010.

“About a Mountain” by John D’Agata (W.W. Norton: 236 pp., $23.95). Willfully blurring the line between reportage and essay, truth and construction, this beautiful book uses the saga of Yucca Mountain, nuclear waste and the history of Las Vegas to frame a searing meditation on uncertainty and time.

“Almost Dead” by Assaf Gavron (HarperPerennial: 328 pp., $14.99 paper). A black comedy about suicide bombing, written with a deft and telling eye. Narrated, in turn, by an Israeli and a Palestinian, this novel resonates with a moral vision so unrelenting that we can’t help but confront (and more importantly, recognize) the confusion and divided loyalties on both sides.


“The Best of It: New and Selected Poems” by Kay Ryan (Grove: 288 pp., $24). A lifelong Californian (and U.S. poet laureate from 2008-2010), Ryan creates poetry that is spare, laconic, awash with word play, but with a fierceness underneath. This collection frames the brilliance of her career.

“Comedy in a Minor Key” by Hans Keilson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 136 pp., $22). This haunting World War II novel begins with the death of a Jewish man in hiding, but really, it is about all the ways we come to define normal, even (or especially) in the most extreme and ruthless times.

“Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 576 pp., $28). A close portrait of a family as it falls apart and reconnects over the span of many years, this novel picks up where “The Corrections” (2001) left off in excavating the elusive and often brutal landscape of intimacy.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot (Crown: 384 pp., $26). More than a decade in the making, Skloot’s first book is both biography (the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman whose cells are still used in medical research half a century after her death) and social history, an investigation of the intersection between medical research, racial politics and family life.

“The Jokers” by Albert Cossery (NYRB Classics: 146 pp., $14.95 paper). A blistering social satire — smartly observed and delightfully understated — set in a Middle Eastern country where the revolutionaries are as deluded as the leaders they seek to undermine.

“The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them” by Elif Batuman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $15 paper). Part memoir of the academic life, part engaging inquiry into the pleasures of Russian literature, Batuman’s debut is a bravura performance, a collection of essays about books and reading unlike any I’ve encountered before.


“The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg” by Deborah Eisenberg (Picador: 980 pp., $22 paper). What’s not to like? Our finest living short story writer gathers her fiction into a single volume that showcases her quiet interior investigations of people at the edge — of politics or identity or even the simple ability to cope.

“You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup” by Peter Doggett (HarperStudio: 390 pp., $24.99). Amazingly, Doggett has found a story about the Beatles that hasn’t been told: the saga of their post-breakup years. As much about money as it is about music, his book is a fascinating look at how the Fab Four’s lives kept intersecting, even after the band they created was long broken up.


The most disturbing publishing trend of the year has been the use of books to degrade the political discourse by turning it into a glorified game of celebrity. I’m thinking of Jenny Sanford’s “Staying True,” Andrew Young’s “The Politician,” John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s “Game Change,” Sarah Palin’s “America by Heart” — books that frame politics through gossip and the settling of scores. Political books have always existed, and politicians have always used them to diminish their rivals while pushing their own points-of-view. (“Six Crises,” anyone?) This year, however, it appears that we have gone through the looking-glass.