Envisioners, Explainers and Iconoclasts

The best books of 2010.

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine
Michael Lewis

The economic crisis is our era’s Black Plague, Inquisition, or Pompeii. It’s that singular feature, that bump in the timeline, that future historians will prod and probe. Narrating with his trademark lucidity the sagas of three hedge-fund managers and a bond salesman who foresaw the subprime blowout, Berkeley author Michael Lewis examines the trail of false assumptions and funhouse mirrors that landed us here. Among the three is a one-eyed doctor/money manager/stock picker with Asperger’s Syndrome: “Thinking himself different, he didn’t find what happened to him when he collided with Wall Street nearly as bizarre as it was.” Lewis is one of those rare writers who can clarify head-spinningly complex money mazes for the rest of us. (W.W. Norton)

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, Vol. II
Selected and translated by Pritham K. Chakravarthy, edited by Rakesh Khanna

The short works in this fat anthology honor at long last a lusty, pulsing genre originally enjoyed by millions of Indians yet never before translated or taken seriously by the world at large. A family’s dark secret lurks in a malodorous bamboo box that contains “a skull and a few severed fingers, dark and dry as prunes. Along with them was a green silk sari, now old and stiff as cardboard.” Sitting in the lotus position, a doctor conjures spirits through a ball-point pen. Geckos chirp on temple walls. A swami burns dung cakes and ghee to manifest shrieking human faces in a leaf. Publishing other exciting books in this genre, Blaft is a Chennai-based company founded and helmed by Berkeley-born-and-bred Rakesh Khanna. (Blaft)

A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California
Laura Cunningham

An East Bay native who studied paleontology at UC Berkeley, artist/naturalist Laura Cunningham spent twenty years researching the look and feel of what she calls Old California: the state as it was thousands and hundreds of years before states existed, when wolves, grizzly bears, and elk dotted the landscapes that would come to be San Jose, Pasadena, and Nob Hill. Hundreds of Cunningham’s detailed, realistic paintings fill this huge coffee-table delight, whose text traces the evolution of a diverse region, once home to half-striped ancient horses and Pleistocene-era cheetahs. “Sunset view in November, a thousand years ago, looking west from the Berkeley Hills,” reads the caption for a moody blue-and-green scene. (Heyday)

Historical Atlas of the North American Railroad
Derek Hayes

In the days before GPS, railroad maps mattered a lot. Promising unimaginable speed and astounding scenery, they became vessels of hope and objects of pop-culture art. Among the nearly four hundred reproduced in this landmark volume, some display mindbending detail; others are whimsical, taking the shape of a hand or a palm tree or a woman’s bodice. “Heritage from the Gods,” reads one vintage train advertisement. “Paradise Retained,” booms another. “The Computer’s Eyes Are … On Your Car!” promises a 1967 ad. Having created several other historical atlases for UC Press, Derek Hayes provides compelling text about a mode of transit that transformed and for many years virtually defined the American identity. (University of California Press)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot was a teenager taking community-college classes when she first heard of Henrietta Lacks, a poor Virginia tobacco farmer whose cancer cells were taken for research without her knowledge on the “colored ward” of Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1950. The first human cells successfully grown in culture, “HeLa” cells have been reproduced ever since, facilitating the polio vaccine and many disease treatments. Lacks lies in an unmarked grave, her descendants — whom Skloot befriended while working on this book — struggling to make ends meet. This gripping science saga won 2010’s £25,000 Wellcome Trust Book Prize and doubles as a deep meditation on bioethics. The idea of cells snatched from unwitting patients rings eerie in an era of rumored death panels. (Crown)

Mourning Diary
Roland Barthes, translated by Richard Howard

It’s not a merry read, but it would be hard to find one that’s more nakedly, heart-wrenchingly human. Celebrated French literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes began keeping what he called his “mourning diary” on October 26, 1977, the day after his beloved mother died. She was 84. He was 62. They had been nearly inseparable. Jotted on filing cards over the next two years, these lean revelations of longing, anguish, and regret are privately poetic dispatches from the land of loss, which millions of people inhabit yet feel all alone. “From now on my death would kill no one — which is what’s new,” Barthes wrote one day. And: “Henceforth and forever I am my own mother.” Nearly a year after Maman‘s death: “Why is it that I keep trying, like a lost child, to ‘get back home’?” (Hill and Wang)

Jim Woodring

In a strange realm known as The Unifactor, an amoral half-man-half-hog known as Manhog finds himself at the mercy of Whim, a satanic shape-shifter who merges with a psychoactive plant. A side character in Woodring’s previous works, which starred a fun-seeking bucktoothed catlike anthropomorph named Frank, Manhog undergoes unimaginable torture in Weathercraft. It’s a wordless masterpiece from a Harvey Award-winning autodidact who executes his rhapsodically weird yet somehow relatable surrealistic visions with a lush, lifelike, retro-tinged precision that recalls Edward Lear and Winsor McCay. In an age when too many cartoonists draw with a lazy, defiantly fuckoffish lack of skill, Woodring’s museum-quality mastery puts most of his colleagues to shame. (Fantagraphics)

Sebastian Junger

Sebastian Junger spent part of 2007 and 2008 embedded with a US Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Velley: Near the Pakistan border, it’s one of the war’s most lethal regions; Junger calls it “the Afghanistan of Afghanistan.” Accompanied by photographer Tim Hetherington, Junger grew close to those soldiers, who saw intense combat as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. His high-intensity empathy and incomparable knack for bringing real people to life on the page end up drenching those pages with readers’ tears as we meet authentic young Americans: brave, laughing, lonely, sad, sarcastic, and sometimes afraid. One soldier compares being shot at to being high on crack. Some don’t survive, and some find civilian life unbearable. Junger and Hetherington’s documentary film, Restrepo, won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. (Twelve)

Christopher Hitchens

Irresistibly irascible ex-Trotskyist Christopher Hitchens is one of this era’s most fearless and eloquent defenders of the War on Terror. His memoir’s cover is a portrait of the artist as a young man, cigarette in hand. Perfect for the cover of a chainsmoker’s autobiography, it’s also all too ironic. About to launch his publicity tour for this book in June, Hitchens was diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer. (His latest essays at Slate and in Vanity Fair reflect with classic Hitchensian candor on the fact that there is no Stage 5.) The book details his mother’s suicide, his recruitment by Britain’s National Socialists at age seventeen, his emergence as an iconoclasic intellectual reporter in the late Sixties — and his shift rightward, a trajectory that was galvanized by the September 11 attacks. (Twelve)

The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years
Sonia Shah

A book about the history of a disease can — if its author connects all the suppurating, infectious dots — also be a spine-tingling saga of human strivings, triumphs, and fatal mistakes. Sonia Shah connects those dots in this sweeping, surprisingly lyrical survey of malaria. From the prehistoric savannah to 18th-century London to modern-day ExxonMobil oilfields, she imbues its scenery with vivid sympathy for hapless victims of the mosquito-borne parasite Plasmodium. Malaria has increased eightfold since the 1970s; nearly all new cases are caused by a deadlier strain. Shah indicts colonial commerce, microbial adaptability, and the meteoric rise and fall of DDT. Observing a mosquito in Panama, she muses: “Somewhere inside that cold-blooded, brittle body lurked entities whose exertions explained the making of rich and poor, sick and healthful.” (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

The Hare With Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal

Upon inheriting 264 Japanese netsuke — small, smooth, wood and ivory carvings — Edmund de Waal wondered how they came into his family and how they traveled from Japan to Europe and through several wars, passing from descendant to descendant. These included fabulously wealthy 19th-century Parisians, aesthetes who hobnobbed with Marcel Proust and Rainer Maria Rilke, and nobles-turned-exiles whose palace was nabbed by the Nazis. “Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved, and lost,” de Waal writes. “It is how you tell their stories that matters.” A finalist in this year’s Costa Book Awards, whose soon-to-be-announced winner will net $48,000, this shimmering immersion into a vanished past is, like the netsuke, a rare artifact: a book to be read for the sheer glory of reading. (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

Emma Donoghue

Shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, echoing the real-life nightmares of Jaycee Lynn Dugard and her Austrian counterpart Natascha Kampusch, Emma Donoghue‘s seventh novel concerns a young woman who was abducted en route to her university’s library at age nineteen and has spent the last seven years held captive in a twelve-foot-square shed. It’s narrated by her five-year-old son Jack, who describes his oddly pleasant life with the woman he calls Ma: their daily exercises, her stories — ripped from long-ago headlines — involving Lady Diana and the Berlin Wall. When the abductor rapes Ma, Jack hides in a closet “till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.” When mother and son are freed and become media sensations, the outside world feels like outer space. (Little, Brown and Company)

Simon Winchester

The author of The Professor and the Madman — whom Queen Elizabeth II made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006 — whips up a salty and data-packed paean to an ocean that he calls the cradle of modern civilization. Fixing his voracious curiosity and contagious enthusiasm on these vast waters, Simon Winchester writes of ships and inventions, empires and ecologies: Sperm whales emit “clicks and clacks that could be heard for miles;” a shipwreck along Namibia’s Skeleton Coast still displays “the rudiments of some kind of sanctuary; in order to prevent future Katrinas, people should move inland from “those places, where, habitually, the world goes mad.” Overfishing and pollution portend a dark future, as “the great forces that created the Atlantic in the first place will in time — in a very long time, in human terms — also destroy it.” (Harper)


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