2010 Books: Overlooked and Overlauded

Don't miss these good reads in fiction and nonfiction

Asked to identify the 2010 books that didn't receive all the praise they deserved, our critics came up with an intriguing mix of fiction and nonfiction. As for the works that left them shaking their heads, novelists and a certain politician dominated the list.

Overlooked

Americans in Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass. Despite a favorable review or two, this historical spotlight sank like a stone. But it's a wonderful story — well-told, and relevant — of how American expatriates reacted when the City of Light went dark on June 14, 1940.
— Bill Lenderking

Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. A Princeton scholar adds fresh touches to the Dylan saga while footnoting the bard's cultural antecedents. Al Kooper, the organist on "Like a Rolling Stone," says Wilentz "makes me feel like he was in the room when he chronicles events that I participated in."
— Charlie Clark

Day for Night by Frederick Reiken. Drifting between 1970s Florida, 1940s Europe and present-day Israel, Day for Night spins an intricate (and highly coincidental) web that says not a single person's life is ever wasted — even in the wake of the Holocaust, which laid waste the lives of millions.
— Bethanne Patrick

Dear Money by Martha McPhee. This Pygmalion-themed novel about an author-turned-derivatives trader is a timely lesson about the roots of the latest financial crisis. It also has plenty to say about the age-old battle between art and commerce.
— Mark Athitakis

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell. The author overturns biographical conventions with her detailed but nimble portrait of our first modern man: The pithiest wisdom that essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) acquired over time was the certainty that his wisdom was imperfect — and therefore subject to change.
— Tom Nissley

How to Read the Air by Dinaw Mengestu. This tale of two generations of an Ethiopian immigrant family is both a commentary on the art of storytelling and a shining exemplar of the craft. Mengestu's complex, nonlinear narrative makes for a literary page-turner.
— Julia Klein

How We Got Barb Back: The Story of My Sister's Reawakening After 30 Years of Schizophrenia by Margaret Hawkins. This is a compelling family memoir, written with a deep understanding of the complex ties that bind us. (Also check out Hawkins' self-assured debut novel, the delightful and poignant A Year of Cats and Dogs.)
— Evelyn Renold

Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy From Korea to Afghanistan by Derek Leebaert. The author, a former Georgetown University professor, lays it all out in unsparing (but fair and lucid) detail. Leebaert offers insight into our errors, and a healthy antidote to triumphalism (lest anyone be tempted by that again).
— Bill Lenderking

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. I found this debut novel to be a charmingly classic tale of traditions upheld — and overwhelmed. In it, an English widower learns to expand his idea of the possible through a surprising relationship with a Pakistani neighbor.
— Tom Nissley

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt. The grandfather calls himself "Boppo the Great." His toddler grandson is "Bubbies." Their antics will make you laugh — until you recall that the two are spending time together because Rosenblatt's daughter Amy died too soon. A startlingly beautiful examination of the aftermath of grief.
— Bethanne Patrick

The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer by Jane Smiley. A noted novelist restores to history the Iowa State University physicist who, tiring of manual math in the late 1930s, opted to solve problems via the binary approach. Good thinking, John! In fact, the progenitor of the digital age did everything right except apply for a patent.
— Charlie Clark

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins. This final entry in the "Hunger Games" trilogy got lots of press this summer — but as a good read for so-called young adults, not grownups. Collins wastes no time on her saga's backstory, so if you don't have the first two books under your belt already, save this one until you do.
— Roberta Conlan

On the Nickel by John Shannon. As elsewhere in his long-running but underappreciated Jack Liffey series, John Shannon mixes hard-hitting action with sharp-edged social commentary in this tale of teens adrift on L.A.'s Skid Row. Can they be rescued in time by an aging father trying to snap out of his psychosomatic paralysis?
— Art Taylor

Peep Show by Joshua Braff. A stripper joins a Hasidic sect. Her dumbfounded ex-husband fends off developers eager to convert his burlesque houses into hard-core peep shows. And the couple's unhappy teenage son finds his vocation amid the Times Square sleaze of the mid-1970s. They are just three of the touchingly vulnerable characters Joshua Braff brings to life in his second novel.
— Wendy Smith

Play Their Hearts Out by George Dohrmann. Hoop Dreams goes to middle school in this doggedly reported story. The allegedly responsible adults — coaches, camp directors, scouts and shoe executives — are the immature ones, forcing the kids themselves to grow up fast.
— Tom Nissley

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. A Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer thrillingly re-creates a pivotal era in this tale of vile potions, cruel villains, hapless victims, bootleg gangsters and some pioneering practitioners of CSI.
— Art Taylor

Private Life by Jane Smiley. She's one of our best novelists — she made our list twice! — so why did Smiley's superb portrait of a marriage and traumatic loss get such perfunctory coverage? This is Smiley's most ferocious work since her Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres — and it is every bit as good.
— Wendy Smith

The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle. All memoirs should be as witty and candid as this collection of personal essays. Castle cops to many things; the confessions that stuck with me are her weakness for shelter magazines, her love-hate relationship with Susan Sontag and a toxic May-December romance with an unidentified paramour.
— Mark Athitakis

Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982, by Larry Clinton Thompson. Nearly 2 million refugees escaped from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the period covered by Thompson's book, thanks largely to the intercession of foreign-aid workers who agitated for — and won — government guarantees to care for these desperate, often bereft people. It's a story to make all Americans justly proud of their nation's performance.
— Bill Lenderking

The Report by Jessica Kane. Based on a tragedy in which more than 100 adults and children died in a London Underground bomb "shelter" during the Blitz, Kane's debut novel is a different sort of whodunit. It examines guilt, heroism and happenstance in equal measures — and with an unusually gimlet eye. Not to be missed.
— Bethanne Patrick

Take One Candle, Light a Room by Susan Straight. After 20 years of increasingly fine fiction, Straight ought to be better known. This searing novel about a woman's struggle to forge her identity amid a nation's legacy of racial violence is a good place to start. Despite deep roots in the African American experience, the book abounds with insights for anyone seeking to make a better life without disowning the past.
— Wendy Smith

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. At first glance, it's a story of the main character's strange malady: He is driven, at random moments, to get up and walk for hours on end. As you read on, however, this novel evolves into something else: a wrenching, convincing tale about the limits of commitment in a mature marriage.
— Tom Nissley

Vestments by John Reimringer. This fine debut novel about a Catholic priest displays the same sort of intelligence, dignity and humor that characterize the classic work of J.F. Powers.
— Mark Athitakis

Overlauded

America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and the Flag by Sarah Palin. In her inimitably trailbreaking style, Alaska's half-term governor may have inaugurated a new literary genre: snide patriotism.
— Charlie Clark

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni. Most reviewers went easy on this novel about an epic battle between angels and mortals, to which I can say only: Why? One reason, I suspect, was the strength of the author's previous book, a memoir. But to be honest? This thriller was the silliest thing I read all year.
— Wendy Smith

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett (Book 1 of "The Century Trilogy"). Follett's latest blockbuster reminds me of the old joke about heaven versus hell: In heaven, the French are the cooks and the English are the police; in hell, vice versa. He combines a lover's approach to historical research with a workmanlike approach to sex scenes.
— Bethanne Patrick

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. The rave reviews for this debut novel about staffers at an English-language newspaper in Rome were bewildering. It is overwritten, and the individual stories never cohere as a whole.
— Evelyn Renold

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. The undeclared "conflict" deserves a novel with Matterhorn's scope and Marlantes' understanding of dysfunctional chains of command. It also deserves a novel unburdened by his clunky, cliché-ridden sentences.
— Mark Athitakis

Percival's Planet by Michael Byers. The author's precise, evocative prose drew plaudits from most reviewers, as did the core of this historical fiction — the 1930 discovery of Pluto by Kansas farm boy Clyde Tombaugh. But Byers buries Tombaugh in an unwieldy and ultimately unbelievable cast of characters and subplots that exhausted my patience.
— Roberta Conlan

The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. The author is a smart, funny critic with lots to say about literary obsession. Somebody always seems to be squirming under her bootheel, however: Her highly personal takes on Tolstoy, Pushkin and Dostoyevsky are routinely undercut by snarky swipes at nearly everyone with whom she interacts.
— Mark Athitakis

Room by Emma Donoghue. You can't help being drawn in by the novelist's 5-year-old narrator, cruelly imprisoned with his mother in the backyard shed of a psychopath. Once he escapes, however, this creepfest of a novel vainly seeks a place to go — and struggles for something to say.
— Mark Athitakis

Tinkers
by Paul Harding. When it's not being sporadically brilliant, this 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winner — filled with time shifts and interior monologues — is convoluted, overwritten and willfully obscure. It's easy to simultaneously marvel at Harding's talent and grok why he struggled so hard to get this novel published.
— Julia Klein

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