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.
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